Red Cedar Zen Community, 1021 N Forest, Bellingham Washington

Dharma Talks

Talks by sangha and visiting teachers.

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  • Wednesday, January 09, 2019 8:00 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

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    The 4th case of the Mumonkan koan collection strips things down to the studs.

    The stories so far have been sometimes brief, sometimes longer, but they've always involved some degree of interaction - a little play we can put ourselves in - but at the core they've all had a deep pointer for us around seeing things differently than we usually do.

    The first case, Zhaozhou's Mu, pointing us towards our assumptions about the inherent nature of things. The second case, Baizhang's Fox, pointing us towards a deeper understanding of this web of cause and effect we live in, and the third case, Chü-chih's Finger, saying something about wholehearted practice.

    And in each case layers of story around this central pointer to help invite us in. We think in terms of story so that is very helpful to us. But we can also feel that these koans - these example cases from the ancient teachers - are more than just stories. There's a deeper feeling.

    The 4th case we meet tonight has all the story pretty well stripped away. We can add some back, and I notice a few translators do, but it's just a pointer to the essence of how and what we are.

    Here's the whole story in Robert Aitken's translation:

    Huo-an asked, "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

    That's it. No set up. No "later he said". No monks. No slaps or shouts. Just this question. We've talked before about practicing with a question. This sounds like an odd question though.

    We met the trope of the Western Barbarian at the very end of the long Baizhang's Fox koan when the head monk asked him after everything was said and done what would have happened had the earlier Baizhang who's been punished for his arrogance about cause and effect had answered correctly. Remember how the present Baizhang asked the head monk to approach and there was a ritual slap - in this case monk slapping teacher! - which the head approved of: "I thought the barbarian had a red beard but here is a red bearded barbarian!" Approving of his student as an exemplar of Bodhidharma's practice.

    And calling a great ancestor a "barbarian" is part of the charm of the koan language where these teachers were deliberately tweaking with Chinese norms as I understand it. A great ancestor would never be called a "barbarian" in Confucian society so they were messing to even use that term.

    I'm not sure what the equivalent would be for us. Maybe calling George Washington a "bumpkin" or something. But a bumpkin we revere.

    So what is this great ancestor, why has the Western Barbarian no beard?

    Some translators do insert a bit of story - I guess we story-driven people just can't help it. Paul Reps who did early translations into English says the case is this - he uses the Japanese version of this teacher's name as was the practice in early scholarship where we were learning from the Japanese Zen teachers about this literature.

    Wakun complained when he saw a picture of the bearded Bodhidharma: `Why hasn't that fellow a beard?'

    But this one is short enough I can actually, with Google translate's help, and a side by side Chinese-English translation of the case make out there there is absolutely no mention of a picture or complaining in it. Here's the character by character translation and I'll the actual Chinese characters are in my notes which I'll post on the website with the talk recording.

    或庵曰。西天胡子。因甚無鬚。

    或庵 Huo-an

    曰。said

    西 Western

    天 God (barbarian I assume)

    胡 beard

    子。small

    因 reason (e.g. what's the reason)

    甚 very (or just emphasis)

    無鬚。No beard

    So I think the most literal comprehensible English here is:

    Huo-an said, Western Barbarian's beard missing, why NO beard?

    (with emphasis on the "no" - there is really, absolutely, completely no beard there - wow!).

    So in this story just what the Tibetan's call a pith expression. Just the heart of the matter.

    Why are things not as they appear at first? You thought Bodhidharma had a beard - no beard! Aboslutely no beard!

    You thought you were you! No you! Absolutely no you! Let these conventional, conveinient notions go!

    We don't know much about this teacher but we do have what's reported to be his death verse - a little poem he wrote just before he died and it's in the same spirit as this expression:

    An iron tree in bloom;

    The rooster lays an egg;

    Seventy-two years-

    The cradle has fallen.

    Of course in the conventional world iron trees don't bloom and roosters don't lay eggs.

    The last line, "the cradle has fallen," Aitken interprets this way, "Only at death do we lose the human confines of our birth." We're a bit stuck in the cradle our whole lives. Zen is the path to freedom.

    And death is also a an image for awakening in the Zen tradition. That might be unique to Zen in Buddhism I don't know. Dying to your limited self is being born as your unlimited interconnected self.

    Here's a nice bit from the modern Chan - Chinese Zen - techer Guo Jun - that somehow speaks to this case for me.

    [Essential Chan Buddhism by Chan Master Guo Jun, chapter 8, p. 26-28]

    There are some lovely pieces in here that I might share with you during zazen in the next weeks actually - we'll be in Practice Period starting next week so no formal Dharma Talks on Wednesday nights for a while. Just sitting. Wonderful and it's also nice to have a little bit to chew on from time to time. Guo Jun's teachings and path are a nice kind of exploration of maturity I think which is our theme. What is it to be truly mature? Time for us all to grow up a little more.

    So what is useful or helpful about a boiled down koan like "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

    Well maybe I'll tell what I can remember of the story of my first serious dip into what we seem in the west to be calling "koan introspection" - the deep zazen-based immersion into a key phrase or turning in a koan.

    Most often such stories are held very privately mostly because it would be so easy to misunderstand, to judge, to have grasping or comparing mind; so easy for the teller of such a story to egotistical and bragging about their accomplishment. And this last point is a big deal in Buddhism.

    Did you know that in the early Buddhist precepts code there were only 3 lapses of precepts that were serious enough to merit permanent expulsion from the order?

    The first was killing someone; the second was having sex (these were celibate orders), and the third was bragging about spiritual accomplishments. So I hope I'm not falling into that territory even a little here.

    As there is also a bit downside to secrecy. People misunderstand, misinterprent, and assume all kinds of things about these spiritual training systems in the absence of direct and straight forward information about what actually happens.

    I honestly can't remember everything that happened when I studied my first koan in this Rinzai style fashion but impressions and a few highlights.

    When I was on Oahu at the Palolo Zendo for an 8-day rohatsu sesshin exactly a year ago. The Palolo Zendo was founded by Robert Aitken and the Diamond Sangha in the 1990's - they were previously on Maui. The group actually started all the way back in 1959. And new fact to me is that their small residential zendos on both islands were purchased by Anne Aitken - Robert Aikten's wife - using inheritance money. So it's a little weird that I just said it was founded by him while meantime she was a serious Zen student for 40 years and backrolled the entire venture it turns out!

    Anyway the teacher there now, Michael Kierran, I find very down to earth and kind. Serious about the style of practice they do which is completely orientated around koans. The Dharma Talks were all on koans and each person is assigned a koan to sit with. Everyone has dokusan every day - if you make a little effort you can often see him twice a day. And there's just one clear teacher - there were senior students and a head student like we have during practice period but doksuan was offered only with Michael and he gave all the talks.

    Michael and I had met the summer before at a Zen teachers meeting in Portland which is what helped me get the idea to try sitting sesshin with him. After an initial dokusan to just get to know each other formally he agreed to assign me a koan. It wasn't the famous MU we learned about which is one of the starting koans but a 2nd one they tend to start people on:

    Bassui asked, "who is the one who hears?"

    Bassui was a 14th century Japanese master so this one is not from the famed golden age of Zen in China that all of the stories in our book are.

    Michael gave me just a few simple instructions: turn this question over in your mind. Sit with it. Breathe with it. See where it leads you. And in our daily meetings I'll ask you about it.

    Okay I said. Interested in the process but not too worked up about it. I figured the main thing I was there to do was sit sesshin and this would an interesting component.

    They lead a very vigorous sesshin and very quiet. It's not a large group - maybe 25 people and most of them had known each other for many years. The wake up bell was at 4 - and there was no coffee allowed - this concerned me a little - but the neat thing was the morning routine was actually just done all together. A real "one body" approach. You were expected to be in the zendo by 4:20 but it wasn't straight to still sitting. We did fast kinhin first, then a 15 minute peroid of self-directed stretching, then there actually WAS caffiene in the form of a nice full tea cup of strong green tea - only everyone drank that down really fast. And then it was the usual routine we're used to. Sit, walk, sit, walk. Meals were oryoki - a very similar style ot ours. Daily talks in the morning. And dokusan in the afternoon. A special bell rang and we all moved from the zendo to a kind of line up for dokusan. One after the next - meetings were 5 to 10 minutes tops.

    My turn came I entered the room with a prostration at the door and a kind of hop up onto the mat in front of Michael and without missing a beat he asked me, "Who is the one who hears?"

    I'd been turning it over. I'd been listening a lot - listening meditaiton is wonderful and that certainly seemed relevant who can I explore the one who hears without engaging in hearing itself.

    I tried going in with zero agenda at all at first. Just saying the first thing that popping into my mind. To see what came up. I don't remember all of these but one time what came out of my mouth was, "he is far away." I guess I just felt distant from the koan or something. Michael smiled and disagreed: "no, he's right here!" and rang the little bell and off I went.

    Sometimes Michael would just ring the bell - just like in the books about Zen - interview OVER. Other times we would have our formal exchange about the koan and then he'd shift the tone to have a brief collegial talk about Zen and sanghas and teaching - but that never more than 5 or 10 minutes. And off I went to keep sitting, listening, wondering. Who is the one who hears.

    After a few days I had the intuion that while it's really good not to force things or TRY to hard to figure out an ANSWER still I should include my regular intelligence along with a kind of intuitive from the gut feeling. A kind of meeting of the cognitive and the beyond cognitive that arises direct and fresh in the moment.

    And to be honest part of my motivation was I was a bit embarrassed by some of the spontanous things that came out of my mouth….just so obviously…wrong.

    I said something in this period like, "he's clear as a bell" - it wasn't those words but something with that feeling. A real feeling of clarity and openness. And Michael said, "not bad, keep exploring."

    Then in the break after lunch - all I had to do was dinner dishes! No other jobs! So the breaks after breakfast and lunch felt so luxurious and peaceful - anyway I walked up the hill to an empty property at the top of this lush Hawaiian valley and lay on back and listened, listened, listened. I kind of lost myself in sound and that became my lunchtime routine. And as much as I could all the time - just hearing - listening - who is it? Who hears? Who is the one who hears?

    And each day going back to explore what would come up when he'd look at me with a smile and ask "Who is the one who hears?"

    Finally what came to me is something around it being about showing up but not getting in the way and the answer that arrived was, "the one who isn't trying to be someone!"

    I felt that answer arrive and it just felt right. I sat with it for a bit before the next doksuan.

    And Michael said, "Well…that's pretty clear." And he seemed surprised. He never said, "congratuations you passed your first koan." but that was the import of it. He enouraged me to keep with it a bit longer and see what else came up. At the next meeting we had a kind of koan dialog that was interesting - kind of like the exchanges we have here in the shuso ceremony or the shosan dialogs if you've been to those. I can't remember the whole exchange but he said something like how wide and vast it is - shooting out into space. And I said it's extends from right here beneath your feet into the heavens and then I do rememer he said, "no it's right here" tapping the top of his head and I had these kind of deep feeling about that and said, "yes but I can't reach that high." And he laughed and said that usually it takes people some years to pass their first koan but he hadn't worked with someone who already had so much zazen experience.

    And I think it helped actually that I was from outside their system. Maybe that gave me a kind of freshness and openness about the whole thing. And I also was pretty non-attached. I didn't feel any need to "pass" - well maybe a little but actually not much!

    I didn't have some kind of far out totally out of your body light show experience but the whole thing did I think add both depth and spaciousness to my practice for those 8 days. 8 full days there were, very rich.

    So that's my story of Bassui's "Who is the one who hears? " One could practice in a very similar was with "Why has the barbarian no beard?" So it's not not about the words and content - hearing, barbarians, facial hair, gender, indentity - but it's also not really about the words. It does make sense that this process gets written about so weirdly - described as an epic battle with the intellect which is supposed to be totally defeated by these impossible puzzles.

    But not the intellect is very much involved but it's intellect playing the fields of emptiness if that makes any sense. It wasn't working when I tried to let go of the intellect. There is a letting go - a softening into the mystery - but there's also a sharpening, a probing, a looking-listing-feeling deeper.

    Huo-an asked, "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

    Thank you very much.


  • Wednesday, January 02, 2019 8:28 AM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

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    Gateless Gate Koan Collection (Mumonkan)
    Case 3 "Jùzhī Raises a Finger"

    Featured Teacher:

    Pinyin Chinese Jùzhī Yīzhǐ
    Wade-Giles Chinese Chu-chih
    Japanse Gutei Isshi
    Lived c 8-9C


    With the third case of the Mumonkan koan collection we encounter our first bit of upsetting violent language. There was a slap in case two. But in case 3 things get more intense.

    We didn't talk abou the slap in case two much. Remember in the tail end of the story after master Baijang had the whole encounter with the previous master Baijang who lived 500 years as a fox because of his arrogance about karma. At the very end after he frees the old master with his wise turning words, had the monks hike around the mountain and do a cremation ceremony for the fox body they found there, and then he told the story that night in his talk: his chief disciple Huangbo asked the master, "The old man missed the turning word and rebord as a fox five hundred times. What if he had given the right answer each time he was asked a qusetion - what would have happened to him?"

    Baizang invited him up to the teaching platform and the student, Huango, actually slapped the master and this delighted the teacher who exclaimed in Zen code: "I thought the barbarian had a red beard, but here is a red-bearded barbian." Which is saying you're as good as Bodhidharma, meaning: "you've got it!"

    He admired his students directness and immediacy we might read that. A real moment of "YES!"

    Yamada roshi's commentary says is wasn't a real slap but a mock slap. The student clapping his hands together by the teacher's face like a slapstick routine.

    So we might read all the violence in these Zen stories - like cutting cats in two which we'll get to later on - as enacted. A serious enactment - making a point and not just messing around - but also not really hitting people or cutting off arms or breaking legs.

    Or Robert Aitken says we might read the violence like we hear in Grimm's fairy tales which we're so used to it doesn't bother us and we just hear it as part of the story, part of the message.

    "Fee-fi-fo-fum,

    I smell the blood of an Englishman,

    Be he alive, or be he dead,

    I’ll have his bones to grind my bread."

    And popping bad children in the oven and so on.

    See what you think in this case:

    Mumonkan Case 3 - Jùzhī Raises a Finger

    Whenever Jùzhī (chOOTs jzuh) was asked a question he simply raised one finger.

    One day a visitor asked Jùzhī's attendant what his master taught. The boy raised a finger.

    Hearing of ths, Jùzhī cut off the boy's finger with a knife. As he ran from the room, screaming with pain, Jùzhī called to him. When he turned his head, Jùzhī raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.

    When Jùzhī was about to die, he said to his assembled monks: "I received this one-finger Zen from Tiānlóng (tAHN lang). I used it all my life but never used it up." When he finished saying this he died.

    There is much here but you do have to get through a little revulsion of that image don't you?

    One thing is here is that it's exactly that: one thing. Dogen wrote to sustain one practice is to master one practice. There's a wonderful faith in steady single-minded practice in our way. This is such a great antidote to our endless seeking for novelty and originality I think. What an incredible strain it is to think we have to be original and creative and fresh all the time.

    Just raise a finger. Just sit down. But it's in how you do it too isn't it? You can't just copy someone else. You have to do your one practice with a depth of commitment and understanding. To see it through to the bottom. The boy in this story was merely imitating his teacher and didn't really understand his "one finger zen" until the drastic moment of the master cutting off his finger. Then he got it. Or maybe we imagine the master whipping out a knife and pinning the boy against the table and stopping the knife right as it reached the skin. A bit of mock violence to shock the boy into awakening. Still very dramatic.

    Or maybe we set aside out literalness altogether and enter into a more mythical allegorical universe with giants mashing up Englishmen and Zen masters chopping off boy's fingers and see what we can learn from the point of the story without being grossed out.

    We tend to picture holding up an index finger but most cultures hold up the thumb to show 1, then the index finger is added to make two. I'll always remember buying something small at a convenience story in the middle of the night in Paris. This great big gruff guy behind the counter holding up his thumb and saying "un franc."

    And of course it's not really about holding up a finger whichever finger it is. It's about commiting to your practice. Suzuki Roshi said, "the most important thing is to remember the most important thing."

    What's really important right now. Right now. And whether it's convenient to you or not, that's it - that's what you do, that's where you go. Divining into just that. Just this. That's one finger Zen.

    And so often in these stories a powerful sense of lineage and passing on an understanding somehow. The exchange with the boy did lead to his sudden enlightenment! Would you take that trade. But very beautifully at the end of the koan a sense some years later when master Jùzhī is about to die he remembers his teacher with deep gratitude. : "I received this one-finger Zen from Tiānlóng (tAHN lang). I used it all my life but never used it up."

    If we understand what we are being offered we see that what we receive from our teachers, our good friends, our parents, our world is infinite and we can never use it up. And we can be grateful. This includes receiving teachings we don't like. Painful lessons of all kinds.

    The great Tibetan Buddhist teaching poem 8 Verses for Training the Mind the author makes the point they are always making in the lojong mind training texts that probably the lessons you didn't want to receive are the most important the most valuable. 3 of the verses speak to this:

    When I encounter beings of unpleasant character

    and those oppressed by intense negativity and suffering,

    as though finding a treasure of precious jewels,

    may I cherish them, for they are so rarely found

    When others out of jealousy

    treat me wrongly with abuse and slander,

    may I take upon myself the defeat

    and offer to others the victory.

    Even if someone I have helped

    or in whom I have placed great hope

    gravely mistreats me in hurtful ways,

    may I view him as my sublime teacher

    While I also love how our practice has aspectes of peace and stress reduction and calming down - so nice - it's imporant to appreciate that the Dharma is also a very high commitment, high expectations tradition too. If we want to walk the path to real freedom we may have to really go for it. Not just accepting that others get confused and out of their suffering lash out at us but to appreciate them and feel grateful to them and treat them as our teacher.

    They are offering us deep teachings about attachments and aversions of all kinds and greasing the stuck wheels in our heart that allow us open to freedom and equanamity. Shantideva's famous chapter in Bodhicharyavatara about patient has dozens more verses like these. Thank you pissing and shitting on me, you are helping me understand my mind so that I can become more compassionate and understanding. Take a finger while you're at it, I give everything to you freely for the sake of awakening for all beings.

    Yeah.

    A bit part of the koan tradition is the layers of commentary that are added to these stories. Scholars define a "koan" as a unit of text that gets repeated, more or less consistently, in the Zen literature with commentary attached to it. And then more commentary gets attached. So my commenting on this koan as a koan and your listening to me we're participating in further koan-ing this story of Jùzhī Raising a Finger as a koan.

    Wumen's commentary verse focussed on the Tiānlóng, the teacher's teacher in this case.

    Wumen's Verse

    Tiānlóng made a fool of old Jùzhī

    who cut the boy with a sharp knife

    just as the mountain spirit raised his hand

    and Huanshan mountain range with it's many ridges was split in two.

    The mountain spirit here is a reference to another story about Jùzhī - here's how Aitken Roshi retells it.

    [Gateless Barrier p. 29-30]

    Many mysterious encounters: the nun Shih-chi appearing out of nowhere and confounding the younger Jùzhī. Then in his dark night of the soul a mountain spirit points him towards his true teacher. And from his teacher learning this deeply committed one-pointed - one finger Zen. "un franc!"

    Can you commit to your one life just as it is? Can you commit to this practice in whatever way you understand it? Can you embrace the trouble that surely comes and appreciate those you bring you those troublesome teachings. It sooner or later leads you to your true teacher as the mountains are split in two.


  • Wednesday, December 26, 2018 8:00 PM | Talus Latona (Administrator)

    Podcast: Play in new window

    Case 2 "Baizhang's Fox" of the Gateless Gate Koan Collection (Mumonkan) features the teacher Baizhang:

    Pinyin Chinese Baizhang
    Wade-Giles Chinese Pai-chang
    Japanse Hyakujō
    Lived 720 – 814

    Tim's talk notes are below - he often departs from the notes but the notes themselves can be helpful.

    Mumonkan 2 - Dec 26, 2018

    Wednesday, December 26, 2018

    9:05 AM

    The second story in the Mumonkan - The Gateless Gate Koan Collection - is about cause and effect. About karma. About the incredible power of our actions of body, speech, and mind. And how we forget this power when we're lost in the fog of thinking that we're separate from everything. And the healing power of deeply unstanding our place in the web of Indra. In the web of life. In the web of relationship.

     Case 1 was at the short end of the koan story spectrum - remember the simple exchange between Master Zhaozhou and the monk who asked him whether a dog has Buddha Nature? The teacher answered "not!" and that's the end of the story but the reverberations of that particular exchange carry on to the present day and inform the practice of so many. Like so many of these stories it's about looking more deeply. It's about being the conventional mind of yes or no. It's about not stopping with a concept - "Buddha Nature" here as the example - and stopping to see below the surface of the concepts and ideas and words and assumptions we lay across everything we perceive.

     As we think about how our conceptual mind and assumptions and tendency towards dualistic black & white thinking operates I think we start to see that there's a real causal power just to how we think about things. The patterns we lay on the world. Our thinking/judging/evaluating/conceptualizing mind is a powerful tool that is so essential for us to make any sense of anything but does that process of sense-making also lock the world into what we expect it to be in all kinds of ways?

     The second story says so. Here  it is in Aikten Roshi's translation:

     [Baizhang's Fox case 2 from The Gateless Barrier by Robert Aitken]

     Koan studies often involve distilling the story down to a key phrase or even word. And in this case that has to be the contemporary Baizhang's answer to the question that so messed up the Baizhang of the past. "Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?" Is there this enlightened state that means you're completely above the fray? They say that Buddha's are so clear on the nature of things that their actions don't have any side effects and unindented consequence as they aren't the least tiny bit tainted by all the confusion we ordinary folks bring to the table.

     Please help me now teacher, says the Baizhang of old who's been trapped for 500 lifetimes as a fox, "Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?"

     Aitken translates the answer as: "Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect."

     One of Aitken's Japanese teachers has: "The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured."

     The early Zen pioneer to America Nyogen Sensaki whom I've been going on about has: "An enlightned person is one with the law of causation!"

     Whomever authored the Wikipedia page on this case has, "Don't ignore cause and effect."

     Another I found,  "Not in the dark about cause and effect." 

     So obviously the underlying Chinese is a bit unclear if the translations of it differ so much. The Chinese was more than I can make out with my limited knowledge.

    也無。
    師云。
    不昧因果。

    I can make out (with Google translate's help) that he starts his answer by saying, "no" or remember this can just be a negation of a subsequent character.

    Then there are two key characters that must be an archaic phrase or a reference
    Shi - yun   [shi rising, yun falling]
    Shi means division - to divide things
    and yun means cloud - perhaps cloud also means to obscure like the English it's cloudy or clouded?
    And then he says
    "No cause and effect".

    So the literal transation is something like "no, dividing obscures, no cause and effect" or maybe a little more intelligible would be. "Is the enlightened person subject to cause and effect?"

    "Not divided from cause and effect" with the implication that this is an obscure business.

    Which is all very interesting I suppose but how is this story with this cryptic answer in the middle of it helpful to us?

    I think we can hold this as a powerful mythic example of the great influence of all of our actions including what we think and say. That it's time to grow up from the idea that loose talk or even loose thinking is no big deal as long as we don't do anything too bad.

    Ghandi famously said,

    “Your beliefs become your thoughts,
    Your thoughts become your words,
    Your words become your actions,
    Your actions become your habits,
    Your habits become your values,
    Your values become your destiny.”

    And the process of practice helps us see more and more clearly and subtley how we are affected by all kinds of things, and how others are affected too. We're both resilient and very fragile. Sticks and stone break our bones and words very much do harm us and the right words also lift us up.

    And as we refine our understanding and act more like Buddhas we do indeed do less that's karmically charged. We are less confused and more clear. The unintended consequences of our actions diminish. But never to use enlightenment as an excuse for our behavior. That shows up in some of the sexual misconduct cases in our lineages. The teacher convincing himself and the student that their innappropriate relationships is special and above the fray, pure, or even beneficial - "a teaching" - those teachers deserve their 500 lives as a fox.

    A traditional verse for remembering to practice and how important karma is would be worth reciting regularly here if we could figure out a graceful way to add it - touhces on 4 key points, this verse is sometimes called the four thoughts or four remembrances. This is Norman's version published in Training in Compassion with a few tweaks by me:

    Consider how rare and precious is this human life.
    Remember the inevitability of our death and
    accept the inescability of suffering in samsara.
    Investigate the awesome and indelible power of our actions.
    And you will naturally live a life of practice and benefit for all beings.

     If we live with this in mind we won't have any fox problems because living in this way we live with awareness, humility, and see there is nothing better to do than practice compassion and love.

    Dogen appreciated this story of Bhaizang and the fox enough that he wrote a whole chapter in Shobogenzo about it - the chapter is called Dai Shugyō or Great Practice. It was written in 1244 soon after Dogen and his students created Eiheiji. The same Eiheiji that Ben and Christina recently immersed us in.

    Like all things Dogen there is a lot there but just to highlight a few passages for the moment.

    Dogen writes about cause and effect and what a deep practice it is

    Investigating great practice is nothing but cause and effect itself. Because cause and effect are invariably comprehensive and completely full, they are beyond a discussion of falling or not falling, or considerations of ignoring or not ignoring. If not falling into cause and effect is a mistake, not ignoring cause and effect may also be a mistake.Whenever mistakes surpass mistakes, there is falling into a wild fox body and there is liberation from a wild fox body.

    And he quotes another teacher's comment on this case which is interesting:

    Baizhang personally met the wild fox; 
    questioned by it, his heart was greatly perturbed.

    Now, I ask you, practitioners of the way, 
    have you completely spat out the wild fox’s saliva, or not?

    And Dogen is also critical of the present-time Bhaizang's giving the full monastic cremation and ceremony for the body of the fox - which always seemed to me so deeply respectful of the old Bhaizang in a wonderfully mythic way - Dogen says

    It is said that Baizhang cremated the body of the wild fox following the customary procedure. This is not clear; perhaps there is a mistake. Know that funeral services for a deceased monk, from the moment of entering the Nirvana Hall to the practice of arriving at the Bodhi Garden [place of death], all have set procedures and cannot be changed at random. Even if the wild fox lying at the foot of a cliff claims it is the former Baizhang, how could this be the practice of a great monk, the bones and marrow of buddha ancestors? Who could clearly testify that this was the former Baizhang? Do not groundlessly regard the transmogrification of a wild fox spirit as authentic, and do not make light of the dharma standards of buddha ancestors.

    Telling us that Dogen took this story quite literally, not as a myth or a fable. As probably he and his contemporaries understood all of these Zen stories and very literally true. And there's a wonderful spiritual power to taking is all seriously I think.

    So please consider if at some levels you think you're exempt from consquences. If you think "oh I can get away with this, no one will notice" and that kind of thing. Those are the thoughts that lead you straight to 500 lifetimes as a fox in the form of gradually seeing that there are always consquences to our actions, there is nothing we can get away with and our powerful words and thoughts and deeds ripple through the universe.

    There's a story from Kenya about a forest fire. All of the animals run off to safety and are sitting there watching the jungle burn up and mourning and crying and carrying on about this terrible loss. But hummingbird isn't just sitting there, she's dashing around in constant motion. Finally one of the animals asks what she's doing and it turns out she's been flying off to a nearby pond to suck up the tiny amount of water her little beak can hold and then spitting it into the fire to put it out. That was the end of the story the way I heard it, I don't know if the other animals got inspired to realize we can all make a difference, no matter how small. That's a good story for us around climate change I think. So easy to run our fossil fuel cars and so on even through we all know full well that we are adding to this huge problem which may be the end of us.

    Perhaps the our children and their children living through the distruptions and unknowns of climate change is our version of this story. We can only hope that things work out well enough that they can live those 500 lives. Is it all bad being a fox? To be alive is to be alive, full of possibilities.


  • Wednesday, December 19, 2018 8:30 PM | Talus Latona (Administrator)

    Podcast: Play in new window

    Case 1 "Zhaozhou's Mu" of the Gateless Gate Koan Collection (Mumonkan) features the teacher Zhaozhou:

    Pinyin Chinese Zhaozhou
    Wade-Giles Chinese Chao-chou
    Japanse Joshu
    Lived 778 – 897

    A key biographical point: (on leaving on pilgrimage at age 80) “If I meet an old man of 90 who has something to learn from me I will teach him, if I meet a young girl of 9 who has something to teach me, I will learn from her”

    Tim highly recommends this scholarly chapter on what koans are and where they came from: Form and Function of Koan LIterature - T Griffith Faulk - The Koan - Heine Wright 2000.pdf

    Tim's talk notes are below - he often departs from the notes but the notes themselves can be helpful.


    The great holy book of Japanese Zen - studied very heavily in the Rinzai school especially and also deeply honored by our Soto school is called in Japanese Mu-mon-kan - in English the Gateless Barrier or the Gateless Gate. Mu means negation, mon is gate like in my name No-mon - responding gate - and kan means barrier. So literally it's no gate barrier.

    A barrier that has no gate that you have to get through would be the reading in the break through to enlightenment style. But a set of Chinese characters it pretty flexible so we can also read it as no gate, no barrier would fits the idea that we are inherently okay already. This is a step beyond the idea of gradual progress towards enlightenment into the deep idea that we are deeply okay already - just as we are - we are Buddha nature - we are Buddha. It's just our nutty minds get a little side tracked. No gate, No barrier. There is no gate needed here as there was no barrier to begin with.

    The book is a collection of 48 Zen stories - koans. The form that it has now was created in the late 13th century by a Chinese Chan master - the character we call "Zen" is pronounced "Chan" in China - his name was Wumen Huikai. Confusingly you see at least three different spellings of every Chinese Zen master. There are two common ways they are written in Roman characters - the older scholarly system called Wade-Giles and the newer Chinese government sponsored system of Pinyin. So this teacher is wumen in as one word in Pinyin and as a hyphenated word in Wade-Giles wu-men. And the Japanese when they see the Chinese characters used pronounce them in their own manner so they say momun. To make things even more confusing the Japanese when they are using borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese words - when they become kanji - have yet another way of pronouncing the exact same character.

    The first character in this teacher who compiled the book is relevant to our first story. It means no or negatation in general like "un" in English. In Chinese it's pronounced "wu" and in the Chinese-facing Japanese pronounciation they call onyomi it's "mu" but when the Japanese say no to each other they don't say "mu" they say "īe" (eee-yeh).

    Fun with language. You don't need to understand Asian language to study Zen - and I've barely scratched the surface of that vast topic myself - but it's helpful to have a sense of where the sayings and teachings of Zen have come from. And they've definitely bubbled up through many layers of language and culture and translation. Of course Zen tells the story that it's beyond language - we can't introduce formal Zen without sharing the great summary of all Zen teachings that's attributed to Bodhidharma:

    A special transmission outside the scriptures,

    Not depending on words and letters;

    Directly pointing to the mind

    Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.

    This from a Buddhist tradition that has produced tons of written literature but it's not wrong to say this either. There is a central feeling - a kind of essence - to these teachings that is indeed beyond words and letters and concepts.

    Back to our book. What emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries was a custom of studying witty little exchanges between Zen adepts - usually between masters and students - some of which were codified as "koans" the word actually means public case, like a legal precedent for enlightenment. And these extra juices exchanges once they become koans are kinds of units of story that get passed around and commented on. Sometimes a koan collection will have one set of comments from a master in one century and another master commenting on the first comments a century later so these are layered kinds of texts.

    The Mumonkan is on the simpler side with the stories collected by Wumen. He wrote a title to each one - which are all in 4 Chinese characters - the story as it was passed down to him, then a verse commentary and then a poem.

    And of course later commentators then comment on his choices of title, his comments, and his verse. Comments on comments.

    Here's case 1 as translated by Robert Aitken.

    A monk asked master Zhaozhou, "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"

    Zhaozhou said, "mu."

    The same mu we discussed earlier in the very name of the compiler of the collect. This is of course literally untrue. It's axiomatic that everything has Buddha nature - dogs, rocks, people, the air. It's all an expression of Buddha. So why does the teacher say "no"? It's possible that our venacular use of the word "not" would be better here.

    You think you know the teachings students? You're just parroting the old teachers.You say a dog has Buddha nature? I say "not"!

    So this use of negation in Zen is quite wonderful and quite confusing. And i think quite important. You can't really have a sense of the way the tradition understands itself without a sense of this "no" of Zen.

    It's not no in opposition to yes. It's no in opposition to being so sure there is a yes and no to everything. It's the no of emptiness, it's the no of endless possibility. If it's not this is could be anything.

    Zhaozhou's no is the no of "not so sure" - this is a wonderful way to practice. Not to be so sure. In English being too sure is a sure sign of arrogance. Our way is the way of humility.

    The sound "mu" is taken up as a kind of tone poem to study in zazen. This is a common starting place in Rinzai style koan introspection. You breath "mu" - and remember this is weird to a modern Japanese person sho says "ie" for no, not "mu" - so it's not becoming Japanese. It's a Zen thing.

    I've played with this but without the structure of the full Zen koan curriculum and a culture around everyone practing with "mu" I havent' found it that helpful myself. You could try it though As you sit in zazen breathe in "mu" - breathe out "mu" - offer up "mu" to everything you see. Wonderful way to practice.

    What I have found very helpful is to invoke the not-knowing and curiosity of "mu" with the phrase "what is it?"

    It's simple and powerful. Breathe in feeling the body energizing and lightening and opening and then offer with the exhalation these three powerful words: "what is it?" And repeat.

    Don't worry about an answer int he conventional sense.It's not about knowing what it is. Rather let the breathing and offering of a question open you up to not knowing. As another famous Zen koan says, "not knowing is most intimate." This not knowing isn't a passive state or a lack of knowledge, it's an active state of engagement with the world. Not knowing engagment. Curious engagement. Aliveness. Active curiosity.

    What is it?

    What is it?

    As those words get internalized you might not need the actual sounds -what is it - but just breathe out the feeling of the question. Or just the first word as more of an aspired sound "whaaaat".

    it gets interesting when you really commit to this for a while. When ou establish it in zazen and then invite it out into your everyday life. As you walk: what is it? As you wait definitely a great time for: what is it? But gradually this spirit of wondering and questioning and curiosity infuses more and more of your life and you start to see how much suffering there is from being too sure and losing your wonder, losing your curiosity. What is it?

    It's most powerful, and most traditionally appropriate, if you come to see me or one fo the other teachers in dokusan and get formally assigned this practice so I encourage you do that. It's best to be pretty stable on the breath first so it might be too soon to really get into "what is it?" but I've also become a fan of the power and appropriateness of doing a little noodling around at times. Even as deep commitment to one practice assigned by your teacher is the deeper way. Both are fine really.

    So play with this a bit and if it feels interesting come see me and we'll discuss if it feels like the right time to take this practice deep and far.

    Let's close with a bit of Master Wumen's enthusiastic commentary on this case - he was a big fan of practicing with "mu" (although he would have said "wu").


  • Thursday, November 29, 2018 8:00 PM | Talus Latona (Administrator)
  • Wednesday, September 26, 2018 8:00 PM | Talus Latona (Administrator)
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