Today’s teisho is on Case 23 in the Mumonkan:
The Sixth Patriarch was pursued by the monk
Myõ as far as Taiyu Mountain. The patriarch, seeing
Myõ coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said,
"This robe represents the faith; it should not be fought
over. If you want to take it away, take it now."
Myõ tried to move it, but it was
as heavy as a mountain and would not budge. Faltering and
trembling, he cried out, "I came for the Dharma, not
for the robe. I beg you, please give me your instruction."
The patriarch said, "Think neither
good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self
of the monk Myõ?"
At these words, Myõ was directly
illuminated. His whole body was covered with sweat. He wept
and bowed, saying, "Besides the secret words and the
secret meaning you have just now revealed to me, is there
anything else, deeper still?"
The patriarch said, "What I have told
you is no secret at all. When you look into your own true
self, whatever is deeper is found right there."
Myõ said, "I was with the monks
under Õbai for many years but I could not realize my
true self. But now, receiving your instruction, I know it
is like a man drinking water and knowing whether it is cold
or warm. My lay brother, you are now my teacher."
The patriarch said, "If you say so,
but let us both call Õbai our teacher. Be mindful to
treasure and hold fast to what you have attained."
The Sixth Patriarch was, so to speak, hurried
into helping a man in an emergency, and he displayed a grandmotherly
kindness. It is as though he peeled a fresh lichi, removed
the seed, put it in your mouth, and asked you to swallow it
You cannot describe it; you cannot picture
You cannot admire it; don't try to eat it raw.
Your true self has nowhere to hide;
When the world is destroyed, it is not destroyed.
This translation of the koan uses the word “patriarch,”
but the term is not at all appropriate. The word “patriarch”
comes from the Greek version of the Bible, and it literally
means “the ruler of a family.” The word is used
in the Bible to describe the powerful male figures of the
Old Testament, men with wives and children, slaves and servants,
sheep and goats. Like tribal leaders everywhere in the world,
the gained power through the property they owned, the alliances
they maintained, and the fighters they commanded. They followed
the laws laid down by their tribal god.
This has nothing to do with Zen. In fact, substituting the
word “patriarch” for the Chinese word “Zu”
greatly distorts Zen tradition. True, the character for “Zu”
contains a masculine component, but the eminent Zen teachers
weren’t patriarchs at all. They gave up family life
in order to practice the Great Way. They were “home-leavers”
who shunned wealth and power and tried to influence events
through “grandmotherly kindness,” as Mumon’s
comment suggests. They looked within themselves for guidance.
The word “patriarch” is also a problem because
a related word, “patriarchy,” is commonly used
to describe the system of male domination that has kept women
down for so long. I would prefer to use the word “ancestor.”
When I was reading the koan aloud just now, I meant to substitute
“ancestor” for “patriarch,” but I
was trying to read without making mistakes, and so I said
“patriarch” even though I didn’t mean to.
I should go through my copy of the Mumonkan and cross out
“patriarch” wherever I find it. This is a small
detail but it’s important.
According to tradition, Zen was brought to China by an Indian
monk named Bodhidharma. After a lot of amateur research, I’m
convinced that there really was a Bodhidharma. He really did
travel to China and he really was a meditation master of exceptional
ability. A champion of the Lankavatara Sutra, with
its teaching of Enlightened Mind or Buddha Nature, Bodhidharma
left behind a number of writings that people can still study
When Bodhidharma came to China he brought with him an entirely
new approach to Buddhist practice. He already had quite a
reputation in India, and –according to the tradition--when
he arrived in the strange land of China, Buddhist leaders
there arranged an interview between him and the Emperor Wu
of Liang. The Emperor was deeply interested in Buddhism, and
was quite wealthy, of course. He was busily constructing temples,
libraries, and the equivalent of Buddhist universities.
Bodhidharma’s meeting with the Emperor was a great
opportunity for him, and if everything had gone well, the
Emperor would have said, “This Zen school sounds great.
Let me build you a huge new temple.” But the interview
went very badly. The emperor didn’t understand at all
what Bodhidharma was talking about. The Emperor asked, “How
do you practice in the Zen school?” And Bodhidharma
said, “We cultivate ‘vast emptiness.’”
This baffled the emperor. “How can you cultivate emptiness,
which doesn’t even exist?” Their communication
broke down, and Bodhidharma left.
Then he supposedly went up into the mountains, near what
is now known as Shaolin Temple. At that time, Shaolin was
in a rather poor part of China. Bodhidharma went to the backwoods,
we could say, and he lived in a cave. People in the area heard
that a holy man was living in this cave and they brought him
food. Because of their generosity, he was able to do zazen
every day. He sat facing the wall of the cave doing zazen
for nine years.
Now, if you come to China to spread your new approach to
Buddhism, this would seem to be a self-defeating way to do
it. Most people would assume the best way to spread Zen would
be to ask for a second interview with the Emperor. Or, if
the Emperor said no, Bodhidharma could have arranged for interviews
with other rich and powerful Chinese people. If he were living
today, he might write a book, do a promotional tour, and end
up on the Today Show.
But Bodhidharma chose not to go that route. Instead he went
into the remote mountains and practiced zazen. And one day,
amazingly enough, a man—Hui K’o--showed up and
became his first student. And after that, a woman showed up,
and then another man. So Bodhidharma wound up with three students.
After he died, his oldest student, Hui K’o, supposedly
became the key figure in the lineage, though the other two
also had students as well.
Later on, Hui K’o may have been executed by a government
official during the time of an anti-Buddhist campaign. Other
sources say he lived to be over a hundred. At any rate, after
Hui K’o died, Seng T’san became the key figure.
Seng T’san is the man with leprosy who wrote the Hsin
hsin Ming, “Verses on the Heart Mind,” which we
recite every morning. Then came Tao-hsin, then Hung-jen, and
Hung-jen, Zen ancestor number 5, is called Obi here in Japanese.
Obi is the fifth ancestor in the lineage that starts with
Bodhidharma. And the sixth ancestor in this lineage was a
man named Hui-neng.
Originally Hui-neng was an illiterate woodcutter, and by
the time he went to the temple run by Hung-jen or Obi, Zen
had gained a great deal of popularity. What had started with
a crazy Indian man sitting in a cave staring at the wall had
become well known and respected. Obi had many, many students
training under him, and he had a nice temple and so on. Then
this illiterate woodcutter came to the monastery. He wasn’t
admitted as a monk, however, probably because he couldn’t
read. He was admitted to work in the kitchen, hulling rice,
chopping wood, and doing other unglamorous chores.
And yet Hui-neng had already experienced deep awakening,
and when Obi was dying, Obi decided to pass on his authority
to Hui-neng. In the dead of night he called Hui-neng into
his chambers to tell him of this radical decision.
The secrecy was necessary because the monks in the temple
would have found Obi’s choice to be profoundly hurtful.
After all, they had been doing zazen for 20 years and they
had been going through koan training and all the rest. No
money, no possessions, little sleep, little food. Now this
nobody had come to the temple, working in the kitchen and
chopping firewood. He wasn’t even a monk.
When Obi called Hui-neng into his room, he said, “Listen,
I’m going to make you my dharma heir, but when I do,
everybody is going to be pissed off at you, and they might
even beat you up or kill you. I don’t know what’s
going to happen, so I want you to take this robe and bowl
and get out of here, ok? These were brought here to China
by Bodhidharma and given to me by my teacher, Tao-hsin. You’ve
got my seal of approval because you’re deeply awake.
Now go--carry on the Zen tradition! But don’t stay here
a minute longer, because these people will really hate your
guts when they learn what I’ve done.” So, Hui-Neng
left with the robe and the bowl, and went on many wanderings,
and he eventually settled down years later and started teaching
Just as Obi predicted, when the monks heard about this, they
were furious at him for giving the transmission to an outsider,
and for not honoring their many years of hard work. Obi’s
decision seemed totally unfair, even insane.
After Obi went public and said, “I’ve given my
dharma transmission to Hui-Neng and he’s gone,”
the monks couldn’t bring themselves to believe that
Hui-neng hadn’t pulled off some kind of trick or swindle.
They convinced themselves that Obi was old and vulnerable,
and that Hui-neng must have stolen the robe and the bowl.
One of the monks at the temple, Myo, was an ex-general, a
military man. He said, “I’m good at tracking.
Let me go to find this guy and bring back the stolen symbols
of our lineage.”
So Myo left the monastery and, after a long journey, he successfully
tracked down Hui-neng. Hui-neng had chosen to stop and rest
by a stream. He had set the robe and the bowl down on a rock,
and he was washing his face when the general spied him from
Myo, the general, rushed down hoping to take Hui-neng by
surprise. His plan was to grab the robe and bowl before Hui-neng
could even notice, but then Hui-neng saw him. Hui-neng said,
“This robe and this bowl represent the Buddha dharma.
We shouldn’t fight over them. If you want to take them,
But when Myo tried to grab the robe, it wouldn’t budge.
You can image that he was astounded and thought, “What
the hell? How is this possible?” It wasn’t a miracle,
however. Something deep in Myo’s psyche wouldn’t
let him pick up the robe and bowl. That something made these
objects as heavy as a mountain. It was a psychological crisis,
with Myo’s small mind wanting to do one thing, while
his big mind was holding him back. Myo became so alarmed that
he realized the robe and the bowl didn’t actually matter:
“I really don’t care about them,” he said.
“They are just empty symbols of authority. I see now
that what I really care about awakening. I don’t know
what going on here, but you can help me?”
Then Hui-Neng said simply, “Think neither good nor
evil. At this moment, where is the big mind of monk Myo?”
When the general heard these words he had an enlightenment
experience. His whole body was covered with sweat! As he wept
he said, “This is amazing, I had no idea enlightenment
was like this. Do you have any other secret teachings you’d
like to give me?”
To this Hui-neng replied, “There aren’t any secret
teachings. Enlightened mind is right here, all the time.”
So that’s basically the koan, and the advice that triggers
the actual kensho is, “Think neither good nor evil.”
This is a very, very important koan. When we talk about good
and evil, we might be thinking of morals or ethics. We might
expect Hui-neng to say, “Do good, avoid evil.”
Or, “Think good thoughts, but shun evil thoughts.”
Yet this isn’t what Hui-neng says. He says, “Don’t
think of good, don’t think of evil.” What could
Sometime after I came here to New Jersey, I went to study
with a teacher who was a dharma brother of my first teacher,
Takabayashi Genki Roshi. I believe that Genki Roshi and this
other teacher attended the same university and trained with
some of the same teachers in the same Rinzai lineage. Genki
Roshi’s’s dharma brother came to the U.S. in the
‘60’s with almost no money. Somehow he was able
to make a little zendo in his apartment in New York. It wasn’t
a very nice apartment, but he was a true sensei holding zazen,
and word got around about this Japanese master and his group.
Little by little, individual students came to the apartment,
just as they had come to Bodhidharma’s cave. Eventually,
a married couple people arrived to do zazen there. Or rather,
a woman came first and then she brought her husband. As it
turned out, her husband was the CEO of a major corporation,
one of the biggest in the United States. The CEO and his wife
were very impressed with the new sensei, and they helped him
to build a temple. It’s up in central New York State,
in the Catskills. If you want to go there, it’s about
three hours from here. You have to drive up to a town which
is a very remote and rather shabby, if I may say so. When
you pass through the town and keep going, you’ll see
nothing but farms and forests, and eventually there will be
a sign for the temple. You have to turn off the main road
and drive for miles on the temple property. The property includes
something like 1,400 acres.
Once you turn off the main road, you drive and you drive
and it’s all very beautiful--the country road, the ferns,
and the trees. Eventually you come to the temple and it’s
a Japanese-style building on a clear mountain lake, beautiful
and quiet. All you hear is the wind and the birds and sometimes
there’s the sound of a beautiful loon in the water.
Many members of their sangha live in New York, which is of
course quite noisy. It’s wonderful for them to leave
the craziness of Manhattan and drive up to the mountains.
When people from the city go up to the temple to do sesshin,
it must seem to them like a magic land. It’s so beautiful,
peaceful, and still. People from New York can leave behind
all the pressure and noise and they can soak up the quiet
and the stillness.
Doing this sort of thing—enjoying the silence and stillness--is
quite beautiful as an experience, but it’s not necessarily
Zen. There is something wrong with thinking that Zen is about
stillness, peacefulness, and quiet. Please understand my meaning.
The Zen community at the temple up there is quite extraordinary.
They have deep practice. But it’s not because of the
lake, the mountains, the trees, and so on.
Of course, if somebody wants to give our group 1,400 acres
of remote forest, we would definitely accept it, but nevertheless,
such a setting not necessarily the best training environment.
I’m telling you the truth. Zen is not about going up
to a quiet place and soaking up the stillness. Zen isn’t
about silence, and it’s not about a peaceful ambiance.
It’s not about listening to the wind. That’s a
big mistake. If you cling to that sort of thing, you will
create all kinds of new obstacles instead of taking obstacles
Even though I myself love the mountains with their peace
and the stillness—don’t make the mistake of thinking
that’s Zen. What might happen, after all, to people
who leave such a place after staying there for a while? For
a week they can sit listening to the loons calling and the
rain falling. And then, when the sesshin’s over, they’ll
get into their cars and wind up on the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Then it’s HONK HONK HONK BEEP BEEP. GET OUTTA MY WAY!
People talking--BLAH BLAH BLAH. Jackhammers breaking up the
concrete. BANG BANG BANG BANG. And there’s the roar
of the traffic itself.
After leaving sesshin, these people might think, “Oh
no. I’m back in this noise and confusion. I’m
back in this hell of discord.” For such people, the
world might actually become heavier, more difficult. It might
be almost too much to bear—paralyzing.
The world would be split in two between the beautiful stillness
of sesshin and the noisy hell-realm of everyday, big city
life. Such a split is produced by practicing in the wrong
way. If you read stories about Zen, you will probably reach
the conclusion that the great Zen temples were all up in the
mountains, remote from the cities. You can find pictures of
these beautiful temples, like enchanted castles in mythical
mountains. In classical Chinese and Japanese art, there are
many paintings of monks in the middle of the deep forests
or in temples lost amid the clouds.
There’s nothing wrong with monasteries in the deep
mountains or with monks and nuns living close to nature, but
what is nature? Don’t be so sure that the answer is
The stories of the great Zen masters were set in the 8th
century, and this is now, the 21st century. The unfolding
of the universe is not the same from moment to moment. You
can’t be an 8th century monk today. You have to be a
21st century Zen practitioner. If an 8th century monk should
somehow turn up in our time, he couldn’t help anybody.
What we need are enlightened people for a 21st century reality.
This is very, very important.
Looking backward at the past while longing for its ancient
wholeness is unhealthy and untruthful. What the world needs
are enlightened people in this moment, at this time. My feeling
is that Zen is not about going into the distant mountains
and dwelling among the clouds. If you happen to be there,
among the clouds and mountains, please enjoy them! I myself
love to hike to such places. But the Zen mind is much deeper
than the one that says, “This is peaceful, and this
is noisy.” If you’re making that distinction,
you’re not practicing Zen. You’re practicing something
else. And if you go to Zen retreats and you cling to the stillness
and the sound of the wind and the feeling of peacefulness,
you’re going to create a split in your world which is
the very opposite of enlightened mind.
Here, we’re practicing next to State Route 9, so we’re
not up in the mountains. And it gets a lot of traffic. Indeed,
a block from here they’re doing construction, and right
now, you can hear the construction from sunup until sundown.
We’re going have a Walmart next door. If you met someone
from that beautiful temple up in New York, he might say, “Last
week I was listening to the wind and the birds,” and
you could say, “That’s wonderful. We were practicing
Zen too, next to the Walmart. We were listening to dump trucks
and earth movers.” Perhaps that person might feel sorry
for you, but we have a wonderful opportunity to practice very
A person might come to sesshin thinking, “I’m
going to sit on my cushion and enter samadhi. Everything is
going to be still, and then I’ll hear the wind blowing
through the trees.” That would indeed be beautiful,
but what happens if you’re start to sit and then, instead
of hearing the wind and the birds, you hear “BEEP BEEP
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BOOM!” You might think, “God
dammit! My beautiful stillness is gone! This is no good! This
isn’t Buddha mind.”
At that moment you would be divided in two, just like Myo.
The moment would become too heavy to endure.
This is very important: Zen is not about being in the imaginary
8th century world. It’s about being in this world. Which
world? The one we’re in right now, always. Always! Basically,
if you’re practicing Zen desperately seeking stillness,
you’re actually creating a kind of mental illness. It’s
a mental illness because, of course, the world is never really
still and silent. It can never really be quiet enough, or
still enough, to provide you with the peace of mind you imagine
We could practice Zen in a soundproof chamber, right? But
it would have to be totally soundproof. We could have white
noise machines going. As some of you know, I sometimes actually
use one of those machines at the university when the noise
from other rooms might interfere with meditation. I use one
because on that occasion most of the people in attendance
are beginners, and it’s difficult for them to do zazen
at all, let alone with a lot of noise. But for more advanced
practitioners, it’s a different matter. All true masters
will tell you the same thing: “You should be able to
meditate next to a busy street.” People say, “Sure,
sure—someday. But right now I want stillness.”
The truth is that you can’t achieve much if you are
totally at peace. If you could go back in time to 8th century
China or 13th century Japan, you might find a temple sequestered
in a beautiful valley, and you might think, “At last,
stillness, peace.” Then you might go in, get on your
cushion, and start to meditate. But all of a sudden, you’d
think, “Wait a minute, what’s the temperature
in here?” There was no central heating in those days.
If it was 25 degrees out there, it would be 25 degrees in
the zendo. That’s how it was.
I don’t know if you’ve done that kind of sitting,
but I have on occasion, and it’s really difficult. When
it’s really, really cold, you have to sit down on the
cushion and work intensely with your hara, squeezing the hara.
As your breath goes out, your mind becomes blank, and you
have a little peace--for a second. But as soon as you come
back into your body, what do you notice? You’re freezing
your ass off! And then you breathe out again and the whole
thing starts over. Intense cold is very, very difficult to
deal with. It’s actually painful, and it’s inescapable
without deep concentration. So, it’s naïve to think
that people in 8th century China were in this very beautiful
environment free from disturbances . They didn’t have
street noise but what they did have was piercing cold.
Little mind pulls in one direction, big mind in another.
To have your dreams of peace and comfort smashed can be very
disconcerting, and the cold is especially insidious. In Japanese
temples in winter, you’re not warm all day. The one
time you’re warm is when you take a bath once or twice
a week. The Japanese like to take baths, and they take very
hot ones. That’s the only moment of warmth, and then
you’re not warm again even when you go to bed at night.
It sounds terribly cruel, but it forces people to go to a
deeper level of concentration, a deeper samadhi.
Something similar is happening here. You’re sitting
on the cushion and thinking, “Ahh, now for the stillness,”
but then, all the sudden, Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep.”
Then you think, “Oh dammit, where’s my stillness?”
So then you have to drop down into a deeper mind.
When something bothers you, if you look carefully, you’ll
see the event and your response to the event.
By the way, that beeping noise was designed to be annoying.
Scientists conducted tests to identify the most annoying and
piercing sound. The beeping was meant to alert people to a
heavy machine backing up, so the sound can’t be too
mellow or else people would screen it out. The scientists
were looking for a sound you couldn’t easily screen
out, something annoying and insistent.
As a result, when you hear the sound, you have the recognition
most people were supposed to have, which is, “That breaks
my concentration; that breaks my mental stillness.”
Then you have your response, which is usually revulsion, recoiling,
anger, or a sense of injury. And as soon as you see that response
in yourself, you know you’re not in Seng T’san’s
“unified mind in accord with the Way.”
This same pattern will recur in other settings also: event/
response, event/ response. Often the response takes the form
of recoiling or pulling away, or agitation. But the problem
is not actually the sensory input. The problem doesn’t
lie in the event, but in the mental habits, the samskara,
that shape your reactions to the event, even your physical
reactions. This is crucial to recognize.
You might be freezing on the cushion or you might be struggling
with noise. You could try to solve the problem by leaving,
but that won’t solve the problem in the long run because
even when you get home, you’ll find that something else
Short of finding a soundproof room or a trouble-proof world,
which fortunately doesn’t exist, you’ve got to
get to a deeper mind, and this is perfect training. When you
are irritated in some way, you need to be able to respond
to the event with a mind as placid as a windless pond. And
you can do it! You can do it, and you will do it. Just keep
When something bothers you, you just have to go back to your
breath. You squeeze your dantien, your hara. You follow the
breath out and at the end of your breath, your mind is blank.
Everything will disappear. But then, as you start to breathe
in, you’re going to become aware of your surroundings
again, including whatever was troubling you. But then you
go back to the breath and back to the blankness. Eventually
you’ll stop feeling agitation or revulsion or annoyance.
You might think of this as de-conditioning. Your mind will
become very serene or still. In fact, your concentration will
be very deep, very stable. This is how it’s done.
In some ways, annoying circumstances like a very cold room
or a noisy environment are perfect for good training. Many
people have a hard time getting out of their thoughts. If
you’re too comfortable, or the setting is too relaxing,
you can easily lose yourself in daydreams. But if it’s
uncomfortable, you have to do the work. And that’s the
best situation in the world. Zen masters in Japan used cold
very skillfully to force people to enter the “unified
mind in accord with the Way.” In freezing cold there’s
nothing you can do but get out of your small self. Other irritants
can be just as effective.
If something’s bothering you, you need to remember
that the event itself is not the problem, it’s your
conditioned response. In other words, it’s karma. To
clear away your karma, you should go deeply into mu-shin.
Eventually you will find that you have an imperturbable mind.
You have an imperturbable mind. When you find it, it’s
Of course, once you find it, something else will perturb
you and will have go deeper once again. Eventually, you will
be able to reach that imperturbable mind with great regularity
and for long periods of time. And when you’re there,
the whole world could be going crazy around you, but your
mind will be as still as a pond with no wind. The noisier
it gets outside, the quieter you get inside.
This is what the general discovered when he encountered Hui-neng
in the dispute over the robe and the bowl. The imperturbable
mind of no-mind. The solution doesn’t lie in an object
or in a setting. If you’re clinging to form, you can’t
be liberated. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says
He who seeks me by form,
He who seeks me by sound,
Wrongly turned are his footsteps.
The most beautiful shapes or sounds in the world can’t
liberate you. When you look out the window and see beautiful
trees, that won’t help you to awaken. Many people practice
that kind of spirituality, however. They go seeking beautiful,
spiritual vistas. I myself like to find beautiful places in
nature. I go hiking and say to myself, “Wow, a beautiful
mountainside! What a gorgeous lake!” When this happens,
I feel very happy, but this is not the deepest mind. It’s
still the discriminating mind, let’s face it. I like
to go to museums too. I’ll see one painting and say,
“Oh, exquisite!” Then I’ll see another and
say to myself, “Not so good.” That’s not
Buddha mind. On these occasions, I’m just playing around
in small mind. It’s fun, but it’s not liberating.
Unified mind doesn’t pick and choose. It doesn’t
say, “I’ll unify with this but not that.”
It doesn’t say, “This is a natural sound, this
is an unnatural one.”
The desire to practice Zen as it was practiced in the 8th
century on the distant mountaintops is also a small-mind desire,
like preferring one artist to another. It’s very important
to practice Zen in the world as it is right now, because the
universe is unfolding, and we have to be one with it.
I don’t mean to suggest that the destruction of the
natural world doesn’t matter. The American way of life
is incredibly wasteful and destructive. I’m not saying
that a Walmart is just as good as a mountain covered with
trees. It’s not! What I mean is that we can’t
deal with challenges of our time by holding onto fantasies,
or retreating into dreams. We need to find the imperturbable,
indestructible awareness, no matter where we are. “Think
neither good nor evil.”
Zen is all about finding this imperturbable mind. If it doesn’t
exist, we’re wasting our time here, and it’s all
a fraud. If Zen is about going to a mountain where it’s
quiet and listening to the wind, then it’s a fraud.
If you offer me 1,400 acres, I’ll take them, but Zen
is not about clinging to a beautiful mountain lake, clinging
to the cry of the loons, clinging to the sound of the wind.
The Buddha said the same thing in the Diamond Sutra:
“He who seeks me through form, he who seeks me in sound,
is going in the wrong direction.”
When something annoys you, you will feel a certain kind of
pressure. The pressure could be coming from the sounds: “Beep
beep beep.” Or it could be caused by pain in your legs,
right? Pain too is very annoying. You think, “I don’t
want to be in this moment, I want to be in another moment
where there’s no pain.” But Zen is not about picking
and choosing, it’s about being one with the universe
as it unfolds right here in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, on
the 22nd of October 2008, next to the Wal-Mart construction.
That is Zen right here and now.
If Zen can’t be practiced deeply in such a setting,
then it’s all a fraud. All of our talk about a unified
mind is pure BS. If we want only to unify the mind with what’s
nice and avoid what’s not nice, and that’s not
Buddhism, and it’s certainly not sesshin. The word “sesshin”
itself means “unifying the mind.” But unified
Somebody came here to sesshin and had to leave, and I was
sorry to see the person go. The person said to me, “I
have circumstances that require me to leave.” Then the
person said to me, “But I would like to have dokusan,
even though I can’t stay now. Could we have dokusan,
you and I, after a Saturday sit?” And at first I said
yes, sure, but then I came in and sat down on the cushion
and realized that I gave the wrong answer. So as the person
was leaving I went back and said, “I’m sorry but
I can’t do dokusan with you. I only do dokusan at sesshin.”
If you like, you can meditate once a week or twice a week,
but that’s not really Zen practice. It’s some
kind of practice, and your life belongs to you, but it’s
not Zen. Zen practice is sesshin. This is why I don’t
do dokusan outside of sesshin, because that’s not Zen.
It’s some kind of practice, but it’s not Zen.
The way of Zen is sesshin, and the way of sesshin is finding
a unified mind in accord with the way.
I hope you don’t think I was unkind to that person.
I was trying to communicate something about Zen as I understand
it. It’s so important to see what makes sesshin special.
Some people might say, “I don’t like sesshin because
I never get enough sleep,” but that’s not a unified
mind. When you’re tired, you should become one with
the reality at that moment. When you’re in pain, you
should become one with that. But such a state of mind can’t
be achieved in an hour. We’re going to sit nine hours
today, and we’re going to unify, unify, unify, unify.
And the mind is going to become very deep and clear and still,
even if everything around us goes totally crazy.
If you do that for five days, you will have this beautiful
mind. There will be no obstacles in any direction. That’s
the goal, at least for now. Please notice that I didn’t
say we would have a perfect world, but a world where there
are no obstacles.
Everybody here today is doing a wonderful job. You’re
here at sesshin, and the universe is unfolding as it has to
unfold. Everything is happening just as it has to happen.
It can’t be different from this. An unhealthy mind says,
“This is not the universe I want.” But everything
is unfolding as it has to unfold. We can’t control what
is happening but we can choose how we will respond. We can
get angry, disappointed, bitter, frustrated. We can treat
reality like a piece of chalk screeching across the blackboard.
Or we can deal with things that frustrate us by going deep
into blank mind, deep into mu-shin.
Linji—Rinzai--used to tell a story about a magical
goose called a hamsa. In Indian culture, the hamsa
is a magical goose or swan. Saraswati, the goddess of learning,
rides the hamsa. In Vedic times, people believed that the
hamsa could fly from the earth up to Surya, the sun god. In
the Upanishads, the hamsa is a symbol of the highest awakening.
Like the Chinese dragon, the hamsa can walk on the earth,
swim in the sea, and fly to the heavens. Do you see how wonderful
it is? At home everywhere.
According to Linji, the hamsa has another power as well,
and it’s this. Let’s say I have a bowl of fresh
milk, very nourishing. But then I take some poison and I put
that poison in the bowl of milk. That’s our world today—we’ve
poisoned the milk that was meant to nourish us. But the hamsa
is able to put its beak into the milk, and it has the power
to drink all the milk while leaving the poison safely behind
in the bowl.
I love Linji, and I love his story of the hamsa, because
that’s what Zen is like. Poison and milk are all mixed
together in this world. But we can drink just the milk. Even
in an unhealthy civilization, we can be healthy. Even in an
unnatural society, we can be natural. This is Zen.
Don’t you want to be a hamsa? I do! A hamsa can be
sitting on the edge of the New Jersey Turnpike and be as calm,
happy, and compassionate as if it were nesting on the beach
in Kauai. In fact, not much can be achieved on Kauai, but
a great deal can be achieved here today. So please understand
that this is a great opportunity to unify your mind. But with
what? Unify with what?
You cannot describe it; you cannot picture it;
You cannot admire it; don't try to eat it raw.
Your true self has nowhere to hide;
When the world is destroyed, it is not destroyed.
The challenges that life presents you with, here and off
the cushion, will become the most nutritious food if you just
practice in the right way, and the key is mu-shin. The key
is mu-shin. I don’t just mean the mu of inner stillness
and quiet, although that stage is essential to reach. There's
another aspect of mu you will encounter if you stay there
long enough--the mu that pulses with life-energy. If you use
mu-shin to clear away all obstacles—all your likes and
dislikes--eventually you will feel something like the sun
rising in own body, pulsing with life. When this happens you
become what Linji called “the person of no rank.”
Not “miss” or “mister,” not “doctor”
or “professor,” not “president” or
“Chief Executive Officer.” In the koan, Hui-neng
calls it “the original self.” In his Verse,
Mumon calls it "your true self." Of course, “person”
and “self” are just metaphors.
Hui-neng says to Myo, "Think neither good nor evil.
At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk
Who is the one that thinks “good” or thinks “evil”?
Or rather, where does the thought of “good” or
“evil” come from? The French philosopher Descartes
said, “I think, therefore I am.” But actually
the “I” was not the source of his thinking, only
one of its many projections. Where does this notion of the
“I” itself come from? Please investigate. Zen
is all about using mu-shin to investigate your own direct
Just now, as I was droning on and on, I noticed somebody
seated across from me doing zazen as they were listening,
or not listening. I saw their hara, their dantien,
their hara, going in and out, in and out, in and
out, and I thought “Great! Real practice!” I was
just so happy to see that. Keep going, you’re doing
a wonderful job.