Nothing extra, nothing left out – a talk by Leland Shields

Posted by on Mar 10, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Nothing extra, nothing left out – a talk by Leland Shields

Blue Cliff Record, Case 12: Tung Shan’s Three Pounds of Hemp
A monk asked Tung-Shan, “What is Buddha?”
Tung Shan said, “Three pounds of hemp.”
Thomas Cleary, BCR 12

Blue Cliff Record, case 19: Chu Ti’s One Finger Ch’an
Whenever anything was asked, Master Chu Ti would just raise one finger.
Thomas Cleary, BCR 19

Blue Cliff Record case 27: Yun Men’s The Body Exposed, The Golden Wind
A monk asked Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?”
Yun Men said, “Body exposed in the golden wind.”
Thomas Cleary, BCR 27

On most retreat days here, we begin by some of us vacuuming the cushions; it’s part of our responsibility for this lovely place of practice we all share. In my vacuuming, I have a regular routine: I dust mop around one side of the room for a few feet inside the cushions, turn over the zabutons, placing them in the dust-mopped area, then dust mop by the wall. I vacuum the bottom of the zabuton, now facing up, turn it over on its regular spot, and vacuum the top. And so it goes with zafus as well, around the room. That is the what I’m doing, what you can see. It is my imperfect intent to bring the how of practice to each of these steps. This is a seamless way to start the retreat day, to let leaves fall, let the thought of finishing before 8:50 fall – we can finish cleaning at lunch if we have to. Finishing or not finishing is extra; pulling vacuum upholstery attachment across the surface of the cushion is nothing neglected. One breath just vacuuming, the next distracted, repeat.

For me this nothing extra, nothing neglected is an important part of my practice – and it’s portable! Let me elaborate on the word “practice” in the last sentence. It carries two meanings – both the activity of practice, and as the beating heart of Zen.

I find myself attracted to the simplest of the stories of old. They appear throughout the books of koans. Perhaps in reading them I find it easier to avoid biting all the hooks of words and ideas. At least for now, koans like those I read a moment ago, offer pointers that are no more distant than the swelling of my toe. The three koans above are very different in style from each other, responses of three different people. Each in its own way is a shout to hold nothing, protect nothing. The shout is not a means to an end, nor is it pointing anywhere else.

A monk asked Tung Shan, “What is Buddha?” There is an elegance, an ease, in looking no further than what is most present. Yet when the immediate doesn’t seem like enough, we have to contort a little to look past what is right in front of us. While it seems ridiculously easy to add something extra to the question, “’What is Buddha?”, it also takes a little superfluous work to first open eyes wide, and think, “Oh know, I’m supposed to know this, and to be clever! What do I say?” Or, “I’m a teacher, my answer should guide, point, suggest, how does that fit with the questioner, and me on this day?” Coming back to the elegant, an answer might be, “I don’t know.” If that isn’t acceptable, I/we have to search past it for more, for better.

Each of these koan stories are simplicity itself, nothing extra, and nothing left out. I imagine hemp was nearby and relevant to Tung Shan in that moment. In raising a finger, Chu Ti didn’t need a single word to call for our attention. The story of Yun Men and golden wind has been a favorite of mine and foundation of practice for a long time. For me, it is the gift that keeps on giving. I picture the monk asking Yun Men about the state when thoughts, concepts, that which is extra, falls away. Yun Men’s response wastes no words in providing an image for us – nothing hidden, nothing held back, all right against my very skin.

How do we hold nothing extra when sitting in this room? Bow to the altar, to the cushion, and to the room. Breathe before the thought of breath. Hear before the word, “sound.” Extra is the thought of which kinhin to use for one’s needs as one settles after the bell signals the start of the period. Nothing extra is the sound of the jet, and a reflexive annoyance. Extra, at least for these few hours, is the next thought about aviation policy.

Nothing extra is the recognition while sitting, that what I was thinking about was the need to buy some new blue jeans before a trip in 2 weeks – and returning to breath. Extra is the regret about the thought, and then the regret about the regret, and the rounds to follow. Nothing left out is returning to breath after recognition of the thought about pants. Nothing left out is the breath, after releasing a very appealing thought about something that may or may not be happening or ever happen.

There is a story imbedded in the commentary of The Blue Cliff Record Case 4, Te Shan Carrying His Bundle, in which Te Shan has a chance to explore what is extra in the sack, and the thoughts, he carries.

When he first got to Li Chou (in Hunan), he met an old woman selling fried cakes by the roadside; he put down his commentaries to buy some refreshments to lighten his mind. The old woman said, “What is that you’re carrying?” Te Shan said, “Commentaries on the Diamond Cutter Scripture.” The old woman said, I have a question for you: if you can answer it I’ll give you some fried cakes to refresh your mind; if you can’t answer, you’ll have to go somewhere else to buy.” Te Shan said, “Just ask.” The old woman said, “The Diamond Cutter Scripture says, ‘Past mind can’t be grasped, present mind can’t be grasped, future mind can’t be grasped’: which mind does the learned monk desire to refresh?” Te Shan was speechless. The old woman directed him to go call on Lung T’an.
(Thomas Cleary, page 24)

Te Shan was renowned as a scholar of the Diamond Sutra [also called “The Diamond Cutter Scripture”], traveling to set Lung T’an straight for his heresy in teaching Zen outside of the scriptures. Through the encounter with the old woman, Te Shan was shaken from his reliance on the books he carried, and the scholarship he relied upon. They were perhaps lovely and valuable, but did not free him from grasping of mind. That’s what vacuuming cushions is for. Te Shan piled up his books and burned them.

The nameless old woman offered a gift to Te Shan, and he received it – the gift of doubt. Te Shan offers a gift to us. That which we hold as our most fundamental beliefs can be the chain that locks us down. The answer was not in past, present, or future mind. Those distinctions though, may not be descriptive of the beliefs that hold us today. The distinctions that hold us can be as personal as that of being clever or slow, or nice or irritable. The distinctions can be as grand as being Buddhist or not, politically active or not.

What might Te Shan have said in answer to the old woman’s question? What is in the bag you carry today, and what would it mean to burn it? In holding these questions, don’t look past the response before the words.

In reflection on all this for my own part, I recalled the Herman Hesse story, Siddhartha, not read for years. My attention landed toward the end of the story, after it occurred to Siddhartha that he lost the thread of his life, one thought at a time over 20 years. Each thought and act, was an attempt to satisfy something, to have deserved comfort, protect something he loved and cared about. He had become wealthy, owned property, had the love and affection of a beautiful woman, yet something was missing, and he didn’t know what; something was not right, and he didn’t know what. In his fine clothes he sat down where he was. The dust raised by passing people, carts, and animals fell on him, as it had when he was a Samana, a follower of the way. The dust didn’t cover him all at once, as I imagine his burdens did not fall away at once. Even if this were true, I imagine something changed in the moment he stopped, something fell away, right where he was. I share the story now because within it, there is a picture outside of words, of leaves falling, and golden wind. I can picture ways I sit down here, releasing airs mundane and grand, to take on the dust and dirt, of being nothing more and nothing less. Today, we sit by the road together.

Full disclosure: I went back and re-read that part of Siddhartha, still on my book shelf, though perhaps I should have burned it years ago. Hesse actually wrote it very differently than I recalled it. Hesse portrayed Siddhartha first sitting hours in his own garden, before walking to and looking down into the river, still in fine clothes. Gazing into the waters, Siddhartha was suicidal before fully opening his eyes to what was left when burdens were released.

Around the time that Anthony Bourdain took his own life, I came across his having written that, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”. Siddhartha was a fictional character, and Bourdain was unknown to me – yet there is the possibility of a connection between the two stories written into in my fiction. Siddhartha did his damnedest to enjoy the ride, and was able to do so for quite some time, until it was not enough. Finding Hesse included Siddhartha’s near suicide was a reminder of the importance of our taking our places in the dust and dirt of the road. Even if we are in an amusement park, the park includes amusements that are light, joyful, and those that are frustrating, and anguished. The dust and dirt leaves nothing out. Siddhartha heard something whispered to him by the river that kept him from immersing himself in its cold waters. We can hear that same whisper in the traffic here at Dharma Gate, on I5, and in the sounds of the neighborhood in which we sit. Life and death is a great matter, and so we sit and listen.

Like Hesse, Thomas Merton was another westerner finding convergence of perspectives from another world. Merton wrote his interpretation of The Way of Chuang Tzu, that included this introduction:

For Chuang Tzu, as for the Gospel, to lose one’s life is to save it, and to seek to save it for one’s own sake is to lose it. There is an affirmation of the world that is nothing but ruin and loss. There is a renunciation of the world that finds and saves man in his own home, which is God’s world. In any event, the “way” of Chuang Tzu is mysterious because it is so simple that it can get along without being a way at all. Least of all is it a “way out.” Chuang Tzu would have agreed with St. John of the Cross, that you enter upon this kind of way when you leave all ways and, in some sense, get lost.
Preface page 12

Merton was not burdened or divided by the differences in seemingly discordant doctrines. Surely, he burned some books in finding accord between Chuang Tzu, the Gospels, and St. John of the Cross. Maybe they were all burned. However, I can’t help but mention the irony of my having cited all these books, even as I describe them as burned.

When attending to falling leaves, it seems they are everywhere. I recall an episode of This American Life on the radio in which Matt told his 9-year-old daughter Rosie he was working, so if she wanted him to answer her questions, she should write them down. ( She came back with 3 pages of 50-some questions, starting with, “What is life? Why?” through “What is time? Why?” and “What is love?” Not until the making of the radio show did Rosie discover that after 3 years of research Matt had written answers to 2/3 of them. He read her the answer to “What is time?” She, now 12, was bored, perhaps lost in the references to Kierkegaard, Camus, and the Millennium Falcon, and others. She said really, she came up with the questions because she wanted her dad to have conversations with her. Here, is a good example of how we can, with the best of intentions, take on a task in our response and miss the most immediate response – what inspired these questions?

Another example: In Make Trouble, a book by Cecile Richards, the then President of Planned Parenthood described testifying for five hours before a Congressional Committee after a false report of Planned Parenthood selling fetal material. She perceived questions to be rapid-fire, mostly hostile, and she was interrupted before she could answer. She was there to support her passionate belief that women needed Planned Parenthood’s healthcare services. She tolerated the clicking shutters and C-Span cameras. At a break, she checked her phone and found a message from her son who was watching on C-Span. “Mom, you’re really doing a good job. I think raising me all those years helped prepare you for dealing with these guys.” (page 14). She went on to write:

Near the conclusion of the hearing, Congressman Trey Gowdy asked me if I understood the pro-life narrative. I replied, “I understand how people can disagree based on their religious beliefs, their background, their personal experiences. And I also understand that people sometimes change over time and that’s the human condition.”
Gowdy looked at me with scorn and said, “I appreciate the way you try to frame these issues, that you’re the reasonable one, that those of us who have a contrary position are not reasonable.”
“I didn’t say that,” I said matter of factly. I knew he wanted me to take up his dare…I clarified that I had never called him unreasonable.
“No, that’s exactly the answer you gave,” he said.
(Page 14)

Nothing extra is simply replying – I didn’t say that, and stopping there. No doubt her mind offered a number of further comments that did not make it past her lips. Nothing left out was to show up at all, commensurate with the strength of her beliefs and internally-driven commitment. This was a day when she raised one finger and left it at that. Her son too, in his concise text expressed nothing extra, and nothing left out. It had the intended effect on his mother.

At this point in a talk, I always come upon the need to put up a straw-person or idea for balance. I feel like I should say it in another voice, like the disclaimers on drug commercials. Note this proposal to respond directly does not give license to say anti-social things in order to save the energy of restraint. I’ll illustrate with another story. When my friend Sherry was very young, she walked into a room full of adult relatives, went straight for her grandmother and said, “Grandma, why does the skin under your arm wiggle?” As her mother lunged toward her, Sherry had just enough time to say, Grandpa, why do you have so many chins?” Sherry’s mother took her away and impressed upon her the importance of including consideration of others. There is no contradiction in Sherry’s mother’s lesson and nothing extra – not if Sherry had been aware of her own curiosity and also the inescapable embarrassment to be experienced by her grandparents.

It seems incongruent somehow to try to distinguish between nothing extra and nothing left out. Leaving out too, is extra.

I was thinking about this topic while travelling with my adult daughter Maya in another country a few years ago. We were in a very small town, in line for a car ferry with specific instructions about Maya boarding as a passenger, and me taking the car onboard to disembark on the second ferry stop. I was confused sitting in the stationary single line 10 minutes after boarding was supposed to begin. Since Maya was boarding on foot, she agreed to walk the 100 yards to the front of the line to ask a question. I watched her, step, step, step…she waited, asked a question, gave me no signal or call, and started back rather than walking on board, step, step, step.

Even having in mind this “nothing extra,” it was comical the number of useless thoughts that can run through my mind in 100 steps each direction. Review of her options to signal me, call my cell, what I would do if I get on the ferry and she doesn’t, if she gets on the ferry and I don’t, cycling possibilities of the man’s answer to her question or how they might be arranging cars for two stops on this very small ferry. How many cars are in line, how many might fit on the ferry. You get the idea. You can also see that not a single one of those thoughts made any difference about anything I was going to do, and no planning was really needed.

Each step was also a chance to simply watch, wait. Whether for any given step, on any given day, the thoughts fall, golden wind blows. If watching with nothing more than the warm trust in Maya knowing what to do, a parent’s pleasure is exposed. If just a little anxious such that my mind cycles through ridiculous parameters, humanity exposed.

I fear in talking in this way it might appear I am taking lightly this nothing extra. That is not at all my intent. In fact, I don’t think anything is more profound than simplicity of response, simplicity of mind. The simplicity is itself, nothing more or less than the essential matter that brings us together today. I suspect all in this room can bring to mind a time when cooking, gardening, reading a book, watching a game, there was nothing to figure out, no comparison to how things should be. Such moments arise by grace. And they can arise a little more often by intent. That intent is the nothing left out – remembering to forget what is extra. Nothing extra through the day – simple as noticing my face is tense and none of those muscles are needed. It may be that I don’t need to protect myself and can instead reveal an error, fear, or achievement.

I’ll close with a poem by Rilke:

Oh, tell us, poet, what do you do?
I praise.
But the deadly and the violent days,
how do you undergo them, take them in?
I praise.
But the namelessness – how do you raise
that, invoke the unnamable?
I praise.
What right have you, through every phase,
in every mask, to remain true?
I praise.
– and that both stillness and the wild affray
know you, like star and storm?
Because I praise.