this bright world is yours to discover


The Courage of the Big Cats

Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment
Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Zen practice is sometimes described as the study of the self. This description, in part, arises out of the old story of an interaction between Bodhidharma, Zen's first ancestor in China, and the student who later became his dharma heir, Huike. The story can be found in the koan collection "The Gateless Gate," Case 41. 

In the story Huike says that his mind is not at peace, and he asks Bodhidharma to help him with this. Bodhidharma agrees to help saying, "Bring me your mind, and I will set it at rest." However, after some time, Huike responds by saying, "I have searched for the mind and finally it is unattainable." To which Bodhidharma replies, "I have thoroughly set it at rest for you." (Translation by Thomas Cleary) 

Thus, our earliest Zen role models were engaged in the study of the self, the study of how best to live in a human body and mind. This is the study of what we mean when we say "body and mind." This is the study whose culmination is setting the mind at rest. And when this study yields a result that points to the limits of human conceptual capacity and to the boundlessness of mind, then it begins to show us how we can rest. It's ironic really, particularly when placed in the context of a Western society that highly values the intellect and its capacity for investigation and categorization. Yet, it can be a deeply satisfying experience to come face-to-face with the knowledge that you can't figure something out. That fact is fundamentally a good thing.

In order to see it as a good thing, though, a practitioner must have the courage to face the facts and then consider the potential responses. That is, if you encounter the limits of your concept of mind and react in fear or complacency, then you have missed the opportunity it presents. To say that it is enough simply to lead your life whatever way you like, because it is impossible to understand, is also to waste a whole lifetime of opportunities. So what might be a skillful way to study the self?

Shakyamuni Buddha gave us a pointer about this kind of practice in his teachings called "The Dhammapada." In this text the Buddha teaches:

Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet she indeed is the noblest victor who conquers herself.
The Buddha teaching at Sarnath

The Buddha teaching at Sarnath

The Buddha speaks of conquering one's self, meaning to stop being fooled by one's sense of separation. And what to make of the military reference? For me, it points to the value of courage, perhaps the most important attribute of a warrior. That is, in the study of the self you must have courage - the courage to face the conditions of your life, to face the conditions in the world, to face the nature of suffering and of inconceivability. In fact, the great bodhisattvas, enlightening beings, are usually referred to as mahasattvas as well. "Mahasattva" is a Sanskrit word that can be literally translated to mean "great being" but its roots and connotation provide more nuance. The term mahasattva originally referred to the large cats - lions and tigers - as noble, courageous beasts. Later it came to be associated with people who were also noble and courageous. 

So today I encourage you to have the courage of the big cats. I ask you to consider how you might find the courage to face your life, to face a world which seems to be separate from you. I encourage you to face the desire to separate from the world, and to have the courage not to turn away, but to turn toward it. Study the desire to build a wall and have the courage to step across that divide, toward a self that is incredibly more vast than any wall could contain.






The Bigger Picture

Study & Arts, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

In Zen we often speak about the study of the self, about checking into our experience and what it really means. Yet, if the study of the self begins and ends only with this body and mind, only with the perceptual realm that you can explore, then it will always be a limited view, a biased view, and a one sided view.

It will never be able to fully encompass all that is the Self. Pointing at this Dogen writes, “…the true human body is the entire universe.” One could equally say that the true human mind is the whole universe.

So what is it to study the true human body, the true human mind?

Recently, I read a quote about finding your soul and your soulmate. But what if you are so completely interconnected with all things that there is nothing permanent about you? What if you are so completely defined by the temporal arising of all things known and unknown that you cannot even identify something that is the core? Wouldn’t that be a world in which you become incredibly vast, incredibly fluid, incredibly connected?

More poetically, Dogen describes it thus, “…mountains, rivers, and the Earth, and the sun, moon and stars are mind.”

Pelican Galaxy photo by NASA

Pelican Galaxy photo by NASA


And yet you certainly can’t deny that there is a particularity about you. There is a grouping of physical attributes which tend to hang together to form your body. There is a consciousness, one that is full of thoughts, feelings, tendencies, history, hopes. So there is no reason to deny the unique temporal arising that is bounded by your physical and mental state. It is as much as anything else is, which isn’t much.

From the perspective of Zen Buddhism, holding both of these perspectives simultaneously is a sound view. Both things are true; they, in fact, inform each other and rely on each other. Together these perspectives enable a view that brings you into harmony with the true nature of reality. It is a view that enables you to be in accord with everything, whether you are attracted to or aversive to it.

This view of the interdependence of all things has many implications. It implies that what you do matters, because it impacts all other things. It implies that there is nothing that is static or independent or permanent. It implies emptiness inherent in form.

However, the aspect that I want to focus on today is that this view implies that there is more to life than what meets the eye. It implies that our bodies and minds can be vehicles for transformation, and for experiencing even things that are completely beyond the realm of what we can perceive. This is not mysticism. It is simply acknowledging that the human sense experience is limited, but what it means to be human is not. And that teaching is important, because without that context we are simply swirling around in the world of our biases, and our psychology, and the arbitrary boundaries that we draw around ourselves and others. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with that swirling, but to say that simply abiding there doesn’t lead to freedom from suffering.

Ryoanji garden in Kyoto, Japan

Ryoanji garden in Kyoto, Japan

Thus Dogen Zenji states, “Neither the great elements nor the smallest particles can be wholly realized by the common person, but they are mastered in experience by the sages.” Sekkei Harada Roshi intones, “This thing, which you think is yourself, is neither you nor anyone else.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi explained, “Don’t be bothered by your mind.” I say do not be defined by your mind.