Dizang's Planting the Fields

The Book of Serenity
Case 12 Dizang’s Planting the Fields

INTRODUCTION. Scholars plow with the pen, orators plow with the tongue. We patch-robed beggers lazily watch a white ox on open ground, not paying attention to the rootless, short-lived grass. How to pass the day?

CASE. Dizang said to Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the south these days?”
Xiushan said, “There’s extensive discussion.”
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?’
Xiushan said, “Don't you care about the world?”
Dizhang said, “What do you call ‘the world’?”

VERSE. Every story is made up; so is every interpretation.
As it travels from the ear to the mouth, every “true report” comes apart.
So, plant the fields and thresh the rice–take care of ordinary matters;
Only those who have fully inquired know
There’s absolutely nothing to seek;
Zifang didn’t want a prestigious title like “duke” or “marquis”;
Forgetting his social status, he returned, the same as fish and birds,
Washing his bare feet in the Canglan river, in the muddy waters of autumn.

Well, here it is, a beautiful summer day, not too hot, not too cold. All morning, we’ve been doing our zazen. In a little while we’ll have lunch. Then we can take a rest, and then we’ll get up and do some more zazen. I would say that this is as close to perfection as you can get. Some of you are having really wonderful sits and coming in to report good things in dokusan. Sesshin is such a splendid opportunity, and such a beautiful way to live. All of you are making a superb effort, and it’s a great pleasure–really a pleasure beyond words–to practice with you.

For those of you who came on Sunday, today is Day Four of the sesshin, and for some of you, those who arrived Tuesday night, it’s still Day Two. There’s a big difference between those two groups, because if it’s Day Four, you’re probably up on the mountaintop by now, but if it’s Day Two, you’re just starting to reach the top. Usually Day Two is the most difficult day because you’re still trudging up the mountain. Right now, when you hear me say, “Isn’t this beautiful! Isn’t this wonderful!” you might agree, but then again, you might not. If I say, “Wouldn’t you like to live your life like this?” there is probably a part of you that might want to scream out, “Nooooo!”

If you’ve been through sesshin before, you’re familiar with the routine. On Day One, people arrive and their minds are still full of distractions, but if you’ve been practicing for a while and you’ve done a few sesshins, then you might get through Day One pretty handily. At the end of that first day, you might even be thinking, “Well, the times of difficulty are behind me. The pain is over forever.” But then, on Day Two you get up and your legs are sore and your back is tired. Let’s face it, sesshin is a challenge for everybody, no matter how long you’ve been practicing. But if you’ve been through all this before, you know that there’s going to be a turning point. You know that at some time tomorrow, you’re going to start feeling a lot better. You’re going to climb up on the mountaintop, and then you can stay up there for a while and you can really enjoy it.

Please notice something, however. When you’re climbing up the mountain, you may have an image of what it’s going to be like at the top, but when you get there, the top may not resemble anything you’ve imagined. You might be surprised, or puzzled, dismayed, or disoriented. But please appreciate what has happened. I think those moments of surprise are really great, those first glimpses of the mountaintop, especially when they are not what we expected.

I often say that if you could just sit down on the cushion and enter bliss, zen would be nothing more than a drug. You could rob a bank, or shoot someone, and then sit down on the cushion, and bliss out–that would be a problem, right? Fortunately, what takes place instead is a confrontation with our samskara, our habitual psychological obstacles. Anger, fear, envy, and so on. By the same token, if every sesshin led to the same sort of experience, even a pleasant experience, that would be a problem too. Every time you go up the mountain, you know what’s happening, more or less, but every time you reach the top, it should be a little different. It’s important not to hold on to the image of past experience. Today’s mountaintop can’t be like any other!

If you’re still on Day Two, just realize that everybody has pain in his legs and everybody’s back gets tired, but you will definitely reach turning point. Just hang on! If this is Day Four, please appreciate the beautiful mountaintop and what it has to show you.

Today’s koan involves a dialogue between Dizang and Xuishan.

Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the south these days?”
Xiushan said, “There’s extensive discussion.”
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?’

“Planting the fields and making rice.” That’s a beautiful spirit for Zen practice, isn’t it? On the altar we have a statue of Wen-shu or Monju--Manjushsri. Wen-shu is holding in his hand a sword, which is said to be the sword of Mu that cuts away illusions. That’s a useful image, a sword, but it’s very important to understand that the sword is just a metaphor and that “cutting through illusions” is not quite what we should do in zen. I’d like to find a sculptor who could make a tiny little hoe, like for weeding in your garden. Then I would take the sword out of Wen-shu’s hand and put the hoe in its place. That would be much better. Maybe we’ll do that some day. Then, if people from other zen communities happened to join us, they’d look on the altar and say, “What the heck is he holding?!”.

Yesterday I was talking about having a farmer’s mind. A farmer’s mind. I think this is so important! Zen practice is so often represented as arising from strength of will or iron determination, but my feeling is that this is quite incorrect. Really, the essence of zen is deep trust in the world–the deepest possible trust. This is what I mean by “farmer’s mind.” The farmer gets up every day and goes outside and hoes the field, pulls the weeds out, waters, picks the bugs off the leaves.

So many things can happen to the plants! You could get a late frost that could kill the seedlings. You could get a drought. You could get an infestation of insects or disease. If the farmer thinks too much about all the potential problems, the farmer goes crazy! It’s possible for a farmer to lie in bed at night and think, “OK. So far, so good. We’ve had enough rain--but what if a drought comes? Oh my god, that would be terrible." Or maybe you’re in a drought, so you could just lie there and worry about how bad a drought it will be. This is what is meant in the koan by the phrase “the discussion of Buddhism in the South.” A lot of worry, a lot of discussion.

Like many people, I subscribe to Tricycle Magazine, which I usually enjoy, but every once in a while I’ll open it up and there will be an article on the “future of American Buddhism,” and I’ll just think, “Oh please! Give me a break!” This kind of talk is pointless. First of all, there's no such thing as “America.” Second, there’s no such thing as “Buddhism.” Third, there’s no such thing as the future. All of these are just abstract ideas. Right now, for example, the birds are singing madly outside. But are the sounds of birds somehow "American"? When you sit in deep samadhi, your sense of selfhood disappears. When your self has disappeared, do you still somehow remain a Buddhist? As for the third idea--if you've ever raised a child or seen a parent die, you probably know better than to try to predict the future. So don't even bother to read the article.

Such thinking is pointless, and very modern, if I may say so. The farmer knows that there are many, many things that can’t be controlled or foreseen. The farmer knows this from long experience. Basically, you buy your seeds from the seed dealer, or maybe you have them in your family storehouse. Then you plant them. You use the best seeds that you can get. Now, it’s possible that you could have gotten better seeds–but not really. Not really.

It’s possible too that you could have had better soil under other circumstances–but not really. And it’s possible that you could have had a better growing season–but not really. Everything happens just as it has to happen. If you think about the past life you’ve led, you will probably recall many mistakes and you may have many regrets. But things could not have been different.

I have made many mistakes! This morning as I was sitting, I remembered saying something unkind to my brother when he was just a little boy. I had forgotten about this for almost fifty years, and the event happened about fifty years ago. I had hurt his feelings when he was just a little kid. Sitting there, I thought, “Oh, if only I could go back in a time machine and give him a big hug.” But I didn’t hug him then. Instead I said a cruel thing to him, and I can remember the injured expression on his face after almost fifty years.

But the truth is that nothing that has happened could have been different. If you had gotten a different kind of education, you would have a different kind of life. If you had different mother and father, you’d have a different personality now. But these kinds of thoughts are pure illusions. Nothing that has happened can be changed.

People might say, “OK, fine. I understand that. But the future is different. The future is open-ended. The past might have been unpleasant, but in the future we can make our dreams happen.

This is a very modern idea, but I think it’s a huge illusion also. Americans have this wildly optimistic view about the future. I’ve just finished an article which said that Americans believe they have tremendous upward mobility. The average American thinks that anyone can get to the top. But sociologists who study the matter see that upward mobility is actually quite limited here. Only a small percentage of Americans leave one class and move up to the next one. In fact, a number of countries have greater upward mobility than the United States, and we should learn from them. But Americans are in a dream-world about this matter. It’s deeply engrained in the American culture to think that the sky’s the limit.

When I was growing up, my parents used to say, “You can become the President of the United States!” OK, maybe, but in the last election we had two millionaire Yale graduates running for the office. I don’t remember any candidate in my lifetime who came from a naval base in southern Virginia, where I spent my early years. If your dream is becoming the President, the future may hold a disappointment for you.

The classical Buddhist view is that the future is no more open-ended than the past. According to this view, the future unfolds in a complex weave of causes and effects. If the future seems open from our perspective, that’s because it hasn’t arrived yet. After the future has become the past, we can see that things could not have unfolded differently. When you stepped into that street at 4:32 pm, the red car had to hit you. At 4:22, only ten minutes earlier, you were thinking of the lovely weekend ahead. Of course, you might have taken a different route, but once again, not really.

Events lead to events lead to events, yet the web of cause and effect is simply too complex for anyone to foresee. You know that you probably won’t become the President, but you can’t say for sure what you will actually become. Because of its complexity, the future is often simply unpredictable. And because it is unpredictable, it is also often beyond our control. Even if the future is not predetermined and chance plays a major role, you still won’t be able to foresee or control what is going to happen.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do our best. We have to plant the seeds, water them, and weed the garden. That’s our natural way. I’m not saying, “Don’t study for that test that next week.” But I’m saying that you can study for the test and do your best, and then you can still get a “C” when you wanted an “A” or a “B. “ And when that happens, you might reproach yourself by saying, “If only I had studied that chapter more carefully” or “If only had paid more attention to that lecture.” But “if only” is just an illusion.

I can tell you all kinds of stories about people who, two years before they died, were running every day for five miles and doing fifty push-ups. They were looking forward to some kind of a future that didn’t materialize.

I don’t mean that you should become a fatalist. I’m not saying, “Resign yourself to your fate.” For one thing, you can’t know what your fate will be. But there is such a thing as a “farmer’s mind,” which understands that we can’t control all the variables--the rainfall, the temperature, the insect population. In the absence of total control, there are a lot of different ways we can respond. We can get mad, we can take Prozac, we can become obsessive-compulsive. Or we can sit in farmer’s mind.

The truth is that no one in this room can say with accuracy where he or she will be even in six months. Of course there are probabilities, but absolute certainty is not within our power. I remember some time ago seeing a photograph of Russian aristocrats in 1912 or so. The picture showed a roomful of wealthy, powerful, elegant people. The caption under the photograph was shocking. It said, “This photo shows a party given by so and so in Russia on the eve of World War I. By the end of the War, not a single person in this photograph was left alive.” This example is rather dire, but even in your professional life, you might say, “This is my plan for the next six months,” but the boss might come in tomorrow and say, “I want you to take that Chicago assignment.” Chicago might be your future. Or you might get promoted, or you might get fired.

You just never know. We can’t change the past, and in the absence of total knowledge about the future, we can eat our hearts out and be anxious and fearful. We can lie in bed at night and think, “Oh my god, what’s going to become of me?” I think that’s a very unhappy road to go down. It’s the road most people follow, in my opinion, nervously planning and plotting and fighting over little scraps.

I think that the farmer’s mind, the peasant’s mind, is different. Farmers or peasants are interesting to me. China had a small elite of people who were highly literate. They were, as we say in English, the mandarins. There were hundreds of millions of people in China but only eight or ten thousand mandarin–a tiny elite, not even a hundred thousand. So you were either in the tiny elite, or you were a farmer, a peasant, and if you were a peasant, there was no way up, no way out.

Instead of saying, “Oh gosh, I wish I could get to the top so I could go bar-hopping with Paris Hilton,” the peasants began to develop a new mindset. Basically they said to themselves, “Forget those people at the top! They only care about themselves anyway. Why try to please them? If we’re going to be peasants, let’s just be peasants. We’re not going to apologize for it or be ashamed.” This is sort of what Dizang is getting at when he replies to Xuishan:

Xiushan said, “Don't you care about the world?”
Dizang said, “What do you call ‘the world’?”

Zuishan basically asks, “How can you afford to give up on your worries about worldly affairs?” In reply Dizang says, “Worldly affairs look real only to those who are caught up in the karmic habit of worrying.”

This attitude created a strong peasant culture in China, a counter-culture. And by the way, Zen was very deeply rooted in that counter-culture. The farmers or peasants didn’t have a lot of faith in the future. They didn’t expect the future to make an enduring difference. They had a deeper mind; they had to take a longer view. As our illustrious Zen ancestor Seng T’san said,

The Great Way is not difficult
For those who have no preferences
When attachment and aversion are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised.

I realize that I’m kind of romanticizing peasants. I know that in China, many peasants were probably just as mean and selfish as anybody else. But there’s something to this idea all the same. When you give up on controlling the world, when you give up on the dream of becoming a mandarin, and when you just say, “I’m no one, and I’m going nowhere,” that can open up a beautiful life. It’s so unmodern to think this way, but why not try it?

I’m certainly not urging anyone to quit your job and become a peasant. That wouldn’t be a wise move. But even if you’re a scientist, an artist, a teacher, a programmer, a business person, there’s still this different way to live, and when we come to sesshin, we can really experience this way. The past is gone; it cannot be changed. The future is not here yet, and our actions will affect events in ways we can’t foresee. So you have to take the long view, a very long view: it’s infinite in one direction, and infinite in the other. Whether or not we get a C or a B grade this time around is not that important.

When we sit on the cushion, we begin to enter what I’ve been calling, maybe just metaphorically, farmer’s mind or peasant’s mind. On the cushion, too, there’s an uncertain future. You don’t know when the bell is going to ring, and if you worry about it excessively, you’ll go nuts. You just have to stay with the breath, stay with the moment. This moment is all we ever have. There’s this moment and then there’s this moment, and this moment, and this moment. We don’t know how long the string of moments can go on, but your thinking about the future only creates more tension and pain. What I’ve been calling farmer’s mind or peasant’s mind arises when we stop trying to reach into the future for our rescue or salvation. When we’re really in samadhi, there’s no chance of advancement or progress or saving the world or even saving ourselves. Some people might think, “This is sick--this is fatalism.” But if you just try it, I think you’ll find it’s a beautiful way to live. My feeling is that it’s a really liberating way to live.

When you worry, you make yourself a hostage or a slave to someone else’s power. You become a slave instead of a peasant. If you think about it, everybody’s trying to get you to worry about things. For example, I’m a teacher, and I understand very clearly what teachers do. Teachers help people in a lot of ways, but one of the troubling things a teacher does is to make his students worry about his course, as opposed to the courses taught by the other teachers. Some of you know that I often teach Freshman English, and when students come to Rutgers, they think, “I’m not going to worry about Freshman English; that’ll be my easiest course.” If they think this way, however, they won’t get any better in their writing. So my job is to make them worry about Freshman English, and I’m very successful at that. Indeed, most people think the course is extremely hard, and even though I’m not loved by all the students, most of them learn a lot. What I do is a little bit harsh, I know: they need to worry in order to improve, and I make them worry by giving them failing grades. When they start to worry enough, they start to improve, and then their grades go up. This is my job, and the process of making people worry is one aspect of our lives as human beings.

Everybody does this sort of thing to us all the time, not just teachers but other people too, all making us worry. Advertisers do it, for example. Parents do it, even friends. After a while, we’re just a bundle of worries. You try to please your teachers, including the ones from elementary school that you still carry around in your memory. You try to please your parents, and whoever else you respect. As a result, you wind up carrying this increasingly heavy weight all the time, and after a while, the burden becomes nearly unbearable. You’re constantly trying to meet the expectations of others. You’re constantly filled with worries and fears, and with regrets.

The thing is, you don’t have to live that way. You don’t! You don’t! You don’t! There’s a different way of life.

I swear to you that even though I have a job, a name, a house and so on, I’m no one and I’m going nowhere. Even though I always do my best, I’m not trying to achieve anything. I’m just hoeing my garden. I’m hoeing it right now, as a matter of fact, as I deliver this teisho. All I have is this, and it's enough. Just being in this moment with you is heaven itself. When we come here and practice together, sitting in the moment, the sound of a bird is heaven, or the sunlight on the floor, or the noise from the street.

This “farmer’s mind” way of life requires great trust. The farmer has to trust the universe because she or he can’t control anything. You just have to live on trust. When you do, it’s amazing. You go to sleep and then you get up. You go through the day, and if you’re still alive at the end, congratulations! That’s the life of the peasant. But it’s also the life of the zen student. If you get through the next sit, congratulations! If you’re still alive, and you haven’t had a heart attack on the cushion, then everything is OK. And OK is good enough. After that, the only important question is, “When do we eat?” That’s a beautiful life. That kind of simplicity is infinitely precious.

And by the way, when people get very old, and their lives are “over,” so to speak–when they’re retired, when they’re going nowhere and they’re no one socially anymore--they often look back on their lives and say, “Why was I so afraid? What was I so frightened of?” Like all of us, they were frightened of failing. They were afraid of letting down all those people who made them anxious about their success.

We're all trapped in a vicious circle. We're afraid because we lack trust in the world, and we lack trust because we're afraid. To break out of this circle we have to go to sesshin. As I said yesterday, it’s so hard to be natural because we don’t trust our natural self, our monkey self.

Yesterday’s koan was so useful because it forced us to rethink our attitude toward what we call the “monkey mind.” In Buddhist tradition, there is a standard reference to the undisciplined mind, which is compared to a monkey who sees this object and become terribly excited, but then sees another object and forgets all about the first one, and then notices something else, on and on. This is referred to derisively as the “monkey mind.”

But the Zen Buddhists came along and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Why are you’re insulting a perfectly good monkey?” It’s not a monkey mind that’s the problem; it’s the human mind. The human mind worries about the past; the human mind worries about the future. The monkey doesn’t worry. Once the moment has passed, the monkey lets it go. Basically, the Zen people said to the traditional Buddhists, “You’re putting the blame on the wrong primate!” When a monkey eats nuts, he just eats nuts. When he gets mad, he just throws his feces at you. No problem. And you know, that’s what a peasant does too. When he wants to eat, he eats. And when he get mad, he might just throw some feces at you too.

Our natural mind is hard to find, though. We have to find it the way we find everything, patiently, by trial and error. So Zen practice requires us to put ourselves on the cushion with our legs crossed and wait for the universe to take over. That’s what we’re really doing. It’s hard to let the universe--the big mind
--do the driving. We’re convinced that if we don’t look at the map and plan out our route meticulously, we’re going to get hopelessly lost.

Now, if you’re going on a trip across the country, I strongly recommend that you look at a map and not rely on intuition. But the strange thing is that even if you plan your trip meticulously, all kinds of unexpected developments can happen. You may not wind up where you thought you were going.

When you're traveling, use a map. But when you're on the cushion, you just have to sit in emptiness believing that the universe is going to help you. And it will. Eventually, you will really be changed by this.

You know, I had a cat once whose name was Moon. He was hit by car during our group’s second sesshin, twelve years ago. Chia-ju was there. When we used to have sesshins at my house, we often went outside at night to do kinhin on the sidewalk, and one time, my cat Moon followed us and he was struck by a car. He was a great cat–I had him from the time he was a little kitten, and we would spend the whole time together, day after day. When I was studying, he would sit right next to me or in my lap. When I was grading papers, he would lie right beside the papers in order to enjoy the extra heat from from my desk lamp. I would spend three or four hours grading papers, and then I’d go down to get a snack, and he’d come down for a snack as well. So we’d have a snack together. We wouldn’t eat the same thing, of course, but we were together.

We lived like that, my cat and I, for eighteen years, in a wonderful relationship. We got to know each other quite well. I was thinking this morning about one of the things he liked to do. When I would go outside, he loved to jump up on the fence in the yard and walk back and forth. He was trying to show me his acrobatic skill. “Look at this!” he was saying. Sometimes he would actually lie down on the fence, spreading his body along the two-by-four that capped the vertical slats. When he was lying on the fence like that, it would look like he was going to fall backward, so I would put my hands behind him and he’d just lean into my hands and hang there.

One time, though, I started to pull my hands away to see what he’d do. Just one time. I pulled my hands away, and as he started to drop back, he grabbed the two-by-four he was lying on. Of course, as he fell back, my hands were still there and they caught him. He started to drop and then he felt my hands behind him.

After that, this became a little game we played. He’d lie on the top of the fence, and whenever I pulled my hands away, he never grabbed the two-by-four again, ever. He would just fall back into my hands. He knew I wouldn’t drop him! I would rather have died than to drop him.

Well, that’s the universe. So help me. It won’t drop you. Just trust your True Nature.

You might say, “But I don’t!” Just keep going. You will.

Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the south these days?”

Xiushan replied, “Everybody’s worried about the future.”

Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?’

In other words, Dizang said, “How can that compare to my peasant’s mind?

But Xiushan wasn't satisfied. "Don't you care about the world," he asked.

And then Dizang tells him, “This is the world. This is the only world we ever get."

Every story is made up; so is every interpretation.
As it travels from the ear to the mouth, every “true report” comes apart.
So, plant the fields and thresh the rice–take care of ordinary matters;
Only those who have fully inquired know
There’s absolutely nothing to seek;
Zifang didn’t want a prestigious title like “duke” or “marquis”;
Forgetting his social status, he returned, the same as fish and birds,
Washing his bare feet in the Canglan river, in the muddy waters of autumn.

“Washing his feet.” This is the universe in all its glory. Won’t drop you! Won’t drop you!


Last revised 8.16.06