When we cling to the familiar, to this notion of self that we have welded out of thoughts and memories since time immemorial, then we’re identifying with the wrong master. Zen Master Bassui’s essential question was, “Who is the Master?” Who is the one who hears, feels, sees, and talks? Our task in sesshin and in our lives is to put this true master, this “True self that is no-self,” back on the throne. Otherwise all kinds of tricksters and demons break in and take its place.
This brings to mind an image from The Wind in the Willows, the part where Toad is absent from his big beautiful mansion. He’s been arrested and thrown into prison, and all these crafty, greedy weasels pour into Toad Hall and take over. They put on his fancy smoking jacket, they smoke his fancy pipes, they drink his expensive wine, and they trash the place. Ultimately, of course, they have to be driven out for Toad to be reinstated. Of course, we wouldn’t characterize this True Master as having Toad’s personality! – ornary personality or characteristics at all. This is utterly beyond birth and death, good and bad, self and other – beyond all dualities. And yet this is the One who is always right here, this living pulse of our being. Who else could it be?
In Zen the work of putting this practice, this Mu, right back at the center of our being is sometimes referred to in terms of “Host and Guest.” We need to clarify who is the host and who is the guest. “Guest” refers to anything that is changing, impermanent – in other words, to all phenomena. If we put at the center as host what is really guest, if we build our lives around impermanent things or concepts or people, we will inevitably fall into suffering; we will cause suffering because we’re not living out of our deepest truest nature, out of this all-embracing Original Mind. In Dogen’s famous Genjokoan he says, “Carrying this self forward to confirm the existence of the myriad dharmas is delusion. The myriad dharmas advancing and confirming the self is realization.” How many people are able to live their lives without constantly chasing after things, without looking out at things – at others – as objects, with themselves as subject, with no real way of bridging the gap? If there’s no serious practice, no direct Way of turning the inverted mind around, how can one even hope to bridge that gap? This belief in Self and Other is so deeply embedded in our psyches. It is such a fundamentally erroneous view, tossing us about on the waves of desire and aversion, utterly obscuring the essential nature of things.
“All the myriad dharmas.” When “Dharma” is written with a capital “D” it refers to the Buddha’s teaching: the law of cause and effect, “no- thingness.” And when it is written with a small “d” it refers to phenomena, to conditioned things. The wonderful thing is that it’s the same word, and in essence the two meanings are not really different at all: Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form.
Dogen says that by chasing after things, although we seek to confirm the reality of this self-and-other world, this is only delusion. Realization is allowing these “myriad dharmas” to advance and confirm the Self. Right where we are, without budging an inch in any direction, right here, everything confirms this “True Self which is no-self”! Everything radiates out from this mu, from this core of our being. In all these myriad dharmas – in all these particular sounds, smells, sights, feelings, tastes and thoughts, in every time and place – the whole universe is demonstrating the truth of our being. Everything, all these dharmas, are koans pointing directly to this truth in their own unique way: white snowflake, black crow, red carnation. When we’re not centered in our thoughts, then this wondrous dance of Dharma becomes clear. When we see out of this deep well of no-being, we see everything as the Self, as just This. Everything embodies this one Truth, we embody it. “This very body is the body of Buddha.” “Our dancing and songs are the voice of the Dharma.”
All inspiration leaps out of this empty, living core of our being. Our tremendous creativity manifests not just in terms of producing poems or songs or paintings, but in terms of creating this whole amazing universe, moment after moment. And the wonderful thing is , we’re supported in our practice by the deepest forces of the universe. We can go beyond all this resistance that can come up so strongly in sesshin, simply because it is our truest nature to do so. The universe wants to know itself through each and every one of us. Why else are we here, in sesshin? Why else are we here at all?
Martha Graham, the renowned dancer and choreographer, once said: “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and will be lost.” In other words, this unique expression of you, manifesting the truth in your own particular perfection, will be lost if you stand in the way of its unfolding. In one sense this is a truly terrible and tragic waste. And yet, in another sense, even in the blocking of it we manifest it! We really can’t do anything outside of this Dharma. We talk about mistakes, we may agonize over them, but in the deepest sense there are no mistakes. There’s just this Mu expressing itself fully at any particular moment.
In sesshin people tend to beat up on themselves a good deal. And sesshin is really just a magnifying lens of how we operate in our everyday life. This self-sabotage is another expression of resistance. Instead of looking directly into the practice, we get involved with our familiar pastime of self-criticism. And when people are down on themselves, they can be really cruel. We can be so rude to ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t be to anyone else. You hear people calling themselves “stupid,” or “dumb” when they think they’ve done something wrong. We need to honor all beings, including this particular impermanent body-mind we call self. The main thing is not to identify with this limited notion of self. And when we’re judging ourselves harshly, we are clearly identifying very strongly with it.
Dogen said, “The whole existence of all sentient beings is Buddha Nature.” It’s not that we have something “in” us in a dark corner somewhere called Buddha Nature. Rather, “The whole existence of all sentient beings is Buddha Nature.” That means each one of us – no exceptions!
There’s a wonderful passage by Zen Master Keizan, who is formally honored as second in importance to Dogen in the Soto lineage: We chant his name, Keizan Jokin, in our Ancestral Line. In The Transmission of Light, a collection of satori experiences of fifty-three Dharma ancestors from Shakyamuni Buddha to Dogen, Keizan makes the following commentary on the story of Shanavasa’s awakening (and here I’m using Thomas Cleary’s translation):
You may think that Buddhist Zen is just for special people and that you are not fit for it, but such ideas are the worst kind of folly. Who among the ancients was not a mortal? Whose personality was not influenced by social and material values? Once they studied Zen, however, they penetrated all the way through.
There may have been differences in periods of true, imitative, and decadent Buddhism in India , China , and Japan , yet there have been plenty of saints and sages who realized the fruits of Buddhism. Since you have the same faculties as the ancients, wherever you are you are still human beings. Your physical and mental elements are no different from those of Kasyapa and Ananda , so why should you be different from the ancients with respect to enlightenment?
It is only by failure to find out the truth and master the Way that you lose the human body in vain, without ever realizing what you have in yourself.
The human body-mind is considered to be the optimum one for coming to self-realization. To have this discriminating intellect – as much of a pain-producing burden though it can be – means that we are able, as human beings, to realize ourselves. Because of the pain of separation, and because of the sense of our own mortality, we are ultimately impelled to bring to consciousness that which is beyond birth and death, beyond suffering.
Keizan goes on:
Therefore do not regret that you were not born in the land of the Buddha’s birthplace, and do not lament that you have not met the Buddha living in the world. In the past you planted seeds of virtue and formed affinity with wisdom; it is because of this that you have gathered here in this congregation.
How rare it is just to hear the words of the Dharma, and to resonate with this teaching that all beings are intrinsically whole and complete, lacking nothing! Then to practice it, to immerse oneself in it like this in sesshin – what a truly amazing and precious thing. Keizan continues:
This is indeed standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Kasyapa, sitting knee-to-knee with Ananda. So while we may be hosts and guests for a day, you will be Buddhas and Zen Masters all of your lives.
Do not get stuck in objects of sense, do not pass the nights and days in vain. Work on the Way carefully, reach the ultimate point to which the ancients penetrated, and receive the seal of enlightenment and directions for the future in the present day.
Keizan ends his commentary with a verse:
The sourceless river on a mountain miles high
Piercing rocks, sweeping clouds, it surges forth;
Scattering clouds, sending flowers flying in profusion,
The length of white silk is absolutely free of dust.
“Scattering clouds, sending flowers flying in profusion.”
What a shame to get stuck on the rock of self-partiality when this river surges forth, to be unable to dive into the cool waters! This surging forth is our inherent freedom, our spontaneity. This is the “magical power” of our intrinsically enlightened mind.
In a well-known children’s book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, there’s a wonderful illustration of all these glorious, big-toothed, rather benevolent-looking monsters gathered around Max, the little protagonist of the story. They’re all lifting up their big clawed feet in a kind of joyous dance. There’s a great line that goes with this picture, one I’ve always wanted to use in sesshin [laughter], especially later in a longer sesshin when things really get moving. It goes, “Let the Wild Rumpus begin!” . . . We don’t do that enough. We need to hold to the practice, to merge with it, but this doesn’t mean that we need to freeze up and worry about doing things “right.” In fact, that only gets in the way. So much of this worry comes out of our own self-consciousness. It’s one of these rocks we get pierced on. And yet this self-consciousness, that blocks us at every turn, brings many people right here to the mat. It sure brought me. We can’t stand it any more; we sense our true freedom, and we don’t want to live in this straitjacket of self-consciousness any longer. So we finally get seriously to work.
To say “self” is such a false thing, as if there were a “self,” as if it were a noun, something real and permanent. In Buddhism there’s a lot of talk about how misleading language can be. The Buddha used the example of a “horned rabbit.” Sure, we can have the words “horned rabbit,” but where do you find one? Come to think of it, out in New Mexico they have this fictitious creature, part jackrabbit and part antelope, called a ” jackalope.” It’s displayed on postcards as a kind of joke on tourists, the pretense being that there are giant rabbits with antlers somewhere out there in the desert.
The same goes for this whole notion of self; it’s like a jackalope. Where do we actually find this self? If anything, “self” is a verb; it’s the living activity of the moment. As the Buddha so simply and profoundly taught: “When there is walking, let there be just the walking. When standing, let there be just the standing. When eating, let there be just the eating.” But of course we have to experience the completeness of this – the utter no-selfness of this – through and through and through for ourselves, directly. If we’re going to transform our own lives, if we’re really going to fulfill our Bodhisattvic Vows, then we need to experience this “as intimately,” as Master Keizan puts it, “as feeling the nose on our face.”