Jewels in Our Sutras – Talk by Lee Shields

Posted by on Oct 26, 2013 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Jewels in Our Sutras – Talk by Lee Shields

Photo of Leeland Shields

Leeland Shields

In recent months I’ve found myself particularly struck by passages in the sutras we chant. So for the talk today, I decided to do something different. Rather than starting with a single koan, or a single sutra, I will talk today about a few key perspectives that run through the sutras. My hope is that we can deepen our consideration by looking at the same perspective expressed by different ancestors. As if we were looking at the same jewel through different facets. Over the course of the talk I want to recognize three different jewels. One, that we are already Buddha, two, if so, why do we practice? And three, how do we practice?

I want to start with Torei Zenji’s Bodhisattva’s Vow. The first two lines are spoken by our chant leader alone:

I am only a simple disciple,
but I offer these respectful words:

Torei Zenji opens with a palpable humility. He is not claiming to be anyone special, only a simple disciple. And yet he follows by addressing us without hesitation or qualification. There is nothing but the Tathagata’s inexpressible radiance – there is nothing, nothing, nothing but Buddha. It is the combination of the humility and his willingness to speak clearly that stand out here.

Maybe there is a better way to describe what is demonstrated here. Rather than humility, what we see in Torei Zenji’s introduction is an open mind. I could be totally deluded, but right now I fully believe each particle of matter is not different from the Tathagata’s inexpressible radiance. I am willing to state my perception as clearly as possible. Willingness to stand up and speak, while at the same time understanding what I say may be mistaken, is a way to practice non-attachment to self.

(Not all translations include these first 2 lines)

Carrying Torei Zenji’s open minded respectfulness, let’s continue to the first jewel – something fundamental running through our sutras, starting with the Bodhisattva’s Vow once again:

When I regard the true nature of the many dharmas,
I find them all to be sacred forms of the Tathagata’s never-failing essence.
Each particle of matter, each moment,
is no other than the Tathagata’s inexpressible radiance.

Listen to some parts of the presentations of other ancestors:

All beings by nature are Buddha,
as ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.
How sad that people ignore the near
and search for truth afar:
like someone in the midst of water
crying out in thirst;
like a child of a wealthy home
wandering among the poor…

Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes;
this very place is the Lotus Land;
this very body, the Buddha.
(Hakuin Zenji: Song of Zazen)

These words are so direct and strong it seems adorning them with any more words would just cloud rather than clarify. But hear again, it is now Hakuin telling us that there is nowhere to go, nothing more we need find beyond what is already right here.

Would your practice be any different if you trusted these words? What if you did not need to fix anything with and through your practice? What if you and all particles are already inexpressibly radiant? If you could engage in your practice right now, without the burden of having to improve, or raise the bar for your achievements and behaviors, and without the burden of having to practice better, clearer, more diligently, would your practice be different? What if these lines from the sutras can be taken at face value?

this very place is the Lotus Land;
this very body, the Buddha.

We are not being given cause for grandiosity here, just reminders to see this body – your body – simply as it is, to see my practice – your practice – as it is, and the person on the cushion next to you as he or she is. No more no less, and could not be otherwise. There is no original sin here, no need for desperation, just this. For that matter there is nothing special either.

Using this mind, we can each fully engage in Mu, this breath, with who hears, in this moment. This Mu does not have to redeem or resolve anything, just Muuuu…

Let me amplify a facet to this jewel from outside our own sutra book. This from The Record of Lin-Chi:
Do you want to know who the Buddha is? S/he is no other than the one who is, at this
moment, right in front of me, listening to my talk on the Dharma. You have no faith in her, and therefore you are in quest of someone else somewhere outside.

Rather than waiting for some additional experience, try to fully engage, with no external goal clouding the practice. Just this, now. And now.

The second jewel in our sutras I want to discuss is about why we practice. If we’re already home, there is a natural question that follows – then, why aren’t I done? Why get up at 5:00 in the morning to drive somewhere and sit?

In fact, Dogen asked that question repeatedly in “Zazen Universally Recommended.”
Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the Way is perfectly pervasive. How could it be contingent on practice and verification? The vehicle of the Ancestors is naturally unrestricted. Why should we expend sustained effort?

Of course he went on to say we should practice to “avoid repeated migrations through eons of time,” and tells us how. But let’s expand on the “why practice”.

I remember a sesshin I sat in New York as a young man. I noticed what looked to me like an older (if not just old) man who throughout the week appeared to be in anguish. I had never spoken to him, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the pained look on his face, his tension as he fled the kinhin line. I didn’t know what was going on but was surprised he persevered through the week. At the gathering at the end of sesshin, Eido Roshi asked the youngest and the oldest there to say a few words about their week. The man I had seen stood up and his face appeared more relaxed than I had seen it. He spoke in that way that was clear and direct from the heart, so I could feel it in my heart. I still remember he said that this practice is no easier now than what we read about as experienced by our ancestors of old. And he said it certainly is as hard for him as for anyone of us for the trials that he bore repeatedly while participating in practice. Yet, what he wanted most to say was that it was worth it. Our ancestors did not deceive us, and “boundless and free is the sky of Samadhi.” I did not get the sense that his practice caused him pain, but that practicing it meant he set aside all avoidance, and when we say “just this,” pain was present. His words were credible to me because of what I saw on his face.

I remember that man still for his embodiment of two motivations to practice. The dismay we feel about suffering, the same that motivated the Buddha to leave home in the first place, and the yearning we each feel for the experience of the Buddha.

At the risk of sounding like the early Buddhist writings with enumerated lists, I’m going to describe suffering in two categories. We experience the suffering inherent to our animal/human nature. And we suffer for the insults to our sense of self.

There are many moving and dramatic examples of how we can be touched by suffering, but I’d rather start with an example more like what we encounter regularly. I was walking through a home construction site one time with a small group. We reached the second floor with ladders because the stairs weren’t built yet. In the living room, the floor had an area built 4 inches lower, ready for the installation of brick flooring. The architect was standing at the higher edge, and he slipped off, falling four inches to the surface that would later be brick. In that split second of the fall his body had time to react by clenching his fists to his chest and screaming out loud. What the rest of us turned to see was the man, standing in the middle of the floor looking up and screaming, and then stuttering explanations, humiliated. Here was an example of both kinds of suffering that I’m talking about – animal reaction to what the man thought was a plunge down the stair well, and insult to his sense of self realizing there was no danger.

The first of these is well expressed in the first four lines of our early-morning chant, The Five Remembrances:

  1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
  3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

Our angst about this condition is in our DNA. I found some comfort in a story I heard from a client years ago. She had a dog with a neurologic disorder that resulted in his being unable to walk without leaning against something on his right side. She had the house arranged with cardboard that he could lean on to get around to important places. Once in a while he still fell over, lying on the floor twitching. I asked if the dog appeared to be suffering in those moments. “No,” she said, “He just looks at me with his tail wagging.” For a couple years I thought about that dog as my teacher. Without thoughts of comparison that he should be – life should be otherwise, he was content even lying there twitching. He was following the sutra telling us “The supreme way is not difficult if only you do not choose.” (Verse Of the Faith-Mind)

More recently it occurred to me that I was cherry-picking my data. I recalled that I have a personal animal story as well. There were times I was with my beloved family cat Frisky when he had seizures. He also lay twitching, but his were profound and persistent, and Frisky was unable to breathe during the event. Whether thinking or not, there was fear in his wide eyes that remained for hours after. He was traumatized and probably quite sore. But eventually the fear diminished, and Frisky relaxed like he was liquid, with no tension anywhere, as cats can do.

The experiences of this dog and this cat are not theirs alone. To see the experiences in animals we can also see how deeply these responses run in our animal bodies. We wouldn’t consider criticizing an animal for his or her reaction to a circumstance. Why should we doubt ourselves, whether in this moment we experience equanimity, or whether we experience fear and terror?

What can practice do to address this animal suffering? I could say nothing, and it would be true. But it would also not be the whole story. There is no changing the fact of death and loss, and to rely on equanimity as an answer is avoidance, not intimate engagement. Through our practice though, we also have access to experience as-it is, without embellishment or conceptualization, exaggeration or dismissiveness. And so in the Heart Sutra we are told that the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva realized that in emptiness there is no suffering, cause of suffering, cessation, or path. Taking loss of a loved one as it is, the tears of loss are not separate from the love that drives it, or the flowers on the altar standing by.

To address the insult to sense of self, we can find a resource in Bodhisattva’s Vow:

All the more, we can be especially sympathetic
and affectionate with foolish people,
particularly with someone who becomes a sworn enemy
and persecutes us with abusive language.
That very abuse conveys the Buddha’s boundless loving-kindness.
It is a compassionate device to liberate us entirely
from the mean-spirited delusions we have built up
with our wrongful conduct from the beginningless past.
With our response to such abuse
we completely relinquish ourselves
and the most profound and pure faith arises.

How do we address the ubiquitous occurrences of insult to our sense of self? We relinquish ourselves completely. As one man I know expressed it, “this too is me.” This too is me, standing in the middle of a floor screaming. This too is me experiencing equanimity in the face of critical illness when we are the dog. This too is me in pain and terror when we are the cat with a seizure. This too is me – feel free to insert your own story to which you cringe whenever it comes to mind…and it does come to mind, I’m sure.

There is no need to go out looking for suffering, it is inherent in life. It is enough to simply observe what is true for you. If our hearts are open and we care about those around us, is this different than attachment? And then how can we avoid grief and loss? Holding ourselves closed from engagement could be another form of aversion. Attachment, grief, and loss are not character flaws, moral failings, or proof of deficient practice, they just joins us with the whole of humanity, and beasts and birds. Our practice can address this, but we can all hit our limit in a given moment. Our practice at those times is to relinquish attachment to equanimity and just weep, whine, complain, or otherwise join the full catastrophe. We can relinquish our aversion to aversion, and bring compassion to ourselves rather than blame.

This “Why practice” jewel in our sutras includes an additional component: our yearning for deepening experience of the Buddha way. I wanted to mention it, but I don’t know that I need say more about it. I expect that everyone here has a measure of it or you wouldn’t be here. Still, there are encouragements to our yearning left by our ancestors. Who can avoid a desire to join in when we read the beginning of the Heart Sutra?
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, practicing deep Prajna Paramita,
clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty,
transforming all suffering and distress.

Encouragements like this give rise to faith that through practice something emerges within the experiences of suffering and distress.

We’ve already looked at sutra lines pointing to the jewel of our essential nature, as it is. We looked at a second jewel addressing why practice. I want to finish with a third jewel, sutras addressing a way to practice.

These lines are from Dai-O Kokushi: On Zen:

Oh my good worthy friends gathered here,
If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma,
Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts,
For then you may come to recognize this one essence

We can fill our minds with fine words, consider questions of one and many, form and emptiness, but again, can we gain simplicity by taking the words of our ancestors at face value? Here is another passage from “Verse of the Faith-Mind”:

The more words and thoughts,
the less they fit the reality.
Cut off words, cut off thoughts,
and there is no place it does not penetrate.
Return to the root and you gain the truth,
follow appearances and you lose the essence.

We are told by Dai-O Kokushi to exhaust our words and empty our thoughts. We are told by Jianzhi Sengcan to cut off words, cut off thoughts. Our venerable teachers are reminding us that sometimes there is no thought that is better than no thought. That is, sometimes there is not a thought that is more helpful to us than releasing all thought. Even thoughts from those same venerable teachers can separate us from the simple and direct experience of just this. From Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage:

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.
(Shitou Xiqian ,700-790)

Here he warns us about getting lost in the sutras themselves, and points us back to this moment, in this body. There is importance in the specific words used in the advice about our words and thoughts. Exhaust, empty, cut off. When I first began sitting with Three Treasures we had a translation of the Great Vows for All from Aitken
Roshi that rendered the second vow as:

Greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to extinguish them.

Soon after I joined TTS, Aitken Roshi changed the passage to be:

Greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

I find this to be an elegant shift – no need to martial forces against our thoughts and delusions. I’ll just breathe instead! My thoughts can do whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean I have to follow along, I can just take my focus over here to the page in my hand. This fits like a hand in a glove with a practice that starts where we are, already home. And from here, without struggle against thoughts or anything else, just listen. Nothing more is asked by practice right now than you listening to the sound of my voice.

Putting together the three jewels I’ve been talking about, we can start from the understanding that we are already home. There is no need for struggle or doubt. We need not fight to be someone better. This skin bag here and now is all that is necessary. Secondly, we practice anyway, even though we are already home. We do so as a natural gesture from our own experiences of suffering and yearning. And third, we simply release thoughts.

But it is also an artifact of the words to talk about these three jewels as if they are separate – they are deeply connected. Just as we are all the dog, twitching with tail wagging. And the cat terrified. Without thought there is no struggle for or against tears or laughter, focused or scattered-mind. Jewels or no jewels, relinquish to the truth of what is, and there is no separation from what is emerging even as we speak.