Monday, January 25, 2016

Book of Serenity #39 “Wash Your Bowl”

I love studying Joshu (Japanese) or in Chinese, Zhaozhou (778-897).  He has been called the silver-tongued teacher because his koans are utterly simple and profoundly deep and instructive.  Joshu’s instructions are so simple and ordinary that they feel like they are barely there, but I still love them.  It is their nakedness that deeply instructs the barebones of Zen.

I also would like to preface any explanation or unpacking of a koan by saying that no one person has the definitive answer.  Your understanding of the koan and metaphor is equal to mind.  They are instructions given in images or stories and not just intellectual directions.  Once you have tasted your own understanding of a koan, the image and taste of the story can stay with you forever like a friend.  I have found, however, that a teacher’s sharing of their relationship with the koan, often helps me savor the koan on my own.

This koan, “Wash your bowl”, I often use as the base of mindfulness practice.  If we go beyond just the case story and use the whole of the commentaries in the Book of Serenity, the koan will also deepen into itself.   The existential aspect of our teaching is deepened as we read the commentary.  Form and emptiness or phenomena and noumena, meet in the present moment.  This is the quintessential teaching in Buddhism.  The sacred and profane meet in the Now!  Are you there to meet it? That question is our practice.  How is the universe participating in eating breakfast or doing the dishes?  As Thich Nhat Hanh has so beautifully phrased it- can we see the whole universe: the sun, the rain, the field of oats, the farmer, the trucker, the grocer, the cook, in our bowl of oatmeal?  This idea is the technical term in Buddhism - interdependent co-arising.  In washing your bowl, the whole universe is present.
Let’s explore this.

A monk asked Joshu, “I have just entered the monastery: please give me some guidance.”
Joshu said, “Have you had breakfast yet?”
The monk said, “Yes I have eaten.”
Joshu continues, “Then go wash your bowl.”

This is the ultimate prescription for mindfulness.  Be fully present to what you are doing and then when you are done, do the next thing.  It follows the slogans:

“Do the next right thing.”
“Do the next appropriate action.”

Our admonition in Zen is to stay in the present moment’s activity.  Often we can be that specific about our moments.  Mostly though, the storyline of our life can become the foreground and we have to be a little coarser by saying a slogan like:

“One day at a time.”

Working with that slogan, I have found that one-day is too broad.  I often split it down into; what am I supposed to do this morning, this afternoon, this evening?  In working with this slogan I have found a secondary instruction:

If you can’t do something about your “worry” today,
            Turn it over to the universe’s care.
If there is no action that can be done in this one day, let it go.

In order to let go or to turn something over, I have to have cultivated a lot of trust that there is a universal energy to rely on.  Trust that cause and effect is always working and underlying my activity.  Which means that if I take care of this one day in a wholesome manner, the effect of these activities will produce a positive result some time in the future (even if it is in the next lifetime! Katagiri Roshi would add and laugh).

Let’s continue this study with The introduction to the koan:
When food comes you open your mouth; when sleep comes you close your eyes.  As you wash your face you find your nose, when you take off your shoes you feel your feet.
At that time, if you miss what’s being said, take a torch and make a special search deep in the night.  How can you attain union?

Again and again, we find that we miss the mindfulness of the moment, don’t we? That’s what Wansong (1166-1246), the commentator of the Book of Serenity, was referring to when he says, “if you miss what’s being said.”  Many times we miss receiving the moment as it is.  If you consistently miss your life as it goes by, please, Wansong beseeches us, take a torch and make a special search deep in the night.   Our torch is our willingness and curiousity to explore our spiritual life.  We must also be willing to go into a deep dark cave to search, blindfold and not-knowing.  In the dark,  we wait for insight.

I often think of our practice and particularly sesshin practice (long intensive sitting retreats) as a way we take a torch and make a special search deep in the night.  We have to push into our spiritual life to find its meaning.  There is a lot of effort to become effortless; to become as naked as Joshu’s teaching.  In Buddhism we practice vigorously and take our torch and search. Yet, simultaneously, we learn how to let go.   We learn to trust the simultaneous working of the whole universe with our own intentions.  We are encouraged to find an effort that is not focused solely on our own individual gain and self-centeredness.  We learn to let go of our endless trying to improve ourselves and get what we want out of life, and learn how to receive and trust what is actually there.

How can you attain union? Wansong asks. What is the union that he speaks of?  This is the union of the ordinary moment and the universal energy of life itself.  Our karmic storied life meets the Big Mind of universal energy in each moment. We could also say, union is trying and letting go intertwined, a strange paradox.   If our mindfulness is strong and steadfast, we can stay with this meeting of the so-called opposites.  Katagiri Roshi called this the intersection of time and space, the truth happening place.  Knowing this intersection is knowing union.

Wansong wrote the Book of Serenity (made in 1224) as commentaries on a collection of koans which had a poem written for each story.  This collection with poetic commentary was made by Hongzhi (1091-1157).  Here is Hongzhi’s poem on this koan:

Breakfast over, the direction is to wash the bowl;
Opened up, the mind ground meets of itself.
And now, a guest of the monastery, having studied to the full-
But was there enlightenment in there or not?

If you are really at the union of the ordinary and the profound, the expression of this meeting seems effortless.  Opened up, the mind ground meets of itself.  Meets of itself  means effortless.  Even for a very practiced practitioner who is someone who has studied to the full, the true discernment is this question – were you really present or not? And the next moment, present or not?   Was enlightenment there or not?  This is a question, we can continually ask.  Are we here or not?  Are we caught up solely in the story of the moment or can we see the moment as the universal energy itself? Are we opened up?  The mind ground is always present, do we know it or not?

At the end of each commentary in the Book of Serenity, Wansong writes a line by line commentary on the case and the verse.  Here is his line by line commentary on Hongzhi’s verse for this case:

Breakfast over, the direction is to wash the bowl – the opportunity goes by so fast it is hard to meet.
Opened up, the mind ground meets of itself – it’s not just today.
And now, a guest of the monastery, having studied to the full – as before, after eating gruel he washes his bowl.
But was there enlightenment in there? – One person transmits a falsehood, ten thousand transmit it as truth.

Each moment goes by so fast it is hard to meet.  Dogen says that there are six and half billion moments (setsunas) in a day.  Of course, its impossible to meet each one going by in superspeed as Katagiri Roshi would say.  But it is possible to feel the mind ground meeting itself – to feel the suchness of our life and our moments.

Before studying Buddhism, as you enter the monastery, and after practicing and maturing, (studying in full) you get the same ordinary instruction.  Have you eaten? Wash your bowl.  Yet somehow, after practicing, the instruction has deepened.  Are you fully present or not?

The last instruction in this commentary is about enlightenment.  To be present and feel the interdependence of the universe and form in our lives, moment to moment  is in itself a great accomplishment.  But Wansong has even more to add.  Is your accomplishment attached to a “self”?

I have taught a lot that Buddhism deconstructs the idea of a separate self.  We are not an isolated unit that is independent. Rather we are interdependent and unified with the world.  Wansong says, if you think you are a one-person unit, you are transmitting a falsehood. It is not possible to say “I am enlightened.”  It is not true that you are an isolated unit who is enlightened.  To the contrary, if you understand that the ten thousand things and ten thousand beings become the self “the you”, then you have transmitted the truth.

(Translations of the koans from Thomas Cleary)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Intention and Vow, New Years

For the past many years, Clouds in Water starts the New Years off with an Intention and Vow Workshop.  It was my answer to the failure, year after year, of my New Year’s Resolutions.  Does Zen allow future goals?  i.e. if you live in the present moment, can you have a future goal? Concurrently, there is the problem of people interpreting “living in the present moment” as liberation from our responsibilities for cleaning up our misconduct in the past and planting seeds for a responsible future.  So how does Zen take care of our karmic, storied life, which includes cause and effect as its primary principle.

I found a lot of understanding in the Tenzo Kyokun by Dogen.  It is Dogen’s “Instructions to the Cook.”  In this discourse, Dogen said, in the evening, prepare for the next day’s meals.  Sometimes, preparing for the future is today’s present moment.

Both day and night, allow all things to come into and reside with your mind.
Allow your mind (self) and all things to function together as a whole.  Before midnight direct your attention to organizing the following day’s work; after midnight begin preparations for the morning meal.

Each moment has to have a direction in which you are facing.  That is our vow or our Right Intention for this very moment and those intentions can be clarified and refined into our future direction and our vow.  I like to call it clarifying my North Star.

Just as in olden times, a sailor navigates his way by using the North Star.  The North Star clarifies his direction or at least where the boat is heading.  But in the waves and the weather of the ocean, it is never a straight, undeviated line to the North Star or the port for which they were sailing.  The journey is a zigzag with constant adjustments to keep the boat coming back to the course towards its intended port.  Over and over, in our practice life, we vow to come back to our intended course.

A person in the workshop this year added another metaphor using a compass.  She was someone who actually uses compasses hiking in the woods.  She said, when you first bring out the compass, its pointer in the dial moves wildly and erratically.  But if you hold very still, the pointer will actually settle down and point to the North Star.

So, what is our personal North Star this year?  What, for us, is heading in a positive direction?  This direction is different than having an objective goal in which we can fail or succeed.  One of the principles in Zen is that you make an effort but let go of the results of your effort.  To practice only for success, pleasure, gain, fame, is clearly attachment to ourselves and not the Buddha Way.  But in our effort to practice, we let go of the idea of success and failure, we do the work of the moment facing the direction of our choice and find the aliveness in the energy of the task itself.

Uchiyama Roshi in unpacking the Tenzo Kyokun says:
 Our present direction is clearly defined but without having a goal. When we stop projecting goals and hopes in the future, and refuse to be led around by them, yet work to clarify our lives, that is, the “direction” of the present, then we discover an alive and dynamic practice.”

It behooves us to produce conditions that will flourish our karma in a wholesome direction.  We have to take care of the conditions of our life.  This intentional living is not an abstract idea but can be a strong awareness of cause and effect in our life.

Uchiyama Roshi continues:
“No matter where we are or whatever circumstances we are in, we are always living out our own life.  A fool views his own life as if it were someone else’s.  Only a wise man realizes that even in his encounters with others, he is living out his own life within those very encounters.”

Although we don’t have control of what happens in our futures, we do have the responsibility to plant wholesome seeds and face in the direction we want to go in our present moments. 

Our practice is to take care of each moment with care and understanding, and simultaneously to stay connected with the Big Mind of the universe.  The universe is always supporting us even if we don’t consciously know it.  This is the main work of a human life.  We can find where our personal story or karma intersects with universal energy.  That intersection happens in the current moment.  We have to live each moment with the Whole.

Uchiyama Roshi adds:
“We have to exhaust all our effort to manifest and actualize eternity at this point
where our Self encounters all matters here and now and to devote ourselves to move in that direction whereby the whole world becomes settled within itself.”

We could add an admonishment from Dogen:
“The practice of the buddhas is carried on together with the whole world and with all sentient beings.  If it is not a practice together with all things, it is not the practice of the buddhas.”

In this regard, an image that corresponds to the above is:
We turn the dharma wheel
And the dharma wheel turns us.
The dharma wheel turns us
And we turn the dharma wheel.

This image allows us to see a rhythm between trying and receiving; effort and effortlessness.  Each of us in our own unique personalities can find that balance.  Some of us need to back off from our controlling effort and others need to come forth more and direct our lives more.  We each find our own unbalance in effort, given our particular personalities and circumstances and try to correct it.

In order to become more clear about our direction and specific intentions for the year, in the workshop we write about these questions, which seem to bring forth some clarity.  After that, they are discussed in small groups.

1.     What are concrete things you already know about the coming year’s schedule.
2.     What do you regret about last year?  What don’t you regret?  What was a learning experience?
3.     What’s the most important thing this year?  What is it that you are called to do or meant to do?  What don’t you want to do?
4.     Can you flesh out or condense what you have discovered into a few succinct intentions?
5.     What keeps you from your intention?  What obstacles, sub-personalities, self-talk, inner critic, or inner voices, make it difficult to follow your North Star?

We end the retreat by making a mandala or drawing an image or poster that expresses our North Star.