"What is Zen?"
~ talk by Chris Fortin at Montara Mountain Zendo, November 5, 2011
Hi everybody! What a nice day to sit! Kind of cozy and warm. A great lunch.
Brad and Barbara asked me to talk about the topic, "What is Zen?" When they asked me, it made me laugh! It is sort of like saying, "What is your heart?" or "What is the sun and the moon and the stars?" or "What is that amazing soup that we had today?" I suppose the good news is that you can come in any door you want, and just start where you are, and figure out what happens next.
The first story I wanted to tell you was something that I experienced last week. I work in Santa Rosa. If you have been there, it is a nice, safe little town. I was out on my lunch hour, and the streets were kind of full. I crossed a busy intersection, and I saw that a man had stepped into the intersection in front of the moving cars.
It wasn't what I expected - maybe in a bigger city, but in little Santa Rosa? He was defiantly and completely exposed and vulnerably throwing himself into the stream of traffic. Almost before I knew it, my body had turned around, and I was standing on the corner calling to him to come out of the street. He came out of the street, and at that point my brain was catching up with me, and I could hear the voice in my head saying, "Uh, oh, what have you done now?" because clearly I had made contact with this person who was in a lot of pain, and who was clutching a 7-up bottle to himself with a clear liquid in it, that probably wasn't 7-up.
So energetically we moved away from the street. He said, "I'm Steve. What's your name?" I said, "I'm Chris." Throughout our exchange, he was putting his hand out. I felt what he wanted was human contact. He made contact with his eyes, even though he was clearly quite drunk, and in his eyes there was enormous pain and sadness.
I said to him, "Why don't you stay over here out of the street? It is safer over here." He looked me dead in the eye and said, "Is there any place that is safe?" I said, "No, there is no place that's safe." It felt like that's where he was. He said "Thank you for not lying to me." And then he said, "You don't know what happened to me."
It was a simple question, but Steve was also asking a big question that came out in that moment. His experience was that there was no place whole. His life was shattered. The bottom of the bucket had dropped out of Steve's life.
I remember when I first started practicing Buddhism in my twenties. I went to Green Gulch and Zen Center. One of the things that I loved about Buddhism is that are four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth is, "There is suffering." Not that life is suffering, not that life is a bummer. This isn't nihilism, but just the acknowledgement that there is suffering in being a human being. I felt the same way that Steve must have felt in that moment. "Oh, somebody is willing to meet me heart-to-heart, eye-to-eye, and just acknowledge what I have known since a child. Of course there is suffering."
Although the Buddha said that fundamentally sickness, aging, and death are a cause of suffering, there is something about having a human body and being born into a human life that is extraordinarily beautiful and wondrous. In fact, we are told in Buddhism that it is a rare and precious gift to be given a human body, because we can wake up in this body, and we can ask these questions.
So the first Nobel Truth that there is suffering is where Steve and I met in that moment. The second Noble Truth is there is a cause of suffering. In the simplest way, the cause of suffering, you could say, is that we are basically always fighting and struggling with life as it is. If it is something we want, we want to hold onto it, and we are afraid somebody is going to take it away from us. If it is something we don't want, we are pushing it away. There is a kind of push-pull, with maybe a few moments of presence and rest and acceptance. So the cause of suffering is that we have resistance to life as it is each moment.
The third Noble Truth is that there is a way out of suffering. There is a way to be free in this lifetime, and it is actually what we are all here for, to wake up and become who we truly are. To answer Steve's question "Is there any place that's safe?" is to know that everything is whole and complete in each moment - even when it doesn't look that way, and it doesn't feel that way. There is another ground that we can sit down in, that is here all the time.
The fourth Noble Truth is there is a way to live this. There is a way to actualize it. There is a way to bring alive this wholeness that is inherent in our very nature. To go a step further, our very nature is the nature of everything, which is, to give a name to it, love or goodness or kindness. In some way, this was woven into Steve's and my encounter - brief, but a moment of meeting there.
This is a Zen story, and like many stories, is a story about a woman, Chiyono. She was the first woman in Japan whose enlightenment was certified by a Zen teacher, and who founded the first Zen nunnery in Japan. Her Buddhist name was Muchaku. There are two versions of this story. In one she is a noble woman, and in the other, she is a humble servant. In the version that I will read first, she was a woman of a high ranking family who married and had one daughter. In 1277, when she was thirty-four, her husband died, and she couldn't get over the grief. So she became a nun and trained under Zen master Bukko.
Here is the first part of the story:
Muchaku the nun came to Zen master Bukko, and said, "What is Zen?"
I was really happy to find this koan! Off the hook! (Laughter)
The teacher said, "The heart of the one who asks is Zen. It is not to be got from the words of another."
So Steve asked a question, and it was his heart asking, deeply, "Is there some place safe? Is there some place whole?" I think that each one of our hearts asks these questions, these deep questions that may be part of what you wrote about today in Barbara's question, "How do we want to live?" That deep part of us wants to understand life and living and how to be here. How do we manifest that which our heart does know? How do we make sense out of all of this?
Zen master Bukko's response was, "The heart of the one who asks is Zen. It is not to be got from the words of another." People can tell you things, and people can really help each other. We can read sutras in Buddhism, and we can read parables and stories from the Bible. They all help, but fundamentally it has to be something that becomes your own experience. It can happen in a moment or in a meeting. You just never know when or where. Suddenly something in your heart opens. There is the experience of knowing something that you have always known.
In the second version of the story she is a servant in a Zen convent.
One of the nuns in the convent was an elderly woman, an elderly nun, who had come to rest in her deeply compassionate nature. One day Chiyono approached her and said, "I'm of humble birth. I can't read or write, and I must work all the time. If I set an intention, is it possible that I too might attain the Way of the Buddha, even though I have no skills?"
Again, a question. Chiyono is asking, "I'm not smart, I'm not clever, but if I set an intention, if I stay with this deep question in my heart, can I too wake up and know Buddha's Way?
The elderly nun answered her [meeting her fully and completely in that moment] and says, "This is wonderful, my dear! In fact, what is there to attain? Listen carefully. The teachers of the past have said that people are complete as they are, whole as they are. Each one is perfected. Not even the width of one eyebrow hair separates them from this perfection. In Buddhism, there is no distinction between a man and a woman, a lay person, and a renunciant. There is also no separation between noble and humble, between old and young."
Of course there are men and women; and of course there are old and young; and of course there are lay people and monastics. But in the most fundamental level - whatever it is - there is no separation. We are all of the same part. We are all already fully and completely whole and perfect. And we get this amazing human body heart mind - to wake up and to know this!
Then she says:
There is only this. Each person must hold fast to his or her aspiration. Each person must hold fast to the aspiration [which actually is the root word of breath], the deep breathing of the heart, the deepest heart's desire, and proceed along the way of the bodhisattva.
In Buddhism the bodhisattva path is manifesting the deepest heart's innate and intuitive wisdom that we are of the same heart. It is dedicating your life to the benefit of all beings.
There is no higher way than this. Just hold fast, return over and over to the call of your heart, the one heart of the world. This is the way. This is the path.
If you know your heart-mind, if you know this, what teachings about the scriptures do you need? What words do you need? The teachings of the sutras are like a finger pointing to the moon. If one looks directly toward the moon, there is no need for a finger. In entering the Way, we rely on our bodies.
I love this part. It brings it right here! This is it. Zen and zazen is a body practice. You sit down on a particular place on the earth, in a particular moment, in a particular body, in the midst of happy, sad, painful - just sit down right here in this body. This is actually a physical path - just simple breath and posture.
Then she said:
Chiyono received these teachings with faith and happiness.
It's like some part of her just went "Wow! This is the truth!" Zen is a practice of faith, and it is a practice of devotion. Not faith in something else, but just a deep faith in the resonance of your own heart. We just keep following it. You just sit down in a body and trust. It opens and opens way beyond anything you could figure out.
With this practice as my companion, I have only to go about my daily life, practicing whole-heartedly day and night.
She got it. It's that simple. It's really that simple. It's not something over there. It is completely ordinary. It is completely every day, and it completely happens on the cushion, and it happens everywhere, each moment. Going home taking care of your kids. Being at work. Taking care of your car. Whatever you are doing, we bring this beautiful spirit of whole-heartedness and presence and meeting to ourselves and to everyone.
So the final part of this story:
In the eighth lunar month of the following year, the full moon was shining. Chiyono went to draw some water from the well. The bottom of her old bucket, held together by bamboo strips, suddenly gave way, and the bottom fell out of the bucket. At that moment, she was set free, and in commemoration, she wrote this poem:
In this way and that
I tried to save the old pail,
since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break,
until at last, the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail,
no more moon in the water.
The bottom drops out at last. No more moon, no more water, no more separation, no more ideas and thoughts. Suddenly she was free. Just Chiyono in that moment, right there at the well.
I thought that if we take this story, and turn it with the question, "What is Zen?" - I can't usually do the points, one, two, three, four, but l will try - and let's see what happens.
First: whole-hearted question. What is the deepest question of your heart? How do you want to live?
Then being open to intimate meeting. Each moment is intimate meeting. Actually the whole world is responding to your question all the time. It is mirror of the deepest heart question that we all have. What we realize in that meeting of each moment, and practicing with the deep-hearted question, is that we are not outside of some truth that is someplace over there. It is everywhere, and it beyond discriminations. It doesn't matter what you are, or what you think that you are, or what you think your problems are, or what you have figured out. The whole world is a manifestation of love. We each are called to take responsibility to manifest that.
Hold fast. Follow your deepest heart's question. Listen deeply. Everything is perfect and complete, beyond what we can see and know. I do not say that glibly or without the awareness that Steve was suffering, and that there are huge amounts of suffering. But if we can breathe in and out with each moment, and breathe in and out with and through this deep heart body mind, the bottom of the bucket of our ideas of limited conception will fall away. And the world opens and opens and opens. What is right there at the center is kindness and compassion.
We sit down; we return to silence; we align our bodies and hearts and minds; we don't turn away; we don't hold back. The body awakens itself to what it has always known and to what it already is and everything is. It is ordinary. It is every day. It is not something special or holy. It is right here. Whole-hearted living forever.
In the end, I think we become what we have always been, a true human being. We remember our humanity and our place in things. We get to practice kindness, because kindness is practicing us.
To close, here is a quote from the Dalai Lama: "Our prime purpose in this life is to help others, and if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them." We are human, and we will hurt others. We try not to hurt, and we use whatever our experiences are to wake up. To soften our hearts over and over and over.
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum