Medicine and Sickness

. . . and the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order

A Dharma Talk by Sensai Pat Enkyo O’Hara given April 18, 1998

Yunmen teaching his community said, “Medicine and sickness subdue each other. The whole earth is medicine. What is yourself?” (Blue Cliff Record, case 87.)

What is your self? That might have been the koan that started you on the path of Zen—what is yourself? What is our body? Is our body in bloom a couple of blocks away? Is our body just this pain you might be feeling in your knee, in your heart, in your head? What does your self have to do with the joy and suffering throughout the world? What is yourself? Is there one answer, or are there a series of answers? What does this have to do with medicine and sickness?

As most of you know, the Zen Peacemaker Order is an emerging order of Zen Buddhists who seek to bring the teachings of our tradition and our practice to bear on the injustice and suffering in the world. The three basic tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order are:Not Knowing; Bearing Witness; Healing

This is a restating of the Three Pure Precepts of our Zen tradition: Not Doing Evil; Doing Good; Doing

Hoping to revitalize their power and to create a meaningful foundation for practicing peacemaking, the ZPO offers the three tenets as medicine. Traditionally, “Not Doing Evil” refers to the fact that evil does not exist. It is an idea that we create in our minds, a conception, a misconception. So, not doing evil is not to create that idea. People are willing to die for such ideas: “This is good. This is evil. You’re doing evil so I will kill you.” Step back a bit and think about it. Isn’t the notion of good and evil merely a series of ideas? Yes, of course there are harmful and unskillful actions, but can we see these not as intrinsically evil, but as harmful, unskillful actions which must be healed? When we sit on our cushion and face the wall and say, “Ah that is a good thought,” or “Oops that was a bad thought,” eventually we begin to see that they are just thoughts, just notions that are moving through, and then we begin to be able to let go of our fixed ideas. “Not doing evil” is “not knowing,” not taking a subjective position, just being here in this room.

Can you experience yourself without a subjective position? Just a breeze coming through the window? A drop of moisture on that flower — experiencing the rawness of this moment just as it is without telling a story about it. Without judging it as good or bad? That is Not Knowing. That is Beginners Mind. Sure, this is a zendo and we bow this way, not that way. That’s true, but beyond all that, there’s just this moment. We’re not on a mountain top, so there’s no telling what noise is liable to come through that window, but already I’m calling it noise rather than sound. Sound? Noise? Just listen! What is exciting about “not knowing” is that we have boundless possibility. When there’s no judgement, there’s just what is.

I was admiring one of Kirin’s cups this morning and I was telling her that because it was so dark you could see it was burned in a fire. And she said, “well, yeaaah. . . ” (laughter). She told me how the glaze picks up the smoke inside the kiln and that’s what turns it the deep, deep black color. And I realized from our exchange what a struggle it must be for a potter to just allow things to happen, to not always want to be in control. When we do creative work, that may be the time that we are most aware of the preciousness of accident. When it doesn’t go the way we thought it ought to go, but something else happens and that something is wonderful! It may be a little more difficult to appreciate in our lives, but we can notice how these obstacles are actually creative opportunities. And always it comes from the beginning of not knowing, of not predicting what is going to happen, being open and present. That is Not Knowing, that’s Beginners Mind,that’s Don’t Know Mind, Not Knowing.

And once we get into that position of complete flow, of not knowing, then we’re able to truly witness a situation. This is the Pure Precept of Doing Good, which we have restated as Bearing Witness. For example, when we go on street retreats, the first and immediate experience of physically bearing witness is that of being on the street without any money, without any idea of where you’re going to sleep or where you’re headed. You say, “I guess I’ll walk uptown. Oh, no I’ll walk downtown.” And then the body says, “I need coffee,” so you go and start asking people for some money and you deal with what it is like to ask other people for money, what it is like to be ignored, what it is like to be treated like dirt.

In the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen I watched a young woman, a medical student from Chicago who had chosen in her summer break to come to New York City and work at the soup kitchen. And what I observed as I was sitting there eating my soup, was that people were treating her like dirt. The people who were receiving the soup, who surely had received much anger and antipathy from the world, now had a place to give it back. So they were saying, “Treat me with some respect, girl! Come on, I want some more soup! Hurry up!” And they’re yelling at her and they’re treating her in a very rough way. So I’m sitting there and bearing witness to their suffering, the anger that they’re feeling — and hers — what must it feel like to give up your summer to come some place where people are going to yell at you all day long, instead of saying, “Oh it is so wonderful that you did this, it is so wonderful you’re giving me this bowl of soup?” Being able to be with whatever that brings up, is what we mean by bearing witness.

Doing Good For Others is the Third Pure Precept which we call Healing, making whole. And that’s doing the appropriate thing, which flows naturally out of Not Knowing and Bearing Witness. When you are present to yourself and those around you, you do the right thing. You don’t come bustling in with some answer that you’ve figured out beforehand. This is true on a personal level as well as in society. Don’t try to figure it out. Start with not knowing. Bear witness to yourself and those parts of you involved and then allow the healing to occur.

I called Bernie Roshi yesterday — he’s grieving very deeply. It was hard to hear his voice on the phone. I was in my office which is not very noisy, but I was actually pressing the phone to my ear, and I had to slap my other hand over my other ear just to hear his tiny voice. This is a man that I know so well as full of vigor. And I had this image of this little hermit in a faraway cave speaking with this tiny, little voice. He is grieving the death of his wife and partner. And you know the Zen saying, “When it’s hot let the heat kill you, and when it is cold let the cold kill you.” And that’s what he’s doing, he’s letting the grief kill him. Just allowing it to occur. Not stopping it, allowing it to come forth.

So what is the self? What is the medicine? We have to enter where we are. We can’t go and find Zen and say it is going to cure us, that all we have to do is learn some koans or do some studies and then we’re going to get it. We have to enter where we are with our own wounds, our own suffering.

Healing implies sickness. What is it that needs to be healed? What is it in you that needs to be healed? What is it in our family that needs to be healed? In our world? What is sick?

“Medicine and sickness subdue each other.
The whole earth is medicine. What is yourself?"

Domestic abuse,economic deprivation, immigration rights, the unequal treatment of people with HIV/AIDS, the destruction of environment, all the issues that people here in this room deal with. We can’t walk outside this door without facing it. It is everywhere. Medicine and disease subdue each other. The whole earth is medicine. What is yourself? Am I my pain? My suffering? Is the man on the street just a homeless man or is he more than that? Can you see him from all the perspectives—a father, a son, a survivor, a veteran?

Dogen says:"All my life, false and real, right and wrong are entangled." (Sound familiar? He continues—)

Playing with the moon, ridiculing the wind,

listening to birds.
Many years wasted
seeing the mountain covered with snow.
This year I suddenly realize,
snow makes the mountain.”

What is your self?