Every Moment Zen – Leland Shields, Intensive Day 1, April 10, 2022

Posted by on Apr 20, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Every Moment Zen – Leland Shields, Intensive Day 1, April 10, 2022

The sounds of the valley streams are his long, broad tongue;

The forms of the mountains are his pure body.

At night I heard the myriad sutra verses uttered

How can I relate to others what they say?

Dogen, Eihei; (translation) Cook, Francis Dojun. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (pp. 69-70). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

As we begin a week of retreat, I’d like to emphasize every-minute Zen; reminding us all to attend to that which is here, with the simplest presence. Our discriminating minds have some uses today and this week, but vastly less than our inclination to discriminate. Try and avoid being drawn into evaluations of practice, deep or not, or thoughts of information that is new. In fact, I will say nothing new to you today. What I will do instead is encourage in every way I can, that each of us, for this one week, recognize there is nothing, nothing, nothing that is NOT zazen. It is then up to us to engage as such. No right or wrong practice, no need for concern about times of distraction or indulgence.

Sit as if this period has no beginning and end. If there is only mu, without thought of the bell that started the period or the one that will end it, truly there is no beginning or end. Cook as if there is no beginning or end. When simply tasting to check the spice without thought of a meal coming, there is no beginning or end of cooking.

Of course, every one of us has a mind that wanders. Wandering mind is not a problem, it is part of this one life unfolding in each moment with words spoken, knees aching, and fog striping the hills.

For talks this week I’ve dipped into the well of Dogen’s teaching. The initial reading for today is a verse by another included in Dogen’s essay, “The Sounds of the Valley Streams, The Forms of the Mountains.”

The sounds of the valley streams are his long, broad tongue;

The forms of the mountains are his pure body.

At night I heard the myriad sutra verses uttered

How can I relate to others what they say?

Dogen, Eihei; (translation) Cook, Francis Dojun. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, 69-70). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

The author of the poem wrote it after a night in the mountains, truly hearing the streams. The imagery is lovely, and for me, evocative of the awe more easily available when in mountains and valleys. Dogen did not offer the poem to suggest we find our place to sit in the literal mountains of this world. The underlying message of the poem calls us to our own recognitions of that which is right before us, within and without. Sutras are being uttered all around us as I speak, uttered by the cushion under you, the light in your room, and the passing thought in your own mind. Listen simply – just this. Listen as you would if in the company of a mountain stream – just this.

In the essay, Dogen comments:

How regrettable it is that there are sounds and forms in the streams and mountains that we cannot understand. Yet it is a matter for delight that we have the opportunity to acquire the proper conditions for experiencing the Way in these sounds and forms. The sounds are never stilled, and the forms never cease to exist. This being so, does this mean that when they are revealed the body is near and that when they are obscured the body is not near? Is it the whole body, or is it just half the body?

Dogen, Eihei; (translation) Cook, Francis Dojun. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, (p. 70). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

Take delight even now in the sutra that is the hand at the end of your own wrist, resting on your lap or knee.

In a story in the book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps expresses the opportunity of every moment  concretely:

Zen Students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in, a Zen Master, was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him, Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every minute Zen.
Senzaki; Nyogen; Repps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, p. 36-7.

Sidestep ideas of perfectionism and give Tenno the benefit of the doubt that he met his own confusion with an open heart. From that position he took the teaching of Nan-in as pointing to an opportunity. I know I find such opportunities with and without confusion, again and again.

Over the decades, this story stayed with me as encouragement. With it, I’ve noticed the difference in a day or in an hour when I engaged in attention, and also noticed when I was distracted by the abstract obligations that may be important at some time, but not right now. When distracted we can follow Tenno’s open-hearted example of returning, and returning.

Discernment is sometimes needed to distinguish what is distraction, and what is the fitting focus of attention. It is by design that there is less call for discernment during times of formal practice. For the hours and days of your participation in the retreat, the priority is breath, sound, mu – attention before the thought of attention, or the thought of practice. This sound. This breath. Apply yourself to the extent you can so you know what is possible. I’m not promising grand experiences, but if you don’t hold back, I have great faith that you will have your own reasons to practice.

When I first moved to Seattle, I was awed by mountains to the east and to the west. I could not help but see mountains, always different in their lighting, cloud adornments, color, and clarity. Now, more intentionality is needed. I can become more easily distracted. Similarly, when driving in a default mode, I can miss a turn and like a horse, end up back in the barn, like when the rider isn’t attentive to the reins.

We know it isn’t necessary to notice all things. We also know when we miss things we would prefer to attend to. Leaving a candle burning and going to bed; putting keys down in a random and forgotten place; eating quickly and spilling.

It would be possible to take this story in other ways – is there a left and right, here or there for the umbrella? Tenno took Nan-in’s question as an opportunity to bring even greater attention to hand, foot, and placement, even when he could otherwise be looking forward to the exchange with Nan-in that hadn’t begun yet.

In a different story, Nan-in’s pointer may be about no here and not there. What we can do is attend to the pointer we find, Nan-in’s question, the tingling in my foot, and rasp in my voice calling for a drink of water.

In a different story, the same pointer might derive from words like, “Attention! Attention! Attention!”

In service to this every-moment practice we use our breath, who hears, and mu sometimes as the sole focus when on the cushion. But this attention need not push out sounds and sights. Breath hears sounds. Mu sees the floor in front of your seat. Let your attention fall freely into exhale such that there is no need for thought of inhale.

In another quote from Dogen taken from the same essay, he invites our attention in a seemingly enigmatic way. I take his intention as his pointing us to something before thinking. How do you take these words of Dogen?

Because the springs and autumns of former times have completely become mountains and streams, you cannot detect them in mountains and streams; because the times prior to this night have completely become mountains and streams, you can see them as mountains and streams. Today’s bodhisattva who practices the Way should begin his study of the Way in the knowledge that the mountains flow and the stream does not flow.

Dogen, Eihei; (translation) Cook, Francis Dojun. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, (pp. 70-71). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

It is not helpful to philosophically parse his meaning; instead engage deeply with the mountain and see if you agree with him or would contest. Before contesting, look deeply at the mountain, and look again.

Dogen reminds us to be simply receptive. Meet the mountain as it is – before ideas of flowing and not flowing. Put a shirt on a hanger. With attention to shirt and hanger, allow thoughts of shirt and hanger to fall away.

We have a week of greater attention to the myriad things. Cushion, bell, the scent of garlic, the sound of garlic, hanger. As a non-residential retreat there is a particular opportunity to take in the sutras of sutras, and the sutra of your own home with all its tasks and sounds.

We all know how to live our lives coasting along; there is no error in doing so. There is instead the chance to engage differently. We all know the importance of having our head straight, and ears above shoulders – it’s more comfortable over the hours of sitting as well as a valuable exercise in mindfulness. We know that keeping our back straight, frees our diaphragm to breathe fully.

In the integration of a home intensive – whether in-person during the middle of the day or home all the time, we can also extrapolate our posture mindfulness to driving to and from the dojo, making the bed, vacuuming the floor. Returning to an open diaphragm, ears over shoulders, is truly bringing home the heart of practice.

In Dogen’s words again:

When your body posture is correct, breathe in and out [once, deeply]. Sway left and right [several times] and then sit firmly and resolutely. Think about the unthinkable. How do you think about the unthinkable? Non-thinking. These are the essentials of zazen.

Dogen, Eihei; (translation) Cook, Francis Dojun. How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, (p. 66). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.

Basic questions have basic answers: When should I practice?…Now. Without exception, we can find the presence of zazen here. If there is an activity to perform, there is an engagement possible.

How do I practice?…engaging in this. It helps to simplify the tasks you are already doing. Drive with the radio off, especially if your habit is to listen to the radio. Vacuum without thought of a clean house – the activity is the goal.

In Zen, as in all meditation traditions, rituals are used to reinforce the centrality of even the simplest of activities. I bow from the waist to the altar as I enter the dojo with palms together. Doing so I am fully attending to entering the dojo.

I remember watching a solo performance of modern ballet once, in which the dancer punctuated the last moment of the last dance by holding a position with his foot bent upward toward his knee, while rotating his body so all in the audience could see it. There was a palpable gasp in the audience that I didn’t have the context to understand. The dancer who I accompanied to the performance told me as lights came on that the position of that foot and ankle was never used in ballet. For real ballet aficionados, that utterly common gesture became a statement of meaning that most understood. That intentionality brought all to attention.

Coming back to the “how” of practice – are there rituals you can use in your own home to foster your intentional presence? In observant Jewish households there is a mezuzah on each door post in the home. A mezuzah is a small often ornate container with a tiny piece of paper or parchment containing a prayer. Passing through doorways, the residents reach up and touch the mezuzah and prayer. I don’t follow this practice myself, but I respect the regularity of attention it calls for.

We have many more rituals to punctuate our activities during residential sesshin. One of the things I missed when leaving the monastery years ago, was the constancy of bowing through the day, offered to altars, each other, to our meals, and in recognition of many things.

Bring your creativity to bear: In your lay life, is there a mindful ritual you can add this week to help you recognize the impossible brilliance of the common gestures of your day? would you like to write your own gatha? In his book, The Dragon Never Sleeps, Robert Aitken offered ideas of short poems to awaken our attention. Here are a couple of his:

When waking up in the morning
I vow with all beings
to be ready for sparks of the Dharma
from flowers or children or birds.

When I bow at the end of zazen
I vow with all beings
to practice this intimate lightness
with family and friends and myself.

Robert Aitken, The Dragon Never Sleeps, pp. 3, 14

We have all taken this week, or a part of this week to turn eyes, ears, thoughts, and feelings to delve deeply in our practice of Zen, which is to say our deep engagement with that which is, as it is. Right here. You’ve already committed the time, no need to question the activity. Engagement is the way to know how and what it can be for you.

Please, with warm care for yourself, use this week. Use this breath. Mu. Who hears?

Please, with warm care for yourself, use this week. Use this breath. Mu. Who hears?