The Flower Ornament Sutra's Wisdom

Today’s teisho will be on Case 67 in The Book of Serenity, "The Flower Ornament Sutra's Wisdom"

Introduction. One atom contains myriad forms. One thought includes a billion worlds. What about a powerful person who wears the sky on his head and stands on the ground, a spiritually sharp person who knows the tail when the head is spoken of? Doesn’t that person turn his back on his own spirit and bury the family treasure?

Case. The Flower Ornament Sutra says, “I now see that all beings everywhere fully possess the wisdom and virtues of the Enlightened Ones, but because of false conceptions and attachments, they do not realize it.”

Sky covers, earth bears,
Making a mass, making a clump.
Pervading the universe without bound,
Breaking down subatomic particles–nothing inside!
Getting to the end of the mysterious subtlety,
Who distinguishes “turning towards” from “turning away”?
Buddhas and Dharma Ancestors come to pay the debt for what they said.
Each person just eats one stalk of vegetable.

I want to thank everybody for coming here this Saturday morning to practice the beautiful path of ch’an or zen. Some of you have come here for a half-day of meditation for the very first time. And some of you have come to hear the teisho for the first time, so perhaps I should say something about the occasion of the teisho itself. First of all, a teisho is not like a lecture in school. If you were thinking that you might take some notes, please don’t do that. Please put your notebook away and just listen to the talk. Just drift along with the talk. A few years ago there was a person who starting coming to our teishos for a couple of months, and he would actually take notes. When he took notes it made me very nervous, as a matter of fact, because that’s not the purpose of the teisho.

We’re all very well trained to be students. We have all gone through high school, where we learned to take notes. And we take notes in college, or we buy notes from a note-taking company if we didn’t catch the class because we were sleeping. And on the basis of the notes, the students get tested. Your teacher carefully constructs the test and then you take the test and your performance will be assessed according to some system. On a test, there is such a thing as a right answer and a wrong answer, or a good answer and a bad answer. This brings us to fundamental difference between a school lecture and a teisho. You really should try to understand the lectures you hear in school, but the interesting thing about a teisho is that it doesn’t really matter whether you understand it or not. Also, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m clear or I’m not, which is fortunate, because I’m often not. Don’t get me wrong. If you come to hear the teisho and you understand it, that’s excellent. In that case, you’re in awakened mind. But you may have come to hear the teisho this morning, and as you listen to this presentation, you may find yourself thinking, “What the heck he talking about?” In that case too, you’re in awakened mind. That’s the beauty of the teisho: whether you understand it or not, you’re There. This is quite different from any other form of discourse that I know.

For the sake of being understood–or not–let me just go over the events of the present case again. These cases are usually the sayings of famous teachers from the T’ang or Sung dynasties, or stories about them. They often involve a moment when a student has an awakening experience, but not always. In this case, Zenghuang came before his assembly of monks and nuns–zen practitioners-- and he declared, “The Flower Ornament Sutra says, ‘I now see that all sentient beings everywhere possess fully the wisdom and virtue of the Enlightened Ones, but because of false conceptions and attachments, they do not realize it.’”

This is not how we normally think. We normally think in terms of gain and loss, right and wrong, passing the test and failing the best. But ch’an, zen, is about a reality present whether you are right or wrong, whether you get an A on the test or an F. To me, that’s quite interesting, quite important.

I don’t know how the meditation–the sit--went for you this morning. Perhaps you might want to give it an “A,” perhaps a lower grade.

A little while ago, I had a sit that deserved an “A+.” As some of you know, I’ve just recently gotten back from southern Virginia where I was moving my mother into an assisted living facility. We all worked very hard to move her furniture into the facility, along with some clothes and other personal items. My wife Barbara did a wonderful job of decorating my mother’s new room to give it the appearance of her old apartment.

After my mother was settled in, I drove back to New Jersey, and when I arrived, after nine hours on the road, I received a call from a member of the Sri Lankan community. He asked me to come over to his house that same night to participate in a funeral ceremony for his mother, who had just died.

Because it was a formal occasion, I put on my robes and I went directly over. I was rather tired from the long drive, though, so I completely forgot my meditation cushions. When I got there, my Sri Lankan friend gave me some pillows from his sofa. There was no mat or rug, so I just sat down on the wooden floor and put these pillows under my bottom. I thought to myself, “Oh boy, this is going to rough.” I was tired and I had no mat, so I expected to be quite uncomfortable for who knows how long.

At any rate, a monk from the Sri Lankan community spoke first, and he spoke for a long time. And by the way, he was sitting in a comfortable chair, so there was no physical constraint on his time. I was on the bare floor, sitting in my usual position. The Sri Lankan monk went on and on and on in Singhalese--for more than an hour. Eventually there was a break, but I was very comfortable and decided not to move or stand. I wound up sitting for a fairly long time. We started at 7:00, and I didn’t really get to speak until about 9:15, and we didn’t wrap things up until 10:15. The amazing thing was that I sat for more than three hours on the bare floor, and yet I felt great. My legs didn’t hurt at all. It was like magic. Sometimes that just happens! Of course, when it was over I thought to myself, “Maybe I should sit on these sofa pillows from now on. Maybe these zafus are just no good.”

In spite of everything–the long drive, fatigue, and the absence of a mat–I had an absolutely wonderful sit. But even after thirty years of doing this, I sometimes sit down on the cushion and I can’t get it right. One leg is off center and so it goes numb. Or maybe my hip joint starts to hurt. On occasions like that, you go into samadhi and you try to deal with the discomfort, but it’s like having a toothache–not acute pain but nagging discomfort you can’t totally ignore. I’m sorry to disillusion you, but maybe after forty years that sort of thing will no longer happen. But after thirty years you can still have some painful sits.

To tell you the truth, that kind of sit happened to me this morning. Maybe the reason for the pain is that I went on a long jog yesterday afternoon, and my muscles might have gotten tired or too tight. About halfway through this morning’s sit, after the first hour and a half, my legs were really talking to me. So I had to go very deep into samadhi. Just like everybody else, when my legs hurt, I think to myself, “Oh damn it--I really hate this. I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I still have pain in my legs.” Like everyone else in such moments, I sit there and I think, “I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.” I was thinking along these lines for a while this morning.

But then, all of a sudden, I felt like a big smile opening up inside myself. It was just like my whole body was smiling. And I was so happy. Perhaps you’re waiting for me to say, “And then all the pain in my legs went away,” but it didn’t. Yet I was so happy. I had the unmistakable feeling of joy.

Last Saturday, during my painless sit at the funeral ceremony, I was deeply in Buddha Mind. And this morning, as I was wrestling with my pain, I was also deeply in Buddha Mind. The truth is that whatever we mean by “Buddha Mind” is there whether we’re in pain or not in pain. Whether we’re distracted or not distracted. In this sense, awakened mind is something special. Actually its not a state, not a state of mind. In the course of our daily lives we enter many different states of mind, You can be distracted or you can be focused. You can be angry or you can be kindly. You can be happy or you can be sad. Those are states. But when we’re talking about Buddha Mind or awakened mind, we’re talking about something that’s present in every state. It’s like the background behind everything. Every state of mind is like a little show on a stage, but if you pull the curtains back, you’ll see that Buddha Mind lies behind it.

Not only does this seem true to me, but I believe that people are constantly trying to trying to get back to Buddha Mind, even if they’ve never heard of ch’an or zen or Buddhism. I have a strong belief that all of us are constantly trying to return to this ground or background, which is actually like the earth under our feet no matter where we stand. It can’t be taken away from us because it’s always present and it’s as common as dirt, yet we’re trying to get back to it all the time.

As some of you know, I love to backpack. I’ve been a backpacker for more than thirty years. I still subscribe to Outside Magazine. I may have been one of the first readers of the magazine, and I’ve literally never stopped reading it. In the most recent edition, there was a story on a woman named Stephanie Davis. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her, but she’s a free climber. Have you heard about these people who climb up mountains with their bare hands? They just put a little chalk dust on their fingers and they go up the faces of mountains. She is one of these people, and she’s highly regarded in free climbing circles as among the very best climbers in the world.

The story of her life is interesting because she apparently had a typical middle-class upbringing. She was interested in piano and was an English major who was studying with the goal of becoming a lawyer. Her parents very much wanted her to become a lawyer. But in the spring of her freshman year, a friend of hers invited her to go rock climbing, which she had never done before. She said that from the day she went climbing, her life was never the same. This sort of thing happens to people sometimes. You do something, and then you just realize, “This is my path.” She had been going to the University of Maryland but she shifted to Colorado State just so she could practice climbing. When she graduated from Colorado State, her parents said, “Well, now it’s time for law school.” What she did then, however, was totally crazy. She decided she was going to live in her car, wait on tables and practice free climbing. As you can imagine, her parents were horrified. She actually built a bed in the back of her car. She lived in her car for nine years, and she awakened every morning and climbed up the side of a mountain. She supported herself by working as a waitress.

There are some other details about her life that I thought were interesting:

"Through it all, Davis remained her usual geeky, systematic self. Though she never made more than $6000 a year, she managed to open an IRA. She read constantly, everything from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Kirstie Alley’s autobiography to French short stories she translated herself. She said, 'I felt scared all the time. My parents did not like my choices and thought I was doing stupid things with my life, and they told me so. I didn’t feel like anyone cared if I did a climb I was proud of.'"

Eventually, however, Davis ran into this guy who, strangely enough, was also living in his car and climbing mountains. Dean Potter was his name–he’s also a highly regarded climber. Now they live in a trailer. She has a contract with the Patagonia company. It doesn’t pay a huge amount, but the money allows them to spend six months a year going up the sides of mountains without any ropes.

I have to tell you that I just love people like that. I just think that Steph Davis is fantastic. This is somebody who found her path in life, and it takes a certain kind of person to have that degree of openheartedness. Most people hedge their bets a little, right? I myself have done this–I’m not sure I could live in my car. But she loved what she did, so she lived in her car and climbed twelve hours a day and waited on tables. There’s something really admirable about a person who’s able to be so openhearted about her path in life. You just have to ask, “What is she looking for, anyway?” Because although she has a Patagonia contract, and although she’s rather well known in climbing circles, she still hasn’t gotten huge amounts of money or fame as a consequence of what she’s doing. Few rewards, and the risks are huge. A previous issue of Outside had an obituary for another famous free climber, and sooner or later I may open up the latest edition and read the obituary for Steph Davis. I sincerely hope not, but it could happen. All the same, there’s something about going up the side of a mountain that, for her, is a lot like what we can experience on the cushion. I think that when she goes up a mountain she gets outside of herself and enters what we Zen people call Big Mind. Blue Sky Mind. Lan tian (Chinese). Aozora (Japanese). A mind free of obstructions-- like the bare, blue sky.

For Davis, an encounter with this mind was obviously worth any price. When the Outside reporter went to find her, she had been climbing all day and she had only gotten halfway up the face. She had to spend the night on a granite ledge that was two and a half feet wide. She had to sleep on cold, hard granite and then get up in the morning and finish the climb. I just think that’s wonderful, and not so different from what we do. We don’t climb up the sides of mountains, but we meditate for eight or nine hours a day, and people think were crazy too.

I suspect that Steph Davis is driven by something like the same desire we Zen people are driven by--this passion for getting outside the self and getting connected to a bigger life. And I think this is distinctly human. Underneath all of our confusion, fear, and anger, there’s this part of ourselves that’s trying to wake up. Like a little chick trying to peck its way out of its eggshell, pecking and pecking and trying to get out. I think that all human beings are like this.

Along these same lines, I came across another story that’s just amazing. It was an article in the LA Times about a man named Carl Cooke. Let me read a bit: “Carl Cooke is not a typical Clipper season ticket holder. For one thing, he’s homeless. For another, he owns no car, nor is he licenced to drive. But Cooke, 46, nevertheless is unflagging in his support of the Clippers, who return to Staples Center tonight for game three of their Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns.”’ This guy literally lives to go to the games of his team. He sleeps and showers in the stadium, where he does odd job, and he rides a bike around town. According to the article, “His annual income is less than 10,000 dollars. He spent 3,500 dollars on tickets for this season.” And by the way, the team almost never wins.

That’s interesting, isn’t it.

“‘He just eats, sleeps and lives for the Clippers,’ said the middle of his sisters Jodie Cook, of Oceanside[, California.] ‘Every time he comes to visit, he’s always in a tee shirt or sweatshirt, something that has “Clippers” on it. Whenever I talk to him, during the season or out, he talks about the Clippers. I’ve never seen anything like him, especially to hang in there with that terrible team.’” His sister went on to say, “It’s odd, but it's his life.” Cooke himself put it this way: the Clippers “bring me happiness.”

I just think that’s wonderful, to have that kind of passion. It’s surprising that the team hardly ever wins, but it doesn’t matter to Cooke. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter because that’s not what he’s after. He gets something deeper out of all of this.

Maybe these two people–Steph Davis and Carl Cooke--are a little over the top by some standards. Maybe they have obsessive personalities. It’s kind of frightening when you encounter people like that because they’re so openhearted about what they love that they don’t tally up the risks and the rewards, as I must admit I’ve often done in my life. I can't really say that I'm their equal. For me that kind of openheartedness has often been difficult. Some people, I suppose, have to walk backward into openheartedness a little at a time. Other can just jump in. There’s something saintly about these two people, if you want to put it like that. Steph Davis is a saint of free climbing, and Mr Clooke is a saint of fandom.

I’m half kidding when I call them “saints,” but on a deeper level, they get into contact with something which is very, very important. I believe there are millions of people who live their whole lives squelching this impulse to make contact, but it’s an impulse we all feel. It drives so much of human behavior, this desire to get outside of the self by getting connected to something “bigger than ourselves,” as we say.

These’s a professor here at Rutgers named Bruce Wilshire. I don’t know him personally, but he’s written a rather interesting book called Wild Hunger. Wilshire is fascinated by the problems our society has with drug addition and alcoholism, and indeed we have serious problems with both. Huge numbers of Americans are alcoholics, and very large numbers of Americans have problems with drugs.

Wilshire’s book is a very thoughtful exploration of what people are seeking when they drink or take drugs, and it just may be that their behavior has something in common with the behavior of Steph Davis and Carl Cook. There’s a kind of obsessive character to it, but behind that obsessive character-- which can also become very destructive--is this powerful hunger. Wilshire call it “Wild Hunger.”

This is a basic human motivation–to get beyond the self. Now, I understand that part of our emotional development as human beings is first to become a self. It is important to go through the usual adolescent rituals involved with becoming a person. In the process of growing up, you learn how to imitate certain kinds of human beings, and a lot of the agony of adolescence comes from trying to convince yourself that you can really pull it off--really pass for a human. Because you don’t feel like one. At least judging from my own experience, most teenagers feel hopelessly out of touch with other people, socially unacceptable, monstrous and awkward. So we work very hard to find the right brand of jeans, the right style of hair, and the right thing to say. Our goal is to be socially acceptable. We pick up our role models and emulate them. Now, I think all of this is essential to becoming a person and acquiring a self.

But there’s another aspect of human life which involves getting beyond the self. At a certain point, it becomes obvious that being a self is rather unsatisfying. You’ve basically “been there, done that.” At some point, you’re just all dressed up with nowhere to go. In fact, that’s what it means to be a self. You’ve worked so hard to be presentable, but then, once you are indeed presentable, you find yourself thinking, “Now what?” Eventually, having a self is slightly boring, like getting stuck forever in the tenth grade.

When you reach a certain age and the self is no longer so exciting, you begin to experience “wild hunger,” and many things in our society appeal to this hunger, though not always in a good way. I think consumerism makes this appeal, for example. Even though consumerism seems so materialistic and purely practical, it has an ecstatic, vaguely spiritual quality because it promises connection to something bigger.

I know people who are true shopaholics. Many years ago, my wife and I were traveling with my brother-in-law and his wife, Janet. We had been in Mexico and were returning to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where my wife’s family comes from. We left a town in northern Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, and we drove back to Albuquerque along a route which has become a kind of consumer’s pilgrimage route. Large numbers of Americans drive down to Juarez and stay to buy all kinds of Mexican tourist products, and then they head back to the States with their goodies.

While we were still in Juarez, which is actually a rather seedy border town, my sister-in-law loaded up her car with so much stuff that it was packed to the roof, but even then, it seemed as though we couldn’t drive more than half an hour before we had to stop at some little store to buy some more stuff. After a while, I was wondering if the car would break down under the weight of all this junk.

By the way, I love my sister-in-law, and I know she’ll never listen to this talk. And her name really isn’t Janet, it’s “Betsy.” Yeah, that’s it, “Betsy.” Well, her name really is Janet, but she knows that I love her and, anyway, we’ve already had this discussion.

But there is such a thing as a shopaholic, or a shopaholic mind set. There is a mind set in which we obsessively try to acquire new things. When you’re in a shopaholic mind set, you’re looking for a special kind of experience. You think, “If I get this Mexican blanket, my whole life is going to be brighter. I’m going to have a bright mind.” And indeed, when you roll the blanket our onto the floor, you do have a bright mind. You feel very nice, very alive. But after a while, it’s just a blanket, and the bright mind is gone.

Years ago the Dalai Lama came to the University of Washington, where I was going to school, and he gave a talk. He said something that really stayed with me. He said that the more you do some things, the more alive you feel. But the more you do other things, the less alive you feel. The example he gave was driving. Driving, in his experience, was initially fascinating, but then
it lost its brightness. I’m sure we can all remember when we looked forward to driving. When I was sixteen, I wanted that driver’s license so badly, and I went through Drivers Education School with my highschool coach who used to chew tobacco and spit it out the window. He was a nice guy, but I had to go through the whole summer of Driver’s Ed with Coach Mitchell. I finally got my license, but after about three months, driving was about the least interesting thing I could do. Different people have different doors into reality, but for me, driving just isn’t one of them.

Each of us is rather different, but you do some things that just fade away after a while, while you do others that keep opening doors for you. For Steph Davis, it’s climbing a mountain. She’s climbed how many hundreds of mountains, but the number doesn’t matter because that’s her path -- her Tao or Great Way. And whether the Clippers ever win a game or not is not going to matter to Mr Cooke.

Our culture makes false promises about such things, however. It tells you that you’ll achieve a bigger life if buy this or that. Our culture is somewhat seductive in this respect. Many people work hard to buy a bigger house and it turns out to be just a house, and then they’re not any happier. You buy a new car and then it turns out to be just a car.

I even think that this desire for connection can take sinister or destructive forms. A lot of times human beings have become terribly attached to values like collective identity. I’m always a little nervous, for example, about people who get too excited over being an American. Let me just say, I am an American, and I’m grateful for being one. But if people get too obsessed with being an American, I’m uneasy with that. I would like first of all to be a member of the human race who happens to live in America. But there’s a kind if collective ecstacy that comes from being an American. Or being French, or being Pakistani. It could also be membership in a religious group. We can have a collective ecstacy because we’re all Buddhists here. Were all Buddhists! That might look like our door into the universe, and we might not want to let in any non-Buddhists. When we’re all the same, we can experience a collective ecstacy. I personally think that’s very dangerous, a false promise. Like consumerism, it’s seductive.

All of us have a desire for connection to the universe. The poet Alan Ginsberg has this great phrase for the universe. He called it “the starry dynamo.” We want to hook up to the “starry dynamo.” When you sit on the cushion and you feel life energy pulsing through you, that’s connection to the starry dynamo. And by the way, Ginsberg did a lot of meditation.

We have this deep desire for something bigger than ourselves, but it can take destructive forms. Ecstatic drug use, ecstatic drinking. A number of people in my family have been alcoholics. I myself don’t drink at all. I’ve never had a drinking problem, but I stopped drinking many years ago because it interfered with my meditation. It diminished my clarity. But the people in my family who developed drinking problems, and there were many of them, were trying to get hooked up to the starry dynamo. They just went down the wrong path.

Our hunger for something bigger can explain a lot of things, good and bad. Perhaps you’ve heard about the British scientist Martin Rees, who recently issued a statement to the press which announced that the chances of our civilization surviving were about fifty-fifty. Rees is President of the British Academy of Scientists, and on their behalf he issued a statement saying that we’re courting disaster.

If you pay attention to global warming, and war, and all of this mess we’re making, you could ask, “How did we go so wrong?” “How did people become so evil or bad?” But the matter is complicated because in so many ways, we humans are trying to do the right thing. We’re looking for something truly positive, but we walk up blind alleys and we make terrible mistakes that sometimes turn us into monsters. As you know, we can do things that are truly monstrous. But behind all of this confusion and violence is a longing that we all share. Even a person like Stalin was trying to protect what he saw as sacred--maybe it was the Workers' Paradise, maybe it was Mother Russia--and in the process, he killed more than twenty million people.

On the ground floor, all human beings want this: connection. And when they get it, they turn into really good people. When you enter samadhi, sooner or later you get hooked up to the starry dynamo, and in that state your heart melts, you’re full of love, and you see your own failings. For this reason, at the end of sesshin, people come into the dokusan room and they say to me, “I’m going to call my brother and tell him that I love him.” That’s success--a successful sesshin. That’s real contact with the universe. All humans have that compassion inside them somewhere. And one of the beautiful things about our path of Zen is that it’s so reliable as a way of getting to this compassion.

I have the highest admiration for Steph Davis, but I walk a slightly different path. Unlike her, I’m sitting on a nice soft cushion, not a granite ledge. I can’t fall. I could probably use a bit more exercise–she gets lot more exercise than I do. By comparison to free climbing, Zen is pretty safe, right?

If you do meditation for eight hours a day, your knees are going to be a little sore. But nobody’s had to be rushed to the hospital. Nobody’s died from the pain in his legs, even though it might sometimes feel that you are dying. Our path is not only reliable, it’s safe.

Not all paths are. Think about the Clippers. The truth is that the Clippers are a typical sports team. Probably a lot of players on the team take steroids and get exploited by the franchise. They play hard for ten years and if they injure a knee, they abruptly get dumped. When I was kid, in our neighborhood there was very nice man named Rod Breedlove, who had been a football idol. He injured himself and after that, he worked in town as a bartender. He had little savings and lived a very humble life in spite of his formerly high status in sports world. He had been exploited by the sports system.

I don’t believe that zen will let you down in this way. If you stay on this path, I think it will have a happy ending for you. You can climb a mountain to get "There," or ride your bike around to football games. But these paths may not always get you "There" in the way that we zen people get "There." I’m not saying that the other paths are somehow inferior to ours, but ours is rather special, at least for those of us who walk it.

I wake up every morning and I try to sit for several hours. I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I swear to you, it just gets better and better. Some days, I sit down on the cushion and it's like an atomic bomb going off in my body. It's just so beautiful. It’s almost troubling–almost too much. So beautiful!

This world has all kinds of people. Some climb mountains, some ride their bicycles to games, and some sit on the cushion. Some even do all three. If Zen happens to be your path, you don’t have to live in your car for nine years, but please walk your path with an open heart. Please be true to your True Self, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Case. The Flower Ornament Scripture says, “I now see that all beings everywhere fully possess the wisdom and virtues of the Enlightened Ones but because of false conceptions and attachments, they do not realize it.”

Sky covers, earth bears,
Making a mass, making a clump.
Pervading the universe without bound,
Breaking down subatomic particles–nothing inside!
Getting to the end of the mysterious subtlety,
Who distinguishes turning towards from turning away?
Buddhas and Dharma Ancestors come to pay the debt for what they said.
Each person just eats one stalk of vegetable.

Sitting on the cushion today–this is your path, your stalk of vegetable. No one else can eat it, and no one can eat it for you. How delicious! How delicious!

Last revised 11.20.06