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Jizo Bodhisattva: Walking Into Hell

I’m going to quote one of our great teachers, layman Vimalakirti. I heard Katagiri roshi lecture on the Vimalakirti Sutra for three years. I don’t remember anything, except that he was sick, and because he was sick a thousand bodhisattvas came to his ten-by-ten room and he debated the dharma with them, and he superceded all the bodhisattvas in his understanding. That’s the only thing I remember.

He said, “Because the world is sick. I am sick. Because people suffer, I have to suffer. That’s what he said. So the title of my talk today is Jizo Bodhisattva: Walking into Hell.

Just to set the tone, I’m going to read a poem by Rumi.
In pain, I breathe easier.
The scared child is running from the house, screaming.
I hear the gentleness.
Under nine layers of illusion,
Whatever the light on the face of any object
In the grounded self,
I see your face.

That’s our practice, right there. In Zen, we’re always talking about practice. We practice meditation, which is something very vast and also quite particular at the same time. We practice mindfulness, attention to anything and everything that we do. We practice silence, we joy and deep listening, and we practice with non-harming, with living by the precepts. But today I want to talk about this practice of walking into hell to free living beings, including ourselves, from suffering.

This is why maybe Zen isn’t so popular. [laughter.] It might not be really high on our list of fun things to do, but it’s what we’re able to do. It’s all that we’re able to do, actually, and we can do it because we’re in training to do this.

There’s a figure in our Zen world called Jizo Bodhisattva in Japan. In China she’s called Dizang. In Sanskrit he is called Ksitagarbha, which means “Womb of the Earth.” So first of all, maybe everybody knows what “boshisattva” means, but I’ll just say that a bodhisattva is really you. It’s a being who has taken a vow that she will not completely take on freedom or enter Nirvana herself until all living beings have entered it before her. She will want to assist all living beings.

One of the most famous instructions for a bodhisattva was written by Shantideva, who was an Indian saint who lived in the eighth century CE. His book is called The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. This is one of the most famous quotes from his book: “For all those ailing in the world, until their every sickness has been healed, may I myself become for them the doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.” When we feel that urge to become this, and we feel it in just a tiny way, we have to use these kind of souped up archetypal and mythical containers for this energy. But it’s not something far away. It’s moment to moment, really, really. So how do we become for them, for ourselves, this medicine? And we know, because everyone in this room at some moment has become medicine for a turtle, or a friend, or a stranger, or themselves. Right? You know this. It’s not some magical thing.

That arising of that urge to become medicine, like when I read the paper in the morning (which I shouldn’t do, because I just cry), I completely want to become medicine for everything. And then I get overwhelmed—that’s another problem. This rising up is called bodhicitta, which Shantideva praises for verses and verses and verses and pages. This rising up is so important. This energy called bodhicitta that rises up supports the way of the bodhisattva, and it is the bodhisattva. Bodhicitta that rising, which you know—you know it as a physiological experience—it’s this intention that we have to understand our lives, to attain liberation for the sake of all beings throughout space and time. It’s a very highly developed form of compassion and it’s also the actual practice by which we train in this. That’s considered to be the definition of bodhicitta in the relative world, in the so-called ordinary world.

The definition in the absolute world is sunyata, or emptiness, which we talk a lot about in Zen. The Tibetan yogi Shopkar characterizes emptiness beautifully, and actually he’s talking about the relative and the absolute aspects because they can’t really be separated. You know, we separate things to talk about them, but they aren’t ever, so it’s confusing. “The mind-nature is vivid as a flawless piece of crystal, intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, ceaselessly responsive.” I had that pinned up in my cabin when I went on retreat in the winter of 2002. I wrote that down and I pinned it up on the little bulletin board I had in there. When I read that, I feel a little recognition, like “oh, oh, yes.”

These words, bodhisattva, bodhicitta, are descriptions of our own heart-mind. I really want you to get that. They’re descriptions of who we are. They’re not a description of something beautiful in a museum. They’re a description of our own heart-mind, how it is, and also they’re not a description of a being that’s very special, like Jesus, who’s dead, who we didn’t get to meet, somebody special who has special powers and we’ll never be like that. That’s not what it is. It’s a description of us.

Here’s a poem. I kind of like poems. You’re going to get a lot of poems. This is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American women, from a book called Words Under the Words. This poem is called Kindness.

Before you know what kindness really is,
You must lose things,
Feel the future dissolve in a moment
Like salt in weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
What you counted and carefully saved--
All this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be
Between the regions of kindness,
How you ride and ride, thinking the bus will never stop,
The passengers, eating maize and chicken, will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the gravity of kindness,
You must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
Lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
How he too was someone who journeyed through the night
With a plan and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing,
You must wake up with sorrow
You must speak to it until your voice catches the thread of all sorrows
And you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
Only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day
To mail letters and purchase bread.
Only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say,
“It is I you have been looking for,”
And then goes with you everywhere
Like a shadow
Or a friend.

When I was reading that, I remembered this evening, deep into three months in the woods, practicing alone. There had been an extraordinary opening in the morning, and then there was an extraordinary sickness in my body in the evening. I was sitting on the couch doing body work on myself—I couldn’t sit zazen because I felt too sick. I remember these images from 9-11 coming into my heart and I had my hands on my stomach, and I remember thinking, “There’s only two things—thank you, and I love you. That’s all there is to say.”

This Jizo figure liberates those who dwell in hell realms, and especially takes care of children who have died and the women who have lost them. She carries a staff topped by six rings to signify the six realms of existence and she also carries this jewel called the cintamani, the wish-fulfilling gem which illuminates the hells and calms the suffering of the inhabitants. The six realms is our life. We transmigrate from realm to realm, round and round and round, all day long, all night long, all life long. But because Jizo has seen through the illusion of self, she is without fear, which is what we chant every morning—“without hindrance, there is no fear.” She has no territory called “mine” left to defend. Jan Chozen Bays, who is a Zen teacher in Portland, Oregon, says, “When the self is seen as empty, that is, simply an ever-changing process with no thing at its heart, then there is nothing to defend and nothing to fear.” That’s how Jizo can walk into hell.

These realms through which Jizo moves is the shifting fabric of our lives. When we stop and practice or do zazen or do contemplative practice, we develop this list of things. When I was writing this talk, I thought, “What is that list?” And then I thought, “Well, just look at the practice.” Then I actually knew the list, and I looked it up to make sure.

We stop and we look—that’s mindfulness. After we do it for awhile, like training for a marathon, we get some energy, and also concentration, the ability to stay with it. Then we see how it is and from that a kind of deep faith, because it’s been our experience, arises which gives us more energy, and then we continue. We learn from our own experience that we can see more and more clearly, and not just see, because “see” goes “I see X.” It’s not like that. We touch it directly, beyond our conception. Our conception breaks, and beyond our conception—this is the heart of Zen practice, touching directly. It’s also the heart of life. Rumi wasn’t a Zen practitioner. This is what he was talking about. It’s so easy, but it’s not so easy. So we find it useful to train to do this. We can all sing—I think we can all sing—but sometimes it’s helpful to train to sing, even though we can all sing. Do you know what I mean?

You know the six realms, because you’ve been to every single one, I guarantee. They are the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm (the hungry ghost is like a vampire—“it’s out there and I will bring it to myself” and it’s endless thirst), the animal realm, the human realm, the fighting gods realm, and the heavenly realm. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the heavenly realm. We just keep moving from moment to moment, realm to realm, and finally we notice this sucks! This is not cutting it! I’m still miserable! I’ve tried every realm, and none of them are working out. Then we might decide to sit down and shut up. That’s what Roshi used to say, although he said it very nicely. He’d say, “Prease, shudrup.” [laughter]

Then when we do that, we practice with it. The Buddha said, actually, “I only teach the suffering and the transformation of suffering.” That’s all he taught. He didn’t say, “I’m teaching you how to escape your life and get into a better deal.” That’s not what he said.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s a wonderful Vietnamese Zen master, said “Suffering is the means by which we can become free,” and he instructs us to embrace our suffering, and to cherish it with kindness and compassion., and to look deeply into it. That is the practice of Jizo Bodhisattva, who inspires us to do this work.

How do we do this work of touching directly? One way that we do it is giving ourselves the opportunity by coming to sesshin. We come to practice in a more clarified container and a more earnest container, and a less distracted container. We can practice at home, of course. We can work with a teacher, and when we do this we learn by proof of our own experience that this is possible. Practicing means you do something over and over. We return, return, return, return, again and again and again to the moment at hand. This mindfulness of returning leads to concentration and energy quite naturally. It’s not something we have to go and figure out. It happens. Then in a moment we find that this awareness is cultivated and has touched the raw material of our heart-mind, just for a moment, and in that moment we just turn and face it—that’s all. We don’t explain it. We don’t run away. The battle stops. We’re truly alive just for a moment in the presence of the whole huge universe that is us. It’s just functioning as that, and this moment is wisdom. Everyone in this room has had moments of wisdom, prajna. It’s not something out in the ether. You know it.

When this happens over and over there’s momentum and inspiration and then we begin to have the energy and trust of faith, which is based on our own intimate knowing, our own knowing that we have the strength to face that raw—and I mean raw—material. This energy we need because this work is not easy, folks. It’s necessary, it’s possible, but it requires a lot. Then we have energy to continue, and we must continue. That’s what we must do, is just continue as best we can.

Jan Chozen Bays says, “Anything we observe with a quiet mind, meticulously and deeply, will open and reveal the truth to us.” I would say that’s my experience. That’s true. This touching directly is the work of walking through hell to free living beings. What I find out is that I can bear what I may have previously conceived as unbearable. We bear witness. We don’t ride a fancy horse, brandishing a bright sword, going to save the world, something “I” do for “others.” Do you understand what I mean? That is really goofy—in fact, dangerous. We neither grasp onto nor push away what arises, and when we do that very disciplined thing, we learn that we can be present with what we formerly imagined was not possible. But, it’s possible. If it’s possible, then who are we?

This is the practice of the bodhisattva. This is Jizo walking into hell. Here’s a poem from Big Spring by Elliot Figman. It’s called The Tunnel.

If you dig down deep enough
and lose the world of light
and let yourself descend
in the thick tunnel of air
and forget what it was like
to learn the outline of a hill
or breast, if you allow the pressure
of the narrowing walls, down
where you must wedge in, out of sight,
and settle in the damp cusp, the first home,
the air which stinks of grease, and read
what's written on the tunnel wall
and cannot find your name, if you dig where
there is no grip, no face, neither
friend nor foe, where the bones
which once knew the logic of your chest
scatter like thrown sticks-
there you'll wait for the good push,
the fierce act, that gives you up
and sets the tunnel aflame.

I know for a fact this guy does not practice meditation, because he’s my friend. But he has it exactly right in that poem.

So what makes it possible for us to do this? It’s not strength, not necessarily. And not even by skill and not even by grace that this is possible. What I understand about what makes it possible to walk into hell is love. This love is completely free of our idea of love. It’s an inconceivable love, bodhicitta. We realize this love in ourselves, in the marrow, and we realize it was never gone from us. This is who we are, and it’s available, completely, to everyone, whether they practice anything or not. This is how it is.

This work we can do, of simply attending, unfolds our deep karmic knots. It’s very mysterious. They arise in an unexpected way, in an unexpected sequence. Some momentary or very complex long-held twisted conception that’s been unconscious for a lifetime suddenly disintegrates. When it disintegrates we may actually feel disoriented. We may be uncomfortable. We may experience physical or heart pain. When we surrender our explanation and just attend to the raw quality of the mind as it is, the heart melts all by itself. Compassion and clear seeing arise all by themselves. We don’t “arise” them.

For whom does this work happen? Whom does it benefit? Why do we do this? I don’t know. I don’t know. Sometimes I see I think I see my own karmic knots unfolding, and sometimes I think I feel my ancestors’ karmic knots unwinding. But really, I don’t know. I just give myself as food and medicine for whomever needs to eat and drink, and so do you. I think this what we were born for, and nothing else. How can you be with another person who is suffering and feel their suffering? Just that is plenty. What if you don’t do the next five steps? You just let that go, because the trust in transformation is so profound in you that just being with them, holding that, keeping your mouth shut is enough. Transformation will happen. It’s the law.

Walking into hell doesn’t mean forcing something, or having an idea about what will heal. It’s beyond ideas. Sometimes it’s just a cup of tea and a bath. Take a walk. Watch TV. Balance is important. Otherwise healing can’t happen.

Zen master Ummon says, “Medicine and sickness cure each other. The whole earth is medicine. What is your self?”

The Buddha encourages us to look into his teaching for ourselves. That’s one great thing. As an American, forget it—don’t tell me. I’ve got to find out for myself. I don’t just take authority. I’ve got to find out if it’s true for myself. Luckily for me, the Buddha said, “Please find out for yourself. Don’t believe me,” which works out really well for me. The Buddha’s teaching, which encourages us to look for ourselves, is the medicine, but we have to take the medicine and work with it in our own body. If we see through our delusion, we will recover.

An idea of hell will make it hell. But what happens when you just are there? Is it hell or not? Really beyond my conception, there is no moment that’s not alive and aligned with the way it is, with the truth, if I can only see it thoroughly. There is nothing that is not medicine, that is not the place of profound healing if I’m awake to it. This realm we are in is the realm of the earth-womb, and the earth-womb is the name of Jizo, where she travels and has her life, which is our life. This road really requires joy and perseverance. Training is such a boon, it’s such a gift we give each other when we join together in community and in sangha to practice this astounding and demanding practice. That’s why we need each other, because it’s so demanding.

So please remember who you are. Please walk into hell. Please. We need you. I need you. Thank you.

Delivered 24 August, 2003 at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, Minneapolis

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