(Part One of Two, this is a transcript of a talk given recently in Wichita.)
It has occurred to me that stand-up comics are the closest thing we have to Zen masters in our popular culture. The best ones, anyway. Lewis Black. (laughter) The list goes on. A comic's role has probably changed over time, to some degree, beginning with the court jester. Different ones are different. But their role is pretty much to skewer our view of reality, right? And the reason we laugh is because they point out something that is so obvious, once you can hear it, they help you see it.
Speaking of hearing, can everybody hear? I speak a little loudly so that those of us who are getting older have an opportunity to hear. So when you ask questions please speak up a little bit. I am also recording; sometimes the questions and answers are compelling or interesting, at least, in these exchanges. Remember when this recorder used to be about this big, and weighed about eighty pounds? Nowadays they are so small you are mostly in danger of losing them rather than getting a hernia carrying them around.
This weekend we had a lot of ceremonies, which is unusual. I think the robes and the ceremonies are kind of the worst part of Zen. We don't, sort of, want to give them up, because this is the theater, this is what people expect, this is how it looks, right? I mean, if we were in cat-in-the-hat suits, it wouldn't look like Zen. (laughing) Comedians understand this. (laughter) You have to look the part.
My teacher, Matsuoka Roshi — his picture is around here somewhere — when we would go speak of Zen in public, he would always want us to dress the part. We would put on robes and usually a white shirt and tie, western style, because we didn't have all these Japanese accoutrements at the time. He wasn't very high on formality, but he didn't want us representing Zen in a very sloppy or casual way, because it was too important.
He came over in 1939, so 1940, that was before I was born, believe it or not, so, what is that, about 70-some years? And we have seen so many changes in Zen since then, that we're seeing a lot of what he worried about coming true. You know, that there's an over-emphasis on intellectual Zen — reading all the books, then you think you know everything there is to know about Zen — instead of practicing. There are a lot of people who are self-declared Zen teachers, or self-declared Buddhist teachers.
So, some of the formality, there are reasons for the formality. It's a little bit like getting a PhD — a peer review process.
In those days, he was worried about "book-learning," because you could virtually read all of the books that had been translated into English in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, it would be impossible. You could spend the rest of your life, but you couldn't read all the books that have been published in English about Zen. Including a lot of very good things that have been translated from India, China and Japan, that have been translated only in the last fifty years. A lot of the stuff that we have accessible now wasn't available when I started practicing.
Matsuoka Roshi's emphasis was just on our sitting meditation. He pointed out that this is where Buddha learned it. It came from Buddha's meditation. It didn't come from something his teachers taught him. Kind of "do thou likewise" is the main message. You can also do this. If you sit still enough long enough, you'll have the same kind of insight that Buddha had.
Now this is hard for us to believe, right? That sitting still — something so stupid-simple (laughing) — could possibly have any kind of profound effect. But if you think about it, it's very contrarian; it's very anti- — what would you call it — counter-intuitive. It's not natural for a mammal, a hunter-type, prey animal, to sit still for long periods of time, doing nothing. Right? We get very antsy. It's only when you're hunting for prey that you sit very still, (laughing) because you're waiting for the prey to come along. Once they come along, you pounce on them. (laughter)
So this sitting still leads to what is called, in Buddhism, Samadhi. You may have heard this term Samadhi, means balanced state, or stillness, centered state. A cat, dog, chicken, cow, you know, trees, everything is in Samadhi. A cat is in "cat-Samadhi," but when a mouse comes by, suddenly, it's the Samadhi of action. Right? They're after the mouse.
So it's a deceptive thing, because it looks very still, when we sit. Matsuoka Roshi captured this deceptive quality of it when he said, "It looks like a mountain, but actually it's a volcano." If you think about a volcano, what's happening in a volcano, is a caldera is building. A caldera is a sort of bulging of magma, coming up to the surface. It's not strong enough yet to burst through, but it's creating this mound of strength.
We kind of feel this in our stomach, we feel power, it's called hara in Japanese, "stomach power." We feel a kind of strength building there. In the martial arts it's called the ki, in Japanese, or chi in Chinese. So, eventually, like a volcano, it comes through. Something happens, something transformative occurs.
So this is the great secret in Zen, that just sitting still enough, long enough, is the secret. You will undergo some sort of insight; some sort of transformation of your perception, your conception, your ideas. Even your seeing, your hearing, smelling, tasting and touching as we say in the Sutra. In emptiness, they change. Given emptiness, given Shunyatta, or what is called the "true condition of things," which is a dynamic reality. Everything is changing.
Buddhism teaches that our mind (citta) imposes a false stillness on reality. We have to know if something is charging us; we have to know if something is running away from us; we have to know if something is sitting still. Survival.
But when we sit in zazen, we don't need to know that anymore. The discriminating mind, the thinking mind, sitting facing a blank wall, is not very useful. (laughing) Right? We call it the monkey mind. It's like a monkey jumping from limb to limb of a tree, it kind of goes berserk, if you don't give it anything to do, anything to think about.
So you young ladies who came for the first time today, you may have found suddenly, "Aaaah, I'm going crazy!" (laughter) That's the monkey mind. We go through our daily life, sort of postponing everything, mentally. Right? "I'll get around to that." Right now I'm busy; I'm driving, going shopping, or going to go to the movie, or something. And so this stuff accumulates. Unknown to us, it's accumulating all the time, in our life. When we sit down and face a blank wall, and give our mind nothing to do, it's all going to come out — like a volcano. Right? It's all going to come bubbling up, and it's going to be all this nonsense and noise, that's been building up in there, for ever, like a mind-dump. And there it is, and it's just chaotic and it's crazy, and it's not very flattering to ourselves, you might say. (laughter)
But gradually it subsides, eventually the mind settles down and becomes calm. Like a kitten or a puppy-dog, the monkey mind has its limits. It's looking for something interesting and exciting all the time. But it will eventually run its tether out, get tired, lie down, take a nap. When that happens, we're still awake. (laughing)
So-called Bodhi mind or "wisdom mind" comes to the fore. You might think of it as intuition, intuitive mind. That mind you use when you are doing art, when you are doing dance, when you are doing music; where it is not so much a thinking process as it is a gut-feel process.
So that kind of mind comes to the fore, in Zen. And eventually becomes more our normal state of mind, our "new normal." We're more intuitive. We are less analyzing and thinking. We are less worrying. Less planning. Right? Less critical of everything. More accepting.
This is the sort of transformation. It's a balance of the two. You can think of this thinking mind, that we are trained to value — through our education — we get the good grades, get the good jobs, right? We compete. We figure out how to not lose what little bit of money we have (laughing) or how to save money, how to invest, and so forth. That's all very important, and it helps us in our survival. But again, it's useless when we are sitting facing a wall. We're sort of surrendering (in zazen) and giving up (attachments, opinions, etc.); so that's not very useful.
This sort of bodhi-mind, or wisdom mind, background mind... This is foreground mind, you might say (gesturing rapidly with right hand) — very frenetic, very high-frequency stuff, that we are used to doing with driving; and, you know, talking; and texting, at the same time we are driving (laughter); that's all over here. Over here is sort of this big wave mind in the background (gesturing gently with left hand). It's sort of the reason behind the reasons we are here today.
(Shout out to Baker Roshi for foreground-background mind.)
All the reasons we can come up with are over here (right hand). They are all these: Well, I'd like to be calmer. (laughing) I've heard Zen is a good thing. I've read something about Zen. And so forth.
But Buddhism looks at it as that there is a big wave going on behind (left hand), and these small waves are complimentary (right hand) and in synch with the big wave; you know, they synch up. But the big wave (left hand) is the real reason you are here, your life reason, or you might say the deeper philosophical reasons we are here today. We are on the Path, you know, we are seeking something that is missing in our life.
So zazen allows us to slow down, to, basically, a complete stop. Once we have been sitting still enough and long enough, and the breathing, and the sitting posture, and the attention all come together in a unified way, we sort of come to a complete stop. And it's very important, because none of us know how to stop anymore. You know, we're just go go go go go, driven driven driven all the time time time. Right?
Time becomes something measured, and we wonder, Oh, (looking at wristwatch) how long is he going to talk? (laughter) It's already nine-fifteen. (laughing) We could be having breakfast! (laughter) Time becomes something you measure. It becomes something you can lose. It becomes something you can gain. It becomes something you can save. Right? It's a commodity.
But when we sit in zazen we sink into real time. We re-enter real time, which you may remember from when you were a child, you know. Time was different for you (as a child).
Daisetz Suzuki said that the invention of measured time was a wonderful thing, because it allowed us to develop agriculture, you know, linear cause and effect. It allowed us to develop the industrial revolution. You know, time and motion studies, efficiency. And, you know, the reason we have such a rich economy (hoots and laughter); (laughing) when I say rich I mean consumptive; when we have such a high level of consumption; the only reason — it's all based on measured time. It all devolves to that fundamental concept.
If we didn't have measured time, we couldn't even talk to somebody on the West coast. They would be in a totally different time. You know, we have daylight savings time, we have time zones; it's all like we are trying to control it very tightly, because that's the way commerce works. Our school season is still based on farming, you know, farm seasons. It doesn't make any sense at all. So it's very much out of synch. We've gone so far over on the side of measured time, that, as Daisetz Suzuki said, while it was a wonderful invention, it was a great spiritual tragedy, because people took it to be the way time really is.
But when we practice zazen, somebody said, the barriers of time and space fall away. We enter into real time. And because, according to Einstein, space and time cannot be separated, we enter into real space for the first time.
So, this is some of the magic of zazen. It's not something you can readily appreciate, the first time you are exposed to it. It takes repetition. As I always like to remind people, repetition is far more important than the regularity (of zazen). Repetition is more important than duration, how long you sit. It's more important than frequency, how often you sit. Repetition, just the fact that no matter what happens, you keep coming back to it (zazen). In some way or some form, at some time, you come back and sit again.
Matsuoka Roshi said, Don't give up! With his Japanese accent, "Don' geeb op!" "Don' geeb op!" That was one of his main teachings.
So no matter how bad it gets, no matter how unhappy you are; no matter how badly your marriage is working out (laughing); no matter how, you know, how bad the job is, that you just lost, and so forth; you still can sit. And so no batter how bad things get, you always have something you can do. And it always works.
Now, why it works, how it works, that is a book-length type of conversation. Right? It works on physiological levels, it works on mental levels, it works on emotional levels, and so forth. So it's very difficult to go into that kind of detail, in this kind of conversation.
What I would like to do is just recite again, the Zazenshin, which was Master Dogen's. Master Dogen — there is a portrait of him on the window ledge there — he was in 13th Century Japan. We call him the founder of Soto Zen in Japan. Soto Zen actually started in China many hundreds of years earlier. Tozan and Sozan are the two historical teachers (in the 800s) in China. Sozan is the So, and Tozan the To, of Soto. To(zan) is the actual teacher. In the Asian languages, the last is first. We would say Toso, because Tozan was the teacher and Sozan the student. Soto (or Caodong) is the way the Japanese and Chinese say it.
So Dogen brought this form of practice to Japan from China about 1225. His teacher in china was from that lineage. And it emphasizes this so-called quiet illumination, through sitting upright. So Dogen's stress, for his time — and for our time — is on this simple practice of sitting meditation as being the essence of the teaching. This poem is called Zazenshin; that means Acupuncture Needle — you know, an acupuncture needle; anybody not know what acupuncture is? — for Zazen. An acupuncture needle is very sharp, and goes right to the nerve. Hits the nerve.
So I am going to recite it. Last time, I recited it, and I think you just listened. This time I would like to ask you to engage in an oral tradition, where I say the line and you say it as soon as you hear me say it. You don't wait; it's not call-response. You say it as soon as you hear me say it, and see if you can keep up. You don't have time to think, that way.
So Zazenshin: Acupuncture Needle for Zazen. I'll repeat the first line twice, and some of these lines repeat, anyway. I'll repeat the first line twice, so that you can catch up. It's a form of hear-say; as soon as you hear it, try to say it. You don't have to say it loud, but just try to say it, and try to hear and say what I am saying. This is the way the teachings were handed down the first four hundred years or so. They weren't written down anywhere. You couldn't go read the book. You had to go listen. And you had to chant, along with the people, if you were going to learn these (teachings). So I think you'll find it an interesting exercise (based on Shohaku Okumura trans.):
The essential function of buddhas
and the functioning essence of ancestors
actualized within non-thinking
manifested within non-interacting
Actualized within non-thinking
actualization is by nature intimate
manifested within non-interacting
manifestation is by nature intimate
The actualization by nature intimate
never has defilement
manifestation by nature verification
never has distinction between absolute and relative
The intimacy without defilement
is dropping off without relying on anything
Verification beyond distinction between absolute and relative
is making effort without aiming at it
The water is clear to the earth
a fish is swimming like a fish
The sky is vast and extends to the heavens
a bird is flying like a bird
Did I say a fish is flying like a fish? Swimming, I hope. Do you want to do it again? (Yes) It's a little fast, it's very dense. You notice each four-line stanza, the next one takes the last two lines of that stanza, and opens it up a little more, and opens up a little more, and so forth. So it is kind of an unfolding form, of Chinese poetry. So, once more, Zazenshin:
(After recitation): What stood out for you there? What would you like to ask about?
The thing that immediately came to mind, being so used to call-and-response in everything. When I was a Christian it was call-and-response; when I was in the army, it was call-and-response. You know, so, repeating this, I was surprised how much I was keeping up. It was something I had never heard before, and I was still within a second or two of your recitation. I mean I wasn't actually forming the words with my mouth, but my mind was following. And that was really surprising.
Matsuoka Roshi said the chanting is the meaning of the chanting, not the meaning of the words. If we did this chant, the same verse again and again and again — we did it every day, say; we lived in a monastery — it wouldn't be long before we would all be saying it together. If I forgot a line, you would remember. Or if you were doing it by yourself you would remember the whole thing.
So you can see that this is a different way of learning. A different way of using the brain. and using language as sound, rather than having everything written down.
We lost a lot when we got the printed word. Because we lost this ability to actually listen. And to hear. And to assimilate, through hearing. You know, now we say, Well I can always read the book. And most people who are going around speaking have written a book. In fact, it is hard to get a speaking engagement unless you've written a book. (laughter) That you're going to talk about, that the audience can go read! (laughing)
Why is the word acupuncture in the title?
Because it's that needle that goes right to the center of zazen.
What is that needle?
You are that needle! (laughing) You are needling me. (laughter) Where is my kyosaku (stick)? I need the long one... For those of you who don't know, we don't hit you with this. You have to ask. And he's asking.
He's asking! (laughter)
So, anyone else? What did you hear, the newcomers? What stood out for you?
Well, the end. Just like the "fish, swimming like a fish." It doesn't matter if the water is calm or not; the fish is still swimming.
How about you?
Oh, just the fact of non-thinking. I don't know; that just caught my attention, actually.
Actualized within non-thinkng. It refers to, in Fukanzazengi, which is another, the first tract that Dogen wrote down, when he was only 25 years old, maybe 26. When he came back from China, he had students already, and they wanted him to write something they could read when he was not around. Fukanzazengi means Universal Principles of Seated Meditation, or Promotion for Zazen, that kind of thing. And he actually refers to an incident there, these koans — you heard about koans? A koan is (clapping hands), You know the sound of two hands clapping. (holding up one hand) What is the sound of one hand?
It's an illogical riddle that is meant to cast something into your mind that you can't solve with the monkey mind. You know, you can't analyze it or figure it out. So you have to... penetrate it, or go beyond it. Go beyond thinking, or go beyond reason or logic, in order to get it. If you answer that question, what is the sound of one hand? And the teacher accepts your answer, they say the teacher may then say, how big is that sound? (laughter) So there's always deeper, deeper, deeper, right?
So he quotes this incident where a teacher is sitting there in zazen, and his student comes along, and says — and this is unbelievable that you would have your teacher sitting there in zazen, and you would say something to him, you would bother him (laughter) — What are you thinking, sitting there in that mountain-still state? You know, like a mountain. And he said, I am thinking not-thinking. This is all translated, of course, from Chinese. And he said, How can you think not-thinking? And the teacher said, It is not thinking.
Well, Dogen said, this is non-thinking. When we're sitting, we may think, or we may not think. There are periods of time when thinking stops, and you're just not thinking anything in particular — ding-dong, you know. And then as soon as you maybe recognize, Well hey, I haven't been thinking for a while, suddenly you're thinking. (laughter)
But the point is, it doesn't matter whether we're thinking or not. That's not what we're doing. It doesn't have any real influence or effect on what we're doing. Now in school and when we are in projects, some of our thoughts are very important.
(TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONTH)