Free Me from My Fetters – a talk by Leland Shields (October 14, 2018)

Posted by on Oct 24, 2018 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Free Me from My Fetters – a talk by Leland Shields (October 14, 2018)

There are some koans that grabbed me and never loosened their grip. Today I’d like to share one that I long remembered without recalling its source, so I recently sought it out once again. The closest I could find was this, from Transmission of the Light:

The thirty first patriarch (China’s Fourth Patriarch), Zen Master Dayi (Daoxin), bowed to the Great Master Jianzhi and said, “I beg the priest in his great compassion to give me teaching of liberation.” The Patriarch replied, “Who is binding you?” The master said, “No one is binding me.” The Patriarch answered, “Then why are you seeking liberation?” With these words, the master was greatly awakened.

(Transmission of the Light, trans. Francis Dojun Cook)

I also found this from Peacemakers, #13 in their list of “Koans of Not Knowing”:

A student asked an old man, “In this world of coming and going, how can we be free and unfettered?” The master immediately retorted, “Who has ever put you in chains?” That being so, where do ideas of freedom and bondage come from?


And there is the disturbing story of Huike from The Gateless Barrier, Wu Men Kuan Case 41, Bodhidharma Pacifies the Mind:

Bodhidharma faced the wall. The Second Ancestor stood in the snow, cut off his arm, and said, “Your disciple’s mind has no peace as yet. I beg you, Master, please put it to rest.”

Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”

The Second Ancestor said, I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it.”

Bodhidharma said, “I have put it to rest for you.”

(The Gateless Barrier, trans. Robert Aitken)

These are living stories. Dayi, the unnamed student addressing an old man, Huike, and so many others are our dharma brothers and sisters, sitting with us today. Each of these members of our sangha have in their own way, with their own conviction, begun with an urgent request – free me. Each received a response – bring me your fetters, chains, anguished mind.

I invite you to join me, so that each of us can engage with our ancestors in that which compels practice. What fetters me, and fetters you? What are my chains and yours? Master Jianzhi, an old man, Bodhidharma, call to us to look deeply. Not to just lament our burdens, but to do all we can to grasp them with our minds and with both hands.

In an excerpt I’ve taken disjointedly from an introduction to one version of Thomas Kushner’s, Entangling Vines, Nelson Foster wrote:

The Sōtō sect historically has denigrated koan practice chiefly on the grounds that it can become delusory in its own right, hooking people on a quest for buddha nature—a quest to grasp the ungraspable and gain what nobody lacks. . . Frequently koans cling for a while after resolving. . . Old Chan worthies called this getting bound with a golden chain, since attachment to liberation has brought merely a glorified sort of enslavement.

(Entangling Vines, Thomas Yuho Kushner)

Nelson warns us, our very practice, our attempts at following the direction to which our esteemed teachers point in finding our chains, can be a golden chain. Still, please, take a moment now and grasp your fetters as you listen, as we sit.

(Take a minute of silence)

There was a time when I was working as a building contractor when a skilled friend and colleague was working for me as he completed his graduate degree at University of Michigan. He told me a particular job was complete, so I called for a building inspection. The city inspector came out and said from the attic he could see light around one wall vent and it needed caulking from the outside. Following up, I asked my friend to take care of it, and he said he went to the building and completed the small task. Once again, I called the inspector, who returned, and told me the task wasn’t done and was much as he’d seen it before.

Mystified, I met with my friend. The task was simple, unambiguous. The only thing to be done on the site was a few minutes of caulking. What could the misunderstanding possibly have been? My friend was immediately remorseful. The building site was unusual, in that there was a retaining wall a few feet from the basement, so the basement had daylight. What that meant was a ladder would be placed on ground on top of the retaining wall at first-floor level, and my friend climbing that ladder to the place that needed caulking would be three and a half stories above the ground to basement level, unusually high! My friend said something like, “I’m so sorry, Lee. I set up the ladder. I couldn’t face that climb, that drop, and I was so ashamed I couldn’t tell you.” Surprised, I remarked that he had to know I would call the inspector and find out. He said, “I was aware of that, and I still couldn’t face it.” He went on to say, “I hope this doesn’t change your trust or respect for me going forward.”

I knew then and know now still that my friend was and is a person of intelligence and integrity. Between fear and shame, he was fettered. No way out. His response to me was honest and direct. We’ve all seen people in such situations who defy all credibility and avoid, deny, and obfuscate. My friend did none of those things. He told me everything – unfettered. The poignant example rests in my mind entangled with the koans I shared at the beginning of this talk, illustrating the humanity, the quotidian, inescapable nature of the call to look deeply at our anguished mind, our chains. It demonstrates freedom, and that freedom is not separate from remorse, shame, and other experiences we would not choose.

As translated by Red Pine in The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, Bodhidharma said:

Buddha is Sanskrit for what you call aware, miraculously aware. Responding, perceiving, arching your brows, blinking your eyes, moving your hands and feet, it’s all your miraculously aware nature. And this nature is the mind. And the mind is the buddha. And the buddha is the path. And the path is zen.

(Page 29. Italics and capitalization from the source)

Bodhidharma might have asked my friend to “bring me your mind” of shame, fear, remorse. He asks that we look deeply. I don’t have any trouble imagining either a momentary flash, or a persistent call to protect something, hide something. What is being protected, by whom and from whom? In such moments of fear, when welcoming nature as blinking eyes, speaking, raising a hand, what is the chain I have to show? We might as well be asked to grasp self and put it here on the floor before us. How about now – now what is the self that I grasp and demonstrate? And now?

There is scholarship to suggest we begin to distinguish and act differently towards men and women in the world around us by the time we are 2 years old. Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote, “Identity comes from labels, ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave. It affects the way other people treat you.” Appiah characterized identity as arising from creed, country, color, class, and culture. (From The Lies That Bind; Rethinking Identity, page 12, TOC)

The Greek poet Constantine Peter Cavafy wrote:

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,

they have built walls around me, thick and high.

And now I sit here feeling hopeless.

I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind—

because I had so much to do outside.

When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!

But I never heard the builders, not a sound.

Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.

With respect to identity, these are always personally relevant questions, but now particularly relevant culturally as well, as we are called to speak from camps, as a man, heterosexual, Jew, Caucasian. Each of these statements can carry chains for me speaking them, and for others in seeing me. Do any of these perspectives illuminate something of me? Sure. Do each of these inhibit who I am, and how you and others know me? Sure. And personally, if what I identify as “self” is “kind” then I will be constrained when the truth of a moment or day is that I’m irritable. To Nelson’s point, if I consider myself to be free, it may be difficult to allow myself the freedom of the human experience of embarrassment.

The conundrum of these words is the heart of the offer of our teachers – show me, bring me your chains. In the stories, the students all had their version of a response. “I’ve looked everywhere.” In looking everywhere we can be stuck in the scholarship and have long conversations of such things as the social construction of race. There is a place for such scholarship, though it is not the same as freeing, being free. It is seductive to deconstruct the ideas behind the abstract chains, though in doing so we risk getting chained in additional ways, perhaps of the “right” way to view “race,” for example. To look deeply, we must be miraculously aware. This is what I love most about this path we share. I know I can bind myself with ideas, any ideas, in loops and queries, ever expanding and never ending. I also know I’ve looked everywhere through and with ideas. I found nothing. In the falling away of words, thoughts, we have the chance for miraculous awareness of simply what is, simply speaking, shrugging, or withdrawing.

I was moved to read of what Rob Schenk considered his “third conversion.” He is an Evangelical Methodist minister with the ear of national and international leaders, speaking around the world, a militant master of provocative tactics. In his book, Costly Grace, he described his unfolding and uncomfortable recognition that his principles and values were at odds with his loved and trusted colleagues. He told of being called to support an Amish community he knew after a delivery driver went into a school house and shot 10 girls, 5 of whom survived, and shot himself. Schenk was in the home of the parents of the shooter, with the shooter’s wife, where they were taking refuge from the press. Amish elders knocked on the door and were shown in, representing the community that had been meeting in sorrow in a community center nearby. They had come to share their love, their understanding that it was not the fault of the family, and that the family was forgiven. The police-officer father wept and was held by one of the elders. Schenk wrote, “I have never seen such pure Christ-like love in my life – the nobility of these grieving men reaching out with compassion to the parents and wife of the person who had perpetrated this heinous crime.” (Page 223)

These elders had acted far differently than Schenk saw reflected in his own actions of gaining points and acting toward political ends. This contributed to his evolution away from the methods and substance of some of his own and his colleagues, leading him in particular to look deeply at the contradiction he found in his own opposition to gun control while preaching pro-life. He went on to risk all, returning to the essential, in what he thought of as his third conversion (his second was to Reagan-Republican religion). He allowed himself to be the subject of a documentary on his looking deeply at the consistency of his beliefs being pro-gun and pro-life (“The Armor of Light”). He lost many friends and financial support. He said, “My new model of ministry could not be directed by the expectations, demand, and threats of those whose agenda was to divide people and punish perceived opponents.” (293).

Imagine the chains Schenck perceived prior to his courageous shift – he had to cut off his arm and throw it in the snow in order to release the constraints of who he thought he was, what he thought he had been doing for decades, and be willing to give up the family he had in his work.

We are often called to cut off something less dramatic in embracing that which is, now. This freedom is available to each of us, as we sit in this room. Over and over again we necessarily forget, and perceive without explicitly noticing a binding.

There is an old Jewish joke: A person is shipwrecked on a deserted island. When rescued, those finding the person ask about the three buildings s/he built. S/he explains one is her house, the second is the synagogue s/he attended, and the third is the synagogue s/he would never in her life stoop to attend. This is what we do in finding our ideas and perspectives, where we fit and don’t fit, find those we can share with and those with whom it is difficult.

After he finished college, a man I know loved nature, and found being in nature healing for mind and body from years of undiagnosed celiac disease. He took a job as a park ranger and said, “I’m a ranger” every chance he could get. Eventually, he found the version he wrote of himself as “ranger” restricted him from considering work in an office, or relating to others who did not work out of doors. He realized being a ranger was not the only thing that defined him. Talking to him recently he wondered what he will later think when looking back at his current self and about what will he say, “Why did I think that?” And looking to that future, “What will I shed? What will I take with me?”

It can seem our freedom is lost in listening to the news, wishing to deny that it could be or should be true. When someone we care about is in pain due to choices he or she makes, a diagnosis received, it is difficult to hold miraculous awareness, rather than rejecting, arguing, walling off. We can also simply look, listen, feel that which is. Summer is fleeting – at times I tense in resistance to the loss of light. Fall is here – at times I thrill at the splashes of color as I go from place to place. Leaves fall – I can mourn them without gluing them back on the trees and remain open, aware. Freedom is not a story of old, esoteric, something to see about tomorrow. Chains, mine and yours, are here now, and can be seen through now.

If I believe I am my body, if I invest myself as, and in my body, then changes in my body become chains, holding “me” down. If I believe I am my virtue, I am how others see me, then my errors in thought and deed, changes in others’ perceptions, chain me, and I cannot help but struggle against them. Am I my body, my virtue, the perceptions of others? We are asked to look deeply, taking our time to do so, and right now as I speak. I may truly regret the error I made before, can I bring it to you? Where is it now?  I do not offer this as a way to absolve or be absolved of responsibility. It is a way to see myself, the error, and the grape vines in the garden as a whole.

Chains can be anything from the world around me or my ideas. I can experience responsibilities to family or work as obligations. My choices are made within the context of financial needs, health, and social norms. Yet we have all felt free sometimes, head back laughing, or weeping with abandon at an immediate loss, or just cozy in a warm bed – unbound though responsibilities and concerns are unchanged from other times. Gravity relentlessly presses us to the ground, yet we need not and generally don’t perceive it as limiting freedom. We expect gravity, and are free to act with it, dancing on the ground to which we are caused to rest, hiking, and playing with it when jumping in a pool. The freedom available with all the limitations of our world now, is like that of a pianist, playing with only those notes available on the piano, a singer improvising while harmonizing in the given key, or the freedom of a visual artist drawing with only charcoal.

We can be free with all that is here, while seeing through the chains we perceive when bound by what is not here. We can be free with all that is here, while seeing through the chains we perceive when bound by what is here that we think should not be.

Over and over again we have the chance to look deeply. I find nothing. I have no binding to offer. It is just me, and you, here, in this lovely and quiet room, with cars, and kids and planes. There is no binding when laughter follows a joke that is funny. As there is no binding when tears follow pain of mine or yours. I return again and again to the koans about releasing binding, because every time I recall one of these and seek, I find nothing, and bonds are not binding.

Publius Terentius, an African slave who became a Roman playwright wrote:

I am human. I think nothing human alien to me.

(The Lies that Bind, Page 219)

In Zen we say it more broadly. Nothing is alien to me.