All sentient beings are busy making mistakes. They think their unhappy affairs are happy and their happy affairs unhappy, and are always kicking and screaming. When you give a piece of candy to a crying child, the kid grins with eyes full of tears. The happiness that sentient beings speak of is no better than this. — Kodo Sawaki Roshi
All of us, without exception, want to be happy, and we think that the best way to be happy is to get what we want, and to get rid of what we don’t want. This is our natural tendency, but it turns out that it’s not really a winning strategy. All too often, we can’t get what we want, and we find that even if we do get what we want, we can’t keep it together for very long. The conditions we brought together will eventually fall apart. So even if we are happy in a given moment, we are tensing ourselves up for the next moment, in which the conditions of our happiness may change.
Buddhism takes a completely different approach to happiness. The Buddha taught that happiness does not arise from getting what we want and getting rid of what we don’t want. Instead, the Buddha taught that the way to happiness is to let go of our ideas of gain and loss and to simply stay close to our own life, in each moment, as it is, whatever it is. In this context, it’s not about getting what we want, it’s about feeling alive to the fullness of life. We can’t really control our situation very well, and even if we can, it will eventually fall apart as we inevitably age and lose our capacities. That’s a pretty grim state of affairs, if that’s the only perspective you have. Buddhism points to a different way.
Kodo Sawaki often spoke about the transience of our normal approaches to happiness, and this is a very poignant image, a small child grinning with eyes full of tears. As the parent of a toddler, I see this pretty often, and it always breaks my heart. We’re all like this, with our happiness or sadness dependent on moment-by-moment conditions that are largely out of our control. We are tossed around by our emotions and by the inherent transience of life. Any true spiritual practice must point us to a way beyond getting bounced around in this way.
Sawaki goes on:
To study Buddhism is to study loss. Shakymuni Buddha is a good example. He left his father’s palace, his beautiful wife, his lovely child, and gave up his splendid clothes to become a beggar. He practice begging with bare feet and a shabby robe for the rest of his life. All the buddhas and ancestors suffer loss intentionally. It’s a big mistake if we become Buddhist monks hoping to be successful in the world. No matter what, we are beggars from head to toe.
This passage reminds me of how Katherine Thanas, my first Zen teacher, described Buddhism. She often said that Buddhism is about moving against the current, that it’s pointing in a direction that is exactly opposite of how we normally think about things. This is a great example of that. Of course, we all think that gain is good and that loss is bad. We are hard-wired with this belief. But many of us find that it’s exhausting to be constantly wrapped up in keeping score, trying to boost our gains and minimize our losses. We may eventually want to find another way, a way beyond gain and loss.
But in his commentary to this passage, Uchiyama roshi says:
For us ordinary human beings, the easiest thing to understand is whether we gain or lose. Our fundamental premise is that gaining is better than losing. From such a viewpoint Shakyamuni Buddha was a very strange person. He walked the path of loss without thinking of gain. Why did he begin on such a path? All conditioned things are impermanent; therefore the criteria of loss and gain are constantly changing. Shakyamuni Buddha saw the limitations of this path of gain and loss and renounced it. he chose a path beyond gain and loss. He intentionally walked the path of loss to show us the way beyond gaining and losing. We ordinary people always dream of gain without loss. The path beyond loss and gain is the life of the stable self that exists before the separation between subject and object. It is beyond the duality of lucky and unlucky, rich and poor, superior and inferior. If we’re poor, it’s fine to be poor. Right there, we can find a dignified stability. If we are sick, there too we can find a dignified stability. When we live with this attitude, there’s absolute stability in the Dharma no matter what conditions we experience.
What a beautiful phrase: “dignified stability”. When we hear this, we immediately know it’s true. We know there’s a way beyond the rat race of gain and loss, rich and poor.
It is through our practice of zazen that we immediately connect with this place. When we come to the zendo, assume the meditation posture, and bring our attention to the present moment, we can contact our lives directly, without the mediation of this constant evaluation of how a situation can be worked out to our advantage. Even if we find ourselves judging our zazen, we can see that judgement with a greater perspective and give it space to come and go. This is what is meant by dignified stability.
Talking to Grief, by Denise Levertov
Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog,
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
my own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
my house your own
and me your person
my own dog.
–Taisan Joe Galewsky