The Practice of Mutual Support — Leland Shields, July 10, 2016

Posted by on Jul 14, 2016 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on The Practice of Mutual Support — Leland Shields, July 10, 2016

I’d like to start with a story from the Record of Lin-chi

When Lin-chi was one of the assembly of monks under Huang-po, he was plain and direct in his behavior. The head monk praised him saying: “Though he’s a youngster, he is different from the other monks.” So he asked:” Shang-tso, how long have you been here?”

“Three years,” replied Lin-chi.

“Have you ever asked for instruction?”

“No, I’ve never asked for instruction. I don’t know what to ask,” replied Lin-chi.

“Why don’t you go ask the head Ho-shang of this temple just what the cardinal principle of the Buddha-dharma is?” said the head monk. Lin-chi went and asked. Before he had finished speaking, Huang-po hit him. Lin-chi came back. “How did your question go?” asked the head monk.

“Before I had finished speaking the Master hit me. I don’t understand,” said Lin-chi.

“Then go and ask him again,” said the head monk.

So Lin-chi went back and asked, and again Huang-po hit him. Thus Lin-chi asked the same question three times and was hit three times.

Lin-Chi came back and said to the head monk: “It was so kind of you to send me to question the Master. Three times I asked him and three times I was hit by him. I regret that some obstruction caused by my own past karma prevents me from grasping his profound meaning. I’m going away for a while.”

The head monk said, “If you are going away, you should go take your leave of the Master.” Lin-chi bowed low and withdrew.

The head monk went to the Master’s quarters before Lin-chi, and said: “The young man who has been questioning you is a man of Dharma. If he comes to take his leave, please handle him expediently. In the future, with training, he is sure to become a great tree which will provide cool shade for the people of the world.”

Lin-chi came to take his leave. Huang-po said: “You mustn’t go anywhere else but to Ta-yü’s place by the river in Kao-an. He’s sure to explain things for you.”

Lin-chi arrived at Ta-Yü’s temple. Ta-yü said: “Where have you come from?”

“I have come from Huang-po’s place,” replied Lin-chi.

“What did Huang-po have to say?” asked Ta-yü.

“Three times I asked him just what the cardinal principle of the Buddha-dharma was and three times he hit me. I don’t know whether I was at fault or not.”

“Huang-po is such a grandmother that he utterly exhausted himself with your troubles!” said Ta-yü. “And now you come here asking whether you were at fault or not!”

At these words Lin-chi attained great enlightenment. “Ah, there isn’t so much to Huang-po’s Buddha-dharma!” he cried.

Ta-yü grabbed hold of Lin-chi and said: “You bed-wetting little devil! You just finished asking whether you were at fault or not, and now you say, “There isn’t so much to Huang-po’s Buddha-dharma. What did you just see? Speak, speak!

Lin-chi jabbed Ta-yü in the side three times.

Ruth Sasaki, The Record of Lin-Chi, page 30-31, 1975

There is so much in this story; the plot of it tells of how an influential teacher first came to recognize what was always there. While our practice seems – and in ways is – solitary, the story also demonstrates that we are mutually engaged in practice in critical and meaningful ways. Continuing my series of talks on Zen applied to relationship, this time I want to cultivate the ground of mutual support as presented in our tradition, and as we can make it our own in our daily lives.

The recorded story I just read of Lin-chi, did not include much about his early practice. It begins when the head monk noticed Lin Chi was plain and direct. Lin-chi described his own early practice as “exhaustive investigation” (p. 25) that adds to the story – he was not only supported by the head monk, Huang-po, and Ta-yü, but also by his own intention and practice. As the story begins, Lin-chi is supported first by being seen; the head monk was supportive of Lin-Chi through noticing Lin-Chi and acting on what he saw.

We can take a different perspective in our description of these events as well. Perhaps the head monk found ease and support from the plain and direct manner of this young man, and thus took notice. The interaction cannot be separated as to who supported whom, who initiated, who is teacher and who is student.

In Encouraging Words, Robert Aitken wrote,

Zazen is not a practice of isolation. It is not a sensory deprivation chamber. Speculation, planning, remembering, fantasizing – these are things that deprive you as you sit there on your cushions.

We celebrate the great enlightenment of the Buddha Shākyamuni in this sesshin and realize that all beings are the Tathāgatha and depend upon each other. This is called mutual interdependence or dependent arising; for our purposes it means that each of us is a teacher supporting everyone else, and each of us is a student, being supported by everyone else. Let’s celebrate in this spirit.

(Page 11)

So our story moves with mutual support evident in the interactions between the actors. This story has always stood out in my mind for the diversity of support it contains as well. The head monk’s kind and affirming encouragement of Lin-chi is similar to how we often think of the word, “supportive.” Apparently Huang-po’s support was through interruption and a hit – less familiar gestures of support in our age and culture.

Aitken Roshi made the point that our practice is not in isolation. For Lin-Chi, he practiced diligently in the monastery for 3 years, apparently without individual instruction, though in the fold of sangha. Through his personal practice he was receptive, ready for a spark. Whatever state he achieved on the cushion was beside the point. When he rose from the cushion he was open to receiving teaching, and open about not even knowing what to ask. This not knowing is most intimate.

We can’t know what would have happened but for the head monk, but we do know the spark came to Lin-Chi relationally, in interactions with and the support of others. Supported by his own practice, Lin-Chi was not distracted when the head monk called him “shang-tso” rather than by his name. Shang-tso, means “lower seat,” a lower rank. Lin-Chi did not get lost in this designation, accepting the role but not the implication that he was less than. The head monk took his own practice off the cushion to act relationally.

When I was at Dai Bosatsu Zendo in New York, there were many stories of Soen Roshi. In one, Soen walked through the kitchen during sesshin one day and asked the cook what he was doing. The cook said, “I am cooking to feed all being.” Soen Roshi nodded and walked on. The next day and the day after Soen and the cook repeated this exchange. On the third day Soen slammed his open palm on the counter and said, “No! It is your practice!”

Soen reminded the cook that his practice was to cook. That too is the nature of our practices, yours and mine, off the cushion. The head monk at Huang-po’s place wasn’t doing something supportive, he was being head monk – it was his practice to engage Lin-Chi. This is action from the place of no thoughts, is without distinction of one doing for another, as the sun rises without distinction of action to help the earth.

I said above that Huang-po’s support was hitting and interrupting, but that is a description of what we might see with our eyes, while not seeing the nature of Huang-po’s support. Lin-Chi asked of the cardinal rule of the Buddha Dharma – Huang-po responded affirmatively. Any explanation would have been a deception. Interrupting the question was an affirmative response, like attending to breath as a thought arrives during Zazen.

One passage of the reading of Lin-chi that stood out for me occurred when Lin-chi despaired of understanding. He told the head monk, “I’m going away for a while.” The head monk said, “If you are going away, you should go take your leave of the Master.” Support in this moment was in what the head monk chose not to do. He did not generate hope, and did not comfort. He was in a manner respectful that Lin-chi could handle his own discomfort and in fact was on to something. The head monk let him go. And as Soen demonstrated for the cook – just cooking was enough, was practice, and was everything necessary in that moment. No grand answers because there are no grand questions.

For Lin-chi, the hitting and lack of reassurance were encouragement. I can’t say how many other students of Huang-po went away in despair and left practice, nor do I understand the cultural differences in how Chinese adepts in the Tang dynasty may have responded. The example does raise a deep question for me in how I encourage others, and how do we Americans in the 21st century west encourage each other. Can we exhort more and offer less understanding? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Exhortations can stoke the fires that motivate us for the fruits of the Buddha Way. They can also bring overly stringent ideas that the Buddha Way can only be an arid path traversed with intensity, tirelessly, leading to despair for some of us – or all of us some of the time. Alternatively, if imbalanced in our emphasis on the fact of being already here, whether recognized or not, do we miss fostering thirst for opening fully to the Buddha Way? The balance of exhortation and patience is part of the translation of Zen to the west, and finding our way is an ongoing endeavor. This balance is also a koan of its own, addressed by each of us as we decide when to sit, when to rest, and how to apply ourselves while sitting.

This koan is yours day by day. Carrying it subsumes the koan of support – how do you engage in practice without self-judgment, and with appropriate care for your body? This is the Middle Way that the mytho-historical Buddha founded when he accepted milk from a woman walking to market in order to maintain his strength to walk the Way. As the myth goes, when Buddha took nutrition, he lost the respect of his practice community. The unnamed woman’s practice was not to hit, but to offer milk. By this simple act she played an essential part in the formation of the practice we share today. It is likely she never knew her role – what do you think, low seat or high seat?

As myths can offer, this one reminds us of the complexity of our choices about finding our own way to apply ourselves to practice. And equally it highlights the complexity of our choices in how we encourage those in our sangha. Support is a living koan indeed.

Returning to Lin-Chi, we don’t know how much time passed between Lin-chi’s leaving Huang-po’s place and arriving at Ta-yü’s, but Lin-chi was active along the way. Before leaving he talked only of his own past karmic obstructions to understanding; upon arriving he was starting to open to another perspective and questioned – was I at fault or not? It seems that during his travels he was teacher to himself, already beginning to listen and receive support from himself.

Once arriving where Huang-po directed him, Ta-yü’s supported Lin-chi by being what might seem to our sensibilities like dismissiveness. Though doubtless the straightforward Lin-chi expressed his distress at being struck and failing to understand, Ta-yü again supported by pointing, though not comforting or affirming ordinary perspectives. Four times Lin-Chi asked about the cardinal principle of the Buddha-dharma. We could easily imagine an adept at this point, self-doubting and tired, laying down right there, in resignation and despair. In arriving before Ta-yü, Lin-chi had done all that was asked, he did it all right, and was again told he was dense and by the way, imposing on the time of Ta-yü as well.

Instead, Lin-chi heard the message that was intended – no need to look to Ta-Yü for the answer, no need to travel anywhere. Even further, Ta-yü might be understood as saying, “I won’t burden you with an answer that will obstruct you with even more ideas. You already have all that you need.” Why explain? The question about the cardinal principle of the Buddha Dharma was like asking directions to the water while standing in the river.

Every koan is a demonstration of support. Many times what is offered is like that of Huang-po, seemingly no answer, no guideline, and leaving nothing to hold on to. Bodhidharma telling the emperor of China that all his good works garner no merit is another example. But some demonstrations appear different. In Chin Niu’s Rice Bucket, case 74 of the Blue Cliff Record we are told:

Before each meal, Master Chin Niu would bring the rice bucket himself to the zendo, do a dance and laugh loudly saying, “Little Bodhisattvas, come and eat your rice.”
(Hsueh Tou said, “Although he did it like this, he wasn’t being kind.”)

Translation by Yamada and Aitken

Chin Niu joyously, warmly, offered rice, without being any more kind than a mother feeding a child, or sun warming my face. Soen would approve of Hsueh Tou – it was Chin Niu’s practice!

These are all just a nice stories of old if we don’t make them our own by living them. My focus today is on the web of support that captures us all. How do we practice, whether in the dojo or not, as teacher supporting all and how do we practice as student, being supported by all?

There is a koan in our tradition, “How do you teach the Dharma to a baby?” I was recently at a wonderful aquarium in Atlanta, standing before a tank of enormous seals. The crowd in which I stood had view of the seals breaking the surface of the water, and rolling gracefully while diving deep, circling the tank and each other, brushing three walls and the glass smoothly and gently. Within the crowd there was a child maybe one and a half year old, on the shoulders of her father. She loudly squealed with joy at the motion of these beautiful animals, her arms irrepressibly, celebratively, waving above her head. With each squeal, I laughed, we all laughed, the joy too was irrepressible and contagious. There was only one joy in that crowd. Koans of support are everywhere. Who was teaching the Dharma to whom? Who was supporting whom?

I can’t help but feel warm, even tearful in thinking about that beautiful child. There is another example that has stayed in my mind – this one more interactive. One Christmas season, Lili and I treated ourselves to the live performance of the Total Experience Gospel Choir. We were far back in a large hall. Leah LaBelle, a very young girl, came out to sing a solo before this enormous crowd. At parts she struggled and appeared nervous. Individuals throughout the auditorium rose independently, as she sang shouting things like, “Sing it!” “You got it, girl!” Shouting loudly enough to be heard echoing in the hall with resounding and heartfelt encouragement. For me it was the most moving moment of the evening.

In his book about the history of hermits in Chinese civilization, Bill Porter (Red Pine) wrote:

Seclusion and public service were seen as the dark and light of the moon, inseparable and complimentary. Hermits and public officials were often the same people at different times of their lives.

(The Road to Heaven, Bill Porter, page 33)

In reflection of ancient China, the choice of seclusion – practice – was described to be in years one way and the other, at all stages of life. It seems our journey to lay practice is not so unique. Our model is the same, even if our choices of practice – in the world or on our cushions – change hourly, daily, and weekly. I am certain even this is not new, though we may not have seen as much written about the daily choices from China.

While thinking about this topic of support, I met with a dear friend and long-time Buddhist practitioner. My friend has a history of trauma and anxiety that are part of his experience in the world. He told me of waking in the dark hours of the night with intense anxiety. When he does, he asks himself, “What is the most supportive thing I can do for myself right now? Sit? Lay on the couch? Make tea?…” The koan for him is, “What is the most supportive thing I can do for myself right now?” He has practiced receptivity to the answer, and of course acting upon it.

Herein is the koan of mutual support. For my friend the circumstances were unambiguous – the support was for him, in his current experience alone in the night. For all of us in the world, we are called to a broad receptivity, “What is it to be supportive right now?” Open to the answer of action in support of this one body we all share. Sometimes that may be to take time alone to sit, sleep, or exercise. Other times to cook, garden at my house or the dojo, or help a friend clean out a house. Whatever the action – it is your practice. This practice includes first the question – What is it to be supportive right now?

Receptivity for the head monk meant noticing the cool shade already evident around Lin-Chi. Without receptivity he could instead have noticed what was missing in this quiet monk who couldn’t even figure out how to ask a question. Receptivity for Lin-Chi meant his looking for what was teaching in being hit.

What is it to be supportive right now? Open to the answer is to be willing to be generous to this skin bag here and now; and willing to be generous to something on the outside of this skin bag. To truly address this question, this koan, like any koan, requires a receptiveness beyond distinctions of inside and outside. What is it to be supportive right now? There is also no need to wait for some imagined future state of clarity to answer. There is no way to avoid a response by our action or inaction now.

As we discuss this, I’m cautious of the language of mutual support, interdependence, and dependent arising that can sound deceptively grand, but it need not be so. The floor under our cushions and feet supports us in a concrete way. It does so whether we notice it is doing so or not.

Affliction too supports us in our practice no less than the floor upon which we sit. It doesn’t ask our gratitude for its role, which is probably a good thing. I suspect we could use that word “affliction” to describe the spark lighting Lin-chi on his journey. The journey that led him to recognize there was not so much to Huang-po’s Buddha-dharma. Not so much, and yet Lin-chi did become a tree to shade others in their own concert with affliction.

Support is as subtle as offering milk to a man weak with hunger. Support is as impactful as a German family hiding Jews in Nazi Germany. Scholars after the war could not find what was different about the 0.5% of Germans who were willing to hide Jews and risk the brutal death of their own families. The one thing they had in common was that when asked why they agreed to this support they said, ”I had no other choice.” I imagine families that did not help would also have said they had no choice but to protect their own families. A fine reminder to us all – do not dismiss your contribution, or diminish

The deep challenge to this koan of support is less identifiable when we are full, when time and energy for practice and service are abundant. The challenge arises when we are depleted, ill, hungry, that is, human. Prioritizing practice can support me, and it can support others when by sitting I have greater receptivity in interactions. I regularly hear from people their dilemmas about balancing practice, work, family, exercise, creativity, world affairs, and perhaps especially sleep. I suspect each of you experiences a version of this as well – how do you choose in this moment – or how do you respond when you are with someone else grappling with such choices? Do you offer suggestions as the head monk did for Lin-Chi? Respond by not responding to the manner in which the question was asked as Huang-po did? Warmly offer sustenance as Chin Niu did?

Hold the question dearly – it is your koan. Act, don’t act, wrestle, doubt, and foster receptivity to a response yet to be recognized. The range of responses is broad, and I fully trust in the messiness we all share in the examination. Beyond right and wrong, by responding and being open to the experience of ease and discord we find our way. This is a koan of a lifetime, always changing, always returning. What can we do but embrace it?