January 2022 Sesshin, Day 1: Nothing Special: Living Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck
8:55PM Jan 18, 2022
Today is the first day of this January 2022 Rohatsu sesshin, and I'm going to begin today reading from our old friend Joko Beck. I just think it's a good foundation for the work that we need to do. What she's talking about is pain. And since this is the Rohatsu sesshin, honoring the great awakening of the Buddha, it seems fitting to begin with the First Noble Truth: Life is pain. Life is not satisfactory, not to our liking.
Joko, of course, has a lot to say on that subject. So I'm reading from a book, which might be the second book that was published with her talks. It's called "Nothing Special: Living Zen," and this section is called "The Cocoon of Pain."
She says, "When we bow in the zendo, what are we honoring? One way to answer this question is to ask what we actually honor in our lives, as shown by what we think and do. And the truth of the matter is that, in our lives, we do not honor Buddha-nature, or the God that encompasses everything, including life and death, good and evil, all the opposites. The truth is we're not interested in that. We certainly don't want to honor death or pain or loss. What we do is erect a false god. The Bible says, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.' But we do just that."
Yeah, it's a tough ask that our lives measure up to our aspiration. Because when we bow in the zendo, of course, we're honoring our True-nature and reaffirming our aspiration to come to awakening, to realize that nature, that nature that encompasses everything, including life and death, good and evil, joy and sorrow.
But if we're honest, if we actually have the eyes to see how we live our lives, how our thoughts churn, thoughts and emotions, physical sensations, everything churns through the body, we realize we certainly don't live completely in our True-nature.
So she says, "What is the god that we erect? What do we actually honor and pay attention to moment by moment? We might call it the god of comfort and pleasantness and security. In worshipping that god, we destroy our lives--a strong statement. Worshiping comfort and pleasantness, we destroy our lives. In worshipping the god of comfort and pleasantness, people literally kill themselves with drugs, alcohol, high speeds, recklessness, anger. Nations worship this god on a much larger and more destructive scale. Until we honestly see that this is what our lives are about, we will be unable to discover who we really are."
The first thing she mentions here, drugs and alcohol, and some of the others, are easy to recognize as classic addictions. Some of us have dealt with those. But really everyone is an addict. Everyone is addicted.
The big problem comes when we don't see that. We think we don't have pain; we think we're not looking for the easy way out. It's hard to keep that up when we start paying attention. Good Zen practice is going to show us quite clearly where we fall short.
When we separate ourselves from our lives, we have certain things we're not willing to look at; it can be really habitual. People wonder, 'Why can't I completely unite with my practice?' It's all about that door we've left open and an unwillingness to be completely with things as they are.
It's where aspiration comes into play. We know that we fall short. But if we truly aspire to open ourselves up all the way, if we do and if we keep at it, then there are possibilities.
She says, "We have many ways to cope with life, many ways to worship comfort and pleasantness. All are based on the same thing, the fear of encountering any kind of unpleasantness.
If we must have absolute order and control, it's because we're trying to avoid any unpleasantness. If we can have things our way and get angry if they're not, then we think we can survive and shut out our anxiety about death. If we can please everyone, then we imagine no unpleasantness will enter our life. We hope that if we can be the star of the show, shining and wonderful and efficient, we can have such an admiring audience that we won't have to feel anything. If we can withdraw from the world and just entertain ourselves with our own dreams and fantasies and emotional upheavals, we think we can escape unpleasantness.
It's quite a laundry list. If we can figure everything out, if we can be so smart that we can fit everything into some sort of a plan or order, a complete intellectual understanding, then perhaps we won't be threatened. If we can submit to an authority, have it tell us what to do, then we can give someone else the responsibility for our lives and we don't have to carry it anymore. We don't have to feel the anxiety of making a decision. It's such a temptation for so many people to find that guru, that spiritual authority: just tell me what to do. It's not the Zen way.
If we can give someone else the responsibility for our lives and we don't have to carry it anymore, we don't have to feel the anxiety of making a decision. If we pursue life madly, going after any pleasant sensation, any excitement, any entertainment, perhaps we won't have to feel any pain. If we can tell others what to do, keep them well under control, under our foot, maybe they can't hurt us."
Finally, she says, "If we can bliss out, if we can be a mindless 'Buddha,' just relaxing in the sun, we won't have to assume any responsibility for the world's unpleasantness. We can just be happy."
All of these, this long, long litany, this list of our strategies that people adopt, and we all do to one degree or another, not necessarily any one exclusively. But when I read through this, I can see so many of the things that I sometimes do.
You begin to see how problematic it is. Maybe you can also see that it's the same for everyone. We're all fighting a hard battle. That tendency today to look at others' lives through the prism of social media, Facebook or Instagram, people look like they've got it together, seem to be succeeding.
I think everyone here knows that's not a clear, complete picture. Even if we've made tremendous progress, even if we've come to awakening, and even if we've integrated it to some degree into our lives, there are still things that trip us up. Still, the things we don't want to admit, don't want to take in, like to find a way out, that's natural, that's human. I'm not suggesting that we should then beat ourselves up about that. But just to see, to know, to understand, and to realize through experience that when we do let some of the unpleasantness in, we are willing to accept that life is as it is, things get better.
She says, "All of these are versions of the god we actually worship. It is the god of no discomfort and no unpleasantness. Without exception, every being on Earth pursues it to some degree. As we pursue it, we lose touch with what really is. As we lose touch, our life spirals downward, and the very unpleasantness that we sought to avoid can overwhelm us. Of course that's the other point about all of these strategies: none of them work."
She says, "This has been the problem of human life since the beginning of time. All philosophies and all religions are varying attempts to deal with this basic fear. Only when such attempts fail us are we ready to begin serious practice. And they do fail because the systems we adopt are not based upon reality. They can't work despite all of our feverish efforts. Sooner or later, we come to realize that something is amiss."
I would qualify that. I would say sooner or later many people come to realize that something is amiss. But I think there are many people who live their entire life pursuing one of these strategies and trying to paper over the unpleasantness and live that life of separation, self-preference. We need a system based upon reality. And there's no better description than the Four Noble Truths. Okay, so sooner or later we realize that something is amiss.
She goes on, "Unfortunately, we often nearly compound our error by trying harder, by plastering over our old faulty system with a new faulty system. It's seductive, for example, to give ourselves over to some false authority or guru who will run our lives for us as we attempt to find something or someone outside of ourselves to take care of our fear."
She goes on, "Yesterday a butterfly flew through my open door and fluttered about in my room. Someone caught it and released it outside. It made me think about the life of a butterfly. A butterfly begins as a worm, technically a caterpillar. But okay, a butterfly begins as a worm, which moves slowly and can't see very far. Eventually the worm builds itself a cocoon. And in that dark quiet space, it stays for a long time. Finally, after what must seem like an eternity of darkness, it emerges as a butterfly.
"The life history of a butterfly is similar to our practice; we have some misconceptions about both. However, we may imagine, for example, that because butterflies are pretty, their life in the cocoon before they emerge is also pretty. We don't realize all that the worm must go through in order to become a butterfly. Similarly, when we begin to practice, we don't realize the long and difficult transformation required of us. We have to see through our pursuit of outward things, the false gods of pleasure and security. We have to stop gobbling this and pursuing that in our shortsighted way and simply relax into the cocoon, into the darkness of the pain that is our life."
"Simply relax into it," easy to say. She says, "Such practice requires years of our lives. Unlike the butterfly, we don't emerge once and for all. As we spin within the cocoon of pain, we may have momentary glimpses of life as a butterfly fluttering in the sun. At such times, we sense the absolute wonder of what our life is, something we never know as a busy little worm preoccupied with itself. We begin to know the world of the butterfly only by contacting our own pain, which means no longer worshipping the god of comfort and pleasantness, no longer living a life of avoidance."
It's a lesson we have to learn over and over again. We can see it in a really simple way when we talk about physical pain, we'll say leg pain, knee pain in sesshin. When I first began going to sesshin, I was completely thrown by that pain. I remember thinking, 'I wish I had played some sort of sport like football so I toughened up enough to be able to handle this because I'm not doing a very good job.' But we find as we go on that if we would relax into the pain, just breathe into it, that it changes.
But the unfortunate thing is you can find that out, you can do it, you can have the pain vanish, and then the next time it comes back, you can't do it. Or you don't want to do it. We go back and forth. We're slow learners; we need to get hit over the head again and again before it really sinks in, before it gets into the body. For we know this is the way I need to go. The way is openness. It's not closing things off. That's our aspiration, to open. That's what it is to honor our Buddha-nature.
She says, "We have to give up our slavish obedience to whatever system of pain avoidance we have devised and realize that we can't escape discomfort simply by running faster and trying harder. The faster we run from our pain, the more our pain overtakes us. When what we depended on to give our life some meaning doesn't work anymore, what are we going to do? Some people may never give up this false pursuit. Eventually they may die of an overdose, literally or figuratively. In the struggle to gain control, we go faster, we strain, we try harder. We squeeze people tighter. We squeeze ourselves tighter. And life can never really be brought under control. As we flee from reality, the pain increases. This pain is our teacher.
"Sitting is not about finding a happy, blissful state. The states may occur in sitting when we've really experienced our pain over and over so that finally there's just letting go. That surrender and opening into something fresh and new is the consequence of experiencing pain, not a consequence of finding a place where we can shut the pain out."
And part of what's implied there, part of what's in that, is that we can't use surrender, acceptance, and opening as another new strategy to make things okay. I remember reading a book about acceptance and commitment therapy; she talks a lot about pain and talks a lot about dealing with, say, anxiety.
The antidote to anxiety is acceptance, to be willing to be with it, to feel it. Approach it with curiosity, but if that strategy is in service of trying to get the anxiety to go away, it just doesn't work because we're not really committed. We've got that back door open.
She says, "Sitting sesshin and everyday practice are a matter of wrapping ourselves in that cocoon of pain. We don't do this unwillingly. First, we may be willing to have only one little strand wrapped around us, and then we'll break away. Again, we'll wrap it around us and again, break away. Eventually, we become willing to sit with that portion of our pain for a while. Then perhaps we become willing to tolerate two or three strands. As our vision gets clearer, we can just sit within our cocoon and find it's the only peaceful space we've ever been in. And when we're perfectly willing to be there, in other words, when we're willing for life to be as it is, embracing both life and death, pleasure and pain, good and bad, comfortable and being both, then the cocoon begins to dissolve."
It's not just pain; it's pleasure and pain, good and bad, life and death. A master once said, "Ease and hardship alternate; therein lies the way."
"Unlike the butterfly, we alternate between the cocoon and the butterfly many times. This process continues through our life. Each time we uncover unresolved areas of our life, we have to build another cocoon and rest quietly in it until the learning period completes itself. Each time our cocoon bursts and we take a little step, we are freer.
"The first essential step in becoming a butterfly is to recognize that we can't make it as a worm. It's tough to make it as a worm; we have to see through our pursuit of the false god of comfort and pleasure. We have to get a clearer picture of that god. We have to relinquish our sense of entitlement, our sense that life owes us this and that: such a helpful thing to let go of. It should be the special ability of a Buddhist, someone who believes in the Buddha way, to be able to relinquish the sense that life owes us this and that."
Everything is causes and conditions. What we experience today is the result of what we did yesterday, a year ago, 10 years ago, lifetimes ago. We may wish to have a life that's free of pain. But do we deserve that? Is it unfair that we have to struggle?
She says, "We have to abandon the notion that we can compel others to love us by doing things for them. We have to recognize that we cannot manipulate life to satisfy ourselves, and that finding fault with others, with ourselves or others, is not an effective way of helping anyone. We slowly abandon our basic arrogance."
That's such a big one, finding fault. Think of the sixth and seventh precepts, how often people take those up: Not to speak of the faults of others, but to overcome my own shortcomings. Not to praise myself and revile others. So hard to do, so habitual to make ourselves look good and to see what's wrong with other people. And then there are the people who, having spent so much time criticizing others, turn the gun on themselves. It's always a two-way street.
"We slowly abandon our basic arrogance. The truth is life inside the cocoon is frustrating and heartbreaking, and it's never totally behind us. I don't mean that from morning to night, we feel 'I am wrapped in pain.' I mean that we're waking up constantly to what we're about, to what we're really doing in our lives. And the fact is that's painful, but there's no possibility of freedom without this pain. I recently heard a quotation from a professional athlete, 'Love is not shared pleasure. It is shared pain.' It's a good insight. We can certainly enjoy going out with our partner, for example, and having dinner together. I'm not questioning the value of shared enjoyment. But if we want a relationship to be closer and more genuine, we need to share with our partner that which is most scary for us to share with anybody. When we do that, then the other person has freedom to do the same thing. Instead, we want to keep our image, particularly with somebody we're trying to impress."
And I'd add we also want them to keep up their image. We don't want to see their pain and their suffering. If we do, we want to fix it; we want it to go away. But truly, to be able to open up to that, that in ourselves, that in others, is the way to intimacy, a life that's rich, multi-dimensional.
"Sharing our pain does not mean telling our partners how they irritate us. That's a way of saying I'm angry with you. It does not help us break down our false idol and open us up to life as a butterfly. What does open us is sharing our vulnerabilities. Sometimes we see a couple who has done this difficult work over a lifetime. In the process they have grown old together. We can sense the enormous comfort, the shared quality of ease between these people. It's beautiful and very rare. Without this quality of openness and vulnerability, partners don't really know each other. They are one image living with another image.
"We may seek to avoid the cocoon of pain by drifting into a hazy, unfocused state of vaguely pleasant drifting that can last for hours. When we realize that's what's happening, what is a good question to ask? And a student pipes up, 'What am I avoiding?' Or I might ask, 'What am I experiencing right now?' "
And Joko says, "These are both good questions to ask. The curious thing is we say we want to know reality and see our life as it is. Yet when we begin to practice or attend sesshin, we immediately find ways to avoid reality by retreating into this hazy, dreamy state. That's just another form of worshipping the false god of comfort and pleasure.
"Another student asks, 'Isn't there a flaw in seeking out suffering and focusing on it?' "
And she replies, "We don't have to seek it. It's already there in our lives. Every five minutes, we're in trouble in some way. All of our seeking is to escape it. There are countless ways people try to escape or to pull a safe shell around themselves. Despite our efforts, the shell does get broken. And we get more frantic and try harder. We go to work, and find that the boss has had a bad night or a child calls about getting in trouble at school. The shell is constantly under assault. There's no way we can be sure of keeping it in place. Our lives break down because we can't stand any opposition to the way we want things to be. Pain is constantly in our lives. We feel not only our own pain but the pain of people around us. We try to build our wall thicker. We avoid people in distress, but it's always present nonetheless.
"A student asks, 'Supposing I'm sitting and I'm not in pain; I'm actually rather comfortable. Is it useful to remember painful times in my life, to go back to unresolved situations and try to deal with them?'
"Of course," Joko says, "that's not necessary. If we're alert to what's going on in our thoughts, in our body, in this moment, we'll have plenty to work with. When we are fully awake in this moment, sitting can be pleasurable, too. But we shouldn't seek that out and try to escape the pain. Then we bring into practice the false god and refuse to be awake to what is."
It's easy to make a project out of this. The fact of the matter is our job is not to think about these things but to notice when we're closing ourselves off, which is almost always because something has come up that we're trying to avoid, which is always because it's something that we see as painful. So there's no need to make this a subject of rumination. It's just keep, moment by moment, looking at what's in front of us, noticing what's in the body.
As we do that over time, things dissolve. Zazen is incredibly powerful. Practice really works. But it's a lifetime practice. The joy comes when we realize it works. I have faith in this. I'm willing to pay my dues, willing to set aside my expectations, just do the work for its own sake and for the sake of others.
I have a little time, so I'm going to read something from Pema Chodron that fits quite well with what Joko has just said; it just plugs right in. "The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn't mean that something is wrong. What a relief. Finally, somebody told the truth. Suffering is part of life and we don't have to feel it's happening because we personally made the wrong move. In reality, however, when we feel suffering, we think that something is wrong. As long as we're addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot.
"The word in Tibetan for hope is rewa; the word for fear is dokpa. More commonly the word re-dok is used, which combines the two, hope and fear. It's a feeling with two sides. As long as there's one, there's always the other. This re-dok is the root of our pain. In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.
"In a nontheistic state of mind, that is, setting aside any question of God, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put 'Abandon hope' on your refrigerator door, instead of more conventional aspirations like 'Every day in every way I'm getting better and better.'
"Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something. They come from a sense of poverty; we can't simply relax with ourselves. We hold onto hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what's going on, but that there's something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.
"Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That's the compassionate thing to do. That's the brave thing to do. You can smell it, feel it; what is its texture, color and shape?
"We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe that there's something wrong with that. We can drop that fundamental hope that there is a better 'me' who one day will emerge. We can't just jump over ourselves as if we're not there. It's better to take that straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.
"This is where renunciation enters the picture, renunciation of the hope that our experience could be different, renunciation of the hope that we could be better. The Buddhist monastic rules that advise renouncing liquor, renouncing sex, and so on are not pointing out that these things are inherently bad or immoral, but that we use them as babysitters. We use them as a way to escape; we use them to try to get comfort and distract ourselves. The real thing that we renounce is the tenacious hope that we could be saved from being who we are. Renunciation is a teaching to inspire us to investigate what's happening every time we grab something because we can't stand to face what's coming."
Such a fruitful switch to move from strategies of escape to a strategy of opening, of acceptance, of kindness, kindness to ourselves, kindness to others. We can talk about it and think about it. But in order to do it, we need to train the mind; we need to do this minute, close work. We need to let ourselves sink into our practice, take up the method. There's no better place to do it than in a 7-day sesshin. There's so much that's possible. So many people before us have opened up, and of course there's no final opening. There's no point at which we flap our wings and fly off into the sunset. But we learn a different way of life, a way that works, a way that makes sense, a way that's helpful to life itself, to others.