Ummon's One Treasure

Today's teisho will be on CASE 62, "Ummon’s One Treasure,” in the Hekeiganroku (Blue Rock Collection)


With untaught wisdom he engages in the subtle action of inaction. With unsolicited compassion, he becomes your true friend. With a single word, he kills you and saves you. In one move he lets you go and holds you fast. Tell me, who is it that comes in this way? See the following.


Ummon [Cloud Gate] said to the assembled monks, “Between heaven and earth, within the universe, there is one treasure. It is hidden in the mountain form. You take the lantern, entering the Buddha hall, and take the temple gate, placing it above the lantern.


On the ancient bank,
Who is that
Holding the fishing rod?
Quietly moving clouds,
Boundless waters,
The bright moon, the white flowers of the reeds,
You see by yourself!

At the end of zazen this morning we assembled in the hallway for our walking meditation, and as we moved through the empty hall, we passed the big plate glass windows looking out on a stunning early autumn day after a spell of cold. Through the glass we could see the shimmering leaves, the green of the grass, and the small clusters of students walking by, still in their shorts, skirts and sandals. After sitting for so many hours in the dark, I looked at all of it with hungry eyes—as though every leaf and cloud blowing by were somehow deeply exciting. At least when we’ve been sitting well, we can emerge from the zendo to find that everything has come alive in a way that we might not notice if our minds were still distracted by obsessive thoughts and anxieties.

In spite of all this, it’s possible to describe zazen as a form of withdrawal from the world. The zendo has no windows, after all, and no light except for one candle. We each sit on our zafu and zabuton alone, and as we focus on the breath, you might say that we “withdraw into ourselves.” Anyone who doesn’t practice Zen but might have a chance to observe us in this state would say that “withdrawing” is exactly what we do. No one talks, no one moves, no one looks anybody else in the eyes. What could be more solitary than that—thirty people lost in their private minds, so focused inward that everything on the outside seems to completely disappear?

But if this is what a visitor might think—someone who has never practiced Zen—they would be profoundly mistaken. While it may be true that we “withdraw into ourselves,” anyone who has practiced for a while has probably experienced the intense sense of presentness we notice when our minds grow more open and our defenses are down. On the cushion you might be deep in samadhi, so deeply that even your physical sensations grow quite remote, and then suddenly you become aware of the white noise of the ceiling fan. Or when you are sitting at home, the call of a bird or the sound of the wind might actually feel so intimate that it’s almost part of your own body.

I don’t actually believe that Zen is about withdrawing into ourselves, even if that’s how it might look to someone who doesn’t know better. When beginners come here on a Monday night I ask them to focus their attention on the breath. In fact, I tell that they should try to become completely unified with it. They need to develop a “one pointed mind,” a mind focused like a beam of light on the object of their attention, and if they maintain that focus persistently, the boundary between themselves and the object—whether it’s the breath or anything else—will gradually disappear. That’s not withdrawing but the very opposite:

With untaught wisdom he engages in the subtle action of inaction. With unsolicited compassion, he becomes your true friend. With a single word, he kills you and saves you. In one move he lets you go and holds you fast. Tell me, who is it that comes in this way?

Who is “he” in this passage? Who is it that “comes this way”?

As you may know, some of our members went into New York on Wednesday afternoon to participate in the Occupy Wall Street demonstration—Kritee, Melanie, Sharon, and possibly a few others. I would have liked to go there myself but I couldn’t leave my job that afternoon. Still, I sent them an email of support and said that I was with them “in spirit.” Even though I couldn’t go to Wall Street myself, I have followed the news of the protest every day with a growing sense of excitement, even joy. I have found the demonstration very liberating, as though a heavy weight were taken off my chest. But why? What is it about OWS that could have this powerful effect, not only on me but on thousands of others?

Since the economy fell apart in 2008 I have been increasingly troubled by what I read in the news or learn from my family and friends. My own next-door neighbors are living through the nightmare of having their house repossessed: John, a friend of many years, lost his job in real estate and has been trying to get back into the game while using up his savings to make payments on the house. But he and his partner, Patrick, bought the house at the height of the bubble, and now they owe more than the property is worth. I have watched them suffering in many different ways, struggling to maintain their self esteem and a hopeful outlook on the future. To lose a job in your late 50’s—a job at which you were once excellent—is a challenge of a special kind that most of us would find extremely difficult. Somehow John and Patrick have managed to cope in a way I deeply admire, but I suspect that when they’re alone, the weight of all this is very, very hard to bear.

If you multiply the story of John and Patrick by fourteen million you will get a sense of what we confront today as a society. Even people who have worked hard to find a job often take more than a year to land another one, and it’s likely to pay far less than they used to make. I also know that jobs of any sort are hard to find, and that many college graduates have had to move back home. Some people here in this room today are in exactly this situation, and while they wait for something to turn up, they are beginning their adult lives thousands of dollars in debt.

This is all quite different from when I was young–different and much harder to deal with. In an interview, the poet Gary Snyder once recalled that when he graduated from Reed College in the 1950’s, he went down to San Francisco and found a warehouse job after looking for just a day, a job that paid enough for him to rent an apartment by himself. In our time that would be impossible! It might surprise many of you to know that in the 1960’s, public universities were still free in many states. This was true right here in the New York area at the City University, and also in California, even at a school like Berkeley. A decade later, when I was a student, my year’s tuition was still so low that I could pay it off with a summer job at the princely sum of $3.00 an hour, wages I made while carrying bricks and mixing mortar on a construction site. Not only was college quite affordable, but so much building was underway in the D.C. area that I could find two or three jobs in a single morning, and then I could pick the one I thought was best or most convenient. When I graduated, I had no debt at all, and rent was so cheap that I could pay for an apartment of my own with the money I made moving furniture or, later, cooking in a restaurant. No one could have imagined then that things would turn out as they have. We used to read about the Great Depression in school, but no one believed it would ever come again.

As the months have passed since 2008, I have found all of this so troubling that, without being fully aware, I grown more and more afraid of what the future might bring, not only to people like Patrick and John but to me as well. This fear, this undercurrent of anxiety, has been building up inside of me like a subtle pressure, and every day the bad news has made the pressure a little more intense.

One thing I have noticed about my fear is how isolating it can be. The more frightening the world becomes, the more I find myself wanting to withdraw, turning away from the bad news and looking for security for myself alone. In the course of my own life, I have lost a job several times, and naturally it made me feel a little ashamed even though I knew I wasn’t responsible and had done my work well. Getting fired was something that I kept to myself: on some level I still believed that other people in the same situation would have managed to stay. I haven’t had my house repossessed, but I imagine that most people who go through that ordeal wouldn’t announce it to casual acquaintances or to people on the street. Instead, the pain and embarrassment would be more like secrets we keep to ourselves.

Over time, if we go on living with secrets of this kind, the world seems to contract more and more until we find ourselves very much alone with our shame, fear, and suffering. But it is seems to me that this response—wanting to withdraw into ourselves or to protect only ourselves –is quite forgivable in a society that says in so many ways, “Nobody cares about you.” Our leaders in the government act as though they live in another universe. We all know they are so compromised by big money they couldn’t help even if they wanted to. And the media seem to side by and large with the rich and powerful. Even when we turn on the TV to get away from our troubles, the world we witness is quite unlike the one most of actually inhabit. If you remember the apartment on the TV show “Friends,” did it ever occur to you that a place like that—with an enormous living room and a floor-to-ceiling window looking over the skyline, would have cost the equivalent now of five thousand dollars a month—absolutely unaffordable to people like the main characters, supposedly working in entry-level jobs. I recently saw the movie “It’s Complicated,” with Alec Baldwin and Meryl Steep, and only at the end did it occur to me that a house like one owned by Streep’s character—a California estate in the hills–would have cost ten or fifteen million.

Ordinarily details like these might pass by without our conscious recognition, but I think that they gradually create the sense that our lives are much inferior, and that unless we belong to the 1% we are somehow losers. We get the message in all kinds of ways that these godlike people with their splendid lives of creativity and adventure are different from us. And I think that this message intensifies our solitude, our sense of isolation.

All of this background has helped to shape my reaction to the Wall Street occupation. Having come to feel more and more isolated by a subtle anxiety, I found it very liberating to read about the thousands gathering at the demonstration, people I thought of as like myself, sharing my same fears and anxieties. I felt connected to these people in way that made the weight of anxiety disappear. Instead of wanting to contract inside myself, I wanted to reach out—to be there with them.

This sense of connectedness is extremely powerful. How does Master Mumon put it? “Between heaven and earth, within the universe, there is one treasure.” To experience the world as “one treasure” is to feel the boundaries fall away, whether you are sitting on your cushion, riding your bicycle, making love, or camping out on the New York streets—getting outside the fearful limits of the self and feeling part of something larger. In the Diamond Sutra a disciple of the Buddha asks this question about the future prospects for the dharma: “World-honored One, will there always be men who will truly believe after coming to hear these teachings?” To this the Buddha answers,

Subhuti, do not utter such words! At the end of the last five-hundred-year period following the passing of the Tathagata, there will be self-controlled people, rooted in merit, coming to hear these teachings, who will be inspired with belief. . . .Such people will not fall back to cherishing the idea of an ego-entity, a personality. . . or an isolated individuality.

I think the key word here is “isolated.” When our awareness withdraws and becomes fixed on the solitary “me,” our lives tend to be ruled by fear, and this fearfulness begins a cycle that can gradually overtake a whole society. But when we start moving in the opposite direction, out of the self and into the world, we experience things in a liberating way that could tip the social balance in the opposite direction. Everything becomes one body. “Subhuti,” the Buddha says, “it may be likened to a human frame as large as the mighty Mount Sumeru.”

Connection, not detachment, is what we really want, and what Zen is all about. I am told that word “samsara” means “flowing on and on” through one life after another, endlessly. Some of the Buddha’s early followers thought that the idea was to stop the flow. For them, liberation meant to end rebirth by exiting the world in the ultimate act of detachment. As the Lankavatara Sutra says, “the Arhat, master of the dhyanas, participating in the samadhis. . . passes to his Nirvana.” But then the sutra goes on to compare the Arhat to the Bodhisattva. “For the Bodhisattvas,” it declares, “Nirvana does not mean extinction.” Refusing “to enter Nirvana until all beings can enter Nirvana with them,” Bodhisattvas “are transported by emotions of love and compassion as they become aware of the part they are to perform in . . . the emancipation of all beings.”

Do the Wall Street protestors qualify as “bodhisattvas”? I can’t say for sure. But the “one treasure” state of mind is probably close to what protestors feel when they escape from their isolation and begin to be “transported by . . .love and compassion.” I think that it was this motivation that really drew the demonstrators to Wall Street.

The press, it seems to me, just doesn’t understand. During the first days of the protest, the coverage—if the press covered it at all—tended to describe the participants as incoherent or confused. When reporters asked protestors why they’d come, there seemed to be no consensus except except for discontent with the status quo. Some people simply wanted a job. Some were angry at the banks. Some were anarchists, some were socialists, some simply wanted to reform what they saw as a sound system gone wrong.

The pundits on TV and the radio wanted the demonstrators to present something like a formal list of demands, but they didn’t have any idea that the unity the protestors felt was fundamentally unconscious. “It is,” as Master Mumon says, “hidden in the mountain form.” The oneness that the demonstrators felt wasn’t based on who they were or what they believed. The oneness was something people already share, no matter who they are. Even though they called themselves the 99%, the energy that comes from connecting is , in fact, the energy of 100%. Before we become 99%, or 50%, 10% or just 1%, we are always already part of the “one treasure.” But as soon we try to give reasons or to make distinctions between the socialists and the neoliberals, the anarchists and the environmentalists, our sense of community will disappear and our differences will be all that remains. And then, when look at each other, all we’ll behold will be a crowd of strangers–unfamiliar and possibly even a little bit frightening. The “we” exists before the “you” and “me,” even though we often forget that.

Something like this “we” becomes obvious when we meditate. The sense of connectedness we sometimes feel arises only after we have laid to rest the discriminating mind that operates with words and ideas. Perhaps you came to the sit today with all kinds of problems nagging at you, and for the first two meditation period you just kept turning things over in your mind. The more you ruminate in this way the more likely it is your will feel tense and unrefreshed. But eventually if you keep sitting, you’ll find that you become more relaxed. The troubling details will seem to grow remote, even trivial. Sometimes a deep sense of peace comes over you, a feeling of being at ease with the world. I hope you have had this experience, at least once in a while. If you haven’t had it on the cushion yet, then you’re probably familiar with this state from some activity you enjoy—jogging or hiking, playing music, even driving long stretches in your car. When we have entered this calm, untroubled state, we might enjoy it without being cognizant of what it entails or why it happened.

Why is this state so hard to describe, and why—when we try to grasp what it involves—does it seem to slip away? The secret, I think, is that the “it” arrives when the mind that questions and dissects suddenly turns off, and then we feel a kind of presentness all around us everywhere.

Perhaps it’s a little bit like this. When I first moved to Seattle from the Kitsap Peninsula, the weather was so bad day after day–overcast, gray, and raining– it seemed like the clouds were hanging right overhead. At that time I had to find a place to live, so I was riding buses all over town, looking at apartments and taking note of interesting places. Finally I found a place to live and then, when I went out for an early morning jog, I noticed that clouds had moved away and the sky was going to be clear and blue. I kept running while the sun came up, and as I climbed the hill to Phinney Ridge I turned and saw to my astonishment the mammoth form of Mount Rainier towering over the skyline southeast of the city. For almost a month all I had seen were clouds, and then one morning when the clouds cleared away, I could see plainly the mountain was right there–and had been all along. I think that the discriminating mind is a lot like those clouds. It limits our contact to the wider world, and conceals the vastness that is really our true home. In that vastness we feel connected, free, and safe. But when the clouds close in we become small and afraid.

Modern human beings put enormous trust in the power of the discriminating mind, but of all the forms of consciousness, the discriminating intellect is the most alienating—the one that divides us more completely from the vast presentness that surrounds us. In the Mahayana psychology that Zen inherited from India, there are basically eight forms of consciousness: sight consciousness, sound consciousness, consciousness of taste, smell, and touch. There is a sixth kind of consciousness, the discriminating mind, that compares and contrasts, and a seventh that generates the sense of “self”—the “I.” And finally there is memory, both conscious and unconscious, the eighth form of awareness—the alaya or “storehouse.”

You might think of these eight as the “threads” we weave together to create the fabric of our awareness from one moment to the next. The eight come together like threads on a loom, row after row after row. Sometimes one thread becomes very thick–like the thread of your sound consciousness when you are listening to music. And while you are engaged in meditation, your tactile consciousness might almost disappear—that thread grows very, very thin. Sometimes a thread can seem to disappear, but for as long as we’re alive, the loom will keep weaving the threads into the fabric, the pattern, of our lives.

Among these eight different forms of consciousness, the discriminating mind is unique because it creates a split between the “subject” and the “object” in a way that sense-based consciousness typically does not. Sound awareness, in particular, tends to dissolve the subject/object barrier, and so too does touch, very powerfully. That is why a massage relaxes us and why we sometimes can’t resist the impulse to reach out and touch. Tactile contact dissolves the barriers that the discriminating mind creates. And of course this is also true when people are engaged in making love—the richness of the senses overwhelms the power of the discriminating mind, at least for a little while.

But if someone, say, a philosopher, were to ask you why sex gives humans such pleasure, what could you possibly say other than, “I like it because I like it.” Why do you enjoy hearing music, looking at paintings in the museum, or going for walks in the woods? Why do you take pleasure in shooting basketballs into a metal hoop overhead? You might be able to come up with a reason, but any reason you concoct would be an excuse. The truth is that the discriminating mind is just the tiny tip of an enormous peak whose life is invisible from the top. The senses connect us to the world in ways that we seldom notice consciously, and the largely unconscious world that they reveal becomes the foundation of conscious lives.

Mumon has it just right when he says, “With untaught wisdom he engages in the subtle action of inaction. With unsolicited compassion, he becomes your true friend.” Real wisdom is untaught because it comes from this deeper place. It makes no effort because “effort” implies a false sense of separation. True compassion does not need to be “solicited” because it is the way we already feel when we are at ease in our connectedness.

An event like the Wall Street occupation is remarkable because the participants have thrown aside the rules, trusting in the spontaneity of the deeper, unconscious mind, the mind of the “one treasure.” People aren’t supposed to camp out on the steets. They aren’t supposed to call in sick on their jobs and spend the day waving signs in the air. Before you demonstrate in New York City, you are supposed to obtain a permit from the proper authorities. But so far as I know, no one got a permit. The demonstrators went back to a kind of human unity that has to exist before laws can even work. You can make all the laws you want, but people won’t obey them unless the sense of the “we” is already there. I think that’s what the demonstrators wanted to restore—that sense of fundamental unity in the context of social life.

The way the demonstrators rediscovered the “we” was to assemble spontaneously in response to their isolation. Their action was all the more remarkable because the arrangement of our day-to-day lives has been massively contrived to keep us all separate and unaware of other people’s troubles. And the media, supposedly designed to inform us, actually make our isolation worse by feeding us false images that actively promote envy, fear, and competition. Coming to the city–and to the very heart of financial power–was a way of cutting through the layers of illusion and returning to a reality that everyone knew from their own experience. Yes, the system is unfair. Yes, people really are suffering. No, this isn’t the best of all worlds.

When we sit down on the cushion we try to do something similar—cutting through illusion and returning to the immediacy of our own experience. But the illusions we struggle with aren’t produced by the Wall Street in New York. They are produced by the Wall Street in our minds, the part of ourselves that grasps desperately, trying to protect the illusion of an isolated self. The problem is that even when we make a conscious effort to act selflessly, we wind up recreating that same sense of self. “How selfless I’m becoming,” you might think. “I’m certainly more selfless than the people at work, and more than my siblings have ever been.” The persistence of the grasping self would be comical if it didn’t cause so much suffering.

Since we can’t circumvent the small self by trying to be better people, what can we do instead? The Zen approach is to focus on our experience at its most immediate. If you observe your mind carefully, you will notice that each moment unfolds in a predictable sequence. At first there is just the pure experience as grasped by the senses. In this instant of pure presentness there is no subject or object, no good or bad, no right and wrong. Pure presentness is all that exists. But then in the next instant of awareness—which is known in Zen as a “nen”—thinking begins, using words and ideas.

This morning as you were coming here to sit, you might have observed the maple tree outside, the one whose leaves are starting to change color. Noticing the tree out of the corner of your eye, you may suddenly have felt a sense of elation, even joy, as you connected with it unconsciously. But then you might have said to yourself, “Oh my gosh, the leaves are turning now—how beautiful they look.” Or perhaps you thought, “This change of season happening too soon. Where did summer go?” Whether you looked on approvingly or with a sense of disappointment, your response in words and ideas would create a distance from the pure presentness, a distance produced by the seventh consciousness, the discriminating mind.

The first nen is pure experience. This is what Master Mumon means when he talks about taking the lantern of consciousness and entering the Buddha Hall. But in the second nen, thinking starts; and then in the third nen you can observe an emotional response caused by the action of memory. As you contemplate the fading of the summer, you might suddenly feel sad and deprived. Or you might feel excited thinking of jack-o-lanterns on Halloween and the brilliant pallet of the turning leaves.

Zen meditation might be seen as revolutionary activity in the sense that it turns away from the habits of the past, directing attention to the moment as it actually unfolds. To practice Zen is to keep coming back to the first nen again and again, until we experience things as they and not as they are “supposed” to be. So long as we spend too much time dwelling in the second and third nen, we will feel fearful and isolated. But if we keep returning to pure presentness, we will begin to experience everything as ourselves:

Quietly moving clouds,
Boundless waters,
The bright moon, the white flowers of the reeds,
You see by yourself!

The moving clouds, the boundless waters, the bright moon, the white flowers—all of these can at times become for us almost like a part of our own bodies. We can experience an intimacy that is ordinarily absent from our interactions with the world.

One of our members, Sandy—Kangetsu—told me about an experience she had that I would like to relate to you. She didn’t tell me this in dokusan, where everything remains completely confidential, but right in the zendo at the end of the evening’s meditation. Sandy told me that after sitting on a Saturday, she was walking down Seventh Avenue while running errands in Westfield. As she was walking, she suddenly became aware of a woman approaching her from the opposite direction, and when Sandy focused on the woman’s face, she felt that she was looking into a mirror at her own reflection.

Sandy wasn’t losing her mind—quite the opposite. This was a glimpse of enlightened mind. The great Zen master Han-Shan Te-ch’ing, also known as Silly Mountain, described a similar experience after he had entered into deep samadhi while he was walking—not sitting—in the mountains. At that moment he encountered everything as though he saw his own reflection in a mirror. Later, he composed the following poem:

In an instant of [concentration], this chaotic mind is put to rest.
Internally and externally, the sense faculties and objects
Became empty and clear.

When the boundary between the self and the world fades away, we have actually resolved our fundamental problem as individuals–the problem of our psychological isolation. And when this problem has been resolved, life is transformed fundamentally. This is what Master Mumon means when he says that you take the temple gate, placing it above the lantern. When we experience the world as our “one treasure,” holding the mind in the first nen, each moment can become like a gate, through which we pass in order to go home. And when we get home, everyone and everything will seem to welcome us with open arms.

But of course the problem of isolation hasn’t been resolved for everyone else when we feel connected individually. On the social level the problem remains: this was in fact the recognition that sparked the Mahayana movement. No one can be completely happy and safe while knowing that others aren’t. One treasure really isn’t truly one unless everybody benefits. Making that happen is our practice too, on and off the cushion.

Three bells.