<Back to Main Dharma Talks page

Good and Bad Things

Last week someone mentioned his wish that we as a community would engage together in skillful action to address a chosen need in our community, and I felt that beautiful bodhisattva wish coming from his heart to our ears, and so we talked about it quite a bit. I was going to talk about something else, but then this week something very terrible happened in our world and so 199 ordinary people—or course, there are only ordinary people—babies and workers and moms and dads in Spain were blown apart by terrorist activity. Following that, 11 million people—that’s one quarter of the population of Spain—walked together all over the country in anguish, joining together. After I was already in the middle of writing this I went downstairs to have some tea and I read the paper, and there were some quotes in the paper.

“’ What you feel right now is the people’s pain, the country’s pain,’ said Jesus Miguel Gomez, 37, a heating supplier who came from a nearby town with friends to Madrid. ‘In the face of pain, you have to be united.’ He added, ‘It doesn’t matter who’s to blame. They’re all a bunch of terrorists. One does it for God, the other because they think they have a purer bloodline.’ His friend Pilar Fernandez Sanchez agreed, saying, ‘We want to live in peace. That’s what this is all about. It’s a wake up call for everyone.’”

I was talking to another practitioner on the phone later in the afternoon, and she said, “How many wake up calls do we need?” I thought that was pretty good. But I also thought that the expression of the dharma was very clear. It’s very obvious. Here it is. It’s a wake up call for everyone. We just want to live in peace. So how come we can’t? What is our problem?

We have a big problem. We’ve had it from the beginning of time. It’s not a simple problem and I’m not going to solve it, but I’m going to bring it into the room with us.

I want to speak about our situation, so to say, in light of the expression of our heart’s wish. What I’m going to use to help us are Dogen’s writings as found in this book, Enlightenment Unfolds, which was edited by Kaz Tanahashi. It’s a book that is kind like a biography of Zen master Eihei Dogen in that it is a chronological arrangement of his writings, and it’s very beautifully translated.

I want to use these writings as a basis for reflecting on whether what we are doing together here matters in the light of the horror of our situation. That seems important. Is this just some esoteric, aesthetic practice? How can I bring myself into the situation and what does that mean and how does that work? I don’t know if you feel that or not but I felt it really strongly this week.

First, in case you don’t know who Eihei Dogen is, I want to say, he’s the guy who brought Soto Zen, or Caodong Chan, from China to Japan. Actually, he might not be the only guy, but he’s the main one that we know about. He was a Zen master and he lived from 1200 to 1253 CE. He wrote extensively and he was incredibly poetic and complex in the way he used language to express the Way. He founded Eiheiji, the famous Soto Zen training temple, in northwestern Japan, and he’s still very influential and relevant today. He was our founding teacher, Katagiri roshi’s, hero. He’s one of our direct ancestors.

Here’s the quote from this book, in which Dogen Zenji quotes Vashibandhu, who was one of our way-back-there Indian ancestral teachers. “Mind is like the world of space, constantly bringing forth empty things. When you realize space, there are not good or bad things.” That’s what Vashubandhu says. Here’s what Dogen says to comment on this. “Now the wall that faces the person meets the person who faces the wall.” That’s like us in zazen, or in the world. “Here is the mind of a wall, the mind of a decayed tree.” He had wood walls, not plaster. “This is the world of space, awakening others with this body, manifesting this body to speak is constantly bringing forth empty things. Being used by the twelve hours and using the twelve hours is when you realize space. If the rock’s head is large, its base is large. If the rock’s head is small, its base is small. This is ‘There are no good or bad things.’”

Okay? Even if you went, “Whatever,” just kind of let it float around, because we’ll come back to it, but really you understand, even if you don’t think you do.

As we do this work of taking skillful action in the world, I’m going to suggest that it is of equal importance to simultaneously do the unseen inner work of realizing for ourselves Vashubandhu’s words, “There are no good or bad things.” Okay, this doesn’t make any sense. How can I say there are no good or bad things? There’s obviously bad things. There’s obviously good things. I want to say this right off, because Zen is like this, you know?

There is this bad, bad, dreadful, horrible thing that happened in Spain last week. It’s beyond understanding. It doesn’t balance in my mind. It breaks apart even this insane tenuous sense of an eye for an eye. I can’t even believe that I actually have internalized some kind of rules about what kind of violence is fair or acceptable. So how can we say “no bad things?”

Here is this collective idea that innocent people, unarmed, not designated combatants, children, ordinary people—as if designated combatants are not ordinary people—without temporal power or resources are somehow distinct from other sorts of people who are armed and wear uniforms, or who have power in the government. So then I thought, well, maybe these distinctions are a way of managing our insanity, making a buffer against the enormity of it. How can we possibly open up to what our collective confusion is making? I was hoping we could look at this together, closely.

When I heard this on the news, I didn’t want to keep it over there. There’s a way I can just sort of not deal, you know what I mean? On the other hand, I didn’t know how I could get close, exactly. It’s very tricky. So I asked myself, here’s this event--where exactly did it occur? Now that might also seem like a dumb question. Where? I said, it occurred in Madrid, in Spain, in Europe. Where else did it occur? In the bodies and minds of the dead and injured. It happened in the bodies and minds of their loved ones. It happened in the bodies and minds of the terrorists and their loved ones. It happened in the government of Spain, in the land of Spain, in its history. It happened in my body and mind, and in the bodies and minds of millions of people, everywhere, who take this news in, who think about it, who empathize with it. It happens in the bodies and minds of those who take sides and figure it out and lay blame and who are powerless and who are grieving.

If it is in my body and mind simultaneously with it being everywhere with everyone, where is it? I asked myself. And if it is right here within this very body, how can I stand it? And what shall I do with it? What would help?

One of the usual ways we do is to push it away because it’s too much, or drown it, or drown in it, or blame the causes. I need to ask myself, well, OK, but does that work? And as far as I can tell, it’s not working, because it keeps continuing. It doesn’t seem to relieve that sense of total overwhelm that comes when these kinds of things happen—rage, blame, revenge, very dangerous to go unchecked. Then I asked myself, what’s left? Of course, this is a setup question, because naturally in the zendo what I would say is to turn around and touch it directly. But you know what? That’s what I’m going to say, but honestly, what is left besides that? Then we can ask ourselves, so how can sitting sitting down here and studying the minds of Chinese and Japanese sages possibly matter, when I consider what happened last week, when what I really wanted to do was fling by body around the bodies of the terrorists and contain them and yell “NO!”, when I wanted to fling my body around the broken and bleeding and make them whole, and when I wanted to fling my body around the confused and raging eleven million protesters in Spain and help their hearts return into their chests?

What do I do?

Since we are Spain, and since time and space are not separate, and since past and future are in our hands, right here, since the seed I plant in this moment coming from causes and conditions in the past will flower in the future, in the next moment, in turn becoming causes and conditions for the future, this is what the Buddha taught. But this just makes sense. Forget about what the Buddha taught. It just makes total sense.

In Dogen’s piece called Eight Awakenings of Great Beings, he says that the sixth awakening is to practice meditation. You know, we’re kind of big on meditation in Zen. He says, “When you have stability, your mind will not be scattered. It is like a well-roofed house in a well-built embankment which will help you maintain the water of understanding and keep you from being drowned.” For me, being a very emotional person, keeping me from being drowned is really a good thing, because I can’t act in a skillful way when I’m drowning, at all. If I’m not drowning, maybe there’s a chance that I can bear what’s happening without using my buffers--do you know what I mean by buffers, all the different things we do to kind of be OK?—or my rationalizations. My rationalizations are things like “Those terrorists are insane.” Well, I think they’re insane, but I’m equally insane in a different way. “THEY, THEY are just . . .” That’s a buffer, but it doesn’t put me right in the middle.

In order to bear what’s happening in this radical way, I come back to zazen. I must know my own mind and heart, intimately, so that I am not fooled by my own inner tricksters, which are numerous, as we all know, because we just sat down. I know my inner tricksters so well that I know what they are, which is empty, which is they have no substance. They arise, they pass away, but they aren’t who I am, they aren’t what this world is. Realizing this is freedom and realizing this undergirds skillful action in the world that doesn’t plant seeds of suffering for the future. That seems like a really huge responsibility to me.

When we have this sort of awareness, when we’re functioning like this in activity—this doesn’t just mean sitting on the cushion and having amazing experiences or difficult experiences—there are no good or bad things in the middle of good and bad things. Do I make sense? I know, the words don’t make sense. I don’t know what to do.

We’re not talking about distancing ourselves from stuff or having things be boring. This is freedom itself. It’s allowing everything to be full and complete. This is the big L-O-V-E. This is love, and there is a deep penetrating comfort in this and a kind of clear, non-mushy compassion that is natural. In Zen we have this story about reaching back behind you in the middle of the night for your pillow as a metaphor for compassion. It means that the response arises with no self-consciousness. It’s just one fabric. It’s not “I am responding to your need.” It’s just response. It’s who we are.

We harp on zazen. One of our practitioners said, “We sound the one note of zazen.” Zazen, zazen, zazen, zazen. It’s true, you know, really. It is true. When we sit down in the midst of whatever circumstance, what will happen? For instance, here’s a scenario. We sit down, first weeping, then maybe rage, grief, despair, thoughts of revenge, all kinds of difficult mindstates might arise, and then maybe thinking, very fast, you know, when you’re really upset? We even fit it into a preconceived psychological framework that we already know and we make ourselves right. Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you don’t do this. [laughter].

But then--it might take an hour, it might take three days, it might take three weeks—the mind settles down. So what happened to all that? Where is it? Who cares? It’s gone. The mind settles down and at the same time the heart opens up. It’s just natural. It’s not something you have to do. Then everything is free to come and go, without disturbance, and then sometimes insight arises naturally in that. Possibly one clear intention will come, some idea, one idea of a skillful action that might be undertaken that doesn’t produce more greed, hate and delusion, and instead helps all the beings involved to realize their total connection beyond good and bad things. This is Gandhi, you guys. This is what all the peace geniuses came up with in their various ways.

Rumi, the great Persian poet, says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” I’ll meet you. I’ll meet you. That’s what it’s about. I’ll meet you.

This one note of zazen that we constantly sound here is clarifying “Whose mind?” If I am Spain, then my mind is Spain, and my mind is universal. Every breath is all space and time breathing. Now that is not logical. Okay? It’s not, but it just happens to be true. The effect of any size realization we might have is exactly a fit for its circumstances, like this. If that was not so, the sun could not rise. I’m betting my whole savings on what I just said.
That’s the same as Dogen saying, “If the rock’s head is small, its base is small. If the rock’s head is large, its base is large.” It’s completely a fit.

Thich Nhat Hanh had this problem. Someone told him something about boat people, and they got to where they were going, but they weren’t going to be allowed to land. You know, this is his deep mission, to save his people, so he did walking meditation all night. First his mind was just like I said, grief, outrage, despair, grief, outrage, despair, panic, panic, panic, panic. And he walked all night and by dawn he had one clear idea. I don’t remember what it was, but it was something that wasn’t coming from panic, panic, panic. I like to use this as an example, plus we all have our own. We know this, right? We’ve all had at least one experience of this, at least one.

There’s a very famous piece of Dogen’s called Fukanzazengi, which means “Recommending Zazen to All People.” In it, Dogen says, “If the slightest discrimination occurs, you will be lost in confusion.” This means when we separate from any moment by using our concept of self and other—“those terrorists”--we increase the pain. It doesn’t make sense, it’s kind of counterintuitive, but we increase the pain caused by our constant reinforcement of this insanity. I think we all know this, in tiny ways, not in big explosions, but little.

I’m going to tell a story on myself. This week a mistake I had made a few months ago, which is exactly as Dogen mentions in the quote I just read, making distinctions, was pointed out to me. This is very helpful. I had said to someone, “We are good at this certain thing. This other person is wonderful in many ways, but is not so good at this thing, like we are.” That’s hardly bombing a train in Madrid. But do you see? What I said was true, actually, but framing it in that way caused a little hairline fracture, a tiny moment of “we” and “other,” a moment of being utterly lost in confusion. The fires of hell were right there, licking at the gate, at the edges of this fracture. When it was pointed out to me, without sounding the one note of zazen I may not have been able to immediately feel the hellish heat and understood in my marrow that this slight discrimination was the entryway for being utterly lost. Receiving feedback, maybe you know, is sometimes not so fun. To be able to stay not drowning, in the present, and then actually feel what my mistake might be causing and see it as an opportunity to wake up, I could not do without zazen. I’m human, and I would think, “Oh, that’s no big deal. Leave me alone.” But instead, I could go “Oh, wow. WOW.”

Recognizing this little “wow” and returning, the world is saved--saving all living beings, we say. That’s saving the world, right there. “If the rock’s head is large, its base is large. If the rock’s head is small, its base is small.” This is “There are no are no good or bad things” that Dogen mentions. Seeing the exact moment and giving away hell by turning toward nonseperation right in the moment of expressing ourselves every day is what Dogen is talking about about the rock size. Exactly as it is, that is service. It’s not logical, but it’s true. This useless zazen—you know, Shohaku [Okumura] always says zazen is useless, a good-for-nothing practice—is the place of return. It’s the place of skillful action. It’s the container for wisdom and compassion because it is wisdom and compassion. Here we can meet Spain and the terrorists and hatred and horror, and wisdom beyond wisdom is always right here. The good things and the bad things are not exactly good things and bad things. Mind is like the world of space, constantly bringing forth empty things. When you realize space, there are no good or bad things.”

I’m going to end with a poem by Rumi, a famous poem.

“The clear bead at the center changes everything.
There are no edges to my loving now.
I’ve heard it said there’s a window that opens from one mind to another.
But if there’s no wall, there’s no need for fitting the window or the latch.”

Delivered 14 March, 2004 at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center

<Back to Main Dharma Talks page