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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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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