Tuesday, August 4, 2015

No new nests, no no no.

Transcribed from a talk given on Thurday, July 28th, 2015 at Mid City Zen

So, picking up on the theme from last week, we are looking at this case from the Blue Cliff Record, case 87.

A clear-eyed fellow has no nest: sometimes on the summit of the solitary peak weeds grow in profusion; sometimes they’re naked and free in the bustling marketplace. Suddenly they appear as an angry titan with three heads and six arms; suddenly as Sun Face or Moon Face Buddha they release the light of all-embracing mercy. In a single atom they manifest all physical forms; to save people according to their type, they mix with mud and water. If suddenly they release an opening upwards, not even the Buddha's eye could see them; even if a thousand sages appeared, they too would have to fall back three thousand miles. Is there anyone with the same attainment and same realization? To test, I cite this to see.
Yun Men, teaching his community, said,
   "Medicine and disease subdue each other:1
   the whole earth is medicine;2
   what is your self?"3
1.    A compounded form cannot be grasped.
2.    Bitter gourd is bitter to the root. He's put it over to one side.
3.    Sweet melon is sweet to the stem. Where did he get this news?

So, when I was about 19 or 20 I saw a photo of Philip Whalen in the book Big Sky Mind which was put out by Tricycle. It was an anthology of Buddhist “beat” writing. I was a punk rocker as a teen and I had a very idealized view of what that meant. There were a lot of things about the punk scene that really met me where I was at the time. Community, anti-capitalism, feminism, not waiting for permission to make your own music and art, eschewing social norms and limitations. So some of us had a lot of ideas about what an important alternative to mainstream culture our little scene was. There was also a lot of posturing, there were social rules, one-upmanship, there were popular kids and marginalized kids, there were fights, peer pressure, the insufferable and image-conscious, and perhaps worst of all, there were boys trying to get laid. So, I was always a little disappointed that it wasn’t as sophisticated as it could have been. Sometimes it was, but usually it wasn’t.

Sometime around the year 2000 it seemed like half of my friends were in cosmetology school, like learning to become hairstylists. My friend got a cool tattoo behind his ear of a skull and cross scissors. Like a tough, punk hairstylist. And for a while there I thought, “Oh maybe I should do that, maybe I should be a hairstylist.” And that I considered doing that was a bit of a wakeup call for me. Like, how did I go from a very sincere, open-minded kid in baggy jeans and a giant Ramones shirt to some slick, image-conscious scenester who wanted to go do hair in Manhattan? I got this lovely anarcho-feminist education as a 14 year old from Crass and Tribe 8 records and now a few years later I was thinking of entering the appearance industry. So, I know it might sound like I have strong negative judgments about being a hairstylist, I don’t, it was just a symbol to me at the time. It went against an ideal that I had at the time.

So, in my search for more counter-cultural depth and sophistication I got interested in what some people call “beat” literature. I read Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac. I hate to say it, but I loved Kerouac, his sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and his cadence really really captivated me. I loved the recordings, he had this New Englander-Quebecois hybrid accent. Also, I think he was the simplest, his writing was the most musical and I’m dyslexic and really this was the first time in my life I had ever enjoyed reading. Now, Kerouac the person was kind of a pathetic figure. Pretty politically ignorant and misogynistic…very obsessed with his mother in a strange way, pretty arrogant and self absorbed. Anyway, all this was me opening up to literature and art beyond punk.

So, back to where I started, I see this photo of Philip Whalen in his robes, and he has this expression which struck me. I thought, “That person has no agenda.” I saw the same thing on Michael Wenger when I first met him. How to become one with no agenda? Just a plain, observing face. It’s beautiful! And in an interview he said, “The main reason I’ve stuck with the outfit (zen center) is that we’re doing that thing Gary Snyder talks about all the time- offering an alternative society, offering a different way of handling life in the United State other than getting a job with Standard Oil and after thirty-five years getting a gold watch. We’re trying to work out something else.” That was all I had to hear, it was exactly what I’d been longing for. I wanted to have my vexation lifted. I wanted a place in the world that felt less strenuous and alienating. I wanted to swap out my messy life for a clean one, messy on the inside and on the outside- for one that is clean on the inside and the outside. I thought I was this lump of play-doh and I was gonna go through one of those play-doh presses that made me star shaped. I wanted to go through a process that turned me into a star, because I felt like a blob…a misunderstood blob with great potential. What’s my task in life? What do I believe? What do I do from day to day?

So in the pointer it says, “A clear-eyed fellow has no nest.” What a perfect phrase, this is the “topic sentence.” This is a summary of the whole thing. What’s a nest? That’s when we build something we can live in, and it has a connotation of comfort. Building a comfortable place to rest in. So my wanting to make a home out of Buddhism, absolving myself of my own discernment and intellect. “I’m ready Buddhism, tell me what’s true.” And Buddha’s pretty clever because he doesn’t tell you shit. He just lays out a method, invites you into a process, not of learning Buddhism, but of learning your own life. You can’t make a home in Buddhism, there’s no view you can rest in. The world is too alive for that. When people from other religions talk to us they want to know what our beliefs are. I was talking at a church in Austin once and they asked me about my beliefs. Beliefs? Those things are a sham! The world is too alive for us to go running around with beliefs. There’s a song by the punk band Crass that illustrates this point, the fallacy of nestling into a viewpoint. It’s called “Where Next Columbus?”  And it’s on a record from 1984 called Penis Envy which everyone should buy for their children. The song goes through a few figures like Marx, Sartre, Jesus, Mussolini and points out the suffering that can result from people jumping onto some idea as if it were a final answer. The last lines of the song are:
“Do you watch at a distance from the side you have chosen?
Whose answers serve you best? Who'll save you from confusion?
Who will leave you an exit and a comfortable cover
Who will take you oh so near the edge, but never drop you over?
Who do you watch? Who’s your leader, which is your flock?”

Next in the pointer is, “sometimes on the summit of the solitary peak weeds grow in profusion.” “Solitary peak” here represents the ideal place. Even at the ideal place, weeds grow in profusion. Life on the peak is supposed to be a pure life, nothing to buy, no relationships, just wholesome human activity, chopping wood, fetching water. We want to swap out a messy life for a clean one and what happens? the mess follows us. Whatever we imagine about ourselves is portable. It follows us to zazen, it follows us on retreat, it follows us to the monastery. When you go to the peak you take your karmic life with you. The peak doesn’t wash your life for you. Because you think that the peak is going to clean up your inner world, you have problems with the peak. We can’t give our power away like that, asking an external circumstance to clean up our karmic lives for us. A method, a teacher, a monastery can’t take care of you. It’s only there to show you your own feet. I spent a lot of my free time at the monastery in the library reading "Guide to Buddhist America" looking for a better monastery. When we imagine an ideal scenario, we usually don't include our karma in that fantasy, we imagine it without our wounding and habits, that's why it's so appealing. It's no so related to the place or the external situation. I realize that that's a very privileged thing to say and that such a teaching isn't true for everyone, but if you're here and listening to this, then it's probably true for you. You can say, "Go tell that to someone in prison." and you know, I wouldn't, it's not as applicable in that situation...but don't you try to find a reason to get out of looking at how you make your world. You're not in prison, you're in the 7th ward at a Zen Center.

“Sometimes they’re naked and free in the bustling marketplace.” The marketplace is the place we can’t imagine being free within. The marketplace is the place we think is inherently problematic. Sometimes a circumstance that you would have thought would be totally vexing sets your heart free a little bit. The immensity of a situation can draw us out of our self-schema. Something potent arises and holds up your life situation right in front of you and you have to meet it without the usual bullshit. That can set the heart free.

“Suddenly they appear as an angry titan with three heads and six arms.” This is Daitoku, a Dharma defender, the Japanese equivalent to Yamantaka the wrathful form of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Appearing as wrathful wisdom. After a few months of training in the Tassajara kitchen, I moved to the temple in San Francisco and I was asked to medium chop 30 blocks of tofu. So being the expert I was, I started pressing the tofu to get the water out. Laying all the blocks out on a cooling grill, placing a sheetpan on top with a sack of flour on it. And the kitchen manager came up to me and asked me what I was doing, and I told her I thought prepping tofu always included pressing it. She said, “interesting speculation.” So I hated her for the rest of the day. That was about 13 years ago and I can still hear “interesting speculation.” I say it to myself a lot actually; it was a lovely gift she gave me, even though for an afternoon it gave me an ulcer. That’s Yamantaka, that’s the angry titan with three heads and six arms. The prajna-revelation through discomfort or embarrassment. Sometimes generated by others, sometimes generated by ourselves, like when we do some sobering self-talk, when we say “enough!” to ourselves and bring the sword down. Once I had mentioned in a public setting that I missed zazen a lot because I turn off my alarm and immediately fall back asleep. That same day my teacher’s teacher Blanche Hartman kind of corners me and grabs my arm and squeezes the shit out of it, like a Catholic school nun. Thumb and middle finger digging in on either side and she says, “Put your damn alarm clock on the other side of your room and get yourself to the zendo or else you’re not going to Tassajara or anywhere!” What do you think had a bigger impact on me, that or when people patted me on the back for being good? It mattered to me that she cared enough about me to become Yamantaka, because that takes great energy.

“Suddenly as Sun Face or Moon Face Buddha they release the light of all-embracing mercy.” Once at Rinso-in, the Suzuki family temple Hoitsu Suzuki was giving what might have been a kind of long talk about something. At one point a student of his leaned back against the pillar behind him and apparently Hoitsu chastised him in a pretty wrathful and robust way, publicly, you know. And as soon as he was done giving this chap what for, his face changed back to completely pleasant, any vexation left him and he went along giving his talk. Sun Face, Moon Face. Having the flexibility of mind to find the appropriate response without a having a viewpoint get lodged into your mind at the expense of the next moment. To console or to shake up? What is kindness? What is prajna guidance? What transforms us? What is an accurate expression of where you’re at? What's the difference between anger arising and harboring ill will? Anger arises to show you what matters to you, that's fine, just don't take it at face value, sort out what it's really saying. Harboring ill will is like eating rat poison yourself and expecting the rats to die. Joke's on you.

“In a single atom they manifest all physical forms; to save people according to their type, they mix with mud and water.” To save people according to their type, this is an important point. Not everyone should sit zazen, not everyone should do retreat. Then we hear that and develop an ideal like, “Ok well I should be able to practice with a family and a career in the midst of a city.” Well, maybe, maybe not. This isn’t one size fits all. Sometimes people see me out in public, half the time they don’t recognize me in regular clothes, but when they do sometimes they apologize for not coming to the zendo more. I honestly have no personal investment in or judgement about how often you sit zazen. If you decide tango lessons, or getting an MBA is more important than zen practice is for a while, you might be on to something, fair enough, you do you. “They mix mud and water.” No preference for purity. The process is too personal for that, you’re gonna make messes and feel messy, you’re gonna get confused. 

When I got into Dharma, I committed myself to the ideal of zen monasticism and I chucked out everything else. “No, I’m not a sexual being. No, I don’t like music anymore, I’m getting rid of my records, they’re distracting, I’m quitting the band. I’m gonna wear elastic waist pants and polar fleece and clogs from now on, looking cute is babylon system, the notion of cute itself is samsara.” I’d go out on vacation and buy some records and then a few weeks later throw them away. I lived like that for maybe 11 years, most of my 20s. Guess what issues were waiting for me outside the monastery gate? I thought the tradition and zazen would take care of me, but they can’t. There is no holy blueprint, just pointers that may or may not be relevant to you. So, I move to New Orleans and discover everything my temple life left unaddressed. My creative side, my social side, my relatability, the importance of peers. And it’s tempting to think there’s something amiss on the outside. “Well, I must belong in a temple because this doesn’t feel so great out here.” But that discomfort is the invitation into the next phase of training. The priest thing can be pretty lonely, for me it can be a continuation of a way that I’ve tried to set myself apart from others throughout my life. “I’m a surfer, you’re not. I’m a skater, you’re not. I’m a punk, a vegan, an anarchist, you’re not.” And I cut myself off from others, making a preemptive strike, placing myself outside of anything social so that I’m never up for judgment, never have to deal with being accepted or rejected. That way I can’t be hurt. (sighs and places hands over heart) Turned out not to be so helpful. This week I decided to stop teaching weekly yoga, because it matters so much to me to have one more day to meet someone for coffee or go do karaoke or dance with people my age, at this point that feels like it’s what’s most relevant, I don’t actually want to be a fulltime Dharma ambassador, that’s not what my heart is asking for right now. Dogen Zenji said, “Those who regard secular life as an obstacle to the sacred know only that there is no sacredness in secular activities; they do not yet know that no secular activities exist in the sacred.” So some people need a monastery, some people need a dance party. A monastery can be like living with your parents too long. You learn a lot with your parents, but that’s not where the process finishes.

“If suddenly they release an opening upwards, not even the Buddha's eye could see them; even if a thousand sages appeared, they too would have to fall back three thousand miles.” There’s a saying, “All of the masters from Makakasho through the 5th ancestor understood Zen, the 6th ancestor didn’t understand Zen, thus he became the 6th ancestor.” When I entered the monastery I learned the correct way to do the gassho mudra. Fingertips on a plane with your nose about a fists width away, forearms parallel to the floor. So, when people didn’t do gassho “correctly,” I got to tell myself that it was a problem and that I’m somehow better than them. This is called “weaponizing the Dharma.” Sometimes we accuse someone of not being "mindful" or not being "compassionate." I personally hate the word "mindful" and I never use it. Anyway, we can take the teachings and whack people with them. Praising self at the expense of other. “If suddenly they release an opening upwards, not even the Buddha's eye could see them.” This is remembering that this has always been about setting your heart free, not about grafting yourself into something "good." When the heart is free it’s not terribly interested in something called Buddha or Zen. That’s why I say during zazen, “Don’t meditate, just feel your life.” You don’t have to say “Zen” if you’re in touch with who you are.

Yun Men, teaching his community, said,
   "Medicine and disease subdue each other:1
   the whole earth is medicine;2
   what is your self?"3
1.       A compounded form cannot be grasped.
2.       Bitter gourd is bitter to the root. He's put it over to one side.
3.       Sweet melon is sweet to the stem. Where did he get this news?

So this first line is pointing out the relationship of things, there has never even been “a thing,” there is just a dynamic. “A compounded form cannot be grasped.” So what are we investing in and how will it deliver? Last week Michaela asked me to marry her, she planned out this elaborate flash mob surprise, all our friends sang Alanis Morissette to me in City Park. It’s the kind of thing that people dream about, it was absolutely beautiful and moving. It was the most perfect gesture imaginable. So that was at 10:30am, by 2:30pm I get pissed off at her for tellling me to put sunscreen on. (laughs) So we’re very versatile, and we need to remember what does and doesn’t deliver satisfaction. My engagement is such a beautiful memory, AND positive experiences don’t solve all of our problems. Getting engaged didn’t heal all of our relationship issues, but we’re committing to the process of allowing each other’s unfolding. “The whole earth is medicine.” The way things deliver is that they show you that they can’t deliver. The whole earth is showing you what the work of this moment is. “What is your self?” At first, after a simplistic reading of this case, we might assume that the self must be disease. Not quite. There’s never been a self, so there is no disease. So the sweet melon is sweet to the stem. When you relax around the separation and self-protection what floods in is the benevolent embrace of all existence. This doesn’t take years of training, just do a nice long smooth exhalation and you’ll taste the first course. Let go and proceed. That’s all, thank you.


  1. "This elaborate flash mob surprise, all our friends sang Alanis Morissette to me in City Park..." YAYYYYYYY

  2. You know I thought I had comments disabled, cause if you look at any other Zen blog it's hella manswers and mansplanations from baby boomer spiritual dilettantes. You've given me hope, Rebecca. I'll accept comments cause of you...until the boys find me.