Getting Up Off the Ground - Talk 5 Loon Lake Sesshin 2010
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | November 11, 2010
Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum
I have been thinking how daunting it is to practice with a big passion. This is really a hard thing to do, but it is sometimes necessary. If our practice is only good in a peaceful sesshin and in our nice, polite sangha relations, if it is only good when we are in a good mood and feeling spiritual, but is useless when we are feeling bad, then we are in trouble! We have got to be able to practice in hard times. If you cannot practice when your passions are strongly aroused, or if you can't practice when you are sick or dying, or when someone you love is sick or dying, or if you can't practice when you are in a desperate situation, then I think you need to think more deeply about what we are trying to do.
Somehow practice makes us notice and feel more pain. We notice the pain more now, and we don't want pain for ourselves or others. Before, without realizing what we were doing, we may have been creating a lot of pain for ourselves and others, but we didn't particularly notice it, and we had no idea that there was an alternative. We thought that was just the way it is. But now, as we begin to practice and more of our life comes into focus, we begin to feel the pain more. We begin to notice the ways in which we cause pain for ourselves and others, and it is a natural process in practice that we begin to conduct ourselves differently. We begin to speak and act - and especially to think - about things differently. We are not causing so much pain as we did before, and our life becomes smoother and happier.
However, sometimes, despite all this, all of a sudden, a big passion comes on. Circumstances arise, and all of a sudden, no matter how much we have practiced or how wisely we have been given to conducting ourselves - boom, a tsunami! A tsunami of passions suddenly engulfs us, and a great big, huge wave of circumstances arises. That wave is there.
Circumstances do not just mean something that happens outside. It also means something inside. This is one of the great insights of our practice, that "outside" and "inside" are just designations. It is like "here" and "there." You are over there, and I am over here, but of course, to you I am over there, and you are over here. Then, if we get up and change places, here and there are reversed for you and me. Still, here and there are just designations, and they turn into one another. They are not fixed places. There is no place on earth called "here."
In our practice we always see what is happening to us "outside" as our "inside" coming up as a great wave. Something in us requires that wave, so all of a sudden, here it is: icy and powerful. Or maybe fiery. At that time, all the usual instructions fail us. They seem hopelessly naïve and abstract, because we are not thinking straight.
So believe it or not, this is where sesshin training really comes in handy, because what are we really learning in sesshin? We are learning how to stay put. We are learning how to hang in there, no matter what happens. The bell rings and we are there. We are like trained dogs or prisoners. When they say it is time to go out to the yard, we go out to the yard. [Laughter] When they say now it's time to eat, we eat. That's what we learn in sesshin. That's what we do. We are learning how to trust that process. We are learning how to have that process in our bodies. We are learning how to have faith that no matter what happens, the next moment is going to come along just in time. The bell will ring, and we will get up.
So the passions are like very strict jailors. They are like a mean ino during sesshin. We get locked up into them and we cannot get out.
I have another one of my deep sayings for you today. This one is: "The mind is subject to conditions." When conditions are drastic, the mind will be drastic. Believe me, even if you took the great master Zhaozhou, or Buddha himself, and harassed him for a week and didn't give him any food or let him sleep, at the end of the week he is not in a good mood. He is not a happy, tranquil, cheerful Buddha. The mind is subject to conditions. We cannot control our mind. We can learn how to live with whatever mind we have, but we can't control it.
With our sesshin training, we can learn how to be forbearing and steady, even when passions are in full force and our mind is raging. We now are developing the great skill of just being here. Just staying here. Just doing the practice of living our life, right here as it is, even if it is really tough.
When our passions are strong, and we know we cannot act on them - or sometimes when we find ourselves acting on them, or when we realize that we should act on them - whatever it is, we bear down with patience and strength. We don't have to think about it or give ourselves pep talks. We start breathing. We start paying attention to our breathing. We start paying attention to the feeling of the body. We feel our presence, and we just stay where we are at that time, and we wait for the next moment to come. Sometimes this is just the way it is. This confusion, this passion, this pain, is what we need to move forward in our life.
So we appreciate these big passions, and we don't try to avoid them when they come. We turn toward them. We try to learn from them, and then, learning from them, we know that we will understand others better. We will be able to love more. If I feel this big pain all the way through to the bottom without trying to change it, I know for sure that others are feeling this pain. I know how it is for them. At the bottom of my difficulty, I can make connection with others. Now I know what they feel. Now I really understand. We can practice tonglen with our difficulty, breathing it in, breathing out relief. The next breath, breathing in the same pain that others have; breathing out relief.
This is not a question of fixing something or making the passions go away. They will go away. You know that they will, but not until it's time. In the meantime, this pain will be here, and we will have to endure it. Practicing with it and practicing in the midst of it is different from being capsized by it. The wave might be pretty big, but our boat doesn't have to founder.
The greatness of our lives, the nobility of our lives, comes from facing difficulty. If our life were always comfortable and smooth, and we didn't have big challenges, we would never stretch ourselves. We'd never really understand our life, because who would make that effort without needing to? Of course, we are not looking for difficulty; but when it comes, we see it as an opportunity, a challenge to drive our understanding to a deeper level. Can I face my weakness, my darkness? Can I let go of my need to look good or be good? Can I stop protecting myself and let myself face what has to be faced? Sometimes we can actually do this. And sometimes we can't. But don't worry, because if you can't do it, you can be sure that you will get another chance. So you don't need to regret it. Just dust yourself off and wait for the next wave.
Once a monastic asked Guishan, "It has been said since ancient times that when you fall to the ground, you use the ground to rise up. What is falling?" Guishan said, "If you are in accord with this, falling is just as it is." The monastic said, "What is rising?" Guishan said, "Rising!"
On a very literal level, this is exactly true. Right? When you fall down to the ground, you get up by the ground. It is the ground that you use to rise up.
So our practice rises us up. It literally uplifts us. It gets us in touch with our higher selves, so to speak. That's how we get uplifted: by means of the ground, by means of the earth, by means of our body. Because we are grounded in our body, we can rise up. Our rising up depends on the ground.
I suppose you could say that's life, right? Falling down and getting up. Falling down and getting up over and over again. At the end of every day, we all fall down into our beds, and then we get up the next morning. That's how we learn, and that's how we grow. We don't understand. We make big mistakes. We fall down, and then we use the place where we fell down as the ground to get up. We've learned something, and now we are stable, until we need to learn something else, and then we start tottering, we fall down again, and we start all over. You might say it is one thing - one word. "Falldowngetup."
So that is why when we do get up, we don't get too excited about it. When things are going really, really well, we say, "Great! It's only temporary. This is great. I am really enjoying this perfect day, all the more because I know that it won't last. I don't have to feel guilty for my good fortune, because it is only temporary. Anyway, it's not mine. It's not for me. I have it because I have to share it with others. And pretty soon I am going to fall down again." This is not pessimism, because I know I will get up again.
You appreciate that it is good to fall down, because that is how we get up. As we learned yesterday from the Cypress Tree [koan], the ground is not necessarily below, with the sky above. Above and below are points of view. The ground is Buddha - things as they are. Things appearing all of a sudden from nowhere, each one carrying with it the whole of the truth - your body and mind. It's just as it is. It's not you. Maybe you are used to thinking of it as you, but that is a thought arising in your mind.
I heard the other day a report from a brain scientist - a Stanford cognitive researcher - about this. It's very fascinating. He said that there is actually no place in the brain that activates self or the sense of "I." Self or the sense of "I" is a thought process in the brain, but it is not a concrete reality to be found anywhere. Thoughts arise in locations in the brain, and emotions arise in locations in the brain, and these register on fMRI scans, but not the self.
This week is a week of birthdays for me. I already had a birthday. My father had a birthday this week, my mother had a birthday, and my dear friend Rabbi Lew also had a birthday this week. Four people very close to me, including myself. Of the four of us, only one remains, and I cannot see the others, as I used to see them for so many years, and talk to them and know that they were there. My life is now really different because of this. So many people who lived and who have now died have made it possible for us to be here in this room today. We all have many ancestors, many forbears, and their effort makes this day possible for us. They literally received and gave up a life in order to help create the world that we live in and take for granted every day.
We are going to do the same thing. We are going to give our life to others. We are going to contribute what we can, and we are also going to disappear. Probably some people will remember us for a little while, and then those people will be gone too, and there will be no memory and no trace, and then there will be a whole bunch of bright new people with new ideas.
Everything falls down and rises up. We all know this, and that is why we are here. What are we after? I think that there is no end to what we are after. There is literally no end to it. Our aspiration to realize the truth of impermanence and the Buddha Way is boundless. The words that we chant after each dharma talk express this. We are going to save the limitless beings, an endless job. We are going to clarify the infinite delusions. We are going to enter the dharma gates beyond counting. We are going to completely become the Buddha way, which is inexhaustible. Who is it that aspires to these things? We really don't know. Although when we think about it, it makes no sense. We don't know whether to be depressed about the size of this job, or to think it is a ridiculous idea, or somehow it is some kind of religious poetry. We don't know what to think about this.
Still, our heart has this commitment to practice on and on and on, for the benefit of others. Somehow this aspiration does answer our heart's desire, because it occurs to us as a thought or feeling inside of us that matches what we really are. That is why it makes sense to us, so that finally we can feel at home. Finally we don't have to feel ill at ease in the world and alone. Finally we realize that it is okay to fall down and get up again and again and again. And we know that we are going to fall down and get up again and again and again, because that's time. That's the body. That's our human heart.
The Sixth Ancestor said to Nan-yueh Haui-jang, "What is it that thus comes?" Nan-yueh couldn't answer, so he stayed to practice with the Sixth Ancestor for eight years and worked with this question. Finally he said, "Now I understand." The Sixth Ancestor said, "What do you understand?" He said, "To say it is like something misses it. The Sixth Ancestor said, "Does it depend on practice and realization?" Nan-yueh said, "It's not that there is no practice and realization. It is just that they cannot be defiled."
What is it that thus comes here to this sesshin? What are you? What is the point of living and dying? Did you ever think, "What's the point?" Did you ever think of that? Life is so much trouble. Sometimes I think, "God, it's all this trouble. Eating food. What a drag! Why go through all this? For nothing! For nothing! Why even go through all this? It really doesn't make any sense." Yet the entire human world is getting up every day and going on anyway. Maybe we aren't thinking straight.
But I don't think that's it, actually. I think that the reason we do it is that on some level we all realize that there is a point to this. But what is the point? Of course, there is no answer to this. Suppose there were an answer? Suppose that I knew the answer? Suppose that I was about to tell you that answer right now? [Laughter] What if right now I was going to speak a few perfectly good English sentences, which would constitute the answer to this? Suppose I did that right now. Would that help you? No! It wouldn't do a thing for you! You would still have the same problem.
So there is no answer worth telling. But there is a question. What is going on? What is absolutely beyond doubt? What is absolutely beyond understanding? What is "Thus what comes?"
So there is practice and realization. There is the activity of practice, and there is the transformation in our lives that comes through practice. But it is not something objective. It is not a process that we can get right and reach the goal. It is not rising up, as opposed to falling down. ‘It cannot be defiled' means that we are always practicing with and for others, and we always will be. Always. And we always have been. That is our Zen spirit.