Today is December 19, 2021, and this teisho this morning is going to be about faith, doubt, and determination. Most of us have run into those three, the three so-called essentials of Zen practice, if nowhere else then in Yasutani Roshi's introductory lectures, which of course are in "The Three Pillars of Zen." And the way Yasutani presents these three, working from memory here, is: faith is faith in the Buddha's awakening, and from that, of course, faith in the possibility that we ourselves can see the truth, can live in truth.
And these three sort of affect each other. So when you have that faith, then you're sort of forced to look at the fact that our lives are anything but perfect, anything but enlightened. We're full of delusion and pain and despair. And there's so much suffering that we see around us.
This was the big question that Zen master Dogen dealt with: 'If we are already all perfectly enlightened, why do the masters have to sweat blood and tears in order to realize this?'
And then there's just the basic existential doubt of 'Where did I come from, and where will I go?' Facing up, when it's presented to us, to the reality of our own death, our own demise. And if we have strong faith and strong doubt, then from that comes the determination. If we believe that we can see into this puzzle, this dilemma, there is the motivation to do the work.
But a lot of times when we're first introduced to these three, and even later in practice, for sure, it can be a little daunting because many of us don't have really strong faith, or we have difficulties in so-called "rousing the doubt sensation." Or we look at our behavior and we say, 'Where is the determination that the masters say is necessary?' So it's important to understand that these are qualities that emerge from practice, and not to feel inadequate. And more than that, not to feel called on to sort of gin up something that you don't yet feel. It's good to examine them. And that's what I want to do this morning and maybe help people, help myself, to understand them a little better.
So with regard to faith: Zen practice, I think right on the website we say it's not a belief. This is the school of direct experience. And in English we have these two words, belief and faith, and we can make a distinction there. We believe things because others have told us. We have faith when we know for ourselves, at the very best when we have the intuition that 'Yeah, yeah, I think this makes sense.'
I remember early in my own practice, when I was reading every Zen book I could lay my hands on (at the time there weren't as many as there are today, of course), but I remember thinking, 'This explanation of reality makes sense to me. This could be the way things are. It's not me here looking at the world out there. It really is all one.' I didn't know it. I didn't see it directly. But it felt right. It felt like, 'Yeah, this could be the way it is.' And just that tentative faith was enough to get me to come here to Rochester and get going with a practice.
We don't need to take anything on just because others have said that's the case. It's not necessary, for instance, in practicing Zen or Buddhism, to necessarily believe in rebirth. We may come to believe that. We may come to think, 'Yeah, that explains a lot of things that aren't well explained any other way. I think it's true.' For some people, they're convinced, and that's great. Someone once asked a Zen master, "What happens to a Zen master after he dies?" And the master said, "I don't know." And the questioner said, "Well, you're a Zen master. How can you not know?" He said, "Well, I am a Zen master, but not a dead one."
The Buddha famously said, "Oh, monks, just as a goldsmith tests gold by rubbing, burning, and cutting before buying it, so you should examine my words before accepting them. And not just out of respect for me." So this reliance on experience, on direct experience, goes back to the Buddha. It's not just a Zen thing.
I read an account, something from a teisho, I guess, that James Ford gave. I don't know if everybody knows him, but he's a Zen teacher, I think in the Yamada school, but he studied early on. He began his Zen practice with Peggy Kennett, or Houn Jiyu-Kennett I guess was her Dharma name.
And he says this: "Among my memories of my youth studying with the late British-born Soto Zen priest Houn Jiyu-Kennett was early on asking her a question. I'd been practicing for a couple years at a branch of the San Francisco Zen Center. But this was my turning point from something I felt pretty serious about to what would become the bright thread running through the whole of my life. The question was, 'How much faith do I have to have to do this?'
"It was a real question. To be honest, I didn't have a lot of faith, as I've said. I'd left my childhood fundamentalist Christianity. And while I'd flirted with Vedanta (that's of course a Hindu school), while I'd flirted with Vedanta, I had a lot of trouble with any assertions about reality that moved too much from the observable, the measurable, the quantifiable.
"She was a large woman with a quick smile and eyes that I felt cut right into the center of my being. She smiled. She looked and she replied, 'All that you need to believe is that maybe, possibly, you can learn something.' And that was my mustard seed, that tiniest of things. As it turns out, she was right."
It reminds me of something I've talked about before, my turning on to begin the path of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous. It began with a conversation with my doctor who told me, when I was thinking about it and thinking that's something I didn't need to do, "Well, you know, you might learn something." And that sparked, 'Yeah, yeah, I could learn something.' And I like to learn things, he says that "tiniest of things."
So how do we go about finding out what's true, rather than just taking it on someone else's word? I want to read again, something I've probably read five different times, from Anthony de Mello, the Jesuit priest. This is a different version of it than I've seen before.
He says, "There is another way besides laborious self pushing on the one hand and stagnant acceptance on the other. It is the way of self understanding. This is far from easy because to understand what you are requires complete freedom from all desire to change what you are into something else. You will see this if you examine the attitude of a scientist who studies the habits of ants, without the slightest desire to change them. He has no other aim. He's not attempting to train them or to get anything out of them. He's interested in ants. He wants to learn as much as possible about them. That's his attitude.
"The day you attain a posture like that, you will experience a miracle. You will change effortlessly, correctly. Change will happen. You will not have to bring it about. If what you attempt is not to change yourself but to observe yourself, to study every one of your reactions to people and things without judgment or condemnation or desire to reform yourself, your observation will be non-selective, comprehensive, never fixed on rigid conclusions, always open and fresh from moment to moment. Then you will notice a marvelous thing happening within you. You will be flooded with the light of awareness. You will become transparent and transformed."
It reminds me of the Third Patriarch, "The great way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose," cultivating the ability to just open our eyes and see what's in front of us, not get sidetracked. To do that we have to start from where we are; we have to be okay with who and how we are. And when we begin to take that on, so-called feeling comfortable in our own skin, it's a huge relief.
We're not being called on to manipulate ourselves into some difficult-to-attain posture, either physical or psychological. To let go of worrying about our performance. The only thing we want to think about with our performance is, 'Am I paying attention right now or have I drifted away?' All the rest is obstructive. It's obstructive enough to aim for some sort of effect. But then when we pile on top of that concern with how well we're doing that, then we're really messed up.
The more we let go of, the more faith grows. We have faith in our practice, faith in our ability to turn to this moment and see what needs to be done. We no longer need to step outside of our lives and think about it. There's a place for that, of course, but it doesn't become our default reaction. Gradually we can listen, look. That willingness, that habit of attention is our faith.
Okay, so that's faith. And then doubt: I'm going to read from an article that just appeared in "Buddhadharma," by Guo Gu. He's a Zen teacher, also an academic teacher at the University of Florida, I think, no, maybe Florida State, anyway down in Florida, one or the other, actually the teacher of a friend of mine and a disciple of Sheng Yen, the late master, late Chan master Sheng Yen.
And this is an article, this "Buddhadharma," let's see, it's from this winter 2021. So it's just come out. And the title of his article is "The Practice of Wonderment." You'll see in this that, basically, he's using the word wonderment in place of doubt. Either way, it's a translation of a Chinese term, which he mentioned somewhere in here. I kind of like that, the word wonderment, because it gets some of the flavor of the perplexity, the intrigue, the interest that comes when we start looking into what this is, who we are. It can also be a little awkward, though. It's a funny word, wonderment, so sometimes I just got to change it to doubt.
And he begins by talking about wado practice. Wado, for people who aren't familiar, is a word that means sort of the nub of a koan. It literally means the source of spoken words. "Do" means source and "wa" means spoken words. And when we're working on a koan, especially a breakthrough koan, the student boils it down to just the wado.
He says, "What is the source of spoken words? Why do words matter so much to us? Why do we let them define us? How is it that thoughts, feelings, and ideas emerge anyway? Meditators are all too familiar with the coming and going, rising and ceasing of wandering thoughts and feelings, the birth and death of each moment."
Sometimes we're not familiar enough. When we get caught up in them, we don't notice what's going on. But that is one of the first fruits of practice. It's realizing what a mess our minds are.
He says, "But where do thoughts come from? Where do they recede? What is it? The wado points to this source, this abyss of the unknown. Something unfathomable is present in us, and it cannot be described through words. The site of awakening is where all the roads of rumination and story-making are cut off. Any of the names for this," he goes through a whole bunch: Buddha-nature, shunyata (which, of course, means emptiness), nirvana, etc., "are just dead words. What is it that lies before these notions? What is it? This is the meaning of wado.
"Another critical aspect of wado practice is that it evokes a sense of not knowing, or angst, that mirrors the not knowing and angst we have toward the great question of birth and death. Like Shakyamuni Buddha's great wonderment and spiritual quest to resolve the anguish of birth and death, our own practice directly confronts this wonderment and quest for resolution, not through words, discursive reasoning, or ruminations, but by making the question itself the center of our spiritual practice."
And then later on he says, "When using this method, one must cultivate a decisive sense of wonderment." And here he gives the Chinese Yijing, the Japanese gijo, a sense of doubt, sense of wonderment. "The key is to never rely on any intellectual understanding, personal experience, wit, reason, logic, or even any Buddhist teaching. Everything must be put down. Simply bring forth the sense of not knowing with regard to the critical phrase, until the sense of wonderment becomes so great that it shatters into awakening.
"As the essence of the wado method, this wonderment is the gateway to awakening and liberation. All wados point back to this not knowing. Great wonderment or great doubt is non-conceptual, yet potent and all consuming. Ordinary people do not generally feel this sort of wonderment because they are too occupied with words and ideas, all of which are just fabrications, derived from delusion. Even though there will be instances in life when we are inevitably confronted by the question of life and death, most people will try to insulate themselves from these situations or distract themselves with other activities to avoid facing this existential concern."
Actually, this is a legitimate Buddhist practice, meditating on our own death, imagining oneself as a corpse. Actually, I've done it a little bit; it's a good practice. Things get real. Interestingly enough, Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian sage, who had a big awakening at the age of 16, what precipitated it was a sudden sense that he was about to die. He lay down, made himself perfectly still, and tried to see what it was that was going to die. Out of that wonder, out of that question, that existential angst, came his great enlightenment.
He says, "The wado intentionally aggravates our existential concern and brings this wonderment into clear focus, leading to an abiding sense of not knowing that eventually lodges into the depths of our psyche. When there is great and all-consuming wonderment, or great and all-consuming doubt, with regard to life and death, there is great awakening. Small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening." He says, "When the flavor of doubt kicks in, genuine investigation begins and wandering thoughts will vanish."
And the great thing about raising the doubt sensation, having that come up, is it really does focus the mind. When you're totally involved in solving an unsolvable problem, the mind falls silent. The whole technique was devised in Zen in order to raise this question, this question that came naturally to Ramana Maharshi and maybe to many of the earlier Zen masters.
He says, "Wandering thoughts will vanish, but still the sense of wonderment may be inconsistent, sometimes present, other times not. Therefore, intensive retreats may be necessary, which will provide occasions for practitioners to dive deeply into the doubt, while being supported by the community and the teacher. This is a precious opportunity. Under these conditions, the wonderment may become all consuming."
Guao Fung described the workings of the wonderment in an intensive retreat setting like this; this is a Chan master. "In this way, walking is just this ball of doubt. Sitting is just this ball of doubt; putting on clothes and eating rice is just this ball of doubt. The doubt reaches a point where no efforts are wasted. And it is at this point that one gains power. From morning to evening, from head to toe, the doubt sensation becomes a single pervasive seamless piece. Shaken, it doesn't waver. Nudged, it doesn't leave. Radiant and potent, it is always present. It is like a boat that flows with the currents without the need for your hands to guide the oars. This is the occasion when the wonderment gains power, or in other words, one comes to awakening."
Further on he says, "The teacher must help the student build a solid foundation, weed through the decades of vexations and distractions, and eventually elicit and nourish the student's profound spiritual wonderment."
So this is a process. This is not something that many people bring to practice in the very beginning. But it is something that can develop over time if we're serious and if we have some faith. We just keep doing the experiment.
He says, "The student needs a good foundation in Dharma practice, meaning that they are able to connect with their bodies, be relaxed and grounded, and expose the undercurrent feeling tones that shape their experiences and perceptions in daily life."
So feeling tones: things like resistances, automatic negative thoughts, all the distractions that grab our attention and take us off the practice need to be exposed. We need to see them.
"Because many of our subtle views and feelings are biased, erroneous, or skewed by self referentiality, it's important not to be swayed by whatever happens to arise in us in any given moment."
As they say, 'Why believe what you think?' Or even more, 'Why take for real what you feel?' One of the points that Anthony de Mello makes is "People say I'm depressed." He says, "No, there's depression in you. You're not the depression." We have this tendency to identify with any strong feelings and well up. The more we can have a certain distance from them, the more we're free to move, not to remain stuck in anger or despair.
One more comment that he makes right at the end is he says, "Many believe that the Chan method of silent illumination has nothing to do with the wato." That is, if you're not working on a koan, people believe there is no place for the doubt sensation. He says, "This is wrong. Faithful practitioners engage in practice precisely because deep down they are driven implicitly or explicitly by the wonderment of birth and death. In Chan, this is called the fundamental investigation. When one sits in silent illumination, wonderment exists in that embodied experiencing of wakeful clarity. Even though a silent illumination practitioner is not explicitly asking a critical phrase, that doubt, that fundamental investigation is present. And doubt or wonderment sooner or later leads to awakening."
Another take on this that I thought was really helpful for people who are trying to sort of negotiate this whole question of "What if I don't have any questioning that comes up for me? How can I practice?" Often, Roshi's advice to people who say, "I'm working on a koan, but I don't have this strong feeling of doubt" would be, "Just become one with it. Just let the mind go still." And out of that will eventually come a question about what this is.
Even in the beginning and in introductory workshops, we talk about setting down the snow globe, letting the mind settle, letting the thoughts fall away. When we do, a lot of things come up that you can't get at by just thinking and trying to put on an attitude.
What John Tarrant says (he's another Zen teacher; he was a student of Aitken Roshi's), he says, "Meditation is not hard to learn. Getting started is as simple as sitting down and noticing how it is for you. You don't have to sit in a certain way. Although if you start to love it and want to do it more, it may help to figure out how to get comfortable so your body isn't bothering you. Just sit. Sitting is a method for seeing what the world is like without believing your usual stories about it. When you sit, you make a home for this time. You accept this moment, and such a home has no end."
It's so important not to be continually thinking about when a round is going to end, how long we're sitting for. To let the moment just open up and swallow all our thoughts of time. He says, "A place to begin is with the body, the good horse that carries you around and which is so often neglected. You don't assess the body, you just listen. You feel your life in your body. If the mind needs a place to rest, then you can let it rest on the breathing. The universe opens and closes with each breath. There is no need to add any special thoughts to the universe. There is no need to try to achieve any special states of mind. You notice what you notice. If you are bored, that is fine. If you are sad, that is fine. If you're happy, that's fine. If you're frustrated, that is fine. Out breath, in breath, out breath, in breath.
"For the time of the meditation, nothing is required of you. There is nothing you can fail at and nothing to accomplish or achieve. You do not need to demonstrate your worth; you are worthless because you are beyond worth. Your value cannot be measured." I'm reminded of the saying, "Some attainment is the jackal's yelp. No attainment is the lion's roar."
He says, "It is not necessary to improve yourself, your state of mind, or your skill at meditation. You are not moving from one place to another on a scale. You are throwing the scale away.
"When you accept this moment, no judgment, no scale, you may find that it has no flaw. Nothing is wrong. And you may find that you too are perfect in this moment. Noticing has a healing power all by itself. For now if you just notice, the world will lead you. The bare sense of what is happening can come as a gift."
When we take away our sense of having to do something, we take away our feeling that 'I need to keep an eye on myself.' Practice becomes wonderful, delightful. It's something we want to do, such a difference, finding a way where we're not pushing against ourself, the body relaxed, the mind at ease, accepting how things are. From that state, we can do so much good, in our own lives and in the lives of people around us. Anybody who can accept themselves thoroughly has the ability to accept others.
I think the usual Western notion is 'Okay, we need to accept others and then be tough on ourselves.' But it never works out that way. There's nobody more irritable than a saint. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, "Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything, live the questions now."
So that leaves the third essential, which is determination. This is a long journey with ups and downs; you have to be willing to get stuck from time to time. It's something that's comes up in every spiritual practice, what in Christianity anyway is called the dark night of the soul. We're going to go through times of extreme dryness, disinterest, feeling like we're spinning our wheels. The only thing required is a determination never to quit. It's not so hard to get there. 'Just gonna keep doing it.' Roshi told me once about a fellow teacher he met at a conference who said, "You know, I came to understand I'm not very good at this. But I think I'll just keep doing it." That's such a healthy attitude.
We have to be willing not to have resolution. We may eventually get there. Even if we do, you're going to find yourself back in the soup soon enough. So there's something I ran across once by a guy; I have no idea of really who he is except his name is Tal Einav. And he has a Ph.D. in physics and was a teaching assistant. And he wrote this about being a teaching assistant.
He says, "Every part of teaching is challenging, and that extends beyond the lecture component. For example, my philosophy about office hours has always been, ironically enough, to be as useless as possible. If a student comes and asks me, 'How do you do problem number one?' I ask them, 'How do you think we should do problem number one?' and it's absolutely infuriating. But by the end of office hours, they are so thankful that they struggled through it.
"My favorite physics author, David Morin," whoever he is, "wrote that the one piece of advice he can offer about solving problems is not to look at the solutions too early." This, of course, has a parallel to our practice. So many people satisfy themselves with an intellectual explanation or understanding. Or people have some sort of shallow insight, a small kensho, and the air goes out of their balloon. You can't look at the solution too early.
He says, "Once you see the answer, you can't undo that and come up with it yourself. So don't be afraid to just sit and get stuck and ponder because that's when you're really figuring out what to do. That is the learning process."
We need to understand that understanding comes outside of the small self, outside of the thinking mind. And yet, we have to struggle with the small self and with the thinking mind. There's an interesting article written by a Stoic. We may have visited him once before. And I don't have time to read a whole lot of it, but his name is William B. Irvine. He's a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He describes himself as a 21st century Stoic and is the author of "Aha, the Moments of Insight that Shape our World," and a number of other books.
He says, "We like to think that we can control the contents of our mind. But if we watch ourselves think, we will quickly realize that this isn't so. If you don't believe me, try this experiment. Sit in a quiet room for five minutes, during which time you stare at a blank wall and try to empty your mind of thoughts." Of course, right away, that's the wrong approach. We don't try to empty our mind of thoughts. We try to let go of our thoughts and let them empty naturally.
But anyway, he says, "Unless you are an exceptional person, you won't succeed. You might find yourself thinking about what you will have for dinner or about something your significant other said or failed to say." And then he goes on, "You might also have experienced the 'ideas from without' phenomenon while doing a crossword puzzle. You needed to say a three-letter word for meaning eggs. You pondered the clue for a minute and drew a complete blank. And then when you had given up on the puzzle and turned your attention to other things, the answer came to you, ova. And of course, when you're sleeping, your mind is periodically filled with ideas not of your choosing. We call them dreams, and they can be wildly creative. A gopher singing the blues, how crazy is that?"
When I came to Rochester early on I had a dream. I was lying on my back on top of some huge supportive bush, underneath the bright sun, singing "Hallelujah, I'm a bum." It was a wonderful dream.
He says, "What is the source of all these ideas? Your unconscious mind. For your unconscious mind, coming up with answers to crossword puzzles is child's play. It can also solve complex problems. Indeed, if you think back, you will realize that your unconscious mind was the source of some of your best ideas. It saw connections you didn't see. And it considered possibilities you didn't consider. As a result, it was able to solve problems that boggled your conscious mind."
I think everybody's had examples of this. I always see it happen when I'm preparing for a talk. Just because I'm thinking about it over and over again, stuff starts to bubble up, sometimes in the middle of the night. And sometimes not.
He says, "It's easy, however, to downplay the role your conscious mind plays in your mental life. And that is because your conscious mind is perfectly happy to take credit for the gems that your unconscious mind hands it. But face it: without the ongoing efforts of your unconscious mind, your conscious mind would flounder. Once you admit that your unconscious mind is a source of whatever brilliance you possess, you can take steps to extract the maximum possible benefit from your association with it.
"What you will quickly discover is that it can't be ordered about. You can't, for example, wake up one morning and say, 'Unconscious mind, today I want you to prove Goldbach's conjecture,' one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics. On hearing this request, your unconscious mind will simply laugh, not that you will realize that it is doing so. What you must instead do is interest this unconscious mind in working on a problem by working on it with your conscious mind. It might take hours, days, or even weeks of unsuccessful conscious effort before your unconscious mind takes an interest. You will know that it has because you will start experiencing aha moments with respect to that problem." I hope people see the parallel here with with working on a Zen problem or just trying to see what's there.
He says, "The period when you are trying to interest your unconscious mind in a problem can be deeply frustrating. A writer might sit there for days or weeks, writing a draft of a novel, knowing from experience that there is little chance that the words she has written will make it into the final draft. Instead, they will be thrown away when inspiration strikes and the structure of the novel is finally revealed to her. When this happens, she might describe the event as a visit from her muse.
"Mathematicians also know from experience that the first step in proving a theorem is to fill wastebaskets with failed attempts at proving it. They know that such efforts are simply the price that must be paid to get their unconscious mind interested in a theorem so that it can reveal the trick to proving it. Writers and mathematicians undertake their conscious efforts knowing that even if their unconscious mind takes an interest in a problem, there is a chance that it won't deliver the goods. What has happened in such cases is that their conscious mind, which as we have seen is not that bright, has foolishly chosen to work on a problem that is so difficult that not even their brilliant unconscious mind can solve it."
I think for us, we can be certain, we can have faith that our problem is solvable. Because it's just seeing what is, just seeing what we really are, seeing the nature, as the Chan masters put it. For the unconscious mind, that's actually a trivial problem.
He says, "Because serious problem solving starts with this leap of faith, it makes it that much sweeter when your unconscious mind does deliver the goods. It's like watching a magic show in which you are both the magician and the audience. And if you have any humility at all, you will, at the dinner you have to celebrate your breakthrough insight, drink a toast to your unconscious mind."
There's more I'd love to get to, but I think I've been talking for long enough and sort of sum up here. Yeah, all we need to do is just keep doing it. Just keep holding our mind to the problem, to the question, to the observation, to the breath, patiently letting go of our distractions, comfortable with the way things are, understanding this method works. This method has a long, long pedigree, and we have everything we need to do this. There's no rush. There's no time pressure, unless we're in a big hurry. For most people pushing themselves just creates problems. But we do have to be willing to deal with the frustration, to try to understand that which cannot be understood with the thinking mind. We have to expect to be frustrated.
But as we do it over time, there's a joy that seeps up. Just getting out of the triviality, selfishness, frustration, irritation, all the vexations that we've built up over countless, countless years. This does become, as James Ford said, "the bright thread that runs through our lives."
Okay, going on long enough, we'll stop now and recite the Four Vows.