The Oneness of Two

Edited from a talk by Katherine Thanas

Reprinted from Sangha: Newsletter of the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Zen Centers, January, 2002.

[On Sunday, July 21, 2002, Sobun Katherine Thanas will be installed as Abbess of the Santa Cruz Zen Center. Congratulations to Sobun Sensei and the Santa Cruz Sangha!]

When we look at the surface of our lives, we make judgments such as "I'm a failure," or "I'm pretty good." "That was a great period of zazen or a terrible period." Although such views often alternate with each other, they can obscure the deeper truth that the alternation is the reality, and that "failure" can lead to a deep healing, "success" to suffering, or a "negative" experience to an opening of wholeness in our lives.

Our discriminating minds surf ordinary consciousness in familiar patterns. To journey below the surface usually requires something unusual, a traumatic event. Sometimes this happens spontaneously and sometimes it happens through intention, through the will to face the circulating mind until deeper layers are reached.

The imperative of dropping from the surface to the center arises when life brings us a situation we cannot resolve with our ordinary mind. We can call this situation a koan, something which appears as a paradox. A koan may also be a traditional case from the historical Buddhist record. Resolution of a koan can give us a direct experience of the oneness of life.

Blue Cliff Record Case #2: "The Ultimate Path is Without Difficulty, Only Avoid Picking and Choosing" is a traditional koan which we studied recently to explore the basis of our decision making. In order to experience not picking and choosing, each student selected a situation in his or her life and took on the practice of being choiceless in that situation for one week in order to experience freedom from choice, the very point the koan is addressing.

A choiceless practice requires that we actually limit ourselves to not choosing in a particular situation (which we had chosen ourselves for this class), and it can reveal the wholeness of our body and mind, of 'inside' and 'outside,' 'good' and 'bad'. When we suspend picking and choosing, things can be seen as the multiple aspects of one reality.

Practicing with the precepts invariably leads us into the realm of picking and choosing. Most precepts address areas of our lives where self-interest conflicts directly with the interests of others. Precepts provide endless opportunity to catch the wriggling of the body-mind.

One of the three pure precepts is "Embracing and Sustaining all Beings." In the Lotus Sutra, there is a story of a monk who went around bowing to everyone and saying "I would never disparage you, because you will become Buddha some day." He relinquished study, incense offering and other practices, and simply bowed deeply to everyone. That was his sole practice.

This story touched me because shortly before I read it I had noticed some wavering of my mind when I thought of other faith communities. Not knowing other communities well, my mind filled in the gap by casting a doubtful shadow over them. Catching myself at this, I wondered why I unconsciously disparaged things I did not understand. This practice of "I cannot, I dare not disparage you," spoke to my heart. I reflected on what it would take to do this continuously, with each person and each situation, being willing to experience whatever might arise if we let each person fill their own space untouched by our need to diminish them because of our insecurity, competitiveness, discomfort, or anxiety. Ultimately this practice could lead us to catch disparaging thoughts of self.

Because precepts reveal the endless self-interest of our choices, they are especially helpful in pointing out how the mind makes endless separation into self and other. The precepts of Not Lying and Not Speaking of the Faults of Others point to the places where we consciously or unconsciously distort things; they invite us to examine our intention to misrepresent, or withhold, some aspect of the truth, When we catch ourselves doing this, we might explore an unrecognized intention to cause disrespect or disharmony between people. We also can discover that violating these precepts usually is done when we speak behind someone's back. Being clear and forthright, speaking from the front, takes courage and confidence.

Exploring our motivations for slander calls attention to feelings of being one-up or one-down in relationships. If we feel diminished by someone's actions or accomplishments, and look closely at that feeling, we might see it as a product of our karmic consciousness and not inherent in the situation. Why does someone else's good fortune or achievement penetrate us as if it lessens us? If we feel someone has harmed us, what was our part in that interaction? Looking deeply into the struggles of the ego can reveal our unresolved sense of place in the world.

Taking on a vow not to disparage others for one week can show us hidden motivations and apprehensions. We have no idea what circumstances will arise in our life during this week, but we have taken on the discipline of attending to our language, to the verbal exchanges we have with others and also within ourselves.

Realizing this teaching in our bodies, in our thoughts, through our labyrinthian feelings and perceptions, is hard. The mind can mutate like a virus. As soon as you corner it over here, it may move over there. How do you track this mind? Unless you take a specific practice, a precept practice or something else, and simply watch the mind squirm either as stuck, or as endlessly transforming energy , we may not notice the wholeness of our consciousness where the opposites create and depend upon each other. One teacher expressed it: when you think 'good' the idea of 'bad' is already there.

Understanding Buddhism is not simply reading the teachings, but taking them into the body. The joy of practice is experiencing the release into wholeness when the exhausted mind and ego relax into the truth of oneness.

Copyright Katherine Thanas, 2002

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