John's 3/21/21 Dharma Talk (from Otter.ai live)
11:56AM Mar 21, 2021
Good morning. It's March 21 2021 I guess we're on an on or about the, the solstice today first day of spring, and it actually feels like I'm
not exactly sure what I want to use for the title of this talk, but let's start provisionally with just calling it. Be still. And I want to begin by telling you a little story I told some people this story before. I hope it makes sense for you. So, A man walks into a Starbucks. He goes up to the counter and gets a coffee and probably just a house blend and add some, add some cream and goes back and sits down, but he's doesn't have a iPhone with him or iPad or a laptop or a book. He's just sitting there like a psychopath.
I wish I could be in the Zendo with everybody so I could hear that fall flat. But there's there's what uh points up with the story points up is just how neurotically attached we are to restless activity that we need to be doing something, or we don't feel comfortable. And that's, I remember when I gave up, cigarette smoking, many, many years ago. That was one of the big questions is what on earth do I do with my hands. Fortunately for me, I thought at the time I was still drinking so I could have a beer. But then later on when I gave up drinking, and I had to face that again and fortunately that worked out pretty well. I want to bring in a few big guns just to talk about this whole issue of finding our place in silence and stillness of finding that as a, as a refuge as a home where we're comfortable. Despite the fact that there is this incessant stream that we're habituated to of activity of thoughts especially but thoughts and feelings and considerations, and then all the distractions we use to pull ourselves out of negative moods and feelings of boredom. First guy want to cite is Blaise Pascal, he where he lived in the 17th century, died in 1662 was a French mathematician and philosopher and a Catholic theologian. He said something really simple, he said, all of humanity's problems come from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
I want to follow that up with Franz Kafka, this this quote from coffee I think I read it recently at a session, and I heard it first from Roshi and sesshin just blew me away. That this was Franz Kafka he's the if you don't know he's the writer, he lived. late 1800s died in 1924, he wrote the metamorphosis, which is a story about a guy who wakes up and realizes that he's a cockroach. And there is actually sort of a adjective for the sorts of stories that he wrote, Kafka ask. You may have heard, he said, You do not need to leave your room, remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Be quiet. Still in solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. You will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
This is the promise of Zen. This is, this is why it's so essential to find stillness in our sitting.
This is the promise of going beyond thought.
Okay one more guy. Indian sage Ramana Maharshi, died in 1950. He said, Your duty is to be. And not to be this or that. I Am that I Am, sums up the whole truth. The method is summed up in the words Be still. What does stillness mean. It means destroy yourself, because any form or shape is the cause for trouble. Give up the notion that I am so and so. All that is required to realize the Self, we can say to realize the true self is to be still. What can be easier than that might be more accurate to say what can be simpler than that. When, when Roshi gives his talk and an introductory workshop. Inevitably, invariably, he brings up the image of a snow globe, you know, the, the globes with, I think most people have been to workshops so you've heard them do it. But, you know, there may be a Santa Claus in there or some other figure he's got one was put together it's actually got a Buddha sitting in the middle of it, and you shake it up, and white flakes float about representing the snow. And if you want to clear that water, if you want to see clearly into the globe. All you have to do is put it on a table and leave it alone. Just that image gives you a feeling for the spirit of Zen.
The wonderful thing about having the mind settle. Having the no longer being buffeted by thoughts that we willingly acquiesce to having that clarity, ability to see clearly into the mind, see what's going on.
And the same thing sort of happened when I give an introductory talks gone out to colleges or high schools, or whatever and you know you talk to people for maybe 2030 minutes about Zen about what we're trying to do, about how our way of, of living in an endless stream of unconscious thought brings us so much trouble. The possibility of getting beyond that. And people usually can can glom on to that and are receptive. And then, always, always want to have people actually do some sitting. And so you won't be you know I don't usually do a long time I don't think Roshi does either when he does those sorts of talks. But, and the people maybe just sitting in chairs, may or may not even be able even to sit up straight, but just show them how to count their breath, and maybe ring a bell. And all of a sudden, you're not talking anymore in the room falls silent. And for the person talking it's the most wonderful thing to no longer have to listen to yourself. But the whole room falls silent. And all of a sudden you hear all the noises that were there before but you didn't notice because the mind can only focus on so many things at once. Here the harm of an air conditioner or furnace traffic running outside. Maybe geese flying overhead birds chirping settled into a different space.
Sometimes when we're just starting out with Zen practice, because that shift is so striking, I think, and novel. For many people were able to fall into it and really get an appreciation for this world of stillness. It underpins everything that informs everything. But sooner or later. When we make Zen our practice or daily practice. We are bound to run into resistance. The habit energy of thought. The minds tendency to discount what it thinks that already knows, come to the fore, and it's harder. It's harder to slip into that silent place, and it's easy to sort of make an accommodation with thinking and Zen can become this sort of I don't know, amalgam of a little bit of focus, and then a thought comes and we follow it up for a while, and then maybe we notice we least know to come back, back to the practice to the breath or the koan whatever we're working on, but it's it's it's a back and forth and and it's possible for people who've sat for a very long time to still be spending too much time more time than they would like more time than, then, is helpful or effective chasing after thoughts
in a lot of times it's because the thoughts are just sort of half noticed, not really on the alert.
You know if this is the case with your practice, then you're like me, because I definitely have had plenty of experience with thoughts, taking over and going AWOL for some length of time. But how do we work with that. It definitely calls for some diligence and it calls for a feel for what it is to be silent. Practice doesn't work if we're just beating ourselves over the head. Practice doesn't work if we're continually judging well I'm just dying to overloaded with thought, I'm hopeless. It's not going to work. So I've got a couple texts that are really basic. And I wanted this morning to, to go into them because they really deal with the moment by moment, activity, it was as in the, the diligent practice that can bring us into this place where things are still in thoughts are not such a problem. It's not about eliminating them as everyone I think knows by now, but about not getting caught up in them. Not following them. So, first guy I want to read from is a Japanese Zen teacher. He died while back, see.
Yeah, I think it was like in 1998 I don't have his dates here we are I do, yeah. He lived from 1912 to 1998. He was the abbot of a tidy tidy and and tidy, and his name is kosher, which he wrote a book called opening the hand of thought, I've actually gave a whole Dharma talk on that. Some years ago, just gonna read from a small section of it.
So just, he says, I've already said that if you sit and think during zazen, then that is thinking, and not Zen. Does that mean that no thoughts at all should occur to us during his eyes in his goods as in that condition when all thoughts have ceased to come into our minds. Here we have to clearly distinguish chasing after thoughts and thinking from ideas or thoughts occurring. If a thought occurs during Zen and we proceed to chase after it, then we are thinking and not doing Zen it this doesn't mean that we are only doing Zen when thoughts have entirely cease to occur. How can we understand this. Imagine placing a large rock next to a person doings as in. Since this rock is not alive. No matter how long it sits there, a thought will never occur to it. Unlike the rock however the person doings as in next to it is a living human being. Even if we sit as stationary as the rock, we cannot say that no thoughts will occur. On the contrary, if they did not we would have to say that that person is no longer alive Roshi is fond of saying that our brain is an organ that secretes thoughts, that's what it does. Thoughts are produced, and they're going to come into the mind, which Yama says, but of course the truth of life never means to be to become lifeless like the rock. For that reason, thoughts ceasing to occur is not the ideal state of one sitting, Zen, it is perfectly natural for thoughts to occur. Yeah and if we chase after thoughts we are thinking, and no longer doings Zen. So what should our attitude be. He says briefly aiming at maintaining the posture of Zen with our flesh and bones, letting go of thoughts, is the most appropriate expression for describing what our attitude should be. I want to point out here that the practice that which Yama advocates is shikantaza fairly advanced practice. And, but these same principles apply to breath practice to koan practice. In any case, we're in the zozen posture. We're letting go of thoughts. Instead of saying maintaining the posture as as in with our flesh and bones. We could say becoming the breath, becoming the questioning. But in all cases, letting go of thoughts. He says what is letting go of thoughts. Well, when we think we think something, thinking of something means grasping that something with thought. However, during this as in we open the hand of thought, that is trying to grasp something, and simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts. One of the things that we learn in sitting, is that we're not really doing the thinking. In other words we don't decide what thoughts are going to be presented to the mind. They come from somewhere else. I guess we could say they come from our own unconscious from our habit energy, but we don't decide to think of anything, we decide whether to follow the thought up whether to grasp it is Zen we simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts.
He says, As I explained earlier since blood recedes from the head, and excitability is lessened by keeping this posture. Zen is by nature a posture in which we inherently see the futility of chasing after thoughts. So as long as we entrust everything to the Zaza and posture, or as we could say as long as we entrust everything to the practice to the method. opening the hand of thought will come naturally and spontaneously. Again, however, human life is not a machine. So even in the Zen posture, it is possible to think as much as we like. So the essential point when doing Zazen is to aim, full of life. At the posture Roseanne, with our flesh and bones, while at the same time leaving everything up to the posture and letting go of thoughts. Leaving everything up to the breath, and letting go of thoughts.
By holding to the practice and simultaneously opening the hand of thought, both body and mind desires in in the proper spirit. Zen is not something we think about doing, and that's something we think about doing wholeheartedly, is something that we actually practice.
Skipping ahead a little bit. As I mentioned before, we are at all times in every, in every situation, living out the reality of our own lives, whether we believe to be so or not. Nevertheless we lose sight of this, we doze off or start thinking and cause this reality, to become dull and foggy. Just like driving a car when we are either sleepy or absorbed in thought. Our life like our driving becomes careless and hazardous waking up means to let go of thoughts, that is we wake up from sleep or thought and perform the reality of ZOSEN, which we are practicing with our flesh and bones.
Then he in the book he has a diagram. So kind of interesting, but if I read through his description I think it might be a little confusing. So I'm going to just summarize it briefly, Just imagine that Zan is maintaining a line. He calls it a line from z to z prime, I think the Z stands for is as in. So there's a straight line and we're just trying to move along it. But as we do thoughts come into the mind and when a thought pump pops in and we recognize it, just even a little bit. We pop up above the line, and then if we grasp that thought another one will pop up maybe connected with it and we pop up a little further. In, when we notice that we've done this. We just returned back to the line dropped back down to Zen. And the same thing works on the other side of the line in his little diagram with drowsiness, you get drowsy a little bit. And then if you give into that even further, then you wake up you notice, and you come back, and you're back on the mat, you're aware, you're awake.
It's similar to a metaphor that Roshi used
remember being really struck by this in one machine. It's like we're driving along a limited access highway. And we're tooling along okay, focused on the practice. And then all of a sudden without really even realizing it, we find ourselves on an exit ramp, which is not a problem, you ramp comes out and there's another ramp leading right back on we get out and then we're back on the highway. But sometimes we don't notice that we've left the highway. We turn off on a side road and we wind our way through the countryside. Maybe come into a little town. The next thing we know we find ourselves in a trailer down by the river. The difference was an of course, is that we don't have to drive all the way back to the highway. The minute we recognize what's happened, we returned to size M, we're right back. You leave the line hoochie aamas line, you notice dropped back down.
As Luciano says sometimes we completely forget about waking up. We chased chase after a whole series of thoughts, and end up completely separated from the reality of our lives. In other words, we may become separated from the reality of doings as in right now, without being aware of it, we may start associating with or carrying on a dialogue with some vague vivid figure that has been totally fabricated with our own within their own chasing after thoughts, even at a time like this if we wake up. That is actually performed the posture Rozanne with our flesh and bones at open the hands of our thoughts. There's very phantom like thought will disappear, instantly, and we will be able to return to the reality of Zen. This is a truly remarkable point. It makes us realize that our fantasy has no reality, that it is nothing but empty coming and going. At any rate, noticing things like this during Zen whether it isn't the first thought the second thought the third thought we should wake up to Zen as soon as possible, and return to the line actually doing Zen is a continuation of this kind of returning up and down the posture of waking up and returning to the line at any time, is itself Zen. This is one of the most vital points regarding zozen.
He says, I realized that to say you cannot understand this without doing Zen sounds very pompous. But the reason I say so is because usually I'm able to recognize what we've that what we think about in our heads, is nothing but empty comings and goings, due to plunging our heads too far into our thoughts and living too much in the world of thought. Once we think of something we want or like, we assume that the simple fact of thinking we want or like it is the truth, then since we think this idea is the truth and worth seeking, we proceed to chase after it everywhere. And our whole world eventually develops into one of greed. On the other hand, once we think of something we hate or dislike, we assume again that the simple fact of thinking we hate it is the truth, thinking that this idea is the truth, we ought to follow. We chase after it until our whole world turns into anger. This isn't basic Buddhism. The activities of our everyday lives are almost entirely the result of chasing after ideas like this, causing vivid lifelike images to become fixed, and then giving more weight to these fixed delusions and desires, until we finally get carried away by them. It would be even more accurate to say that ordinarily we are thrown about by desire and delusion without even knowing it is like the man who is drinking Saki that is consuming fantasies. At first, he knows that he is drunk, but when it develops to the stage where the Saki the psyche is drinking the man, then he is adrift in fantasies without even knowing it, and acts accordingly. The way I always heard it was first the man takes the drink. The drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man. Since almost all people in societies throughout the world today are carried away by desire and delusion. That is, this is precisely why our Zen comes to have such a great significance. When we wake up during Zen, we are truly forced to experience the fact that all the things we develop in our thoughts vanish in an instant.
Another thing that you learn over time is as an especially in sesshin is how quickly those obstructions can vanish. It's one of our delusions that difficult thoughts seem to have substance to them. And once we become gained some measure of success with dropping them. We come to realize how empty they are, as he said. Gradually we gained confidence, something that we know experientially, not that we heard somebody say, And of course that makes all the difference. gonna read a little bit from another guy. This is Bantay gonna retana gonna write it up. Yeah, I'm sure I'm mispronouncing it. He's a mindfulness teacher, and wrote a book called mindfulness in plain English, which is an excellent book. And again, really basic instructions in meditation, just going to read a little section here where he says meditation is not a competition, there is a definite goal, but there is no timetable. So really important point. One way to make the distinction one way to get the feel for there not being a timetable is to think of coming to awakening, say, or achieving Buddhahood or any goal you want to set out there fulfilling the four vows. Not so much in terms of a goal as a direction, saying, as long as I can as long as I am alive. Can see even for lifetime after lifetime, this is the direction I want to go in. Since what the value is, though, is not that we will have this achievement and when will that happen.
The path of Zen is a path of opening going to open and continue to open. So again, he says, There is no timetable. What you are doing is digging your way deeper and deeper through layers of illusion toward realization of the Supreme Truth of existence. The process itself is fascinating and fulfilling, it can be enjoyed for its own sake. There is no need to rush. Jumping ahead a paragraph. Don't think about your problems during your practice, push them aside, very gently, take a break from all that worrying and planning. Let your meditation, be a complete vacation. Trust yourself, trust your own ability to deal with these issues later using the energy and freshness of mine that you build up during your meditation. Trust yourself this way, and it will actually occur, don't set goals for yourself, that are too high to reach. Be gentle with yourself. You're trying to follow your own breathing continuously and without a break. That sounds. The answer to push yourself to be scrupulous scrupulously Exactly. This is unrealistic. Take time in small units instead. At the beginning of an inhalation. Make the resolve to follow the breath, just for the period of that one inhalation. Even this is not so easy, but at least it can be done. Then at the start of the exhalation resolve to follow the breath for just that one exhalation, all the way through. You will still fail repeatedly but keep at it. Every time you stumble, start over. Taking one breath at a time. This is the level of the game, where you can actually win. Stick with it. Fresh resolve with every breath cycle, tiny units of time, observe each breath with care and precision, taking it one split second on top of another with fresh resolve piled up one on top of the other. In this way, continuous and unbroken awareness will eventually result.
Awareness of breathing is a present moment awareness, when you're doing it properly, you're aware, only of what is occurring in the present. You don't look back and you don't look forward, you forget about the last breath, and you don't anticipate the next one. When the inhalation is just beginning. You don't look ahead to the end of that inhalation, You don't skip forward to the exhalation that is to follow. You stay right there with with what is actually taking place, the inhalation is beginning. And that's what you pay attention to that and nothing else. It's like a cat watching a bird. We put a bird feeder on one of our windows, and our cats now take up their position on the back of the sofa. Their attention is absolutely complete. Sometimes a little little me out. Bath the pain just completely absorbed. He says this meditation is a process of retraining the mind, the state you're aiming for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that is happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens exactly when it is happening. Total unbroken awareness in present time. This is an incredibly high goal, and not to be reached all at once. It takes practice. So we start small. We start by becoming totally aware of one small unit of time, just one single inhalation. And when you succeed, you are on your way to a whole new experience of life.
We're working with a lifelong habit, a habit of falling unconscious into our thoughts. It's our lousy place of refuge, just what a habit is just because it's a habit doesn't mean it brings pleasure. It's one of the many habits we pick up that aren't very pleasurable and leave us feeling crummy and zazen, especially sesshin but also zazen, shows us how bad the situation is. And it also shows us as was pointed out, when substantial those thoughts are. If we're serious about dropping thoughts, We'll notice the ones that are habitual and sticky. The ones that more readily lead us into unconsciousness. The process that's referred to in a certain kind of therapy and act therapy AACT as cognitive fusion. Exactly what actually what Yamo is talking about anger and desire, come into the world through our identification with our thoughts are believing in our thoughts.
I've got a number that have bedeviled me over the years. Just to give a few examples. One is the whole issue of, where am I in time. How long is the round going to be how many how long how far in are we got other using the stick must be you are about midway.
When's it gonna end, remember when I was in in college. I had a pretty good class and I was taking that was excruciatingly boring. And I would I would watch the clock, it was absolute tedium. The more aware I was of how long it was taking the longer it took. And the same thing can seep into our ZOSEN and we can end up just playing around with continually checking in with where things are where we think they are. And obviously takes us away from the practice. Absolutely. What we don't want to be doing. But when it becomes a habit when it's a thought that we indulge, again and again, it becomes more and more difficult to pull ourselves out of it, to return. Just to the simplicity of the practice. Another thought that it's really difficult for people is evaluation, how I'm How am I doing, because it seems connected with being successful, it does and it seems normal to check in and say well am I doing a good job because if I am I'll do more of whatever it is I'm doing. And if I'm not then well well tendency to think that by tightening up and printing our teeth. We can we can achieve the result that we want, get out from underneath the bad feeling that a poor evaluation gives us
really doesn't matter.
We're doing well we're doing poorly. That's that has nothing to do with this moment. This continually changing flowing moment.
We can get caught up in how we imagine we appear to others. What are the monitors think of me. How do I look from the outside. For some people this can get painfully successively painful when they're speaking with someone else and they're continually, leaving their own head, and trying to look at themselves from outside, like I say this is sort of the greatest hits List of my own personal thoughts traps. Who cares what we look like from the outside. Look out of our own eyes. What are we looking at what's being presented to us, so helpful to move our point of view. To we're actually looking out through our own eyes. So I had a shift that happened to me early when I stopped drinking it was going to a zoo, back in the early 90s, was walking around the bush to go into my house. And as I walked around it I realized that something was different. And what I realized was that previously every time I'd walked around that bush, my mind had jumped outside of my body, and thought about what I looked like to anybody who happened to be observing, as I walked into the house. I don't know why I was doing that but I realized that I had been, and all of a sudden I wasn't. I was in my own body walking into my own house. It's like a little gift of grace.
Another bedeviling thought that most people have run into is thinking about our pain. When Zen becomes uncomfortable or when life becomes uncomfortable. There's always that tendency to retreat into thought.
Is it going to hurt more. How long is it going to last. What am I going to do. What if I can't take it. How can I get away from it. This is of course one of the least effective ways of dealing with pain, just like watching the clock is the least effective way of dealing with boredom. The, the solution that we sort of finally come apart after kicking and screaming and resisting, is simply to go into the pain, double down on the practice, bring our attention. Right there. Right into the moment. Just as thoughts are less substantial than we think, pain itself is less substantial less uniform.
In the end, maybe one of the most helpful things that we can do is to enjoy our practice to enjoy the respite, that Zen can bring from grasping and avoiding
want to read a little something from Sheng yen might have read this a long time ago but it's from a book called Sheng Yen is a Chinese teacher who died a few years back, actually, we at the Center have had some connection with him Roshi Kapleau visited him and Bowden Roshi also went to the dedication of his new monastery on Taiwan. Anyway, he wrote a book that's called attaining the way. And this is a little section that's called acting like a good for nothing. He says, during the interviews that Stokes on of course, I have learned that some people and this all took place during the session. I've learned that some people are still very tense still struggling with their meditation method. There are those who have may have said well for a few sessions, but the good feeling, has not come back and they search for it in vain. They feel pressed for time, and their mental states have become more harried impatient and tense. I've used many metaphors to explain that if you want to arrive quickly. You'll never get there. But many of you are still making trouble for yourselves, looking for pain to suffer. Buddhist practice is polishing your patience and forging your determination. When you demand peace of mind. Your mind is not at peace, to deal with these afflictions, you need to move the firewood out from under the pot. This means not caring at all. Acting as if nothing were happening, feeling that there is no harm in being a good for nothing. This is something I did when I first got into a when I first got sober. I told Chris told my wife that I thought that maybe for the next year or so I was just going to be a schlump. It's just that process of letting go, that, that strong ego that comes with drinking grasping and avoidance, just letting that go and not worrying so much. She wasn't really happy to hear that but I think in the end things worked out okay, says there is no harm in being a good for nothing. The very process of the meditation retreat is itself the result, all you have to do is sit for seven days. If you do it well, that is a result, if you do it badly, That is also a result, it's all valuable experience. Don't have your heart set on doing well. Just keep your mind on the meditation method. Don't get upset about Oblivion or scattered thoughts, pain, numbness, aches itches, let it all happen. If the sky falls, pay no attention. I remind you, please do not tense up. If you relax at least your body can feel good, and your mind can feel stable. If you feel tension and urgency you'll end up with a belly full of anger. One of you said very well for a stretch in his mind seemed to open. He felt very comfortable and content. After that with every sitting, he waited for his mind open again. But it didn't win body and mind are relaxed, comfort and ease will appear. If you are tense, hoping that your mind will open, then you will have already closed tightly retreat is not a contest. There is no score and no medals. Our only concern is perfecting the ability to relax and create some spaciousness, for our mind.
Yeah, it's a balancing act, isn't it. We need to be diligent. We need to be serious about letting the mind settle down not giving in to thoughts. But the minute we move past that moment to moment awareness and start trying to game the system, try to start trying to move from this moment to the result which is inevitably somewhere in some future moment. We've absolutely lost in the thread, we're gone, can work very hard for a very long time, not realizing that we're continually pulling ourselves away from the whole point of practice, which is to sink into the reality the totality the vividness of this very moment,
can't be forced. There's a, it's like walking down a path. And if you become too tense you're going off to the right, let's say, I guess if you become too relaxed, you're going off to the left. Many of us are always going off to the right, is just like a wheel that's out of alignment continually falling into anxious striving and muscular tenseness gritting our teeth, straining. It's not such a bad thing if every now and then you should run off on the other side, become too relaxed. So that's something to worry too much about, especially if you have that tendency to always try to do your best and achieve a result. It's a good antidote.
It's why it's important to enjoy your practice to enjoy that stillness. It's always there, always available. Underneath the turmoil, down in the depths, well up in each moment. Taking a walk, just to appreciate the trees, our neighborhood we have all these huge kutako that were planted decades and decades ago, old weathered trees full of woodpecker holes and dripping debris. They're so vivid, so present. So, solid, so huge. Just to walk, to see what's there. Feel the breeze. Feel our feet against the street as Jon Kabat Zinn says to come to our senses.
World mediated by thought, is gray, and two dimensional. We don't feel at home. We're uprooted. We're separated from others.
find some freedom from our thoughts, Then we can see the face of the person we're talking to, we're so much as revealed can hear the voice,
to be able to do this makes us available, then we're there. It's a gift, really, that we give to the world doings Zen. Obviously a gift that we give to ourselves. But it's not just for ourself doesn't just benefit us benefits everyone we come into contact with.
Just going to finish up by coming back to Pascal and quoting him once again, all of humanity's problems come from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Okay. Our time is up. Stop now, and recite the four vows.