<Back to Main Dharma Talks page

Turn Around to Look

I want to start today with a poem. This is a poem by Charles Buchowski and it’s called No Help for That.

There is a place in the heart that will never be filled
A space
And even during the best moments
And the greatest times
We will know it.
We will know it more than ever
There is a place in the heart that will never be filled
And we will wait
And wait
in that space.

Is that true? Do you resonate when you hear that? Me too. This place that will never be filled is a kind of pain. Do you know what I mean? When we have pain we go to the doctor, or we call a friend. We want to do something. This pain is really enlightenment. This place that will never be filled, this space is freedom, actually. But, we usually are looking around about it and when we come to a spiritual practice, we sit down and we turn our light around, Dogen Zenji says. We turn our light around and we look within. We look at this place, and when we decide to look, that’s the beginning of practice, whether you come to a Zen center or you walk around the lake or you sit in your house or on a bench in a park, and you turn around and look. That moment—too late for you. Once you turn around to look, you’re already walking on the path, even if you have no name for it. That’s the beginning of practice. It’s also the middle. It’s also the end of practice.

Dogen Zenji, whom I mentioned, was the hero of Katagiri roshi, the founder of this temple. The first time I heard him talk, I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was talking about Dogen, and I thought Dogen was a Bible or something. I didn’t know it was a person. So here’s what Dogen says: “On the great road of Buddha ancestors”—Buddha ancestors is all of us, and it’s also all the enlightened people who came before us—“there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way, and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although unnoticed by others or by yourself”—this is my favorite line—“it is so.”

Isn’t that great? He really includes everything, that moment on the park bench when you turn, and the moment before you turn, even though you don’t know, already it is so. Your practice affects the entire earth. Being pulled around to look at this place, right here, right now, is inconceivable compassion. Did you know that? It is. Pulling ourselves around to look in whatever way we do that is the path that we walk.

The Diamond Sutra is a very famous sutra in Zen lore. It’s a set of writings that outline very clearly the path of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a being, you, who vows to free all living beings from suffering before she enters nirvana herself. It outlines the path of the bodhisattva and it also is kind of refining Buddha’s enlightenment. It was taught originally in a way that emphasized more morality and meditation and then as it moved and developed, and people practiced for a long, long time in China and Tibet and Japan, it became what’s called the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, teachings. These teachings, out of which Zen arose, emphasize compassion and the non-dual nature of existence. Everything is there completely; it’s just a shift in emphasis.

In the second chapter it says, “Even so, Bhagavan, if a noble son or daughter should set forth on the bodhisattva path . . .” Bhagavan is a name for the Buddha, and it means “one who bestows prosperity.” The person who is asking this is Subhuti, and he is asking this question for the sake of all of us, and for himself. He’s a great being who is trying to refine his understanding.

Who are the noble son and daughter? Who do you suppose that could be? Noble sons and daughters are sitting in this room here with us. We are here and we’re moved to listen and to talk about the teaching, so we listen with our ears, and then you know when you hear me say something or you hear someone say something, don’t you kind of converse with it in your own heart, like “What does that mean?” or “Yes!” or “That’s not right,” or “Oh, this reminds me of this other thing I read.” When we do this, we’re already turning around right at that moment and we’re taking off our heavy protective shoes and we’re stepping out on the path.

I read in the dictionary what a path is. I have my mom’s dictionary that she took to college, and it was published in 1947. It says, “A path is a way for passing on foot, a track beaten by feet, not specially constructed.” I thought, “Oh! Look! The dharma’s in the dictionary!” Isn’t that great?

The Mahayana is defined as meaning the Great Vehicle, but in Zen, we don’t emphasize getting in a car and going down the road specially constructed. We emphasize walking on the path with our own bare feet. Even though we say we’re walking down the path with our own bare feet, it is in a sense the Great Vehicle that’s making the way. This way is exactly where we are going. The way and where we are going, our destination, are completely not different.

The Buddha was a prince, and he jumped over the palace wall because he had to understand suffering. He did all kinds of things, including almost starving to death, and then he decided that that wasn’t useful. He ate something and he sat down under this tree and he decided he wasn’t getting up until he saw. When the morning star arose, he completely let go and he woke up and he said, “I, all beings and the great earth together attain the way.” He didn’t say, “I attain the way.” That’s really important. He said, “I, all beings and the great earth together attain the way.”

This Great Vehicle that is everything functioning together, not separate, together with our bare feet, all of us together—that’s functioning as awakening. Our bare feet are the activity of awakening. That means how we’re walking through our life, just raw, just vulnerable, just stupid, however we are, that’s the functioning of the Great Vehicle. On December 8, 2500 years ago, Buddha—that is, us—let go into the truth of the great functioning, just functioning, that’s all, with everything altogether that has no separate existence, realized as that. It couldn’t be any other way. It couldn’t be any other way.

When we sit Rohatsu, knowing that there are maybe millions of people around the globe sitting at that time, with this strong intention, it’s a really strong retreat because of that. It inspires me, and it inspires me to return to this space in the poem. Right here, quick! Come back! Quick, quick! Again, again! Come back. Come back here, now.

Antonio Machado, a Spanish poet, whom I love, wrote, “The only way is your footsteps. There is no other. You make the way as you go, step, step, step.” He’s referring to this path that I’m talking about. We walk barefoot, and what do we encounter when we walk barefoot? Everything—grass, rocks, twigs, bird droppings, insects—meets out feet, skin to skin, which is intimate. It’s very intimate. We walk, and then we find our way, and we leave a little track. Then someone coming after us says, “Where is it? Oh, I see.” You know, when you’re hiking in the woods, sometimes you lose the trail. Because someone walked there before us, our teachers and our friends walking make it possible for us to be walking. We can find a little place where the grass is not so high. We are making a track in the wilderness of our own hearts and this track is followed by our friends who come after us.

When we walk like this, even for one moment, we realize that space in the poem, and we make it our own, and then there’s no suffering. This making the path fully known by walking and getting our feet dirty is the destination that the path implies. How do we do this? That’s always my question. That sounds neat, but how do I do it?
What I love when I read these poems by a Chinese Zen master who lives in the 1100s is that this is my life he’s talking about. It’s so fantastic! Wow! Exactly the same. Zao Chuan, a Rinzai teacher who lived in the twelfth century, said:
“When you’re happy, I’m not.

When you’re sad, I’m not.
A crane thinks of flying north or south.
A swallow thinks of its old nest.
Autumn moon and spring flower thoughts never end.
You only need to know yourself right now.”

This is what it’s like for me. You know, when you’re happy, I’m somewhere else. When you’re sad, I’m happy. This is life. “A crane thinks of flying north or south.” That’s us. Should I stay in tonight? No, maybe I should go . . . no, maybe I should do my laundry. No, maybe I should to go the movies. Maybe I should move to California. Maybe South America. Shall I go north or south? This is like what we are, looking for that space, filling that space. Then, at the end, he says, OK, this is how you are. You only need to know yourself right now. Do you get it?

Then we come back. We’re happy, we’re sad, we’re in harmony, everything’s great, everything’s terrible, our friends are mad at us, our friends are happy with us, we’re feel stupid, we feel brilliant, on and on and on. How is that? Right in the middle of all of this, just know, where is your foot right now? Is it hot, cold, slimy, dry? Just this, this, this. You get so close that there is no this, because there is no you to call this “this.” There is just that, that, that which is you and all beings and the great earth realizing the way together. Do you believe me? [laughter] I’m really telling the truth. I’m not kidding!

T. S. Elliot, a wonderful poet, was really trying to figure out the answer to the koan in the poem I read at the beginning. He was determined. He says,

Or say that the end precedes the beginning
And the end and beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end
And all is always now.

The dharma is everywhere. Do you know? That’s from The Four Quartets, if you want to look it up.

Zao Chuan said, “You only need to know yourself right now.” When I studied Vipassana Buddhist practice for many years, about 11 years, in between Zen and Zen, we did a concentration practice called The Divine Abodes, or the Sublime Abidings, and there are four sublime abidings. Metta, or loving-kindness, underlies the other three. We spent a long time on this. What you do is that you get real concentrated and then you have these phrases. You practice cultivating the garden of your mind. You’re tuning the mind in a certain way. Even though you might feel like all these other thoughts are coming up, still you tune your mind in a certain way. One of my teachers, Marcia Rose, added a phrase to the four traditional phrases. Her phrase was, “I love and accept myself exactly as I am at this moment without exception.” That phrase kind of blew my mind. There’s no corner in it, you know what I mean. This moment—no escape—without exception. That was so radical. It was really helpful for me. You mean this moment? This one, where I’m spaced out? That counts? You mean the one where I’m resentful, and confused and angry and crabby? That’s not nice. That’s not equanimous. That’s not an open, loving heart. That one? You’re kidding! Wow. When I’m really unholy—that moment too?

In this space of radical acceptance, I could begin to get intimate with the fleeting nature, the emptiness of any moment. I could stop the fight to be a better something—a better person, a better meditator, I don’t know, anything but this. I could stop that fight and enter Buddha’s enlightenment, the great function which doesn’t discriminate about moments. It doesn’t have a beef with moments. In fact, moments are kind of a joke. What moments are you talking about, exactly? So, you could try this. How about right now? “I love and accept myself exactly as I am at this moment without exception.” Even the moment where the mind is going, “Right. I do not.” You know, that moment. That’s the moment!

In order to love and accept myself exactly as I am in this moment, I have to know this moment. If I’m flopping around with no container and no discipline and doing whatever I want any time I want, just wildly, I won’t be noticing this moment, actually. The key is that to be present to this moment takes me turning the cart around. To notice this moment, I have to stop. That’s already my vow. That’s aspiration. Sometimes when I’m sitting, I’m just going yuck,, yuck, yuck, yuck. Just this doesn’t mean there’s just this and no response. Sometimes there’s like, dislike, or neutral. That’s all part of the moment too, just seeing how that happens. There’s no judgement, though. That’s the tricky part. Then you get what we used to call “double-dip dukkha.” [laughter] You’re already having suffering, and then you say that your suffering is bad, and you’re bad for having it, and on and on. Then you miss the moment. The moment is just exactly what it is. It’s tricky. That’s why we have to practice a lot.

I want to talk about the destination. We’re on this path which is the destination, so what’s the destination? Taigen Dan Leighton wrote this book called Faces of Compassion. He talked about the Tathagatagarbha. Tathagata means “one who comes and goes in thusness,” and garbha means “womb/embryo” or “storehouse/treasury.” So, we could say, Buddha’s womb. It says that we are all fundamentally endowed with the capacity to express our own unique openness and clarity. Did you know that you are endowed with that capacity, completely? Here’s his quote. It’s so beautiful I just decided to quote him:

“The whole world is a nurturing Buddha womb, from which can be born the embryo of Buddhahood present in each practitioner [that’s us], and further, in all beings, practitioners or nonpractitioners. Conversely, the world itself is an embryo, and each practitioner is a womb of Buddha which can give birth to the world as a perfected Buddha field upon our awakening. This account of the path reflects the instrumental intimacy and interconnectedness of all beings in the process of enlightenment.”

Does that make sense? The whole world is a Buddha baby, and each practitioner is the womb of Buddha. That’s one. The other is the whole world is the womb, and each practitioner is an embryo of Buddha baby. That just makes so much sense to me. It’s how it is. Can you follow that?

One winter I was living in northern Wisconsin, and practicing alone in a cabin all winter, but I did have to go into town for groceries. After a few months, when I went into town for groceries and I went to the IGA, in a little town in Wisconsin, I started to notice that the butcher was enlightened, and the high school who helped me was enlightened, and the old guy who was always offering me free samples of his terrible white bread was completely enlightened, and the washed out woman who had had such a hard life and was probably younger than me at the cash register was enlightened. I just started to notice this. One time, I went to buy some parsley for $1.19—that’s the only thing I went to buy—and she just looked up suddenly and said “Have a good weekend,” and there was so much light coming out of her I almost crashed into the gum and the candy behind me. [laughter] I almost fell over. Then later, after my retreat, I just sobbed. I said, “They don’t know who they are. It’s right here.” And I cried.

Just a little shift, nothing has changed, but just this shift, and then we’re in the Buddha field. You know, in the Vimalakirti Sutra (Vimalakirti was a lay practitioner who was more enlightened than all the bodhisattvas) the Buddha touches his toe to the earth, and suddenly the earth is a Buddha field. That’s when I go to the grocery store and everyone is completely free. And then the Buddha picks up his toe, and everything is suffering, yucky, problems, despair. You know this, right? All of a sudden, something, and then you go, “Oh, no problems.” And then you turn this way and--problems. What happened? I just want to say that with all this fancy language and everything, it’s not so far away. In fact, it’s nowhere far away from us, which makes it so frustrating. Where are you? Where are my glasses? Where are they? Oh. You know? I don’t know why we’re like this, but we have this capacity. It’s not just in the books. I promise.

If you’re suffering, I can’t be free from suffering. It doesn’t work that way. According to what I’ve just described, the Great Vehicle, the great functioning, it’s impossible for just I alone to be free from suffering if you’re suffering because it’s completely one organism. There are journals and journals of Buddhist practitioners who are going to prisons and doing all kinds of social and political action, living the answer to questions like how does the insight that arises from turning, whether you sit on a cushion, or however you do it, play out at a meeting when people are screaming at each other? That’s my question too. How does this help? There’s the obvious, and then there’s the subtle. That’s what Dogen says. Even though you don’t know, it affects the whole world. There’s a subtle effect when your heart shifts even for a moment. You know the butterfly-in-China chaos theory? The butterfly flaps its wings in China and a tidal wave happens in North Dakota. [laughter]

I would encourage you with your whole heart to investigate that edge for yourself. Get all the help you need. Ask people. Demand an answer. Yell, scream, cry, and turn around and use that question as an auger to drill a hole and open and find out the answer for the sake of all beings. When we have a question that burns us like that, it’s great. It’s really great. The answer is inside of you. It’s your life.

When there’s no separation there’s only compassion and the activity of compassion. They arise together. It’s not even a thought. It just happens. You’ve done it yourself. You’re crossing the street, and an old woman has a bag of groceries, and do you think? You just pick them up and cross the street with her. That’s enlightenment.

Here’s this famous part from the end of The Four Quartets, which you’ve probably all heard,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple tree not known
Because not looked for but heard
Half heard
In the stillness between two waves of the sea
Quick now here now always
A condition of complete simplicity
Costing not less than everything
And all shall be well
And all manner of things shall be well.

Now I’m reading it to you out loud, I’m just getting blown away. Wow! Was he a Buddhist practitioner? I don’t think he was. In fact, I think he was a really serious Christian, but a serious practitioner of any ilk ends up in the same place—to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I’ll just end with a quote from Cal Appleby, who is sitting right there, who was quoting an unknown Chinese source that he couldn’t remember. Cal says, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”

Delivered 11 November, 2003 at Minnesota Z
en Meditation Center

<Back to Main Dharma Talks page