Letting in the Darkness

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A talk given soon after the 2012 Samish sesshin during which the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas lay on her death bed (she died on Sunday June 24th). Tim reflects on a poem offered in Katherine’s memory by another Zen teacher, his own experiences of working with the darker emotions and feelings, and also quotes from a Dharma talk given by Katherine Thanas several years ago. No lecture notes but below are the poem and the talk.


Rebus 

You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust. 

Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table.
There are honeys so bitter
no one would willingly choose to take them.
The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity,
honey of cruelty, fear. 

This rebus-slip and stubbornness,
bottom of river, my own consumed life -
when will I learn to read it
plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire?
Not to understand it, only to see. 

As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues,
this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.

The ladder leans into its darkness.
The anvil leans into its silence.
The cup sits empty.

How can I enter this question the clay has asked?

~ Jane Hirshfield from Given Sugar, Given Salt
(Rebus -- "A representation of words in the form of pictures or symbols, often presented as a puzzle.")

We Live in the Lives of Others

Edited from a talk by Katherine Thanas

Reprinted from Sangha: Newsletter of the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Zen Centers, January, 2003.

In a recent essay poet Jane Hirshfield writes: At Ryoan-ji in Kyoto there is a famous rock garden; wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that always something unknowable is present, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended–and that something is as much part of the real as any other stone amid the raked gravel.

Her beautiful essay reminded me of what one reviewer said about the late poet Philip Whalen: he was not the best known of the Beat poets, but his experiments and writing allowed them to write the work they wrote. You might say Philip’s contribution is hidden in the work of others.

We live in the lives of others, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not. These unrecognized connections among us are included in what we call our interdependent existence.

In our last newsletter, Kobun Chino-Roshi said: how to know your true self is something we cannot do alone. We have to do it with someone who is able to accept our vow. We have to practice with someone who is big enough to receive our deepest self, our deepest intention, and turn us to it again and again.

Our true nature, our true self, is hidden in our consciousness, hidden from ourselves. A true teacher like Kobun-Roshi or Suzuki-Roshi sees our true nature. In seeing and speaking to it, they allow us to also believe in it, in our openness, receptivity, generosity, non-resistance, loving kindness.

What is known and not known by us about our inner motivations and intentions is the investigation of practice. We know on one level, we don’t know on another.

In her essay, Jane quotes Michael Dickinson on our contradictions: We are most comfortable being hidden, but we yearn to be seen. I would add, we are quite fearful to see our inner mind, we fear what demons might lurk there. But the gift of practice is to allow us to gradually be drawn into the realm of the unknown, and, accompanied by a trustworthy friend, to enter there.

In Christianity, the self measures or experiences itself by its receptivity to God or the Unknown. In Buddhism there is no permanent identifiable self. The reality we call self, which seems to do the work of liberation, is a continuously changing continuum, changing on each breath. Within the self there is an Unchanging Self which journeys through these changes and knows itself only as this endless transformation. Not hidden, but also not seen.

How do we meet this Unchanging Self? Lin-chi: The harder you strive after the Self, the further away he is from you. When you no longer strive after him, lo, he is right in front of you.

The small self refers to something we are conscious of. This self is a product of consciousness, or consciousness itself. Practice is the process by which our consciousness becomes transparent to itself. Through this process the hidden becomes known, contradictions acknowledged.

Through patient observation, repeated witnessing of our thoughts and feelings, our inner contractions, what is hidden to itself, hidden in itself, begins to emerge. We step back from the content of our thoughts and feelings and simply pay close attention to them without believing them. We realize they are the products of our ego-mind, our karmic mind. We see what our mind can create. By definition, thoughts and feelings are delusions: not necessarily so.

When consciousness thinks of itself, it splits into object and subject, into thinker and that which is thought of. This truth eludes recognition. We might say it is hidden to consciousness.

In order to realize how we actually live under the paroxysms of thoughts and feelings, consciousness must be made conscious. As the Dalai Lama tells us, we study the self that doesn’t exist. Because this impermanent ever-changing self is all that is offered to our consciousness, how do we receive it?

To allow our consciousness to become transparent to itself requires a calm mind, the stability of zazen mind. We sit zazen to realize there is a deeper awareness existing beneath the active mind. We say, clearly observe. It is the mind of clear observation that is our deeper mind, that allows us to witness our life from the shore of ease, from a posture of unprejudiced attention. The true person of no rank signifies the true person who cannot be defined either as self or no-self. The Self is unattainable, and that is the point.

Poet Jack Gilbert wrote in The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart: How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say, God; we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words get it wrong….

Jane adds: Perhaps for something to be found, the only thing that matters is that there be searching–that is the way in the writing of poems.

The work of sitting quietly doing nothing, waiting for our deepest experience to show up, is one of the most truly creative actions we can take. It is hidden treasure, covered by the ego’s delusions, and simultaneously transparent.

An early [S.F.] Zen [Center] student, David Schneider, now Director of Shambhala Europe, said in a recent article: Our entire relationship to the world comes from our senses. The first training for Dharma artists (or practitioners) is to investigate how the senses work: how, most of the time, they seem to work in a neurotic way; and how they might be trained to work in a more intelligent or purified way….We study sense perceptions by asking about them: what are they and what are my patterns with them? Do I limit myself through the use of them? If so, is it possible to do anything about that? Do I see the world I expect to see? Is there a world bigger than my expectation? Can I learn to see it?

Someone recently spoke about a relationship with a family member that had been deeply troubling for years. Observing carefully over time, he was finally able to see, “she and I are mirror images of each other.” No wonder they struggled.

© Copyright Katherine Thanas, 2003

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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