November 2015 - Welcoming the Bitterness
In Case 40 of The Iron Flute, a monk goes to see Master Seppo and asks, “When the old creek of Zen dries up and there is not a drop of water left, what can I see there?” Seppo answers, “The water is bottomless, and you cannot see it.” The monk asks, “How can one drink that water?” Seppo replies, “One cannot use one’s mouth to do so.”
This monk is imagining what it would be to enter fully into MU-shin, no-mind. Maybe he’s a little afraid of what might happen when there’s no trace of Zen; no trace of self. What happens when distracting notions about practice, about life, disappear? Of course like most of us, he’s using his mind to speculate about no-mind. When zazen is so deep that even zazen is gone, let alone all thoughts, concerns, worries, concepts, inner doubts about one’s ability to practice, when it’s just MU—what then? The monk wants to know how it will be. What will I understand? When everything’s all gone, what will I see? It’s rather funny when it’s put that way!
The dried up creek, the withered tree—he knows the metaphors. They don’t sound very appealing, do they! Where’s the life force, the juice, you might ask. There’s a koan about a woman who has supported a monk in a hut for 20 years, bringing him food, taking care of all his simple needs. One day, she decides to check him out, see if his practice has matured. She tests him by asking her lovely young niece to go to his hut and embrace him. The niece does so, and he says, “I’m just a withered tree on a cold rock.” The niece returns and reports what he said to her aunt, who chases him off and burns down his hut.
What would you do? Are you a stone Buddha, immobilized by the challenge posed by your life right now? Can you respond directly from the heart, or are you paralyzed by how you think you should be, or what you think others might think?
All dualistic ideas about practice, about correct behavior; the constant swirl of views and opinions, criticisms of others, the addiction to choice and attachment, to preferences—all these value judgments are based on a false assumption: that there’s an intrinsic, unchanging self. Perhaps you don’t even realize you are acting on that assumption until you settle into the deep zazen of sesshin, and then you may be struck by it: wow, look at all that I, I, I.
It’s so frustrating, this continual rising up of the ego-entity in all sorts of circumstances. Maybe in spite of your self, you’ve tasted something. Right away, the I rears up. I want more; something feels good, and I want to preserve it, or at least I want to try to recreate the condition that led to that good feeling, so I can get it back. You quickly see the futility of that attempt to reclaim it, so you try to go forward, projecting, like this monk: if I can let go, if I can, as Dogen put it, forget the self, what will I realize? There’s always that personal pronoun lurking. Checking, am I there yet? Is this it? Am I seeing it?
With this continual self-intrusion, seeing can only be from a limited point of view. Feeling that hindrance, you seek an improved condition of mind. If only I were a better Zen student. Oh, first I have to give up all my cravings, make a change for the better. Then I can be a good practitioner. If I get rid of my delusions, then I can awaken.
But there’s no first. Right now, just as you are, in this very body-mind, with all its physical ailments, fears, confusions, discontents, discomforts—be it completely! Start where you are, as Pema Chodron says, and you may realize that there’s no unchanging you. Let go of what you think you are, in the midst of it all. Then, Sosan Zenji reminds us in Faith in Mind, “no more worries about your not being perfect.”
Seppo answers the monk’s question about what he can see when there’s not a drop of water left this way: “The water is bottomless, and you cannot see it.” It’s fathomless, beyond any depth that can be imagined; it’s so wide and so deep that it contains everything. “Unlimited; inconceivable!” as the Buddha tells Subhuti in the Diamond Sutra. This Dharma is everywhere; there is nothing outside it to be seen. You can’t see or say a thing about it. A fish doesn’t know water as an element; it’s just water.
Dogen said, “fish swim like fish; birds fly like birds.” They’re not thinking about water, about air. We are all in this ocean of Dharma; there is no one left out. Therefore we cannot see it. You know the saying, “The eye cannot see itself.” But the I can see only itself. Seppo’s words may seem to be the opposite of the monk’s metaphor for nothingness. But he isn’t coming from a dualistic view of emptiness vs. form. “The 10,000 things are of one suchness,” as Sosan Zenji put it in Faith in Mind. Each phenomenon, each form itself is none other than that suchness, perfect and complete, with nothing lacking, nothing superfluous. The full moon is revealed both in a dewdrop and in the ocean.
Every koan presents some aspect of our own lives. The monk questioning the master represents us, in our own confusion, our yearning to be free from all the sticky stuff we call the self. We think, I know a radical step is required, but I don’t feel ready. We ask the teacher, is there any assurance you can give? When I get there, will it be “the marvelous revelation of its glorious light?”
No. No, and No. The teacher deprives, again and again. Seppo tells the monk, you cannot see it. The monk persists, how can I drink that fathomless water? How can I experience that state of mind? How can I go from my concept of emptiness to a concept of fullness? Poor guy.
Poor us. Trying to see, trying to drink, trying to understand: “In the midst of water, crying in thirst so imploringly,” as Hakuin Zenji said in “The Song of Zazen.” The teacher’s compassionate response: NO.
I’ve been reading The Ceasing of Notions, a text that had been hidden for many centuries in one of the Dunhuang caves on the Gobi Desert in western China and discovered in the early 1900s. It was first published in English in 1988, with a commentary by the late Zen Master Soko Morinaga, who wrote, “A master does not really lead a disciple to enlightenment but rather increases his sufferings that arise from delusion so that he may awaken from it.”
Seppo tells the inquiring monk, tells us, you can’t use your mouth. This bottomless water cannot be drunk that way. We base our self-identity on, and have absolute faith in, our perceptions, our six senses, especially mental activity. The Heart Sutra pushes us into great doubt: No seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no thinking.
The sense organs, including the intellect, have no inherent unchanging existence. The self has no inherent unchanging existence. That’s difficult to believe when it keeps rearing up so defiantly!
So Seppo, in his great compassion, says, NO. You cannot see it; you cannot use your mouth to drink it; you cannot use your intellect to realize it. Quit trying to figure it out; stop speculating about it.
The great second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said that trying to attain enlightenment by speculating about it is like trying to burn up a huge mountain with the light of a firefly.
He also said, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You just have to drop all your ideas about it, and let it take you by surprise.
After all, what do we know? But we don’t want to be fools; we think we know; we especially want others to think we know. We want knowledge that we can recognize, that has some worldly value. We think certainly someone has to be able to give it to us.
So the monk decides to try his luck with Joshu, and relates the unsatisfactory exchange he had with Seppo, hoping for a different outcome. Joshu tells him he cannot take it in through his mouth; he cannot take it in through his nose. This cannot be gotten hold of.
But the monk doesn’t get it. He persists, and asks the same question he asked Seppo. What will it be like, what will I see? If I make that leap—really just become MU—can I get true insight? He has admirable persistence, but he’s still getting in his own way.
Joshu tells him the water will taste as bitter as quinine. What is the taste of Zen? Bitterness. That’s why green tea is recommended by so many teachers of old—its bitter taste nurtures the heart, Hakuin told his students—the heart for the Way.
Morinaga wrote in his commentary to The Ceasing of Notions that “good medicine is bitter to the taste, and, sadly enough, the medicine that makes people aware of their own foolishness is certainly acrid.”
In his Rohatsu Exhortations, Hakuin said, “The best way to nurture the heart is to endure bitterness. When a student delightedly undertakes hardship, and when the hardship penetrates to the marrow, the spirit becomes lucid, lofty, and cheerful. Jimyo said, ‘from olden times, whenever strenuous practice takes place, the bright light arises without fail.’”
It’s easy to fool ourselves, however, and do half-hearted practice. Instead of cultivating the wayseeking mind, we can fall into comfort-seeking mind, self-absorbed mind, distracted mind. Distractions shore up the illusion of a separate self, which is the biggest impediment to practice, the biggest source of suffering. Too often we’re conceptualizing, intellectualizing, instead of getting DOWN to it.
We hear about water as bitter as quinine, but we want something sweet, some reassuring words, some encouragement; after all, we may idly think, why do strenuous practice if all beings are fundamentally Buddha?
As a young monk Dogen Zenji devoted himself to this question: if we already have Buddhanature, why practice? He struggled mightily—it was no idle wondering—and finally went to China to search for a teacher who could put his mind to rest.
Each of us has our own question, whether burning or less fully formed; what is it? What is my life for? Where do I go from here? If now is all there is, what’s next? If I’m already Buddha, how come I so often think, speak, and act in unenlightened ways?
Dogen and his teacher, Myozen, undertook the hardship of a trip to China in 1223. One day, Dogen was sitting zazen with the other monks at master Rujing’s place. Suddenly Rujing berated the monk next to Dogen for falling asleep. "What do you expect to accomplish by dozing? The practice of zazen is the dropping away of body and mind!"
Those words pierced Dogen’s heart. The body-mind of self dropped away, and he came to a great realization. Because of his long and deep introspection, Dogen was ready. Thus he taught, “practice is enlightenment; enlightenment is practice.” If self is still in the way, however, there’s a great gap between practicing and experiencing realization.
When the ground is thoroughly cultivated, a seed opens and grows; eventually, flowers and fruits appear. So we must have the energy for this process; we must “delightedly undertake hardship.” We must have the aspiration to awaken, welcoming bitterness, exhaustion, frustration, and pain. If not, we become passive, waiting around for realization to strike.
Of course it’s always present, within and all around us, this bottomless ocean of Dharma. But if we’re lazy, indecisive, distracted, we can’t awaken to it. As Sekkei Harada says, “In true practice there is no place to plop down and make yourself comfortable.”
So the best lesson a teacher can give is No. The student hears this and wants YES, and keeps asking for it in different ways, wanting affirmation, not deprivation. But we have to learn how to say no to requests, and let others figure out what they need to do without our meddling. We have to learn how to say no when all our conditioning—concern for propriety, wanting to please—is pushing us to say yes. We have to be resolute, even at the risk of disappointing someone. This is finding true freedom.
Soen Roshi often did prostrations at the bowing mat at the end of sesshin. As he did so, he would chant, “All is revealed as it is now; all is awakened as it is now; all is enlightened as it is now….” Always, awakened mind is right here in every thing, every moment, every place—but we must wake up to awakened mind! As Dogen put it, “Even though one is fundamentally Buddha, without training, one is not aware of this.”
Having been deprived again and again, wanting desperately to wake up, the monk now asks Joshu, what happens if I drink that bitter water? Joshu says, you will lose your life. If you really practice, really commit to this, day in and day out, every moment without swerving, steadfast no matter what, and drink it down in one gulp, you will lose what you call your life, this ball of entanglements; you will die to everything you have thought must be retained and preserved.
We have no time to dawdle, no time to catnap. With sincere practice, the grip of self-addiction can loosen; the tight fist can open. So with a humble spirit, let’s rise to our lives’ challenges, and welcome the difficulties, the barriers, the bitterness. As Nyogen Senzaki said in his comment to this case, “If you do not shy away from these obstacles, I say, ’Go for it!’” Lose your life.