I am a Soto Zen priest and teacher. I worked at the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School for many years, and have now retired to full-time Zen teaching and residency at Boundless Way Temple in Worcester, MA. www.worcesterzen.org, www.melissablacker.com
The Sixth Ancestor's Rice Mill -- Ink Painting by Hakuin Ekaku
The following is a transcription of a Dharma Talk (Teisho), given by Michael Fieleke, Sensei and myself at our summer 2019 sesshin, transcribed by Joanne Hart and edited by Mike Sensei and me. Melissa Roshi: This is the first of our series of dharma talks for this summer sesshin. The four teachers, David Roshi, Bob Sensei, Mike Sensei and I, will be sharing these talks each day. A different pair will present our understanding of the topic that we've chosen for the sesshin. And today Mike Sensei and I will be presenting our understanding of a koan that is a very fundamental story in our Zen tradition. It's found in at least three different places in Zen literature. One is in our Gateless Gate koan collection where it's case number twenty-three. One is in a Japanese Rinzai collection called Entangling Vines where it's number two -- placed there I think because if its importance. And also, it appears in a text that is attributed to a 7th century Chinese teacher named Huineng called The Platform Sutra. We're not sure that Huineng actually wrote this sutra. It may have been written by some of his disciples, maybe even many years after he lived. But it’s written in the first person as if it was in his voice. And his voice is an important voice in the teachings of Zen that we've inherited, especially from our Chinese ancestors. Huineng was the first Chinese Zen teacher or Chan teacher who was not an educated elite member of the upper classes. He was someone who struggled early on in his life just to survive. According to legend he never learned to read. I'm going to read you the version of the story that's in the Entangling Vines collection. And probably over the week we will read the version that's case 23 in the Gateless Gate. And maybe we’ll read a little bit from The Platform Sutra. But in this version the koan goes like this: “The senior monk Huiming pursued Huineng, the sixth ancestor, to Dayu peak. Huineng, seeing him come, put the robe and bowl on a rock and said, ‘this robe represents faith. How can it be taken by force? You may have it.’ Huiming tried to pick it up but like a mountain it couldn't be moved. Shaken and frightened Huiming said, ‘I came in search of the Dharma, not for the sake of the robe. Lay brother, please instruct me.’ Huineng said, ‘Think not of good, think not of evil. At this very moment what is your original face before your father and mother were born?’” [A very loud siren from an emergency vehicle passes by the Temple.] Maybe it's the sound of that siren. “ ‘At this very moment, what is your original face before your father and mother were born?’ At that moment Huiming was deeply enlightened and his entire body flowed with sweat. With tears in his eyes he bowed and asked, ‘Is there any meaning still more profound than the hidden meaning and words you have just imparted to me?’ ‘There's nothing hidden about what I've revealed,’ replied Huineng. ‘If you turn your own life inward and illuminate your original face, what is hidden is within yourself.’ Huiming said, ‘although I practiced with the assembly under Hongren I had yet to realize my original face. Now you have shown the way in. I'm like the one who has tasted water and knows for himself whether it's cold or warm. You, lay brother, are now my teacher.’ Huineng replied, ‘If that's how it is with you then you and I are equally the disciples of Hongren. Take good care of yourself.’” So that's the koan that we'll be exploring over the week. And I wanted to talk first about Huineng himself, and Huiming too a little bit – the two characters that we encounter in this story. When we study koans it's very important to let ourselves sink into them as if they were happening to us right now in this present moment. Every piece of the encounter is relevant to our lives as not just Zen practitioners but as human beings on this planet, in this universe, that's full of suffering. It's really important to know that these people, although they lived almost 2000 years ago are just like us in so many ways. In fact, one of the main teachings of Huineng is that no matter what our circumstances, no matter how we identify ourselves, no matter what our background is or the story of our life we have more in common than we have in difference. I was particularly happy to see that in the chant we read earlier which is one of my favorites, “The Harmony of Relative and Absolute” by another one of our Chinese ancestors Shitou, speaks about this directly. He's actually quoting Huineng. He says “among human beings are wise ones and fools. But in the way there is no northern or southern ancestor.” So it's true that we are all unique, and it's also true that in the Great Way we're all the same. Huineng's primary teaching throughout his life, and throughout his writing of the Platform Sutra and other records that were kept of him, was that there is no such thing as becoming a Buddha. We are already Buddhas. We are already awakened ones. He used a word in Chinese that's been translated in various ways but one way that I like is that there is the potential for awakening in every human being. We don't need to bother with ants and sticks and grizzly bears and dogs and flowers because they're already fully awakened and they don't need to practice the Great Way. But we human beings interfere with our own sense of who we are. We think that we are lacking. And here's Huineng who was the son of a pretty highfalutin’ guy, someone who was part of the government in China. It's possible that his mother was actually not an ethnic Chinese but came from the south where there are many kinds of tribes. He's called the barbarian when he first meets his teacher and this is a reference not only to his lack of training but also perhaps his ethnicity. His father had been thrown out of the ruling class and his father and mother went to live in the south away from the northern capital. They struggled, and his father died when Huineng was three years old. He and his mother, impoverished, lived in a city in the south of China where they sold firewood. These were Huineng's humble beginnings. As one commentator says, he knew what it was like to not have a life of privilege. He knew what it was like to be hungry, to be cold, to struggle in his life. And somehow or other he wasn't beaten down by this. So much so that one day when he was out in the town square selling firewood and a monk walked by chanting the Diamond Sutra he heard a line from this sutra that so deeply penetrated him that his heart awakened, and he made arrangements to take care of his elderly mother and decided he had to go north to find the Great Way, to find the source. After he talked to this monk, he grabbed him and pulled him aside. He said, “what is that that you've been chanting?” The monk explained a little bit about Zen. After this, Huineng went off to seek the teachings, and his first teacher was a woman, a nun who he studied with for a while. Then he studied Zen with a couple of other teachers. He studied for three years learning about meditation and zazen. And then he found his way north to Hongren's place. Hongren was a teacher in the lineage of Bodhidharma, the original Indian teacher who brought Zen from India to China. He had inherited the robe and bowl of Bodhidharma from his own teacher, and intended to pass these symbols of the teachings to his own Dharma heir. Hongren had an interview with Huineng where he said, “who do you think you are, you barbarian from the south, coming to me to learn about Zen?” and when he heard this challenging question Huineng did not become defensive. He did not quote something from a sutra to show how smart he was. He said, “In the way there are no northerners or southerners.” And this really struck Hongren who decided that this kid had some merit. And he sent him off for nine months to thresh rice. And there's a wonderful story which we'll probably tell more in more detail later in the week about how Hongren ended up recognizing Huineng as his dharma successor, his dharma heir. He gave him the robe and bowl but he knew that Huineng as a barbarian from the south, an illiterate rice thresher and wood cutter would not be respected by the other people in the monastery and so he sent him away. There's one lovely, probably apocryphal story which isn’t in the original sutra of Huineng that he himself, the old teacher, rowed Huineng across the river that separated the south of China from the north of China. And then he sent him on his way. Huineng apparently went on a pilgrimage for two months with the robe and the bowl. Hongren had advised him to wait three years before he started teaching. He suggested that Huineng hold off until the experience had of awakening had penetrated him so thoroughly that he could be an exemplar to others. Meanwhile, back at the monastery the other monks found out about Hongren giving the robe and bowl, giving dharma transmission, to this barbarian. All of the people who Hongren thought would be upset were upset. They all started chasing after him, crossing the river themselves. For two months they chased him and one by one they dropped away, as you can imagine, except for this one guy Huiming who had originally been in the army. He had been a general. And he thought he knew what he wanted. He wanted to get the robe and bowl back from the impostor. The story in the koan begins at the point where Huiming finally catches up with Huineng after two months of running after him, two months of chasing up and down mountains and hills and dales to find this impostor. And Huineng just says, “take the robe and bowl,” and that has a transformative effect on the former general Huiming. This story has so many aspects to it that we thought for 7 days we could probably get something out of it. But what I want to encourage you to do with the stories that you're hearing before I hand the talk over to Mike Sensei is to notice if there were any parts of the story that touched your heart the way Huineng's heart was touched by hearing the Diamond Sutra chanted in the square in his town where he was selling firewood. Because this is what's important. You don't have to memorize everything. You don't have to know everything. Someone said to me recently, a new sitter here at the temple, “I'm beginning to get the idea that this is not about accumulating knowledge. I'm beginning to get the idea that this is about dropping knowledge and not knowing.” This is somebody that's just been sitting for maybe a couple of weeks. Beginner's mind, right? I said, “yeah, yeah, that's right.” I had a little bit of trepidation saying this. Maybe I was affirming him too early, but he was on to something. Huineng is the first truly Chinese teacher. He's the person who pulled it all together. And we can feel the echoes of his teaching in the present version of Zen we teach here at Boundless Way Temple. Everyone has the Buddha nature. So now Mike Sensei is going to take over the talk, and say a few more words to illuminate this great story that has been handed down to us over the centuries. Mike Sensei: So it's quite a remarkable story. This uncultured, uneducated, very poor person enters the monastery. He’s challenged right at the start by Hongren but is able to respond with a kind of faith in something that transcended his personal circumstance. There is no northern or southern ancestor in The Way. There's just human beings. We are all worthy. It's amazing what moved him to make his journey to the monastery in the first place. He was just a young boy struggling to survive, gathering wood, when he heard a line from the Diamond Sutra. The specific words he heard are not recorded in the Platform Sutra, but according to Encounter Dialogues of Dajian Huineng, he overheard the following variously translated phrase: “Give rise to the mind that abides nowhere.” Where is this mind that abides nowhere? Huineng was so moved that he asked his mother if she would support his seeking the dharma, and off he went. He was quite young to be moved by such an esoteric commandment. After Huineng had been practicing for merely eight months at Hongren’s monastary, the fifth ancestor Hongran was looking for a successor to whom he could transmit the robe and bowl, this authority to teach Zen. And so he asked his monks to write poems to express their insight. Huineng wasn't really aware that this competition was happening. He was too busy preparing rice in the kitchen and found out after the fact. Being so new and illiterate, he wasn't even invited to participate in the contest. Two poems were ultimately written, and the first was by the senior monk, Shenxiu. His poem went like this: “The body is a Bodhi tree, / The mind a standing mirror. / Always try to keep it clean / Don't let it gather dust.” Shenxiu was an experienced practitioner who went on to become a teacher himself. His poem offers a teaching that has a certain kind of value to it. Wu-men urges students studying Chao-chao’s mu to “cut off the mind road” or we will become “ghosts clinging to bushes and grasses.” In Zen practice, we are not chasing after thoughts. We are here to wake up. But there is something a little off in this teaching as well. While the practice of not indulging thoughts is important, it can become oppressive rather than liberating. And Huineng realized this, so when he heard this poem, he decided to ask a fellow monk to transcribe and post his response in secret. His response went like this: “Bodhi doesn't have any trees / This mirror doesn't have a stand / Our Buddha nature is forever pure / Where do you get this dust?” Then he composed a second verse: “The mind is the Bodhi tree / The body is the mirror's stand / The mirror itself is so clean / Dust has no place to land.” Huineng’s poems were recognized by the fifth ancestor as a superior expression of the dharma. And Hongran knew that they were composed by Huineng. This is what led to Hongran offering Huineng transmission, then shooing him away from the monastery. As Huineng fled, he was chased. And that's where our koan begins. I think it would be useful to spend some time with Huineng’s poem as a pointer for us as we practice here together. We might have the idea that we come here to change ourselves, that we come here to remove something that we don't like about ourselves or maybe about our lives. We might imagine we can wipe away the dust of our lives and become a pure mirror. We think, “if I can just remove this afflictive emotion of sadness or anger or shame, or if I can perfectly still my mind, then I will be enlightened, and I will suffer no more.” But in my experience, to practice this way is often a spiritual bypass. It is actually painful. And it is not necessary. What arises is what arises. We are not trying to avoid what is present but to see what is present, to bear compassionate witness to whatever arises, and to look into each phenomenon as a dharma gate that reveals our true nature. That true nature, as Huineng suggests, is no fixed nature at all. So there is nothing we need to change. There's nobody else that we need to be. Our true nature is already present manifesting perfectly. It is in our tear drops. It is in our anger. It is in the dust. And so when the monk finally catches Huineng, at first he thinks, I want the robe. But when he realizes that Huineng is unattached to the robe and bowl, he realizes how free Huineng is. He realizes that it is not the robe and bowl he desires most of all but liberation, and so he bows and asks to be taught. This for me is a touching moment in the case. Where that monk says, help me. And it's so interesting that Huineng doesn't respond by saying, oh well let me lay forth some dharma for you. He says, who are you? And so we begin sesshin with Huineng’s question. Who are you? Thank you. Dharma Dialogue Mike Sensei: So if you'd like to make yourself comfortable now is an opportunity for us to have a dharma dialogue. A chance for you to come forth with whatever arose for you in this. Whether it's a question or an objection. Whatever is here for you. What touched you or didn't touch you. Melissa Roshi: And just know that this talk is being recorded so if you don't want to be recorded when you offer your question, objection, insight also that's welcome, we will turn it off briefly and turn if back on after you speak. Student: Thank you both. That was really powerful. Seriously. I'm very moved. But could you both say something about enlightenment that even all these flaws and these emotions that keep arising how that also is enlightenment. Can you please reassure me that it is. Melissa: It is. [laughter] Mike: Next!! [laughter] Melissa: It's hard to believe, right? Student: Yes, it is very hard to believe. Melissa: Yeah, and this was the radical teaching of Chinese Zen that we inherited that was different from Indian Buddhism. Really really different. In Indian Buddhism you have to go through stages. Even modern teachers of original Buddhism talk about going through stages. Going through stages makes sense. And this is what Shinshu said, the head monk who was really respected in the monastery by everybody. His poem about the mirror, that makes sense. And Huineng's poem doesn't really make sense. What?? There's no mirror, they were all metaphors. But how could they...and he elucidates in his sutra, in his writings, he talks about it and then hundreds of years later Dogen talks about it. All the great Zen masters in the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty in China talked about it. It became part of the Great Vehicle teachings which were also inherited by the Tibetan Buddhists. Already accomplished. Actually the Tibetans had their own trajectory that was very similar and overlaps a lot. But this is just so unbelievable. Student: Yes Mike: You know I'd like to add that you know we have to meet ourselves where we are. So if what's arising for me is that I don't believe it, that's the dharma presenting perfectly. I don't believe it. This is not enlightenment. I am not it. Right? Okay, so this is what we meet and we look. Second student: So what's this whole thing about improvement? Do we try to improve our character or is that also part of it? To do it or not do it? Melissa: You know I was just telling these guys a childhood friend of mine just gave me a packet of letters that I wrote when I was in my 20's, forty years ago. I finally got up the nerve to read them. They were letters I had written to her. I couldn't see much difference between the person who was writing those letters and the 65-year-old woman who just gave you this dharma talk. And yet, and yet, I'm not that person anymore. Something's changed. I couldn't have given a dharma talk when I was in my twenties. David Roshi often talks about growth and compassion and wisdom. You know, there definitely is this ripening. The seed of the flower doesn't stay a seed forever. It can't help, and this is what Huineng says, you can't help but realize your enlightenment. But I really want to underline what Mike Sensei said. Don't believe any of this. Stay with the disbelief. That's the source of your own awakening. Third student: So, a moment that’s coming up for me in the koan right now is that moment when the military athletic monk who is sometimes called monk Myo… Melissa: Myo is the Japanese version of the character that is pronounced as Ming in Chinese… Third student:
So Ming catches up after two months of running, you know, swimming across that river, running up and down mountains and not giving up. He puts his hands on the robe and it's like trying to move a mountain. So we can take that if we want as some miraculous happening. Because this is Bodhidharma's robe after all. I don't think we want to do that. So the other place I go is so something has already happened to Ming. He hasn't heard a word yet. He's just you know present...so the question that's coming up for me is: “is there something about just the sheer presence of this lay brother or is it something about those two months? David Rynick, Roshi: Or is he so tired that he has totally exhausted himself and he would lift it up if he could but he has given everything away and nothing's left. Right? Wonderful questions. So these questions come up and they're all alive and true and what is it? What's going on in that moment? And for me it's only when he utterly fails that there's some opening. Usually we want to have success. We want to improve. We want to get what we started. “I came to retreat and I have some goals I want to achieve here.” And I just love how wrong Ming was the whole time, chasing the wrong thing and in the end he can't even pick it up and in his utter failure there's some freedom. Fourth student: I was thinking that same point when the last person said those things. I think of my personal experience when I'm so into trying to get something and then I finally get it and there's almost like this immediate bitter taste in my mouth. Almost like this disgust. And this contains a component of the koan but kind of this strange reality that I have when the thing I've been chasing for so long isn't fulfilling me and I finally get to it. And I wonder if you know what happens to me often is that I just swallow that and I just keep on. But I was wondering if in this story you have to clarify the great matter to see that fully and he continued to pursue that kind of grasping for this security. Bob Waldinger, Sensei: I like that you have a visceral reaction. The bitter taste in you mouth, right? And he starts to sweat, right? There is something embodied about this. Wait, this isn't it. This realization is in the body as well as mind. David: The Buddha called this kind of experience dukkha. There is this sense that we are lacking something and if I just get the next thing, the next electronic device or whatever, if I just have a really good experience, you know, if I get a little oneness -- that’s all I need. But the teaching is that since we aren't lacking to begin with anything we get doesn't make any difference. There are those moments where we sort of get it. And I love what you're saying about the capacity to stay with the bitterness or the disillusionment. To stay long enough that we get melted or something happens to us that we can't contrive. Melissa: I've got to say that I just love this guy Huiming or Ming or Myo, whatever we want to call him. When I first heard this koan, the very first time I heard it from my first teacher in a dharma talk like this, I think at one of my very first sesshins, I just thought, “oh man that's me.” I'm constantly running after stuff and then find out, with that bitter taste, that's not what I wanted. And there's something about his spirit, running for two months. I hadn't really put it together until I did some research that it was two months! That moment of not being able to lift the robe is one of the turning points of this koan. We've got to feel that for ourselves. What would it be like, this moment when we think we've accomplished something. I caught him! I'm going to get the robe and bowl! And then everything just explodes -- it's wiped away. Everything is wiped away. Bob: I want to just add one more thing, which you noticed, which is that a lot of times when this happens to you, you just kind of swallow it and you go on and you look for the next thing to grab onto. And so, how do we not ignore those moments? How do we not swallow them and just push on and do the same thing, try the same thing again and hope that this time it will satisfy us. Because that's such a familiar reaction to me. Fifth student: I think a lot of what I wanted to say has been said but the piece about it with me, although I really admire Ming's tenacity, is that my sense is he's not in charge. We're not in charge of this whole awakening process. We can't say it's going to happen and it can happen to the monk who stayed behind and just sat in his room. And so it's like we think it's got to be something spectacular that gets us through. And yet it's the very ordinariness of our lives that, at least for me, is what's most easily accessible. And even if I chase for something, and I do chase after things, it may happen and it may not. I don't have any control over the process. All I have, control over is my intention to live the precepts. I think that that's for me the first part of what the first monk said. The precepts, the practice, this is what I do. This is what we do here, and in my daily life, is live the precepts. And maybe that makes possible something to arise. And hopefully we'll be able to see it. That's the training, to see it, because it's right here. Mike: Yeah, there is this effort, you know, living the precepts, showing up for sesshin, showing up to sit on time when the bell rings, not moving. There's actually a lot of effort in this effortless path involved in waking up. And there is a sense of surrender involved in it. And I think also seeing things that we may not want to see, that Chogyam Trungpa calls the path of disappointment. “I thought this was going to be a lot better than it is.” We spend a long time making friends with ourselves, making friends with that disappointment. And okay, so what's here? What's here now? Melissa: And you know the irony of all this is that this is Huineng's dharma heir telling a story about their teacher or their teacher's teacher. And from what we can glean from history, the guy who wrote the first poem, Shinshu, was the founder of the northern school of Zen in China. He was a big deal and in the story too, whoever is telling the story, says that he doubted himself. He's actually got a little bit of the Huiming thing. He presented the poem to Hongren, the teacher. He said I think this might be off and don't give me transmission if you agree with me. Which is really great! I think this may be off. That's so cool. He was a cool character, really a great character. Sometimes he’s made out to be a fool but he wasn't. He was actually the instructor of the new monks in the monastery. And then monk Ming himself became a teacher. And again in the historical record it looks like Hongren, the fifth ancestor, had a lot of dharma heirs and Huiming was just one of them. But all those lines died out. Only Huineng's line carried forward into the centuries. It could be that every single person in that monastery woke up to their true nature and were a blessing to the world. I think we have to think maybe yeah. And I think you're pointing that out. Mike: I'll say one more thing -- I also really like a theme that's coming up about the ordinariness. Where we encounter the possibility of awakening is in the ordinary life. You know, wash your bowl. And I think that this can lead to: “aw, there's no such thing as waking up.” And I don't think that's true. I think we can wake up but it won't be what we expect it to be, ever. Melissa: Right. That really comes back to the first person's question. How could it look like this? Mike: Yeah, yeah. David: And so on that note let's come back to our Zen posture.
Huineng's Realization: Dust has No Place to LandHui Neng: Dust Has No Place to Land What follows is a teisho, or Zen dharma talk, transcribed by Joanne Hart and lightly edited by Michael Fieleke, Sensei and me. We had offered it during 2019's Summer Sesshin at the Boundless Way Temple. It's followed by a dharma dialogue, which includes sangha members and Guiding Teachers Bob Waldinger, Sensei and David Rynick, Roshi. This is the first in a series of talks on the Gateless Gate's Case 23, "Think Neither Good Nor Evil," and on Huineng's Platform Sutra. This talk set the scene for the talks that followed and launched our sesshin.