“Even prior to heaven and earth”

Posted by on Jun 12, 2014 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on “Even prior to heaven and earth”

By Madelon Bolling
This piece was originally given by Madelon as a dharma talk
at the Three Treasures Sangha zazenkai on June 8, 2014.

[Note: Daio Kokushi is a dharma name. Daio means “great Yes,” “great affirmation,” or “great response.” Kokushi is the Japanese version of a Chinese term meaning “national teacher,” pronounced like the English “coke-she.” The middle “u” is silent.]

In his verse, “On Zen,” Daio Kokushi (1235-1309) wrote, “There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth.” We often recite this fairly automatically, so today I’d like to consider it with more respect. “Respect” just means “to look again,” and this morning we’ve been looking again at this line: even prior to heaven and earth.

“Heaven and earth” might mean everything we know and everything we dream about. We know about “Earth” and its associated experiences of toil, trouble, confusion, and death. We dream about “Heaven” and the possibility of experiencing peace, light, joy, and eternal life. But students of Zen are not in the business of relating to mythical places, so what would Daio Kokushi intend by even mentioning “heaven” when writing about a deeper reality?

Zen practice encourages and coaches us toward letting go of the sense of separateness, toward learning to decentralize and live in accord with interdependence. “Letting go” is easy to say but how do we actually do it? One way to pry the lid off the sense of separateness is to consider an aspect of language and perception we tend to take for granted: pairs of opposites. Even prior to heaven and earth points in this direction.

Opposites seem obvious at first – inarguable, different as night and day. It’s one of the categories we learn as little kids, a way to understand the world. There’s night and day, big and little, quiet and noisy, old and young, good and bad. It’s a fairly simple binary sort: if you are “little,” you are “not big.” If it’s “day,” it is “not night.” If you are “bad,” you are “not good.” The inquisitive child goes on – horses must be the opposite of cows then, and salt the opposite of pepper, Mom must be the opposite of Dad, sister the opposite of brother? And the learning of the world takes up from there, since these are correlatives, not exactly opposites.

A good deal of our sense of separateness is born from buying into and believing in these categories of separation and acting as though they were concrete realities. Central to our sense of ourselves is the opposition I versus you: I am here; you are there. For that matter, I versus everything else: I am “here,” and everything I see, hear, touch, smell, taste is “out there,” is “not-me.” No wonder we feel cut off – the very location of self is learned as the exclusion of everything else!

We get into even deeper trouble when we buy into the refinements of separation called evaluations. I want to feel connected, but I am not good enough, not mature enough, not smart enough, not attractive enough. And these are often qualities that can’t be changed. If I am inadequate or unattractive AND that’s unchangeable, what’s left?

Caught in the teeth of this dilemma, sometimes I have given up on humans altogether and considered following Whitman, who wrote in his Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

But the best I could manage was a temporary disregard for opinions and a determined, repeated throwing of attention away from the pain of “myself” into just color and shape, sound and touch, the sensations and qualities of this moment, leaving nothing out including the massive discomfort of body and mind. The plain things of everyday animal experience here and now – sounds, for instance, appear whether I think I’m adequate or not, whether I’m human or horse. Green and blue, stony and smooth, warm and cold, wet and dry, rough bark or soft fur, scent of lilac, fresh cut grass, burnt toast, stale cigar, taste of sweet apple, hard bread, salty cheese… These plain experiences are part of all creatures alike.

These plain experiences, oddly enough, are the condition of possibility for and not different from, the thing we call “life,” the experiences we call “being alive.” Green and blue and other visual moments are the experiences we make different from one another and then further split into seer and seen. Stony and smooth, warm and cold, wet and dry, rough and soft are at once, and inseparably, touching and having skin.

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth, prior to the world of differences and separation. As such it is experienced as beyond (or prior to) form and name, and having nothing to do with words. But that doesn’t mean everything becomes grey mush. I think some of the natural resistance to practice is just our mind running from fear of its own hypothesis about grey mush! To reach this “prior” kind of experiencing, Daio Kokushi advises:

“Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts, for then you may come to recognize this one essence.”

Anyone who has tried to run out of words knows the impossibility of it. Words keep forming, endlessly, automatically, without our wishing it. The more we try to get rid of them, the noisier they get. If we stop talking aloud, they continue forming inside our heads. It’s well-nigh impossible for functioning humans to escape words. Fortunately “exhaust” can also mean to draw out the contents; to explore thoroughly, leaving nothing out; to question extensively, leaving nothing out.

It’s this “leaving nothing out” that seems most helpful. It’s moving closer in to the word-using experience and not leaving out their inadequacy and the fact that by nature, words slice and dice our experience. Speaking cuts up the whole, its richness and complexity. Take “light” and “dark,” for instance, a classic opposition. Is there any way that these short syllables can convey even one person’s experience of a single moment, let alone the richness of a particular day at a certain phase of relationship to the sun, or in different people’s experiences? Words are good for sorting, categorizing, making snap decisions; they are very handy in cases of threats to survival, when quick action is called for as a matter of life and death. But words also trick us into committing to a partial view, omitting aspects of experience or making us blind to them – and then treating this partiality as truth. From this springs the agony of separation.

Being very aware of the usefulness and limitations of words helps disentangle us.

“Empty your thoughts” seems impossible for the same reasons. It is possible, but not in the way we first imagine. Leaving nothing out, see thinking for what it is: a function and feature of human experience, having no reality apart from it. Rather than pouring thoughts out of our head, emptying them out… the advice is to see thoughts as empty: they do not stand on their own.

So let’s try it out; let’s push the edges of words and thinking a little here and find out what’s going on. Don’t take it too seriously—approach this as a game; no points, no winner, just play.
Find something close by your seat that’s a simple opposite—check alive/not-alive or hard/soft, black/white, warm/cold… How do you know one from the other? Don’t settle for the label! Your mind will want to settle for words as totally adequate, will want to dismiss this game as obvious. Just throw yourself into play, because this is one edge of the process of exhausting words and emptying thoughts. Sink into the sensory experience as though you were a tiny little baby just waking from a nap and exploring. . .

Notice other aspects of the experience you’re exploring. Do the words leave anything out?

Consider your opposites now – are they really two? What are we actually touching or pointing toward with these words?

In this game we are noticing the quality of experiencing, a living reality. Words step in and manipulate us: “This is not that. Ignore everything else; notice just this, and its distinction from that.” Then, the isolated distinctions become more important than the whole experience as it comes to awareness. The upside is that we can quickly communicate critical differences in the world with other humans, and sometimes save lives.

The downside is that words imply an independent reality and irreconcilable differences rather than complementary qualities of interdependent reality. What, or rather, how would heat be if there were no cold? How would dark be if there were no light? Quality of experiencing is what I’m getting at. It’s interesting to note that “quality” is a Latin-based word. Buddhist translators chose an Old English-based term: “suchness.” Such, thus, and qual– point in the same direction.

What was your experience like? Noticing soft/hard, dark/light . . . where were you?

If, in this play with sensory qualities, you forgot yourself, got totally drawn in to experiencing, became fascinated, then things became what they have always been. When we let go and forget ourselves in doing something, things wake up and come alive. There is a sense of welcome, of exact rightness to the way things are. What we call “I” or “you” or “the perceiver” is none other than the inseparable complementary aspect of experience–of the world, if you will. “I see the floor” is floor-being-seen, or rather, I am seeing-the-floor, and that’s all.

Daio Kokushi says, “It has no voice for ears to detect” but then, “If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the dharma.” Is it a voice or no voice? Move closer, move closer in. What is – before “ears” and “hearing”? Before speech and differentiation, thunder shakes every cell of the body, every bit of awareness roaring and shaking: the thunderous voice of the dharma. Seeing-the-floor hearing-thunder roars and shakes.

There is a reality even prior to Heaven and Earth – and it always already includes and welcomes you, as in this poem:

On the Sound

The swash of rushing waters
banishes ghosts to unimportance:
the ground rises like dawn,
meeting my feet
in radiant welcome.

Peeling garlic there is welcome,
pruning rhodies there is welcome,
eating apples . . .
there is welcome even
in the stings of bees
and the sear of heated stone:

Here the heron
awash in seething
sun-warm surf
amid the rush and clash
of small stones and sand,