Fourth talk at the 2014 Samish Island Sesshin.
Fifth talk at Samish Island sesshin.
Third talk at the 2014 Samish Island sesshin.
Reprise of Norman’s Talk at Stanford Baccalaureate Services
Second talk at the 2014 Samish Island Sesshin.
Shinmon Michael Newton introduces the Chinese Chan teacher Hongzhi who is the compiler of the Book of Serenity koan collection. The stories in the Book of Serenity are mentioned several times by all of the speakers at this years sesshin.
1st talk at 2014 Samish Island Sesshin
ONE MORNING by Rosemerry TrommerOne morning
we will wake up
and forget to build
that wall we’ve been building,
the one between us
the one we’ve been building
for years, perhaps
out of some sense
of right and boundary,
perhaps out of habit.
we will wake up
and let our empty hands
hang empty at our sides.
Perhaps they will rise,
as empty things
by the wind.
Perhaps they simply
will not remember
how to grasp, how to rage.
We will wake up
and we will have
misplaced all our theories
about why and how
and who did what
to whom, we will have mislaid
all our timelines
of when and plans of what
and we will not scramble
to write the plans and theories anew.
On that morning,
not much else
will have changed.
Whatever is blooming
will still be in bloom.
Whatever is wilting
will wilt. There will be fields
to plow and trains
to load and children
to feed and work to do.
And in every moment,
in every action, we will
feel the urge to say thank you,
we will follow the urge to bow.
~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
Good morning, I’m really grateful to be here and I’m really grateful to each and every one of you for being here. A community springs to life from this sacred ground. A community springs to life from our hearts, from our intention. From our love.
[Warming up for my talk at Samish, but in the end I wrote an entirely different talk for Samish sesshin! --Tim]
Note: I refer to a teaching on the Wheel of Meditation Experience:
Contact -> Expansion -> Overwhelm -> Distraction -> Unconscious -> Avoidance -> Rejection ->Fake & Numb -> Intention
It’s truly wonderful that we’ve gathered here for this week of practice. For some of us a feeling of coming together many times here in this place, others of us are newer. I don’t think that makes much difference though, we are all here. Really here. And despite the screen of images from the past and projections into the future our minds provide we are all really here right now. To be just here fully is our way of practice.
And we all come here tired. We all come here thirsty. We all come here a little dissatisfied with our life and with our world. It’s not quite right. We want a way to make it better. We want a way to make ourself better.
Zen practice has called to each of us. Somehow there’s an answer here. Or an approach. A way.
We use the metaphor of a path, of a way, of walking the path. A beautiful image. We might imagine an Asian image of a monk or nun with her traveling staff and robes – that big pilgrimage hat – walking down a long long path alongside a river. Or maybe that figure it us hiking on a trail in the North Cascade or walking carefully down the side walk in our town. A person moving forward. Our figure it moving steadily. Breathing. Putting one foot in front of the other. There’s a sense of contentment in the act of journey. The act of pilgrimage. And I think we know our figure isn’t exactly going anywhere.
But we do hope for those moments along the way. Brought up short by a beautiful vista. A sunset. Realizing something about old patterns. That sudden softening of the gut, that deep smile of waking up. We know we aren’t exactly going anywhere on this path of ours I think. We know that right? And yet there’s some desire there, some hope for a deeply fullfilling journey. In the end a journey that allows us to come, in the end, to stillness. To contentment. Maybe the next image is of a hermit in his or her hut. Living simply and peacefully. WE kind of know we wouldn’t actually be content in that hut before the journey. We’d get bored in the hut. We’d want stimulation. Stuff to do. People to see. It’s wonderful that our neighbor Bill Porter discovered that some Chinese Buddhists still do that practice of living as hermits for some years as part of their training. If you haven’t read his book on this called “WHAT IT IS CALLED” you should. Sadly I also recently learned that one of the mountain areas he visited has basically been bulldozed by the Chinese. Either to get coal out or to create level ground for more cities. Turns out the Chinese are lately investing in enormous bulldozers and removing entire mountains from the landscape for those two purposes. So the modern world comes crashing into our peaceful image. How could it not?
In our retreat this week we want contact with the feeling of this journey. We have different names for this. How do you describe to yourself what you hope for in this sesshin? We know it won’t be all peacefulness and bliss probably but at least a sense of progress. A sense of waking up a little more. A sense of touching the heart of the matter which is more or less what “Sesshin” means. We’d like an experience of this.
And should we make contact with this feeling of being on the path of peace and awakening that’s great and then we’ll probably want more. Longer with that feeling. Even a deeper sense of openness and expansiveness that we hope will arise from that feeling. We all look forward, don’t we, for that perfect sunset that always comes for us about the 5th day here as we emerge from the zendo at 9pm. There probably was a perfect sunset on the 1st or 2nd day but we didn’t really notice it. By the 5th day we’ll be right there. So open. So aware. So beautiful. Wonderful.
What if we don’t get this? What if our meditation just feels scattered and annoying from beginning to end this week? What if we sleep through the whole thing? What if we find ourself doing our best to avoid sesshin, breaking the guidelines in our room, finding fantastic reasons not to be in the zendo? What if we find the whole thing completely overwhelming and we can’t handle it? What if we are in too much psychic pain and physical pain to appreciate that sunset? It just triggers more rage at the difficulties of our condition? What if we just go numb?
Will these undesirable states mean we aren’t on the path? Will it mean we aren’t doing it right? Do unpleasant experiences in meditation and the rest of our time together mean we need to adjust our strategy? What do we do?
Here’s a Zen story from the Book of Serenity, this is case 49:
As Dongshan was presenting offerings before the image of his teacher Yunyan he retold the story from before about depicting reality. A monk came forward and said, “When Yunyan said, ‘Just this is it,’ what did he mean?”
Dongshan said, “At that time I nearly misunderstood my last teacher’s meaning.
The monk said, “Did Yunyan himself know it or not?”
Dongshan said, “If he didn’t know it is, how could he be able to say this? If he did know it is, how could he be willing to say this?”
Just this is it. He means that feeling of contact and peaceful engagement right? He means that feeling of opening up and breathing in the peaceful, empty nature of this world. We want him to mean that don’t we? Just this is it.
What if just this is it means every subjective state is also it. Our boredom with meditation “just this is it.” Our feeling of being overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed by this life “just this is it.” Our rage, our confusion, our distrust, our resistance. “Just this is it.” This is a powerful possibility. On the path, off the path, bringing this spirit of acceptance. “Just this is it.” Radical acceptance.
But the concept of acceptance isn’t quite right either. Who is it we think is accepting something? Is that I’m over here trying to accept my unique personal experience and you’re over there trying to accept yours? And if there are some things we can learn to accept does that mean there are other things are are not acceptable. There’s a way of thinking about acceptance that puts us back on a deeper path. A path that includes everything. This is helpful. This is good medicine. But what if this whole idea of a path isn’t true. What if this idea of pilgrim on the path is limiting. What if this trying to practice and trying to become more aware and more peaceful is a great hindrance? A great trying to do something that cannot be done no matter how we try? What if our basic attitude about practice is undermining our practice?
Thich Naht Hahn offers this:
Dualistic notions, such as birth and death, being and nonbeing, sameness and otherness, coming and going, are the foundation of all afflictions. Meditating on the three doors of liberation helps us throw away these notions. The three doors of liberation, which are taught in every Buddhist tradition, are emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness. Contemplating these three profound truths can help liberate us from fear and suffering. They are our doorways to freedom.
Sesshin is a wonderful opportunity for deep practice. And it’s okay to practice in any way you can. Please don’t hear teachings like these as yet another thing to figure out and yet more evidence that you will never get this Buddhist thing.
Let’s consider the three doors They is talking about. Emptiness we’ve mostly all heard of us. Doubt the mind that separates. Doubt the habit-energy of the our fixed views. Open to fluidness. Open to softness. Breathe out and release from this clinging to some idea of me over here trying to do my meditation. Me here trying to get through sesshin. Let that go. See your views and thoughts and don’t take them so seriously. And as the thoughts become less sticky – just so much stuff in the mind, turn towards them and see their unstable nature. Even your thoughts aren’t so real as we think they are. Be with the swirl of experience without leaning in or leaning away. Just this is it.
The first door is emptiness. Emptiness reminds us that nothing is separate. Nothing is independent. Nothing is as solid as we think. Nothing, no-thing, may make us limit our investigation of emptiness to the material world. But we can open to a wider view than that. Our thoughts and feelings and identity are also empty. Our very conception of a thought and a thinker is also empty. When there’s a thought there’s just a thought. Arising according to conditions, vanishing again according to conditions. The persistent view that there’s a thinker over here thinking these thoughts, or even a thinker over here allowing and noticing these thoughts to come and go is an illusion. Thich Naht Hahn says it this way: “When we look at an action, we believe there needs to be a separate actor existing behind it. The wind blows, yet really there is no blower. There is only the wind, and if it doesn’t blow, it’s not the wind at all. When we have have a thought, we may believe there’s a thinker existing separately from the thought.” But, “as we cannot find a blower outside the wind, nor a rainer outside of the rain, in the same way there is no thiner existing outside of a thought. When we think something, we are those thoughts.” Just this is it.
The second door is signlessness. Signlessness and aimlessness are less familiar teachings to us. But what wonderful medicine there are for sesshin. And what a wonderful opportunity sesshin is to investigate these – just so long as we don’t think there’s an investigator here trying to investigate something we’ll be okay.
Signlessness is noticing how we confuse names and designations for reality. Our powerful frontal cortex is able to put together an entire vision of reality based on signs. Based on the slightest glance at the shape of someone’s posture we immediately have an idea of what their attitude, personality, and current state are. And we are quite sure we’re right. This is believing in signs. Even the marker “Tim” or “person” is a sign. As Thich Naht Hahn says “we are often fooled by the outer form of things.” That outer form could be our interpretation of a sensory experience. That outer form could be a concept we hold of what something is or how it works.
Quieting the mind, which happens whether we like it or not and whether we even notice it or not in sesshin, makes it more possible to notice the creation of signs and our believing in signs. Little by little, organically, we can feel that signs are surface and our understanding of them is provisional and approximate. The real nature of things shines through the cracks or appears in our peripheral vision. The exploration of signs and signlessness might be pleasant – like truly seeing one of the swallows skimming along the lawn – so beautiful, so much more there than you could ever hold is some little word like “swallow” or “bird” or “flying” – amazing! Our experience appreciating signlessness might be really unpleasant too. Nothing quite adding up or making sense. A loss of our mooring. What we thought we were and others were and Zen practice was not adding up quite right. Or a strong feeling of rejection and rage at the whole thing. Our small mind can get really uncomfortable with emptiness and signlessness.
The third door speaks directly to our ambitions this week. Aimlessness. More often translated as wishlessness. But I like aimlessness for this moment of beginning our sesshin together. A powerful invitation to let go of our goals. To release from our aims and strategies. The most famous metaphor for this is the simile of the raft. We need our raft to get across the river but then let it go. Let the practice go. Let the self go. This is the teaching that there is nowhere to go. Thich Naht Hahn says this, so simple: “concentrating on aimlessness consists of removing the object of your pursuit, your goal.”
This has really deep implications. Goalless practice. Practice without aims. It’s a different kind of aimlessness of course than just messing around. It’s steadier than that. It’s a another description of Yunyan’s “just this is it” isn’t it? This is it. This is already it. Can you see it? Can you feel it? Can you touch the “just this is it” nature of reality without making that into another goal, another aim. Another problem that the thinking mind tries to wrap itself around. Am I making progress? Am I getting closer? Am I okay? Sometimes we quote Dante: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” There is abandoning hope as total despair, that’s for sure. Horrible. May the many beings in that state in the world find hopefulness again. This is different: release from the clinging to hopes and all that’s baked into hoping to be someone else in a different reality than this one. Release from all hopes. Put down the raft.
And actually you didn’t need the raft in the first place. There is no river to cross. Or there is a river and it’s okay to be in the current. To trust that the river will hold you up. No more striving to get to the over shore. You may get a little banged up sometimes in the rapids but there will also be those moments of ease and quiet in the back eddies. One day we’ll all reach the sea together but we don’t control that. Just this is it.
The three doors of liberation in the end are just one door. And that door is wide open. That door is right in front of us. And right behind us. We’re opening that door breathing in, it just happens. When you open a door you don’t have to think too much about how to do it, right? The hand knows how to reach out and turn the door knob. The doors of liberation are like this too. Our heart knows how to open them. And stepping across the threshold breathing out, let the foot lift, let the leg move, let the life force of all of your suffering and joy carry you through the door. May we all appreciate everything that arises this week. Everything is it. Just this is it.
Buddhist Studies notes for the website: the three doors of liberation Thich Naht Hahn is teaching about are vimokshamukha in Sanskrit: emptiness (shunyata), signlessness (animitta, see also sign which is nimitta), and wishlessness (apranihita). Note in looking these up that the “sh” in vimokshamukha and shunyata are more properly transliterated as an s with a dot below it so you may see them listed that way in Buddhist dictionaries.
On the inside of my wedding band, the inscription reads “Spirits shine in
the dark.” And Dianne’s inscription reads “Branching streams merge in
light”. The inscriptions are clearly a re-expression of the lines in the
Merging of Difference and Unity. The life path that this poem points to is
one we choose to walk together. Of course it doesn’t mean that the bulk of
our actions arise from an enlightened viewpoint, but it does provide a
common aspiration that we can return to for the benefit of others.
Sometimes we still drive each other crazy. One of the quirks that Dianne
has which annoys me routinely is that when she loads the dishwasher, she
often fails to put the silverware in alphabetical order. Can you imagine
This is the fourth talk on the poem in our chant books titled the Merging
of Difference and Unity, widely known as the Sandokai, or (kan-tong-chi)
Cantongqi in Chinese as it was originally written in the 8th century by
(shr-tau-shi-chien) Shitou Xiqian. I don’t typically write out my talks
word-for-word, but I woke up one morning and this is what poured out – so
I wrote it down for you.
The Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Merging of Difference and Unity,
even the Pali Canon — are a teaching about two incompatible truths. These
are two ways of viewing the world. Both are accurate, and each of them
makes the other impossible. In the terms of western modern philosophy such
as that of Immanuel Kant, one of these perspectives is the phenomenal and
the other is the noumenal. Phenomenal is relative to our sense of self,
while noumenal is absolute truth, independent of us.
Phenomenal is the world of experience and noumenal is the view which is
not shaped by the process of experience. Phenomenal is the world of sofas
and car transmissions and indignation and itchy noses and dharma talks.
Noumenal is the world in which each of those boundlessly fully includes
the others. As Edie clearly laid out for us a couple weeks ago, zen
teaching typically represents the differentiation of objects with light,
and our penetration of that differentiation to absolute truth, as
The phenomenal perspective of distinctions is true. How can we deny that
in order to eat, we need to move the fork to our lips (or maybe the
chopsticks). The noumenal perspective is true. If you study the buddhist
epistemology (buddhist philosophy) the conclusion that all things are
empty of separate nature is unavoidable. The three marks of reality are
impermanence, dissatisfaction, and non-self. An intense study of
impermanence or causality alone necessarily leads to the conclusion that
the boundaries within reality are only those that we draw.
Liberation in suffering = freedom in stress, comes from understanding
these two perspectives and being okay with the paradox that they cannot
be simultaneously true, and yet they are.
There are many teachings about letting go of understanding. This is
necessary because the merging of the phenomenal world is not subject to
understanding. With practice we can experience the harmony of difference
and unity, of light and dark.
And yet the teaching says “Hearing the words, understand the meaning”
Understanding is necessary.
We have to study the teachings to experience harmony. We have to follow the
logical path that concludes with all aggregates being empty in their own
Many people study that teaching, figure it out, and think that is
enlightenment. So there is an understanding of the noumenal perspective.
But we are still living in the phenomenal world. They still have to get
the fork to their mouth.
The next step is learning to live peacefully with the two truths, every moment.
That includes learning to live peacefully with our
anger, hurt, fear, and disappointment (as well as learning to live
peacefully with our excitement, joy, and success). The koans are not
paradoxes trying to trick us; they are trying to show us the paradox of
our reality, and how that paradox is okay and even beautiful.
After understanding noumenal, we have to let it go. Being able to let go
is critical because all that arises, passes away. “This, too, shall pass.”
And letting go is so difficult. So we practice in meditation.
“Don’t set up standards of your own.”
As if we could. But trying to brings about suffering. Our practice is
thousands of years old. It contains thousands of years of refinements and
wisdom. That’s not to say that change doesn’t happen in Buddhism. It does,
slowly and together. Suzuki Roshi cautions also against taking this advice
to bind to one particular school or teacher or set of rules. That any time
we latch onto a particular rule we are setting up standards of our own.
Zen teachings are often likened to a finger pointing at the moon. They
are trying to nudge us on a path that leads to awakening, but they can’t
put us there directly. Shogaku Shunryu Suzuki Roshi says, if three different teachers are
pointing at the moon, there are three different fingers; which one is
right? Alan Watts observes that our tendency with religion is to see the
finger pointing at the moon, and then suck on the finger for comfort
rather than following where it points.
“If you don’t understand the way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?” There’s that
word ‘understand’ again. Let’s step back a second. How could you
understand the way right before you if you don’t even see the way right
before you? How much time do we spend not noticing what’s right before us?
That’s why we have to sit and try to notice the path right before us. And
then the mind slides elsewhere, and so we come back, again and again. That
is the path.
The next line is critical.”Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.”
Do you understand? Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block
your way. Whenever we find phenomena to be barriers, we have lost track of
what is truly important. Mountains, rivers, bosses, children, illness,
rivals, mistakes – where are we trying to get anyways? Buddha teaches that
we are already enlightened, but we get confused and don’t see clearly.
I can’t pass up the mention of mountains and rivers without turning to
Eihei Dogen. Dogen wrote:
Because green mountains walk, they are permanent.
Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the
mountains does not realize or understand it. “In the mountains” means the
blossoming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not
realize or understand the mountains walking. Those without eyes to see
mountains cannot realize, understand, see, or hear this as it is. If you
doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that
you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking.
Since you do not know your walking, you should fully know the green
mountains’ walking. Green mountains are neither sentient nor insentient.
You are neither sentient nor insentient. At this moment, you cannot doubt
the green mountains’ walking.
The Merging of Difference and Unity ends
“I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
do not pass your days and nights in vain.”
Suzuki Roshi shares the literal translation:
“Do not expend your sunbeams and shadows in vain.”
Whether our actions are in vain does not matter so much what we are doing
or why we are doing it. If our sunbeams and shadows pass by without our
noticing, then whatever we have done has been in vain.
Notice the sunbeams. Notice the shadows. Yet, also when we are blind to
them. Still, now, in the searing light of examination and discrimination,
the streams of our lives come together. Here, now, in the deepest
darkness, the heart of absolute truth, our spirits shine with impossibly