This talk was transcribed by Joanne Hart, from a teisho that I gave at the 2018 Rohatsu Sesshin. While it may feel like December 2018 was a lifetime ago, I am amazed at how the teachings of the Great Way are relevant no matter what is happening. Could the pandemic be yet another example of the awakened heart?
The Record of Transmitting the Light: Case One
Shakyamuni Buddha saw the morning star and was enlightened, and he said, “I and the great earth and beings simultaneously achieve the way.”
Keizan's verse: A splendid branch issues from the old plum tree. At the same time obstructing thorns flourish everywhere.
Keizan, the collector of the koan collection “The Record of Transmitting the Light” says in his verse, praising Shakyamuni Buddha, “A splendid branch issues from the old plum tree.” The plum tree is such a beautiful image. But Keizan doesn’t rest in that beauty. He immediately says, “at the same time obstructing thorns flourish everywhere.” And this leads to a question: if Shakyamuni Buddha had perfect and complete enlightenment how can there be obstructions? How can there be thorns? It’s the mind of dualistic thinking that asks this question. We say to ourselves, “perfect and complete awakening must be free of anything that I don't like.” But the teaching of this Mahayana way of ours, the teaching of Zen, is that everything without exception is already the awakened mind, the awakened heart. There are no exceptions. How could that be? I know there are exceptions because look at me. I'm such an idiot. Look at me -- I just make mistakes all the time. Look at me -- and the mind fills in an endless list of faults and places we could be different, and better. Because this is what we human beings do. And we think that if we can just sweep everything away and create some kind of perfect clarity in ourselves, that will be permanent and we'll be all set. As my first teacher used to say, then you can retire and move to Florida. But really? Is that what anyone's experience is? Shakyamuni Buddha himself had a really hard time in his life. From our perspective, being a Buddha sounds really good. He was, after all, the Awakened One. So much light came off of him that everyone he met was impressed. But he too had to eat and pee and sleep and find clothing and shelter. He was, more than anything, a human being like us.
Everyone here has had a moment when everything drops away. This is a common experience that we humans have, even if it’s very tiny and forgotten almost immediately. In the middle of the endless narrative that we tell ourselves about right and wrong and good and bad, every once in a while it just drops away. And this dropping away is what we call awakening. Dogen said, “body and mind dropped away; dropped away are body and mind” and his teacher, to affirm him, said, “body and mind dropped away; dropped away body and mind” because what else can you say? Whatever you say can't describe it and yet we do come up with these words and natter on. But that moment when everything drops away, suddenly it's only the color of the wood floor with no words attached, or the taste of soup or the sunlight coming through the window. It could be so many things. And then immediately the mind comes in with the endless narrative and says. “oh great! I had that experience. I can't wait to get to dokusan and tell one of the teachers about it! I've made it! I can now retire and move to Florida!” But we can’t stay in that place -- the reality is we have to keep coming back.
As Keizan says in another place, the waves and the ocean are two different iterations of the self. And the ocean is the awakened mind with everything clear. The dharmakaya. But the waves keep forming because waves keep forming. The self keeps forming. It's the way we are somehow functioning as human beings. In another place Keizan says it's not just human beings. It's everything, everything, everything. And so if it's a problem to be a wave then what good is being the ocean? In one place in Keizan's commentary he quotes from “The Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage” -- that ultimately if you wish to know the undying person in the hut how could it be something separate from this present skin bag? This is the teaching, how could it be anything but this? How could we keep that little precious moment of clarity safe from harm? Well we can't. Because the safety and the harm are both examples of the awakened heart.
In Case 40 in the Blue Cliff Record, a public official who's a Zen student comes to Nanchuan. And he tells Nanchuan, quoting an old priest, that everything is one body. Everything is just this, just this, and isn't that wonderful! And Nanchuan doesn't respond to him with words. He simply takes him out to the garden and points to a flower and says people these days see this flower as if they were in a dream. When we talk about awakening this is what we're talking about. Awakening from the dream of the separate self or the self that's somehow separate -- there's a mind and there's a body. Awakening from the delusion that the parts of ourselves that we don't like are not the awakened parts. And I'm here to tell you once again -- everything is it.
So that means that my fear that I felt pulsing through my body before I started talking this morning is an example of the heart of awakening. I don't like it. I used to have a thought that someday I would no longer be afraid when I gave a dharma talk. When I was younger I was so afraid when James Ford started having me give talks that I couldn't sleep the night before and I would always get a migraine and then I would give a talk. And I don't think anybody knew except the people I told because the talk talked itself. And yet my mind kept saying, “someday you're going to be free of this. Someday you will be awakened completely and nothing will get in your way.” And over the years what I've discovered is being afraid before giving a talk is not a problem. It's just being afraid before giving a talk. That's it. Whatever happens, maybe a migraine, maybe sleeplessness, maybe shakiness, maybe forgetting what I was going to say and getting lost, that's the talk. No matter what we plan to say the talk talks itself. And ultimately we have to get out of our own way. Not through splitting the self into pieces but through being one body arising now as fear, now as sadness, now as anger, now as joy, now as clarity, now as compassion, now as happiness. It doesn't matter what form the self takes because it's just waves coming up from this vast ocean. The waves take these forms and when we actually wake up we begin to see this truth that Keizan is pointing to, that Nanchuan is pointing to. That all masters of the past and present and hopefully the masters of the future will point to. That this is it and whenever we make an exception, and here's the weird tricky thing, even making the exception, even being deluded, even thinking “someday I will not be nervous any more” is it, too. There are no loopholes. None whatsoever, and the loopholes are it, too. Everything is it.
If we actually can honor this in our lives then this is the awakened life. It doesn't look any different from the unawakened life and yet there's a little bit of a hairsbreadth difference that makes everything, everything different. So no matter what's happening for us, no matter where we get caught, to recognize being caught is happening. Being lost, being confused is happening. Being in the dream of our endless narratives and stories about the way things are, this is it, too. And then we wake up and the world is waiting to offer itself to us in the form of that flower of Nanchuan's. In the form of our wildly beating heart. In the form of the stories we get lost in. This is the promise of this practice.