Village Zendo Home
 
April 08 Journal Contents
Dharma Talk
Making a Difference
A Blade of Grass
Shuso Talk
Zen at War
Beginner's Mind
Poems
Found Dharma
Whimsy Buddha

Attention! Case no. 12 from The Book of Serenity: Dizang planting the fields. Dizang asked Xuishan, "Where do you come from?" Xuishan said, "From the South." Dizang said, "How is Buddhism in the South these days?" Xuishan said, "There is extensive discussion." Dizang said, "How can that compare to me here, planting the fields and making rice to eat?" Xuishan said, "What do you know about the world?" Dizang said, "What do you call the world?"

So, good morning everyone. It's so wonderful to see you all here, so many family and friends, and it's particularly wonderful to have you all here in this brand new space of ours. I hope this space welcomes more and more of you, and more friends and more family as we grow into this flourishing sangha that we already are, that blossoms and blooms even more.

I've been complaining all week that I've had no time to write this Dharma talk. We've been so busy with the move and with Urban Sesshin—that was very intense for all of us. And at 11:30 last evening and then like 1 o'clock this morning I thought, "You know what? I've been writing this speech for the last 55 years."

So as I was finishing it this morning in the cab, I figured, "This is it. This is as good as it gets."

The first word in my speech is "breathe." (Breathes.) Thank you.

Mr. Andrews said, "Campbell, you are a stupid little boy, and you will achieve nothing in this life. Because you are nothing. I shall make it my duty to remind you of that whenever it is my misfortune to have you in my class."

I went to school where all the teachers wore black robes and were called masters. (Laughter.) Wow!

Mr. Andrews was my math teacher—a stern man, a stern Scottish man, a devout Catholic. He wasn't a warm fuzzy kind of teacher. In fact, I don't think he liked kids at all. For sure, he didn't like me.

Enkyo Roshi and Chodo

Well, there I was, this kid from the wrong side of the tracks with a lot of life experience already, a fresh mouth, and a scholarship to a fancy boys' school, a school that middle class parents really wanted their kids to get into. For me, it was a hell realm. I sat in his classes three times a week for three years, not having any of my questions answered. I could sit there for the whole class, arm outstretched—nothing. No acknowledgment. Who knows what karmic baggage we had together?

So what's the point of me telling you all this? Well, for about the next 40 years, on some level, I believed what he said to be true. I've lived a life believing on some level that I am stupid, that my understanding of the world is limited and not very interesting. And the world, my world, was full of Mr. Andrewses. Lots of them.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I know I'm not stupid. Intuitively, I'm smart, I'm funny, sensitive, I'll survive just about anywhere. But it always seemed to me that smart, sensitive, survival skills just weren't enough. That who I am, as I am, just me, is somehow lacking something.

And here it says breathe. (Breathes.)

During this ango period, we have been looking at Buddha nature, or true essence. So what is the real teaching of Buddha nature for someone like me, or someone like you? My being stuck in the story of "I'm less than" is actually not much different from Xuishan being stuck in his story of, "I'm from the South. There's extensive discussion there." Both of us are making our worlds very small: My little story, Xuishan's big story. Very small. No room for anything else. No interconnectedness, a tightness: "This is who I am, and where I come from, and that's how it is."

Many of you know I work as a chaplain in a nursing home for people with AIDS. Every day I'm there, I get a glimpse, many glimpses of Buddha nature: My own, and that of others. Every day there is an opportunity for me to connect in ways I never thought would be possible. Whether it's with Carol, the crack-addicted prostitute, or with Carlos, gorgeous sociopath—they're always gorgeous, sociopaths. By the way I've changed their names.

My favorite patient passed away a couple of months ago. Actually, some of you met her here. I'll call her Tina. Tina was morbidly obese and horribly disfigured by lipodystrophy. That's one of the side effects of AIDS, your body fat is distributed in really—it can be really, really awful. She was enormous, camel hump and...she stole my heart the first time I met her. She could be funny, sad, angry, and downright rude. She had a mouth like a truck driver.

Tina was very intrigued by me, my being a Buddhist—she was this big black mama from up in Harlem—and the fact that I seemed to actually enjoy my work in this dump that Tina called home. She had lots of questions about karma and rebirth. She was one of the sweetest, gentlest souls I've met. She had also served 15 years in prison for murdering her mother.

How was this possible? I would ask myself this whenever we talked together, or listened to Aretha Franklin on her Walk-Man, one earphone each, or when I would take her for pizza—this grotesque, 350-pound woman, all she wanted was pizza and Aretha. How many discussions we had about the terrible moment when her Buddha nature was locked down—albeit out of the need to survive a worse fate at the hands of her crack-addicted mother and stepfather, who were looking for easy sex. And you know, where was their Buddha nature? How did that get locked down?

How many times in my life could it have been very different? How many times in your life?

Where is the piece in you that is capable of that? An act of violence so vile, and yet in her case so necessary. How often I clenched my fists and closed down my heart.

You know, last week I woke up on Monday—Koshin and I had a really incredible day, we had just got an e-mail that we got a grant for $25,000 for this project that we're working on with Roshi and Christine and Joshua—and it was our wedding anniversary, we decided we're going to go to the Bahamas tomorrow. It was a great day. We had lunch with Ann, who's also here—it was an executive lunch, with some kind of big muckamucks in the health field, and it went beautifully, it was a really great lunch. My day, it couldn't have been better. It was incredible. It was like, "This is my life! How fabulous! It's all going really well."

We went out for a beautiful dinner on Monday evening to celebrate our good fortune of the day.

And then on Tuesday morning I was going to my office—I had to be there at 9 o'clock for a client—and, do you ever make that mistake where you think, "Should I stay on the local, or should I get the express?" So I got on the express at 96th Street, and for some unbeknown reason to me, or to everybody, the conductor said, "There is a sick passenger on the train, could everybody cross back onto the local?" Everybody, plus everyone who was already on the express train crossed the track, got onto the local, and then the express train pulled out. (Laughter.)

So we finally moved towards 86th Street, and then we're at a complete standstill. And by this time, maybe seven, eight—could have been 300—express trains go whizzing by. And the time is now 8:45, and the conductor, who is in that little cubicle next to me, that little cubbyhole that they stand in, kept saying, "Please stand clear of the closing doors." Which were neither opening or closing, they were just doing that ch-ch-ch, you know, when they kind of open this much and then they close and you think, "I'm gonna get out of here!" No.

We were on the train for 35, possibly 40 minutes. My Buddha nature arose in a very different way. I wanted to put my hand through that cubbyhole, bring him out, tell him, "The doors are not opening. Shut up." And then I thought maybe I'd pummel his face. But trust me, I wasn't alone. Everyone on this train was becoming more and more irate.

Chodo

And what did I do? At some point I said, "I have to breathe. There's nothing I can do here. Let me just breathe." Now, it wasn't a miracle, I didn't suddenly become all angelic. Everything is as it is. But it got me back to where I was in this moment, stuck on a train, on a subway, I wasn't back in my story as a kid, everybody's beating on me. It was no one's fault but MTA. And they weren't singling me out. Everyone on the train is having the same experience, to a degree.

When I first started working with this koan, I was totally identifying with Dizang, and actually feeling rather virtuous. Screw you, Xuishan, with all your intellectual bullshit. I'm here, doing the real Dharma, planting the fields and making rice for dinner, or working as a chaplain doing holy work. Let's hear it for the workers, man.

How easy for me to get caught up in an idea of practicing the real Dharma, for my Buddha nature to be obscured: "This is the real Dharma. I'm out here every day with these people who are dying, I'm giving of myself tirelessly, effortlessly, lovingly, but this is the real shit."

I notice my Buddha nature is obscured most of all when the little kid who is filled with shame, as Joshin talked about so beautifully yesterday, when my little kid who is filled with shame—the kid of an alcoholic mother and no father—that peeps out and asks, "Is it safe? Is it safe to be me?" Or when Mr. Andrews in some incarnation or another says, "Campbell, you are nothing."

And then in those moments, if I'm lucky, I catch a glimpse of Tina as I look at my reflection in a store window. Or of Carol, the crack whore, as I start to take Xuishan's inventory, whoever Xuishan is in that moment—as I start to take his story. And I say, "Hey, guess what? There's actually nothing to achieve, Mr. A. I got it already. Thank you for your teaching."

Chodo and Koshin

As most of you know, who have been on retreat and samu practice with me, I have an aunt who was a great Zen master. She just didn't know it. I've shared anecdotes with you at samu practice and various other times. As I was finishing this talk, in the cab this morning, this one came to mind: Auntie Doreen said, "I might not be much, but I'm all I've got, and by Christ it's enough."

So, I'd like to finish by going back to that subway car, to that moment when the clouds that had obscured the sun, my Dharma essence, my true nature—happens to all of us—the clouds kind of drifted past the sun and I was sitting there. And you know the subway poetry? W.S. Merwin said:

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
and the flowers, they're all forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without question
even though the whole world is burning.

Thank you.

Chodo Applause

« Back to April 08 table of contents