Being Kind to Ourselves

I was recently reading a really lovely teaching from our founding teacher, Shogaku Shunryu Daiosho, commonly and affectionately known as Suzuki roshi. This is from the book Not Always So:

“I want for you to have the feeling of true practice, because even though I practiced zazen when I was young, I didn’t know exactly what it was…if we do not have some warm, big satisfaction in our practice, that is not true practice. Even though you sit, trying to have the right posture and counting your breath, it may still be lifeless zazen, because you are just following instructions. You are not kind enough with yourself.”

Roshi then goes on at length about the importance of being quite sensitive with yourself, tender and care-full. I think this kind of spirit is quite easy to lose, and perhaps difficult to regain. It is very simple, but subtle and quite intimate: how do we know the right attitude toward our practice? We might call it our inner posture.

We might have pretty good outer posture, but our inner posture can be out of sync. Roshi tells us that the most important thing is to have a big, warm satisfied feeling in our practice. I think this might come as a kind of shock to some people, even (or maybe even especially) some longtime practitioners. I think it is possible for us to have periods of great enthusiasm, and periods of great doubt or even despair about practice. Or maybe we are just bored, listless.

Roshi indicates a wonderful sort of corrective prescription for a myriad of practice afflictions. He says to be warm, satisfied, and most importantly, kind to ourselves. Can we sit zazen in this spirit? Can we help build an atmosphere and community that encourages this posture, this attitude, this possibility? I think so. I trust our Way to show us how this can be possible, to help us to tap into that inherent capacity we all have to be present, to forgive ourselves and others, to be kind: to not just endure, but to live; not to just survive, but thrive even. Zazen should help us to express this, and not just be another program we are signing up for, or measure by which we find ourselves wanting.

I think we are doing a wonderful job collectively as a new sangha of creating a warm, welcoming feeling. I give credit and thanks for Taisan and I continuing to receive good instruction ourselves; to a lot of seasoned practitioners having joined us in the last months, contributing their warm energy; to our guiding and other veteran visiting teachers; and also to this space itself, where we come to meet. It is a yoga studio, and there has been this nice visible exchange of participants and even teachers from Hatha yoga classes joining us for our simple one-posture yoga. To put it simply, the vibes are good. I think this is building a wonderful foundation for our individual and collective practice bodies, in this time where kindness, patience, and warm heart/minds are increasingly in demand.

Keizan Titus O’Brien


Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part 2

One night when Dongpo visited Mount Lu, he was enlightened upon hearing the sound of the valley stream. He composed the following verse, which he presented to Changzong:

Valley sounds are the long, broad tongue.

Mountain colors are no other than the unconditioned body.

Eighty-four thousand verses are heard through the night.

What can I say about this in the future?

Seeing this verse, Changzong approved his understanding. Changzong, also called Zen Master Zhaojiao, was a dharma heir of Huanglong, Zen Master Huinan, who was a dharma heir of Chuyuan, Zen Master Ciming. Another time when Dongpo met with Liaoyuan, Zen Master Foyin, Liaoyuan transmitted the buddha precepts to him with a dharma robe, which Dongpo later wore when practicing. Dongpo presented Liaoyuan  with a jeweled belt. People talked about this exchange as something extraordinary.

Here Dogen is showing us a bit of how teachers worked with lay students in this era.  Apparently, Dongpo worked with multiple teachers and even before he had this breakthrough, he had received some kind of lay transmission from Zen Master Foyin, and he even received an okesa and a jeweled belt.  Clearly, Dongpo was an extraordinary practitioner.

The valley sounds of Dongpo would refresh practitioners of later generations. How sad for those who miss the dharma of the manifested buddha body! How are mountain colors seen and valley sounds heard otherwise? Are mountain colors and valley sounds one phrase or half a phrase? Are they eighty-four thousand verses of scripture? You may regret that mountains and waters conceal sounds and colors, but you may also rejoice that the moment of enlightenment emerges through mountains and waters.

This insight of Dongpo is something that even today, 800 years down the road, we are studying and can take inspiration from.  The ‘manifested Buddha body’ is also known as the Nirmana-kaya – it’s the physical form that a Buddha assumes in this world in order to teach people effectively.  The Nirmana-kaya is the medium through which dharma teaching occurs.  We normally think of this as the form of a person, but I think here Dogen is taking a broader view of the Nirmana-kaya.  In this case, the valley sounds and mountain colors are themselves the medium that teaches the dharma, and Dogen is lamenting those who can’t see that.  Dogen is then asking: if you don’t experience mountain sounds and valley colors as the Nirmana-kaya, the body of Buddha, are you really even experiencing them at all?  Is the experience of mountain colors and valley sounds a complete experience, or is it only part of the way to awakening?  He asks, are they indeed the teachings of the Buddha?  Finally here, Dogen tells us that yes, it may be difficult to see how the mountains and waters are expressing the Dharma, but as he often points out, even if we don’t get it with our intellect, it is still true, and we still benefit from it, regardless.  So even that faith is an occasion for rejoicing.

The tongue of the Buddha does not take a break. The colors are beyond coming and going. Are the sounds and colors intimate when they are apparent, or are they intimate when they are obscured? Are they one whole expression or half an expression? During past springs and autumns, Dongpo had not seen or heard the mountains and waters. He saw and heard them for the first time that night.

The mountain colors and valley sounds are continuous in their expression of the Dharma, even if we aren’t paying attention.  The question of intimacy and obscurity reminds me of another Zen story:

In China, there was a teacher named Dizang (J.: Rakan) who had a student named Fayan (J.: Hogen). Dizang saw Fayan all dressed in his traveling clothes, with his straw sandals and his staff, and a pack on his back, and Dizang said, “Where are you going?” Fayan answered, “Around on pilgrimage.” Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

This passage is getting at an important point: Dongpo’s realization was not an intellectual idea about emptiness and mountains and valleys.  It was a moment of experiencing valley sounds and mountain colors, not thinking, “Oh boy, this is great!  I love sitting here and listening to the valley sounds.  I bet this is what the Buddha meant when he talked about emptiness!”

Which is more intimate, which something is clearly seen and available to our intellect to evaluate, or maybe when something is partially obscured and that we can only intuit?  In the latter case our intellect may not have much to hold onto, but maybe we experience it in a deeper way.

Bodhisattvas who study the way, open your minds to mountains flowing and to water not flowing, Dongpo had this awakening soon after he heard Changzong talk about insentient beings speaking dharma. Although Dongpo did not leap when he heard Changzong’s words, towering billows flew into the sky upon his hearing the sounds of the valley. Was it the valley sounds or the tide of awakening that jolted Dongpo?

The idea that insentient beings can communicate, that they can even speak the Dharma, was a popular idea in China during this time.  The idea was that all things, plants, animals, rocks, have Buddha nature or are even a manifestation of the Buddha’s mind.  In this view, nothing is alien or other in the world.  Everything is part of the same mental entity.  An attentive listener, like Dongpo, can hear this language of insentient beings.  Dongpo had heard this teaching from Changzong, but that wasn’t enough to wake him up.  There was something in that moment of meditating in the mountains, some combination of Dognpo’s own inherent wakefulness and the sounds of the valley that came together to generate a transcendent insight.

I suspect that Changzong’s voices of insentient beings speaking dharma are resounding even now, still blended with the sounds of the night’s stream. Who can fathom this water? Is it a bucketful or does it fill whole oceans? In the end let me ask you: Was it Dongpo who was awakened or the mountains and waters that were awakened? Who today sees right away with a clear eye the long, broad tongue and the unconditioned body of the Buddha?

What a beautiful expression – of course the insentient beings are still speaking the dharma today, it’s in the sound of the Rio Grande, it’s in the sound of the cars driving by, in the sounds of the geese flying overhead.  Are we able to hear the teaching of insentient beings?

Our old friend John Muir could definitely hear the teaching of the insentient beings in Yosemite, and I will leave you with his words from Tuolumne Meadows:

“The foreground was . . . aflame with autumn colors, brown and purple and gold, ripe in the mellow sunshine; contrasting brightly with the deep, cobalt blue of the sky, and the black and gray, and pure, spiritual white of the rocks and glaciers. Down through the midst, the young Tuolumne was seen pouring from its crystal fountains, now resting in glassy pools as if changing back again into ice, now leaping in white cascades as if turning to snow; gliding right and left between granite bosses, then sweeping on through the smooth, meadowy levels of the valley, swaying pensively from side to side with calm, stately gestures past dipping willows and sedges, and around groves of arrowy pine; and throughout its whole eventful course, whether flowing fast or slow, singing loud or low, ever filling the landscape with spiritual animation, and manifesting the grandeur of its sources in every movement and tone.”

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, Part 1

Tonight I’d like to begin discussing one of Dogen’s famous fascicles from Shobogenzo, Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, sometimes translated as Sound of the Valley Streams, Colors of the Mountains.  It’s one of the essays that has been used as a foundation for thinking about a Buddhist response to our current environmental crisis, but it’s also a beautiful ode to the feeling we get when we encounter the natural world, the feeling of awe and inspiration.

This essay was written in 1240, which is sort of mid-career for Dogen.  Tonight I just want to focus on the first couple of sections.  In the opening, Dogen invokes the spirit of our ancestors, those who have practiced before us, to inspire us to take up the practice:

In the transmission of unsurpassable, complete enlightenment by numberless buddha ancestors, various practices have arisen. Study such examples as ancient practitioners crushing their bones and Huike chopping off his arm. Embody in yourself the dedication of a boy spreading his hair on muddy ground for the Buddha to walk on.  Slipping out of your old skin, not constrained by past views, you manifest immediately what has been dormant for boundless eons. As this  very moment manifests,”I” don’t know,”who” doesn’t know, “you” have no expectations, and “the buddha eye” sees beyond seeing. This experience is beyond the realm of human thinking.

Dogen is one of the most intensely literary of all Buddhist teachers.  Every sentence, almost every word, is ringing with references to Chinese literature, to Buddhist history and teachings.  It can make studying Dogen a bit cumbersome, but it’s also a central part of his power.  In this opening section, Dogen is using a very traditional mode of invoking authority, by invoking the ancient worthies.  He is referring to specific stories of practitioners who made practice their absolutely central concern, practitioners who showed their dedication by, for example, chopping off their arm to show their sincerity.

There are many ways we understand authority.  Today, we tend to put a lot of authority on experts in a given field. Scientists who study an issue are often invoked as authorities.  It wasn’t always this way.  Traditionally, in the west, the bible or torah was the source of authority, or the king or the pope.  In the 18th Century, the Enlightenment shifted the ground of authority in the west away from traditional sources and pointed to reason as the source of authority.  This was the beginning of our modern use of science as a source of authority, although as we know, there is still a strong current in our society that continues to reject science and maintain that the bible is the source of authority.

In Dogen’s time, in East Asia, the main source of authority was the appeal to ancestors.  The idea was very different from where we are today.  Today, we think that whatever’s current and modern is best, and that the ways of the past are backward and best left behind.  This is sort of the founding idea of America, really.  In Dogen’s time, the feeling was that the current society had really lost its way and things now are really bad.  In the past, people really had their heads screwed on straight, so we should look to their stories for inspiration and example. 

So in this opening passage, Dogen is pointing to the ancient worthies, but then basically telling us that we have this exact same capacity, it’s just that it’s dormant.  This capacity may be beyond our intellect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not available to us.

In Song China there was a man who called himself Layman Dongpo. He was originally named Shi of the Su family, and his initiatory name was Zidan, A literary genius, he studied the way of dragons and elephants in the ocean of awakening. He descended deep chasms and soared freely through clouds.

With this opening encouragement out of the way, Dogen now dives into the story that he will explore for the remainder of the essay.  Layman Dongpo was a real historical figure, sometimes known as Su Shih, a great Chinese public intellectual. He was born in 1037 and died in1101.  He was very active in Chinese politics and was widely known as a devout Buddhist.  He wrote more than 2500 poems, most of which are still with us today, and he wrote widely on such diverse topics as engineering and gastronomy.  The imagery used by Dogen here of soaring through clouds and descending into chasms evokes his connection with the natural world and shows his power as a practitioner.

One night when Dongpo visited Mount Lu, he was enlightened upon hearing the sound of the valley stream. He composed the following verse, which he presented to Changzong:

Valley sounds are the long, broad tongue.

Mountain colors are no other than the unconditioned body.

Eighty-four thousand verses are heard through the night.

What can I say about this in the future?

This poem is the focus of the essay that follows.  The main idea here is that the Buddha’s teachings are embodied in the natural world.  The ‘long broad tongue’ is that of the Buddha, evoking his verbal expression of the teachings.  The metaphor is that the sounds we hear in a mountain valley are exactly the voice of the Buddha.  And the colors of the mountains are the absolute truth, the unconditioned body of the Buddha.  The ‘eighty-four thousand verses’ are the sutras, the teachings of the Buddha.

Clearly, Dongpo had a powerful, ecstatic experience of the natural world.  What was the content of this experience?  I think his poem tells us.

I am sure you have all spent some time in the mountains, and it’s not hard to remember the sound of the valleys.  If you think about it, a valley doesn’t have a single sound in the way that a bird or a frog has a distinct sound; instead, the sound of a valley is made up of many different components: the tricking of water in a stream, the wind passing through the trees and making the leaves rustle and the branches creak, all of the animal sounds – crickets, birds, frogs.  All of these things, and more, come together to create the sound of a valley.  This is a pretty good understanding of emptiness – what we call ‘valley sounds’ are made up of a myriad of interconnected sounds that generate the distinct sense of spaciousness and dynamic activity that we associate with the sound of valley.  There is no single thing we can identify as the sound of a valley.

So to say that the valley sounds are the sounds of the Buddha teaching the dharma is not a big leap.  To the extent that the Buddha taught about interdependence, recognizing valley sounds as embodying this teaching is pretty good.  The same line of reasoning holds for recognizing the color of the mountains as emptiness:  from afar, we may see the mountains as a mottled gray-green, but we  know that this color comes from the rocks, the trees, the flowers, the clouds, the quality of light.  Mountain colors are indeed empty of inherent existence.

You can imagine that Dongpo was spending the night in a mountain hermitage, maybe devoting himself to a night of meditation, and it’s not hard to imagine him having this insight, not as an intellectual idea, but as a real, felt experience.  This is a pretty good example of the kind of awakening experience we can access.  Many of you have probably had a similar experience in the mountains or in other wilderness settings.

 I think this story resonates with our current feelings about the natural world, that the natural world expresses something profound and true and good.  And we feel that it would be better if our society as a whole could pay attention to this.

 This feeling about the natural world has not always been the norm.  In the Buddha’s time, the natural world was not seen as benevolent or peaceful or healing.  In ancient India, and in the European tradition until quite recently, the natural world was considered dangerous and ugly.  The mountains are where the witches lived, where the snakes and tigers lived.  The Buddha did not speak about the natural world as a place of healing.  The original sutras mostly invoke the natural world as an example of a place of danger.  It was only after Buddhism moved to China and absorbed Taoist influences that this new idea of the natural world was adopted.

 In the west, the natural world was, and to a great extent remains, a place to be subdued and brought under our control for our own financial gain.  But of course there is a strong tradition in the west of experiencing the natural world in the way that Dongpo describes.  Perhaps no one better exemplifies this than the great John Muir.  In his classic ‘Mountains of California’, his description of a Sierran meadow sounds evokes a similar feeling as that of Dongpo:

 With inexpressible delight you wade out into the grassy sun-lake, feeling yourself contained in one of Nature’s most sacred chambers, withdrawn from the sterner influences of the mountains, secure from all intrusion, secure from yourself, free in the universal beauty. And notwithstanding the scene is so impressively spiritual, and you seem dissolved in it, yet everything about you is beating with warm, terrestrial, human love and life delightfully substantial and familiar. The resiny pines are types of health and steadfastness; the robins feeding on the sod belong to the same species you have known since childhood; and surely these daisies, larkspurs, and goldenrods are the very friend-flowers of the old home garden. Bees hum as in a harvest noon, butterflies waver above the flowers, and like them you lave in the vital sunshine, too richly and homogenously joy-filled to be capable of partial thought. You are all eye, sifted through and through with light and beauty.

 So much of John Muir’s writing is like this – that the natural world is at once sacred and familiar.  Its joys are as easily accessed as going for a hike, if only our eyes are opened to the light and beauty around us.

As we continue to explore this fascicle, I’d like to continue exploring the parallels between Dogen’s understanding of the natural world as a locus of awakening and our modern, often contradictory views about the natural world.

–Taisan Joe Galewsky

Delighting in the Presence of the Skin Bag: Keizan Titus’ talk 10/20/14

So I have been taking another dip recently into the Lankavatara Sutra. Before being supplanted by the Diamond Sutra by the 6th Ancestor of our tradition, this Sutra reputedly was the most prized. No one less than the founder himself, Bodhidharma, reportedly told his heirs that this book contained everything they needed to understand. Of course, you could say that about many books even within the Buddhist tradition itself, which has never had just one canonical text. Nevertheless, the Lanka comes highly recommended.

I read texts like this increasingly slowly as I practice more, or at least as I just get “a little older; a little more confused”. I will read a few lines or even just a phrase, and find myself unable to read on. I am drawn to just close the text and sit with it, or sleep on it. So was the case the other day with a particular line. I wanted to share it with the sangha this week.

After a preamble that sets a pretty cosmic scene (as these Mahayana sutras are wont to do), the text states: “To this the lord of three realms [the Buddha] replied, “Ruler of the Yakshas/to this jeweled peak/the teachers of the path have come/out of compassion for you they have taught/the way of self-realization/ and on the jewel-adorned peak/so shall you teach in future/For this is where practitioners dwell/ who delight in that which is present.”

It was that last line that especially grabbed me, but the whole passage is rich. I thought that it touched on some fundamental points. We are being made aware of what has been sacrificed and what we owe those who have worked to make wisdom teachings available in our time and place. Next, we are informed that we shall successfully inherit this task in future. Then we have a concrete instruction for what this might look like, how this impossible task might be performed. The first part says we practice, and we dwell. Second, the quality of that effort is not one of Sisyphean existential drudgery, but rather delight. And finally, what we delight in is presence.

This reminded me that a member of the sangha recently cheerfully balked at a term from one of our main service (chanting) texts, the Song of the Grass Hut (a poem from our direct ancestor, Shitou). The whole couplet is, “If you want to know the undying person in the hut/simply don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.” Skin bag was the offending term, and I agree. It’s not very polite! And in a fundamental sense maybe its not even super accurate, since this implies a kind of cut-off, inert sort of quality. The whole poem is talking about a solo practitioner; a hermit. So I think it is possible that this all could be misunderstood to over emphasize a sort of “self-reliance”. We probably have to watch out for this; some of us, anyway.

But I feel this couplet contains both a problem, and its solution, right in it. “If we want to know the undying person” indicates that great longing that takes us beyond ourselves. That great prayer, or vow, to awaken, to be better, to be kinder, to be more real. We want to know the “undying person”: that self that is not so contingent, so erratic, so fallible, so out of touch, so afraid, so unskilled, so full of craving, confusion, ignorance. We often have to get to know that person very well, unfortunately!

In the search for that other, “immortal” self – which some have called the Sage, some the Beloved, some God, some Mother, some Buddha or Great Mind or True Self, take your pick, or find your own – it is possible to feel that this work can’t be accomplished by this very person that we each are. Nevertheless, we are told to simply not separate from the body, and in this and many other places in the teachings, we are told we have already accomplished our Buddha Way, in some time or place, which is not fundamentally separate from right here, right now.

So we are perfect Buddhas, right now. And as our great teacher Shogaku Shunryu said, we can also use a little improvement. We realize we are not maybe that present sometimes, when we ought to be, or want to be. This brought to mind for me the modern psychological label for one way this process of splitting might be described: “disassociation.” We dis-associate. “Dis” is an old word once used for “Hell.” We associate in a hell-ish manner, perhaps? That language is strong, and I think all can agree this is certainly possible. But I think here we’re also talking about something that can be quite subtle. It likely starts so, at least.

So, we are instructed to just come keep coming back, to the breath, to the cushion, to the moment, to presence. I think we need to carefully investigate what real presence is, and what we are, just this particular skin bag here and now. How is it feeling? How is it responding? What is its vibe? Does something need tuning up? And can we trust that if we let go and just sit there, maybe that tuning will happen, or be made more possible? Can we be more present, more in tune?

But I think we’re familiar with people who are maybe forcing things a bit, or times when we have. Maybe they (or we) look together, but then snap one day. People can seem ok, but be sitting on a lot of uninspected baggage. Life has a way of revealing that situation to us, and it’s a good thing if we can be responsive; develop our response-ability. This means learning how to listen, and be flexible.

Zazen should be practiced in such a way that it is facilitating this, I think. If our sitting is just a practice in disassociating (and the teachers warn us of this) then we need to see this. Teachers can be helpful, and so can the sangha. It is important to sit with other people, just energetically maybe. We can take strength, and give support. This kind of direct giving and receiving is in itself a great cure for dis-associating.

If we look at the causes of disassociation, there nearly always is some sort of trauma at its root. These traumas can come from early in our life, or even from something subtle not so long ago that got stuck somehow in our systems. Processing such things can be difficult and subtle work requiring different modalities for body and mind, different places maybe, or even people. But it is likely that sitting quietly on a regular basis, allowing delight in presence, practicing not separating from this skin bag here and now, can be of some general help for almost everyone. This is why we are here, working together to make this available and an integrated part of our own practice of living