This is the first day of this Four Day, February 2023 sesshin. I'm going to start off reading from a book by Master Sheng Yen, titled, "Subtle Wisdom: Understanding Suffering, Cultivating Compassion through Chan Buddhism". Chan is a Chinese term that translates to mean meditation. It's another word for Zen. And it preceded Zen. The roots of Zen, as it became known in 13th century Japan, go back to fifth century China. And then from China, it spreads south to Vietnam, north to Korea, and east to Japan.
over. Master Sheng yen, whose years are 1932 2009 was a widely respected Taiwanese Chan master and a scholar. His teachings and writings are very accessible. And he had several centers based in North America. He was a Dharma Heir in both the Linji School, which is Rinzai in Japanese, and the cadang School, which is Soto in Japanese. And his book subtle wisdom is an introductory text, where he writes about the first noble truth that life is suffering. And how practice enables us to open up
open up to that suffering and our innate wisdom and compassion.
In the first chapter, which is titled youthful questioning, he writes about early life experiences that aroused in him
deep questions about life and death
and impermanence. The kinds of questions that drive us to practice?
Who am I? What is this? What happens when we die?
I would like to tell you about three events that happened to me when I was young. And that influenced me to follow the Buddhist path. Each of them raise questions about the nature of life. As a child, I was very sickly. And that slowed down my development, both physically and educationally. I did not learn how to speak until I was about seven years old. And I did not begin reading until I was nine. Even though my family was poor, my parents always helped people in need. They were Buddhist in the uneducated folk way of country people. We children were taught an accepting attitude toward life. My father would tell me, big ducks go the big duck way. And small ducks go the small duck way. So everyone has their own way
Beyond lessons such as that, I didn't think about big questions until I was about 10 years old. When something happened that made me think about the nature of life for the first time. You In the flooded rice fields of the Chinese countryside, there were many water snakes. These snakes are not harmful since they do not bite people and are not poisonous. No one not even a child is afraid of them, even though they can grow quite long. In reading that it made me think of the water snakes we have at Chapin Mill. During during the warmer months, you can sometimes see them gliding through the water, or basking on the edge of the pond. They look quite intimidating. But just like the snakes that Sheng Yen is describing they're harmless. Their instinct is to flee from humans.
He continues. One day,
I saw a snake over a yard long, pursuing a frog, about half the size of one's palm. When the snake had almost caught the frog, the frog turned and faced the snake. The snake also stopped and darted his tongue out at the frog. Strangely enough, the frog moved toward the mouth of the snake, seeming to offer himself up. Imagine the mind of a 10 year old witnessing this, the scene of a frog giving its life up to a snake
he said, the snake snatched up the frog by the head and then gradually swallowed it whole. My first impulse was to save the frog, and I picked up a stick, and
I picked up a stick to hit the snake.
But then I thought the snake needs to eat, just like other animals to save the frog from the snake would be as if someone took my dinner out of my mouth and saving the frog, I'd be hurting the snake. It didn't seem right to interfere. But even though I had this moment of clarity about what was happening, I did not feel good about the whole thing.
So what he was witnessing was what we call the circle of life. The the natural process that governs all beings, life and death interwoven. All living things need nutrients and energy to survive. And rely on other animals and plants for that. So so it is with us with every meal that we eat, everything we consume, we're taking away life, even as it's nurturing us.
In the field of deep ecology, the natural world is looked at as this really intricate, complex web of relationships that form a whole and there's this web of relationships that results in the food that ends up on our plate. Seeds. pollinating bees, clouds rain
the labor, the farm labor that goes into growing and harvesting and there's the distribution of food, the truck drivers, the grocery stores, the cooks
and on and on
every being has intrinsic value.
Whether you're a big duck or a small duck
he continues, I watched the shape of the frog travel from the mouth of the snake through the throat and into the body. It made a vivid impression. Because I could still see the frog I wondered, what happens to the frog? Do the frog and the snake merge into one life? If I were a frog, where would I be now? What also confused me was that the frog had clearly been afraid of the snake. Initially. He tried to escape and obviously did not want to be eaten. Why then, did the frog finally crawl toward the mouth of the snake and let himself be eaten. I could not figure it out. And it left me deeply puzzled.
Again, this is a mind of a 10 year old.
By contrast, as adults, we tend to carry so much baggage through the accumulation of our intellectual knowledge, our opinions, assumptions, judgments, and they only seem to harden over time.
Instead of reacting by being say, totally grossed out by the snake, eating the frog. He simply wondered, what is happening?
What is this?
And what he had witnessed, perhaps for the first time in a very palpable way, is the truth of impermanence.
That life passes quickly by.
Then he says that same summer, I had a second important experience. It was a busy year. I was in the rice fields with my elder brother crossing a narrow bridge made of a single lag, which were common in the Chinese countryside. A short distance under the bridge was a stream and in the stream to water buffalo that belonged to a neighboring family were nesting or rather resting after their day's work in the fields. If the buffalo stood up, their heads were above the level of the bridge. But if they lay in the water, they were hidden beneath the bridge. When I crossed the bridge in one direction, I did not see them. But when I came back, there they were, whether buffalo or big and might seem intimidating, but people in the countryside are used to them, their domestic animals. So I was not afraid and started to cross the bridge. The Buffalo looked at me and retreated a bit. But then they got agitated and started spilling water all over. I had no idea what to make of this. Was it a sign of aggression? Or perhaps a sign of welcome. I was frightened and didn't know what to do. And I froze in the middle of the bridge. Standing there, I finally became so terrified that I simply fell off the bridge right onto the head. to one of the water buffalo the buffalo perhaps just as scared as I was, ducked under the water. Fortunately, my elder brother was there and dragged me out. After I had a chance to collect myself, two thoughts occurred to me. First, I observed that my fear of the water buffalo, instead of helping me get away from them, had resulted in my coming into closer contact with them. Were it not for the fear, I would not have fallen off the log. And it seemed that something similar had happened to the frog, which afraid for its life had not fled the snake. It's often true in life, that you end up close to what you fear. Try as you might to escape it. What you fear is what you must confront. I experienced this understanding as a kind of realization, or awakening
what you fear is what you must confront.
Fear is a natural human emotion, we all experience it. And just like food, and nutrients, it helps us to survive. It's a biochemical response to our environment. And it alerts us not only to real, but also imagined dangers.
In a lot of situations, fear helps us to keep from em to entering into danger. It helps us to make the right decision. Like you know, getting out of the way when you see our car coming at you. And it's a full body response. We just act, our heart pounds. We have this burst of adrenaline.
Our palms may get sweaty.
We're not thinking we just act.
There are also some other experiences of fear that are more extreme and can be tied to anxiety and require the help of a therapist or a doctor. That kind of fear can be tied to painful experiences of the
traumas, tragedies that we remember not just in our mind, but in our body. And it can make it difficult to function in day to day life can show up sometimes while we're sitting Zen
but the kind of fear that Sheng Yen is pointing to in his encounter with the water buffalo is much more basic, more fundamental to the human condition. And that's the fear of death something that sooner or later. We all have to confront Try, Try as we might to avoid it along with anything else that makes us feel uncomfortable
or some people that are so afraid of death that they don't make plans. They don't have a will nor a health care proxy. Should they be incapacitated. I know that was the case. For my parents. It took a lot of work and a lot of convincing
to get them
to write up a will, and tell us what their wishes are.
document it just because
it was just too uncomfortable to talk about, let alone think about. And fear is also something that can arise during such sheen. Whether we're conscious of it or not, we can confront what we might call fear of the unknown. Fear of losing our identity of losing ourself. What happens if all my thoughts disappear, what will be left
this i, this me that we cling to.
Confronting that fear is part of the process of practice.
And it really helps when it arises, to not push it away, to not distract ourselves or also not to start dwelling in it. But to utilize the method or practice to bring ourselves back to the present moment. So when we do that, we're not rejecting it, but we're also not chasing after it. And that the same goes for any mind state. Whether it's fear, joy, boredom, these come up to but they all pass
then Sheng yen says, I wondered, what would have happened to me if I had died as a real result of this incident incident with the water buffalo. Just as I had wondered, what had happened to the frog? I couldn't figure that out at all. If I had drowned, where would I be? I kept thinking about this but couldn't come up with any answers. Questions about what would happen to me after I died bothered me for a long time after this accident. As you might expect, I was also afraid of water buffalo for a long time. I suppose you might call it buffalo phobia. Haha. Much later, I understood that the essential reason I was afraid of Buffalo was that I was afraid of death. I was afraid of death, because I did not know what would happen to me after death. I overcame my fear of buffalo when I finally realized that death is really not a problem
What do you see mean by that death is really not a problem. He's saying that it's only a problem, if we make it so and we make it so by continually trying to grasp at to hold on to that which is ultimately in flux.
Roshi Kapleau used to describe practice as facing our dying and our death. But that was the heart of practice facing that nothing is static. In other words, nothing is fixed.
Facing this world of do in the words of Isa, the Japanese haiku master this world of do is only a world of do
and yet And yet
and then, Sheng yen goes on to tell another story. He says, a third event that affected me greatly occurred after I left home to take up monastic life, when I was about 13 years old. I was at Guang Chow monastery, on wolf mountain, in Jiangsu, China, where there were fewer than 50 monks.
We should be so lucky to have just fewer than 51
day I was to take part in an in in an important ceremony performed jointly by three Dharma masters. Part of the ceremony, part of the ceremony was a purification ritual that required a willow branch or stick. My Grandmaster said to me, little novice, go and fetch three identical willow branches, each with three leaves. So already that smells like a setup. And, by the way, the the title Grandmaster, which I had to look up, refers to a senior or high ranking teacher or Abbot. It's not Grandmaster Flash
All right, so you
had to set out and find three identical willow branches, and he says, this seem like an easy task. I went and fetched three branches from the willow trees that dropped over a nearby river. When I showed them to my Grandmaster, he said, these are not identical. I said, perhaps a bit boldly. They are identical in Bing Willow. My Grandmaster said, I want three branches which look identical. So I went back to the river and to save myself further trouble. I brought back a very big branch of Willow, thinking that my Grandmaster would choose from it, the branches he wanted himself. The master scolded me, and I went back to the river a third time. After a long search, I found three willow branches that I thought looked very much the same. I took the branches back to the monastery, and my Grandmaster looked at them carefully and said, they are not the same. But they are the same. I responded with real frustration. But my Grandmaster pointed at the branches and said, look, the shape of this leaf is very thick, but the corresponding leaf on the other branch is thin, and the shapes of the branches do not quite look the same. Try again. So, clearly, this was a teachable moment. How would you respond after being corrected like this over and over again? Our impulse might be to get angry worried and frustrated to lash out at the person who's in a position of authority. Whether it's a teacher, a parent, a boss, a work supervisor. In Zen training, we learn over time and sometimes the hard way in these moments to just set aside that ego and just respond, do what needs to be done with no gap, no resistance
there's a koan in the Mumonkan. That relates to this story about looking for the right willow branches. It's number 26 Hogan points to the blinds the monks gathered before the midday meal to hear the great Hogan of stereo give a talk. Hogan pointed to the bamboo blinds. At this two monks went and rolled them up a like Hogan said one has it, the other does not.
And yet, they rolled them rolled up the blinds exactly alike. One has it the other doesn't.
Next Schengen says, I was really angry, I thought of telling the Grandmaster to go and look for himself. But of course, I did not dare I went back to the river and spent a very long time there. I almost fell into the water trying to reach branches that were further out and look the same from a distance. Unfortunately, once I got closer, they never turned out to be the same. Finally, I gave up I resigned myself to whatever punishment awaited me and returned empty handed. My Grandmaster did not seem the least bit bothered and simply said there are no two things really identical in this world. In the midst of sameness, there is difference and in the midst of difference there is sameness take care of the willow branches you gathered before we have to use them tomorrow though I was a little perplexed, I felt great relief. My ordeal was finally over
no thing exists apart from anything else. Form is only emptiness. Emptiness only form and it's not until we're empty handed. You know when we just exhaust using our thinking mind till until we give up all the calculating, controlling and manipulating strategies. Not until we give that up that we can really open up to seeing things just as they are not how not how we want them to be or how we think they should be. And and this is the way practice works. As a process. We go to DocQ son over and over again. Keep getting wrung out. Not this not that bad to the Zendo
you're caught up in thoughts
We can get really frustrated. But it's a really important part of the process of learning to let go. Doing it over and over again. It's not a failure. It's It's precisely how we learn to let go of our ideas about gaining and losing success and failure right and wrong, self and other.
And yet, we, we can get so bogged down by pursuing perfection. This image we have in our head,
about being a good
Zen student. And then when it doesn't go our way, we either see ourselves as a failure, or we assign blame on the teacher on somebody else on the conditions. In Zen, this is called skeptical doubt, doubt with a small letter D. It's self centered doubt, to be questioning our worthiness, our abilities.
I have to say,
in my short time as a Zen teacher, I'm amazed how many people come in to DocQ son with an apology or expressing regret. My practice is Mu, but my practice is following the breath. But I'm really bad at it. I'm all over the place.
I'm such a mess.
I've been there, done that. And I know how painful it is.
When we do that, are only complicating things, we're piling thoughts upon thoughts. We really do need to keep the practice simple. really committing to returning our attention to it every time we notice. We're often thoughts or judgments. And we need to have faith in that process. Faith that the letting go itself is the way
and if we're proceed if we're persistent doubt with a capital D arises all on its own. Not because we manufactured it or made it happen.
It just wells up
but it won't.
If we keep allowing ourselves to wallow in our thoughts
it's in that returning over and over again, when we can experience a shift in our practice. A shift from using our thinking mind to practicing with her whole body. Our whole being
back to the willow branches, there's more to the story. He says the next day at noon, it was time for the ceremony and the Masters needed the three willow branches. When I went to get them I realized the branches had dried out. I should have left them in water. But I hadn't not thought to do so. They were ruined and have no use for the ceremony. I was certain my Grandmaster was going to give me a beating. But he did not. He did ask me, How dumb can you be. But then he added, everything in this world is impermanent, I guess we'll have to use dried branches. I have to say about thinking he'd get a beating, this incident probably would have taken place back in the 1940s or 50s, when corporal punishment, as it's known, was considered an acceptable method of disciplining a child. At least in some cultural contexts. I'm guessing not just in the US, but also in other countries. When I was a child growing up in the 1970s, that's how much my parents punished me was either with a wooden spoon or a leather belt. And that's how it was for my parents when they were children
from generation to generation. Fortunately, today, it's more recognized as a form of
Xiang Yun, then says, this incident, with the repeated attempts to find the right willow branch branches revealed two things to me. I realized that no two things in this world are really identical. When seen from a distance, things appear to be the same. But upon closer observation, one inevitably finds that they are not. First my Grandmaster asked me to find identical branches. And later he said that identical branches cannot be found. I don't know whether he intended to give me a lesson in Buddhism. But the incident was quite illuminating for me.
It's true, when it comes to human perception, things are not as they appear necessarily. In our ordinary mind, we see the world as divided. And we can take that even further to seeing oneself as in conflict with others.
Us and Them
so painful to live one's life that way and to always expect the worst in others
to assume they have the worst intentions
are so fortunate to have this practice as a method for grounding us in the present
not in perception.
Sheng then says the second thing that had a great effect on me was my grandmasters final comment everything is impermanent. It is not just just that it this is true for most of the time, or that it is a truth to be considered alongside an equally valid notion of stability. Everything is always impermanent. It wasn't just that the willow branches had changed by the second day. At the very moment. I took them from the trees, they were changing. They were always changing. Of course, so is he The two things I understood from my experience with the willow branches had a deep effect on me and gave me insights I have carried through life. To this day, I do not think that other people should be like me, or should think like me, I don't expect that any two individuals will be the same, or that any two things will be identical. It's not possible. So why expect or desire it? The experience I had in my youth, the three stories I have told, and the questions they aroused in me, are relevant to Chan practice. I tell them to you because they are a good intro introduction to understanding Chan. And they helped me begin my practice. But what exactly is their relevance to Chan practice? I will not tell you. It is something that you can investigate Inchon, you must always investigate for yourself.
I will not tell you. You must investigate for yourself
habitually, we're inclined, to look outward. To make comparisons, to chase after preferences. Steer clear of our dislikes. Fine, find ways to distract ourselves. But the way to investigate is turning inward. It's the pure simple practice that helps us to go beyond all that. Looking directly. And no one can do this work for us. We have to do it ourselves. There's no substitute. It just requires
even lovingly, tenderly, giving our attention to the practice.
Not grasping at anything.
Not trying to remove ourselves from the conditions that we're in. Just practicing in the body that we're in