Heart Sutra: Rhinoceros and Elephant

Every other week, Aido brings us a wonderful koan to chew on that then flows into the stream of dharma we are cultivating here at ZenWest. When she and I were talking about coordinating for this period of studying the Heart Sutra, we realized any koan would do. Every single one distills down into this Zen paradox of form and emptiness – how we clarify this experience of appearances – cars, bills, global warming, you and me – and the truth of emptiness – the absence of permanence, separation, self, or we could say, this constantly changing completely interdependent world – in a way that serves.  We might think then,  Well, if that’s all it is, why so many koans?!

The dharma is easy, the practice, endlessly subtle.

The koan Aido offered two weeks ago was one from the title of her teacher’s book, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, by John Tarrant. It’s a very advanced koan, from the Book of Serenity, that would be given to a student who’s maybe passed a couple of hundred koans already and had some experience with a teacher who knows them, so it’s not so transparent. What it lacks in transparency however, it makes up for in vividness! You simply can’t misplace a rhinoceros.

It goes like so:

One day Yuanguan called to his attendant: “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”

The attendant said: “The fan is broken.”

Yuanguan said: “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros.”

The attendant made no reply.

Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word rhinoceros in it.

The fan is broken. What does that mean? In our first group reflection, we focused on this sense of things that are broken in our lives – sometimes seemingly beyond repair, and all of our protest and compulsions to fix and try to return things to the way they were before. But really, as we examined these things we want to fix – relationships, our bodies, our minds, we discovered the Aha! – the liberation that comes from letting go of the view of the world in terms of fixed or broken, and we’re free to behold things as they are and respond with what’s needed. There was a felt sense in the group that to bring the rhinoceros was to bring out the real living thing, this inconceivable life as it is, not the concept of “broken” or “working,” but an embodied whole lived life.

So this is one dimension of this koan where the rhioceros serves as emptiness, something we can’t grasp but can awaken to.  In terms of the Heart Sutra, we could say that in the world of form, when we are attached, things are either broken or fixed, here or there. In the world of emptiness, ungraspable constant change,  everything is perfect in its own position, its own manifestation. The key is in our integration of these views of emptiness and form in our response to life.

How do we mend something that isn’t broken? Our attendant in this koan, though, couldn’t respond. He was stuck like most of us a lot of the time – so at least he has some company! There is a line in the old commentaries that says, “Try to make him present it face to face and he won’t be able to bring it out in the wind.” Bring me the rhinoceros? Ummmmm, hmm, let’s see, where did I put that thing, it was right here a minute ago……we shouldn’t feel bad about being the attendant – sometimes, that’s just the way it is. We’re stumped.

It is one thing to have some awareness of this rhinoceros our teacher wants us to show them (what we’re calling “the real thing” and we might say “emptiness” or “the inconceivable”) and it’s another to move freely with this truth. How do you grab the wind? What do you do with this ever present truth in plain view if someone asks you for it? Like a rhinoceros, it won’t be coaxed into performance! It’s powerful and has a mind of its own. Buddha mind. I remember many an exchange where I went to my teacher excitedly after some study saying “I totally get this!” and nonplussed, he would reply something like, “Now live it” and walk away. Ah, such a blow for Seido’s hope for validation, but such good instruction!

Because koans are like dreams and contain multiple layers of meaning, I’d like to tease out another dimension of the rhino from the point of view of what it means to be a Zen student.  There is a traditional dedication used at my temple on Founder’s Day where we celebrate and honor the deceased founders of the temple. Here are a few phrases from this:

That our teachers could lead all seekers of the Way they were, at times, as the bright moon; and again, at times, as the voice of thunder.  When the rhinoceros tried to reach the reflection of the moon in the water, the moonlight remained upon his horns; when the elephant was alarmed by thunder, flowers suddenly blossomed upon her tusks.

The primal instinctual energies embodied in animals in koans often inform us students as to how we practice. My teacher likes to refer to the “instinct for awakening,” and I like that – something we’re called to release, not add to life, but like the homing pigeon, something we return to.

In practice, sometimes we’re the rhinoceros, sometimes the elephant. The rhinoceros tries aggressively and stubbornly to get the moon, to get enlightenment, yet there it is, on his horn, always just out of reach. How familiar that is to us in practice – we can feel so close to a breakthrough, an understanding, a surrender, and yet every motion we make towards it, it recedes. We chase and chase. We can see this in zazen, when we notice a quiet peaceful moment, and then it’s gone as soon as we try to make it stay.

Sometimes our practice is like the elephant, receptive, just absorbing things, not hurrying about – until, crack! some thunderous direct truth, sometimes from our teachers,  really wakes us up. Oh! It’s right here! That’s when flowers bloom. Is it better to be a rhinoceros, or an elephant? Or maybe a rhelephant or a eloceros? Which one is your modus operandi?  Let’s go back to the koan….

There is some more of the old commentary on this koan that speaks to the intimacy of the teacher student relationship. When the teacher asks for the fan the first time “this is talk about ordinary reality between father and son” and when he asks for the rhinoceros, the commentary says, “this going into the weeds with his whole body, in a relationship with an adopted child.”  How touching and beautiful. The teacher isn’t asking for his student’s saintly side – the part of us that wants to be seen doing everything right when being watched!

The teacher wants you to bring him/her the rhinoceros, the unadorned uncontrived you in the world of weeds, the world of delusion. Going into the weeds with the whole body, heart, eyes, feelings, gut….everything, a whole life meeting a whole life. This is what our teachers do for us in bearing witness to our lives as they are without anything left out. Adopted is this relationship we have, a second upbringing into another kind of truth. It is this stubborn mind, this resistance we have to the truth, that is the prima matera that is transformed in practice. What we think of as the things we want to get rid of to awaken is exactly the stuff we need to bring. Our delusions are not supplanted by another more saintly awakened mind, but relaxed into awakening so that the moon gains the rhino. (If we look honestly, most of us want to wake up, but really, on our own terms and preferably without any discomfort! )

Zifu is a mature practitioner. The moon gains the rhino is one way to understand Zifu’s response.  In the old commentary, it says, “the word in the circle has a reason.”  In Zen and many other spiritual traditions for that matter, the circle, or enso, is a symbol of wholeness, oneness, and for us, Buddha Mind – pure, bright, reflective, serene. The commentary goes on, “According to this bunch of old guys’ empty explanations of the principle, the fan and the rhino ultimately can’t be brought out. Only Zifu drew a circle and wrote the character for such a beast: the fan, the rhino, are utterly new, immutable.” Sometimes broken, never broken. Not one, not two.

How does Zifu hit the mark? How is it this rhinoceros mind is the very mind of Buddha? How is the inconceivable your mind in this very moment? What is the shift that shows the attendant utterly new, immutable?  At some point, we just need to find our way in to this truth in practice, moment to moment. Look the rhinoceros squarely in the eye, and bow deeply, and see your own reflection.

 Gate gate paragate parasamgate, bodhi svaha.

~ Seido

Heart Sutra: One Bright Pearl

We are well into our group study of the Heart Sutra, continuing to explore these four core Zen themes – suffering, practice, emptiness and wisdom. They are implicitly connected in this sutra like so –

To become aware of suffering is to raise the question of practice towards transformation.

To practice is to penetrate the meaning of suffering in this world of form or appearances.

To penetrate the meaning of suffering is to wake up to emptiness – the absence of separation, the presence of change, of boundlessness .

To wake up to emptiness means we are freed up to embody the form of our life completely from a place of wisdom or prajna.

Of course, this can sound very complicated, but we can experience this rather simply in zazen where we cultivate a deep inquisitive stillness, getting curious about this pain in my leg, this anxiety, this daydream. Where is this pain, this anxiety, this daydream? Where does “it” begin and end?  Am “I” separate from it? What does my mind do with this thing I call knee pain, anxiety, a daydream? Do I imagine a life free from discomfort? All this is the study of suffering right in this moment.

I want to revisit an exchange found in a koan Aido recently brought to us (Blue Cliff Record Case 90: Zhimen’s Body of Wisdom) because several people had a strong response to the image:

The student asks: What is the essence of prajna (Buddhist wisdom meaning “before/beyond knowing”)?

The teacher replies: The oyster swallows the bright moon.

How sumptuous this image of the oyster deep in the ocean, swallowing the moon whole – how descriptive of our human condition, encased in these thick shells. I grew up spending my summers on Cape Cod in a trailer park and we would go clamming on the beach flats on a regular basis – so I can 35 years later, still feel the ridged shells, smell the salt, taste the rich clam chowder, and know how hard it is to open them up! Like us practitioners, they are extremely resistant and strong. “To clam up” is great metaphor for someone who’s not talking for the life of them. You have to get a seagull to drop you from the sky repeatedly onto a rocky hard surface to get to the marrow. Let us aim for a gentler path.

As I am typing, I invent a word “clamness” to talk about practicing with our mollusk nature, what it’s like to be a clam or oyster, but my spell check keeps changing it to “calmness” – so I am enjoying the perfect partnership with MSWord bodhisattva intuiting my direction. But back to mollusks! Resonating with the Heart Sutra language of no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongues….anatomically, they truly have no eyes, no head even! What they do have is what’s called an “open circulatory system” – a kind of watery blood that feeds their organs – one interconnected cosmic soup. So they are very vulnerable beneath that hard shell. The pearls we covet are caused by irritation during their digestion – this perfect round orb is created by taking in something that can’t be broken down, and is therefore encased in a beautiful circle. Their suffering, their resistance, is made into something precious, something refined and recognized, a true gift.

This is what I’d like to say about practicing as a clam or oyster. After we’ve practiced Zen for a time, we start to recognize the hard shell we’ve created to survive in the world, and notice its connection to our suffering, a shell that keeps giving us the message that we’re separate and need to defend and take care of a vulnerable interior. That’s how the ego builds its house – we are “in here” and the rest of the world is “out there” and the #1 job is to take care of the “in here.” Sometimes our shells are particularly painful – a mask to the world that says “I’ve got it together. I’m fine on my own.” Or conversely, “I’m a mess. I can’t get it together.” Whatever the image that serves a purpose to manage our appearance, somewhere it leaves a gap, a longing for what’s true and vitally alive without contrivance. When we can see this contrivance, many practitioners want to just cast off the shell, just get rid of the thing and open to the great oneness – but I’d like to suggest an alternative.

Practicing with this oyster nature begins with letting go of the judgment that we should be some other way. Sometimes we create a spiritual ideal and imagine we should get rid of our faults once we see  them and this often sets up an internal battle, the good side trying to vote the bad side off the island. But I find this way of practice can be a kind of violence. Our shell isn’t belittled or badgered into opening or awakening. Our shells formed for a good reason at some point – so why not study the distorted idea that comes from only seeing the shell as a rigid boundary. We need our shell to swallow the moon whole.

Zen is about swallowing the moon whole which lights the way from the inside out. The shell is not destroyed – it’s illuminated, clarified and no longer a problem. If we stop our fighting, a clam opens up of its own accord under the weight of the ocean, by relaxing. The ocean loves the shell into opening!  In practice we give ourselves to the ocean – where everything is connected, sometimes riding the waves, sometimes plumbing the depths. The entire ocean passes through the clam. Our circulation system is exposed and participates responsively in the world.

This is Dogen’s offering to us – to study the buddha way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self. Out of this intimacy with our life as it is comes a pearl. Dogen wrote in another chapter about this teaching: The entire universe in the ten directions is one bright pearl. A pearl is a new kind of shell, a different kind of strong surface formed of digesting our irritation, our suffering. It’s perfect, without corners. Nothing hidden. In practice, we turn our suffering into something clarified, whole. In this way we become whole.

Being human, being an oyster, is not an obstacle to awakening – we can let go of that fear of being human when we see that our shells are not separate from the sand, the ocean. The boundary has its function, just like our human boundaries have their function. To be awakened is not to be without boundaries, to be awakened means not to mistake those boundaries for a permanent separate self.

There is an opening section from a poem called “Letter Written in Black Water and Pearl” by Jake Adam York that I want to close with that display a beautiful intimate study of incubation as an oyster.

When I rise from the bank

the water’s slow as shadow

in my steps, thick as blood.

The whole river’s secretive,

still, dark as roux

cooled in the skillet, as rank,

as sweet, ancient as catfish,

ancienter. The moon’s

sifted light clouds rumor

to lilies or daffodils,

an egret on the farther shore,

a hunger, a stare, a patience

I could recite. We have

waited all night, nights,

like a bridge for something

to rise, like water

for something to fall.


We have waited all night, nights, like a bridge for something to rise, like water for something to fall. Yes, truly.

Just sit, and let the weight of the ocean make one bright pearl from your longing.

Palm to palm,


Heart Sutra Talk I: On Suffering

We have just begun our study of the Heart Sutra at Zen West – this elusive yet core Buddhist teaching on emptiness that is chanted, sung, written and made into art all over the world. It is not an easy text – you can’t just go, Oh sure, it’s about this, and I’m all good with that, or I agree or disagree with so and so. The beauty of its foreignness is it invites us to bridge the gap between these words and our lived experience. One way to approach texts like the Heart Sutra is to begin by letting go of ideas of what it’s about, and simply let the text impact you like a poem – like a distant song you hear in the park, like a familiar scent that catches your attention in the kitchen. What does it just feel like to recite the words, what moves in the body to meet it?

We access our “felt sense” of this through the body, through resonance –maybe there’s a lightness in the heart, a sense of a quickening of the breath in surprise, an image of the sky or our regrettable argument with a friend, the feeling of velvet or gravel. Perhaps fear, or hope. Perhaps grace. Whatever experience you have is perfect as it is, and if we hold this openly, if we follow it down, it leads us to some vital truth. Sometimes, without any deliberation, we immediately grasp the meaning of a verse like the Heart Sutra. It just happens – and then we need to go about refining our understanding.

So for now, let’s agree that the Heart Sutra has something to say about suffering, something to say about how to practice with this suffering, something about this strange not too cozy idea of emptiness, and something about profound wisdom. Suffering, practice, emptiness and wisdom – those will be the topics of my talks this late winter on this doctrine. We also need to understand that the Heart Sutra has something so say about how we live our life, how we raise our children, respond to global warming, attend a sick friend, celebrate a wedding. If it does not have something to say about this, then it isn’t useful – having no life in the world it remains, like Sleeping Beauty, waiting to be kissed. A Heart Sutra slumbering.

It says in the Heart Sutra, it is the mantra, (an invocation or prayer if you will) that removes all suffering. That’s a pretty tall order. To remove all suffering! So to dive in here is to begin to unravel and question what suffering is. How do we suffer? Do we notice the suffering of others? What is our habitual response to suffering, our own or others?  Do we get problem solving, get distracted, tend to flee, fight or fold? Suffering is the most common translation used for dukkha, but it also can be understand as including the whole continuum of human experience – from minor annoyance to wholesale misery. Thich Nath Hanh calls dukkha, ill-being. You can think of it as dissatisfaction, or in modern parlance, stress and anxiety. Suffering is what we add onto the inevitable pain of human existence – it is a state of mind and the good news is, amenable to change.

Chozen Bays in her book, How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness (highly recommended), gives a good description of how suffering is added onto pain in the blink of an eye:

….when we have a headache, we can think, “OK, I have temporary discomfort in this area of my body.” Or we can think,

“This is the second headache I’ve had this week.” [Dragging the past into the future.]

“I’m sure it’s going to get worse, like it did before.” [Predicting and perhaps creating future events.]

“I can’t stand it.” [But, in actuality, you have before and you will again.]

“What’s wrong with me?” [Nothing. You are a human being with a body.]

“Could I have a brain tumor?” [Extremely unlikely, but you can give yourself a much worse headache worrying about it.]

“Maybe it’s the stress I’m under at work. My boss is impossible….” [Coasting around for someone to blame.]

How quick we are to spin and craft a whole world around even a minor paper cut, let alone the enormous losses and challenges we encounter in a lifetime! To study the Heart Sutra is to begin to notice and dig deeper into the real source of this suffering, to notice our valiant and unworkable plans to escape the conditions we find ourselves in. Here is the koan to carry around for that investigation:

A monk said to Tozan, “Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?”

Tozan said, “Why don’t you go where there is no cold or heat?”

The monk said, “Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?”

Tozan said, “When cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.”

As the mind tries to get us out of our actual lived experience, what is it like to just be still with it, as an experiment? This doesn’t mean there’s not an appropriate response to a headache, an aspirin or some rest, but that response is accessible separate from the deliberation that keeps us in an oppositional stance to life as it is. Part of us imagines a world in which nothing bad ever happens, we never feel pain or experience loss, but if we look deeply, who would we be without our suffering? To turn towards our suffering and take it up as a question is to open to others suffering with compassion, without one, we do not know the other. Suffering brings us to practice and motivates us to change, and over time, what emerges is a bittersweet acceptance and appreciation of one’s suffering, and paradoxically, a much greater savoring of the gift of this life.

For now, in the spirit of attending climate change, notice the climate within, the places of cold and heat, and see if the Heart Sutra speaks somehow to the questions that emerge when we sit still with the weather as it is. Next time, the question, What is practice?

Palm to palm,


The Buddha Sees the Morning Star

What did he see?

What do you see?

Each winter, we have a chance to revisit the Buddha’s story during Rohatsu, a retreat that marks the anniversary of Gautama’s night spent under the bodhi tree where he is said to have awoke to the morning star – enlightened to the true nature of existence. Upon this morning star, he exclaims, “I, together with all beings, am simultaneously enlightened.” I and all beings, simultaneously. Never hidden, always present. How magnificent! What is it that he saw? Do we see the same star today? If we are enlightened simultaneously, how come we don’t “feel” enlightened? What gets in the way of realizing this?

Rohatsu is a time when we celebrate both effort and effortlessness.  Effortless brings forth the morning star, yet for this tale to be complete, it embraces the Buddha’s singular effort to stay still through the night. The night before the Buddha awoke, the story goes that Gautama, upon committing himself to this seat of awakening with the utmost determination, was challenged by Mara. Mara is the Buddhist personification of death, and during this night, tries to taunt the Buddha to give up his seat under the bodhi tree. He is a great shadow for our prince Shakyamuni, for all humanity. Everything we deny or avoid, everything a human being fears, every seduction known to us, every false promise and dark doubt was visited upon the Buddha in a single night. Mara amasses an army in which each attacker has a different weapon of torture, he tries to appeal to our mendicant’s lust for sex and coax him away with promises of fame and an easy life elsewhere. Through each poignant attempt, the Buddha remains still on the diamond seat, the immovable spot. Seeing through Mara’s intention, the onslaught of attack is finally seen through, and Gautama enters into the deepest stillness right before dawn.

It’s taken me a while to truly appreciate the Buddha’s life story and the way it sheds light on how we seek answers to our deepest longing, the challenges and pitfalls of this seeking, and the extraordinary capacity we have to experience renewal when we stay the course. As a western woman, brought up in a nonreligious working class household, Shakyamuni Buddha’s example seemed for many years quite removed from my experience and struggles. Who was this foreign male figure, born into riches, leaving his wife and child for aimless wandering ending up living a life of a mendicant? It was only when I began to have my own experiences in practice and examined my karma more deeply, that I recognized my own life. Despite 2500 years difference, I also remember leaving the comfort and limited expectations of my own upbringing, the early deep desire to make sense of this life, and the many years seeking answers through popularized alternative spirituality that didn’t satisfy. It wasn’t until I entered this Zen practice and learned to follow my own intuition, to follow my questions down to their end and verify truth with my own experience, that my real questions were met.

To connect more intimately with Gautama Buddha, we only need consider these themes – times of life that, although told as a linear arc of practice during Rohatsu, can also act as repeated experiences or chapters in life that emerge over and over, with new insights and growth each time we clarify our life circumstances. These themes include suffering, seeking, risking, learning and practicing, resiliency, surrendering, and waking up. They don’t have to be dramatic – we can enact these themes and insights over and over. My teacher Kyogen likes to say, each “aha” partakes of the great awakening. When have we become dissatisfied in our comfortable “palace” and gone forth for deeper answers? When have we been deeply touched or troubled by the suffering in the world, by our own suffering? When have we invested or hoped for solutions from popular quick fixes, only to find that we remained the same? What darkness have we had to endure? When have we been visited by the morning star, by deep serenity and peace, when all the extra drops away?

To sit zazen, we go right back into the place of Gautama’s morning star, which is continually renewing itself, moment after moment. We don’t need to wait for some special teachings, wait to be in a better mood, or wait for some later time when we’re more experienced in meditation. The morning star is here.

Old Shakyamuni winks and twirls a flower.

Palms together,


Cultivating the Mind of Gratitude

When one learns giving well, being born and dying are both giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, birds to the season, also must be meritorious acts of giving.  – Zen Master Eihei Dogen

As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, if we can take a moment to look inward and ask ourselves the question

What does it mean to really give?

What is our response?

We may think of images of gatherings of friends and family, meals shared, gifts unwrapped, and perhaps the offering to community groups caring for others, to schools and spiritual centers. Maybe we recall times when we’ve given with love, and other times we’ve felt overburdened by demands, or have given too much and become depleted to the point of resentment or begrudging. We may have some judgment of ourselves or others as giving people or not – feeling selfish one moment or generous the next. We may consider the pain of the enormous inequities in the world, and those who lack basic goods, those with great excesses. While all of these conventional views of giving have merit, Zen practice invites us to brush these away and investigate the question from another direction entirely – one that starts from within by cultivating the mind of gratitude.

The mind of gratitude is our awakened heart that flowers from the ground of being we uncover in zazen – not as a special mind state separate from who you are, but intimate apprehension of this constantly giving and receiving universe right in this very place. Without changing anything, how is this moment complete giving and complete receiving? What is it you lack? Where does the fear of giving reside? To discover what it really means to give, we should pause, and notice what it really means to be alive in this moment to moment cycle of receiving and giving.

In zazen, taking the posture, letting go of the mind coursing through its abstract world, we come back to our root. Noticing the floor or earth holding you in the palm of its hand. Noticing the breath filling the lungs giving life. Noticing the sweet tickle of a bird trill. Noticing your exhalation feeding the ficus. Noticing how you keep the company of the one sitting beside you. Noticing how your practice allows others a place to come practice. Not one thing begrudged. When we wake up to how we truly exist, gratitude begins to take the place of fear and protectiveness that drives our withholding.

Waking up to the constant natural flow of all things invites our participation, a release of things that do not stay the same, entrusting flowers to the wind, and giving of ourselves that has to do with being our selves – being born and dying are both giving. I remember being with my mother when she died of lymphoma assisted by hospice. Being able to remain present and open and attend with my family this work of dying, breath by breath, I realized was the greatest gift she’d given to me, this teaching about the mystery of death when all the day to day exigencies are completely unimportant. My mother had a difficult life, and carried the burden of being toughened by alcoholism in the generation before, sexism of the time, and poverty of the Great Depression, but at the end, the power of this common passage was undeniable, and she shared it freely just by virtue of it happening, of her being who she was completely. At her funeral, I smile with the bittersweet memory of the song she requested – Frank Sinatra’s, I Did it My Way. That was my mother, undeniably. This is how dying is giving. She gave me the gift of clarity and choice.

So we can hold this question, what does it mean to be giving, let go of limited ideas of the social exchange of material goods and resources, and notice what emerges – find the mind of gratitude inside without having to add or take away. Of course, it is vitally important that we turn the tide of squandering material resources both personally and as a culture, but the doorway to that activity is to clarify the way we exist, completely dependent upon one another, to give to our neighbors, friends, or strangers like giving flowers to the wind. Our meal verse says: May we all realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver and gift. Coming to stillness, we can then move with the flow, and give with wisdom and compassion, including all dharmas, including ourselves.

Palms together, giving thanks,


Crossing Over

Paramita means “arriving at the other shore.” Although the other shore does not have the appearance or trace from olden times, arriving is actualized. Arriving is the fundamental point. Do not think that practice leads to the other shore. Because there is practice on the other shore, when you practice, the other shore arrives. It is because this practice embodies the capacity to actualize all realms.  – Master Dogen Zenji

What does it mean to cross over to the other shore? What does it mean to take up a path of practice with the hopes of transforming our confusion, pain, and suffering on one side into clarity, peace, and ease? What is our actual experience in this moment?

We have been talking about bridges at Zen West, working with the koan Zhaozhu’s Bridge, Case 52 of the Blue Cliff Record.  The evocative archetypal image of a great stone bridge alongside an ordinary log bridge sparked some lively group sharing of experiences with bridges – shaky ones, majestic ones, ones of stone that depend on the carefully positioning of each little piece, and ones made of fallen trees or widely spaced stones that take balance and focus to cross. Everyone had some vivid connection with bridges and how they spanned raging rivers, deep caverns, and small trickling streams. In dreams, bridges show up often as a way of spanning two different states of consciousness, across a watery element. To hold itself up, a bridge depends on both sides. Although this koan invites us to reconcile the opposites of the ordinary log bridge, everyday simple practices, nothing special, with the grand stone crossing, the student’s expectation of something extraordinary and fabulous, today I am more interested in the gap created by what is being crossed.

Here is one of the earliest Buddhist stories about crossing over:

A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty – but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety. The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’” The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way. The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?” The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude. The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with — not for seizing hold of.”

Although this story is usually used to illustrate letting go of our attachment, even to Buddhist teachings and practices about nonattachment, what is also of vital importance is this fast flowing river and the making of the raft. Zazen is a practice that invites us to examine what is on one shore, and conversely, what we long for or imagine is on the other shore, In Zazen, we are encouraged, breath by breath, to hang out on this shore a little bit and examining the condition of mind without running off too quickly. What then is on this shore? The story says danger, all kinds of unpleasantness. What’s dangerous?  We can take up any problem in our life and see what it is on this side we struggle with – loneliness, frustration, difficulty with relationships, illness, boredom, and so on. It is easy then to imagine on the other shore some kind of opposite, some relief from these conditions, some enlightenment that doesn’t include such things.

But the other shore is simply this shore. Right in this very breath. It is this shore clarified. And what we do to clarify is also offered in the Buddha’s teaching story – we make a raft of our lives, like the man in the story, gathering all the causes and conditions we may rather toss out, gathering together our experience in our relationships, our communities, in nature, in politics – in all their unique particulars – and binding them together with the twine of practice, the twine of a certain kind of openhanded attention, a loving kindness and insight that sees into the true nature of things. The nature that is exemplified by the flowing river, constant movement and change, one of the marks of emptiness.

So the Zen path is very organic, gathering the things of this life, not some other life someone else is living, and sitting with, resting upon, looking deeply into our fight with these conditions. Zen is also good exercise, gets the heart moving, as we rest upon the condition of our life and start to paddle, start to take on the practices of the path with some ease and flow. We do this by making the posture of sitting a body habit, something that is our own. We do this by bowing naturally, allowing the body to bend and touch the earth. We do this by chanting with the breath from deep in the hara. Binding together the stuff of life with the form of practice, we do reach the other shore, which looks mysteriously like this shore – hmmm, same house, same spouse, same mouse in the kitchen cabinet – and yet…..

Arriving fully into our life, some quality emerges that was always there, but is now seen more clearly. We call this, things as they are. Here there is no bridge, no raging river, no raft, no raft captain. Just this. If we want to practice in light of this story, here is the invitation:

1. Hang out at the foot of the bridge  resist the urge to move, sit Zazen there and examine this mind and its relationship to everything on that shore.

2. Make a raft of your life – the wanted and unwanted conditions, your gifts, your flaws, each concrete element, each person you meet – bound together by practice.

3. Become the river  see into the flow of all conditioned things.

4. Make a raft for others  to see into the nature of all things is to join the human condition, in which raft building emerges naturally from a clarified heart.

Enjoy the water….

Palms together,


A Hundred Grasses


George Eliot understood something about interdependence and the mind of liberation. She said this:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Why is it we do not hear the grass growing? There certainly is no shortage of grass.

There is a term used by Dogen called zenki, translated as undivided activity, meaning the workings of the entire universe. Dogen might say we are the undivided activity of the birth and death of grasses, and I would add a cause for great celebration this weekend. The breakfast that is now turned into fire in our bellies, animating our movement, is the life of grasses of oats and wheat and sugar cane. Their pollens bring tears to our eyes, the mating ritual of green plants carried by the wind. Green grasses exhale oxygen fill our blood stream.

Grasses live everywhere, from the cracks of the inner city to the great plains creating whole worlds for earthworms and antelope. Zenki – the entire working of the universe, the wholehearted, fully exerted expression of all things. This isn’t just an idea, although our global ecological view of this small planet knows this to be true. For the Zen student, this is mitsugo – intimate or secret language. We know for ourselves the sound of the grass growing and the heartbeat of a squirrel found on the other side of silence.

In Buddhism, grasses represent the 10,000 things of life. No shortage of grass means no shortage of particulars, of the stuff of our life, of delusion and therefore moments in which to wake up. Most of us think we need some really special grass with which to really practice Zen, but in truth, all the grasses of this world are embedded in the same earth, the same empty field. To simply let go is the invitation of zazen. Zazen is the invitation of grasses.

I am not so if George Eliot was aware of what dying of that roar on the other side of silence means to the Zen student. Although it sounds grim, it is a celebration and relief that allows us to fully inhabit our place in the world of grasses. Dying here really means waking up to the interdependence of how things are already operating, all the time, without stop, without hindrance.

I would like to offer a small practice outside the zendo this weekend, and that is to quietly, without too much deliberation, question and examine how everything is helping you and supporting your practice in this moment, and how in turn you are helping and supporting everyone else’s practice. Discover how the smallest insect helps you concentrate and sparks your curiosity, how the breeze moves your blood circulation, and especially, the biggest irritation reminds you study dukkha and our ideas of how things should be. Sit very, very still and see if you can allow yourself to let go of judgments about this. Just notice the function of those particulars we overlook in our hurried lives. If this practice here this weekend doesn’t involve the whole of your life and include the very core of your question, the grasses have no one to enlighten.

To sit zazen is to develop a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life. It is hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and delivering that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Sit well.

~ Seido

Teachings from a Spring Robin

amrobinhdrEvery spring, there is a red robin who comes to enlighten me as to the condition of life. Although it is not the same robin season after season, I feel we are old friends. We know one another well.

Here is the scene: I often sit in bed with a cup of strong tea and the candles lit for a time before zazen – against the ideal rules of order, it is coveted time of contemplation I’ve enjoyed for decades. Outside the picture window, Mr. Robin sits on a tree branch a few feet away from the glass. He stares for a moment, and then hurls himself at the glass, presumably to take care of the “other robin” he sees threatening its space. He usually lands on the sill, unharmed and obviously unsuccessful, and returns to the branch only to repeat the process. This goes on for an hour or more until the light from the east shifts or some other call of duty preempts his routine.

This used to drive me crazy.  I’d tried to dissuade him by whapping the glass, hanging props to scare him away, only to rile him up more. I used to think I was trying to save him from harm, but really, I was far more interested in saving myself from having to experience the ruckus and preserve my peaceful space! Having given up on that folly, now I usually just carry on, ignoring him for the most part with a peripheral acceptant appreciation of the valiant attempt and seeming lack of alternative from his point of view.

Watching this tragi-comedy unfold, I think of my own day to day hurling against the glass – those moments of seemingly clear action at a reflected threat found in an envy, an ambition, or a resentment. It looks so real! we plead with the universe or whoever will listen. That person really DID take my place in line! I was supposed to have that situation in my future! It is really how things look. Dogen says with great compassion in his Genjo Koan, When you sail out into the middle of the ocean, the ocean looks like a circle and does not look any other way. Accepting the truth of our projections is continual practice and paves the way to meet our circumstances as they are – to be open, to be surprised, and to be responsive.

Mr. Robin has another teaching as part of his dance. In between the fighting rounds, my bird friend spends some quiet moments on the sill, right up against the glass and turns his head sideways and looks in. I imagine he sees the candles and my silhouette, wondering if perhaps things aren’t as they seem. Then he pecks at the glass a little, hops to the left and the right and flies back to his branch only to repeat his usual attempted solution. I think of those little breaks in his pattern as his first moments of awakening, his own contemplation:  There’s something else in there but I can’t get at it, and worse than that, I don’t know what it is…what is it, what is it? This only lasts a short time – there’s nothing to mate or fight with sitting on the windowsill looking in. Without something to grasp, he returns to the usual routine and the drive of life.

At first, I envisioned a kind of enlightenment for Mr. Robin in which he would stop this craziness, see into the profound nature of delusion, and just sit on the branch. Letting go of the struggle, he could become an example to other robins that would be quite curious and inspired by his bizarre yet benevolent change of character. It’s not a bad plan, but there is another move to explore which is subtler yet: to return to the activity of being a bird with great compassion and clarity of mind. Although there are moments when we behold the seeming other through the invisible barrier, there is the particular thing to do in this moment that is not separate from enlightenment. A robin’s nature is to protect the nest and hunt for food for his charges. The witness is reflecting behind the reflection. My pen, the window, these two sides all become one activity of enlightenment. Though it is important to see the delusion of the reflected robin in the window, and the futility of repeated attempts to vanquish its image, the harder motion is to let go of the desire to live on the other side of the glass beyond the vicissitudes of life, a place where we are not touched.

A whole practice involves all of these things. Sometimes we see the emptiness of the reflection, sometimes we hurl our bodies wholesale into the moment, and sometimes we are the curious meeting of eyes across the limited view of the ocean. My teacher would say freedom lies in the non-opposition to all of these states. That motion becomes an endless stream of practice and has the most profound effect in how we live our life in this world, on this side of the glass, but not separate. By now my winged friend has moved on to searching the garden for worms, telling me there is only so long one can reflect about reflections!  I will have to do laundry and prepare for class. We will both be back tomorrow. Old friends.

– Palms together,