Tuesday, February 23, 2010

9 Sixteen Meditators Get Into The Bath Together—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

Sixteen Bodhisattvas Take a Bath

The koan for this week:
In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. They all got into the bath together and realized the cause of water.
They called out, “This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”
The Blue Cliff Record  Case 78

Water cleanses us, and is the universal solvent; it is the most part of tears, ocean and of our own cells, and of the idea that all the time, beneath our ideas, we are being carried along by a great current.

Unhappiness is all about being separate. Boredom, refusal, hopelessness—there are things that advertise themselves as problems but which are actually armor. Not just certainty but reaching for certainty is armor, not only impressing others but wanting to impress others is armor. Armor requires busyness and fills space, it keeps the now at a distance. Zen depends on the idea of getting closer to what is going on.

For a long time I had the idea that there was a right thing that should be happening—and perhaps that gave me the feeling that what was actually happening was not worth close examination. I was hurrying past to get to the right thing, there was a gap between my consciousness and the world. In that gap I was working hard, attending to my thoughts and explanations.

Trees didn’t seem to suffer from a gap in their consciousness, so I studied them. They were hard to tell apart, especially in Australia where the different kinds of eucalyptus look really alike. I pored over pictures of fruit and leaves and flowers. This was like looking under the lamp for the keys that I lost in the dark field. But it started to work anyway; even searching for the wrong thing helped.

Then I ended up just living with trees, sitting with them, camping out under them. Sometimes I forgot what I was trying to achieve and felt like a tree. Animals began to behave differently around me. Wallabies approached and grazed the extremely green grass under the acacias. An echidna licked the salt off my ankle. I waited by a billabong at dusk till platypuses appeared.

Eventually things were different with people too. Even wanting people to be happy was creating a gap especially if they were sad or irritable. And loving them came to be wanting them to be as they were, the way animals are the way they are.

Welcoming my own life too, meant I did not want myself to be happier or to feel something different from what I was feeling. Then naturally I was participating more.

Listening to the rain today, I was restless and not feeling particularly competent and then the drops started to rain though my body. The popping sound on the roof seemed to indicate that the drops were rising as well as falling. The rain was dissolving the gaps in between the mind and the world. When that happens, I am already in the water with all the other beings, I don’t notice the moment I stepped in.

Sometimes, too, the most interesting things appear that open our connection with each other. In December, I was sailing with a friend just inside the Golden Gate. We were surrounded by harbor porpoises, we could see their black backs and hear their breathing. I was watching a couple swimming close together. Suddenly I saw something I had never seen, they threw their baby in the air. It was so surprising. 

Day and night are always waiting for us but it’s easy not to arrive. Suffering seems to occur when we have decided that there is a problem and have stopped noticing the situation. If I have decided that there is something wrong with this moment then there won’t be much joy, there will just be struggling through, watching the clock like a shift worker, wishing I had some other problem or a different job. If I haven't decided something is impossible I could notice that I am walking on the rain drops and the grey sky and all the time surrounded by welcoming eyes.

This koan for me is about turning toward, about immersion, about dissolving ideas about things. It’s nice that we are all stepping into the bath together, with each other and with the trees and animals.

Questions, just in case:

1.    Is there an image, memory, dream that comes to you when you meditate with this koan?
2.    What are some areas of your life or the world that you hold yourself back from? How is it when you step into the bath?
3.    Water can be a powerful image, what is it for you?
4.    How will you know when you have reached the place that the sons and daughters of the Buddhas live?
5.    Extra Credit (10 points): What is the cause of water?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

8— I Don't Know—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

I Don’t Know

This is probably the core of freedom, to rest in the uncertain, before certainty has been constructed. Not knowing is something the mind often dreads. It’s easy to dread not knowing. As a child whenever the teacher asked something I would say “I know, I know” and life seemed to be a test in which if I were clever I could get enough right answers and I could find something to rely on.

The Koan

Bodhidharma’s Vast Emptiness

The Emperor asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the number one principle of the holy teaching?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
“Who are you, standing in front of me?” asked the emperor.
“I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma.
The Emperor didn’t get it.

When a baby arrives she doesn’t know things and we don’t know much about what she is going to do. If you take her to see a rose, her eyes get big; for her everything is rose, and alive, like a shout. Later when the child is grown she might think she knows what a rose is and remember her childhood with nostalgia—the time when the universe was alive with no knowing.

Old map makers made things up—‘here be dragons’, they said ‘and here, where the wavy blue lines angle sharply down, you fall off the edge of the world. Don’t go there.’ We make things up to help us to navigate, and it’s a valiant attempt. When I was fishing on the Great Barrier Reef, there were fisherman who believed in a floating reef and gave you warnings about anchoring on it. Even then it was fairly well known that coral is heavier than water and grows up from the ocean bed. But the charts weren’t very good, sea and weather are confusing, and if you run across a reef where you didn’t expect to find it, then perhaps it floats about, like The Flying Dutchman. I believe that medieval philosophers called that ‘saving the appearances.” In medicine, confirmation error means looking for what you expect. It occurs when this morning you have treated five people in the Emergency Room with flu and a sixth person arrives with some of the symptoms of the very beginning of flu and gets treated for flu when she is actually suffering from aspirin overdose.

Instead of making up explanations that the expected thing is the right thing it can be interesting to go into situations without a preset attitude, without knowing what is right and how things should turn out.

Here’s a story about this koan from a friend who teaches art in a primary school.

Not knowing what a child needs
For the entire year of kindergarten a child called Marianna did not utter a single word at school, not in the classroom, the playground, or anywhere else on campus. At home, she was gregarious and chattered away like any other five-year-old. If she was shopping at Vons with her mother, she would dance about, laughing, asking if she could please buy this or that. If she happened to run into a classmate in the produce department, silent Marianna would appear.

Bribes, threats, tricks, ignoring the behavior, psychotherapy—nothing worked. The parents seemed unconcerned, a nonchalance that annoyed the classroom teacher, who was certain the strange behavior was a serious and pressing problem. I did not know why Marianna lived in self-imposed silence, but I enjoyed her performance piece. It was quite a feat for a five year-old, utterly in character for an entire year.

 In first grade, she joined my world. Before her initial art session I was warned: ‘Marianna does not speak’. She was small, even for a person of six years, slender, with olive skin and long auburn hair. When asked a question directly she could answer it with her eyes. I noticed I wasn't interested in coaxing her to speak. I could see that her silence wasn't sullen, withdrawn, angry, or aggressive. I imagined her as a princess under a spell that required she enter into a world different from the one she inhabited at home.

As Marianna approached the sink at the end of her first class, I said
 something friendly. I wasn't expecting a response. Some girls in line said in a loud faux whisper, "She doesn't speak."

"I know,” I replied. “I wish all of my student's didn't talk. Marianna, maybe you could come and teach my 6th graders how not to talk in art." She looked up at me with her large, luminous eyes and a barely suppressed smile. In this way, I became a character in her fairy story.

In the faculty lunchroom, her classroom teacher could often be heard worrying about her intransigent student. Marianna eventually began seeing a new part-time school counselor, a kind and receptive woman, and she began to talk just to her, in whispers at first.

Eventually she agreed to talk to me. I approached her carefully, obliquely as if she were a wild bird. I remember the excitement and fear in her eyes. She beckoned to me to bring my head closer. Then she cupped her small hand over my ear and whispered her answer to my question. That was all. She had let me enter her in-between world. We whispered to each other for months, and she slowly expanded the circle to include others.

By late spring of that year she was chattering away, indistinguishable from her peers. She retained her ability to communicate whole sentences with her eyes and I sometimes missed the world she drew me into. I also wondered what the silent time was like for her. I now imagined her as Persephone, someone who had set aside that portion of her life to spend in the underworld.

Years passed.

 One of the peripheral, and often dreaded, assignments of a teacher at my 
school is parking lot duty which entails ferrying children from the sidewalk, before and after school, through the sea of Mercedes, SUV’s, and BMW’s, and into their vehicles. I actually enjoy parking lot duty. On a warm day last fall, only a few students remained and Marianna, now in Grade 6, and I leaned against the chain link fence, talking.

”Do you remember the time when you didn’t talk at school? I just loved that time.”
 She glanced rapidly up at me, and recognized that I was speaking truthfully. Waves of light moved across her face.
“Do you remember much about it?”

“Yes, I remember.” 
She pauses. 
“My sister has a theory about why I didn’t talk at school. She says I did it because I wanted everyone to pay attention to me, but that doesn’t seem right.”

“Why do you think you were silent?”

She turned her attention inward, holding the question. Unhurried and curious, she was searching all the interior spaces, one by one.

Her expression suddenly changed as she gazed up at me, her face wide open, laughing,” I don’t know!”

Not knowing how to live through a revolution

Here is another story about intimacy and uncertainty.
A friend who is an ObGyn told me “When I entered medical school I truly believed that if I learned everything I was taught and studied hard, I would know how to handle every medical situation.” During the early part of the last decade she visited Haiti. She had been doing poverty medicine and, during one of her visits she decided to adopt a baby whose mother was very young and couldn’t keep him. This was about 6 years ago. Just as she was finalizing the paper work in Port-au-Prince, a revolution broke out. Suddenly there was no functioning government and she had a baby but no exit papers. All the Americans and Canadians were pulled out of the country. There were riots, and helicopters passed overhead at night shooting into the crowds. There was no way to know how to manage. It was an intense, boring, awful, frightening, loving and wonderful time and many people helped.

One of her Haitian friends was stopped in his ancient Toyota pickup, hit over the head with a brick, and left for dead by the roadside. A passerby noticed him and eventually he was taken to hospital. He was to have had a birthday party that night.
“So the party is postponed,” she said.
“No, he woke up, we’ll have it in the ICU.”
And they did and it was joyous. You can’t postpone a party since you don’t know about tomorrow. And you don’t even have to know about today; you don’t know that you can’t have a party and be happy in the ICU. When, after three months, my friend returned to her very interesting job in the States, she said, “I don’t want to forget how we were in Haiti, I don’t want to stop living like that.”
Most problems come from knowing things that might not be true. If we stop insisting on certainty we might feel anxiety at first, but then there an exhilarating freedom might arrive. We often wait to act till we have a handle on things but we can actually move through life without having a handle, without even having the handle that we know who we are and what we should be doing.

The photo of Man on a Wire comes from the innocence of the time when the world trade center was just being completed.

Questionable questions

1. What are the questions in your life for which “I don’t know” is the answer? How does it feel not to know?
2. Have you been in a situation that was marginal, where your usual rules didn’t apply and you had to think on your feet? What is it like to go between knowing and not knowing?
3. Do you like to “get credit” for things you do? How is it when you don’t?
4. Who are you? Does it help you to have an idea of that or not?
5. What makes you happy?
6. What’s your favorite color?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

7 The True Person Has No Rank—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

This is the beginning of the second cycle of the Zenosaurus course. There will be six koans in this cycle.

The True Person of No Rank
The Koan:

There is a true person of no rank who is constantly coming and going from the portals of your face. Who is that true person of no rank?

This koan is used to awaken the mind, and particularly to show you how you can be at home in universe and share its deep and luminous life. Probably the best way to work with it is to play with it. Don’t rank how you are doing. Just let it keep you company, like an animal would. You forget about it, but every time you look, there it is! And after a while it doesn’t go away.

Linji was a great teacher and the ancestor of most of the koan lines of Zen and this is a koan of his. It has been used since ancient times as a meditation both for beginners and advanced students.

You don’t notice how much the mind makes up stories about people until you catch it in the act. Your mind is walking down the street going, fat guy, old lady, frat boy, cute girl, scary guy doesn’t wash, guy, guy, girl, girl guy, wait is that a guy or a girl? The mind goes label, label, label until it doesn’t and a different possibility appears. If you really show up in your own life, you don’t have rank. No rank is not about humility; it is about noticing who you really are.

Here is an example of how the true person of no rank has been used as a koan.

The Story of the Doughnut Maker

Yu worked in the town as a doughnut maker. She used to visit Zen Master Langya and ask him questions along with everyone else. The Master gave her Linji’s saying, “The true person of no rank.”

One day she heard a street musician singing a pop song about lotus flowers:
“...If you haven’t heard her song, how can you find the lake?”
When she heard those words, she was greatly enlightened. She instantly threw her doughnut pan onto the ground. [Stories about women’s enlightenment often feature damage to domestic equipment.]

Her husband was startled and said, “Are you crazy?”
She said, “This isn’t your department.” Then she went to see her teacher. Even seeing her from a distance, the teacher could tell she had attained awakening.
He asked, “What is the true person of no rank?”
She immediately said, “There’s someone of no rank with six arms and three heads, working furiously, smashing Flower Mountain into two with a single blow. For ten thousand years the flowing water doesn’t know the source.”

After that she became a famous teacher herself.
(The doughnut maker’s story is used in the PZI miscellaneous koan collection. It is based on Thomas Cleary’s translation of the story.)

We chop up our lives is by saying, “I’m wise, I’m happy, I should be wiser, I should be happier.” The true person of no rank steps out of all that.

Here is something a friend wrote me.
I was pondering the phrase ‘Without a trace’ while I was sitting at the Oakland Zendo, and realized it does not mean something like drawing a line in the sand and then erasing it, or stepping in the dust and then the wind blows away your tread. It means the world remakes itself moment by moment, wholly new. Second by second, there is nothing left un-refreshed.
When I’m not ranking people or experiences, I’m free, I’m independent, the world looks after me with what feels like tenderness. The koan follows me around, the koan comes near, the koan becomes me.

Questions are useful sometimes:

1. Name something that’s definitely true about yourself. Now consider, what if you’re wrong? Try out the opposite. What would it be like not to know?

2. What is a high rank for you? What is a low rank? Has that changed for you over the course of your life? Are there or have there been places in your life where you don’t have a role, a place, a position?

3. Is there a time when you have surprised yourself by not comparing yourself with others?

4. Have you ever had the line of a song or words from pop culture speak to you in a deep way? I think of “Do you know the way to San Jose?”

5. And show me someone of no rank with six arms and three heads, working furiously, smashing Flower Mountain into two with a single blow.