Sunday, November 22, 2009

6 The Moon Sets At Midnight—The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

Walls Falling Down at Midnight

Rostov felt both frightened and elated to be riding alone with three hussars into that mysterious and dangerous misty distance, where no one had been before him. Bagration shouted to him from above not to go beyond the brook, but Rostov pretended not hear his words, and, without stopping, rode further and further on, constantly making mistakes, taking bushes for trees and hollows for people, and constantly explaining his mistakes to himself.

Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (Trans. Pevear & Volokhonsky) p.268

When I was in grade school and the teacher asked a question, I would wave my hand and say, “I know! I know!” Later I learned to hide my eagerness, but whenever a guest arrives, whether it’s a beautiful stranger at the door or a phone call late at night, my mind still goes into action without asking for permission. It begins to rank, jostle, acquire, flee, assess, call up memories and form plans. The mind also gives reviews of itself, checking how it is doing with the stranger or the late night phone calls, or swerving away to the argument earlier in the day at the office. We like our minds to give us positive reviews and to feel good about us, to tell us that we are important and right and on top of our game. For this reason, we spend a lot of time justifying our apparent errors and explaining them away.

Meditation goes the other way. It doesn’t necessarily stop the assessments and justifications from arising, it undermines them if they do. They come to seem ghostly and evanescent. At some stage we stop worrying about the our attitude to our experience. The mind offers opinions and reviews about us but we are not compelled to subscribe to them. And if we do subscribe to them, we don’t have to subscribe to that. Eventually the crowding in the mind is reduced too—less jostling and assessing goes on, though the crucial thing is not the crowding in the mind but the identification with the thoughts and feelings.

Some koans show you the way the assessments rise and how the mind makes a world of them and tries to live there, explaining its mistakes to itself, and trying to fit the world to its mistakes.

This week’s koan shows the process of inventing suffering and it gives an image of what it might be like when you don’t live in the world of jostling and painful assessments.

This week’s koan:

The teacher said to the gathering, “If you get it the first time you hear it, you will teach the buddhas and ancestors. If you get it the second time you hear it, you will teach gods and humans. If you don’t get it till the third time you hear it, you won’t even be able to save yourself.”

A student asked, “When did you get it?”

The teacher said, “The moon sets at midnight, I walk alone through the town.”

This koan shows the mind scrambling around to think well of itself. How quickly we learn is something we have little control over but everyone wants to be in the first two categories. We explain ourselves to ourselves, ‘I am doing OK and my world makes sense.’ To this end we might even shift around the data. ‘Surely I got it the second time I heard it?’ is a thought that might appear. Once upon a time, when I was fishing for something middle sized and delicious out on the Barrier Reef, I caught a tiger shark by mistake, and I catch that shark again from time to time in memory and have seen it trying to get bigger in my mind.

I’ve noticed that people’s enlightenment experiences also get bigger with the telling. Editing and adjusting is everywhere.

Some people have an aversion to President Obama. But he is the president and thought to deserve respect. Some of these people address their discomfort by telling a story that he was born in Kenya and that's why he shouldn’t be president.

The first thing this koan does is to show you which prisons your mind habitually walks into. It might do this by evoking them, so that you feel what it’s like to live in them. If that happens, you might think that the koan isn’t working very well because your meditation has become hard to bear, but from another point of view the koan is giving the flavor of your life with all your striving and explaining. And so it's working very well.

It doesn’t matter what thought the mind provides. If I take up residence in any thought world, I have fallen among ghosts, and in the end I will suffer—trying to explain how I really do understand when I don't, trying to explain that the president was born in Africa. When we suffer we are barking up the wrong tree, trying to fix the wrong problem. For us at that moment of course the tree we are barking up is the only tree there is and so we are stuck, and can't stop being unhappy unless there is some change in the way we deal with our minds.

The koan shows an enormous life changing possibility, which is that we might be making fine decisions and the universe might be carrying us along very nicely if we are not jostling and worrying and striving. Enlightenment is here now so it doesn’t matter what size it was, it doesn’t matter when you get it, this guy really is the president and he really is black and so on. The stories fall away, the moon sets at midnight, and I walk alone through the town.

Here are two stories that bear on this possibility.

A woman became godmother to eight kids from her roughish neighborhood. They turned out to have talents, became gymnasts and got scholarships, but despite her heroic efforts they fell into gangs and pregnancies and she wondered if she could have done more. Then she told this story about her own mom who was a toy designer:

One day when I was a kid my mother was stuffing toys on the porch and saw that a bird was starting to use the bits of stuffing in her nest. So my mom started putting all the most beautiful and colorful and sparkly threads she could find outside, on the porch, draped over the fence. And the bird of course used them too, and the nest was amazing.

That’s an answer to the impossible questions about parenting. The way she remembered the thread and the bird all these years later, how she told about it, how she offers things, how we all offer things to our kids. That is walking in the beautiful dark.

Here is another story along the same lines—that a quiet movement in darkness might be effective:

In one of my early experiences at retreat, I had been given an ‘easy’ koan, one in a series of miscellaneous koans given in our school to follow-up and help the student to integrate an opening. But it was not easy for me! Every time I went to the teacher to demonstrate the koan he'd say, "That's not it," or something like that. This went on for a couple of days, and I was quite frustrated. Eventually, I got caught up in a great fantasy story about the koan and a way to demonstrate it that used my whole body and all my belongings. I carried my cushions and shoes and sweater and jacket down to the teacher's interview room and made a big production of throwing them all into the room and making a mountain out of them and then sitting on them. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that I had demonstrated the koan. My teacher looked at me and shook his head and asked, "What are you doing?" I told him my little story about the koan and he said, "That's not it." I was completely incredulous! "Yes, it is," I said. "No it's not," he said. "Yes, it is," I said. "No, it's not," he said. 

 Suddenly, all my conviction was gone. I sat there dumbfounded and disoriented, then began to open up to just not knowing what was going on. My teacher then asked me a leading question, and the gesture in response came naturally before thinking. He said softly, "That's it." It was very strange. Both because the question and response were so simple and I had been looking for something ‘profound,’ and because I had no awareness of doing it or no identification with doing it—the doing just happened. So, I continued to sit there for awhile and I can't describe what happened very well. But I suppose it could be described as realizing what the non-thinking mind is, neither thinking nor not-thinking. This wasn't a blow-out kensho experience. Very subtle and quiet.

 I hadn't really thought about this much since it happened a few years ago. For me, it illustrates that opening where the teacher appears when conviction falls away. It's like call and response in a song or a chant—there is no separation, just the natural rhythm and flow where one thing follows another, back and forth like that.

Sometimes when I have a problem with someone and I worry at it, it lightens a bit but it doesn’t really change. Then I forget what I know and it’s not as if I forgave the person, it’s more that the problem doesn’t exist any more and, even more strange, that there never was a problem. There is a velvety richness to walking alone in the warm dark. Sitting down to meditate is like that. I step into a darkness that looks after me.

Questions just in case:

1.What was it like sitting with the koan? Which part of it did you mind rest on or attach to? What feelings did the koan generate in you?

2. What in your life would you like to get the first time around? Are there things that you despair of ever getting or understanding? Are you quick or slow? What affect does this have on your life?

3. In what areas do you assess yourself or others? When do you not assess?

4. What is evoked for you by "I walk alone through the town"? What do you do that has that feeling?

The koan is from The Book of Serenity Case 76 trans. Joan Sutherland and John Tarrant. The teacher is Shoushan.
Screen shot: Mel Brooks from The Producers. Painting: Andrew Wyeth—Master Bedroom

Sunday, November 15, 2009

5 Running Things Backwards—The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

Freedom from Suffering: Running Things Backwards

Relativity theory predicts that if a particle could exceed the speed of light, the time warp would become negative, and the particle could then travel backwards in time.
Paul Davies (Physicist) The Guardian 20 July 2000

Most of the time the mind is humming along and registering things without adding much to them—the sound of a diesel truck, the sage branch with electric red flowers bending under the weight of a humming bird, a memory of my father, indigestion, cold toes. It’s a kaleidoscope, and disorderly, but that’s not yet a problem.

Sometimes what’s in the kaleidoscope is plainness—the scarred wooden floor of my kitchen makes me happy in a way that is beyond assessment. At other times there is a sense of walking through vast space with delight—those flowers in the yard are themselves galaxies, and have their song.

At other times nothing much seems to be going on; a friend calls me up and when I say I’m doing nothing, I’m actually doing nothing. So far so good, that’s all in the category of doing nothing.

Then another day I’m wandering along and get an email with bite in it or I notice I'm beginning to dread a certain phone call and my inner attorney has started to maneuver and make cases and convince people of things before I even knew that I had hired him. I not only have thoughts, but I have thoughts about my thoughts. The thoughts give themselves reviews—lovely, boring, that one’s intense, ooh, get that one away from me. I think that is what is meant by suffering.

Each thought brings a world and gives us an invitation to live in that world. We are frightened and even ashamed of the chaotic shapes that form in consciousness but there is nothing truly wrong with them. When we identify with our thoughts we live in their worlds and that might be worth objecting to. Suffering is insoluble then, because no matter how much we adjust a thought world, it’s still an airless cell. The thought we identify with might be a district of the ancient city of should-have, could-have or would-have as in ‘He shouldn't be doing that.’ It might also be an attack on oneself, ‘I always make that mistake!’ Most thoughts are intrinsically unverifiable. One of the product features of a thought is that if you run it backwards it is just as unverifiable as it was when you ran it forwards. 'It was terrible that we argued' or 'it might deepen our connection if we argue'—actually, no one knows. Our thoughts are transparent and if we live in their world, we live as ghosts. When we see through our thoughts, they are dreams, evaporating like morning fog.

The Koan this Week:

If you turn things around you are like the Buddha.

Suffering comes from living in the worlds made by thoughts. 'He shouldn't have left me,' 'It’s terrible that she died.' 'Nobody loves me.' 'I’m doomed. Even meditation doesn’t work for me.' 'I’ll end up pushing a shopping cart.'

Turning things around is demolition. It’s fun. A joke turns things around and dissolves a thought world that we had entered. A koan does the same thing. It’s a kind of banana skin to send you head over heels.

Here is a related koan:

Blossoms on withered tree—a spring outside of time;
riding backwards on a jade elephant, chasing a dragon deer with wings.

It’s an amusement park ride and whatever a dragon deer is, I’ll be happy to chase it. You can play with thought worlds. For example, you might get yourself a shopping cart and push it around in your living room. A mother told me a story about taking her two kids to the Renaissance Fair. After shuffling forward for hours in the sun, she discovered at the gate that she had left her purse in the car two miles away. She began to walk back. The kids started to complain and whine. She threw herself down on the ground and started kicking and complaining too.

Michael Katz related to me a conversation with Gregory Bateson, the thinker and anthropologist. Michael was driving him to a conference at Lindisfarne on Long Island and Bateson said he dreaded something about conferences.
“What is that?” asked Michael.
“Well, people don’t have a sense of humor.”
“What does that mean to you?”
Bateson thought about it and said, “A sense of humor depends on knowing that what you think doesn’t really matter, or even that you don’t really matter.”

Byron Katie’s inquiry system is meant to explode thoughts, and turning thoughts around is one of its key points. Since she didn’t read any Buddhism before she noticed this, it probably goes to show that we invent Zen over and over again.

The non-linear quality of the kaleidoscope of the mind is actually our friend. The mind keeps turning and worlds keep making themselves and I could run them all backwards, I don’t have to believe in the builder. As we learn this we get skeptical about our thoughts. A friend wrote me this in 1998:

"I decided to sign up for the June sesshin. If I tell you I'm backing out, please tell me I told you to tell me I shouldn't."

I’m about to write her and ask if she is coming to our Bare Bones retreat in the New Year, 2010.

What’s it like when we don’t enter the worlds that come with the thoughts? Who owns my thoughts? They don’t have to be mine, they could be anyone’s. Once upon a time I was writing a book on Zen and forgot the kettle and it melted. When I’m not subscribing to the world of thoughts, then there is just the texture of the worn kitchen floor with the scars from the molten kettle near the stove.

The koan, If you turn things around you are like the Buddha appears in Entangling Vines and is originally from The Surangama Sutra. Entangling Vines is a miscellaneous koan collection used for advanced study. It’s the final book of our curriculum. Riding the jade elephant backwards appears in a poem by Dongshan and is a traditional koan.
Questions, just in case:

1. Do you have a painful thought that you strongly believe in? How does it relate to your identity? What kind of thoughts go with it? Is it an important part of your life story? What happens when you turn it around?
2. How does your sense of humor appear? How do humor and play relate to spirituality for you?
3. Have you ever discovered that you were completely wrong about something? What was that experience like? What were the consequences?
4. What feelings, thoughts, images or gestures arise for you when you sit with this koan?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

4 Stop The War—The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

Diving In

You can let a koan get you in over your head. For some people the best thing about a koan is entering the moment of mystery and strangeness and disorientation and possibility that shifts your life. Being uncomfortable with a koan can be part of its driving force. So I want to say that these comments on koans are meant to create a culture in which the way of understanding koans is natural. They are not meant as the right way to see the koan or as explanations.

The most fundamental move in meditation is compassion, not being at war inside our minds. In practice this means not judging, criticizing or even assessing what comes up in the mind. Circumstances might not change but we have a chance at freedom inside them anyway.

This Week’s Koan: Stop The War.

That is the whole of the koan: Stop the war. This is an old koan, used early in the traditional Japanese curriculum. In this koan you move into and toward what is happening; stopping means embodying, entering the situation fully and finding freedom that way. War was a fact of life for those who invented the koan system, just as it is for us. The first step in stopping the war is noticing the war. It’s also good to notice what peace might be.

Let me try to find a language to describe peace. Sometimes a silence appears inside. It’s comforting, vividly alive and clear. I think these moments are just how it is when there isn’t a war inside, when the mind isn’t going out questing and reaching for things. I can be alone, or I can be with other people. Sometimes I feel this condition as a darkness because it seems to have a lot of what I don’t know in it. It doesn’t come with a map that can substitute for it. I can move into it without sending my expectations out ahead of me. I can be calm or excited or anything at all. When I’m with another person in this way it feels like love.

Sometimes it seems like a brightness that is always at home. The same brightness that looks out at everything also looks back at me from the things I see.

So one possibility in the mind is that there is a peace that runs underneath the events and conversations. In San Francisco Bay the herring have just come in to spawn. In the twilight the seals are in the Sausalito Yacht Harbor and you can just make out the dark shapes of their backs and tails and occasionally see one leaping. A herring jumps out of the water onto the slip. You can hear the splash and the breathing of the seals as they swirl to and fro. Everything is vivid beyond comparison. Talking with my friend while walking along the dock is another example. It doesn’t enhance or interrupt what is always there.

Everything comes out of the silence and still rests in it. The simplicity and effortlessness of living are part of the silene. This might well be how a seal or a dog experiences the world. Or for that matter a herring being chased. Each moment fills all of space and time. There is no particular content to the mind and heart and any content can appear.

About ten years ago I remember talking with a Thai Abbot, Achaan Jumnien, who said that it had been some years since he had had a disturbing thought. He didn’t mean that he was in a state of deep concentration, he said he thought deep concentration was overvalued. I just took him to mean that he wasn’t disturbed by his thoughts. At the time I assumed that I knew what he meant but later wondered what a disturbing thought would be for him. I took him to mean that it is possible that his mind was identical to someone who was unhappy—in the sense that he wasn’t made miserable by thoughts and feelings that might make someone else unhappy. I imagined also that not being made miserable by any of your thoughts changes the kind of thoughts you have. The point here is that freedom might not be about what appears in the world, or even what appears in your mind.

I also notice there are moments when the transparence disappears. There is worry or fear or anger but that’s not yet a problem, it’s not yet a disturbing thought. When I identify with the worry or fear or anger then it becomes a problem. Then I start to think something in the world is causing me distress. I have a conflict with someone and think that I need to change them or manage them. Or I think I need to change myself or manage myself. Sometimes the identification happens before I even notice what I am thinking and feeling. Nothing has changed in the world, but a thought has entered my mind and brought a world with it. The night harbor is still full of strange beauty but I’ve withdrawn to a small chamber. I’m believing my interior life, starting to live in a movie in which there is a problem. When that happens I have to get out of the movie in order to have peace. I end up doing a lot of deconstruction, inquiry, invoking raw meditation power. Koan work is meant to break the identification with the movie.

War inside and out is part of the human condition. In Zen we begin by stopping it inside.

Paying attention and not interfering with what your mind is thinking is the basic movement toward peace. And paradoxically it changes what the mind is thinking. Then there is just the swish of seals in the night waters, the sound of their breathing, the slap of waves against the hulls, a late off balance moon rising very golden in the cold air.

Questions In Case They Are Handy:

1. What does it feel like to be at war? What are different kinds of wars? What is the war right now? right here?

2. The war often seems to be out there, Iraq or Nazi Germany or Troy, someone else's war. What happens to you when you identify the war as outside yourself? Of the stories of wars that are outside of you, which one takes your imagination the most? Why do you think that is?

3. Are there battles that were once important to you that you realized you didn't have to fight anymore? What happens when you fight? When you stop fighting?

4. Do you remember moments of peace? Do you have ways to be at peace when the world around you is not? What strategies have helped you get free when your mind is at war?

5. What thoughts or images come to you when you sit with this koan? Are any of them unexpected?


I, May I Rest In Peace

I, may I rest in peace—I, who am still living, say,
may I have peace in the rest of my life.
I want peace right now while I’m still alive.
I don’t want to wait like that pious man who wished for one leg
of the golden chair of Paradise, I want a four-legged chair
right here, a plain wooden chair. I want the rest of my peace now.
I have lived out my life in wars of every kind: battles without
and within, close combat, face-to-face, the faces always
my own, my lover-face, my enemy face.
Wars with the old weapons—sticks and stones, blunt axe, words,
dull ripping knife, love and hate,
and wars with newfangled weapons—machine gun, missile,
words, land mines exploding, love and hate.
I don’t want to fulfill my parents’ prophecy that life is war.
I want peace with all my body and all my soul.
Rest me in peace.

Yehuda Amichai
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kornfield

Fotos: Diane Arbus; Picasso's Guernica

Sunday, November 1, 2009

3 The Body of the Buddha—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

Bodies are important, our bodies give a shape to the ideas the universe has. In western tradition this thought underlies our long and sometimes disappointed love affair with the mystery of incarnation. Before the universe existed there was nothing; then the universe just appeared—with trees, buildings and people walking their dogs, and people trying to work out what their existence means. When we truly notice what it is to be human it seems vast, beyond scale; galaxies and bacteria are all folded into this one bright perception of life.

The Koan

Question: How is my hand like the Buddha’s hand?
Answer: Playing guitar in the moonlight.

This koan asks us to let the whole of our being fall into it, to love without reservation the experience of being made of flesh.

This koan implies that we have what we need. This is a very radical and satisfying possibility. The human problem is how to move out of suffering and loneliness, and with this koan that is something I can do. I need no one else to be responsible for my experience. It’s not up to someone who can guide me. I can actually do this journey, today everything I have ever wanted is available to me.

At the same time a sense of exile is often present, the sorrow of being in a body that changes and ages, a mind that plunges into turmoil. That sorrow is also what we enter when we are inside our lives. Even what looks like resistance is the operation of the koan—“I don’t like something about the koan, I don’t see that my hand is Buddha’s, what about the mess in the world and the problems in my life?”

All that can be said is that when I have fully entered my circumstances this koan appears. Well yes, no one said your hand was a shape that you had planned it to be. But if you look at the shape it is, rather than what it isn’t, you can see its beauty.

The last koan in our course described what appears when you go into difficulty instead of pulling away from it. This koan is next because it describes what you see when that happens.

Here’s a description of the consequences of having a body, an account by Garrison Keillor of his stroke:

The doctor who saw me in the E.R. wrote in her report: "nice 67 y.o. male, flat affect, awake, alert and appropriate." I had appeared with slurred speech and a balloon in my head, had driven myself to United Hospital in St. Paul, parked in No Parking, walked in and was triaged right in to a neurologist who trundled me into the MRI Space-Time Cyclotron for 50 minutes of banging and whanging that produced a picture of the stroke in the front of my brain, so off to the Mayo Clinic I went and the St. Mary's Hospital Neurology ICU and was wired up to monitors. A large day in a nice 67 y.o. man's life.
( September 16 2009).

In this case happiness is walking out of the clinic. But is it also to be found in the clinic, in all things human including having a stroke.

Any resistance I have to what my mind is producing or what life is giving me, is in the territory of this koan. If my life is Buddha’s life then the problem is still a problem but it exists in the arc of practice—it’s a piece of landscape that has appeared during the journey. The problem is part of living the right life. And so it becomes possible to see that this uncertain life is beautiful. Any scrap of existence is beautiful.

The response to the question is, “Playing guitar in the moonlight.” Hands do things, they pick up a child, haul in a fish, swing a bucket, write, play guitar. hands have rings on them, hands turn us into artists, people who give shape to matter. And the music is happening in the moonlight, there are memories, and surprises; a dreamlike and eternal quality keeps us company. And isn’t everything a dream?

What I am noticing is my life. Every time I really look at it, the landscape is beautiful and I am part of it. Gerard Manley Hopkins called this quality inscape. Tonight I’m watching the season turn, the wind blow and pile the chestnut leaves large and floppy, yellow and brown, gold, and green. The rain puts sparkling polka dots on the window giving a bright haze to things outside the yellow interior light. This is the Buddha’s hand.

I can’t sleep tonight but that is a happy thing. I sit watching the light, the rain, the night, and being alive is full of a joy that doesn’t end.


1. Look at your hand for a few minutes. Say something about it. Describe it. What is it like for you to do this?

2. Do you have heroes? Role models? People whose greatness you could never approach? How is this for you?

3. What is a “buddha” to you? How is that different from you? The same?

4. What is “playing guitar in the moonlight” in your life? How does that relate to your work? What is moonlight for you? What is your work in the world?

5. What other images come to you when you sit with this koan?