A Natural Action
Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman
You know, if you just think about it a moment, it's simply awesomely, amazingly wonderful just to be alive! Just to be alive is awesome. It's a wonderful gift, and especially on a beautiful spring day like this. But you know, it took me a lot of years of meditation practice, and a heart attack, before I really got it that just to be alive is awesome. As I was walking out of the hospital having survived a heart attack about eleven years ago now, I had this thought: "Wow! I could be dead. The rest of my life is just a gift." And then I thought: "Well, it always has been a gift from the very beginning and I never noticed it until it was almost gone." I think that is true of many of us, that we don't notice what a gift it is just to be alive. How could we not notice? Well, we sort of take it for granted.
But this gift is not without its problems, as you may have noticed. One of these problems is actually the thing that made me realize how awesome it was, and what a gift it was, and how much I appreciated it, and that was the fact that it is evanescent, it's impermanent. It's precious because you can't just take it for granted. We have this gift for some time, and so the question comes up for us: "Well, that being the case, how shall I use it, or how shall I give it back, or how shall I express my appreciation for it, or how shall I live this life which is wonderful and evanescent?"
Suzuki Roshi talks about the story of the four horses. One of the horses starts to run just seeing the shadow of the whip, before it even touches him. The next one starts to run just having the whip touch the hair of its skin. And the third horse starts to run when it really feels the pain of the whip on its skin. And the fourth horse doesn't really get going until it feels the whip in the marrow of its bones. And what is this whip? This whip is just that evanescence of life–just that teaching of impermanence. It's not a teaching really, it's just what is.
One of the Buddha's most significant teachings is to hold impermanence up for us to see, but, actually, it is just how things are, if you look at anything, anytime, anywhere. All things are impermanent. There is a Pali chant that goes,
“All things are impermanent/ They arise and they pass away./ To live in harmony with this truth/ Brings great happiness.”
I don't know why those of you who came today for the first time came. Why are you here? Why is anyone here? The reason I'm here is that I began to notice that all things are impermanent, including myself. I first came to practice the first time I almost died, and then I really came to recognize what a joy it is to be alive the second time I almost died. Now maybe that's like the fourth horse, right? I didn't get it till it really got to the marrow. But, you know, maybe it's not so bad to be the fourth horse because when it gets to the marrow, you've got it through and through. You don't think: "Well, maybe it's not...maybe just some things are impermanent; maybe, not me...maybe I'll live forever. Or, maybe, whatever I love will live for ever...or maybe it's not really true." So we may try to bargain with it or get into denial about it. But somehow, if we're lucky, we do come to understand "things-as-it-is," and that this is actually the life we are living.
So then the question of how do we live it becomes really urgent for us. It's not going to last forever; I just have a limited amount of time to live in a way that feels satisfying to me, that feels right, that feels in consonance with the way things are. "To live in harmony with this truth brings great happiness," the Pali chant says.
When I first came to Zen Center I heard Suzuki Roshi say, "Just to be alive is enough." It just went right past me and it may be going right past you right now. I can't help it. I just put it out there, and you take a look at it and decide what it means to you. But I do think that we become curious about Zen practice, or any kind of religious discipline, when we begin to run into some of the difficulties of life, and then the question of how to live with those difficulties becomes a live one for us. Or, we may notice that how we are living doesn't feel quite right. Or the fixed ideas that you have don't seem to hold up on closer examination.
Now, it doesn't say that an unsurpassed, penetrating and perfect Dharma is rare–that is just the truth of things-as-it-is, and it is always in front of you every moment of your life. It is right here. It's nowhere else. But, it says "I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagatha's words." I vow to taste the truth of how things really are. I vow to see directly. Taste is a very intimate sense–it's not out there–you get it right here on your tongue. Right here in your body. I think that is what the heart attack did for me. I got it right up close and personal. Each of us has some experience in our own life where we taste directly, personally, right here, the way things are, and that changes our life. We look at our life and we say, "This life is not in harmony with the way things are. That's why I'm always uncomfortable. So how do I bring myself into harmony with the actuality of this life?"
Kobun Chino [Roshi, a disciple of Suzuki Roshi] said something once in a sesshin [seven day meditation retreat] talk. He said, when you realize how precious your life is, and that how you manifest it, and how you live it, is completely your responsibility, that is such a big responsibility that, naturally, such a person sits down for a while! It is not an intended action; it is a natural action.
Some of you came here today for meditation instruction, for zazen instruction, for instruction in how to just sit. Now, why do you need instruction in how to just sit? There was a wonderful young man who came to Tassajara in the early days when Tassajara was quite new. He came to the gate and he said, “I want to come in and be a Zen monk.” Whomever he was talking to said to him, “Have you ever sat?” This was not his “native language” so he kind of took that in and considered it for a bit, looking perplexed. Finally he drew himself up to his full height and he said, “All men have sat!”
So why would you need to have instruction in just sitting? But you know, just sitting doesn't mean merely sitting. It means completely sitting: not doing anything else, just sitting. I don't know if you've noticed, probably you have, that when you sit down intending to just sit, there is a lot going on! I think we don't really notice how active our mind is until we sit still with the intention of not deliberately thinking. Even though we are not deliberately thinking, a lot of thinking is going on! At least that is my experience. I had no idea how completely, incessantly, busily active my mind was until I sat down with the intention of just being still, and just being quiet, and not grasping the thoughts that came along.
So, one of the reasons we need some instructions in how to just sit is to get some help with what might support us in letting some of that busyness, in just going along without grabbing onto it, like paying attention to posture and paying attention to breath. Paying attention to what's happening right here and right now, which is this physical body, whatever sensations there might be, and breathing. Most of the stuff that's going on in our mind is not about what's happening right here and right now. Just check it out some time and see. Most of the stuff that is going on in our mind is either chasing after the past or chasing after the future, or worrying about the future, and regretting, or rehashing, or chewing over the past incessantly. And figuring out who to blame for all our difficulties! It takes us a long time to realize that there is no one to blame, and to just be willing to be here. There is no blame. It's just what's happening.
I was invited last Wednesday to participate in a spirituality discussion group. My friend said they were going to be giving some attention to what do we do in the situation where there has been some real loss, where things are never going to be the same again. Someone you know and love has died; you have had a catastrophic illness, or an accident, or something has occurred that feels like a terrible loss that can't be recovered; that really things are different now. How do you work with that?
This was a very interesting discussion. People checked in and talked about their lives. Some of them had had some loss which they could relate to this question, but really it was just talking about how things were going, and how to arrive at some ease and comfort in our life, or some feeling of composure. One person said a very interesting thing. He said, "Things are going pretty well for me now, but I just noticed today that, even though everything is fine, I have this kind of worried uneasiness, not about anything in particular, and it seems strange when everything is going fine." I thought, this teaching that there is suffering in the midst of joy is right there in what he's saying: this kind of worried uneasiness that, although everything is fine now, something might happen and it won't be fine. So that, even in the midst of “everything is fine,” he can't fully be there and enjoy it. He can't fully participate in “everything is fine.”
Have any of you ever had that kind of experience? It's a very common human experience. It's putting our mind into the future and imagining it in many ways. We imagine that, if only it could be this way, then it would be all right; or it's fine now, but what if this happens? We have all kinds of ways of imagining the future that distract us from actually living in the present. What this just sitting, what this zazen is, is really practice about living in the present so that we can actually manifest this precious life in a way that feels satisfying to us, a way that feels right, a way that is consonant with our inner understanding of the Dharma, of the truth.
Shortly before he died, William Butler Yeats said, "If I had to put it in a single phrase, I would say that one can live the truth, but one can really not know the truth, and I must express the truth with the remainder of my life." So I can live the truth, but cannot know it, and I must express it with the remainder of my life.
This reminds me of something that the Japanese founder of this particular stream of Zen said about one of the precepts. He said, "To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. Its virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable. We just accept it with respect and gratitude." It is unfathomable. We cannot know it. The inconceivable really is inconceivable! That's why we call it the inconceivable. But we still try to find a way to grab onto it. I do, don't you? What is it?
I don't know how many of you went to Stephen Batchelor's Millennium's Edge lecture last week, but he was talking about a willingness to live in perplexity, a willingness to live in the realm of not knowing. This is quite difficult. We can expound the Dharma with this body, we can live the truth; we just can't grab it. It's not graspable, and that's okay. We can feel it in our body when we are out of line with it. That's why Kobun says it's such a big responsibility that, naturally, such a person sits down for awhile. We want to attune ourselves carefully to our body and mind so that we can notice when we are out of line with our deepest intention, so that we can feel it when we are out of line with our deepest intention. We want to cultivate that intimate knowing without words and ideas, that intimacy with our self, so that we can tell if we are living our life the way we really want to. What is it? Just tuning in with our self, with our fundamental nature, our fundamental human nature, which sometimes in Buddhism is also called Buddha Nature.
Suzuki Roshi says that our zazen is a human being practicing true human nature. Now this Buddha nature that we talk about is not something mysterious or arcane. “Buddha” just means “awake,” “one who is awake.” So we find out how to align ourselves, how to be awake and to align ourselves with our true intention, with our true being, with the wisdom and compassion that is already inherent in each being, including you. You are not the one single exception to the fact that all beings are Buddha. We are not that special!
I’m going to read you the whole quotation from Kobun which I mentioned earlier. I like this quotation very much.
© Zenkei Blanche Hartman, 2000