Dining Room Lecture

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I vow to face the truth of the Tathagata's words. So last week I gave a talk here and I talked about a koan from the Blue Cliff Record. And tonight I'm going to give a talk, I'm going to talk about the same case. And repetition is okay in Zen, because it's never the same. Sometimes I think, someone came to talk to me this morning in Dagestan and they said to me, Every time I come to see you and talk to you, I have the same question. And it made me think, I think for many of us, I know for myself,


that it feels like my whole life is the same question. What the hell's going on? Something like that. Sometimes I try to pretty it up and say it's, my question is being fully alive or something like that. You know, I'm doing a yoga retreat with Anne and a bunch of other people, Anne O'Brien and Anne Baker. And in the middle of our retreat, the Buddha tray would come in, you know, this offering to Buddha. And it's so striking, you know, in the midst of that activity, to have something like this happen.


You know, here is the Buddha mind, the Buddha heart is being nurtured, is being nourished. And before the physical body, you know. What is that nurturing? How is it, how is it enabled? What is it to nurture your spiritual being? What is it to nurture the aliveness of our inquiry into our life, our engagement? What is it to nurture the fortitude, the brilliance, the patience that goes beyond egocentric thinking? So last time when I talked about this, I was talking about, you know, contrasting alive and dead and the struggle for survival.


You know, which is a wonderfully sneaky thing, you know. Sometimes habit becomes I have to have, you know. I have to read the newspaper before I go to work or I have to have a cup of coffee or something of that nature. It's a wonderful game of treasure hunting to search through your lives for the things you have to do or have to have to survive. Most of them are amazing. They're amazing because they don't really make sense. But somehow they glue our life together. And it's like the great matter of birth and death is like my Jushri sword.


It cuts up this stream of preoccupation, this inner dialogue, this wondering and worrying that we keep going through. Is everything going to be okay? Am I going to get what I want, avoid what I don't want? And something just interjects. So very mischievously, as the dhoan was bringing in the buddha tray this morning and then did the offering and then was about to take it off the altar, I took her by the wrist and asked her a question. It's a dangerous world here at sensei. You never know. And... But I asked her a question because I felt very close to her.


Having done dogesan, I just felt this deep appreciation for the people I spoke to, for all of you working here this summer. The patience, the diligence, the sincerity of your practice. And for this wonderful place and my own years of practice here and the many people who've practiced here. Like a great buddha body. And in my imagination, the zendo is like the navel of the buddha body. And then this offering comes right into the middle of the buddha body. Here, buddha. What is it? What is the offering and how do you know if it's nourishing the buddha body?


Is your spiritual life being nourished? Enlivened? Is something lightening? Some seeing? Some curiosity? About who you are and what your interactions are all about? Do these have-tos that sew your life together, can they become curios? Can they become something that you look at? How about that? What a strange and wonderful thing. Just that. So somehow when our questioning can come from a place of connection. Not an accusation. Not a competition.


Not an oppression. What's going on here? What's this amazing, wonderful thing? What's happening here? What is it? The great matter of birth and death. Happening here, right in the buddha body. That we are all part of. How could we not be? How could we not be? So I'm going to say a little bit more and then I'm going to read the case. And then we're going to have questions. And then we have to, have to end by 9.20. Let's see.


The Inu has given me a stern warning. Not to repeat last week's catastrophe. So sometimes life and death. Besides being a wonderful play. It's hard to know where's the life and where's the death. Here's a story I read recently. It was about a man. He lived up in Washington. And he had a house and the sun was shining on it. So he planted maple trees along the south side. And the trees started to grow up. And they were, oh, I don't know, 10, 12 feet tall. And these aphids came. First of all, one or two. And then pretty soon, there were just masses of aphids all over the leaves. You know? And his neighbors came and said, Oh, here's how you get rid of aphids.


You know, you spray them with this. And he didn't do it. And then his mother came and she said, Well, wash them off. You know, just use water. And he thought, that's a good idea. And he didn't do that either. And then the aphids started to eat the leaves. And he was thinking, I wonder what's going to happen. You know, the aphids are eating the leaves. And if they keep eating all the leaves, the trees will die. And I don't want the trees to die. You know? So it turns out that aphids, when they're doing their thing, they secrete a sweet substance. And so pretty soon, the tree was covered with this kind of sweet substance. And then yellow jackets and hornets and wasps and other kinds of flies and insects started to come.


And of course, this guy was nobody's fool. Because as we all know, what eats aphids is ladybugs. So he was watching for the ladybugs. A whole week passed. Leaves are falling. No ladybugs. Another week passed. One or two ladybugs. And then eventually, the ladybugs just came in swarms. So. So is that a happy ending? Or is that an unhappy ending? What if you're an aphid? How would you like a big ladybug chomping you down? By the dozen. You and your brothers and your sisters. What is it to just let life unfold?


What is it to not rush in and fix it? I got a phone call today from someone who had been here during the no-risk in May. And he was telling me how his son had a recurrence of melanoma. And he was on this brand new experimental treatment. And ferocious. They just take your system apart. They lower your immune system. They give your body this incredible chemotherapy. And then they build your immune system back up. And then I got a phone call today saying, it's not working. So sometimes life and death doesn't seem like a cute puzzle.


Are you a ladybug or an aphid? Sometimes it's stark. It's more evident and impactful than we want it to be. So how do we, as Zen practitioners, realize we're always coursing in this stream of life and death? How do we wake up from the dream of survival? This anxious preoccupation with flights of desire and aversion and fear and regret.


How do we do that? So here's the Zen way. First step, get in touch with what's going on. Second step, shut up and listen. Sometimes called silent illumination. Third step, just keep learning what the heck's going on. Allow that to be the way life is engaged and death is engaged. You know? Sometimes called great doubt. So in Zen, koans are to hone our great doubt, to get us wondering.


The person I stopped and asked a question of, the Doan I stopped this morning and asked a question of, she confided to me later, she said, when you asked me that question, I went into a state of shock and fear. And I didn't even know what I said. Yeah. Sometimes that's our life. And then we left. It's very helpful to have each other's support in this process. That was that upsurge of appreciation that I had this morning. What a blessing to be able to do this together. What's there? Yeah, it hurts. It's difficult.


It's challenging, it's perplexing. But it's a blessing all the same. So, the last piece of my primer, how am I doing? It's ten. Oh, God. Last piece of my primer. This is all just the intro to the case. It's a little bit of a poem by Rumi. He's talking about this very thing, about being nurtured. Somehow. It's easy to put food in our mouths. In fact, it's not that easy. But it's not that easy to be fully present for putting food in our mouths. But what is it to nurture our spiritual inquiry? So, first of all, he talks about intimacy, getting close, making contact, stage one.


It's like a baby at the mother's breast, knowing nothing of the visible or invisible worlds. Everything is milk. Though it could not define that, it can't talk. This is the riddle that drives the mind crazy. That is the opener and what is opened. They're the same. It's the ocean inside the fish that burrs it along, not the river water. The time river spreads and disperses into the ocean with the fish. Seeds break open and dissolve in the ground. Only then will new fig trees come. They come into being. So you must die before you die. So now you're fully prepared for this.


Here it is. Tao Wu and Chen Yan went to a house to make a condolence call. Yan hit the coffin and said, Alive or dead? Wu said, I won't say alive and I won't say dead. Yan said, Why won't you say? I won't say. Halfway back, as they were returning, Yan said, Tell me right now. If you don't tell me, I'll hit you. You may hit me, but I won't say. Then he hit him. So a koan is like a Roshan test, you know? It's like, look at this inkblot, what do you see? Listen to this koan, what do you hear? So, let me read it again. What do you hear?


What stands out? Where does your mind go? Where do you find yourself in it? What shape does it take? How does it point to the great matter of life and death? How does it reveal the activity of who you are and what you are? Wu and Yan went to a house to make a condolence call. Yan hit the coffin. Alive or dead? I won't say alive and I won't say dead. Why won't you say? I won't say. Halfway back, as they were returning, Yan said, Tell me right now, teacher. If you don't tell me, I'll hit you. You may hit me, but I won't say. Yan hit him. What did you hear? How does it inform your life? Where does it resonate with what happened in your day to day?


What is it? The aesthetic. It gives me a feeling of grasping. A feeling of grasping? It seems like knives. You want to know the answer. You really want to know. Like a burning question. A burning question. It's not just a burning question. You don't know. It's scary. I don't know what it is. It doesn't resonate with that. A feeling of wanting to know. A guessing. Alive or dead. Today, Danny. Where did that question take shape? Did you hit them?


I hit them. And what did they reveal? What did they teach you? What did they show you? Any other questions? Thank you. Somebody over there put their hand up. Please. What was that first phrase? Yes.


It was doubt. So what came up today that mystified you? That held up? Doubt. Doubt. Earlier today, someone came and spoke to me about whether or not I was sleeping in the library. And I realized it was a long story. I couldn't assume that the person who spoke to me knew anything about the story. So, even though I could know yes, or wanted to know whether or not, I couldn't approach the conversation.


I had to continue not knowing what was happening. And how was it? What? How was it? To just answer the question. It was great. Yeah? For like two hours, it was pretty cool. And, I think I eventually, I think addressing the question was the best thing I could do. And I couldn't try to extend the realm of the unknown. And I think if I had to do that, it wouldn't work very well at all. Okay. Thank you. Please. For me, in that story, the student sounds like a child.


The student sounds like a child? Yeah, like a child asking, like, why is this what I do? Or all of these questions. I think there's this insatiable desire to know, and there's also this expectation that the person you're asking can actually give you the answer to your question. Yeah. That they know. You know, that the other person knows. That you don't know, and that they know. And all you have to do is hit them, or shake them, or ask them up, and they'll give you what you want. Yeah, and that came up very clearly for me today, where I was asking some questions, and at the end of a long and very cultural conversation, I felt like I hadn't gotten the answers to any of my questions. And I actually said that, you know, and I felt this feeling of frustration, but at the same time, I felt this feeling of, well, of course I didn't get the answers to my questions,


because I need to come up with those answers myself. I can't come up with someone else. But I felt almost like a child in that situation. Who told you what the answer is? It's interesting, isn't it? Sometimes it seems like we're doing something, and it's almost like some other part of us is saying, why are you doing this? You know this isn't it. That happens to me a lot. Sometimes it's helpful to take a call, and think of it as an internal dialogue. It's like two parts of ourselves talk to each other. You know? Thanks. I don't know how to answer your question.


So I think where I'm coming from today, is that right now, I don't want to engage with you, but I can't think of a way to do that. That's right. Thank you. Please. Why he has to hit him? What do you mean you don't understand it? You don't understand what a hit is? Or why he'd be motivated to do such a thing? Well keep it going then. What happens next?


What do you say? These are stories meant to stimulate our engagement in practice. How does that stimulate your engagement in practice? I'm not saying you have to approve of it, or agree with it. Something not implying that. How does it stimulate your practice? I don't know. Do you have a response? I don't know yet. You can. Well that's pretty good. After all this is Zen, not knowing is pretty good.


Great coach, yeah. You're going to say something then? I was going to say, it's such an obvious call on for me today, you know, talking about my mother. Right. And I can see, you know, that desire to separate life from death, and my desire to separate my life from her death, in thinking about it. Right. My life wants to go over there. And then you said, you know, sometimes in practice, the way is right there, and you're looking all over, trying to find where else it might be. Right. So what hits me is that desire to separate, and that finding out. And then Rumi takes it, and inverses it, and says, the ocean is inside the fish. Yeah. Not only are we not separate from it, we're like filled with it.


Please. I think the reason why the student hits the teacher is, like you were saying earlier, about trying to change the condition of life and death, and not letting it just be the way it is, but he's actually acting out, because he knows the answer, but he won't accept it, so he's trying to change what he knows, the teacher is thinking. So is that what you do? I try to accept it. You try to change the answer you already know? Not anymore. Congratulations. Please. The urgency. Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah.


Yeah. [...] Okay, last question. Last comment. Please. I have, yes. I have, yes. It's very obvious. A person breathes out, and they don't breathe in again,


and they're dead. And... It's mysterious. It's, for me, it was like my cognitive mind simply could not comprehend something that seems so utterly obvious. It is like... Um... One of my species had died, and something on a cellular level was struggling hard to figure out what that was and what the implication of that was, and... And it seemed to be as much about entering life as it was about witnessing death.


So, that's what I'd say. Okay. And one last poem. This one is about a follow-on on Rumi's notion. We're filled with it. And that this very devious and determined struggle for survival that we all seem so intrigued by, that maybe there is an alternative. This is one by Rilke. This is a suggestion. You must not understand life. Only then will it become a feast. And let each day happen to you like a child who goes along and lets herself be showered with blossoms. To gather them up to save never enters the mind of the child. She lets them go from out of her hair and holds with open, outstretched hands


her dear young years to whatever comes next. So, may we all be so lucky. And may we, each day, make that offering to the mind of awakening, the heart of awakening, to something in us that brought us here. We came here to do this. You know, whether we came as students or we came as guests, you know. This is the beating heart of our Buddha life. May we always stay close to it. And may we help each other in the process. Thank you very much.