“No Body” Breaks a Toe A Talk by Leland Shields, January 12, 2020

Posted by on Jan 23, 2020 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on “No Body” Breaks a Toe A Talk by Leland Shields, January 12, 2020

A nun was walking along a path, chanting the Heart Sutra. She accidentally kicked a stone, broke her toe and shouted out in pain. As she did so, the line in the Heart Sutra came to mind, “no body.” With this, body and mind dropped away.

The related passage from the Heart Sutra is this one:

Therefore in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, perception,
mental reaction, consciousness;
no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind,
no color, sound, scent, taste, touch, thought;
no seeing and so on to no thinking;
no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance,
and so on to no old age and death and also no ending of old age and death;
no suffering, cause of suffering, cessation, path;
no wisdom and no attainment.

Since there is nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva lives by Prajna Paramita,
with no hindrance in the mind; no hindrance and therefore no fear;
far beyond delusive thinking, right here is Nirvana.

I’ve also seen translations of the heart sutra that I thought expressed less poetry and more cadence by saying, “no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.”

I couldn’t find the source of the story of the nun, so I’ve paraphrased from my recollection. The aspect I want to highlight today is the first line, “A nun was walking along a path, chanting the Heart Sutra.” I find inspiration here for our lay practice. In this instance, the dropping away of body and mind did not occur while facing the wall for 10 years, or even in dialogue with one of our esteemed ancestors. She was walking along a path, as we do every day of our lives, lay or monastic. She may also have faced the wall for 10 years; that was not part of the story, and could be a different talk topic.

Nevertheless, the dropping away of body and mind was not entirely random. She was chanting the Heart Sutra as she walked. It need not have been the Hear Sutra, though. It would do if she, or we, were engaged in any practice bringing attention to what is, without the thought of either attention or one who attends. That is, walking along with no hindrance in the mind. What is important here is the persistent engagement of attention – attention that was preparation that setup the story of walking, pain, and falling away. That is the story of lay practice.

How do we, how do you or I, engage our attention such that we are available to the stone, the belligerent work colleague, family conflict, and to seeing the exactly arranged clouds in the sky? And again to see the exactly arranged clouds now? There are fundamental and practical aspects of that preparation, each readying us for the simplest recognition of what we encounter.

Before continuing, I want to assure we don’t get distracted by the seemingly mystical words, “dropping away of body and mind.” I won’t further distract by using other words pointing a similar direction that are also used within our tradition; you know them anyway. Please don’t look outside your life to find reference to these words.

Last month, I happened to hear an old Leon Russell song (“Song for You”) that included one line that stood out to me: “I love you in a place where there is no space or time.” If those words bring a moment of your life to mind, perhaps you recall a moment when lover and one loved disappeared, before and after disappeared, and only love remained.

Or a time when laughing heartily, head thrown back; all thoughts of laughter and one laughing disappeared, and only laughter filled the world. In that moment there is no laughter, no end of laughter, and no one laughing. We could say the same for crying, head forward in one’s hands. No tears, no end of tears, and no one to shed tears. No hindrance in the mind, yet there are tears, and there is head in hand.

Joni Mitchell gives us a bookend to Leon Russell’s lyric in her song, “Comes Love”:

Comes a fire
Firemen come and rescue me
Blow a tire
You can patch the inner tube
Comes love
Nothing can be done
Don’t try hidin’
‘Cause it isn’t any use
You’ll just start slidin’
When your heart turns on the juice.

Mitchell also sings of love beyond space and time, but in this instance, with a blues tone. The line, “Don’t try hidin’” is itself an encouragement to practice, widely applicable. Even when what is present is unappealing, intolerable, or just dull. At such times we want to separate ourselves. What a disappointment it can be that Zen does not end suffering in the way we sometimes wish.

In our way, whether we call it lay or not, we bring intention to fostering that falling away of practice, one who would practice, one who sits, drives, reads, gardens, works. As lay travelers of the way, our attention contends with the demands of sustenance and interactions, and so the times of simple quiet, without interactions, are precious.

We can find encouragement in Dogen’s words, in “Actualizing the Fundamental Point,”:

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas. To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to bring about the dropping away of body and mind of both oneself and others. The traces of enlightenment come to an end, and this traceless enlightenment is continued endlessly. When one starts to search out the dharma, one separates oneself far from the dharma. When the dharma has already been rightly transmitted in oneself, just then one is immediately one’s original self.

This passage is often quoted, and to my view, could not possibly be overused. In fact, why not carry it as you walk the path each day? “To forget the self is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas” is the nun’s story in kicking the stone. To be available to the myriad dharmas, the stone, the belligerent work colleague, family conflict, and seeing the exactly arranged clouds in the sky is the way itself. Available or not, body and mind are already gone. If you’re unsure about that, listen.

Other esteemed ancestors give the same guidance in their curt answers, like Yun-men’s “dried shitstick” (Wu-men Kuan case 21) and Tung-shan’s “three pounds of flax (Wu-men Kuan case 18)

What I regularly hear about in the interview room, and experience in my own life, is the challenge of fostering that availability. Fostering attention requires our intention, not rigidly or requiring a furrowed brow, though there are times for that too. The koan of our way is then first carrying the question, how do I bring attention and intention to this activity, to this room, now?

Our attention can be defused by what we perceive as necessary concerns. To listen fully even now, for me to speak with engagement now, requires we set down concerns of understanding and being understood, perhaps the setting down of a concern about illness of one’s self or a beloved friend or family member. It can seem insurmountable to let grief and dread take care of themselves, without our preoccupation. And increasingly, setting down concern for this very troubled world. Doing so does not imply dismissal of the importance of those concerns, or the need to address them in their time, but how about now, as you listen and I speak? We can perceive the release of those concerns like putting down our protective armor, opening heart and mind to all that is here, now. All of it, leaving nothing out. It requires of us a faith in ourselves that we will act accordingly when it is time to address a concern. But what is called for now?

Setting down is not about technique, we all know what to do. It is about persistence and focus without one who focuses, and focus without differentiation of whether or not there is one who focuses. It is action without actor, or question about actor or no actor. Letting breath breathe. That is, the breathing happens whether one has a thought about managing or attending the breath or not. No self is in part the utter release of the idea of breather to leave only breath. It is giving up watchfulness, giving up doing it right and simply doing it.

To just listen, to just do kinhin, just drive, type, make decisions, is to be naked before the vagaries of life. Take that chance and see what happens. Just as you release all to laugh, release all in every activity, whenever it occurs to you. Doing so includes acceptance of our responsibilities, and the limits of our authority. Doing so I find also includes the freedom from attempts to control that which is not in my control in this moment.

At a farmer’s market recently, I watched as a girl maybe 5 years old was at the counter of a booth, waiting for a pastry to be given to her. Her eyes were wide, fixed on the pastry; her tongue was wandering outside her lips with a mind of its own. Her waiting was beyond space and time.

There is no time, no activity, in which this persistent attention could not be applied. There are, of course, some times and activities we perceive more natural to our focus than others. This brings me back to the koan, how do I bring attention and intention this activity, now?

Responses can include building rituals – in non-sectarian language, routines. What are the natural times in your day to habituate full engagement? Pick one to begin with, perhaps when brushing teeth first thing in the morning and again at night. For me a natural one much of the year is to walk out of my door in the morning, and everyday have birds surprise me with their songs. Mountains too surprise me, jumping into my view without warning. The sound of an airplane, the chortling of my electric tea pot heating. What is there for you? Can you one at a time, build surprises through your day?

Responses can also include intentionally setting everything down and recognizing breath, listening, mu. This intention, fostered by persistence, can be free from connection to any ritual or time, and actualized whenever it occurs to us. Moment to moment, Zen is always available.

Singer, songwriter Keb Mo put it like this in one of his songs:

Well it might sound bad
Or it might sound good
Might be made of steel
Or it might be made of wood
Maybe it’s just news
On your television
Or it might be God trying to get your attention
(“God Trying to Get Your Attention”)

For all of us, there are periods in which we are persistent and can appreciate the experience of it. And there are periods when we forget, and can become disillusioned, demoralized that this path will ever get us anywhere out of the weeds. Inevitably there are seemingly interminable days when the Way is dull, colorless.

Case 15 of The Gateless Barrier, includes this passage:

…Next day, Tung-shan came again and said, “Yesterday you said you spared my sixty blows. I don’t know where I was at fault.”
Yun-men said, “You rice bag! Do you go about in such a way, now west of the river, now south of the lake!”
With this, Tung-shan had great satori.
(Robert Aitken, page 100)

Yun-men encourages, pointing out that Tung-shan has lost vitality and passes the time, eating rice, sleeping, walking. Yun-men’s verbal blows do wake Tung-shan to recognize he can do more than get by. Please, be kind to yourself when disillusioned, bored. The story of Tung-shan demonstrates that these experiences too, are and have always been part of the path. With persistence, Tung-shan boldly risked sixty blows by going back to Yun-men and asking again.

Perhaps one’s boredom can be encouragement toward a new beginning, necessitating giving up completely. Starting with, “I don’t know anything. I don’t know how to do this. I expect nothing. There was a reason I started this practice; what about now? What were those first instructions again?” From here, we can take Keb Mo and Yun-men at their word. Even this boredom, dispiritedness, is my true home. Even my vague, cranky, dissatisfaction is my true home. The “ugh” I utter with the alarm after a poor night sleep is God, one of the myriad things, trying to get my attention. Giving up, all things, this thing…no where other than home.

Take up the koan again with new curiosity: How do I bring attention and intention this activity, now? Perhaps it is with persistence along the same paths, and perhaps there is a possible shift in form or attitude. Have I become rigid in my mind, do I have expectations of myself such that I am no longer creatively just opening eyes to see, ears to hear? There is no doing this well, and no doing this poorly. There is only this chance for surprise.

Most in this room have experience in navigating lay practice, with your own stumbles and approaches. I’d like to open discussion now. It may be that your insights and difficulties will inspire others of us to help answer this koan of lay practice.