December 06 Newsletter » Dharma Talk
Attachment and Responsible Action


Settling, the white dew does not discriminate.  Each drop its home.

Not being attached to picking and choosing:  that’s what we’ve been considering this Ango.  We’re working with, or stewing with, the naturalness of preference.  There’s the naturalness of, “I really like warm weather better than cold.” And then there’s attaching:  “I will not tolerate a cold summer!” Soin can see the difference between noticing what is pleasurable and what is not, and the attaching and creation of a whole ideology around a simple momentary preference.

The Japanese woman poet, Soin, wrote:  “Settling, the white dew does not discriminate.  Each drop its home.” The white dew—we see it in the morning, on the leaves, the grass, the little drops—this white dew does not discriminate.  Wherever it falls is its home.  Wherever we are right now is our home.  Tight muscle in your shoulder:  “That’s my home right now.” Cold hands and feet:  “That’s my home right now.”

We live in a very complex world.  When we see someone not empowered, what happens to us? Where do we go? Where do we stick? How can we be responsible and act responsibly? How do we live in interdependence in the world? How do we do that?

Difficult question.  I struggle with it every day.  Even Joshu struggled with it.  He often spoke about this issue, quoting, “The ultimate path has no difficulties; just avoid picking and choosing.” There’s a little koan in the Blue Cliff record, case 58, where a monk asks Joshu, “The ultimate path has no difficulties; just avoid picking and choosing.  Isn’t this a cliché for people?” And Joshu answers, “Once somebody asked me that question, and I really couldn’t explain for over five years.”

The Chinese word for cliché is “nest”—the character is a nest—a place where we nest.  Every time we have an insight we start creating a little nest around it – “Oh, yes this is it! I’m really going to be in this! This is it!” “I really hate this person, yes, yes!” “I really love this person, yes, yes!”

“The ultimate path has no difficulties; just avoid picking and choosing.  Isn’t this a cliché for people in these times?” Aren’t you just spouting the same old thing?

Joshu answers with such humility, and such eloquence:  “Once somebody asked me that….” “You’re not the first to say this! You think you’re so smart!” Then “I really couldn’t explain …” Can it be explained? It can be answered, but it can’t be explained.  And he’s answering:  Not only are you not the first person to ask the question, but it’s a very old question.

Master Yuan-Wu, the person who collected the Blue Cliff record, wrote about this koan, saying, “If you can penetrate this koan, you’re like a dragon reaching the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.” I say, if you can get what Joshu is trying to tell this monk by saying, “Someone once asked me that question and I really couldn’t explain,” you’ll be like a dragon into the water, or like a tiger in the mountains or like a Zen student walking on Broadway with all the sounds and the smells.

I once walked from Yonkers to the Battery as part of a street retreat; it took all day, and going through each neighborhood was just incredible, all the differences.  And just as tigers take to the mountains and dragons take to the water, we can take to the world, the world of poverty and suffering and the world of joy and music and art.  Don’t forget that, as we sit here on an August holiday retreat.

A great master said, “The little retreat is to hide among the wooded hills.  The great retreat is to vanish in the capital.” What we’re doing here is, we’re learning how to do that, how to vanish in the capital, how to walk along Broadway and let ourselves be Broadway.

“Indeed, it is due to our grasping and rejecting that we do not know the true nature of things.” This is me, this is not me -- and so we miss so much of life, so much of experience in this precious life.

One way to work with this idea of grasping and rejecting is what we’re doing here in this sesshin, sitting on our cushions, really noticing how we create these worlds, these hells for ourselves, these dramas, these stories.  And, because we’re together in a group, we see how we project that internal struggle out to our sangha, our loved ones, our co-workers.  For me the most tragic of all is when I see dharma brothers and sisters rejecting each other, not willing to do the work of dropping those internal monsters we’ve created and stop projecting them out on others.  Only when we’re able to clear this, then are we able to really confidently address our life in the interdependence of the world.

This is a point of disagreement with some Buddhist social activists who believe you’ve got to go out there and fight injustice right away.  And I say it’s more harmful until you’ve really worked internally.  I don’t mean you have to go away for 45 years and face a wall, but—from my perspective—you have to be able to know that every time you recognize an enemy out there - it is also a projection of something inside of you.  Even the worst you can imagine.  Because until we do that, it seems to me, we’re just re-creating the same old wars, the same old stuff over and over again.  It’s not skillful, in my view.

Someone said to me in dokusan, “All this business about grasping and rejecting—what about Bush? What about terrorism? What about the war? Don’t we take a stand on this?” And of course we do.  Many of us have walked together, marched together, sat together in the park, written letters and attended meetings.  But what is skillful and what is unskillful in this area? What makes a categorical attachment dangerous?

When I was in college, I dated a communist.  He was so idealistic, and it was so beautiful to hear:  “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.” I was a political science major, freshman year.  I would say, “Well, what about the Gulag? He’d just completely deny it, deny the terror and repression going on in Russia at that time.  Because of attachment.  Many sweet people, liberals, intellectuals, great hearts wanting to help the poor, got stuck in idealism.

Or consider Germany in the l930’s—a country in hunger and disarray, just like the Arab countries now.  Shamed.  Financial system a disaster, people had lost all their property, there was no leadership, all kinds of difficulties, they’d been shamed by the European community.  And Hitler arose as a promise, that things could be better, that people could lift up their heads and feel pride in themselves again.  And that they could build a strong society based on labor, and with pride in ones’ family and community.  To a lot of quite desperate people, this sounded like a very good thing.  And Hitler promised stability.  So when the horror arose, not many people were able to un-attach.  They might have wavered five years earlier, but then they became attached to that view.  You can see how seductive it might be.  “Maybe this guy isn’t so bad.  He’s a little weird, but maybe we can go along.” And so the whole nation attached.  Well, actually, not the whole nation.  There were people who did not.

One was Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a liberal intellectual German family, Christians but not religious.  He was a brilliant philosophy student and everyone thought he would go on to teach philosophy at the university but instead, to the great shock of his family, he became a Lutheran minister, and studied theology.  Things were getting bad in Germany and they would talk about it over breakfast:  Hitler was a madman, he was quite crazy.  But Dietrich was really interested in the life of Christ and how one lives a peaceful life.

And he went to New York City and studied at Union Theological Seminary.  He met people from all over the world, became fast friends with an African man and fell in love with the social theories of Gandhi.  But because of a family situation, he went back to Germany, and it was a shock.  It was just when the Nazis were beginning to institute horrific pogroms.  And he realized he had to stay.  He had planned to go back and graduate from Union Theological and then go to India to study with Gandhi.  But he had to stay in order to make a difference, to find a way to be a responsible German in Hitler Germany.  Eventually, with friends and his family, his brothers-in-law, he became involved in a very intricate plot to kill Hitler.

His journals and his writings on ethics, which are very deep and profound, tell of his struggle:  what is it like to plot to kill someone? How can a man who has dedicated himself to goodness and purity bring himself to kill another human being? He wrote that “responsible action is a risky venture; it makes no claims to objectivity or certainty.” There is no moral certainty in the world.

The plot failed.  The bomb went off at the wrong time, and he was rounded up with his brothers-in-law and was killed—not too long before Hitler himself was killed.  Bonhoeffer was in prison for six or seven months and wrote some incredibly powerful questioning points on ethics.

I bring him up because of his responsible action, coming from someone who had been stuck in one view and struggled so much to let go:  “Thou shalt not kill.” He was stuck on “Thou shalt not kill.” Even that is a place of being stuck.

In the Buddhist tradition we have the story of the Bodhisattva who is on a boat with 108 other bodhisattvas.  And there’s a pirate who’s preparing to kill all 108 of them.  So this bodhisattva steps forward and says, “I will postpone my enlightenment, my arrival in the pure land, and kill the pirate so he doesn’t kill the 108 bodhisattvas.” Responsible action.

Thou shalt not kill.  The first of the major precepts—not killing, not harming.

“Live neither in the entanglements of outer things nor in ideas or feelings of emptiness.” There is no place, no place, for us to hang, for us to sit, for us to rest.

The Taoist sage Chung Tzu, tells of a student of Confucius named Yen Hui, ,who tells Confucius that he’s heard of a reckless and self-indulgent king and that he, Yen Hui, would like to go and fix the situation.  Confucius says, “The most likely outcome of this is that you will be killed.  Maybe you’ll just have your foot cut off.  Or perhaps you will create more factions and more disturbance in the community by coming in with your ideas.” There are several pages of examples, but each time Yen Hui says, “Well, I’ll do it this way, I won’t appear to be changing things,” Confucius goes to the weakness of that approach, and shows him how he will wind up the unwitting tool of the terror of the king.

In frustration, Yen Hui asks, “What strategy can I use, where I won’t cause more harm than good?” And Confucius says, “Fasting.” And Yen Hui says, “I’m poor, and I eat no meat or wine.  Isn’t that fasting?” Confucius says, “That’s the fasting of ritual.  That’s not the mind’s fast.”

“May I ask about the mind’s fast?” “Center your attention.  Stop listening with your ears, and listen with your mind.  Then stop listening with your mind, and listen with your primal spirit.  Hearing is limited to the ear.  Mind is limited to tallying things up.  But the primal spirit is empty.  It’s simply that which awaits things.  Emptiness is the mind’s fast.”

How does the Faith in Mind Scripture say it? “To put your trust in the heart-mind is to live without separation.  And in this non-duality you are one with your life source.” Life source, primal spirit.  It is simply that which awaits things.  Like Soin’s poem, “Settling, the white dew does not discriminate.  Each drop its home.”

And that’s what we’re doing here.  And that’s what we do in the city … or in your home, when you sit every day.  That’s what you do when you come back to yourself.  It’s presence.  It’s not going off hot-headed; it’s truly being integrated with this self, this primal spirit, this life source.  Weaning yourself away from your knee-jerk reactions.  It doesn’t have to be an explanatory paragraph each time; it can just be (snap!) a recognition:  “There I go!” Until you can truly experience your life in the world as not two.  And, at that moment, trust your response.

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