Tim's talk notes (not a transcription, Tim often stays from his notes, sometimes in interesting ways).
Several of you have mentioned that you're finding breath counting fruitful.
But of course if can be hard to tell which practice is helpful. Sometimes in our subjective experience we have a result we like: like you feel you can concentrate better or there are fewer anxious thoughts or something. But other times we have subjective experiences we don't like: one practice or the other feels boring and mechanical or frustrating.
The thing is it might be that a practice we don't like, especially in the short term, turns out to be the most helpful.
How do we know if a practice helps? Do you we just try things and see if we like them? Do those kinds of preferences help us? Or is there a deeper feeling of connection and possibility sometimes with one practice or another? Is it more logical or more intuitive?
And anyway why bothe with a technique like breath counting anyway? Why not just sit?
Well that's fine if you're really just sitting. Just finding some way of letting everything drop away - opening into the big wide possibilities of our lived experience. But sometimes "I just want to sit" means more like spacing out or checking out. It's so hard to know!
This is why really all instruction in Zen ends up being individual. Sometimes I can help someone feel into what's helpful- I just feel it and there's a kind of knowing. I say that but I also know it's not "me" exactly - I can't look inside anyone's head and I certainly can't look into the future to see what the result of one practice choice or the other will be. It's more like sometimes something emerges in the conversation that we're both contributing too. Some clarity is there and, on a good day, I can name that clarity - that sounds wonderful, please continue; or that sounds really challenging, please continue anyway; or that sounds really like it's not so helpful right now, let's try something else.
And other times I really have no clue. And then I'm grounded and clear I'll just say that - hmm, no idea right now, what do you think? Other times I just feel a little vulnerable and frustrated. I want to be helpful in the dokusan room and that's just not always possible. How could it be? To meet each other with all of our complexity in a few minutes and feel our way forwad with more clarity? Tall order! It's amazing it's helpful as often as it is actually.
This is a vulnerable thing this practicing sesshin, isn't it? I appreciate the way so many people here are in all kinds of new roles and even if you're doing a role you've done many times there is so much freshness and engagement and curiosity. And so much skill - which, yes, includes making mistakes! It's so vulnerable the way we show up together. We're exposed. In the quiet we see each other in a certain way. There's no where to hide. There's a commentary line on another Zen story that I've been turning over my mind lately: "completely exposed."
I realized as I was walking back to my little trailer that there's a big "new" for me in this sesshin too. This is the first multi-day sesshin I've ever led without another Dharma teacher. Usually I'm co-teaching with Eko Jeff Kelley or Seattle Soto Zen or with my teacher Norman Fischer. I've led all kinds of things myself of course but there's something very special and important in our tradition about a multi-day sesshin, especially a residential one were we're living here, it's our deepest ritual and it's a big deal to lead it. I was just going along one step at at time we do not thinking too much about it when I realized, wow this is kind of a big deal!
And I know that's also not really true. I'm not leading this alone. I am surrounded by deeply experienced practitioners and colleagues - some of whom I've had to pleasure to practice with for decades - and there is much leadership and support all around. I love that while we do try to honor the powerful practice of leadership we also do everything we do pretty cooperatively so I feel very supported. So thank you.
And also that this role of "teacher" is just one role of many here at sesshin and they are all important and essential so that's true too. Ringing the bells or cooking the food or painting the cabin or being the teacher, in a deep way every one of these roles is just as important and essential.
And there's something to this role, this form, this wearing this color of robe and sitting in this seat is a big deal, a real hot seat. Completely exposed.
In case I forget to say this at the end I do want to tell you that if any of my words or deeds confuse you or are harmful or unhelpful in any way I do deeply apologize for that. I'm not an enlightened Zen master I don't think but I do have the karma to be offered this seat and so it's my responsibility to show up and sit down here with you. My responsibility and my honor.
In any case breath counting is a very good practice to stick with for some days of sesshin, for some months and years of practice, but ultimately all technique does become a bit extra.
So you could either stick with breath counting, or you could try a companion practice for the rest of sesshin. This is what we might call "open awareness of breathing" - when you first sit down tune in strongly to the body and breath as you can been doing for breath counting. Then as each breath goes by invite the awareness to be light. To be lighter and lighter. And when other things arises that aren't breath awareness have less of a feeling of "oops, wrong - back to the breath" - treat other phenomena that arise more like the weather of the mind: clouds and rain squals, the occoasional thunderstorm, let them there there, let them float across the mind and meet them with a feeling of gently, gently settling back on the breath. So not that kind of strong moving away from the so-called distractions and back to the breath but an allowing, a being with, an opening to that just naturally leads gradually and organically back to the breath. The breath is always there patiently waiting for you, you know?
But do make a choice in each zazen period. Are you practicing breath counting or are you practicing this lighter open awareness of breathing? Make a choice and stick with it. And to just add more confusion you can also do a mix of these two practices: settle yourself in with breath counting for the first half or so of a zazen period then let the counting get softer and softer and drift away and then just rest your awareness lightly on the breath in the way I just described.
There is a great value in choosing how you're practicing and sticking with it for a while. Not rigidly or tighty so much but with commitment and vision.
And if you have questions or want my reflection back we can explore that in dokusan.
And in all of these practices we can invite the spirit of Yunyan's "you should know there's one who's not busy." We are making some kind of effort - there is "busy" in that sense of engagement and occupation - but notice when tense, hurried, striving kinds of effort arise. Can we notice that, feel it, and let it fall away? Hold up the broom for yourself and ask "which moon is this?"
The moon metaphor is from a Chinese sutra called the Shurangama Sutra. It's a longish Mahayana Sutra about the nature of reality that mostly unfolds as a long dialog between the Buddha and his attendant and cousin Ananda. Ananda is my favorite of the early disciples of the Buddha. A brilliant and devoted student with an incredible memory and yet in some deep fundamental way he had a huge problem "getting it" no matter how hard he tried.
In the opening of the Shurangama Sutra, Ananda screws up. It's a little racy actually - he's on his daily begging rounds, on his own which the Chinese commentators of this sutra tell us is a big mistake - don't go off on your own: you might do something you regret. And that's what happens. Ananda falls hard for a woman in one of the houses he stops at and they jump into bed together. No kidding!
But luckily for Ananda, his teacher the Buddha has clairvoyance and he always knows what's happening with everyone. He's actually in the middle of giving a talk over lunch to a donor when he sees what's happening with Ananda and before Ananda can take it too far and violate his monastic vows Buddha sends the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjursi, off to fetch Ananda.
Interestingly the woman he's with returns also to hear the teachings of the Buddha. And later in the sutra I'm told she actually gets enlightened before Ananda does. There are some misogynistic aspects to this little fling of Ananda and his, sadly unnamed, woman which I'm chosing to leave out but also these encouraging bits are actually right there in a thousand year old Chinese text. She practices and awakens too, we don't just leave her in bed. At least that's something.
Anyway Buddha realizes the problem isn't whether Ananda knows how to practice or the teachings or what the rules are, the problem is in the very nature of Ananda's understanding of reality so they start this long kind of Socratic dialog to explore what the nature of the senses and perception and reality are. This is a common theme in Buddhism: the problem isn't that you don't have enough information. The problem is you're in some fundamental way confused about who and what you are and what reality really is.
The challenge of these kinds of teachings for us is we are so thoroughly convinced that it all is the way we think it is. I'm me, you're you, the world is this way, not that way, you're thinking x y or z about me, I'm sure of it, the moon is up there in the sky. Sometimes the Buddha recommends practices that may shift our understanding in a meditative way but sometimes he uses logic actually. And this sutra is a vast exposition in logic about perception and reality.
I'm going to give you just a taste of this style of teaching. It's also from China appearing around the same time as the first Zen teachings, but it's a very different kind of literature from the koan stories.
And like most Mahayana Sutras there is a whole little school of Buddhism that sees it as the most important sutra ever and they are deeply devoted to it. This translation is from American students of the Chinese Zen master Hsuan Hua who created a very large center near Ukiah, California called the City of 10,000 Buddhas. Master Hua says early in his commentatary something like, "if you don't understand this sutra that is all the most reason to study it more, because you don't understand it you should study it, not the other way 'round." Which of course you could apply to lots of things but I've really come to love and appreciate devotional logic nonetheless.
After Ananda is back in front of the Buddha here's what happens first:
When Ananda saw the Buddha, he bowed and wept in sorrow. He regretted that, since time without beginning, he had devoted himself to erudition but had not fully developed his practice on the Path. Respectfully and repeatedly he asked the Buddha to explain for him the elementary steps that lead to attainment in the wondrous practices of calming the mind, contemplative insight, and meditation on stillness - practices through which Buddhas from all directions become fully awakened.
That's impressive isn't it? It reminds us that the key ingredient in the practice is actually humility. We screw up and we don't make excuses or blame someone, we also don't keep it to ourself and try to strategize a way to avoid making that mistake again either - Ananda's example is we go to teacher and ask for basic instructions. How do you do this practice again?
That's instructive to me for dokusan room practice too - so often people want to figure out a new strategy to solve their problem - I like strategies, I have some good ones too! - but maybe it's more helpful to go right back to the basics of practice.
Which reminds me of another of my oft repeated stories. This one I'll especially indulge because it happened right here on this campground about 25 years ago [first seshin, me anxious, Norman reminding me to breathe].
So the Buddha then surveys all of the bodhisattvas present in the assembly and gives Ananda an intimate kind pat on the head which actuallly we still do in the Dharma Transmission ceremony it says he "extended his golden-hued arm and circled his hand on the crown of Ananda's head." So intimate and sweet. And then he asks Ananda a key question:
"You and I are members of the same family, and we share the affection that is natural among relatives. At the time you first made the resolve to become enlightened, what excellent attributes did you see in my Dharma that immediately led you to reject the deep familial affection and conjugal love found in the world?"
In other words: so what inspired you to become a monk and devote yourself to practice. What did you see in my teachings that inspired that?
And Ananda says it was the Buddha himself. In the tradition it's said that your body changes in various ways when you become a Buddha - it has 32 distinguishing characteristics - the 32 marks of awakening - like suddenly you can see special dharma wheel symbols on the Buddha's feet and he has a particular kind of head and hair. And eyebrows! There are a bunch of them, we don't need to worry about those details so much as recognize that we see something in our teachers don't we? It's hard to say quite what that something is, too? We see something and feel something. I think in our Dharma age mostly the teachers a lot more human than radiant beings with the 32 marks which seems on the whole healthy as we are so much less likely to put our human teachers up on a pedestal where they may fall hard and hurt people in the process, but something moves us in the practice of others right? We see something in them.
So when Ananda says "I saw something important in you," Buddha sees this as a great vehicle to help him understand reality more fully. To help him deeply example the idea of "I see" the marks of awakening. What is that "I" and what does it really mean to see? How do you see? What is seeing? And so on.
So I'll just read a few pages of their initial exchange and try to refrain from comment just for time. Just let this roll over you.
[read middle of p. 15 '"Now, Ananda, I ask you this: when , in response to the thirty-two hallmarks...." to p 18 skipping Master Hua's comments.]
And then several chapters later the Buddha gets into what is it that's seen. And how we may think we're seeing the moon but is it really the moon? Is there the moon in the sky or in our mind? Or both? Or neither? Is the moon in our eyes? What does it mean to see? What does it mean to be one who sees? How does seeing really happen? Who sees the moon? It's a deep deconstruction of a process we take so for granted and if you really stay with this and study it and meditate on it the idea is just like contemplating the key phrases in a koan story this is a powerful path to liberation. Our perceptions and sense of self are so stubborn! So it takes a lot of patient practice. Whether that's in silent meditation, listening to talks, studying a text like this one on your own or even better with a peer or a teacher, little by little the scales fall away from our eyes. Little by little we see more clearly.
Someone was telling me that because of where she was in the room here she could just see 7 pillars, not 8. I said their were 8 pillars but she counted over and over and saw that I was wrong there are just 7 pillars. Kind of odd that they'd make a 7 sided room but it appears they did. And then she move or something and realized her misperception.
The idea of these teachings as that everything is like that. It's ALL a misperception tweaked out by our narrow-minded sense of a separate self that needs to be defended and promoted. And when we finally stop doing that, wow, what a relief, how liberating, how freeing.
Speaking of liberation and freedom I was talking to someone about our story of Yunyan and Daowu and we came up with another version that you might find helpful:
One day Yunyan was sweeping the ground.
Doawu came up and said, "Too busy!"
Yunyan looked up and said, "You should know there's one with nothing to prove."
Doawu said, "If so then there's a second moon."
Yunyan held up his broom and asked, "Which moon is this?"
This is worth considering too isn't it? Are you living in some way to prove yourself? To someone in paricular? To the world in general? Maybe the one you're trying to prove something to is yourself. Perhaps proving to yourself that you're actually okay, that you're enough.
I think our practice is not to much to cut that off at the knees - you could try certainly - but just to notice it, just to know it. Just to see it. In the traditional Buddhist texts there's a character called Mara who is an embodiment of all of our greed and desire and confusion. Mara shows up in a big way on the night of Buddha's final practice push into enligthenment (the way it's usually told as this big heroic pump through all of his resistance.) Mara throws everything he's got at Buddha but the Buddha doesn't budge, just keeps practicing and eventually Mara's armies are defeated by the Buddha's clear, wise practice (and "defeating the armies of Mara" is an actual phrase is those early teachings that talk about this).
But the intersting thing is that even after Buddha's awakening. During his 30 year teaching career, Mara keeps showing up from time to time. In other words the Buddha still had his issues that would pop up. But the neat thing is how was Mara subsequently "defeated"? Simply through awareness, the Buddha could name him, "Ah, I see you there Mara. That's you bringing these anxious thoughts forward in the mind." To which Mara always says the ancient Indian version of "drat, foiled again!" and dissappears.
So when you notice and name your various anxious projections and self-centered ideas your attempts to impress someone for instance. Just reminding yourself, "you should know there's someone with nothing to prove" even if you can't quite really feel that one right now, that's a kind of naming of that attempt to seek valdiation. Or keep it even simpler, "ah fear I see you." "ah, of thinking I'm not-good-enough, I see you" or "too busy! too too busy and stressed, I see that!"
Does this make your issue go away in a poof of smoke like Mara in the story? Sometimes maybe, sometimes not. But over the long arc it helps, it defuses that energy a little, it's walking the path of awareness. It's a wisdom practice to name your crazy patterns and then be sure to bring forward, as best you can the compassion practice of naming these things with kindness.
With more of a feeling of "ahh...very frightened right now" than "darn it! there's nothing to fear here, straigthen up!"
Okay that's more than enough. Thank you again for listening.