Luoshan's Arising and Vanishing

From March Sesshin
March 19, 2009

Today’s teisho will be on Case 43 in the Book of Serenity. Case 43 is entitled, “Luoshan’s Arising and Vanishing.”


One touch of the philosophers’ stone turns iron into gold; one word of the ultimate principle transforms an ordinary person into a sage. If you know that gold and iron are not two, that ordinary and sage are fundamentally the same, then after all you’ll have no use for it; but tell me, what one touch is it?


Luoshan asked Yantou, “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”
Yantou shouted and said, “Whose arising and vanishing is it?”


Severing old entangling vines
Opening up a fox lair
A leopard covers itself with fog to change its spots
A dragon rides the thunder to change its bones
Arising and vanishing in profusion—what is it?

[Three bells.]

Well, today is the second day of our spring sesshin, and I want to thank everybody for doing a very good job this morning in the zendo. I was very impressed by the deep sitting. Many of you didn’t take breaks between the meditation periods. In the case of one person—a first-timer here--it was just amazing to see. Only yesterday morning, he was moving constantly through each of the sits. But this morning, the bell rang and he didn’t uncross his legs even once. You know that a person is in deep samadhi when you see him sitting motionless like that. I found his achievement quite inspiring because I can remember many, many years ago, when I first started to do Zen practice. My first sesshin was an enormous challenge, physically and psychologically, and sometimes I just couldn’t get through a single sit without moving. It seemed that I was in constant pain. But something about the experience deeply resonated with me. Even though each sit was very difficult, there was something about the experience of sesshin that was powerful and liberating even though I couldn’t tell you what it was at the time.

When the sesshin was finally over, I came away from it with a different sort of mind. At the time I didn’t know why, but there was something about the state of awareness that I had entered during sesshin that just felt different…it felt different. I didn’t consciously understand the change at the time, but for some reason, after my first sesshin I signed up for another one. Then I signed up for another sesshin after that, and so on and so on. If somebody had asked me, “Why are you going to sesshin?” I’m not sure I could have explained. Maybe I would have said, “I’m interested in enlightenment,” or something like that. But that’s very abstract, you know. Yet something kept bringing me back, sesshin after sesshin after sesshin. Now, in retrospect, I can say more clearly what it was.

At the time, however, I was doing something I just had to do --without any conscious understanding of my motivation. But I remember one sesshin in particular when I was sitting pretty deeply. And then the bell rang to signal the end of the sitting period, and I realized that I didn’t need to move. Up until that point I had often barely made it through a single sitting period. Getting through every period of meditation seemed like crossing a highwire at the circus. The acrobat just wants to get from this end of the wire to that end of the wire without falling off. For the person on the wire, it’s step, step, step. For the beginner on the cushion, it’s breath, breath, breath, trying not to move. And usually I would begin to feel a sense of strain toward the end of the period. I was like an acrobat wobbling on the wire and looking ahead to see how many precarious steps remained. Of course, the end of the wire sometimes looked quite distant. I’d be hoping—praying--that the timekeeper would soon ring the bell. “Come on, ring the bell, ring the bell!”

You all know what this is like. When you start sitting, you drop into deep concentration, and then you stay there as long as you can. But sometimes you break concentration prematurely. You rise out of concentration only to find that the bell hasn’t rung yet. And then you become aware, perhaps, of your legs hurting. So you try to go back into that state of deep concentration, and then, after a while, you get to the other end of the wire and you’re safe. The bell rings and you can relax. And I must say that some of you really relax after the bells rings. [Refers to a person who has spread out flat on the floor during break period.] That’s ok with me. You might need a good stretch. Please enjoy it.

At any rate, I spent many sesshins just trying to get through the sits, the meditation periods. And I remember that after two or three sits in a row, I would go back to my room and I would just dive into bed. I would just fall sleep instantly, as soon my body had landed on the mattress. Even though you might not know why sitting motionless seems so strenuous, it really is. You might say to somebody unfamiliar with sesshin, “I’ve been sitting on a cushion for the last day and a half, and I’m exhausted!” Of course, they’d wonder what you were talking about. But this enormous concentration is quite strenuous at first, so I would just go back to my bed and conk out.

But one day I was sitting in samadhi and the bell rang to signal the end of the meditation period—thirty minutes. But I didn’t need to move. I went on through the next period of meditation, and I then I thought to myself, “Amazing, two periods of meditation without stopping.” And then the bell rang again and I thought, “Well, why not make it three?” And then I went through the third without moving. I can also remember becoming aware that my consciousness felt rather different than my ordinary consciousness.

You know, most people don’t observe their minds during the day. As they go through their daily activities, people seldom turn the mind back on itself. But if you take the time to do so, you’ll probably notice that your ordinary mental states are quite different from the kind of awareness you enter when you’re on the cushion. As you may notice, ordinary consciousness is quite broken up into pieces. It’s quite fragmented and it’s quite alienated. Often we feel like spectators, watching our own lives from an imaginary distance.

Ordinarily, the mind is in a focused, continuous state for only brief periods of two or three seconds. For two or three seconds you focus on this, then for two or three seconds you focus on that. And usually those seconds are accompanied by various emotional states. Some of our two-second intervals might be very happy; some of them might be very sad. Some of them are angry and so on. A lot of them are anxious. If you observe your mind as you go through your daily activities, you might be surprised to realize just how often you’re anxious. Of course, it’s difficult to turn the mind back on itself—to watch the mind’s own operations. But sometimes people can get a glimpse of their minds, and that can be surprising.

My point is that ordinary consciousness is very fragmented. Usually it comes in little packages of two or three seconds, and usually it’s accompanied by various emotional states. And the underlying mood of ordinary consciousness is anxiety punctuated by various forms of hope and fear and sometimes pleasure, right? The other thing about ordinary consciousness is that it’s very, very self centered. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s just a fact that ordinary consciousness is very much about me. You need a “me,” but ordinary conscious is all about preserving and protecting it, to the detriment of almost everything else.

Let’s say you could go through the day with a special counting device on your belt. Let’s imagine that it would be possible for you to press the device every time you thought of yourself. I imagine that we’d all have thousands of clicks by the end of the day. That’s ordinary consciousness. It’s all about me--my comfort and my safety and my pleasure and my fears and my dreams for more comfort, safety and pleasure. The result is anxiety. There’s a lot of anxiety in ordinary consciousness because, as you know, when we have a dream or an aspiration that we try to make real, often things don’t go the way we want, and that lack of success produces all kinds of negative emotions. And often there’s a very strong sense of tension or conflict. Welcome to the ordinary mind.

Somebody left our sesshin last night—somebody had to leave. And that person's departure reminded me of another person who left sesshin many years ago. That person, who had been practicing meditation for five years, came into dokusan [private interview] in a very discouraged state. This person said, “I just don’t think that Zen is working for me. I’ve been practicing for five years and I still haven’t achieved enlightenment.” And I replied that this seemed like an unrealistic timetable. But the person was insistent: “Not only have I not achieved enlightenment, I also still have a lot of distractions and anxieties and delusional thoughts.” So I said, “Of course. How often during the day do you think of yourself?” And, of course, it was obvious that we think of ourselves all the time. We practice being in the ordinary mind twelve to fifteen hours a day. By comparison, how often do we practice entering samadhi [nondualistic awareness]?

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says this: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.” Well, when we spend so much time in ordinary consciousness, we are powerfully conditioning ourselves to behave in a certain way. And when you come to sesshin and you sit down on the cushion, you’re working against a lot of your own self-conditioning. You know, it’s not anybody’s fault that ordinary consciousness is the way it is. But all day long, every time you’re planning something for yourself or you’re dreading something or you’re angry about something, you’re conditioning yourself to live with a certain kind of consciousness. It stands to reason that deep change will take time and effort.

One might say when we do zazen, we’re deconditioning the mind--deconditioning the mind. But it’s not easy because we all have these mental habits that we’ve been reinforcing right up to the start of the sesshin. When you sit down on the cushion, those habits are still there. It’s unrealistic to expect them not to be. And it’s unrealistic to talk about enlightenment until you spend a lot of time in samadhi. By “lots of time” I mean years or decades, not hours or days.

But the situation isn’t hopeless at all. When you begin to watch the breath, when you begin to pull your mind into the moment, something changes. As you start to unify your mind with the breath or with mu [emptiness], you’ll notice that within perhaps a couple of hours—not so long, really--your mind begins to operate in a different way. What often happens is that people begin to enter a very placid and empty state within a day or so. But then, after this initial emptiness, there’s a change: a welter of thoughts and distractions arise. But even so, the mind isn’t functioning the way it does when you’re in your ordinary consciousness. Even if you’re sitting on the cushion and you’re having lots of thoughts, it’s not the same as the mind you have when you’re going about your normal business….very different. You still have thoughts, but you’re aware of the thoughts in a different way. You’re observing them, but as these thoughts come and go, they don’t dominate you completely. Thoughts become like clouds in a wide blue sky. There might still be many, many clouds, but they come and go while your awareness remains somehow fixed, not swept along.

If you just keep focusing on the breath or mu, you will eventually enter this state which is quite different from ordinary consciousness—a deep stillness and immobility—and this is the state that the new person here entered into this morning. This person was probably just trying to get through the morning—just trying to survive. After all, it’s the second day of sesshin. I’m sure he was very tired, and I imagine he sat down on the cushion just thinking, “If I can only get through this morning. . . . .” You know what that’s like. But then, all of a sudden, everything can change. It is possible to enter this blue-sky mind which is more continuous, less fragmented. Less self-centered and also more connected to the world instead of to thoughts alone. When you hear a sound, it might feel like its coming right out of your own body. And sometimes, there’s also this subtle undercurrent. It’s like an energy pulse. Maybe you haven’t experienced it that way at first. But you will.

This is what we call samadhi, deep samadhi. It’s not always possible to get there, but if you spend a fair amount of time in this state, you can experience the world in a very, very different way. And this is what Zen practice is all about. Don’t let anybody tell you that samadhi isn’t part of Zen practice. All the sutras speak of it with highest praise.

Luoshan asked Yantou, “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?
Yantou shouted and said, “Whose arising and vanishing is it?”

When I sit down on the cushion, I try to have no expectations. But of course I have expectations. I want this sesshin to be a successful sesshin, and I want to be a good Zen teacher and so on. And naturally, things don’t always go the way I want. This morning I had a beautiful sit, but on some mornings I wake up and I sit down on the cushion, and then I feel the arthritis in my knee and that pain can bother me a lot. Sometimes events from my past come back—memories--and I become aware of old emotions, long buried.

The other day when I was sitting in mu-shin [mind of emptiness, awareness without object]I began to think about my dog, a collie named Sergeant. The backstory is that when I went off to college, my parents got divorced. My mother and my father were never very mature people, and divorce was not their best moment. I have met people whose parents separated and the parents were very pleasant to each other, even kindly. But my parents were really, really hostile to each other, and the family environment became quite unhealthy. Anyway, my mother got “custody,” so to speak, of our dog Sergeant. And Mother didn’t know how to take care of animals very well, and for convenience she used to keep Sergeant locked up in the garage all day. Poor Sergeant! He loved to roam freely through the woods on the base. When we lived on the Navy base before the divorce, Sergeant could go anywhere he pleased. But after the divorce my mother had to move off the base and she took our dog with her. And she put the poor dog in the garage for most of the day, except when he was taken out for walks.

I was seventeen, going off to college, and I didn’t really think about my dog. You know how it is. I would come home from college and go into the garage, and there was Sergeant looking like an innocent man condemned to solitary confinement. He was innocent, and he looked so sad and hurt, as though he were saying, “Why are you doing this to me, I who love you so much?” When I was seventeen, I was a thoughtless person. I knew Sergeant was hurting but I felt that I had my own life to live. But even if I had wanted to help, I had no place to put a dog. He couldn’t stay in my dorm room. So I went back to school and over the spring semester I got a call from my sister, who told me that my mother had put Sergeant to sleep. I remember sitting in the phone booth at the library. In those days, there were no portable phones. I remember sitting in the phone booth and when my sister gave me the news, I started crying. And then, after a while, I went on with my life. Or so I thought.

Oddly, the other day I was sitting on the cushion and all of a sudden I started remembering Sergeant. I was wracked with remorse and I thought, “Why did I neglect him? Why didn’t I do more to get him out of that garage?” Basically, I started reliving the event. I felt a powerful sense of regret and helplessness. What could I do—I was just a kid? And then I got mad at my mother, and then I got mad at my father for cheating on my mother, causing the divorce.

All of this took place almost 40 years ago, yet for a while, it was all here again. As the memories unfolded, I just kept going back to my breath, back into mu-shin. And then, after a while, all the emotional turmoil stopped. My mind became more serene and began to return to the present moment. I could see what had happened, and what had not happened. I understood that everyone had been confused at the time, and that an innocent, loving dog had suffered as a result. I had made a mistake, which I will try never to repeat. There was no way to correct all of this now, but I was truly sorry and my heart had become calm and still.

It’s possible to say that I transcended the whole experience, but that’s not quite how it was. It’s possible to think of Zen practice as transcending the world…transcending the world. But that’s not what happened. I think it should be called embracing the world or accepting the world.

Earlier I was speaking about a person several years ago who came to speak with me prior to leaving the sesshin early. When this person came in to see me, he said, “I have been practicing Zen for 5 or 6 years and I still have fear, I still have anxiety and I’m not enlightened yet.” I suspect that this person was imagining enlightenment as a transcendent state far above ordinary experience--far above our frustrations and our fears and the things that bother us like leaving our beloved dog in the garage and then letting him get killed.

But I myself have had Dai Kensho and I still have thoughts like that, thoughts that just pop into my head, and they still trigger all kinds of emotions. And so you might say, “Why is he still having these thoughts, even after the Great Awakening experience? I thought that Zen practice was about transcendence.”

But actually that would be a big mistake. There’s a part of our life which is this beautiful mind which has no obstructions. You sit down on the cushion and time disappears. The self disappears and you’re in the flow of this beautiful life energy. And these moments are almost divine…godlike. And that is really part of who we are. If you practice Zen, you will spend a lot of time there.

Of course, many people spend most of their time in ordinary consciousness—I would say too much time for their own good. And so we Zen people try to spend more time in that other state, that other mind. We call it “big mind.” And yet little mind is also important and really wonderful.

It hurt me so much to have my mother put my dog to sleep because I loved my mother and I loved my dog. And I still feel personally guilty for not intervening. One might think that if I practice Zen long enough I shouldn’t have to remember these events and feel these emotions. I shouldn’t have to feel these things. Isn’t Zen about getting beyond all of this? Isn’t Zen supposed to make life go more smoothly? If I have had the Dai Kensho experience, isn’t it the case that I should go through life without any problems anymore? I’m always supposed to know the answer. I’m always supposed to be calm. I’m never supposed to be distressed if somebody hurts my feelings.

Many people imagine enlightenment this way, but it’s quite false. Such people have a distorted view of awakened mind. When people come to our meditation hall for the first time, they imagine that Zen is all about bliss. They might suppose that they’re going to sit down on the cushion and be freed from their suffering. Perhaps they’re even going to dwell in a state of godlike happiness. Many people think of meditation this way. You’re supposed to be serene and happy and calm and safe and so on. Nothing will ever bother you again.

And indeed, when people come in and sit down on the cushion, they sometimes feel that way at first. They come on a Monday or Friday night, and they sit down and begin to calm the mind. And the mind becomes very serene, very still, very calm. But if you keep sitting like that for a while, all this mental stuff comes bubbling up to the surface. Maybe you think about the time your mother put your dog to sleep or something like that. Or maybe you think about being rejected by a lover, or betrayed by a friend. Maybe you think about some trouble at work, or the possibility you might lose your job. When this stuff comes bubbling to the surface, some people think, “Well, this Zen is no good. I want bliss.”

But as I often say, “If you could just come into the zendo and sit down on the cushion and bliss out, zazen would be a drug.” It wouldn’t be helping you to live a better life. It wouldn’t be making you more aware. You might as well smoke opium. Somehow we have to work through our problems, not escape or “transcend” them.

Zen is not about reaching a state in which there will be no more problems or pain in your legs. It won’t bring you to a state in which nobody can hurt your feelings anymore. That would be a deeply impoverished life.

There’s a richness to life when both of the halves come together—the radiant mind of formlessness and the bumpy, jolting experience of form. Together, they’re both one life--the part of us that gets tired and has painful legs and the part of us that can experience this godlike consciousness.

On day 2 of sesshin you can easily get discouraged. You might say, “Yesterday when I was sitting my mind was so clear, but now I have all this mental junk to contend with.” If you misunderstand what’s happening in this way, it can create a lot of frustration. You might even leave the sesshin.

It’s a fantasy of ours that these two parts of ourselves are separate. Sitting on the cushion is all about breaking down the wall that we create in our minds between these two aspects of reality, these two aspects of ourselves: this radiant, godlike, boundless consciousness and this other consciousness that gets nervous about this or that, or fears not being loved, or feels guilty about neglecting his dog and so on. Basically, the rhythm of Zen practice is constantly moving back and forth between these two realms that seem so separate. And little by little that separation dissolves. But I’m afraid that will take more than 4 or 5 years. In fact that achievement takes a lifetime of work but I promise you the journey can be very beautiful.

So, if you’ve just had a still, quiet sit like this person I saw sitting so motionless this morning--congratulations!! That’s wonderful!! But another part of Zen practice is struggling with our fears, our anxieties, our regrets. And when you encounter those on the cushion, please don’t think that something is going wrong. It’s all part of one life.

If you come to sesshin expecting blissful, godlike consciousness, you will indeed encounter it sometime. But you’re also going to encounter this other consciousness…this other aspect of yourself that feels trapped, frustrated, disappointed, and so on. And working with both of these is what Zen practice is all about….working with both of these. The payoff for all that work is reconnection with the real world, the world we actually live in.

There’s a wonderful poem by a Chinese Zen master whose name was Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch'ien. The poem he wrote was called the Ts'an-t'ung-ch'i, which is sometimes translated as “An Inquiry into Matching Halves.” The “matching halves” are the two parts of ourselves. In the poem Shih-t’ou says that even if you have had Dai Kensho, that’s not complete enlightenment. Isn’t that interesting? He says that even if you have seen the Source face to face, that’s not complete enlightenment yet. Complete enlightenment is that radiant, boundless awareness plus the pain in your legs, your disappointments, your broken dreams. When those two aspects are completely integrated, that’s complete awakening.

Shih-t’ou says that sometimes we experience the radiance of awakened mind--the Source. Another way to describe it to say that sometimes we’re sitting on the cushion and everything falls away and we’re just in deep mu-shin. Energy is flowing through us and we feel a tremendous sense of serenity. But then you get off the cushion and something bothers you. Maybe somebody put their sandals on top of your sandals, and for some reason it pisses you off. That’s like going from the light into the darkness, right? It’s exactly like you slipped from the light into the darkness.

But Shih-t’ou says that these two aspects—the light and the dark--are actually “matching halves” of a single whole. He has a beautiful line: “Branching streams flow on into darkness.” I love that line because our discriminating minds tell us these two are different and separate. The light flows into darkness. The light becomes the darkness:

The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on into darkness. . . .
In the light there is darkness,
but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light,
but don't see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.

Our discriminating minds say “Two!” But Shih-t’ou says, “Not two! These both make a beautiful life. Both are necessary, both are Buddha.”

If you never come to sesshin and you’re caught up in the extraordinary confusion of life, you won’t experience this wholeness that I’m talking about. But it’s also possible to miss out in another way-- by longing for perfect serenity of mind without any obstacles, wanting to remain in the pure formless realm of deep mu-shin. Isn’t it interesting that even if you go into deep mu-shin, the deepest mu-shin you can possibly achieve, something is going to arise in your mind? Isn’t that interesting? If you go into the deepest possible mu-shin, and everything seems to disappear, and you feel as though you have no body and there’s no time, all of a sudden you’re going to become aware of something. It might be a sound or it might be some embarrassing idea.

You’re in the deepest mu-shin and all of a sudden you think some thought that’s not so lofty and noble. Maybe you think of having sex! “Where did that come from?” you ask yourself. Or you suddenly become aware of your anger or something. You think, “I hate my mother!” Isn’t that interesting? When this happens, you could say, “Oh, I’m still not enlightened. After all this practice I’m still not enlightened. I was in deep mu-shin but now I’ve fallen back into the crap, the filth? I’ve fallen back into the filth.” But, you see, it’s not like that…it’s not like that.

In classical Hindu culture, enlightenment is imagined as a lotus growing out of the filth of earthly existence. Enlightenment is imagined as a pure, spotless lotus. This makes sense when you think of all the stupidity and the craziness, the violence and the selfishness of ordinary life. We come to sesshin to purify body, mind and heart, and that process might be compared to a pure white lotus rising out of the filthy muck. But this is not the Buddhist view. The Buddhist view is that this world is the flower. This world is the lotus, not the muck. The Source is this beautiful enlightened mind. This world, in all its craziness, is the product of that radiance. I hope I’m making some sense. It’s not that enlightenment comes out of the muck, it’s that this beautiful world comes out of enlightened mind. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense right now. But just say to yourself, “Not two!” Ok? Not two.

So we can’t have deep Zen practice without encountering our small mind. And, in fact, without small mind you can’t have enlightenment! When we sit on the cushion, small mind presents itself in a million different ways. Fragments of thoughts and fantasies, images and tunes floating in our heads. Painful memories and wild emotions. All of this offers such a great opportunity to deepen our Big Mind.

Today is day 2. Maybe you have a serene, empty mind or maybe not. Maybe your small mind is quite active. But please don’t think that the activity of the small mind is a failure on your part. If you go into the deepest mu-shin, small mind will return again, including self-consciousness. And you can’t stop it because these two things go together.

Ultimately, the point is not to stop anything but to understand how they go together. How do they go together?

When you start to sit in the morning, it’s natural to imagine that a certain outcome should follow. Later you will come into dokusan and tell me about it. You might come into dokusan this evening and say, “My mind is pure. Not a thought has arisen.” Or you might go into deep mu-shin but certain crazy thoughts come up. They might be thoughts of an annoying or embarrassing or mortifying kind. And you think, “Oh my God! This is a failure. This is a big problem.” But the Zen approach is not to say “This is right” or “This is wrong,” but to ask, “What’s actually happening here?” and “Why is it happening?”

The Zen practitioner should always be saying, “How is this happening?” “Why is this happening?” Not, “Should this be happening?” Let’s face it—it’s happening! Everything is happening just as it has to happen. But let’s try to understand what’s happening.

So, you all are doing a wonderful job. Some of you are in deep mu-shin and some of you aren’t. Some of you are in a godlike, timeless consciousness and some of you are struggling, counting the minutes with sweat on your brow. Some of you are in luminous mind and some of you are thinking about…something you might not want to share with others, perhaps. But whatever it is, it’s all Buddha. How is it all Buddha? That’s what we’re here to investigate. So please, just keep going. You’re doing a wonderful job and whatever happens next is supposed to happen. So let’s see what happens next, Ok?

Luoshan asked Yantou, “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then.

Arising is form. Vanishing is formless mu.

Yantou says, “Whose arising and vanishing is it?”

This is the correct Zen spirit. What is happening, and why?

Severing all entangling vines
Opening up a fox lair
A leopard covers itself with fog to change its spots
A dragon rides the thunder to change its bones
Arising and vanishing in profusion—what is it?

What is it?

[Three bells.]