July 2015 - Sanctity and Responsibility
Seppo Gison appears often in the koan collections. In The Iron Flute, Case 37, a monk asks how to touch sanctity, and Seppo tells him that an innocent cannot do so.
In esoteric Buddhism, screens keep novices from coming up to the raised dais of the sacred altar; only advanced “initiates of the Supreme Way,” as the Diamond Sutra puts it, are allowed to approach that sanctified space.
But Seppo is not merely speaking of sacred versus secular when he tells the monk that an innocent cannot touch sanctity. This monk, imbued with beginner’s mind, is like many of us who start Zen practice because we intuit something mysterious and hidden, something beneath the surface of what we call ordinary reality. We want to know the Real; we want to touch the sacred, to find out where it is and how to connect with it.
Perhaps as children, standing in the cathedral of a forest, or feeling the rhythmic pounding of ocean waves, or watching the darting flight of a butterfly, we’ve had hints of what’s behind that curtain, that magic doorway that leads to the secret garden of sanctity.
So we want to renew that wonder; to touch it again. Still, we view it as something separate from us. How can we reconnect? What is sanctity? What is the sacred? What is holy? This is what Emperor Wu wanted to know when he met with Bodhidharma. The emperor asked, “What is the holy principle of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness; nothing holy therein.” The emperor was nonplussed, and demanded, “Who are you?” Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.” These answers have resonated for Zen students throughout the ages.
What is holy, and how can I touch it? Our morning service dedication begins, “Buddha-nature pervades the whole universe, revealing right here, now….”
Seppo tells the monk an innocent cannot touch it. From the beginning, you are it. You are not separate from Buddha-nature. You can’t touch sanctity because you are it. The eye cannot see itself.
You may remember your first sesshin, feeling pure awe and wonder (in addition to terror and pain). Then, attempting to hold onto that feeling, perhaps you reified it, creating a conceptual notion of holiness, which led you to think there’s an “it” to be touched.
Through the process of maturation, education, and conditioning, the notion of a separate self is constructed, and you move from what William Blake called Songs of Innocence to Songs of Experience. You can’t remain a “wild child,” as depicted with nostalgia in Francois Truffaut’s film L’Enfant Sauvage. Despite that romantic view, you’re not of much use to others if you refuse to accept the responsibility of this rare opportunity: being born in human form. This rare event, born into your unique body, with your unique mind! There has never been anyone before you exactly like this. There has never been a time before this moment. When you feel that, you are ready to take this responsibility on.
So the innocent state persists, but now with an overlay of knowing that there’s an “it” to be found. Intellectualizing, reading, discussing, “we seek it far away; what a pity,” as Hakuin put it. Thinking someone else has it, we ignore what’s within. In that sense, innocence equals ignorance: ignorance that each of us is already Buddha. However, it’s not enough to hear this, read this, chant this; we must wake up--reawaken--to awakened mind.
That takes discipline. We come from the formless realm, each according to our unique causes and conditions; we take this temporary human form; and we must learn how best to inhabit it, for the sake of all beings. This is our responsibility, and we can’t ignore it. We must develop discernment: how best to respond to circumstances as they arise, rather than to react according to neurotic habituation. It's so easy to devolve into reactivity, to think we are responding when actually we are just acting out our own inclinations, ingrained views, and prejudices.
I've noticed that most people prefer to have things their own way. They may not even know what that is. Someone may say, “Oh, I want to train in a Zen monastery, in the Rinzai Zen tradition,” but beneath those words are sentiments like these: “I want to do it my way; I’ll pick and choose what I think works for me; I think that I need a different schedule, a change in diet, and definitely more time off. Works for me!” Looks like a good Zen student, but the covert monologue may be, “Thanks anyway, but I don’t need your stinking rules! What difference does it make how I do something? I’m creative, I’m enjoying my life, so who are you to tell me what to do? You and what army?”
There is such beauty in learning how to do something with humility, willingness, and consistency, whether it's flower arranging, cleaning the bathroom, tea ceremony, cooking, or playing the violin. Very few people pick up the violin for the first time and play a Schubert Sonata. To do something with consistency--isn’t that the meaning of practice? The clarity and humility of our efforts affect everyone. Many people come here in psychic pain, reeling from the chaos in their lives, and how wonderful it is when they can feel, “Ah, someone's taking care of business here, and I can trust this place. Thank you so much.”
So being sloppy and inattentive is not an option. Refusing the gift of instruction is not an option. What are we here for? When we don't have that clarity and humility in our practice intention, trouble arises. Selfishness becomes the dominant mode. Then we sense a disconnect between what had been pure experience and what feels like a closed system. We try various distractions, various methods to assuage dukkha, but none of them works for very long. Tearfully we wonder where that feeling of the sacred has gone. We can’t retrieve lost innocence.
The logical mind tries to figure it out, but comes up against a wall. Wriggling around, looking for ways around it, usually involves deception of self and others. Of course that wall itself an illusory fabrication, a projection of the constructed separate self, the dictator “I.” Still, it feels solid enough when practice isn't wholehearted and attentive. What do we say in our meal chant? “What is most essential is the practice of attention.” Now and then? No, with absolute consistency.
Sitting after sitting, particularly in sesshin, you become aware of the great imposter of this separate self. You know you need to drop it, to let go, to be free. But how? It seems to accompany you everywhere, like your shadow.
Thus the monk asks Seppo, “If a person forgets himself, can he touch sanctity?”
Dogen’s famous lines come immediately to mind: “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by all things, just as they are. When actualized by all things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
So we study the Way. It brings us to zazen, where we study the self. And we come to see how that small self, that constructed self, that false self, that imposter self, stands in the way of experiencing anything, always coloring whatever appears before us with past conditioning. Looking within, and seeing the construction for what it is, we courageously begin the great deconstruction project of zazen. In case you wondered what you were doing here, this is a deconstruction site!
Who am I? What is this? Questioning everything. That is the study we’re doing, which is very different from schoolwork, where one is expected to come up with an answer as quickly as possible, and cram it in there with all the other answers. Studying the self, relentlessly questioning, becomes an infinite regress—like that blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister…. no end to it.
Who is hearing, who is fearing, who, who, mu, mu….and self is forgotten. The open, spacious mind allows the entire universe in, and you find out that everything is your self, without exception. Sanctity? Touch? OK!
The monk asks, “If he forgets himself, can he then touch sanctity?”
Seppo responds, “He may do so as far as he is concerned.” There’s no self for himself; there’s sanctity as far as he is concerned; but what is implied is that he, and we, must go beyond. Songs of experience follow songs of innocence, but then what? Go beyond! Open to the amazing grace beyond; to this wholeness, holeness, both with a “w” and an “h,” of being.
That is where we find true compassion. Where it becomes natural, as Shantideva put it, to care more for others’ welfare than one’s own; to live with constancy, commitment, true responsibility. Then the bodhisattva vow begins to live through us. It’s not something we aspire to, it’s something we can’t help. We feel in our own hearts these trees, tall in the sun, filled with birds and insects and all manner of beings so tiny we can’t even imagine. The breeze flows unimpeded, and a little brown moth that has put on his robe at the sound of the bell is doing kinhin on an open palm.
But the monk wants to know, “Then what happens to him?” There’s some residual ego-concern; if I really give up, forget the self, let go completely, who will I be? How will I be? Will I be able to function when I go back to my every-day life, or will I be stuck in no-self forever? Ha. What a tragedy that would be! Seppo answered the monk, “A bee never returns to the abandoned hive.”
Someone asked me, “If I really experience true freedom, what about love?” What about love? Is it something we put in a box? Is it a thing? Or is it this full, open heart, boundless, not compartmentalized; what Nyogen Senzaki called ts’in, intimacy. Feeling deeply the suffering of others, the joy of others, as one’s own, but without clinging to story lines, without anything added. Abandoning the hive, all the old containers, the outmoded belief systems, then, as Dogen put it, “No trace remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”