The Unknowable

During BMZC Sesshin on 5-23-2020

Sitting sesshin in the midst of everyday life conditions will bring a new perspective on your life if you can stick it out. Someone said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” That’s surely a difficult way to test your understanding of reality, not that they’re difficult but that our expectations are difficult. And that’s what most of us will experience in this time. Mostly it’ll just be pins to our ego balloons for the duration, but when finished, if we can hang in there and really be present, we’ll have a new perspective on ourselves and our place in the world. Even if we live alone, expectations still rule, and body, speech and mind habits are a comfort to rest on, and hide in. Putting them aside for two days could be complicated and leave us feeling vulnerable.

Now you have a chance to put practice in the zendo and at home, together and see what you can do. It may not be as difficult as you think, because there’s a time limit of two days. In that time, whether it feels uncomfortable or not, at first, try to look on all present as buddhas, your home as a temple, your food as nourishment of the spirit as well as the body, and the trials of the pandemic as a sesshin of daily life. Look on the push and pull of situations as a way to develop skillful means for your own balance, as well as for the rest of the household. Call up the Precepts, the 6 Perfections, the Eightfold Path and the Four Cornerstones of Practice to guide you. Ration your speech and give your words carefully, so that information and entertainment take on new meaning as well. Put aside your struggle for personal control, and limit interior and exterior complaining, and rely on Big Mind, instead of self, to drive the course of two days. You might relax into the situation and trust the world more, that is, come to trust yourselves more. The outcome of such a plan would be to rest yourselves, unreservedly, upon your indescribable, great nature, like resting in a boat moving safely in unknown waters. You may learn a new perspective of reality. The two days of sesshin would become a short term intensive learning of entering into the ‘unknown’ within a ‘known’ situation.

Peter quoted something from Suzuki Roshi yesterday that was really interesting. Suzuki Roshi  said that ‘enlightenment was, “not about attaining something, but forgetting everything.” That could seem alarming to us until you relate it to something familiar. If you always see someone as a person you know and can predict, more or less, what they will say anddo, that person has a comforting aspect to be around, even when you don’t particularly like them. You can try to set ‘your own behavior in stone’  to compensate for it, but that will just freeze everything more. It’s even more difficult when love is in the picture. You really want to prevent change from disturbing your oasis. But here is where the most interesting part of practice happens.

If you take away the comforting aspect of a person or situation, and the ‘unknowable’ enters the relationship, it shows how little we’re in control in a big, empty world. When the ‘knowable’ disappears, we feel the wind of eternity blow through; we feel our mortality; our touchstone of reality disappears. But our version of reality as ‘knowable’ is a delusion and this is what we have to do to see reality clearly. We must learn to live with a touch of the ‘knowable,’ and a touch of the ‘unknowable.’ Your spouse is your spouse and not your spouse, your child and not your child, your house and not your house, your pet and not your pet, ’you’ and ‘not you.’

When the ‘unknowable’ happens,‘all possibilities’ blow through your being. That can’t happen when all the doors to experience are closed and locked. But when they’re open, you begin to experience all of yourself. You meet yourself as you don’t know ‘you’ and ‘you’ as you know yourself. When that begins to happen, you won’t need to lookat an incredible movie to experience ‘incredible,’ or do extraordinary things to experience ‘extraordinary.’

Practice in sesshin in a zendo is usually loud/noise-free, talk-free, interruption-free and the opportunity to be of benefit to everyone, whether in bowing, chanting, sitting, helping in the kitchen, sweeping outside, or in giving general support to everyone by following rules and encouraging silence and meditation. If someone is difficult, great effort is made by everyone to keep the balance, while protecting the person from our own demanding selves. That happens in a special situation of zendo practice. Can you do that in an ordinary, familiar situation? Can you forget that you know the person, the place and the usual situation and, instead, meet that person in a new, unknowable place and create a new response? Can you remake yourself on-the-spot, as it were? In times of difficulty, can you turn to the guides in this practice, like the Precepts, Perfections, Cornerstones or Eightfold Path, instead of the usual brooding, questioning and clinging to past behavior as your guides? The practice guides are there to help us to travel through the ‘unknowable’ safely.

You want to be happy, and I hope that you find happiness in your lives. But aside from happiness in daily life, a bigger goal would be to look for what sustains us in our quest for freedom from self, which is the sustaining power of joy. Happiness springs from our usual understanding, from our self-nature and opens nothing new, except more ‘knowable.’ Joy springs from the ‘unknowable’ and opens many doors to new understandings of the world and us. If you want to continue the round of birth and death, of limited expectation and activity, then ‘happiness as a goal’ is for you. But if you want to know yourself as the ‘unknowable’ and ‘move in mysterious ways,’ freed from the tyranny of self, then cultivate the ‘unknowable.’ Look past the ‘knowable’ and put aside ‘comfortable’ for these two days and reach into the ‘unknowable’ of the interior and exterior. Unlock the doors and let the ‘indescribable’ into your lives. For a sustained practice of two days, you can do it. We all can.

Sit quietly for yourself; sit for the world. Maintain balance where you are, inside and outside, for yourself and for the world. Dedicate your efforts to the healing of the world. The very healing energy that you bring up from pure intention heals you as well. Keep in mind this sesshin to bow for the world, chant for the world, eat for the world, bathe for the world and relate to everyone as you would wish to have in the world. For two days let’s make a peaceful world in our households that we would like to see everywhere. Let’s dedicate this sesshin to everyone, everywhere.

Life Is for the Living

March 21, 2020

What this time of the COVID-19 pandemic brings home to us, beyond the danger, is that we are meant to live and won’t let anything keep us from doing that. Life pledges itself to live, and if need be, to fight to live. On a venial level, we see survival of the fittest in the hoarding of toilet paper or even surgical masks. Of more interest is our being called on to stay indoors not so much to protect us from getting a virus that a great majority of people are unlikely to suffer much from, but so as to reduce the chance of the health of others being seriously compromised. This suggestion to do things for the sake of others should sound natural to Zen Buddhists, as it simply recommends that we act like bodhisattvas. To be fair though, Christians shouldn’t have a problem with this either, as it is equally reminiscent of the “Golden Rule” of Jesus that we learned as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Indeed, all religions must have something similar.

I’m reminded of a story that Dainin Katagiri Roshi told me when we were traveling together. He said he had heard it from his mother. It is about the difference between heaven and hell, starting with the fact that they are physically exactly the same. Both are infinitely long rooms with people sitting on either side of an endless table with all sorts of delicious-looking food on it. The only stipulation is that people have to use the chopsticks left there. However, as these are about forty inches long, they are impossible to eat with. In hell, everyone is trying over and over to feed themselves and not succeeding, while in heaven everyone is feeding the person opposite them. This is how a Bodhisattva lives.

Though it may be insensitive now for me to say this, Buddhism teaches us that in a sense death is merely a thought in that it is like any of the other thoughts that pass through our minds when meditating. As they may be there for a moment and then be gone, what they are about doesn’t matter much. Thoughts are only a problem if in paying attention to them, we get caught up in emotions.

Dogen dealt with the relationship between life and death in the Genjo Koan. He compared it to that between firewood and ash. As firewood has with its own past and future, and ash its own past and future, they are independent of each other, and so it cannot be said that firewood becomes ash. Firewood is firewood and ash is ash. The same is true for life (or ‘birth’, one word meaning both in Chinese, and death). Life doesn’t become death because life is complete within itself until the moment it ends. W can sort of see the truth of this on those screens in hospitals rooms showing vital signs; the heartbeat pulse line has disappeared when the flat line appears. Neither is there at the same time. The two sides of a coin provide a similar analogy. If the head is up, the tail isn’t. It follows that where life is, death isn’t. If life is life then, and death is death, then death is not our concern, and it doesn’t make sense for us to be afraid of it. And in fact, more people seem more anxious about the future than fear death itself.

What we become more as we practice is bodhisattvas, ‘enlightened’ on one side (bodhi) and ‘beings’ (sattvas) on the other, doing our best to take care of ourselves and others

Legend has it that it was shock at seeing instances of actual sickness, old age, and death that caused Gautama to leave the family palace. One of his answers to why we suffer is found in his simile of the two arrows. While we can do little about the pain from a real arrow, something can be done about that from a second arrow, which comes from our having unnecessary thoughts and feelings about the first.

Much of our life is spent in dealing with suffering from the three most common types of these thoughts, the so-called poisons of avarice, hatred or fear, and foolishness. The importance in practice of getting rid of these mainly likes and dislikes is featured in the second of the Bodhisattva Vows: “Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.” It implies that it is not life but our thoughts about it that are the problem.

On Buddha Nature

In honor of Shakyamuni, we call who we really are our “Buddha nature.” All of us have this, though just hearing about it won’t get us far. A few may have begun to practice because of it, but many more are likely to because something in their lives isn’t the way it ought to be. The latter was what legend said led Gautama to abandon his life as a prince and begin to practice meditating.

A popular conception is that meditation is for calming the mind. Sitting does slow thinking down, but it is better not to think of it as being good or bad depending on how we feel about it. Even those who start sitting wanting to straighten out their lives won’t end up doing it to change themselves. Rather, they will be doing what Buddha himself did: they will be sitting just to sit.

The problem is that our small self becomes a barrier between what we experience in daily life and Buddha nature. This self is interested mainly in taking care of itself, wanting what it wants when it wants it but not when it doesn’t. It is the source of suffering equally for those with an abundance of self-confidence and those with little of it, for those who believe in their own abilities and those who don’t. Either way, in liking, disliking, or not caring about things, the small self is relying on the Three Poisons of avarice, ill will, and ignorance, and in doing so, is fully supportive of both the desires that feed it and the fears that defend it. It also lacks interest in anything outside of usual ways of thinking. What matters most for Zen Buddhists instead is believing in Buddha nature, which doesn’t have such limitations and cannot be represented by any qualifications that we might choose to put on it.  

Buddha nature is thus not easy to define. It shouldn’t be said that it is something we possess, since it is us who are a part of it, while to say that we have Buddha nature separates ourselves from it. It is also not completely correct to claim that Buddha nature is always with us, as this would be assuming that we and buddha nature are not the same. A further difficulty in describing it is that it acts like a mirror in reflecting anything and everything except itself and so is unable to be self-identifying.

What is true is that we are expressions of Buddha nature. Everything being this, when we see something, we are seeing Buddha nature. What we hear or touch is Buddha nature. Though everything is, there is no way to separate Buddha nature from ordinary life, as our only knowledge of it comes from each of the things that it is. In other words, we can see form but not emptiness.

Terming this ‘Buddha nature’ is fitting in that it makes the name of a specific person into the universal, symbolizing by this the inseparability of form and emptiness. Form is emptiness as we are each but a part of the whole; emptiness is form as the whole can only be experienced in each of its parts. We talk of getting to Mars to continue our exploration of the unknown when we needn’t go any further than ourselves. Each of us has the solution in ourselves, though without ‘knowing’ it, since we only know things that can be ‘known,’ and Buddha nature cannot.

Nevertheless, as Buddha nature is something discovered in humans by humans, believing in it isn’t like having faith in a God or creator. Confidence that there is Buddha nature does encourage us to go on making effort without any direct knowledge of it. In the religion of my youth, I would have gotten in hot water if I had asked an adult whether knowing oneself wasn’t the best way to know God.

Why we meditate, then, is to be fully ourselves. Japanese Soto Zen founder Dogen Zenji called this “settling the self on the self.” He also said that meditating is a sign of enlightenment and that we didn’t do it to become enlightened– though that may happen–but to be enlightened. Even Dogen’s understanding will not get us closer to Buddha nature, but we do need to realize and accept that it is here, has always been here, and will always be here. What we don’t need is time to try to figure it out Buddha nature. Use that time to sit.


Patience is one of the Six Perfections that guide us out of the weeds and the mire. It’s the
strength we need to endure negative emotions, difficult circumstances and continue a lifelong practice of meditation. Patience is the ability to ‘wait’ with faith in an outcome that we hope to achieve. ‘Faith’ means ‘trust or conviction’ in some direction. Out of the practice of ‘patience’ we realize ‘composure and tolerance’ and find our own ground to look on the world with equanimity. ‘Equanimity’ is the ability to look on all things as being of ‘equal
importance.’Equanimity does not ignore or diminish what needs to change, up close or in the world, but to look with calmness to decide what one can do, to decide how to best restore balance. Through patience we learn to forgive, forget and put away judgment of ourselves, in order to look outward to see how to help. This is much like a doctor who looks on a sick person with composure to decide which course of healing to take.

With patience, a dynamic awareness develops because spaciousness is present. Usually dynamic movement happens only in our surface activity, but not much awareness develops with it because our thinking mind is too busy. We are enclosed with ideas. But in the practice of patience, we develop composure in our activity with stillness and our thinking mind relaxes. However our interior is in motion and charged with small awakenings over and over again. We’ve made time and space to look at our interior and exterior ‘present’ without expecting immediate results. These small awakenings can happen because patience is a dynamic form rather than a static one. Each small awakening reveals tolerance, kindness, compassion and composure in varying degrees, that eventually lead to flowering of the mind and heart in its true potential.

We look at the world from a position of noise and activity and struggle for composure. With the practice of patience, we learn to look on the world from a position of self-possession to see things clearly from our own ground, rather than putting another’s mind in place of our own. We want to act from direct information, rather than incomplete, secondhand information. Our course of action will come from a place of stillness. We match stillness with activity of change, like a plus and minus balance, rather than activity with excitability, like a plus and a plus, or a minus and a minus with no balance. In patience we have time and spaciousness to decide a plus and a minus balance, rather than to be pushed by emotional needs, which becomes a plus/plus or minus/minus imbalance.

How can you apply this to daily life? Meditation is a good beginning. A lot of bad news is filling the TV and newspapers and if we believe everything we read in its entirety, our emotions and thoughts will take on the same negativity. There will be no balance. In the midst of negativity a lot of good things happen and good people abound, but that won’t be in the news, except rarely. Such happenings are mostly invisible to our view because we look for spectacular, and they are very ordinary in their extraordinary activities. So the news presents a very one-sided version of the world, not just one-sided opinions, but one-sided understanding of reality. What can you do to balance the effects of one-sided information?
Look at the world around you.

What can you do to maintain balance here and now? Meditation, tolerance of the people in your lives, kindness in difficult situations, compassion for the suffering of others and patience, especially in routines and limitations of a locked-down situation. Fear of sickness and death are in the background, but ever-present. Balance that with meditation and finding your own ground here and now. Bring all the details of your life into focus and live with your people, your pets, your objects and all the incidents with equanimity and learn to see the ‘unknowable’ within the ‘known’ in your everyday life. The ‘knowable’ is the present limitation of your lives, but the ‘unknowable’ is beyond limitation, or description. Anything can happen in the ‘unknowable’ where all possibilities exist.

Approach this time to explore and study new aspects of yourself and spiritually stretch your mind and heart. In meditation you can touch this activity, but you can’t manage it as you can the ‘knowable’ side of your lives.This area of your lives is where ‘unknown you’ and ‘known you’ come together. It’s like plus and minus again, there is a balance. If you try to manage the activity while it’s in motion, that would be a plus/plus imbalance. First of all, it’s from new areas of understanding and we’re not ready to fully grasp it yet. But if you acquaint yourself with change and limitation as a new ‘unknown’ as well as a ‘known,’ all things are possible in this time, or any time after. Patience is the tool that unlocks this new activity. Patience keeps up grounded and empowered. When you feel dis-empowered stop and take note of what you are doing. Meditate and bring all the loose ends back to where they belong, you, as-you-are. Prodded by the world, inside and outside, we can move with some confidence in knowing our own ground, but allow he unknowable ‘us’ to call the shots to learn about ‘us’ on a much wider scale, that is, ‘us,’ as we don’t know ourselves yet. If we want to discover new dimensions of being, we have to let that newness first move in, and shake and move our interior and exterior without resistance. This is maybe the most difficult part of change and we imperceptibly slip from imperturbability to vulnerability. But we can remain in an empowered state if we keep choices clearly in mind. If we want to know this new dimension within, we have to be willing to listen patiently and maintain composure in our immediate world. We have to greet the new understanding, not with trepidation, but with faith in our own providence, like a lotus growing steadily towards its own flowering.