<Back to Main Dharma Talks page

Which Way is the Way?

I can’t believe I’m sitting here. I‘ve never sat in this seat, and I haven’t been here in a long, long time. To be here today, particularly at this time in my life, is very touching to me. I want to thank you all for your practice and your big lives and I especially thank Cal for inviting me and to Sekijun, my sister, for her dedication and also her kindness and encouragement. And I most especially thank Katagiri roshi whose practice inspired me to continue to find the way. I also thank my preceptor, Dosho Port sensei, who continues to help me touch the truth.

I am returning to the world. I’ve been gone for three months. On Easter I came back from a three month retreat, a solo silent meditation intensive in a cabin about 20 miles north of St. Croix Falls. I would have liked to go to a monastery, but I have this problem with incense—it’s a very serious problem with incense, so there wasn’t anywhere I could go. I couldn’t figure out where I could go, so I went by myself instead.

I’m in a transition from that to I don’t know what, to the rest of my life. I will say that the retreat time was very challenging and transformative and I learned so much, and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to do that. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to be with you and share what I can, a little bit of the fruit of deep practice. It’s pretty hard for us to get away like that and take that time to do that. Also I was making jokes, imagining giving a talk while I was there. You know when you see a trick on TV, and they say, “Don’t try this at home”? [laughter] I was imagining saying, “Please, this is for professionals. Don’t try this at home!”

Here is a poem by Hongshi Zenji, a Chinese Zen ancestor, which I recited every morning as part of my personal service when I was on retreat. It is “The Heart of Zazen.”

Essential function of all the Buddhas,
Functioning essence of all the ancestors,
It knows without touching things.
It illumines without facing objects.
Knowing without touching things, its knowledge is inherently subtle.
Illumining without facing objects, its illumination is inherently mysterious.
Its knowledge inherently subtle, it is ever without discriminatory thought.
Its illumination inherently mysterious, it is ever without a hairsbreadth of sign.
Its illumination comprehends without grasping.
The water is clear, right through to the bottom.
A fish goes lazily along.
The sky is vast, without horizon.
A bird flies far, far away.

I think I sang some of it. I sing a lot. I would sing it to myself. Do you get it? [laughter] It’s really amazing that he could write something that is exactly the heart of practice, the truth. So I’m going to talk about this and I’m going to talk about Layman Pang, a little koan story from Layman Pang, and I’ll tell you who he is in a minute.

What is the work of the way? What is that? “The water is clear, right through to the bottom. . . . The sky is vast, without horizon.” Which way do we go to find the way? Which way? What motivates us to take it up, to take up the question? And what do we find on the path as we go? When we take up our travelling stick and we begin our journey, what do we ask? What is this beauty? What is this pain? What IS this? Who am I and why do I suffer and also why do I cause suffering? What is the meaning of this? Do you ever ask yourself that?

When we ask that, we ask the same question the Buddha asked himself, and he jumped over the palace wall and left. You know, when you’re deep in retreat, deep things come from the mind. You don’t know where they’re coming from—a deep place. For me, given my root tradition of being Jewish and the Old Testament is in there somehow, sometimes passages from the Old Testament would arise in my whole being and become illuminated, to my shock and amazement. Sometimes they would come up in Hebrew, and I don’t speak or read Hebrew, so I don’t know how that happened. But one is “Lech L'cha”—“Go forth, leave your father’s house.” Abraham heard in his inmost heart the voice that the Buddha heard. “Leave your father’s house and go to a land which I will show you. Leave the house bounded by the conditions of self-clinging and go to the land flowing with milk and honey.” Isn’t that fantastic? It’s the same. It’s the same question. It’s the same journey.

There’s a Zen saying that I found on my wonderful Zen calendar that my friend gave me when I went on retreat. Maybe you have this one, you know, where you tear off the days? “All things flow freely as a fish swims in water.” Does it feel like that? [laughter] How deep do we have to do to see that? Pretty deep.

This poem by Hongzhi Zenji tells what that is, that flowing, this ordinary, non-ordinary heart. This is a mystical practice we’re doing here. There are all kinds of practical aspects, but it is about illuminating our existence, about quenching the thirst, about answering the question that has no answer.

I want to say that this practice very ordinary people can do, like me, like you, and when we do we can enter the realm of Rumi and the Christian mystics and the psalms and Moses and all of them—we can do it. But it requires the utmost of us—the utmost discipline, and the utmost compassion, and the utmost effort, and the utmost persistence. So as our practice refines itself and us, we see what is required as we go. Thank goodness we don’t have to figure it all out—in the next moment, just breathe. Sometimes for me, I ask, “WHAT? You want me to do WHAT? No, no, no, no, no. Usually I say no, no, no and that’s my way of saying yes, yes, yes, But first I have to say no, no. It’s too big. It’s too much. I’m too scared. Don, my husband, is sitting right there. He knows, first I say no, but he waits, [laughter] because he knows it’s just my way. Just give me one more minute!

The Buddha said as his last words—sometimes they say one thing in one place and another thing in another place about his last words—one of his last words was, “Work out your salvation with diligence.” He also said, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Wow.

Something pokes us, motivates us, calls us, and we step out into the unknown, out of our habitual comfort or out of our habitual pain. Clarifying our own questions puts us in the way of the Way, doesn’t it? We get close, and we get closer. This is in the way of being intimate, frighteningly, brilliantly close to who we are, beyond apprehensions, which is just what this poem is pointing to. When I took jukai in 1980 with Katagiri roshi, Byakuren Judith was sitting right next to me, right over there. Suddenly the question of the suffering of all living beings was recognized as my personal, inmost quest, right in the middle of the ceremony. I have to say, I had no idea what I was getting into. Probably it was a good thing. I have spent many, many years enter this question of the suffering of all living beings. Save all living beings? Who? What? How? What is that?

While I was on retreat, I had to chop wood every day. Every day, like it or not, because I was in a cabin, and sometimes I was very tired. I sat six hours a day, but sometimes when I was chopping wood a lot happened. In March one day I was chopping wood and I started sobbing. I cried every single day, many times, so I just said well, now what’s going on? All of a sudden—this is so wild—out of my deep mind this question came up: Why couldn’t Moses cross into the promised land? WHY? I was almost laughing while I was crying. Oh, my God. [laughter] Where is this coming from? But it had me by the throat, as they say, so I ran into my cabin, plugged in my little e-mail thing, e-mailed my friend who’s in rabbinical school and also Clark Strand, who’s the Bible koan guy, and I said, “I have to know! Tell me! What do you know?” My friend e-mailed me back Talmudic commentaries and said, “Good luck. Nobody knows the answer to that question.” [laughter] Clark Strand e-mailed me back a clarification of the question. I really wanted to punch him. But, it was helpful. He said, “It has nothing to do with Moses’ character or his actions. So he clarified the question. He said, “It’s a universal question with a universal answer and the question is ‘Why couldn’t SHE cross?’”

Who is the question about?

It really was amazing because I couldn’t put it down. I was in the bathtub, throwing water around the little bathroom. “I don’t understand! I need to know!” I knew what was happening, but still. And then in bed, crying, crying, “Why? Why? He was an enlightened being! Why couldn’t he cross?”

We say cross all the time—cross the river. The river came up a lot. There was a river right outside my door, and images of the river come up in our practice, crossing over, crossing over, cross to the other shore. I burned with that question. I burned and it started to burn inside and reveal itself. That’s what I mean, getting close to your question, intimate, so intimate that there’s no you asking the question. Then maybe we can fall down the rabbit hole of realization.

This is the burning, so let’s just take a minute to breathe, and look inside, and see if there’s a question lurking around in there. Just breathe into your own heart and your own gut. It’s OK if it’s just a big nothing. We’re just on the way. This is the way. Even if what you’re hearing is “I don’t know,” that’s great. On our journey, we try to get a sense of how to choose our direction, and who should be our companion, and by what standards we acknowledge our process. We all know that there’s no easy answer, and there’s no one answer, and things are changing all the time.

Let’s look at one of these stories from Layman Pang. Do you know Layman Pang? Layman Pang was born around 740 CE in Jiang [?] Province in China. His name means “Lofty Interior.” He died on August 3rd, 808 according to this book. At this time in China there as a great flowering of Ch’an, or Zen. He met incredible teachers. His father was the prefect of Hangyeng and Pang lived there and he married, he had a son and a daughter. His daughter, with whom he was very close, was named Ling Zhao, which means “Spirit Shining.” They spent a lot of time together, wandering around, selling bamboo utensils. When he became middle aged, he gave his house to be used as a temple, and sank his money and his possessions in the river, which blew people’s minds because they still talk about it. Because it was also a very difficult time, and people were hungry, but he didn’t give everything away because he didn’t want people to be confused by having possessions. He didn’t want to hurt anyone’s chance of getting in the way of the way, so he put them in the river as a compassionate action.

His son became a farmer and supported Mrs. Pang, and Pang and Ling Zhao wandered around and sold implements. In 785 he traveled to Zen master Shi Tou, “Cloud Cliff Cloudy Light,” and was enlightened by him immediately. They had one of those dialogues, you know? I’m dying to have one of these. [laughter] You ask one question, the teacher goes like this, or coughs, or says something, and crack! That’s it! Anyway, he had one of those, and he stayed with that guy for a year, and then he went to another incredible teacher, Ma Tsu, often called Master Ma. With Master Ma Layman Pang experienced great, complete, unsurpassed enlightenment, and stayed there for two years and received transmission—permission to teach—from Ma Tsu. Shi Tou and Ma Tsu were seven generations after Bodhidharma, considered the first great Zen ancestor, bringing Ch’an from India to China.

Then he traveled around and met with monks and they liked to see who had the deepest realization, so they would have these little contests and talk to each other, and that’s how they had fun. He wrote a lot of verses to set down his understanding too. And then he went, toward the end of his life, back to a cave near Xianyan [?] with his daughter, and I just want to mention that he had a friend, the prefect Yu Chi, [?] who set down all of his verses in a collection. Also, if you ever want to read about Yu Chi, he had a kind of a wild life and conversion experience that’s quite interesting.

Then there’s a story that when Layman Pang was ready to die, he got all ready, he took a bath, and he was going to sit on his cushion and die sitting. His daughter said, “Father! Come and look! I think the eclipse is happening.” He went to the door of the cave and looked, and then his daughter jumped on his seat and died first. He and his daughter had this sort of friendly, loving dharma competition thing going their whole life. [laughter] So she won. He thought that was great, by the way. Then, a week later, he died.

Layman Pang defies categories, which pleases me tremendously. He had no ambition, he was a lay practitioner who lived like a monk, yet he declined to become a monk. He did not give lectures or train disciples. He loved the Vimalakirti Sutra, and I just want to say, I spent so many years on Wednesday nights in this room, listening to Hojo-san discuss the Vimalakirti Sutra. I didn’t understand one thing he said, [laughter] but I was here every Wednesday and now I can study it. Wait, I do remember one thing—that there were like 500,000 bodhisattvas in a 10 by 10 room with Vimalakirti, and Vimalakirti pretended to be sick to get them all to come so he could argue with them about whose understanding was deeper, and he always won, by the way. That I do remember.

Vimalakirti, just like Layman Pang, could pursue many activities forbidden to monks without it affecting him, and yet be bested all the monks and all the bodhisattvas too in his discussions. When I read you this little short, short story, which you probably have heard, maybe, see for yourself who us this story about? Who does it describe? And what is the point for you, okay?

The layman was sitting in his thatched cottage one day. “Difficult! Difficult! Difficult!” he suddenly exclaimed. “Like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree.”

“Easy! Easy! Easy!” returned Mrs. Pang. “Just like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed.”

“Neither difficult nor easy!” said Ling Zhao. “On the hundred grass tips, the patriarchs’ meaning.”

“Difficult! Difficult! Difficult!” he suddenly exclaimed. “Like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree.” Can you imagine? You have sesame seed, trying to get it to stick on a tree. Have you ever had that experience with anything? [laughter] You know? When we practice, sometimes it’s exactly like this, isn’t it? Our concentration is—what is it? It’s nowhere. Nowhere. We don’t know what we’re doing, and sometimes then we react with frustration and self-abnegation and doubt. WE can’t do IT, or something. The joke is that each of the mind states that arises is the gate. Even the aversive mind state is the gate to freedom. It’s not a sign of failure. But, do I see that? Do we see that. Just look inside—what happens then, when it’s just not going the way we thought it ought to, or hoped it would?

The habit of clinging to like and dislike and my view and just about everything is so strong that I can miss the boat. Even though I’m holding on to the rail of the boat, I miss the boat. But, in next moment I might catch the boat. Then come back again and again and again. This idea of the joke that every mind state is itself the gateway to freedom--I want to read you what Master Ma thought about this. This is a summation by Tsung-mi, the fifth and last ancestor of the Hua-yen sect. “Our arousing the mind and moving thought, snapping the fingers, moving the eyes, etc., is wholly the activity of Buddha-nature itself, and not the movement of anything else. In a word, the entirety of our wanting something, getting angry at something, or arousing the passion is all Buddha-nature.” That’s a radical view. “Since the Way as it is is mind, we cannot cultivate mind with mind. Since evil is also mind, we cannot cut off mind with mind. Not trying to cut off evil or trying to cultivate good, just letting things follow their own courses and being ourselves is what they call liberation of mind.”

That is so profound. It sounds like, “Well, why practice, then? Just be yourself. That’s the liberation of mind.” That’s an interesting question. What does that mean? Being ourselves? Not trying to cut off evil or cultivate good? That seems like, “What about . . ?”

In the midst of some strong aversive mind state lately that I’ve experienced, one thing I’ve been doing is dedicating whatever is happening to the liberation of all beings, right in the middle of these strong experiences. What happens then is quite astonishing. It really becomes a liberating gate. The practicing, like training for a marathon, is to be able to stay with, stay with, not control, not even understand, but stay with, deeper and deeper into the question. Sometimes we forget our question. What am I doing in sesshin? Why am I here? What am I doing here? Or we lose the energy of it. We forget what we’re doing, and sometimes we enter the dry desert where there’s very little joy and it all feels very rote and dry, just going through the motions. Difficult, difficult, difficult. We all know this.

In the three months I was away, all of these things happened that I just said, over and over again. Sometimes I was just able to assert my discipline and begin again. I’m a pretty disciplined person, and I could just take it up. Sometimes I would read something from the Flower Ornament Sutra, which is just gorgeous beyond gorgeous, and it would inspire me. Or sometimes I would take a walk or have a cup of tea or write in my journal, and sometimes I just cried. Sometimes I called my kalyana mitra, my spiritual friend, who had agreed to be my support person while I was gone. Also there was a thing about balance on a long retreat, and I was all alone. I had to kind of have this inner grandmother that would say, “Don’t push now,” or “You have to eat. I don’t care if you don’t want to eat. You will eat.” I couldn’t get so strung out that I couldn’t deal with my survival needs. It was a race, I’ll tell you, but it was very interesting. I had some sense about “All right, where is the balance in this moment? Come back to balance,” which wasn’t about denying what was happening. It was sanity. It didn’t mean I understood what was happening, either.

One evening, toward the end of my retreat, I was sitting and I just completely didn’t know what I was doing at all any more. I put my head on the floor and I said, “AAAHHHH! I can’t do this any more! I don’t know what I’m doing!” I carried on for awhile like that. [laughter] You know, it’s great when there’s nobody to blame it on. You’re just there by yourself. Then I think I did walking meditation and then I sat down again. I just went on.

Another thing that can happen when we do intensive practice is that there can be a lot of purification experiences. Generally speaking, these might not be so pleasant. The mystics that we know of like Rumi and Hildegard of Bingen—we don’t get to hear what it was really like. We just hear their poetry, which inspires us, but what was their actual physical, mental, emotional vast experience moment to moment? What were their lives like? I don’t think it was so easy. I could tell you stories, but they’re different for everybody, and they’re just a story. It’s a story and it’s passing through a particular territory. I’m so well trained—Hojo-san said, “Phenomena is not enlightenment. Phenomena is not enlightenment. Phenomena is not enlightenment.” There were a lot of phenomena, which is what happens when we’re burning karma for all living beings. What is happening? Sometimes I thought, “Where is this coming from? I’m just this sort of ordinary person, I haven’t been in a war, I haven’t murdered anyone.” But it’s for everyone, and we take it up. It’s probably too late for all of you right now. When we take it up, we take it up for all beings, and that’s a lot of work, but also without being for all beings, I wouldn’t have enough energy to do what it is myself. It inspires me.

I want to say that it’s really normal if you do this and this kind of intense stuff happens for you. Please don’t worry. Please have a spiritual friend to connect with, or a teacher, but don’t worry. It’s normal. This is what happens. It’s written about. Joen Snyder O’Neal told me that this Korean nun wrote about her time in hermitage and it was almost exactly my experience. That was very reassuring. It’s very important to open to it all with a deep cultivation of compassion—really important—and also steady equanimity. I have a friend, whom I love, who practices deeply, deeply, deeply, and he is very quiet and smooth, and that’s how he does it. My equanimity doesn’t look like that, but it’s still equanimity. Even though I put my head on the floor and go “AAAHHH! I don’t know what I’m doing,” really that’s my way of staying with it. It’s really equanimous. I’m not quitting. I want to open up the expression of equanimity very wide and this is linked to trust in the practice, and in the lineage, which says that many, many, many beings have walked this way, just like us, just like me, just like this. This is the work, exactly like this, and many, many are doing it right now in many traditions. This very moment, this very work, this is the Way. We’re actually doing it. We’re upholding the Way. It’s not only some ancient Chinese people, wearing outfits like this. It’s you in your life for real. This is the work of it, to see clear right through to the bottom.

I want to read you a poem that I love so much. It’s called The Law that Marries All Things.

The cloud is free only
to go with the wind.

The rain is free
only in falling.

The water is free only
in its gathering together,

in its downward courses,
in its rising into the air.

In law is rest
if you love the law,
if you enter, singing, into it
as water in its descent.

Or song is truest law,
and you must enter singing;
it has no other entrance.

It is the great chorus
of parts. The only outlawry
is in division.

Whatever is singing
is found, awaiting the return
of whatever is lost.

Meet us in the air
over the water,
sing the swallows.
Meet me, meet me,
the redbird sings,
here here here here.

That’s by Wendell Berry. It’s the truth.

So then Mrs. Pang says, “Easy! Easy! Easy! Just like touching your feet to the ground.” Just chop wood, just this step, just take the compost over to the teepee frame and dump it, just wander lonely as a cloud on the frozen marshes where I was. Nothing to do or say or know or figure, not happy, not unhappy. I had a quote up on my sink from George Carlin, the comedian: “Always do the next thing.” Oh yeah—the next thing, breathing.

In sesshin we don’t have to know what the next thing is. Isn’t that great? The bell rings and we do the next thing. It just rises up and we are met. Hojo-san used to say, “Just take one step, and very naturally the next step will arise.” But do you forget that sometimes? When things are flowing or opening I like it, and when they are painful or scary I notice dislike. That’s human. That’s just human. This like and dislike fool me, which is the good moment? Which is not good moment? How do I discern? Should I discern? It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

Dogen Zenji says in the Fukanzazengi, “If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion.” I sort of understand what he means now. For me, Mr. and Mrs. Pang’s speech shows me this is how it is. This is my own goings-on they’re talking about. This is real! It’s really simple. It’s really, really like this, and they point to my tendency to hold to a concept of what practice should be like. Do you have an idea about what should be happening?

Here’s a quote from Art and Fear, a book by Bayles and Orland: “Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art”--realize the Way—“and tolerance for uncertainty is a prerequisite to succeeding.” This work of navigating difficult and easy--that’s the work. That’s what we do. Water clear all the way to the bottom, vast sky transparent throughout, and then who is the one who wants to know? Who wants to know? Who is the one who wants to know how it’s going? Who is that one? Bring me the rhinoceros fan. That’s from a koan. It just came up right now.

I want to encourage us to say that the compassion and equanimity that it takes to do this work is enormous. It is. It’s enormous and ongoing, and it means having a very large view and a wide container for everything that’s happening, the changing states of body and mind and bringing all the phenomena back to the center. Turn the light around, right here, right now, giving everything that arises the opportunity to reveal itself, to reveal its Buddha-nature to us. Its true nature is unfixed and it gives us the opportunity to see and experience the suffering when we fix, when we cling. Really see that very clearly, returning again and again and again and again and again and again, endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. The center moves from self-concept to freedom. We can do this by our practice. Gradually Hongzhi’s Zazenshin is revealed to us. This is what blew my mind. You mean us? Even us!

Ling Zhao says, “Neither difficult nor easy! On the hundred grass tips, the Patriarch’s meaning.” The hundred grass tips means the myriad things and beings, the world of differentiation. The patriarch is Bodhidharma. The marriage of difficult and easy produces the daughter, Ling Zhao. This difficult, easy, right here is a concise and explicit description of my three months in solo practice, right there in that little story—the depth of difficult, the simplicity of easy, and the vastness manifested like a spinning jewel, over and over again. Where does the jewel spin? Where does the jewel of awakening spin? Right here. Nowhere else.

“The water is clear right through to the bottom.” To me, this points at the work of seeing through the powerful habits of self-clinging that are set in place by conditioning, by we don’t know, by our karma. This can be very treacherous and courageous work, and it takes enormous compassion to see through it. Seeing through to the bottom, there’s no problem. One of my Vipassana teachers once said, “No self, no problem,” and she was quoting another famous teacher.

“Vast sky without horizon” points to the vast mind without hindrance or attachments which allows and fulfills the blowing grass tips, blowing in the wind without obstruction. Who takes up this Way? Where will we realize it and for whom? Here’s a cute quote from this Art and Fear book: “After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.” [laughter] Isn’t that wonderful?

Delivered 28 April, 2002 at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center

<Back to Main Dharma Talks page