Dharma Talk by:
Bonnie Myotai Treace Sensei, M.R.O.
Most of you are probably familiar with the phenomena called Neckerís cube: a way of drawing two squares and overlapping them so that the mind recognizes the configuration as a representation of a cube. As you engage it visually, there is a moment where you see the surface and depth one way, and then it seems to shift. What had been the surface drops back, becoming the depth. The longer you look at it, the more disturbing the fluctuation becomes. The only way to fix the cube in a perspective is to pay attention to one particular corner of the drawing. If you do that -- which requires a kind of physical tension -- for a moment you gain a sense of stability within your consciousness, but it's difficult to maintain. This strikes me as similar to studying the teachings of Master Dogen, where he often forces an oscillation of consciousness between what we at first may think is obvious and superficial with what feels deeper and more sacred. As soon as our understanding begins to rest in any interpretation, the top sinks, the bottom rises, sacred becomes mundane, mundane becomes sacred.You will scale mountains and sail seas searching for a true teacher and seeking the Way of reality. When you sincerely seek a guide, spiritual benefactors and teachers of the Way descend from heaven and gush out of the earth. At the place where you contact them, they evoke expressions of sentient beings and insentient beings that you hear with the body and hear with the mind. If you listen with your ears, it is the household's everyday tea and meals. But when the eye hears sounds, it is the unconditioned. When you see Buddhas, you see Buddhas in your self and Buddhas in others, large Buddhas and small Buddhas. Don't be surprised or frightened by large Buddhas, don't feel put off by small Buddhas.
Part of what is so powerful about this particular passage is its confidence in the completion of the path. It is a reminder that because the path is already complete, each of us is able to realize it. Dogen's words come to us in our doubt and offer this loving confidence. You will complete it. You and It are not apart, therefore you will scale mountains, you will take whatever journey is yours, encounter whatever difficulty is necessary. You will not be diverted, you will not ever be parted from the True Way. The challenge of that kind of beginning is to recognize where Dogen stands when he offers this compassionate encouragement. What is our relationship with his position, and the basic confidence he speaks out of?
Recently when I was watching the kids in the playground of the local elementary school, it became clear to me how many of us lose that deep sense of ourselves. I love to spend time around groups of kids -- itís like watching the skitter bugs on top of pond water or dogs hanging out in the city dog run. Thereís this endless coming together and falling apart -- a mini-community of like-mindedness. The fourth grade girls were practicing for track and had set up five hurdle low-jumps. One by one they hurled themselves at these barriers. It was great, like skipping stones flying and landing again and again. They bounced off the ground over a barrier, and over another and another. I watched as one scraggly-haired little girl came up for her turn. She took off full-tilt, making the first barrier, the second, the third, and the fourth. But on the fifth, her heel caught, the hurdle tumbled, and there was a moment of 'Oh, no!' as she fell, and all her forward motion came to a standstill.
She collected herself, got up and ran to the back of the line, but it was obvious that she had the 'Oh, no' of the fifth hurdle wrapped around her like a dark cape. As the girls went through one more round, her whole presence became darker and darker. Finally it was her turn again. She took off, hair flying, running towards the first barrier. Right at the moment when she should have begun her jump, she did this weird little embarrassed dance and then scuttled off, placing herself at the back of the line. More than anything in the world, I wanted her to have the perfect coach at that moment, one who would shake her up, get her back out there, and get her to take off the 'cloak.' It wouldn't matter if she did one barrier, or five, or five thousand, if she knocked all five down and started her own special dance of destruction. It didn't matter if she started a revolution in the school saying -- We will no longer spend our time jumping over little white fences; we have better things to do! -- Someone needed to help her know it was important to go forward. Just go! A coach who would know whether what was needed was a hug or a firm shout. I wanted that for her, because finding those is such a tremendous treasure.
E.L. Doctorow said, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way." What he, like Dogen in his way, both know is that it's critical that we get into the car, that we turn on the ignition and go. The way will find us as soon as we're on the road.
A student asked master Sozan, "The teachings say that everyone who falls down on the ground must stand up again by relying on the ground. What is the meaning of to fall down?" Sozan said, "If you affirm the situation, that is the answer." The student said, "What is the meaning of standing up?"Sozan said, "Just stand up!" This is more than just cheerleading. What is it to fall down? So often, like that little girl who walked away with darkness around her, we decide 'falling down' is a mistake. We think hitting the ground, knocking over the barrier is a mistake, but the ground we hit, the failure we experience is not a mistake. The world is endlessly mysterious, experience is profound to a degree that will always surprise us. But it is never a mistake. To foster even a meager appreciation of that (and when weíre in the midst of a fall, meager is pretty big) is to begin to practice, to raise the bodhi-mind. It is the decision to stop complaining and to start paying attention. Contained in the fall is exactly what we need to stand. Everything we need is available, but we have to invite it. What is it to invite reality?
Dogen says, Without arising wholehearted will for the Buddha way, how can anyone succeed in this most important task of cutting the endless round of birth and death? Again, the wholeheartedness of the will is confidence in the completion of the path, in the effort of the Way. The wholeness is the effort, and the effort is the wholeness. Dogen realizes that this is not a conflict: discipline and delight are not two things, coming home and being home are not two things. He and all the teachers and mentors on our side, constantly work for us, pull us back into the Way with this reminder. Those who have this drive even if they have little knowledge or are of inferior capacity even if they are stupid or evil, will, without fail, gain enlightenment. At many temples this is made visual by a sword planted in rock at the entrance. The key is not the removal of the sword from the rock, but the very fact of its presence: impossible, yet present. Cannot be, and yet exists.
To arouse such a mind one must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world. This realization is not achieved by some temporary method of contemplation. To me this is one of the most important teachings of Master Dogen. He was a great codifier and organizer of training systems, yet here he seems to be clarifying that what is key isn't the system itself. The truth is not some method you can take up. You stand alone, raw and dying under heaven and earth. What do you make of it? Don't wait, he says, for the teachings from others, the words of the scriptures, the principles of enlightenment. We are born in the morning and die in the evening. The man you saw yesterday is no longer with us today. These are facts we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. But do we really notice it? Do we let it touch us in the midst of being bored, or tired, or incapable? We were born this morning, we will die this evening: how will we give life to this moment? To realize our potential, Dogen says, we only need arouse and invite that reality, to notice and appreciate it.
Even though you live to be seventy or eighty you die in accordance with the inevitability of death. How will you ever come to terms with the worries, joys, intimacies, conflicts that concern you in this life? With faith in the Way seek the true happiness of nirvana. Satisfied with life on the sidelines, watching others leap over the barriers, content with being half-assed -- we never live. What if, as the current movie suggests, this is as good as it gets? If, on the other hand, we come to terms with our worries by realizing who we are, and by taking up our real work, today, just as we are -- that is unstoppable life. It is the life we are called to and supported in. It is the life of right now; no excuses, no waiting for a better koan, a different configuration. Practicing the shallows wholeheartedly, we may discover the ocean.
The true happiness of nirvana that isn't conditional to good fortune is your birthright. How can those who are old, or have passed the halfway point in their lives relax in their studies when there is no way of telling how many years are left? Again Master Dogen rings that bell. One of the difficulties with awareness of impermanence as a wake-up bell is that it creates the same tension required to fix Neckerís cube in one perspective or another. We are aware that birth and death are not the whole picture. We are subtly aware of the unborn and the undying. But that flexibility of perspective can create either tension or peace, depending on how we take up the moment. The moment itself is both complete and fleeting. We have to keep going. Not what we knew yesterday, or how we felt this morning: now it stands, now it falls. Everything depends on it. Dogen writes: It descends from heaven and gushes from the earth.
Master Dogen called the sangha of Master Yakusan, Daisorin, which means 'a great Buddhist temple,' or place of true practice. He called it this even though the members of the order numbered no more than ten, and they often had no money to buy oil for the lamps. One night master Yakusan had no light. He preached to his disciples, "I have something to say. When an excellent ox is about to bear a calf, I will say It to you. An 'excellent ox' is a Zen student on the verge of awakening, someone on the verge of giving birth to the Way. It's also impossible -- oxen can't give birth to anything. So, when the impossible happens, he taunts them, we'll talk. At this, a priest walked forward and said, "An excellent ox has given birth to a calf, so master why don't you speak?" The calf is born. The goose is out of the bottle. It's complete. 'Hell has frozen over.' The truth the monk is presenting is the truth that enlightenment has never been hidden; there is nothing to wait for, nothing lacking. The master says, "Fetch a light and come here." Here they are in the darkness. There's no oil. Fetch a light, he says, and show me this miraculous birth, this capacity for the darkness of the absolute to give birth to the Way. Make a path to right where you are. Serve all beings. Not later, not with pretty words -- right now. He presses the monk to show him the reality itself. The priest returned to the group of disciples. Did he bring the light, or not? He was pressed not to be satisfied with cleverness. But because a koan is not abstract we are all pressed as well. Did Yakusan say what he had to say, or is there more to be revealed? The path these two are on is endless, yet I don't think they will let it fatigue them.
Ceaseless practice, the endless path, can ignite our lives. Daido Roshi often tells the story of the ugly duckling's realization of his true nature -- of his perfection as a swan and the peace inherent in that moment; the duckling is no longer in doubt about its place, its life, its funky honk. I wonder about the morning after. The swan has been enlightened, and yet it has a lifetime of feeling stupid, out of it, and not good enough that will require dealing with karmic consequences. It developed its muscles in a duck-like fashion rather than a swan-like fashion, and there will probably arise a moment when it looks at the other swans and says, "Her neck is so much more elegantly turned than mine. Although I'm a swan, she is somehow more swan then me." Or a moment when because of those waddle years, the swan realizes that it can out-swim the other swans, and even if that swimming is in service of all fowl, there is a subtle arising of ego, of superiority. Only the ugly duck who ceaselessly practices will see that separation, see the perfection of its practice and life, realize it and keep swimming.
Dogen says: At this place where you contact the true teachers, they evoke expressions from sentient beings and insentient beings so that you hear with the body and hear with the mind. If you listen with you ear it is the household's everyday tea and meals. When the eye hears sounds, this is the unconditioned.
If the attention we begin with is just this attention of 'everyday tea and meals,' fine, we start there. Hear with the ear, but don't turn away. Let it deepen, let the bottom rise to the surface. The only way to do that is to not turn away. When we stay with that attention, often whatever we thought was the truth begins to open up, change, transforming us as it transforms. It's like that scene in the movie about Picasso's life when he's riding on a train and someone sits down next to him. Recognizing who he is the person asks, "Why don't you paint people the way they really are?" Picasso asks, "What do you mean by Ďthe way they really are?'" The man eagerly pulls out his wallet and shows Picasso a picture of his wife and says, "This is my wife." Picasso responds, "She looks rather small and flat, don't you think?"
When we try to fix the nature of what is real, that fixing creates an enormous and unnecessary tension, imprisoning the moment within the bars of an idea. When we are unable to commit because we feel there's a better reality around the bend, we wear ourselves out with the journey. It's all ordinary tea and meals, the fare of daily life and practice, the way of fatigue and complaint. There is another way. We need only to look again at the oscillating cube, the path and the perfection. In that moment the unstoppable, unbounded energy of sacred activity manifests as this life. Our work consists of simply not looking away.
Bonnie Myotai Treace Sensei, M.R.O.
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