Separate and Not Separate Are Consistent – Leland Shields, May 10, 2020, Zoom Zenkai

Posted by on May 29, 2020 in Meditation Retreat | Comments Off on Separate and Not Separate Are Consistent – Leland Shields, May 10, 2020, Zoom Zenkai

In the apparent but misleading dichotomy of practice, there is one breath, all else falling away. Yet in one breath, there is context – fast, chest heaving after running for a bus; ragged, with congestion; tortured, when in respiratory distress. Each is one breath. We cannot deny this breath, that is only obscured by our descriptions. In these days, we cannot deny this breath is connected to all things, through the illness of exposure, or through the health arising from our shared care through isolation and hygiene. I am not the first to observe that the contagion of pandemic baldly exposes that there is one body we all share.

In Zazen, we do not/ are not separate from anything. In this strange time of Covid-19, we practice our traditional forms as we can, by video conference. We protect each other and ourselves by sitting in separate structures. Not separate and separate are consistent when each is understood before words.

A single moon shines in every drop of water
every water-drop-moon is held in a single moon
every Buddha’s dharma body is in my nature
my nature is one with every Tathagata

(Yung-chia’s Song of Enlightenment, trans. Red Pine, #36)

These words were written by Yung-chia, of Tang Dynasty China. His father died when he was young, so at eight years old his mother, sister, and he were ordained and lived together at Kaiyuan Monastery. While there, Yung-chia was criticized for refusing to abandon his filial duties for the whole of his mother’s life, and was said to “live as a monastic and non-monastic.”

In his verse of the single moon shining in every drop of water, he seamlessly demonstrates separate, not separate, and not not separate. We today can embrace our formal retreat, and not-formal retreat.

In describing retreats on the streets of New York, the late Bernie glassman said:

So the sesshin was created to try to get people out of the space that they’re familiar with, to get them into a space where they are not in control of the situation. In the same way, the idea of “plunges” is one of the tools of the Peacemaker Order. We ask you to plunge into a place about which you are completely unfamiliar, a place of your fears, a place of your unknown. It could even be a beautiful place: a plunge into being a clown could take you out of your usual way of thinking.

This time of contagion, quiet streets, loss, and uncertainty, is a perfect time for a plunge. When seeing other than only that which is familiar, we see the moon by looking into a drop of water. Perhaps even see the one humanity we all share by looking into my own, your own fears. Surely fear is one moon that shines in us all, or we all shine fear, even as it waxes and wanes. For that matter, boredom while home is no less a moon, and no less human.

Look deeply into what you see here. Can you find anything that does not reflect the bird dropping on my car, and the bed from which you arose today? Looking deeply does not need to be grand or profound.

I walked down to Lake Washington a recent Sunday afternoon; as I walked south, a yellow kayak was moving north, powered by a black shaft with white paddle blades on either end flashing up into the light and down into the water rhythmically. Together the asphalt and tires of the cars going past gave off the same pitch, until a Jeep drove by, sounding lower, rougher. Two white butterflies flit this way and that, diverging. Runners single and in pairs pass. The wind is so calm, sailboat rigging in the marina had nothing to say.

Taking in this rich scene, I carried the question – One, many, nothing?

Cascade mountains rise from their grounding in one earth. I sit on a bench to slow down, to take it in. The sun is too hot on my black jeans though the air is cool. Words such as these join the kayak, the Jeep, and sun-hot legs. And each thing was waving, pointing. Pointing to many, to one, to nothing at all? A song sparrow lights courageously close to where I sit, quiet for minutes, then chest swelling, releases a song, chin and head bouncing in opposite directions with the ending trill.

I can’t say anything about one or many. Everything in the scene is plunging, and dragging me along.

Our many ancestors left dizzying clues that seem like many. The practice of no practice is to rest back to the place before the question of one, many, nothing. Where is that place today, for you?

How wonderful it is to have a day to recognize it, each in our own rooms, restless or taut, contented or distressed. Plunging now, what happens if you allow yourself to fall Splat without restraint into all of this.

I was at a conference a few years ago in a middle floor of a tall office building among tall office buildings. We participants sought the patches of blue sky and Puget Sound infrequently visible between and above buildings. Of course there are pointers, like sky, giving teisho that are more appealing to us. Maybe you, like me, easily enjoy calming motion of water, or slow movement of clouds. Even now, take in what is around you, whatever it is, leaving nothing out. Including the beating of your heart, breath in your lungs, the paint on your walls, furniture, floors, all support you, wave to you.

Also from Yung-chia:

Who has no thoughts who isn’t born
to be truly not born is to be not not born
ask a mechanical man made of wood
how is that quest for Buddhahood coming

(Yung-chia’s Song of Enlightenment, trans. Red Pine, #6)

Hui-neng confirmed Yung-chia’s realization. In the first line, “Who has no thoughts who isn’t born,” Yung-chia may be referencing a line from The Platform Sutra in which Hui-neng says, “No thought is my doctrine.” (Red Pine translator’s note.) I honor Hui-neng for his agility in giving and taking away doctrine in one phrase.

I picture Hui-Neng in a meditation hall, with altar, bells, sitting cushions, saying, “No thought is my doctrine.” No thought, yet bells ring, we sit, bells ring, and we walk. In the Platform Sutra Hui-neng elaborated:

If a person has certain faith, and knows that there is such a method of great liberation, and if in that knowing he turns the key of transcendence, then Layman P’ang’s saying and the whole great canon preached by the Buddha are no different, without before or after, ancient or modern, lack or excess…Buddhist disciple Ch’en, you have realized that personal existence is false and that things are illusory. Amidst illusory falsehood you were able to contemplate the saying “A dog has no Buddha-nature”—

Cleary, J.C.. Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui (pp. 38-39). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

No thought, no doctrine, but there is a method that is no method. And while bells ring, there are disciples that contemplate the resonant, MU. No thought and nothing left out.

In Zazen we sit still even if feeling an itch, or aware of our to-do list. If no thought meant no rational function, no intention, no planning, I would have already eaten a handful of nuts during the last period. To plunge is not a call to be thoughtless. We may more easily imagine how we can be present body and mind in a sport we love, playing music, dance, and love making. In each of those there are sometimes body and mind, without one who plays, dances and loves.

A heart can race with fear, a mind can race too, relentlessly seeking protection by planning, and anger at another not doing it right. What is the equivalent of dance without a dancer when in fear? Or more quotidian, when saving to buy a house, or for retirement?

Our Zen meditation is literally practice for this use of mind and body. We don’t ignore body or mind to sit today. When sore we change posture starting the next period. We’ve planned our day to allow this time. Thus we don’t follow every impulse to look into the refrigerator or call a friend though we have many reasons to do so. Simultaneously we plunge into breath, who hears, such that no room is left for other. Nothing extra, nothing left out.

How do you take this from the cushion to the complexity of your life, plunging into planning in its time, plunging into the planned activity without replanning, in its time?

From my living room I look out on two trees, trunks grown tightly together far above all surrounding trees and buildings. The branches extend north undeniably farther than those growing south. I suppose there is a wind predominantly from the south that I hadn’t recognized. On any given day, or hour, wind can be northerly or southerly.  Let your Zazen influence you like the wind on a tree. It is immaterial if we find ourselves distracted, wind blowing to the south, leaving us heaven and earth. With breath, mu, wind blows north and there is only breath, mu, no heaven, no earth. Nothing extra, nothing left out.

To inspire our sitting today, I’ll include one more verse from Yung-chia:

Don’t search for the truth and don’t dismiss delusions
realize both are empty and without form
without form but neither empty nor not empty
that is a tathagata’s real form

(Yung-chia’s Song of Enlightenment, trans. Red Pine, #41)


Thank you.