Recognizing the Inevitable
8:34PM Sep 15, 2021
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is September 12, 2021. We didn't have a teisho on the calendar until a couple of days ago when this fool rushed in where angels fear to tread. And, given how many of the last stage of clearing our house out, was not the best timing for me. But I couldn't resist doing it -- felt obligated because of this time we're living through.
I've just heard from so many, many people in dokusan and elsewhere of how how lost, how lost so many of us are -- primarily, most, most obviously, with the pandemic, the status of the pandemic, the variants delta and Mu. And how we're, we're just not managing to pull out of it.
And and it occurred to me that we might have to be wearing masks a fair amount for years. I mean, that is a possibility. until we reach herd immunity, they say until these people who refuse to get vaccinated, refused to wear a mask and then clog up our hospitals and put medical professionals at risk until it's done. There's a change isn't there more people on board for this, then we're we're gonna just be limping along. And limping is I think limping on our way to demise. This teisho will be something about meditation on death, you know, there's a practice in, in Buddhism, it's not Zen, as such, but there's a practice where you meditate on the the very physical, granular process of dying, and how even now, when we're healthy, it's only a matter of time. That it's always been understood by true Buddhists that there's a one one terminal illness we all have, which is birth. And that we don't resolve the gray matter of birth and death by avoiding it, denying it.
First, before going further, along those lines. I have to comment on yesterday being the 20 years since 911. Real to say it was a terrible, terrible life changing event is putting it mildly. And I respect all the memorials we need them. Memorials to our country as we knew it. I'm going to start by reading from an article dated a few days ago by Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times, and it's titled How 911 turn America into a half crazed fading power. Just going to read little snippets of it. The whole idea of of invading Iraq as and before that Afghanistan as a kind of a triumph of the wills and she says we didn't win the danger jihadist terrorism pose to our country, while serious was never truly existential. Are Qaeda fell apart shortly after its greatest triumph that is the towers the Twin Towers, yet the damage September 11 did to the United States was more profound than even many pessimists anticipated. The attacks and our response to them catalyze the period of decline that helped turn the United States into the debased, half crazed fading power we are today. And I don't know how many people would dispute what she's saying as far as what the this mess we've gotten ourselves into nationally. America launched a bad faith global crusade to instill democracy in the Muslim world and ended up with our own democracy in tatters. She goes on the 911 attack turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Al Qaeda. Because we remained in Afghanistan and invaded Iraq, where our war sewed chaos that would enable the rise of ISIS. In time ISIS, originally a spin off of al Qaeda came to eclipse the group founded by bin Laden. ISIS is indiscriminate brutality, especially against other Muslims, appalled an earlier generation of jihadists. Some of al Qaeda, his original leadership ended up like many other aging, disillusioned radicals, disgusted by the excesses of their progeny. But this doesn't mean bin Laden failed. Today, our Qaeda has reconstituted itself. It is now far larger than it was two decades ago. And the United States in September 2021 is in truly terrible shape. 20 years ago, we were credulous and blundering. Now we're sour, suspicious, and lacking in discernible ideals. I don't think she's overstating it.
Bush's own political party as radicalized against democracy, faith and human freedom has curdled into the petulant solipsism of the anti vaxxers. Since 911, more Americans have been killed by far right terrorists than by jihadists. white supremacists have both recruited disillusioned veterans of the war on terror and encourage their supporters to join the military to gain tactical experience. You can't draw a straight line between the Twin Towers falling and America entering a protracted nervous breakdown. The end of any Empire has multiple causes. But in his recent book, Reign of Terror, how the 911 era D stabilized America and produced Trump Spencer Ackerman convincingly links the madness that overcame this country after September 11. With the rise of a president who, among other things, campaigned on a promise to end Muslim immigration and bring back torture.
The act the sacrament, the painful condition of neither peace nor victory against an enemy seen as practically subhuman itself required vengeance. Trump offered himself as its instrument, declaring his presidential candidate candidacy in his golden tower he asked when was the last time the US one at anything? That's just sort of setting the table for where we are now. She, she uses the phrase nervous breakdown
and reference to empires falling in another article from actually from a year ago before the vaccine had been developed. In the Rolling Stone magazine, there There's an article called the unraveling of America. The subtitle is anthropologist Wade Davis, on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era.
Just as just as a reminder,
the nature of empires, the nature of empires, is our nature. Everything has a beginning, middle and an end, as it says, sometimes in Buddhist Buddhist texts
this way, Davis, all right, he lays into Trump Of course. That's that's like shooting fish in a barrel.
then goes on to talk about what what has torn us apart. Is this the real, real illness, the sickness we could call it, terminal sickness of this country, in deeper terms, in terms of loss of our, our fiber, meaning our institutional fiber and our trust of one another.
About Empire, he says, No Empire long endures. Even if you anticipate their demise, every kingdom is born to die. That's straight up Buddhism, impermanence. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, the 17th to the Dutch, France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. Now we have the so called American Century,
he compares the enormous pulling together marshaling of, of, of community spirit of national spirit that happened during World War Two, to in terms of industry and in all, and compares the two are miserable in effectiveness in combating the pandemic
says that more than any other country, the United States in the post war era, lionize the individual at the expense of community and family, it was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose. In wide swathes of America, the family as an institution lost its grounding.
And on and on about the kind of the, the diagnosis of our of our current sickness. I don't think many people need to be convinced that we're a desperate, desperately sick country. What has really compounded it all and why we might very well argue that there's no turning back is of course, climate change, global warming, and this of course, affects not just Our own country but the whole world. The West Coast is burning. The East Coast as we saw recently is underwater.
Maureen Dowd said America's reeling backwards strangled by the past, nasty and uncaring. What with everyone at one another's throats. We feel the return of dread were rattled by the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan. The coming abortion wars sparked by Texas, the trumpian Supreme Court dragging us into the past. The confounding nature of this plague the way Mother Nature is throttling us, leaving New Yorkers to drown in their basements. It feels as if nothing can be overcome, she says, everything is being re litigated. Then finally, with a memory like a goldfish, America circles its bowl returning to where we have been unable to move forward, condemned to repeat a past we should escape.
So just just as a proposal as an as an idea to consider, just as we consider our inevitable death has individuals. The world ending There, I said it, the world ending.
I spoke of this last year on a TV show and there were a couple of people who said that I left them depressed and all but come on, boo, we're not always going to be around. There was a there was a a listen, short piece and zenvo last year that I think is just just so much to the point of is it was written in 1948. By a see by CS Lewis, it was He called this piece on living in an atomic age. Okay, so this was long after the previous pandemic in 1918 1919. And here in 48, everyone was waking up to the threat of annihilation through atomic war. And he points out in one way, we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. And then he he poses a question that many people were posing, how are we to live in an atomic age? And then he himself answers I am tempted to reply. Why, as you would have lived in the 16th century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking Age when writers from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night. or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents. And then he says, in other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir, or Madam, you and all whom you love, were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented. And quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. It's perfectly ridiculous. He says, to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and which in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made it goes on and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we're all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb let that bomb when it comes, find us doing sensible and human human things, praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint, and a game of darts not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies, and he says, in parentheses, a microbe can do that. But they need not dominate our minds. And this, I think I just couldn't find a better way to to express where where I stand with all this Yes. Even if the world is going to pass because of climate change, and maybe decades more, but you know what the scientists say we've we've passed the point of no return. But it doesn't mean we go about acting out by wasting our resources and giving up on matters of personal responsibility. Why? Because that is the way that the the the Tao is to live in a way that doesn't cause harm to others unnecessary harm. We just need to live in accordance with the Dharma, Whatever may happen.
There is a very, very important famous koan in the Mu mon con, near the end number 47. Two sources, three barriers. And I'd like to just just pick this up and consider it in terms of the United States of America. On its deathbed. He says, Milan says to satsu set up three barriers to test his monks, the first barrier to inquire after the truth, groping your way through the underbrush is for the purpose of seeing into yourself nature at this moment, where is your nature?
One way to understand this is to inquire about how we can save ourselves how we can find our way through these. This convergence of global threats, national threats, for sure. It is a groping we're all groping. That's what prompted me to do the teisho. hearing from so many people who are groping, we don't know. We don't know where this is going. Except in the very broad sense of following the nature of everything is terminating eventually. But even terminating is not terminating.
People who don't believe in rebirth have a big extra burden when facing death. Because they if they see it as an end, they our own body or our country or our Earth, our biosphere. If we see nothing beyond the perishing of the body, or the country, or the earth, then Whoa, I don't know what you do with that.
to inquire after the truth, we're all doing that now. puzzling over this searching. And again, it's not just the pandemic. It's the political chaos, that horrid hatred and tribalism, and some suspicion and fake news and social media misuse. At this moment, where is our nature
Second, of the three barriers, when you realize your nature, you are free from free from life free from death, when the light of your eyes is falling, how can you be free from life and death?
Okay, again, let's just suppose that the light of our eyes, nationally and globally, is fading is falling. How can we be free from life and death?
Well, for starters by seeing what is beyond life and death, I don't mean rebirth now. Life and Death, what we call life and death is just one side of the coin. It's the world of phenomena. What about what is beyond phenomena? That's what awakening presents offers. Is that perspective?
How right now, as the light of our eyes on this planet Earth is falling? How can we be free from life and death? Well, it's not by trying to escape life and death. It's not by trying to escape the world of social progress.
It's by trying to escape the world of change. That's, that's on the same side of the coin phenomenon. Working for change. It's not by giving up.
There is in Buddhism, a practice of meditating on death. I guess I mentioned that already. But the point of it being as a way to more fully embrace life, embrace the present. That's what I am 10 through this teisho is to face the demise of our country in our world as a way to get going and really fully and engage with the world and any way we may feel moved to do so.
there's a there's a Japanese movie in the 1960s, I think. I think it was called issue rule. But it regardless of the name, it was about a man in Japan who receives a diagnosis of terminal illness. And how what it did for him was to prompt him to to mobilize his efforts to work for the good out the local community. I can't remember what it was building a playground for children or doesn't matter it was it was awakened in him this compassionate heart that had lain dormant while he was in good health.
We can only benefit in terms of our finding some peace of mind some subtleness in such a these troop, these chaotic conditions, we can only benefit by stepping back and getting a bigger perspective on time.
It's again what CS Lewis are saying that there's nothing, nothing so special about this time. worlds have been being born and dying for since beginningless, time, star systems, planets. vvv length of human existence as far as we know, it's 6000 years I think, is nothing compared to cosmic time.
The the ultimate perspective, balancing perspective, broad perspective, is to see time as no time. And that appears in the verse of this koan. This one instant as it is, is the whole of eternity. The whole of eternity is at the same time this one instant
I found a little entry in a book, I still remember from when I first began Zen practice it just really stuck is this is a collection of, of it says, observed and present writings and the book is called Zen flesh and bones. And page 106, we find this attributed to the Buddha who knows if it was the Buddha, but let's say it was the Buddha. And this is what he reportedly said. I consider the positions of kings and rulers, as that of dust motes. I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silk and robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil and my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation, as a golden brocade and a dream and view the holy path of the illuminated ones, as flowers appearing in one's eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. Look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.
It is, it is through Zen as one method. So Zen offers a way that we grow into this perspective, this immense is timeless perspective which is really seeing things in their proper proportion. Even if yes, our days we live the life of this planet and abroad country are numbered and of course they are as everything is numbered. Why would that? Why need that leave us in a state of depression, depression or distress.
Third barrier to such as barriers. When you are free from life and death, you know where you will go when the four elements separate? Where are you off to?
You can see why this 47th colon is considered a so So extremely important in the koan curriculum. In the rinzai tradition I once heard, to resolve once you've resolved this call on the 47th and Momo con, that's when you can receive a rock suit. It's based on passing koans, these koans as a measure of attainment. We tried that, in the early days of the center, having Roxy was given out based on koan experience, and has created so many problems of envy and resentment and self criticism that we switch to what we have now of that when we that when we have taken the precepts formally in a ceremony, and in doing that, embracing this Dharma in a very decisive way, that's when, by by receiving a Rock Sioux we we are really wearing, we are wearing our commitment to the Dharma. But back to the third, third barrier, and when you're free from life and death, you know, where you will go as follows from the previous one, how can you be free from life and death? And then when you are, you know, where you will go? When the four elements separate? Where are you off to? So when you die? Where are you off to?
When we're free from life and death, free from notions, ideas about these and other dualities? What does it matter where we're going?
Here we are, here we are.
And ultimately, this is the truth that we don't know that the world we're in in the next 500 years, we can be sure that the American Empire will end having shortage time than that is all empires have. But it's really the the the classroom answer, not bigger, the koan resolved, but the cast classroom answer this is, I don't know. When the four elements separate, Where are you off to? Who knows is a famous exchange where monk gases and master when you die, where are you going? Where will you go? He said, I don't know. And the monk said, pull off your Zen master, aren't you? And he said, Yeah, but not a dead one.
But this is this third barrier is pointing us in a different direction, and some future that we don't know anyway.
As, as our sitting is pointing us, sitting is, is bringing us back, if you can use the word back to just this. It's it's, perhaps, of some use to be aware that our country Our world is, is in decline and facing extinction, just as it's of some use that we recognize the certainty of our own death and the uncertainty of the time of our death. Really, it's just what what are what are nations What are what's the world, it's just a collective of individual creatures, all of us, subject to impermanence. And if if If we can just okay, acknowledge that and then renew our efforts to live in accordance with the Dharma the Way, the Truth. What does that mean? It but we need to we need to respond out of the moment. That's what it means. It's the truth of the moment, the Dharma of the moment. what's called for what, who needs help? What, what, what crises. Can we help with?
I think I'm going to wrap it up now. And we'll take the next step, which is to recite the four vows