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AND THE TAKING HOLD OF THE VOID
May 2, 2021
If your teacher gives you a koan, you might carry it around like a sacred stone: sitting in meditation with it, carrying it into the
grocery store or the shower, eating with it, washing dishes with it, dreaming it.
Or maybe you set the koan aside entirely and take it up only when you meet one-on-one with your teacher who will ask you to demonstrate your understanding.
It's helpful to hear about how others work with koans, but each of us has to, via trial and error, sit our way into understanding the cul-de-sacs we create to make a koan difficult.
One of the most subtle challenges is to practice without striving. We understand that this path promises wonderful things like happiness and creativity and connection and profound insights but it's also clear that if we proceed with a striving mind, we create a duality where there's a.) practice, and b.) the expected results of practice. And if we remain in that goal-oriented mindset, never the twain shall meet.
So the practice is just to give yourself to the koan, to sacrifice all expectations and on the altar of not-knowing.
Then there's no room for anticipating some cosmic experience or subtle insight. There's no room for believing that you're inadequate, or comparing your koan practice to the imagined koan practice of other people.
If your teacher gives you the koan How can you take hold of the void? you might begin by thinking it's absurd or impossible or irrelevant to your life or that it's just some trickery of language.
Or you may think that if you crack open this koan, you'll be ushered into some secret club. So it becomes something to conquer like a distant ridge or a mountain.
So it's good at some point to try a different approach, perhaps to hold the koan lightly like a flower.
Then one day you actually take hold of the void and it's so obvious and simple and relevant, and you wonder what all the striving was about.
The teacher doesn't give you an award or hand you a secret club membership or throw you a party. You just get another koan. And then another koan. And then another koan: each koan, like each breath, another chance to see the world anew, another chance to let the light in and step forth a bit more open, a bit more free from agendas and private manifestos.
THROWING AWAY ZEN, THROWING AWAY BUDDHA
April 25, 2021
In some lineages, it's traditional for a Zen teacher to tell a student who is becoming a teacher (typically after a few decades of training): "Now your practice begins." Robert Aitken would say, "When you work your way through 500 koans, that's a good start."
Such teachings can function as reminders about humility but they're also just pointing out the way things are. Each ibex etched on the stone deep in the cave, each being, each place, each breath: everything is continually beginning anew.
That's the beauty of practice. We just keep starting over. We just keep throwing everything away and returning to a new canvas. Whatever it is: some story about how unique we are or some kind of certainty about the world: we throw it away by coming
back to the experience of breathing, the experience of being embodied now and here: the discomfort in our knees, the sound of the wind, the smell of coffee.
Whatever you're clinging to in your mind, it's OK to throw it away. It's a wonderful practice, actually. It's like that current trend in de-cluttering your home where you only keep the things that bring you joy. But in Zen we throw it all away: even the thoughts and ideas that bring us joy. It's not masochism; it's just a practice of being free, of not feeling we have to cling to the ankles of joy when it's here and then lament its departure when it fades.
As the mind settles and regains its inherent wholeness, we find that we don't even have to throw anything away. States of mind arise, we welcome them, and they move on. No need to meddle or reject. And we often find that joy knocks on the door more frequently, and wants to hang out for no reason at all.
The first Zen teacher I heard speak, before I really started practicing, said, "Zen is about forgetting about Zen." Hearing that, I thought, OK, this is a path that maybe I can follow. So yes, if thoughts about Zen arise, throw away Zen; if thoughts about Buddha arise, throw away Buddha; throw away all those expectations about enlightenment too, and just return to the breath.
All the forms and practices and disciplines and retreats are in place not so we can say that we're Buddhist or to confirm that we're spiritual. They're all in place just to help us come forth with empty hands. So we can taste our coffee. So we can see our neighbor instead of our stories about our neighbor.
WHEN YOUR PRACTICE FALLS APART
April 18, 2021
At the Zen Center of Denver, and at other Zen temples as well, there is a statue of a leaping salmon, a symbol of the spirit of this practice: moving upstream, against the grain of habitual thought, swimming against the tide of culture that seeks to keep us half asleep and dreaming.
And if we hang in there, we will indeed become slowly reacquainted with something elemental, healing, and nourishing—something prior to culture—a spacious aspect of our heart-mind that we already have. It's not something we conjure or imagine.
But it's equally important to remember that our practice can really fall apart and go to hell sometimes. In fact, we can count on it falling apart.
We discover early on that practice is not a matter of simply easing into a Jacuzzi of cosmic consciousness.
We might encounter profound resistance and find all sorts of ways to talk ourselves out of sitting. We might feel worse and more confused than we did before we started sitting. Or there may be a kind of stuckness where we can't sit consistently, and yet we can't entirely abandon sitting either.
So when practice falls apart and goes to hell, all we can do is breathe into that experience of falling apart and going to hell. Bless it and sit right into it and welcome it.
You can literally say "welcome," quietly or silently, when anything difficult arises. Welcome, knee pain and boredom. Welcome, unsettling memory. Welcome. Welcome, recurring sense of impending doom.
What else can we do? I suppose the other option is to return to the hell of non-practice, but that's usually what brought us to the threshold of practice in the first place.
In that welcome we find that the dojo windows are open, the sun is burning, and the songs of the birds have no problem mingling with the sounds of traffic.
NOTES ON SANGHA & A KOAN ABOUT INTIMACY
March 8, 2021
I've been thinking about sangha—the community of fellow practitioners—and those of us who come together on Zoom each morning, or some mornings, and also those who don't drop in but are perhaps sitting on their own for good reasons or are perhaps in a time zone that makes it difficult to participate. And thinking about how, for millennia, people have been gathering to sit together to inquire about this great matter of being alive.
And how even the deer that come and eat the birdseed, and the people who seem indifferent and content at the top of the food chain, and the full moon rising above the trees—they're sangha too.
And how easy it is to lose track of this intimacy unless we're practicing, that somehow sangha deepens practice and practice deepens sangha. In Japan, the terms intimacy and enlightenment are often used interchangeably. What is enlightenment after all but the experience of intimacy, of no self apart?
Here's a good koan about intimacy: When the sound of the temple bell replaces you, who becomes enlightened?
Sitting together is an act of trust and vulnerability, even on Zoom, because we're not just sitting with pure light and smiley faces. We're also sitting with anguish and uncertainty and self-doubt and back pain and aching joints and fear of death and longings and all the precincts of discomfort that come with being human. In sitting together, the experience becomes not so much about me and my shortcomings or my ideas about what kind of clarity I should be having. It becomes more about the vastness in all places and all places having light and value. Just how each face in the dojo, familiar or unfamiliar, is beautiful.
But I think Rainer Maria Rilke put it best in an early version of his Tenth Duino Elegy (translated by Stephen Mitchell):
How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish.
Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters,
And surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair?
How we squander our hours of pain,
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
To see if they have an end.
Though they are really seasons of us,
Our winter enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
Where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.
SITTING IN THE FLAME-LIT CAVE
February 21, 2021
One of the oldest meditation teachings (2500 years old +/-) goes like this: when inhaling, be aware that you're inhaling. When exhaling, be aware that you're exhaling. When walking, sitting, lying down, or standing: be aware that you are walking, sitting, lying down, or standing.
Can you notice when you drift away in thinking and then just come back to the breath without self-judgment?
In this way we step free from the sharp edges of lock-step clock-time to align with a kind of subterranean rhythm. There is no other inhalation to inhale than this one. There is no other exhalation to exhale than this one.
There is no other life to live than this one, the one we have.
This is the news that stays news: each moment is utterly complete and also utterly brimming with possibility.
It's as though we're sitting in the flame-lit cave at midnight. The bison etched on the wall breathe as we breathe. Each being, each thing, and each place is always just beginning.
THE MINOTAUR AND THE TENT
February 14, 2021
There seems to be a strong correlation between feeling lost in our own mind and feeling estranged from the world and from each other.
At such times, we're like the mythological minotaur, lost in a labyrinth of our own making, revising old operas and brooding over lost time.
But when we choose to sit still and allow the stillness to find us, even a little, the old stories begin to settle down and we can taste the inklings of a new spaciousness.
It requires patience and diligence but it's like discovering a kind of sanctum or shrine that's actually just this ordinary carpet, just this ordinary sitting here, just this ordinary and very loud magpie on the roof.
We see that everything's inside the tent and nothing's outside the tent. And so there's less compulsion to insist that we're lacking in some way.
Busy mind, still mind, dark thoughts, brilliant thoughts, good days, bad days, bodily aches, bodily ease.
No need to banish these guests, nor detain them, when there's enough room.
HOW TO DISAPPEAR
February 7, 2021
It's easy to get distracted by the challenges of meditation: physical discomfort, scheduling, uncomfortable thoughts, self doubt, swarms of preoccupations, skepticism, resistance, etc.. We might think: surely this is easier for other people. Surely, not everyone is struggling like this.
But what if we were able to practice as though it were a child's game? Sitting for the sake of sitting. No expectations of anything beyond the experience itself.
Just a kind of playful openness.
Can we sit so still that the birds mistake us for a rock? Can we sit so still that our dog gets a little worried? Or maybe: can we sit so still that we disappear? What would it mean to disappear?
I think it might simply mean that the smell of incense momentarily replaces us on the meditation cushion.
Can we sit so still that we're just keeping company with our breathing?
Perhaps appreciating how the end of an exhalation is also the beginning of an inhalation.
Not wishing away the storms of thought or the bodily discomforts.
Just seeing them clearly, maybe even appreciating their richness, and once again coming back to the breath.
This is the practice: drifting away in fantasy, noticing the drifting, and returning to the breath. Again and again.
Each time strengthening the ability to be here more deeply and completely, and perhaps a little less seriously.
THE AUDACITY OF NOT MOVING
January 24, 2021
In this culture, at this time, with so many competing crises that are under-funded and under-championed, it might seem
audacious (or perhaps even self-indulgent) to set aside time each day to be still.
To literally, physically, commit to not moving.
To acknowledge that there might be something else here worth investigating, and that we might have to do something different to move beyond a conceptual understanding of this enterprise of being.
That it might be something perhaps more foundational than the affairs of the world and something perhaps more primary than personal concerns about one's place in the world.
And it's not just our body that becomes still. The mind becomes still. Or we might say that the mind recovers its original stillness:
a vast and wordless unmovingness right here in the heart of the never-ending mess.
Being in touch with this spaciousness, even a little, can allow us to move in the world and do our work, whatever it is, with a little more generosity, fluidity, and even joy.
The following poem by David Wagoner, "Lost," (a Native American elder story rendered into modern English by Wagoner) shows us the power, and necessity, of being still and allowing ourselves to be found, wherever we are.
The story is a response to the question of a child asking, "What should I do if I'm lost in the woods?"
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.