Friday, December 21, 2012

14 When Something Confronts You Don't Believe It— The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

Don't Believe It

We live knowing little about where we come from or what our tasks are, we use only a portion of our gifts, we perceive just a fraction of the immensity that every day carries us along. The greater part of our existence is unclaimed and orphaned, seldom visited or visible. We have intimations of this unclaimed life, hints that inside or beneath the tasks that press upon us is a more expansive life, and these hints make a difference to our outlook, we remember them and we hope for them.

A Chinese sage said this about the mind: 

         Whatever confronts you, don’t believe it. 
         When something appears shine your light on it. 
         Have confidence in the light that is always working inside you.

Gateways to the larger life are usually to be found where I don’t look, otherwise I would be walking through them already. I like to imagine these openings as concealed, written in runes visible only by moonlight, but they are often in plain sight guarded merely by No Trespassing signs. The signs don’t say “Avoid this Place’; they say ‘Forget that you noticed this place, these are not the droids you are looking for’. 

Fear is one of the gateways. At one moment there is a conventional landscape, with copy machines, convenience stores and parking garages, and suddenly, fear! Nobody voluntarily drops in for a chat with fear, we are just tossed against it, then it is outside us and inside us. Dread twists like an alien invader in our flesh; we sweat, we shiver, our teeth chatter, we’re scared for our survival, sometimes we are almost willing to die to get it over with. 

And it’s not just the story of fear that remains and is remembered; our cells remember, our noses and fingers and ears remember, we smell the interior of a post office where we once received certain letters and we get a migraine, we hear a particular tone of voice and our skin crawls, we hear a distant explosion and we shake. 

Fears accumulate. Life can press down in a way so physical that we are afraid to walk out the door. I knew a woman whose fear took a form in which she couldn’t leave the house, she couldn’t shop or take her kids to school. She and her husband, who was a Navy NCO, had camouflage sheets; perhaps she felt and shared his fear under fire, some fear he could not speak, perhaps the sheets allowed them to relax in the bedroom. She was an unconscious artist—her symptoms were a comment on her life. 

But having camo sheets is not still not really taking measures; it’s more like building a hut inside enemy territory. That’s not the same as being curious about fear. What if it's possible to enjoy fear and to use it to shine a light into the dark excitement of being alive. If we look into it, fear is a moment in which we are living fully without registering that fact.

Chattering teeth

One night my young border collie ran onto the road and, to encourage better and more self preserving manners, I picked her up by the scruff of the neck, as if she were still a puppy. Her eyes rolled in a surprising way and her teeth chattered and that night I remembered a night when my own teeth chattered.

“I’m cold,” I said to girl beside me, though it was New Year’s Eve and summer in the Southern hemisphere. I was on a pale, sandy track in a car beside a girl I didn’t know. In the front seat was a driver I hardly knew and another girl I didn’t know. I didn’t know that I wasn’t cold. Our way out was blocked by another car, sideways in the lights. The two men in that car got out and one of them wrenched open our driver’s door, dragged the driver out. A fight began. The one person I did know was the driver of the other car, who currently stood in the lights with his arms loosely by his sides. He was a magical physical being, a truly intelligent football player and street fighter who worked unloading railway cars. I climbed out of the chilly interior of the Holden, walked toward him and said, “Hello Peter,” as if we had just run into each other downtown. 

“I thought you were coming to fight me,” he said, meaning that it wasn't his fight but he was still letting that fact sink in. There was perhaps a note of wistfulness. No reply was necessary and we stood beside each other with arms folded and an air of connoisseurship, unearned on my part. The fight was unsatisfying and petered out. I thought I was shivering because I was cold rather than afraid, or excited. Perhaps because of this misunderstanding of mine, the night lost its charged and surprising plot. We all saw through the drama, since we changed course and went on our way, though when I remember that evening I can still feel the chill in my shoulder blades. 

It wasn't until the collie's teeth chattered that I remembered my own shaking. When I saw her reaction, I wasn't sure how to parse it—was she afraid of me, was it neurological? She was the doorway for another event apparently lost; empathy for the dog moved to empathy for my own life and a moment I had thought of as pointless became alive. I hadn't realized that fear was part of that night, a possibility in a swirl that didn't quite take a shape. And the long ago, commonplace night stepped forward and became wonderful merely because I looked at it.

The News

Moments in present time come alive too—maple leaves falling down their invisible, spiral stair, the wild geese crying out on their way to snow country, a call that tugs me to go with them. Then there is the elasticity of time, another source of liveliness, and the friend of all those who concentrate on their tasks. A gap appears between the squeaks of my footsteps on an old linoleum floor, as I walk down a corridor to a meditation hall. When something crucial needs to be decided events might slow down in an Emergency Room. Time softens when I listen; the wind in the trees, set in action long ago when the universe began, has something to say. Not explaining a moment allows it to blossom.

News arrives in the mind accompanied by a cloud of knowing, a whirl of reasons, opinions, assessments, convictions, past instances. Eventually this whirl collapses into something we call by a name—for example, fear. Or whatever we call it—it might be exhilaration. As William James said, if we see a bear, we run and we feel fear, in that order. Before the whirl of thoughts and feelings collapses into a shape, we don’t believe it. Since we don’t believe it, it might turn into anything, it might it go backwards, it might unmake itself. 

Undoing the world

Even when it comes to the emphatically physical dimension of experience—we don’t have to believe that either. A couple of years after the New Year’s Eve when my teeth chattered, I was at University and began to get migraine headaches. I paced up and down in a kind of exile, trying to escape my body. In this condition one sunny afternoon, I walked and walked and came to the wharves in Hobart. Some guys were drinking port wine, sitting on the splintery beams, leaning against a stanchion, swinging their legs over the water. They were Aboriginal, in exile in a different and darker way—from history, from jobs, from the regard of the commercial world. I sat on the beams beside them. They offered me some of the wine, which I didn’t feel up to. They wanted to go home to a fishing port just down the coast. The conversation went around and around. If we had the money, and we had a car, then we could go home where we could get a car and the money we needed to go home, but then we would already be home. It was a pure conversation, having no clear destination and no set time for arrival.

The water shone, slate-like, with rainbow pools of oil, the afternoon clouds moved upriver, a forklift bounced along the dock, everything was exactly the way it is. I think of the Sanskrit word Tathagata meaning the one who comes thus as referring to such moments. Everything is thus, sufficient and itself, everything speaks for itself, the persons and the objects we live among. 

I worked by the day cleaning typewriters and just been paid, and without thinking about it offered the cash for a taxi. This galvanized the afternoon, their joy was unalloyed, and confiding; a destination appeared. They were going up to The Coronation for a drink. That seemed natural too. ‘You want a beer,’ they said, ‘you come on up.’ I thanked them gravely. My headache disappeared. 

Situations changed when I moved toward them. With the headaches, there were auras and blocks of dark stain and rhythms in my head. But there was nothing yet wrong with that. An impartiality towards what was going on inside and outside began to seem possible. 


When things are too big and too near to be shaped or to make sense, a gate swings open, and that is a true moment. Disasters can do that because they limit the choices we have and all we want is to get dry or eat, or for things stop falling. It is enough to be alive then without constantly worrying about it. At such a time, being true is all a moment needs to do. “No eye, no ear, no nose, no mouth, no body and no mind,” says the Heart Sutra.

One evening in the depths of a retreat, in the grip of the idea of not believing in things, I asked people to write down their most frightening moment, perhaps the thing behind the No Trespassing sign. A couple of people jumped right into the experiment; they went into the twilight in the back of the meditation hall, lay down on the carpet, and wailed. Strangely, I had not expected this. I knelt beside one of them and asked how it was going. “I’m alright,” she said in a dignified way, “I’m doing this,” and went on sobbing. I felt the affection I always feel for those who have to go into the dark places. 

There is another thing I particularly remember from that exercise. An engineer who was usually amiable and hearty but preferred puns to emotion, began to tell a story. His voice trembled; in the dim hall tears shone in his eyes. 

"I was stationed in Ascom, South Korea—the NCO in charge of the Tech Supply Department, though I was trained as a radar repairman. January 23 started out with an early call for a company formation. There we were told that the North Koreans had attacked the Navy ship Pueblo and that the situation was tense. We were told to go to work and get ready to move everything south. Ascom is at Bup Yong Dong just a few miles from the DMZ. If any thing happened it would get to us very fast and we knew we had no chance. We had a ringside seat for the war. Missile trailers were lined up on the road heading north, armed with nukes, everyone else saw it by then. We were all shaken. I thought I had an hour to live. I was certain I was going to die and felt very helpless and scared. I still feel that way when I remember."

Missile tractor
There was no need to resolve anything but at that moment everyone in the room had confidence in him, and it seemed that he began to have confidence in himself too.

The dark, charged moments endure in us and they bless us—‘this,’ they announce, ‘is your life. Here it is.’ What you have always longed for has arrived. Even when nothing is done to transform your life, you can see through the moment, it becomes intimate and large like Autumn sky, it has with its own light.
The Space Inside What We Feel

Most of the stories we tell are a hurried sketch of what is happening or of what happened. We feel bad and fetch around for reasons. We are unhappy because—husband, wife, child, boss, ghost, disease, money, shame, grief, people are suffering in another country, it’s going to snow, our bones ache. We check off the reasons for unhappiness in an effort to find the plot of our lives. Having a problem becomes an identity, a narrative line and a reason to live.

As a child I thought that pretending you believed things must be one of the rules of the game. It was obvious that people pretended not to be angry when they were angry and not to be sad when they were sad, and also pretended not to know certain things that were common knowledge. I thought the game was like charades, it was an arbitrary system that everybody was agreed on. 

Some of the stories came to seem heartbreaking. I had a spinster great aunt, Mary, a women of verve, fond of hats and outings to the Melbourne Cup, the famous horse race. She had a secret; she had been left at the altar, pregnant, and her baby was raised by a cousin who pretended to be the mother. Aunt Mary asked my sister to bring what would have been Mary’s grandson home with her to play. My sister, to whom the request was inexplicable, said, “Oh I don’t know him well enough for that.” I suppose the absence of that child turned into all the cups of tea and kindnesses she gave to me, the wood I cut for her, the jam she made from the green gages in her yard, which I picked for her. If I had known I would have wanted to help, might have befriended the kid and brought him around. But there wasn’t a way for us to know, the only hint was that Mary made odd requests from time to time and was very sympathetic to children.

While privately reserving judgment, I pretended, almost out of courtesy, that what people said was something I believed too. At some stage I noticed that in following this course, what I loved had become obscure to me. The ancient question, ‘Who am I?” seems to come from such a process; it happened when I realized that I didn’t know what I believed or who believed it. Discarding the things we thought we loved is a move toward finding what we do love, which is not a matter of belief. 

Not Believing The Expected Thing

Difficult times are freeing because then the things we only thought we cared about are taken from us. They no longer burden us. I noticed this as a child when some older kids from a gang broke my nose. Once I had escaped and the bleeding stopped, I wondered what to do, but there wasn’t much I needed to do. I tried telling myself what a big thing had happened but it hadn’t, really. There was a kind of release, I wasn’t afraid of being beaten any more, the moments parsed themselves, the afternoon unfolded and went on. A similar example happened when someone cut me off, and I spun out a car. I was at the center of time, which stretched as trees and buildings turned around me; I was happy in the ‘oh it’s this’. Then my little car came to rest and I wondered what to do and how much outrage would be suitable. The other car was gone, and even the spinning seemed far in the past. I just drove off. 
When blunt enormity of the world becomes visible so does its dream-like floating transparence. Peace spreads out in every direction. Underneath all the maneuvers the mind makes is the rumbling of the universe at work, which carries on regardless. Sometimes I’ve been willing to have the undesired event last forever since it is life and any moment of life is complete.

To explain what’s happening is often to find a problem with it. For me, meditation became a time when I was spared; I didn’t have to explain what was happening, even to myself, it was not necessary that there be any fault in the world.

Meditation begins with fetching about in the mind. In a dark hour, a door opens, even our impairment is on our side. This is to be relied upon, because in the dark moment we stop reaching for our explanations. We can have confidence in what is going on within us because we can’t drive the process the way we would like to. Fearlessness appears in a world of fear.


1. Do you have places in your thoughts or memory that are off limits? What might some of them be? When you look at them does your story about them change?

2. Do you remember being afraid as a child? Do remember feeling fear in more recent times?

3. Is there a difference between dread and fear for you? Are there other emotions that you don't like to look at?

4. What is it like when you have been afraid of something and then not afraid?

5. What does your light look like? How do you know it?

6. What does it feel like to have confidence in yourself, in your light? What is a time when you have noticed that confidence recently?

Point Reyes Light
Notes. The koan is from Linji