The Resting Dragon
A talk by Roshi Enkyo O’Hara
June 14, 2015
Good Morning, everyone; those of you who have been sitting for three periods and those of you who have just arrived. Welcome. I have to confess that today my heart is very heavy. When I allow myself to bear witness to the suffering—in McKinney Texas, in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Cleveland, right here in Rikers Island—that young man was in Rikers for three years because he couldn’t make bail, at age 15, the charges were dropped after three years, he was out for two years and he just committed suicide. Right here in our town. Not in this distant McKinney Texas. When we see the suffering that comes out of our false idea of difference, because of the color of someone’s skin—so much suffering, so much delusion, hatred, fear, you know, it makes me very discouraged with this life.
You know, it’s not new, and as a matter of fact in a way we could say we’re thankful that it it now news. It is now—you can’t pick up any social media or any kind of anywhere without seeing some horrendous act of hatred going on not over there but right here in this country; right here in this city. It’s a good thing that we have the reporting in the press, the witness of small devices. Do you ever ask yourself would you have the courage to hold up your phone? Like that young man in McKinney Texas who had the courage to hold up the phone.
How do we respond, we meditators, we Zen Buddhists—how do we make a positive move in this world? How do we serve as Bodhisattvas, as Peacemakers, as White Peacemakers, as “White Allies” ?
How do we calm our own hearts and minds and our own conditioning so that we can act in a wise and compassionate and merciful way? How can we kind of assume a “Bodhisattvic” posture, one that actually makes a difference difference so that we’re not causing more suffering and more delusion by our inaction, by our ignorance?
We chant “Sentient Beings are Numberless, I vow to save them.” Who are those sentient beings that we vow to save? Are they the ones we agree with—”sentient beings, those that I agree with, I vow to save”? How can we find it in our hearts to serve them all? To serve those crazy bikers in Texas—if your read about that a few weeks ag How do you open your heart enough to save that first responder, that policeman in McKinney Texas who had attended to a suicide and then an attempted suicide immediately before arriving at the pool. How do we attend to the whole picture? How can we find it in our hearts to serve everyone?
So if you’re here you have already found a restorative place in the practice of zazen, of meditation. But zazen is not just facing the wall and zoning out, by any means. It is much larger than that.
You know, in the oldest Buddhist Teachings, we have what is called is the Eightfold Path, the path of freedom—the eight points in the life of the Dharma, that are said to lead us to a way of finding the Buddha Way that the Four Noble Truths indicate. So it’s the Eightfold Path:
That’s kind of the original platform; the eightfold path.
And today, as I’m thinking of how to serve all of those who are suffering
I want to look at the last one—the first one? the last one? the Right Concentration. The right samadhi. Because it serves as a foundation for us to have right view and right intention. So, some people see it the other way around but I’ve always felt that the eighth one is what holds all the others: Right Concentration.
You know the word “right” of course some of us who are kind of rebels don’t like that word. It comes from samma in the Pali, which can also be translated as wise, skillful, or wholesome. So wise concentration, skillful concentration, wholesome concentration.
“Concentration” from the Sanskrit samadhi: it means “the same”—it’s a good translation because it’s like distilling, taking the essence, concentrating. When we sit in meditation we focus our energies. I know I come in in the morning and I’m “la la la la.” Taking a breath—and having done this for so many years it’s only a breath!—the focus comes. Concentration. You can feel it in your hara, you can feel it in your belly. Focus!
You know one of our basic introductory instructions is to put our tongue up against the roof of our mouth by our front teeth—it’s amazing! In times of stress, something horrendous happens on the street, the tongue goes there: stop reactivity! Be present! Completely present. It’s the habit of concentration, this wholesome samadhi that holds you; it’s a together-making thing; it pulls all of you back to your self, to your complete true self.
Dogen, who most of you know was a brilliant 13th century Japanese master, wrote in a fascicle entitled King of Samadhi, the King of Concentration, the King of Wise Meditation (translated by Kaz Tanahashi),
Shakyamuni Buddha said to the assembly, “When you sit in the meditation posture, you realize samadhi in body and mind, and give rise to an awesome virtue that people respect. Like the sun illuminating and refreshing the world, this sitting removes obscurities from the mind and lightens the body so that exhaustion is set aside. Enlightenment becomes as natural as a dragon curled up at rest. A demon is frightened even by a picture of someone sitting in the meditation posture; how much more so by a living person who realizes the way sitting motionless and at ease. (Tanahashi, Kazuaki. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo.)
I love the imagery here, the awesome virtue, the sun illuminating—suddenly it’s clear, what was obscure. Even a demon—our little demons—pull away when they see us sitting in this wonderful, illuminating quality of concentration and focus.
This reminds us that realizing samadhi is right here, it’s not like this “oh, I will attain samadhi” – it is not some theoretical or abstract thing: but it is right here in your breath, in your body, now. It’s not a theoretical or abstract thing. Don’t make it so. Make it your own.
Dogen says that this sitting, this samadhi, this zazen gives rise to an “awesome virtue” that people respect. Consider that. That awesome virtue. Perhaps you don’t even see it or notice it, that it arises when you sit. And you may not realize it, that you offer it to others as you walk out the door: that awesome virtue.
That’s really what I want to get to today is about this virtue that rises in you when we sit zazen, when we practice this wholesome concentration.
Like the sun illuminating and refreshing the world, this sitting removes obscurities from the mind and lightens the body so that exhaustion is set aside.
Have you had that experience, I wonder? I have to say that this morning when I sat down I had spent entirely too much time on Twitter. I follow a lot of social activists, Black activists. So I sat down and I was pissed off, upset and despairing once again. I felt vicious, condemning some others. You know, it’s so brutal, this country we live in. But what I was feeling was not righteous social justice, it was retaliatory rage. And we know that such a mind simply creates more, replicates more and more rage, and anger, and separation. So we come and we sit.
So like Dogen says, “sitting removes obscurities from the mind and lightens the body so that exhaustion is set aside.”
“Obscurities from the mind” seeing only one side: putting all my own history and my own conditioning onto “the other”—in this case “the racists” or who I think are racists—and getting burned out. What he’s saying is concentration gives us the strength to come back again with a fresh mind and look at what is happening in front of us in our world.
So what are those dark obscuring thoughts? There are these certainties that we have. And in my view so much of the certainty is because the certainties are our strategies. We think we know the right way to take care of this problem, and rather than opening our hearts and our minds to the different possibilities of making change, of creating justice, we hone in on only one way to do it! And we’re defeated and become exhausted and burned out, and want to distract ourselves…and we give ourselves permission to not take responsibility for this world that we live in., that we are part of. What about a possible dialogue, a possible healing—what about reaching out to those who hate, listening to their struggle, finding a way to make a bridge? This is really complicated, of course, and I don’t say it’s an easy path. The practice of samadhi, the practice of dropping away our opinions and our views, and dropping it all, and sitting in that wide open space—can give us wisdom to act in a more compassionate way.
The Zen tradition is filled—because this is a complicated issue—is filled with warnings about becoming intoxicated with samadhi, and becoming what we often call a Zen Zombie. Someone that goes around with their eyes rolled back in their head and is “holy, holy, holy.” So it’s not just one way—it’s as complicated as life is.
But that’s just is a detour on the path. And there are many many stories in Zen that illustrate this detour that can be difficult when people get carried away and all they want is the experience of no experience.
I like this one from Entangling Vines:
A monk once asked Luopu Yuan’an, a Chinese Zen Master,
“A single wayfarer free of thought is more worthy of veneration than the myriad buddhas. What is the failing of the buddhas, and what is the merit of the wayfarer?”
And his teacher Luopu answered, “A white cloud blocks the mouth of the valley many birds returning in the evening cannot find their nests.”
(Thomas Yūhō Kirchner, Entangling Vines.)
Sounds pretty “Zen” doesn’t it? What could it possibly mean?
“White clouds blocking the mouth of the valley” is a traditional Zen image for nonduality. So the question is, in today’s terms: “A Village Zendo student who relates to the world she lives in through activity, is more worthy of veneration then the myriad buddhas.” What’s wrong with the buddhas and what’s right with the Village Zendo student?
And Luopu answers, “A white cloud blocks the mouth of the valley many birds returning in the evening cannot find their nests.”
When we get stuck in our ideas of non-duality, our ideas of what samadhi is or what enlightenment is, we block ourselves, we block life itself—this life you have—reaching for some cloud.
And in our case I think we block our responsibilities as Bodhisattvas, to act in this world for the good, for racial justice, for a just allocation of resources, for caring for our home the earth.
And you know, nowadays there’s this wonderful— I think it’s wonderful—mainstreaming of mindfulness that’s going on—you know they’re teaching mindfulness in the schools and in the corporations, and in the military; and, God, I wish they were teaching it in the McKinney Police force and the Baltimore Police Force and the Ferguson Police Force and the Cleveland Police Force—but the problem is that most of this popularity is around self enhancement, self advancement, self enrichment. And I just think it’s sad that samadhi is being directed toward selfish narrow reasons.
But Dogen assures us, that sitting in this samadhi,
Enlightenment becomes as natural as a dragon curled up at rest. A demon is frightened even by a picture of someone sitting in the meditation posture; how much more so by a living person who realizes the way sitting motionless and at ease. (Kaz’s King of Samadhi)
So, it may be, and I have often seen it that a person comes to meditation practice for their own selfish, small-minded reasons. I came to meditation practice to get rid of my fear of public speaking, my fear of being seen. But that’s not what happened to me. I came for my personal suffering, as many of you may have: to escape our personal suffering. But this samadhi, you know, is really powerful and if we are not careful, we might discover that we find our true nature, who we really are, what our function in the world is. I’ve seen it happen over and over again; it’s a marvelous thing, the shift from the focus on our individual self to realizing that who we are is so much bigger, we can take care of so much more. We become like this dragon that he talks about that kind of settles in to the world. And that, I think, is wisdom. And when we settle in, the way that dragon does, to our samadhi, our demons – our certitude, our viciousness, our anger, our pettiness, they become frightened by the power of this samadhi, of this dragon that sits, that is part of everything in the world. They are frightened by the awesome presence of a Bodhisattva.
This Bodhisattva—that you are—can work with the horrors of the world right now.
And I think that’s why we sit.
We may not know that’s why we sit, but that’s why we sit.
It is not hiding from the injustice of the world as we sit here on Sunday morning. We’re arming ourselves with stability, concentration, and wisdom, so that we can act, not re-act, but act.
So I encourage you. You can make a difference. Pay attention. Sit your zazen. Enjoy your samadhi like the dragon does. And get up and don’t block the way for the birds to come back to their nests. We’re not living in a cloud. We’re living in this world, and in a few minutes you’ll be going down and walking down the streets of Samsara Broadway! You can make a difference, not judging those people, feeling compassion, finding a way…finding a way to make a difference.
Let me leave you with a short gatha:
Gathering myself, arms and legs,
Hands and eyes, breath and mind,
The Dragon rests on my lap.
There is ease, there is joy,
There is love,
And much work to be done!