February/March 2021 Sesshin, Day 2
11:58PM Mar 8, 2021
This is Sunday, February 28. The second day of this February March four day 2021 sesshin and I'm going to continue reading from this book. The title is catching a feather on a fan compiled by john crook with the words and discourses of Master Sheng Yen made at a retreat in Wales back in 1989. And we're going to pick up where we were yesterday.
He launches right in here, this is day two evening talk. And he moves on to the next verse of the of the material he's reading from this poem by Wang Ming. And let me read the last verse just so it makes a little more sense. The last verse was excessive thinking weakens the will. The more you know, the more your mind is confused. A confused mind gives rise to vexation. The weakened will obstructs the Tao or the way. So the next verses don't say there is no harm in this. That is no harm in excessive thinking. The ensuing pain may last forever. Don't think there is nothing to fear. The calamities churn like bubbles in a boiling pot. And then Sheng Yen, Wang Ming does not intend us to take him lightly. He is very much in earnest. He says that if we cannot put down the habit of reasoning, of turning our knowledge over and over, then we cannot obtain the benefits of meditation. To continue with such a habit constitutes a serious problem. No one should think there is nothing to fear. Rather, you need to know that such a habit generates harm, that can continue indefinitely.
Of course, it's not that it's remarkable to have this habit. This is the condition of everyone, everyone taking up Zen practice, or not taking up Zen practice. We all have this habit. Playing with our thoughts. He says in the sutras, there is a particular term which points at our capacity for tolerating this world of suffering. Although we recognize that this is a world of suffering, we continue to put up with it. Not only that, we are willingly tolerant of suffering. We remain attached to the concerns of worldly life, the worries, vanities, the discriminatory categories we use to judge one another. This is a world where we endlessly cope with suffering, and rarely go beyond it.
This becomes so clear in practice. However, he says likewise, a practitioner of Chan may know very well that wandering discursive thoughts are potentially harmful, but nonetheless, he may remain positively attracted to them. After all, they are amusing. When told not to entertain such tantalizing ideas and to think of nothing, the practitioner soon finds practice very boring. For example, we have agreed not to talk to one another. We know very well that talking causes us to lose our meditative focus. Nonetheless, situations arise in which a few remarks are passed. We cannot resist prolonging the interaction with a few more words in a reply. It seems such an enjoyable thing. Truly I know this.
Since we are indeed serious about practice, we should not think lightly of these warnings. If we heed them, we can go beyond knowledge and true practice can begin. It occurred to me that we're sort of in the condition of a overstimulated child needs to go to bed. It's miserable, crying and fussing and raging into hysteria. But you can't get him to willingly go down. Even though it's what he needs, what she needs. It seems so grim to give up thoughts. Although it's anything but grim. That state when the mind is clear, when thoughts are not swirling about, we're not buffeted this way and that way, is a wonderful place to be. We need to, we need to prove it to ourselves. We need to have the determination and the courage to let the thoughts go and find this other realm. Not even talking about coming to awakening, just to to find some stillness. To get to know the mind, that's not so reactive. Mind that's settled, can see things clearly. It doesn't miss so much. It isn't busy thinking about what it's going to say. It isn't worried about what other people think about it. It isn't trying to decide if it measures up, isn't wondering what time it is. Isn't anticipating pain in the future, regretting mistakes in the past, just here, open, responsive.
The next verse, water dripping ceaselessly will fill the four seas. Specks of dust not wiped away, will become the five mountains. Don't think that a tiny bit of wandering thought is irrelevant. Maybe there is only a tiny bit of wandering thought in this sitting this day, this retreat. But the accumulation of these tiny wandering thoughts becomes one gigantic wandering thought, a monster. This habit has been formed since time without beginning.
It is a habit. It's when you when you begin to look into yourself you realize we truly are creatures of habit almost entirely. It's amazing how many things are just run on automatic pilot. how quickly we get pulled back in into whatever we're familiar with, whatever we've been doing in the past, and how quickly a new habit can can set in. You begin picking up some game or reading some website and find yourself going back the next day and the next day and then pretty soon it's it's hard to stop. It requires some effort and the effort requires a little pain.
You develop a habit of stopping at Starbucks for four or $5 cup of coffee. Do it a few days and it's a pleasant routine. Not that there's anything wrong with having pleasant routines, but to be aware of the things that cause harm, and to do something about it -- to to find and it's with habit. Usually the method we adopt, you know if we're not too sophisticated, let's say, is to just try to go cold turkey, that just just say no, take the Nancy Reagan approach. But habits are not easily extinguished that way. And really what what we need to do is to find something else, something healthy, something fulfilling, find good food in effect that we can that we can turn to. And the one habit replaces the other. The people who've studied habits have found this is the most effective way. And of course what we have is zazen, the habit of habit of still, attentive awareness. But to pick up this habit, to become acclimated to it, that's not the easiest thing in the world. That's what we're doing here in these four days of sitting.
So to go back, this habit has been formed since time without beginning. Endlessly we are judged things and one another by using our knowledge and our memory of past experiences. And this has been passed down from life to life. Indeed, it is karma itself. We are this habit -- entangled and constrained within it. And of this, we are unaware. When we focus in practice, it becomes quite easy to see the truth of this, we can see the scattered thoughts, and the perserveration. For anybody who doesn't know for perseveration simply means going thinking this same, same thought, over and over and over again. I think everyone is familiar with that. The endless cycling of our limited and caging ideas and judgments or prejudices. And the clearer we see such things, the better the chances of our success.
This is the beauty of practice is that we get -- the beauty and the horror of practice -- is that we get such a good look at our habitual thoughts, our obstructive, unhelpful thinking. Seeing the same thoughts come up again and again, thoughts of gain, thoughts of future pain, judgments, the whole mess. I've often thought that if we could somehow get a transcript of our thoughts, and read through it, it would just be absolutely appalling.
He says, Now in the last two days, what have you found to be the most difficult element in practice? Is it when we are dozing? Or is it when we have wandering thoughts? He says those troubled by dozing off, please raise your hands. And those with wandering thoughts. Doesn't say what results he got. When sleepiness is the greater problem, it may be due to lack of energy or to a temporary malaise, a cold or a virus. If you are practicing well and a great sleepiness comes then sometimes there is nothing that can really help. If you become very exhausted, then it is important to take a rest. But if you lack energy through laziness, and are merely a little drowsy, then if you increase your breathing, take some fresh air or do some exercises, you may energize yourself again,
This is this is something that each of us has to kind of work out for ourselves. One of the many issues that people ask about in the sesshin is how much late night sitting should I do or sitting between the blocks? How much rest do I need? And everyone has to work that out for themselves, you have to experiment, you have to be willing to take a chance to move a little outside your comfort zone and and see and then maybe you're going to have a block where you're really really dozing off. But it's not the end of the world, you're not going to die. But there are other to say on the other hand, some people just would feel bad about themselves if they weren't pushing, pushing, pushing and, and they can sometimes push so much that they're perpetually exhausted. And they can't really do effective zazen. And then sometimes people have done too much they can't do effective zazen and yet they keep pushing and they they push on through. It's just so hard to know. Teacher can't really tell you what you have to do. But rule of thumb is experiment. Do a little did a little more -- try different things don't fall into a comfortable rut.
He says In fact, Wang Ming doesn't discuss the problem of falling asleep. Perhaps in his day, practitioners never lacked energy. Kind of doubt it. The remaining problem is the wandering thoughts. Do you know how to deal with wandering thoughts? The first step is to recognize when the mind is wandering. Often it comes over you so subtly that you do not even notice it. Then suddenly we say oh what on earth am I thinking about? So we have to be mindful of what we are doing in our practice. And when we do detect that our minds have wandered, it is important not to feel irritated with oneself or an aversion towards the thoughts. It simply tires you out if you take up a belligerent attitude towards your own mind.
Roshi has often pointed out that when you're caught up in thoughts, you're not aware of it. It's you can suddenly come to and realize what a stretch of oblivion, thought plagued oblivion, you've been, you've been dwelling in and and feel Oh my god, how could I let it go on for so long. But the fact is you didn't even know that's what you were doing, you were gone. That's why that's why thoughts are so insidious and so dangerous when you're trying to do good meditation. But when you do realize it, the point he makes don't take up a belligerent attitude. Very, very important. And also don't take up a, oh, I'm no good attitude. Just anything negative that you bring up there is totally out of place. What's happened is you've been presented with an opportunity to wake back up. All it requires is just to return to the practice. It's not a big deal. It's a chance to remain faithful to your intention.
He says the paradoxical thing is that very often, as soon as you recognize the fact of wandering, the mind clears, recognition itself can do the trick. But if you take up that belligerent attitude, and you start to berate yourself, you're right back in thoughts, you've done anything but let the mind clear. It helps when we've begun to develop a taste for practice, when we've had some experience of stillness, it doesn't have to be anything phenomenal or deep. But just we know for ourselves, the taste, and it's a good taste, of still awareness. There's an attraction there. And and it can't -- working with thoughts can't all be negative feelings about the thoughts, there needs to be something that we go to. And that's what practice is for. I really urge you to make friends with your practice. It's not an onerous chore. It may seem tedious at times, but truly, truly, it's alive.
He goes on, sometimes the wandering of the mind is due to fatigue or lack of energy. There may be a physiological cause for it, maybe you do not actually feel drowsy. But nonetheless, the energy for concentration is lacking. The Art of it is to again and again recognize the state of mind. If it is wandering, simply bring it back into focus. By doing this again and again, eventually, the body energy will be renewed and you will have fewer periods of wandering thought. There is a daily cycle of energy. Of course, I think he's referring to our circadian rhythm. With within some periods, you will have less than at other times, this is natural, there is no need for a fight. Simply be attentively aware at all times.
We can make use of an analogy here. Meditation is like using a fan. The old fashioned handheld type. You have the task of catching the feather on the fan. Every time you move the fan, the feather is likely to be blown away. It's a delicate business. You have to hold the fan quite still, just under the space through which the feather is thinking is sinking of its own motion. The feather then comes to rest on the top of the fan. You can imagine how difficult or how easy this may be. Any use of force and the feather is lost. Yet once you grasp the principle, it is something very easy to do. The key point is this stillness Non grasping stillness. It's not a rigid stillness. If you held the fan out underneath the feather and didn't move didn't move the fan down when the motion of the feather, the feather would sweep across it and go on falling. It's really you have to be in communion with the flow of phenomena. But it's still, it's steady and it's attentive. Of course, this is the source for the title of the book, catching the feather on a fan. He says stilling the mind is like catching a feather up with a fan. It needs patience and persistence. When practicing Do not be afraid of a distracting thought. If your body has a problem, do not be concerned with it. If your mind is worrying, put the worry down. Keep the mind on the method waiting for the feather to sink onto the fan. You could say relax. Stillness, relaxation.
I wanted to read something, a quote about the power of stillness. Roshi read this at a sesshin some time ago. But it's been some time and we can bring it back. It's from of all people, it's from Franz Kafka. If you're not familiar with him, he's the one who wrote a book about someone waking up as a cockroach.
He said this. You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen. Simply Wait, be quiet. Still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Sheng Yen goes on. Supposing you're in a very good situation, no distractions, no wandering thoughts. Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself. away goes the feather at once. So don't be happy. Don't think how successful you are. Just observe the situation without movement towards or away. If the mind moves, wandering thoughts begin. Don't be greedy. This is the real problem with being too obsessed with coming to awakening. That greed gets in the way. We need to have that deep aspiration to awakening. It certainly is an essential part of the path -- what's called bodhichitta -- to come to awakening for the sake of all beings. For many of us, of course, it's to come to awakening to somehow escape from our own problems. And even that can be a motivation. But when that gets in when that's continually bubbling up and raising thoughts, clearly it's not helping.
He says another analogy. Some feathers come from chickens, some from ducks. Now the duck's feather is waterproof. A duck floats happily in the water, no trouble. The chicken is a different case all together. Imagine the state of the feathers of a chicken trying to swim. When we train, the mind begins with feathers like those of a chicken and is easily disturbed by anything. But in time, we find a state where equanimity appears and we are not bogged bothered by any passing thought. At that time we have duck feathers. Of course chickens cannot change into ducks. But through practice the mind can become impermeable to the showers of passing thought.
Then the next verse, protect the branches to save the roots. Although a small matter it is not trivial. Close the seven orifices shut off the six senses. Here the branches are the minor vexations, while the roots are the major ones that may last a lifetime or we could say lifetimes. If one is not careful with the minor vexations, they may develop into major ones. For instance, you may not be about to rob or kill anyone. Yet if the mind is filled with by little hatreds or arrobas, avarice, excuse me, although you do act on these promptings one day, they may propel you to commit a crime. It is important to protect the mind from such a possibility. It means that not only do we have to be aware of how our minds function when meditating, we also need to be mindful in everyday life. When meditating, you may put aside evil thoughts. But as you go about the world, they may often assail you.
And there, it's the same. We need to put away those thoughts, evil thoughts, judgmental thoughts, really greed, anger, and avarice.
We have to see them. It's the same as on the mat. In our daily life how aware are we of the tape that's running through our head? The more aware the more leverage we have, the more ability we have to do a course correction, to wake up to the moment, to see what's needed. Not to act out of anger or greed.
He says there are many examples of lives full of mistakes of this kind. Some people go into the mountains and practice maybe for years. Surely, that's something that Sheng Yen himself did. He spent six years. They come to feel that they have gone beyond all greed and hatred, the mind is calm, so how can such negatives arise? They may even if they may even feel they have attained liberation. So they come down from the mountain and start interacting again in the world. Quite quickly, they may get irritated by others or some or form some emotional attachments which they find they cannot handle. Greed and hatred appear, they are forced to recognize that they still have major vexations.
This result occurs because even though hidden in the mountains, and not experiencing any major, major trouble, still the minor illusions, the stuff of wandering thought has not been put down. You can see how important it is to cut off even minor wandering thoughts. One who works hard with a method may not be able to cut off all illusory thoughts for all times, but at least he or she can get to the stage of cutting them off for a few seconds, minutes, or hours or even a few days. It is important to recognize that your mind can be free from illusion.
It's pretty unusual to cut them off for more than a few seconds. But it can be done. Even though even that ability to just have them settle for a little bit. So affirming. so reassuring. Such a good indication that the path we're on is is a good one. And then it can extend. Usually the first thing that happens is we get overexcited and flash back out of it. And then the other problem that can happen is we now set that up as a goal -- need to get back to that state where my mind was free of thoughts. Am I there yet? So we just have to work through it. Keep making that mistake and finally put it down and just settle back into stillness.
When such a person, that is the person who's been in the mountains, is faced with difficulty in daily life, it becomes easier to recognize the nature of that difficulty. Even as the vexation arises, the practitioner is aware of it and prevents a negative manifestation. But if one fails to practice after leaving the mountain, even though awareness may be present, a manifestation will usually occur. This is why many of us look forward to spending time in retreat, or to practicing in the mountains. It gives us the ability Not only to see our anger arising, but to refrain from deploying it. We get better at it over time. And it definitely helps to, to do intensive practice.
Closing the seven orifices, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils in the mouth, and shutting off the six senses -- seeing hearing smelling, taste, touch, and cognition -- is the discipline of withdrawal from the attachments we have to worldly things. Such discipline in retreat enables us to perceive how the mind of illusion functions and provides a space in which clarity develops. Wang Ming's poem may be causing some of us a problem. Simon the cook was puzzled when I praise the cooking at lunchtime,.Simon was worried that his good cooking might be distracting me from meditation. I told him that he need not stop cooking delicious food, a dish that tastes good, well, it just tastes good. The message is simply this, don't get attached to it. After you finished, let it go. You never know -- next time you can be disappointed, and the whole rigmarole of pleasure and disappointment gets going again. Then your meditation is indeed disturbed. When Wang Ming tells us to close the orifices and shut down the six senses, he does not mean that we should become senseless zombies, not seeing, hearing or feeling. What he cautions us against is perpetually wondering what kind of food we will have anticipation and disappointment, create attachment and greed. So a mistake, a misunderstanding that many people have, when they hear this advice, to cut off the senses and drop all thoughts -- that somehow it's going to be this grim zombie like state. Anything but -- because we're not dead to the moment. We're flowing freely in this eternal present. We don't miss the good taste of the food. It's just that we don't make something of it. Enjoyed in a non abiding basis.
Skipping ahead a little bit, when we were engaged in meditation, our practice should not be suffused by attitudes of comparison. Maybe something is good looking, maybe something sounds bad. If it is, so leave it at that. We should act as if what we have seen we have not noticed and what we have heard, we have not regarded. We train ourselves so that the mind does not give rise to comparisons and illusory preferences triggered by the environment. Whatever we have experienced is simply so. There's no need to get worked up about it.
What we think is a problem is almost always our own reactivity.
Perhaps you see a beautiful flower in the hedgerow. You like it, you pick it, you take it home, then it fades and dies. Maybe you forgot the water. Every day we hear the bahhing of sheep and the bleeting of lambs. This of course is in Wales. When the animals are in the yard there is indeed a great noise like waves breaking on the shore. If you are truly practicing, you witness the sound and nothing more. You will not be thinking Oh how cute the little lamkins are, oh what a sad sheep that one must be, perhaps it has lost its lamb. Sheep are in the yard. That's all. When engaged in practice you need not be concerned with them.
Next verse. Pay no heed to forms, do not listen to sounds. Listening to sounds you become deaf, you become blind observing forms. There is a deeper meaning here. When you listen to sounds you interpret them according to your nature. When you observe forms you like likewise create a story about them. But these ideas you have are not the actual reality. The actual nature of sound we do not hear. The actual nature of form we do not perceive -- in that we do not perceive reality when we look at things, we are as blind. When we hear things we are as deaf. Understanding the illusory nature of experience, we should not get disturbed by whatever arises.
One of you has objected that if one lived as blind and deaf, one could not perceive the beauty of the world, and would not experience gratitude for life. Pleasure and gratitude are related. Surely, it is not wrong to feel gratitude. Again, it is important not to be mistaken about Wang Ming's message. We need to understand it with subtlety. He is simply saying that sentiments like gratitude, have no place within practice. Before practice and after practice, you experience the pleasures and pains of this world. Gratitude arises, compassion arises, love arises. It is in order to have a clear perception of the natural state that we need to practice without these things. The natural state is just as it is, naked. unintentional, unadorned by sentiment. It reminds me of Bodhidharma's vast emptiness with nothing holy in it. Just as it is. We are speaking here of the vital elements of intensive practice, where it is essential for us to have a mind of clarity. In everyday activity, we experience the whole of life, including illusion. Through practice, we can penetrate to the core and mindfulness can become part of everyday life too. We are still in the state of the chicken feather. We do not yet perceive the meaning of the phrase in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. In our practice, therefore, it is vital to investigate vigorously. In cutting off the senses, we perceive the mind without the intrusion of wandering thought. It is an essential aspect of training.
That concludes day two. We're going to move on to day three, let them get a little ahead of us, they've got six days to do. Day three early morning. I have two themes for the day. He's no longer reading from Wang Ming's poem. I have two themes for the day. These are every thought a present moment, every moment a rebirth.
As time passes, you witness the passage of thoughts. As thought succeeds thought, you experience the passage of time. In your practice, it is important to make every thought the present moment. If you make yourself one with the moment, you stop the thought -- there is simply experience without time, because without thought, time becomes a continuous present. You have to discover for yourself what being one with a moment actually is. And for that, of course, we have the method, we have our practice. It's not something that you need to manipulate, manipulate your mind, in order to discover. He says when you make every thought a present moment, there is no continuity of time, no carryover from moment to moment. Everything is continuously fresh, like the water of a spring, endlessly bubbling up into the open air. In such practice, every moment is a rebirth. Here we have no thought succeeding thought, rather there is endless recreation. An endless momentless continuity. As one master has said one thought for 1000 years. In this 1000 years, there are no thoughts -- there is simply a continuous, unbroken newness.
Of course this requires us to set aside our ideas of time
It can be such a bugbear, such a burden in sesshin to have those thoughts of where we are, where we're located in time. How far into the round, how long till the bell? How many days are down? To have those running through the mind and they run through the mind because they get entertained. It's because we pick them up that they keep assaulting us They won't leave until we leave them alone.
He says this is why it is so important for a beginner to cultivate going beyond thought. Today therefore, focus directly upon the present moment, there is no need to think about it. Just enter the present moment like a diver who has left the springboard. Plunge into it without judgment or consideration. When the driver -- when the diver dives he lets go. There is only the long fall into the water, which takes no time. Each time you sit down on your cushion, dive into the present moment, becoming thoughtlessly one with it. And you will find that every moment is indeed a rebirth.
Short and sweet. It helps so much to have that intention. You sit down on the cushion to open into this present moment. No matter how many times we have to reset that intention. That's really our motive power.
Time for a little bit more. This is day three breakfast table remarks. In the USA, there is a particular question which my Western trainees find especially important, and which I would like to put to you here. In the eastern tradition, there is a major emphasis on no self -- it is no self that has to be discovered. Yet in the perspective of Western psychology, the most important thing is to develop one's personal self to a maximum degree, emphasizing one's individuality, uniqueness and admirable qualities. One cannot get on in the world, it seems without developing this assertive self. There seems to be a contradiction between East and West here. How can this be resolved? Actually, east and west are talking about the same thing, but they're emphasizing different levels. When we are young, we have to develop our sense of personal identity in order to take on the world. If we don't know that John, Mary, Esmeralda, or Harry was the name for this thing we call I, it would not be possible to relate conventionally with others, to pass examinations, to get a job. And since personal welfare depends on income, and we need a livelihood, we have to function within that livelihood as individual persons. Which means we need to know how to manage ourselves in our relations with others. The western psychologist is making a realistic point in stressing the importance of becoming an individual. Always need that basis.
In fact, without having a grasp of your personal identity of who you are, in the usual everyday sense, it would not be possible to attain to train in Buddhism. The practice of Dharma starts with individuality that has the will to train and practice the methods. So many of the qualities that are called for in practice come from a well integrated sense of self. It's a good sign if someone is successful in life. Despite the habits that may come along with that, that that integrity and that power of determination, go a long way in helping us establish our practice.
He says to go beyond self, there must first be a firm sense of self. Someone who is all over the place, who changes mood or intentions with every shift in circumstance, who has not been able to distinguish him or herself from others who are potent influences is not equipped for the practice of Chan. Yet wisdom comes from going beyond the elementary constructions of identity, from investigating who this is that walks talks argues and quarrels. When we go beyond we develop a larger sense of self. A major step in this progression is the discovery of the undivided mind. One in which the splits for by discrimination are healed.
This is what I meant the other day when I spoke of the internal and external being united or the body and mind becoming one. Yet the unified mind remains of the same structure as the divided one, it has not yet gone beyond, it is not the no self. What then is no self. Look at the words. It is a state of being in which the self is absent, there is no self center, no habit of self reference. Everything else and experience is the same as before, but the quality of being has become radically different. It is usually the case that the appearance of no mind depends on the prior integration of the mind. So, then in other words, it usually comes out of this state of oneness. So, long as the self and its object are separate, the one regarding the other, there is duality. The split mind of discrimination cannot transcend its own habits. You cannot experience release into no mind from a divided mind, only from a unified one. And where there is no self, we may say there is no mind, for in this perspective, the ordinary mind is the activity of self.
Practice therefore, focuses on methods that unify the mind, we discover ourselves as whole beings through practice. And gradually as we master the mental processes, and bring about calming and integration, so we master ourselves, we gain control over the monkey mind. This wholeness is always a novel experience. Its discovery is a source of freedom, relaxation and clarity. It is the completion of the self as self. To reach this condition is already a major step. Most of us remain scattered in mind and body discriminating and arguing within ourselves and with others. Today is the third day. For us of course, today is the second day. Let us attempt to integrate mind and body. This is the first step. Allow yourself to become one -- attain the state where body and mind are not separate and experience and then the external and the internal will also be united. Dive into your method wholeheartedly, without doubt or reservation.
And this is an excellent place to stop. Our time is up and will now recite the four vows