By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | December 4, 1996
Summary: A Series of Seven Talks from Green Gulch Farm Rohatsu Sessin, 1996
4 December 1996 Green Gulch Rohatsu Sesshin Lecture
The other day in my talk I told you the story of the trick Odysseus plays on the Cyclops, which is usually referred to as the trick of Nobody. And I told you that the moral of the story was that, or one of the morals is that, being nobody is the best way, or the only way, to get out of an impossible situation. And maybe by now, on the third day of sesshin, you're appreciating that story more, and seeing, perhaps, that being somebody is already an impossible situation. You're trapped in a cave and you're about to be eaten at any moment. So someone was discussing this with me and reminded me of Emily Dickinson's famous poem about nobody, which I actually meant to read, but forgot. So I'll read it today. You probably know this poem:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd advertise, you know!
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog,
To tell one's name the livelong June
To an admiring bog!
So this is a nice poem, you know. It's very light-hearted and very true. How dreary to have to be somebody. How troublesome to have to advertise yourself. And people actually say this nowadays. They say, I'm marketing myself. It seems ridiculous but it's a way of life. Like you're a hunk of meat or a box of breakfast cereal. And how much fun it is and what a relief to be able to let go of all that and just give yourself to your moment by moment experience with some sense of surprise and adventure. Someone else, referring to this trick of Nobody, said to me how sorry they felt for me since I had to be an Abbot and this sounds like being somebody and how hard this must be to be somebody. But actually, everyone has the same problem. Everyone has to have a cover story, some sort of provisional identity that we paste up. So as long as we don't take it too seriously it's not so bad and we can use our pasted-up identity for our practice. We can use it as a vehicle for our understanding and our work to help beings. As long as we don't get caught by it, locked up in a cave with a Cyclops.
The more I think about the Odyssey, the more I see that it's really a great story for us.The main character in the Odyssey, it seems to me, isn't really Odysseus, it's actually the sea. The story is about a journey in which Odysseus is always returning to the great, wide sea. He goes from small island to small island, and different things happen on the islands, but basically he always goes back to the sea. And the sea is described lovingly and very vividly in the poem. There are certain phrases that we all know, I think, whether we've read the Odyssey or not, that come back over and over again to describe the sea. One phrase is 'the wine-dark sea', or 'the wine-blue sea.' Another phrase is something like 'the great ridges of the sea', or 'the mountainous waves of the sea.' So you really get a sense of the vastness of the sea and you get a feeling that the setting of the poem is a few tiny little islands, tiny little blue or green islands in the midst of this gigantic and very much alive and sometimes dangerous, sometimes calm, but always surprising sea.
Odysseus had gone off from his island home over the sea to fight in Troy. The Odyssey is the story of his journey back. It was a difficult journey. He found it very hard to return home, and had many adventures along the way. Back at his house his wife, Penelope, is waiting for him, year after year after year after year. And many suitors want to marry her, believing that she's a widow. So they move into the house and she's living there with all these people eating up her food, you know, and using up all their wealth while she's waiting for Odysseus to come back. And Odysseus really wants to come back but he keeps getting trapped on all these different islands. And over and over again he goes back to the wine-dark sea. He gets ship-wrecked many times, loses his ships, his crews, washes up on an island, something else happens, goes back to the sea, over and over and over again.
Last summer, when I was in Mexico, we took a long ride in a small boat on the wine-dark sea and I just could see those giant ridges of waves, big waves, hour after hour. The sea is very powerful and mysterious. When I was a young boy I lived in a place that was far from the ocean and had never seen it. And I remember the first time that I saw the ocean it astonished me, it seemed so powerful. And it was the first time I ever wrote a poem. About the sea.
Anyway, of all Odysseus' dangerous, perilous adventures on all these different islands, the one that was the most dangerous was actually the one that was the most pleasant, when he was trapped on the island of Calypso. Calypso was a beautiful immortal goddess, who she fell in love with Odysseus and wanted to keep him captive on the island forever to be her lover. It was a wonderful life there, very pleasant and easy. But although he stayed many years, Odysseus never gave up his vow to return home, where he belonged. And eventually one of the gods interceded on his behalf. Calypso couldn't refuse the command of the god, but she said, Well, I want to see if he really wants to go home. So she threw a big banquet for him and explained how wonderful it was on the island and reminded him that she was beautiful and no mortal could possibly be more beautiful than she. And then it says here in this translation:
'Then resourceful Odysseus spoke in turn and answered her: 'Goddess and Queen, do not be angry with me. I myself know that all you say is true and that circumspect Penelope can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature. She is mortal, after all, and you are immortal and ageless. But even so, what I want and all my days I pine for is to go back to my house and see my day of home-coming. And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me. For already I have suffered much and done much hard work on the waves and in the fighting. So let this adventure follow.''
And then she lets him go. So I feel like this is like us. We can say, too, Let this adventure follow. And out we go into the wide ocean of our endless breath, riding its great waves and ridges, where-- we don't know.
Usually the story of Buddha is emphasized as a story of home-leaving. And certainly it was necessary for Buddha to leave home in order to realize his true nature. He had to renounce his home in the deepest possible way. Even the home of his own body. But for Buddha, as for Odysseus, there was a return. Because in the end, in Buddha's life, he embraced his whole family and actually all the members of his family. His cousin Ananda, his mother, his wife, his son, all joined him in the Buddhist order. And although Buddha was able, if he wanted to, to spend the rest of his life away from human troubles, living pleasantly in a cave or by a river bank, just being easy and blissful, he didn't do that. He remained always in some relationship to a town or city and in his travels he returned every year to his home country. And he was always involved with what was happening there, trying to help things if he could. Sometimes he was able to do a lot of good and stop wars and stuff. Other times, no matter what he tried to do it didn't help.
I know that many of us are having trouble in sesshin and many of us are also having great and deep joy in sesshin. And one of the things that always happens is that we get to hear our story replayed many, many times. That's why I'm telling you these stories about Odysseus. As long as there are stories you might as well have another story. And Odysseus' story is your story too. But right in the middle of our story that keeps playing over and over again we have to jump off. We have to jump off our story and enter a wider life, which is exactly what Buddha did under the bodhi tree, suffering his way through to it. And that's what we have to do too. We have to suffer through our regrets and our pains. Maybe we'll sit here and come to the realization that our life has been basically a big mistake. But the point is not how bad all that is, but rather how good it is, that we can see that and that we can embrace it and go on. So all of that suffering and regret and pain, if it comes, is our boat for travel on the wine-dark sea.
Every year, you know, Rohatsu sesshin is an important occasion. And I actually think that for many of you this is a particularly important sesshin, a very important week. Perhaps for many of you it's absolutely a crucial week. Because right here in this sesshin that we've all created together by our efforts and with the support of a long tradition, in this sesshin you could find your boat of suffering and regret and launch out on your adventure, resolving, like Odysseus, come what may to return home. So I ask all of you to take this seriously, to make this resolution for your life, whatever form it takes, that from now on, from this sesshin on, your life will be different. And use every period of zazen in this sesshin to reinforce and strengthen that resolve that your life will be, from this week forward, on course and full of courage, always choosing what's courageous and full of passion and warmth in the dawning light of awakening. All of you have already suffered a lot and it's important that you bring that suffering to your life and use it well from now on. And I hope that you really will take stock and make this kind of resolution for transformation in your lives, so that one year from now, or five or ten years from now, you will look back and say, Yes, I remember that Rohatsu sesshin, back there in 1996, because that was when I decided to take myself in hand and really change my life and I acted on that ever since. Not that this has to be some big dramatic thing that you're going to tell your friends about --because that wouldn't be it, exactly, that might be going too far--but that you know, yourself.
Someone said to me, Where are we going to go when we die, and where did we come from? Someone else asked, Well, supposedly Buddha conquered old age and death, but what about that--he died didn't he? And somebody else said, My mind is spinning 'round and 'round and 'round. How am I going to find the big void from which all these thoughts come? So these questions are all the same question, right? All the same question. My life, your life, any life is like a wave on the great ocean. It's not that there's this big ocean, and somebody has stuck these various waves on top of the ocean. The waves are the ocean. There is no ocean outside of the waves and there are no waves outside of the ocean. Because of causes and conditions every wave has a destiny. It begins, somehow; it grows, it swells, it develops, comes to a fullness and then it breaks. And when it breaks it can be magnificent, breathtaking, awe-inspiring. And then it's gone. It has passion and power one time and then another time it's very, very peaceful. It returns to its own nature, a nature that it has always had, the nature of the great ocean. And each wave is different from every other wave and causes and conditions make each wave what it is-- a certain size, a certain power, a certain shape, a certain timing. And it makes no sense to compare one wave to another or to try, stupidly, to somehow scoop up a wave and take it home so you can show somebody--wow, what a wave. One wave just follows another endlessly, without beginning and without end. And yes, there really are waves, right? These are real waves, they're not fantasy dream waves. And yet you can't define any of the waves or hold on to them in any way. They just come and go. Sometimes I've seen fast-forward videos of things like a flower blooming. Ever see that? You see the whole blooming. It would be interesting if someone would make a fast-forward video of our lives, from the time we're born to the time we die. That would be something to see, wouldn't it? If we could see that it would astonish us and we would really see that our life is exactly like a wave, coming up out of the dust and returning back into the dust, just as beautifully as waves do. Although, maybe we would rather not see that picture, because it might be a little unsettling, you know, downright scary, even, to see such a thing. Maybe that's why no one has ever tried it. Too scary. And maybe we would rather forget about this aspect of our lives and go on as if everything were just fine and it weren't that way. This is understandable, right, that we would want to do that. But you and I both know that you can't do that, because the wave-like nature of our lives cannot really be denied. The real nature of our life is going to come up. If we try to avoid it, eventually we're going to get absolutely inundated by it. So maybe better to embrace it, to flow with it, to enjoy it completely even though it's a little scary. But we can do it because we have help, we have support. We take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That's our big support group. So we're OK.
Taking refuge in Buddha means returning over and over again to the truth we really know in our hearts that our real nature, just like a wave, is that we belong to everything. We belong to everything and we are embraced by everything. And that's taking refuge in Buddha. And taking refuge in Dharma means that we know that there's a way to live and practice that will enable us actively to feel this belonging and embracing in our lives. And to take refuge in Sangha means that we know we are supported in this effort. We're supported by our friends and teachers, by each and every person in the sesshin, by the ancient tradition of practice in which we can have confidence. This is the way that people for generations and generations have found a sense of belonging and embracing. And we are supported even by the clouds and the earth and the plants and animals. In his darkest hour, when he was really scared and was beset by all kinds of demons and difficulties, the Buddha just reached out his hand and touched the earth and said, This is my support. And then all the demons shrank away. The statue on our altar shows the Buddha in exactly that posture, touching the earth.
Anyway, we're also trying to figure out here, What is Buddha, really. And we've been bringing up different cases. So today I want to bring up Case 33 of the Mumonkan. Yesterday, or one of those days back there, whichever day it was, I brought up Case 30, remember that one:
Ta-mei asked Ma-tsu, 'What is Buddha?'
Ma-tsu said, 'This very mind is Buddha.'
Well, Case 33 goes like this:
A monk asked Ma-tsu, 'What is Buddha?'
Ma-tsu said, 'Not mind, not Buddha.'
If you remember from the other day, Ta-mei, the great plum, was living in his hermitage and asked a traveling monk what master Ma was teaching now. When the monk replied that master Ma was teaching not mind, not Buddha, Ta-mei said, The master is only confusing everyone. This very mind is Buddha. Well this case is now, not mind, not Buddha. So these two cases are two sides of the same coin, two ways of seeing the same thing. It's like, in a way, the wave and the water. The wave is something but the water is absolutely nothing. If you're in the ocean, and that's where you live, and there's nothing else anywhere but water, then there's no such thing as water. Just like now, we're in the air. We're full of air. We're completely surrounded by air. But we don't think we're in the air because there's nothing but air, and we don't see the air as anything. We're so intimate with air inside us and outside us that it doesn't even exist for us as something separate. So, what is Buddha? This very mind is Buddha. What is Buddha? No mind, no Buddha. What is this mind? Not mind. What is Buddha? Not Buddha. So these two sayings of Ma-tsu go together and you can't really appreciate one without the other. If you only appreciate one you're missing something, you're out of whack. If you really want to appreciate this very mind, really appreciate it, really embrace it, you've got to see that it's not mind. That's the real nature of mind--it's not mind.
When you see that this very mind is not mind, you can be surprised all the time. And you can surf the waves of your breath vividly, giving yourself completely to each breath, beginning, middle and in, beginning, middle and out, knowing that there's no such thing as separate breath. And you can be confident in your living even though you have no idea what will happen next. That's how come you don't have to be attached to this very mind or dote on it too much, because you know that it's nature is no mind, just like the nature of a wave is ocean. It's stupid to try to save a wave. And, on the other side, you don't need to be terrified of no mind because you know that there isn't any no mind, there's only this mind. That's what no mind is--this very mind. And seeing both sides of this is the source of our great compassion and this is how-- it's the only way really--we can fulfill our great vow to save all sentient beings, infinite number of sentient beings without exception. Because we know that all these sentient beings are already saved. They are already Buddha. Their nature is already not-beings. And with this kind of spirit we can go on saving them cheerfully and forever without discouragement or self-congratulation. This is just the everyday bread and butter of our lives.
This story of Ma-tsu--no mind, no Buddha--reminds me of a story of a Catholic priest which I wrote about in Jerusalem Moonlight. I don't remember the story exactly right now, but it's something like this: A priest is on a religious quest and his spiritual director tells him to hike to the top of this mountain. He is not a particularly strong person so it's really hard for him and he hikes and hikes and hikes and sweats and strains and works and goes through all kinds of things and finally he gets to the top. He comes out of the forest and looks around and all of a sudden it dawns on him with thundering clarity: There's no such thing as God. There's no such thing. And this is a joyful affirmative insight. Not like: Oh no, there's no such thing as God. It's terrible! But: There's no such thing as God! Freedom! God is limitless. And he has a deep appreciation from then on of God in this way. There's no such thing! Nobody's leaning on us. We're free.
Mumon's comment on this case is very simple and to the point. He says, 'If you can see this, your Zen training is complete.' Period. So our Zen training is complete. No more Zen, no more practice. But don't forget, you know. What is not-practice? It's just practice, right? Practice understood as it really is. Just life. Just ongoing life, ongoing practice. And even though the Buddha won his way through to enlightenment under the bodhi tree, poor Buddha is still having to practice through our body and mind, through our struggles. And even though Suzuki-roshi passed away this day twenty-five years ago, he still has to chuckle and puzzle and scratch his head and say, How will these Westerners practice Dharma? And his question comes up every time a question comes up for us. And every time we say anything or do anything in our practice Suzuki-roshi is still chewing on that question.
Yesterday I read you a quote from Subtle Sound, which is a book of Maurine Stuart's talks, and I want to bring up her spirit and tell you some stories about her today because she was truly a great lady of the Dharma and a very, very important teacher for us, for all of us here. And most particularly for myself and for Kathie, my wife. In a way she was a life-saver for us and transformed our lives. And like Suzuki-roshi she left this world too soon, so young, you know. And it was a great loss. Probably a loss to which we will never completely be able to resign ourselves. I remember the first time we met her. She had come to lead a sesshin up the road in the Vedanta center and I watched the kids while Kathie went to the sesshin. And after the sesshin I went to the center to pick Kathie up and Maurine came out. She was so impressive. She had earrings on and a gorgeous dress and a big scarf, you know. She was really beautiful. Not, you know, in a sexy way particularly, although she was pretty sexy and gorgeous, but in this womanly way beyond all that, you know, like a queen. She was like a queen. And Kathie was so impressed, you know, she said, She wears makeup in the zendo during sesshin! And she would put on her Rinzai Zen robes and it made it look like the most elegant outfit you ever saw, you know. And after that Kathie's life changed radically. She started wearing makeup and earrings and nice clothing. Because before that, you know, our style around here for the women was very drab and plain. But after seeing Maurine that all completely changed, for Kathie anyway
Maurine came to our house sometimes and we had this piano and she was a concert pianist, Maurine, and she would sit down and play. I can't really explain it but there are pianos and they make music and so on but when she would sit down and play something else would happen. The piano would like whoop up and start walking around and come to life in some way that I had never heard. She would make that happen. The only other time that I ever noticed anything like that was the one time I went to the opera. I've only been to the opera once and saw this Mozart opera, Cosi fan tutte, which I studied up on to prepare myself. I studied up for months and I listened to the records and I knew it almost by heart and I went to the opera and they played the overture, which I'd heard, you know, many times before, but it just sounded alive. I was astonished. Well that's how it was whenever Maurine played. She'd just sit down at the piano and wham!
Maurine was a Rinzai teacher. During this practice period I've talked a lot about Tung-shan, who was one of the teachers of the Soto line. Most of my favorite Zen teachers are ones like him, who don't do the hitting and shouting Zen, which is more like Rinzai Zen, which you could imagine is somehow harsh. But Maurine showed the true Rinzai spirit. She was never harsh. She was a tough customer, but she was never harsh. But she was also never mushy. She was not sentimental at all, but very warm. She was extremely kind all the time, you know, very kind, very present but never mushy. I remember during sesshin talks she would read stories of Rinzai. Often stories of Rinzai end with, 'And then he hit him.' I can remember the way she would say that. And he hittem ! You know, And he hittem. H-i-t-t-e-m. He hittem ! And she would explain that when he hittem it didn't mean that he like beat him up. It meant that he really directly touched him. Without sentiment. Without any baloney. Just direct meeting. That's what it meant, she said, when it says he hittem. And from Maurine I learned the most wonderful practice. She would, in sesshin, go around the room helping people with posture. In those days we used the kyosaku, the stick. And this tough Rinzai lady would go around the room and give people back rubs and massages, which I do now, thinking of her. Not always, but sometimes. A particular person and you feel like, Oh, she needs a back rub, she needs a massage. I would never have the nerve to do this if I didn't get permission from Maurine.
She was Canadian, Maurine. She grew up in a tiny little town somewhere out in the boonies. And her grandfather was a farmer in Saskatchewan and she was very close to her grandfather. And her grandfather's father had been a fundamentalist bible-thumping fiery preacher who made the grandfather allergic to any kind of religion, which often happens. Canada has a lot of really tough-as-nails fiery preachers up there. So Maurine inherited that from her Grandpa. She had a great distrust of institutional religion, any kind of doctrine or anything like that. And even though she grew up in this little town, she always loved music and culture. She was a very, very sophisticated lady. I think that Duke Ellington song must have been written about her. And so she got married and she lived in the Upper West Side of New York City, a very sophisticated place to live and always went to cultural events and concerts and so on. Her husband was a businessman and he relocated his business to Boston. Maurine hated living in Boston. She had a next-door neighbor who was really prissy, you know, constantly telling her how to be a good housewife. And she really did not like that at all, and threw herself into her Zen practice. She was about, I don't know how old, maybe sixty-two or sixty-three or sixty-four and she finally got fed up with her husband too, you know. She said, This guy never noticed who I was to begin with so who needs him. And they had a family, you know, and all this and one day she just said That's enough of that and out she strolled. She had this elegant apartment in Cambridge with a pair of the most gorgeous Persian cats you ever saw, who were all over everything. And you'd go to see her and her house was just like her, completely elegant.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, she had liver cancer, which is a nasty cancer. Nobody gets out of that one. And she would go along and say, Well, you know, all right. And everybody said, Oh she's in denial. That's what they'd all say, Oh she's in denial, it's terrible. She's not talking about it. We're from California. You have to talk about it. All the time. But that wasn't how she was. She didn't talk about it. She just lived her life. And everybody was really worried. I remember how worried we all were about her. She is in denial. She's got to talk about it. She has to deal with it. And then she came here on a Sunday and she gave a talk, I remember, in which she said I am not sick. And everybody thought, Oh no--she's really-- the great Zen master-- terrible denial, you know--it's awful--how are we going to stand this--we'd better straighten her out. But when I heard her talk I realized that it was true. She wasn't sick and she really did know what she was talking about. And I remember after she came out of the lecture hall I thanked her for that talk. I said, Now I understand.
So in this book there's a talk--I'll close today with this talk of hers-- but I don't know if it's exactly the one that I attended. Anyway, she speaks here about not being sick. I guess it wasn't the talk I attended because this one is a sesshin talk:
'During sesshin we are suspended in a place where the only thing to do is to get in touch with the teachings and with ourselves. That's all--very clearly to get in touch. Every day we chant the Three Refuges: 'I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.'There is much talk these days of support systems. We have a wonderful support system. The Buddha, a human being who practiced faithfully and who came to understand the true nature of the universe and of himself, said of all of us, 'You can do this, too.' The Dharma is the teaching of our everyday life experience right here. The Sangha is our companionship, our being present for each other. And with our own richness of experience, we come little by little to feel true peace of mind, true contentment of spirit. Each of us is the only one who can know if this is so.
'Thanks to this practice, I feel I do have some true peace of mind. After all, life and death, health and illness are one. [Just like This Very Mind and Not Mind are one.] The true face of this universe includes all things in it--good, bad, life, death, health, illness-- all of it. There are many so-called healers in the world, but healers cannot bring us wholeness. Healers do not heal us. The healing is already there in the wholeness. And the real goal of healing is to help the person in need of healing to be aware of this. At the deepest level, the so- called sick person has no sickness....[and] I am not sick. With deep gratitude to this practice--because of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha; because of all of you; because of all of this that we are engaged in together; because of this indefinable, mysteriously unspeakable, marvelous whatever-it-is--- I really do feel ...[there is] no sickness.
'You cannot take my definition, my experience of it, as yours, of course. The only reason I tell you of my experience is in the hope that it may encourage you. It is your own life experience that confronts you all the time. Your heart doesn't beat because you think about it. Your breath is not breathing because you say, 'breathe.' A power beyond definition is making our hearts beat and making us breathe. [That ] is the reality of our lives.
'So we know why we are here. We are here to get rid of confusion. Each...[one of you] must do it. Buddha said, 'You must be a lamp unto yourself.' May our lamps shine out, unself-consciously so that we may continue this wonderful practice for all beings.'
I just want to mention one more way to practice. Yesterday I mentioned nine bows before bed to Manjushri or Shakyamuni Buddha or Tara or Jizo, and the practice of washing the hands and feet and face and reciting a verse. Washing my face I vow with all beings to attain the true teachings and remove all obstructions. And as we involve ourselves more thoroughly and more deeply in this sesshin, forgetting that there ever was a time before this sesshin began, maybe now we can start really and truly to abandon ourselves completely to our zazen, forgetting about the next period of zazen or the next.
Maybe tonight is a good night, if you haven't already started, to practice night sitting, to begin night sitting. I always say the practice of night sitting is only for young, strong people. The thing is, you can't tell who is a young and strong person. And it changes from time to time. Somebody who might not look like they're young really is young and somebody who looks pretty young could be very old on a given day. So if you're a young strong person, sit up at night. Very nice, just like the Buddha, you know, abandoning everything. No periods of zazen, no kinhin, no candles, no bells. Secret, unappreciated, abandonment sitting. And if it's cold it doesn't matter. You can go outside and sit anyway. There's no cold, you know, in zazen. No cold and no heat. It's nice to sit out on the porch. You can take your cushion and sit out on the porch, or go somewhere and sit. Up on a hillside, or in the garden or anywhere. Or in the zendo. But no candles or anything lit in the zendo. All dark. We don't know who's there. Shapes sitting. So after you do your nine bows, if you want, you can practice this most wonderful night sitting. Sometimes all day long you might be groggy or sleepy, but then at the end of the day you do night sitting and ppllthzz . Totally present. Hours go by. What? Could be. Maybe not. If you get real sleepy go to bed. But it's great, night sitting. And Rohatsu sesshin is the time for night sitting. So I want to encourage all of you to take the opportunity to completely abandon yourself. Sleep? Who needs sleep, you know. Why do you need to sleep? I mean it's nice, but not necessary, is it? So see what happens. Work with it. See what it's like. It's special and mysterious to go beyond your body and mind. Well I guess that's all folks. Thank you.