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Below find Nomon Tim Burnett's talk notes. This is not a verbatim transcript of what Tim says in the recording but for reference and a quick scan we offer these notes. Listening to the talk is recommended.
During my morning zazen today I felt very vivid and awake.
And don't feel bad if that's not always the case for you, it's usually not that way so much for me either.
I have a lot of faith that sleepy zazen and distracted zazen and not remembering what happened zazen are still zazen.
And the whole notion of evaluating zazen with our subjective experience this way is a little suspect anyway. Maybe even a little arrogant. One little slice of our consciousness thinking it's the boss and knows what's going on. The little "me" saying "hmm, your zazen is not so good! Try harder!" or maybe saying "Forget it, you'll never be good at this, just space out. At least we get to hang out with some cool people if we pretend to do this zazen thing."
We make effort in zazen regardless of our opinion or non-opinion on how we're doing, but let that effort be gentle and accepting for the most part. Don't try too hard. Don't just snooze either, zazen is a powerful and rare opportunity really. Think of the many conditions that have to come together Let's treasure and honor that. But it's a fine line, we get too excited and try too hard and what happens? We create suffering.
Anyway this morning I felt very vivid and awake and a powerful thought appeared in my mind. "all beings want happiness and freedom from suffering" In the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on compassion this is the essential thought. This reality is the foundation for compassion and connection.
It seems obvious, a platitude even, but if we contemplate it deeply and keep bringing it into our encounters it changes everything. Someone's misbehaving in some way, you still may not appreciate their behavior, but your response is so different if you perceive a suffering being seeking happiness before you.
I've studied and thought about this idea a lot but somehow this was another degree of knowing and feeling it. All beings want happiness and freedom from suffering.
I think my heart is a bit conditioned by the sad fact that our cat is dying. For 17 years our little black cat Lucca has been a spritely and spirited family member. An especially important companion to my wife Janet who is often stuck in bed. Cats are so good at resting, much better than humans. Of course she is completely alive still but her form is changing. She isn't moving around much. She stopped eating. Happily she's still drinking a bit and we hope she's not too uncomfortable as she sits there so still, breathing, and being. It's hard to not oversimplify her experience as waiting for death. But that's really what it looks like. Of course death is always on the way for all of us. But today it's so clear that we're all hanging out in death's waiting room. It's a big room, the whole universe is here, and there's a lot to do. Death has great magazines and toys and entertainments and work to do and projects and things to learn. But when your appointment arrives it's right there.
This thought "all beings want happiness and freedom from suffering" reminds us to look around the waiting room at our fellow beings. Gets our head out of those magazines and supports us in making contact and helping. This thought reminds us to respond.
One thing I learned I was reminded of in the training I did at Stanford on teaching compassion was the powerful thought that for the response to suffering to actually be compassion you have to feel the suffering. Actually feel it. We can call this empathy. I remember Norman telling us ages ago to think about the word "passion" in the compound of "Com-Passion" - we have to feel something. These kinds of learnings seem to take a while to sink in.
I noticed when Lucca started her decline a few days ago and my wife was so upset that I didn't feel anything right away. My mind went to my head. Went to platitudes like "she's had a long life" "this was inevitable" "if she won't have high quality of life we should let her go" - all true but just thoughts. And little by little I've let myself start feeling the pain and sadness of loving and losing in the form of this little black cat. She's a really inquisitive and smart cat, and up until recently still did kitten type behaviors. Chasing little balls. Jumping up on the bed for pats. Being really engaged with us. And now she's not doing these behaviors anymore. And as I feel a little more of the pain I notice my interactions with Janet are softer, more helpful, more understanding. Becoming compassion and not just sympathy or pity or problem solving.
[more layers and self-compassion: Janet coming in to complain about not being taken into account for weekend plans, and further not celebrated enough in her birthday weekend - ouch. Accept, feel, breathe. Mindfulness, common humanity, kindnesss]
I'm going to miss this little cat too. This morning while sitting with "all beings want happiness and freedom from suffering" it wasn't that I had an image of our cat in my mind so clearly but there was an opening in my gut, an expansion in my heart.
How do we respond to suffering? In Brussels there are now 30 families mourning a big loss. On Monday night those families weren't mourning this loss. And on Tuesday sometime mid-morning as they started to be notified that a loved one had been killed in the madness of violence they all, each in their own way, we're faced with "all beings want happiness and freedom from suffering" which appears in so many shapes and forms.
Jeffrey Hopkins is a wonderful scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and one of HH Dalai Lama's translators. He wrote "The Dalai Lama is fond of saying, when beginning to address a group on a lecture tour, that he feels he knows each individual just like his own brother and sister - even though he's of a different religion and was brought up in a different part of the world speaks a different language and wears different clothes. But his basic knowledge of himself provides knowledge of what all beings want." They want happiness and freedom from suffering. Few things are as universal about beings as this.
Lately I've been enjoying studying the Zen koan literature with some of our senior students. Here's a wonderful story that appears as case 16 of the Gateless Gate collection.
Yunmen said, "See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"
The seven-piece robe is this garment, the okesa, that ordained people in our lineage have worn to practice for so long. It's a take on the Buddha's original robe. Putting it on means going to practice.
Why do we go to practice at the sound of the bell? Why do we respond to the calls of the world?
And what a world it is. Vast and wide! We now get instant updates on a small slice of the happenings of the world which gives us some idea of what the world is, but do we really know the vastness and fullness of the world?
And how is it we meet that world not with despair but with practice. With compassion. With suffering with and loving the world. With feeling the joy of the world that somehow exists on the one hand even while there is great hatred and anger and fear on the other. Our seven-panel robe is so big it can hold it all. Suffering and joy. Compassion and hatred. The Buddha and all of the ancestors call on us to respond. Somehow. To respond.
It's interesting how the heart seems to work. A close-to-hand personal example of suffering and change - our cat Lucca - is a bit easier to feel. And even there it's can be a practice point to open instead of closing and hardening and making the suffering abstract. A 17 year old cat is supposed to be on her way out. And yet here's this beautiful, beautiful being resting there. Sitting still, waiting for death, reminding me that I'm waiting for death too. And so are you. What will we do to help beings in this vast waiting room of death. How we will be that's helpful? We don't know when the next beautiful natural peaceful death will be, we don't know when the next suicide vest will be worn.
The collector of this particular koan collection added commentaries and verses to each story. He reminds us in this case that we "true Zen students" can access a bigger view. A view that's wider than any view. He says we can "ride sounds and veil forms" that "if you listen with your ear, it is hard to understand. If you hear with your eye you are intimate at last." He reminds us to be deeply curious and not settle for impressions and appearances. We may see before us a difficult co-worker, a dismissive parent, or a ISIS terrorist. And yet, "all beings want happiness and freedom from suffering."
His verse about this case is also interesting, he starts with a couplet that makes easy sense:
With realization, all things are one family;
Without realization, all things are disconnected.
And then like Dogen often does in his writings, he turns this around, reality is never one side. Not always so
Without realization, all things are one family;
With realization, all things are disconnected.
The world calls on us to respond. Can we feel the world, the suffering and joy, and still be able to respond. Or do we bury our nose in the magazines in the waiting room or keep busy with some task. Norman gave me a name that's both challenging and acknowledging. Responding Gate. Sometimes the gate swings freely and all beings can pass easily, other times the gate is sticky, rusty, creaking, it doesn't want to open. I want to hide. The "I" wants to hide.
How is it for you?
Opening lines – the Dhammapada
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday And our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind. If a person speaks or acts with an impure mind Suffering follows, as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that pulls it.
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday And our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: If a person speaks or acts with a pure mind Joy follows as a shadow follows the body.
“He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.” Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate For hate is not conquered by hate Hate is conquered by love. This is the eternal law.