October 07 Journal » Full Combustion!
Linji's Great Enlightenment

Koshin Paley Ellison

Linji asked Huangbo, "What is the true essential great meaning of the Buddha's teachings?" Huangbo immediately hit him. This happened three times.

Then Linji left Huangbo and visited Dayu. Dayu asked, "Where have you come from?"

Linji said, "From Huangbo."

Dayu said, "What did Huangbo have to say?"

Linji said, "Three times I asked about the truly essential great meaning of the Buddha's teachings, and three times I was beaten with a stick. I don't know if I was at fault or not."

Dayu said, "Huangbo was so kind. He did his utmost for you. And still you come and ask if there's any fault."

Linji was greatly enlightened by these words.

What is it to ask a true question? Was Linji asking a real question? Was this some intellectual question about Buddhism? Did he really reveal himself to his teacher or to himself? How don't we reveal ourselves? What do I feel comfortable sharing or expressing, and what don't I? What do I hide? What do we hide?

Robert Aiken wrote this lovely piece that illustrates part of my thinking on this point: "The next day Woodpecker came around when Zen Master Raven was cleaning up after a windstorm and asked, "Do you think I could be a teacher?" Raven looked her over: "What's the dark side?" Woodpecker hesitated. "I'm not sure there is one," she said. Raven turned away saying, "Then how could you be a teacher?"

Sweet Woodpecker is on the path with us, and, like us, she doesn't notice the strewn twigs from the storm, what is at hand, but is caught up in her idea — like I often am — about attachment and this wonderful thing of striving and wanting. If only I had this or that, if I'm recognized or if I'm not recognized, people see me this way or that way. Wanting to be a teacher! She doesn't seem to notice that there's cleaning up to do, there's a storm that happened, and there's the teacher, Raven, picking up after the storm. So ordinary, like Roshi picking up some popcorn that people didn't notice was left on the rug from last night.

There is the student not noticing there's cleaning up to do, and the teacher, out of his grandmotherly compassion, says, "How can you be a teacher if you don't know about the dark?" Woodpecker doesn't look at the damage right in front of her, in front of me, in front of you, or inside you. What about cleaning that up, tending to it, carefully? When we're suffering — or when I'm suffering — we don't see what's right in front of us. We can have great spiritual friends or teachers who say, "Look at that, look at that," but if we're so caught up in our shit we don't see, and we can't really hear because we're so caught up. That's certainly been true for me, and maybe this is familiar for you. Not seeing that is just about picking up after a windstorm. Just taking care of your mother when she's nervously sitting next to you.

When I first came to the Village Zendo, I was wandering around from Zen retreats to Vipassana retreats to Tibetan practices — a cornucopia of experiences of the Dharma. It was a wonderful time, and I kept coming back to the Zendo. I loved and hated sitting Zazen. On so many nights I couldn't wait until the jikido would ring the bell so I could just get out of there — away from the discomfort, away from where I felt pain or just edgy. I thought I could hide! I thought I could leave that behind and say proudly, "Oh, I went to the Zendo last night." It's like saying, "Look at these robes!" I was there! I kept coming back.

At that time, Roshi was becoming a Sensei, and she was to give her first jukai. That sounded good to me. I asked if I could take the precepts. It seemed like the thing to do. I could get one of these cool robes, and go on some retreat at Wisdom House, which sounded mystical. She said no. She thought it would be better for me to practice a bit more. And I thought she was really off. I thought, "Well, she's just becoming a teacher, and that's why she doesn't really see my greatness." It's amazing. It's totally funny and completely sad. It's heartbreaking to really feel that, to really feel, where I was, wanting to be a teacher. And there was a lot of shit to go through, toilets to clean, anger to deal with, grief to feel, to go through, and to fall into. I didn't see how wonderful Roshi was at the moment. I really thought she was the villain. And yet, at that moment, there was still this aspiration for the teachings and realization, and it is important to not throw that out because that is also an important part of my path.

It's like Linji asking Dayu: Was I at fault? Is Roshi at fault? Who's at fault? Where's the blame here? For me, to get into the dark shadows is painful—to really feel my striving and how I separate myself from other people. How and why do I hide? I want people to see this great fabulous thing! Don't I? Dogen says, "Reflect now whether any being in this entire world is left out of the present moment." What's not included? What don't you include? What do you push away? Who do you push away?

One day, a western monk studying with Vipassana teacher Ajahn Chah asked him, What's with that guy we see sometimes? Ajahn Chah answered, Oh, he has a lot of promise. He comes here sometimes and stays for a while, but then he thinks ‘this stinks,' and then he goes on to try Zen, he goes to Japan, goes full throttle, and then he thinks that stinks. And then he goes to Tibet, climbs the Himalayas, finds a Rinpoche, and he thinks that stinks. Then he usually comes back here. And then it stinks again. What he doesn't realize is that he's the one carrying the shit-bag around with him with his shit in it. When he sets it down, eventually it starts to smell. He thinks it's the place, and he picks up his shit-bag, and starts onward. But there's something striking about what Ajahn Chah said in the beginning: He has a lot of potential. He's able to see that even then, even the guy who says this sucks that sucks this sucks that sucks, that potential that each of us has to fully enter our lives is always present. And reflecting back on the years when I first started to come to the Zendo, I was like that man with his shit bag. It's not a fun place to be.

It's uncomfortable to realize how we really haven't been present. I've had important moments where I've had a glimpse of, "Oh my god! Look all this shit that I haven't looked at!" Heartbreaking! Being a touch extroverted and a bit grand, my show can always seem great. It's entertaining for people, and I can be charming. I can make people laugh. I also can be as subtle as a flying battle ax. There are wonderful and challenging qualities to this: not being sensitive to myself and others, and not noticing where I am. How do you notice where you are and who is there? How do you miss what just needs to be picked up?

Most days, I enjoy my work and relationships. I'm a mostly friendly kind of person who's often walking down the streets smiling. The Starbucks baristas on Greenwich Avenue call me "the smiley guy," because I'm just excited about Starbucks espresso. This ease and friendliness can be deceiving and tricky for me because it's hard for me to see the underbelly when things feel good. I can get very in the clouds and not so much in my mulabanda — a kind of lock in the hips that holds an energy of earth and stability. It's been so helpful for me to focus on grounding and not to get too silly.

Carl Jung says, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." Dark and light are part of everything. Shakyamuni says: "Do not close your eyes before suffering. This includes yours. Don't leave your self out." How do we find ways to become more intimate with ourselves? I've been struck by my own ignorance. I've had this idea, "Well, if I just become a Buddha, my life will be great. Then I'll feel good all the time." Often when I catch myself in those moments, I go back to one of the mythologies of the moment the Buddha was enlightened — he has the big confrontation with Mara and Mara's armies, and at the last moment, they switch places! So, who becomes enlightened? Buddha becomes Mara, and Mara becomes Buddha.

Dogen Zenji talks about the 16-foot golden body of the Buddha. It sounds so nice; and don't forget the three heads and eight arms! The angry deity in the dark is just as important for us to pay attention to and to welcome in. Not doing this can look like Linji's intellectual question, "what is the true essential meaning of the Buddha's teaching." It can seem innocuous. After years of practice he was still guarded and defensive behind his question.

Zen practice, as I've found, is a great place to hide. You can master the forms and look great—while repressing and pushing away greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, lust and power — and those are just some of mine. Maybe you have some? You can put on your spiritual smile, and bow to others and feel special, but a good teacher like we have can really smell that. Roshi's told me many times, "You stink" — which is a great wonderful teaching for me, not in the moment, but in retrospect.

So you can put on this big song and dance number, which I'm good at doing. For several years, Roshi would say to me gently, maybe grandmotherly like Huangbo, "You don't have to be so nice all the time, Koshin. Why are you so sweet?" I wasn't aware at the time that I was hiding, or what I was hiding. Are you aware of what you're hiding? Where are you hiding? Where are you not honest with yourself and your teacher? It's elusive, and important to look at.

Dogen Zenji says, "For the time being, a sixteen foot golden body. For the time being, three heads and eight arms." Don't forget the wrathful. The wrathful deities in Zen didn't really come over to the west so much. When I trained in Japan, the wrathful deities were in many rooms of the temple's buildings. It was surprising to find these angry, muscular energies. Shoken Roshi told me, "We need those, too. Think of it like gassho, Buddha one hand, demon the other." Imagine bringing those together each time you bow, not in a purity, perfect angelic sphere, but just really together and whole. So, Linji didn't know whose fault it was. Was he not perfect as he was? He left Huangbo, and went to Dayu, and told him the narrative that he was sticking with. We do this, again and again, keeping ourselves locked into the same story of how it ‘really is.' We play it all right now, as if it's still happening, as if we're still in our parents' house, or still wherever we were.

When my supervisor in Jungian analytic training says, "Koshin, you only have to stay in the present moment, everything's there. You don't need to go back and go back to inquire about the mother. The mother is always there." It's not about the story. It's about the energetic things that arise from it. Linji was sticking to his story: This happened. I asked him the true essential meaning, and he hit me three times, and I think I'm at fault. That story happened long ago, and it probably took him a while to get to this other mountain where Dayu was. He's still holding onto, "This is the reality."

This is the moment where Chodo and I laugh with each other and call this "Going Down the Stony End." It's a Barbra Streisand song she sang back when she had long red fingernails and Egyptian eyeliner. The song is about getting contracted and building a house in contraction, and you think that's who you are. It is so limiting! In Zen we call it a snake in a tube, or walking with a board. In these moments of feeling rejection and anger, if we can actually feel our fear and feel our grief, they can be pretty juicy. If we can inhabit them, we allow them to be part of our lives, which they already are, by the way. Don't push them away. Take the blinders off. Just eat your shadow.

How do we get the courage to face uncomfortable shadows without moving away? Zazen teaches us about staying and holding the form. Don't move away. It's not about getting anything, but allowing yourself to be. It's not just Zazen and not just reading some nice books, but also working with a teacher for maybe three or four decades. If you've made the full effort for two or three decades you begin to get that it's not about you and your stories. You don't have answers and neither does she, and it isn't about answers but about being fully alive.

Linji would say later in his life, "Practice for 30 more years and then you can say a word." Shut up for 30 years! Do the practice wholeheartedly for 30 years and then say a word about whether you like this practice or not. It takes us a long time, or at least me, to truly learn something on a body level. If you're intellectually minded and poetic like I am — it makes you kind of crazy. It's such a hindrance because you think you know things. You can see things in a beautiful way, and you can talk well about things, but it doesn't really drop down into the gut. It doesn't allow you to dance on a stairwell with your hips. Stay with the direct experience. When doing Zazen, do Zazen wholeheartedly. When dancing on the stairs, dance on the stairs completely. Of course, when we drop into grief, it is frightening. When we go into unknown territory, we can allow ourselves to really be whole. It's scary and beautiful to really not know.

Friedriech Nietzsche says, "The great epochs of our lives are at the point when we gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us." I love that. Immerse yourself in your badness. Dunk yourself into it again and again. The alchemists knew that the gold lived within the lead. It's not like, "Oh, I went to therapy a couple of years ago and I worked through that." I hear that again and again in my therapy practice. "Oh I was in therapy for ten years before. I worked through that. I'm done with that." We are never done.

Antonio Machado says it like this:

I dreamt last night,
Oh marvelous error,
That there were honeybees in my heart,
Making honey out of my old failures.

How do we become and realize that we're perfect and complete? Suzuki Roshi says, You're all perfect and complete, and you could use a little work. How true. Continuous practice, Linji says. If you think you know something, you are far away. Roshi says, If you think you have it, you don't. How do we go into the shadow? How do we truly allow the three heads and eight arms to express themselves? How do we truly admit and take responsibility for our shit-bag? How do you? How do I? How do we as a sangha? Even in the spiritual smiles that you think people are seeing, your rage can be felt across the room. What about judging others? Who likes doing that? I do. Or I'm used to doing it. I thought I liked it. Lately, I'm finding it to be such a rich place to pause and look inside. In my case, the ones who can teach me the most about where I'm stuck, the points I need to do work, are the people that really push my buttons and are the most challenging.

Goethe says, "Our friends show us what we can do." Spiritual friends show us what we can do. "Our enemies teach us what we must do." What must we do? Santideva says,

An enemy is like a treasure found in my house,
won without labor of mine;
I must cherish him or her,
for they are a helper in the way to enlightenment.

An enemy is like a treasure found in my house. What are your treasures? Who in your life are your treasures?

If we allow enemies to point to our inner life, we can allow these aspects to teach us where we need to go deep inside and see where we're stuck and entrenched and not aware. This is not easy. It's not fun. It's not what we'd rather do, but what else could be better to do? What else do you want to do with this precious life? Each of us has our way. For me it's meant doing deep analytic work and recommitting myself each day to spiritual practice. Everyday, I put on my robes and rededicate myself as a therapist, chaplain, partner, and as a friend. Keep it fresh. There are not just dark shadows. In the Jungian world there are also bright shadows.

When I was a chaplain in training with Trudi Jinpu Hirsch, I thought I was really a good chaplain. I was compassionate and a good listener, and I got that it is really about presence. Being in the chaplaincy training totally enlivened my practice. At that time, it was rare to receive a call for a Buddhist chaplain, and there was a call for a Buddhist chaplain in oncology. I had my robes on and thought, "I'm the one for the job, here I come!" I was not grounded. I was not in my mulabanda. I was in the idea of what this was all about, kind of like Woodpecker: "I want to be a teacher! Here I go!" I went up to the floor and knocked on the wall, and there was no answer. I knew this was the person who wanted a Buddhist chaplain, so I opened the curtain. In the bed was this woman who took my breath away. You could barely make out a face. It was all pressed together and you could see there was a mouth somewhere in there. It was hard to take. I was shocked. Maybe that was Huangbo hitting me with his stick. I felt so grateful in that moment to have a second breath and to know that I could drop into my belly. I could drop into the softness right then. This is how we began our intimate and rich relationship together. I've noticed and learned that the things that I think I'm good at can blind me from actually being fully fresh and alive. "I'm good at that," can be a cage.

So Linji was open when he went to see Dayu. Something happened between Huangbo's mountain and Dayu's mountain. He was saying now, I don't know. He was still asking the same question with a sense of openness. He knew that something was off. On some level, he knew his shit-bag was his shit. This is where we can have an opening into the practice and life.

There are so many possibilities if we can just stop, let it go and pay attention. My Zen practice has been about showing up again and again, no matter what — not whether I want to or not, but just because that's what I do. You just show up for yourself every day, for the sangha and when you're needed. And this sangha needs it all the time. People showing up is what makes a sangha a sangha. For me, it has this freeing power — just showing up all the time, coming to the full ango all the time, just allow it to happen. In doing this I allow the practice to enter me. It's also not just about Zen practice. If you can really give yourself wholeheartedly to this practice, you are giving yourself wholeheartedly to life. Teach yourself to live your life with full combustion! Just give yourself your full life. Don't just stay with your shit-bag all the time. Open it up and smell it. Know all the aspects. Let the practice, this life, enter you. Dogen says, let the ten thousand things enter. Stop, for a moment, being about what you want to do or what you don't want to do or what you like or don't like. For me, it's been a good practice to remind myself it is not about me. Of course, it is and it isn't. I need more of the it isn't.

Linji has been famed for being a really scary fierce teacher. Eido Roshi says he is misunderstood because really he is such a sweetie. People give him the projection of scary because Linji bangs, hits, shouts and goes on and on like that. Why does he carry on like this? At the end of every mondo he says, "Take care of yourself." Just this: the softness of just take care of yourself. How do you take care of your full life?

When Linji's teacher Huangbo died, he was inconsolable. Twenty years after his awakening, he was inconsolable. Something precious was gone. At the time he was such a respected teacher and so venerated. One of his students told him, "People can't see you like this. They will think you're weak and unenlightened." Linji paused and said, "Let them think what they think. My eyes are tearing, and I need to let my eyes be eyes."

Wendell Berry says it like this:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Together with the bright and dark, please take care of yourselves.

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