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Excerpts from
Sesshin Lectures

Green Gulch Farm, August 1985

by Jusan Ed Brown

[Sesshin is a period of five to seven days devoted to sitting meditation. At SFZC there is often a zen talk given each day. Sometimes the talks are linked around a common theme related to the practice of sesshin.]

Here we are again, sitting together...breathing. How is it for you? How is your breath? Relaxed? Tight? Smooth? Jerky? Shallow? Deep? How is the body and mind of the present? The breath of the present? Welcome home. Here we are. Welcome to the indescribable present. An old Zen teacher once said, "Just to take this posture is to have the right state of mind." Funny business, this "right" state of mind, because it is not right compared to something wrong. This "right mind" is not determined by comparing, judging, evaluating, or measuring, so you cannot say, "Ah ha, now I've got it!" Right mind is exactly here. How is it for you? And exactly here is not something special--it's just not "somewhere else." So this week, during meditation, we practice being here, exactly here: walking, sitting, standing, lying, breathing, eating, or working. Don't go off somewhere else, and, if you do, come back. That's a joke, you know, because where else could you be but here! Yet we need to do it, to practice being here.

Now you may notice that we have a kind of addiction, a habit of wanting to always be right, of wanting to do the right thing. When we start practicing meditation, we say, "What am I supposed to do? What should I do? How do I do it right?" The answer is to stop asking those questions. Do you understand? The point is to find out what is actually happening, exactly here. When you look closely, you will find that the "supposed to" or "should" is not found in what is actually happening, but is something we add.

We think that, "if I do what I am supposed to do, everything will work out just the way "It" is supposed to work out." Of course this is ridiculous but we still believe it.

I mean, really? Starting when? How could you decide, how would you ever know that you were doing what you were supposed to be doing? When everything works out the way it is supposed to work out right? And since that never happens, you know you must have done something wrong. "But I just did what I was supposed to do." Fine, but does the universe actually work that way? What a bind to put yourself in.

So, instead of asking what you are supposed to do, try asking, "What do I really want...what do I really want right now, exactly here?" Asking this question may seem quite formidable, it may seem difficult. Just doing what you should was so simple and now you have to figure it out: "Oh me, oh my, it would be up to me! I'd have to decide. I could be blamed. What am I to do?"

So what do I really want? Do I really think it is possible to make everything work out just the way it is supposed to work out, if only I behaved properly, correctly, or perfectly? No? Then what do I really want? This is something to work on, something that may require some digging. Do I want to control things better? Or, realizing that I cannot control things, do I want to find composure right on this spot? Do I want to be the slave of every whim that comes along? Or do I want to be free and unmoved? Do I want to be stonelike and unmoved, removed? Or in intimate contact, touching and touched by others? To find out what I want I have to dig and I have to sift, to sort through a lot of earth. Hard work, heavy work, a coming down to earth, but how else will I be able to take root, moment after moment, exactly where I am?

Let's sit quietly, breathing a full, warm, open breath. In this quietness, what is your way? What would be worthy of respect? What would be worthy of devotion? What will you take time for? Will you take some time to breathe? Will you take some time to make yourself at home right where you are? Are you willing to settle here, exactly here, this body, this mind? What is it like? Spending time with yourself, making yourself at homet--this is meditation. Naturally, we sometimes get concerned about whether we are doing "good" meditation or "bad"meditation, but that is missing the point.

There is tremendous power in unearthing, in recognizing distracted, scattered mind, the mind which would rather be anywhere but here, and spending some time there, with that mind. Rather than being an anonymous voice from the dark bossing you around, scattered mind is someone you can sit down and hang out with.

One of the basic practices of our meditation is following the breath. When we follow the breath continuously, evenly, we are developing another kind of mind, a mind that is not concerned with how the breath should be, but a m ind which can just be with the breath, exactly, precisely. The mind that can stay with the breath is subtle, soft, tender, warm, caring. We say "the mind which can stay with the breath," but that is not quite right. It is not a mind different than the breath, it is the mind of the breath. The breath itself is this mind. So we practice letting go of the mind of accomplishing, attaining, and achieving. We practice entering the mind of the breath, settling into the mind of breathing. This is opening, unfolding, blossoming--but we can't rush it. It's the work of a lifetime. Our breath is not just in front of our body, but in the back, the stomach, the shoulders. We can touch the pain in our body with the breath softening around the pain; breath inside breath; breath welcoming home the breath.

I call the fourth day of sesshin "Limp Day." By the fourth day, we have discovered our limp. We realize we can't breeze through, untouched, unscathed....So what about your limp? Are you hiding it? Hiding from it?...And have you found your dog's teeth, the strength and determination to do what you want, what you really want, and risk limping? Now that you can't walk swiftly or easily, can you guess where your defect is? Our suffering is in not being willing to limp. Our freedom is to dance on one bad leg!

Irmagard Schloegl, who teaches Zen in London, uses a metaphor about a dog to bring up what Zen practice is about. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time you were living with a dog in a big house. Sometimes the dog did not behave properly, especially when guests came over. So one day you locked the dog in the basement. The dog howled mournfully, barked loudly, so you moved up to the second floor. Occasionally, you could still hear the dog, so you moved up to the third floor, and finally the attic. What a nice view! And no need to be bothered by barking, misbehaving dogs. The house is neat and tidy--no problems here!

But one day it occurs to you, "Oh me, oh my, I locked the dog in the basement and just left him there. How awful, and he was such fun to have around. My life has been rather empty since then, rather dry and predictable. I wonder if I could ever be friends with him again?"

So you make your way down to the basement. You get down there and the dog snarls at you. "But I want to be your fiend," you say. The dog just snarls. He only knows you have locked him up. I f you want to make friends with the dog it takes some time. You'll need to be patient, you'll need to be inventive. You push the food over to him with a long pole. You arrange to let him out into the yard. Little by little, you make friends.

Do you understand? That dog in the basement is not just a dog in the basement. That dog is not inherently a dog, but is a dog because of the way we have treated ourselves. We snarl when we have locked ourselves up in the basement. But that dog is our great energy, our tremendous vitality, our pain and hurt that we have pushed away. Then we wonder why we feel so unalive!

What would it be like to welcome yourself home, to welcome home your whole body and mind. To make it all right to be here? No more worry about not being good enough, no more worry about not being perfect. Welcome home. What would it be like? Think about it carefully. What kind of mind would that dog open up to? What kind of mind would you be willing to feel vulnerable with? You can't just barge up to the dog, and say, "What the hell's the matter with you anyway?" Maybe you say to the dog, "I'm going to be sitting quietly, and if you have anything to tell me, drop by. I'd love to see you."

So we have to watch what we say to ourselves, what we call things. Suppose my neck hurts and I say, "you really are a pain--get lost." How am I going to feel? Terrible. My neck will hurt: "He hates me. He wants me to just go away. He doesn't want to have anything to do with me. I'm going to bark and howl, and when that gets no response, I'm going to lie down and dog it! To hell with him. He just bosses me around and expects me to do what he says. Well, forget it!"

But try calling the pain Buddha, try calling it Dharma. Your neck is hurting. That is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Gee, and we thought it was a pain in the neck!

Buddhism gives us many tools, many practices to do this work. But we often get it wrong, thinking that our practice is to better tame the dog, when it is more to the point to get the keeper to lighten up. It is so difficult to be here because we are so hard on ourselves, so demanding, so judgmental. Who would want to hang around here with someone like that? Let me out of here. Our energy deserts us, or propels us along with underlying resentment, anger, and hatred. So it helps to lighten up.

I want to tell you something which Dogen Zenji says about sitting. I take this as a metaphor for any time you are exactly with things-as-they-are, "not wishing," as Dogen says,"for more color and brightness":

At the very time of sitting, examine thoroughly whether the universe is horizontal or vertical. At this very time, what is this sitting itself? Is it wheeling about in perfect freedom? Is it like the spontaneous vigor of fish swimming? Is it sitting within sitting? Is it sitting within body and mind? Or is it sitting which has castoff sitting within sitting, sitting within body and mind and the like?

In this way, while sitting, examine thoroughly thousands and tens of thousands of such details. It is a body sitting. It is a mind sitting. It is a body and mind which have cast off sitting, cast off sitting within sitting, sitting within body and mind.

Do you know this place? Suddenly the thread breaks, and you plunge into the darkness. Only, it's not dark there! It's just not the way you thought it would be; breathing, physical sensations, feeling, emotions, an arrow in the Western Sky. Welcome home. Where have you been?

Reprinted from the Wind Bell San Francisco Zen Center

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