July 2021 Sesshin, Day 3: The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim
8:59PM Aug 4, 2021
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is the third day of this July 2021, seven day sesshin. And we'll take another chunk of our text of the last two days -the book The Way of Korean Zen, which is the teachings of the Korean Zen master Kusan Sunim.
We left off yesterday where Pusan was talking about how to really work on the koan, what is this? What is it? I won't repeat that, but just go on to this next paragraph where he says, while meditating, both wisdom and concentration need to be cultivated in unison. If there is wisdom without concentration, then mistaken views will increase. And if there is concentration, without wisdom, then ignorance will grow. Now let's go back and kind of break this down. Because the words wisdom and concentration can be understood. Each of them can be understood in two different ways. I'll just take one of the more practical that is practice related. Here, wisdom when he says wisdom, he really means alertness, alert awareness, this is not prajna in the sense of awakening, but alert awareness. If there is alert awareness without concentration, concentration, would mean more calm absorption, then, mistake mistaken views will increase as the mind is still not at rest and it can be restless and grasping at different kinds of ideas. And then on the converse, if there is concentration that is calm, absorption, without wisdom, without alertness, then ignorance will grow. So then he applies this, to koan, when enquiring single mindedly into the koan, what is this, the vividness of the koan? That is the the awareness of it really, the awareness of it becomes wisdom, and the cessation of distracted thoughts becomes concentration. Here to this I may further clarify it. He says, meditation can be compared to a battle between wandering thoughts and dullness of mind on the one side, and the koan on the other. So there are two is warning of two dangers. One is wandering thoughts versus calmness. And then the other danger is dullness of mind versus alertness. And many says the stronger the koan becomes, which of course means the stronger the awareness of the koan becomes the stronger it appears in the mind. The weaker will become both wandering thoughts and dullness.
Yeah, so a lot, a lot of people probably most people up until the practice becomes quite mature. toggle between these two, wandering thoughts and dullness other words are torpor, or lethargy.
This is very much characterized as many people's practice in the first half of sesshin. Of course, we all know about wandering thoughts. And then there's also the danger of, of dullness, torpor a even course drowsiness.
He says up may 1 to a battle between wandering thoughts and dullness of mind on the one side and calling on the other. Be sure that it's not our job to fight our thoughts is that's not the battle. The battle is so called the battle is to get back to the practice, as soon as one discovers, notices that the mind has wandered, get back to the practice, to pull free wrench oneself free of those thoughts and get right back to the object of concentration, the colon or the breath actually, never do we want to oppose our thoughts, either by trying to suppress them or expel them.
We don't need to, they will they will settle. If our attention is focused on the breath of the colon, the thoughts will settle on their own and and fighting them. Trying to suppress them, push them out of the mind just gives them more energy.
Then he steps back and speaks more generally. You're not the first and you will not be the last to tread this path. So don't become discouraged if you find the practice difficult at times. All the previous ancestors, as well as contemporary masters have experienced hardships along this way. It's one of the reasons I like to read the accounts of these great masters is because they they clewd just harrowing descriptions of what they went through.
Moreover, it is not always the most virtuous or intelligent person who makes the swiftest progress. Sometimes the opposite is true. There are many cases of troublesome and Ill behaved people, who, upon turning their attention inward to the practice of meditation, have quickly experienced a breakthrough. So don't feel defeated even before you have really begun. So, yeah, to elaborate on that. There are people I think I used to think about this to my hindrance. There are people who, who look honestly at their faults. And their misbehavior, the way they get into trouble or the way they they get into trouble with what they say to others. Their maybe their anger. Other things and they think well, until I get rid of those things, what chance do I have of coming to awakening, but as kasana saying here, because of the power of this practice, you don't have to become a someone of Sterling character and exquisite personality. To have this first breakthrough is very important. Don't waste your time, dwelling on your your faults, your imperfections, your afflictions, throwing at the worst thing anyone can do while doing this, they come up we see them can be very sobering, in the quiet of meditation, to have these things exposed in a way that we don't normally see them when we're out and about in our daily lives rushing here rushing there talking, carrying on these things. are not as obvious as they are, when we're sitting. So it's very important to just to repeat, that we don't have to clean up our act. In order to have an initial breakthrough, we just need to reach single minded absorption in the practice.
They are an old saying in Zen, strong ego, strong spirit, that spirit can can overcome strong egoistic tendencies. Of course, the after that becomes the seasoning, the the deepening the refinement of, of the personality and character. But first comes the breakthrough.
I, we had a visiting Zen teacher come to participate in the dedication of the Buddha Hall in Rochester. And I was assigned, this was like the mid 70s, I have a job of being his local attendant, he brought three of his own attendance, but I became the local one. And so as part of as part of my job, I picked him up there, pick them up at the airport and drop them up afterward. And as I was returning them to the airport after the ceremony, woman in the backseat was marveling at how Roshi Kapleau had changed since she had last seen him. She was saying almost threw herself. To all of us, though, she was saying he used to be so angry,
strong ego strong spirit,
then would not of course not be limited to anger, it's it's anxiety, anxiety has propelled many people along on this path. Even even a tendency toward depression is can be used to look deeply into this matter of life and death.
He goes on. In the final analysis, the practice of Zen can be said to be both the easiest as well as the most difficult thing to do.
It's the way I understand easiest is the rather the simplest that is it's a simple, practice that complicated. It's not caught you don't have to visualize deities or concepts. Love or anything. It's it's, it's just a two step process. Listen up, you can take this to the back. Step one, noticing, noticing when the mind has wandered. This is of course, that's how it all begins. That's how the practice works. Number one noticing we can we can be lost in our thoughts and our fantasies for the longest time without noticing until Notice, there's nothing we can do, we're lost. So, first, the noticing which happens on its own. And then second, back to the practice, redirect.
Too many people after noticing, just stick around, they're in their thoughts. You're they want to just Hang Hang in there, hang with the more go on against all instruction, you want to stay there with these thoughts that can be so beguiling or the fantasies also maybe even more beguiling. So what makes the practice difficult is that we're so habituated to dwelling in our thoughts and fantasies and, and it takes this real conviction to just leave them as soon as we notice this, leave them back redirect to the practice, say practice, it can be used in a broader sense of everything we do all the time. Active practice, maintaining awareness throughout our daily lives. And then the practice can also mean in the more narrow sense of the breadth of the koan, or shikantaza. Say back to the practice, that's what it means the ladder, get back to the principle. Objective concentration, let's put it that way.
So it's both the simplest as the as well as the most difficult thing to do. But, but of course, it gets less difficult. If we persist of this, how so is a learning curve. We learn that our thoughts are not our friends. We learned that by leaving them as soon as we notice the thoughts or fantasies by redirecting back to the practice, that things go more smoothly. Time passes more swiftly, and doesn't drag. If you notice, the time is dragging, then you're not absorbed enough, yet you're not concentrated enough. You can do something about that get more concentrated, bear down on it. And you you find you learn there's the learning curve, you learn that everything goes more smoothly. You can even just find yourself sailing through a block of sitting. When you learn not to trust the thoughts not to have any truck with your thoughts.
For most of us, this takes a while. We're so used to just just dwelling in our thoughts. It's it's hard to pull ourselves free from them, but we get better at it. We get better at it as we see the fruits of it the benefits of leaving our thoughts alone, and just putting all our eggs in the basket of the breath of the colon.
And then he he issues a warning. However, don't deceive yourself into thinking that it will be either very simple or extremely hard. Yeah, thinking about it then is this mix complicates everything. That's why in this particular case, my there's nothing better you can do during during teisho. But to immediately forget what I just said. Forget it. Because otherwise, it's just what is it? It's thoughts. You're thinking about what I said, No, don't think about what I said. Just the practice the breath, the corn. What I said, is somehow going in to some degree or another, sometimes one can, things the teacher said and teisho can, can come back and later, much later,
he goes on, there is no one who can undertake this task for you. The students hunger can never be satisfied by his teachers eating a meal for him. It's like competing in a marathon, the winner will only be the person who is either the fittest, or the most determined, it is solely up to the individual to win the race. Likewise, to achieve the aim of your practice, don't be distracted by things that are not related to this task. For the time being, just let everything else remain as it is, and put it out of your mind.
Just repeat that, do not be distracted by things that are not related to this task. Well, everyone knows that that's, that's the basic injunction in practice is don't be distracted by things unrelated, directly related to the task. But we do get distracted. What would we do? Well, soon as we notice that we go back to the practice.
But it is why we are so strict about the whole. The whole, all the procedures and the whole sesshin environment is to make it as easy as possible, or to make it to present as few distractions as possible for sesshin participants. It's why we're so strict about silence.
When I went to after some 15 years or so of sessions here, I went to a temple in Japan Zen temple, spent three months there and was really startled by the light conversation that went on during machine during during the work period. And mainly. I was sweeping the grounds the temple courtyard. And this, this other resident there, who, actually American from Texas, he sidled up to me, he'd been there years. And he said, so what's your dad do?
I'm like, Why, what? And then I've since learned that that's not so uncommon in sessions elsewhere. I suppose they would look and see us as being overly stringent, I guess. We all think that we found the middle way. Right. Same and politically, okay, I'm in the middle. So as others those others that are off many years ago, it may have changed. Let me say that but many years ago, it was it was sort of a thing of a San Francisco Zen center during break periods to go out and get ice cream. And their defense, I think is well you know, you're creating an unnatural environment. What relationship does this have to your daily life? It's so so different. And to that, I would say, Yeah, it is. It's It's nothing much like the daily lives of most of us who come here we're much more occupied with talking with people and going here and there. But But can we isn't it worth it this one week, now and then one week to just batten down the hatches, and, and tighten thing, the screws to such an extent that we almost have to go inward, we almost have to stay between the rails. Isn't it worth minimizing to a bare minimum, the distractions of course, we're gonna always have distractions, even in these strict conditions, but to minimize them, and then, and then to have one kind of breakthrough or another, isn't that worth it? And then take, take the insight from whatever it takes whatever insights we reach in sesshin, and then be able to take them out back into these busy lives we lead when we want to go out and get ice cream or do whatever we want to do. It's different.
I think this is the this is also what's behind the the very
truncated nature of ducks on exchanges ducks on what happens in dogs. Here's two differences. Another Zen Big Zen Center. They would be typical, or I've been told to get just for docq signs the whole week, or even one of them. Just one, one dog song for seven days. It'd be longer though. So you could chat for 15 minutes I've been told. The trouble with chatting is that it invites this distracted thoughts that you carry back to the zendo and go take you far afield from the route practice the breadth of the koan.
Most of you have heard me say ask that, that when you first come to Doakes on when, when you're seated on the mat, if you're if you're a formerly a student, then you do the prostration. But after after that first thing, say what's your practices? Now, usually I know what your practices I don't need you to tell me especially if I'm working with you for a long time. But I want you to start it off at the core of it all. Because people people come into Doakes on with their mind buzzing sometimes the first half a session usually they've they've been organizing what they're going to the question they're going to ask or the experience they're going to report. And very often when they come in to the room, the breath or move or what is the koan is the furthest thing from their mind. And so but I think the axon it's not therapy and it's not a idle chat. And so I want I want to start at the root not to come in with all the leaves and the branches and start from that kind of swirl but, but to start just then then go on after stating practice and go on and, and raise whatever whatever question or whatever you have to say But to start it with that, and it doesn't have to be a whole complete sentence, my practice is following the breath. And just be breath. Following the breath, you know, you can dispense with the pronouns, or with with, let's say, the koan Mu, just Mu, or even just the exhaling, Mo, there. Here's the heart of the practice, started there. And then continue on with whatever or not
if someone comes into docs on, just to check in, they don't have a question or anything to report, they just want to come in and give me a chance to say something, advise them somehow comment on something, then it may be just just the statement of the practice. Following the breath, counting the breath Mu. What is it
it's a, it's a, it's a mindfulness exercise. Because I've, I've made this, this issue this these instructions many times before, and then people come back into Doakes on and don't state their practice. Because they're preoccupied with what they're going to say.
Now, he turns to is a chapter called stages of meditation. When people discuss the practice of meditation, they often refer to a person having either a superior intermediate, or inferior capacity for this task. Well, that's maybe in Korea and China, you read the read those up that classifying of in that Chinese text to but we don't need to do that. I think that is not helpful to anyone. And he says, however, these capacities are not inborn qualities, for once a strong motivation has been generated, then a person is immediately endowed with a superior capacity. So it's not a it's not an innate thing, by any means. one's ability in practice, changes, of course, that changes will be the point of sitting in training, if we couldn't reform ourselves, change these things.
He says Nevertheless, there are different levels of motivation. Yeah, a given time, someone could have a, a different level of motivation. Then three years up the road, of course. Some people he says may leave the care of their parents and relatives and become monks or nuns with a sincere motivation to realize Buddhahood. But after practicing for a while, he's talking about well intentioned young new monks who can't sustain that he says but after practicing for a while, they discovered that the aim of meditation is not achieved as easily as cooling hot cereal by pouring cold water on it. It's a good one, isn't it?
Such persons may become disheartened when their practice does not proceed as smoothly as they had expected. And the same in sesshin Ram leaving aside monks or nuns, yeah, people come to sesshin. All revved up to have a breakthrough and then get bogged down in the first three days of sesshin with the thoughts and the drowsiness and the physical pain. The practice does not proceed as smoothly as they expected. However, one who is has the strongest motivation is able to completely cut off the mind of discrimination as soon as he is told to do so. But for those who are unable to do this much hardship effort and total determination are needed before they can achieve this state. I think this is just common sense. Like most of us, but probably all of us we have we have to develop our motivation and how does that happen by Hey sitting especially in sesshin, where this is where surges of development happen sesshin
By the way, just a thought, this, this stating practice first thing is also I asked this of people participating by zoom. Maybe it was unnecessary to say that most people who meditate on a koan intend at the outset to keep a firm hold on it. But usually, after a very short while, their koan disappears and they just lose themselves and delusive thoughts. Well, that's this is not so different from someone working on breath practice. You want to you want to stick with it, but you've use stray. If someone persists in such a way, when will he ever awaken? Others after a few initial attempts to hold on to the koan find that it does not appear to them spontaneously. So they just sit still, without doing anything at all. Such people then ask me, What do you claim there to be? Surely there is just nothing.
You know, he's obviously citing problems he's seen in, in dogs on with students, I don't see this. I have never been and no one has ever said to me, what do you claim there to be? Surely there is just nothing. And actually, I do feel very fortunate when I read these, these examples from, from these Korean and Chinese and Japanese masters about these, these monks who are have such are so so seem so often to deceive themselves, and to not see through their different ways of avoiding serious practice. I don't see that with people here. He goes on. The problem here is that although they tried to hold on to the koan, they found nothing that they could take firm hold of how Yeah, we, that's the way it is. I remember, my early years of working on mood, it felt like I tried to grab a bar of wet soap just keeps eluding you. Thus, they conclude that there's nothing at all, but such conclusions are only reached intellectually. Yeah, this is maybe the danger of too much study of Buddhist texts, sutras and other texts is you you can learn about this, this doctrine, the the teaching of emptiness, and then that can, you can misuse that knowledge of this basic, no thingness of all phenomenal things. And then that becomes something you place as an overlay on top of your practice. He says indeed, as long as you continue just to scheme and conceptualize with the intellect, you will find nothing To take firm hold of, but to then proclaim that in reality, there was just nothing is mere foolishness.
You know, in the line in the present of paramita form is only emptiness only form. The kind of person he's describing here with this little Gambit, that self deception, they they're only seeing it one way that form is only emptiness. But they're what they miss is that emptiness is only form.
One more paragraph. When you first try to meditate, you may find that no matter how strong your resolve is to firmly hold the practice, the mind is constantly besieged by wandering thoughts, and it seems impossible to progress in the practice. So what should be done to correct this problem? At such times, you must completely forget about what has happened in the past. For what benefit is there and continuing to think about things that have already ceased other words, leave the past alone. When you notice that your mind has drifted into memories, get back to business, get back to the practice. Likewise, you should desist from speculating about what might happen in the future. For since it will be determined by various conditions, What can your present thoughts do to influence the course of future events?
One of the most corrosive forms of dwelling in the future which just means thoughts of course, there's no future right now. Future is a thought. But it's worry worrying about the future some people are, are this is their, their propensity, their proclivity is to dwell in the future. And maybe if it's not planning or rehearsing, then it's worrying. I like what David Mamet, the playwright. What he said about worry said worry is just interest paid on a debt that never comes due.
And another another famous name in the arts, Tennessee Williams, referring to the past, he says, has it ever struck you that life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quickly? You hardly catch it going.
The real, the real essence of Zen teaching is not limited to Zen practice. It's many people in the arts and and in athletic endeavors and music, other music and other arts. They come to the same realization that it's all about being present.
And then he just finished as your sole function during a meditation session is to sit on the meditation cushion. Concentrate on your practice and awaken in the case of a colon, investigate your colon and awaken to its meaning. Other than this, there's nothing to do. So why do you needlessly waste this precious time by entertaining thoughts about what has been and what might be?
Our time is up. Now we'll stop and recite the four vows