What happens when it all falls away? It's completely different than you can imagine.
I'll begin with a few lines from Saigyo, a very early Japanese Buddhist poet:
"Whatever it is, I cannot understand it
Although gratitude stubbornly overcomes me
Until I am reduced to tears."
Some of you may know that last week I was at a conference of The Mind and Life Institute, which is dedicated to fostering dialogue and research between science and the contemplative traditions. It was exciting to see the work that's being done with brain imaging and research with cancer patients and others who have different situations, to see how meditation might be of use. It was wonderful and also, in a way, I was completely out of my element! It's not my skill set to measure and describe, but it's wonderful to know that this work is going on. I wish I'd thought of the poem while I was there. It was when I came back that I stumbled on it: "Whatever it is, I cannot understand it." People were asking me "What is meditation?" In the Zen school, we don't talk about it very much, we just do it.
And today we're all here to do it. We came here to drop down, to drop away, to just take leave for a short time of our everyday thoughts and discussions, our obsessions, and to drop into a silent state. For me, it's often about dropping my opinions and my certainties about things.
Thomas Merton, the brilliant Christian mystic, wrote:
"When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of my life but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer."
Naturally, as a Zen person I substitute meditation for prayer, but it's the same, I think—what he's talking about and what we're about here today. We decided to be here today to no longer be involved in the measurement of our life but in the living of it.
What do we mean by the living of it? It means going into the heart of things, distinguishing between judging what we're doing and what others are doing, and living it full body, really being embodied in the reality of our lives—moment to moment awareness—where we are right now.
When we're in that state, we're no longer outside of it, looking at it, turning ourselves into objects, but we're in the swim of it. We become one of the things in the swim of reality. We become more the subject and less the object. And we discover—as Merton discovers prayer—we discover what meditation really is.
What is it like for my life to become zazen? What is it like for your life to be aware of the moment-to-moment reality that you're living?
There's an odd kind of thing that I guess everyone in this room has discovered in zazen. We often spend the day pushing a thought from one end of our mind to the other and letting it go, and having a conversation and being irritated with ourselves and dropping it, and spending the entire day doing that. And at the end this joy arises, this odd pleasant feeling of bliss, and we feel so good, because somehow in that process of all that effort we've dropped into a natural state that we are.
One thing that can keep us from that and which I hear about in Dokusan is when we feel we should be getting something and we have an idea of what it is, and we're not getting it: this kensho. "I want to see into my own nature. I want kensho. I want satori, enlightenment." At the Institute, I met a couple of people who had so reified this idea of awakening, of kensho, that it was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to see someone who had spent his life trying to get it, and had finally given up—never realizing, as in the Zen saying, you're looking for water as you stand in the middle of the river, never realizing that in actual fact if he could just drop the grasping for one moment… I would say that over half the Zen koans we study are about this, one way or another. It's a sickness that's been around for thousands of years—not some post-modern diagnosis.
Here, we sit in two modes of meditation. We have very concentrated, focused zazen. At the beginning, we are very much focused on finding our mind and being aware of where our mind is; that's why we have the concentrated practice of breath—counting the breath, following the breath. Once that structure is in place and we're able to do that, many people simply sit, facing the wall. Shikantaza: just sitting, That is what Dogen called the Dharma Gate of ease and joy. Just sitting: nothing to gain, nothing to attain.
Other students work with koans. The first Koan is Mu—that famous challenge: A monk asked Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature, or not?" "Mu!" replied Joshu. The student's job is to express that koan appropriately to the teacher. What is that about? Of course, it's not about answering the koan at all. It's about learning to enter the mind and to see one's nature. And so it's the same as just sitting. It's just that, when you're working on a koan with a teacher, it's a different practice. It can be a source of great frustration for students—and has been, for 1500 years.
There is a wonderful piece written about this process by Anne Aitkin, who was the life partner of Robert Aitken and his Dharma Centers. She wrote this about working on Mu and the difficulty and frustration of the practice. She's talking about twelve years of working with Mu, which is not an unusual amount of time.
Those twelve years moved in the zigzag pattern so familiar to us all—longings and hopes, barren stretches, anger and frustration alternating with glimpses of wonder and startling joy. After some years I gave up expecting ever to have kensho. After all, comparative newcomers seemed to be reaching that unimaginable state as easily and frequently as leaves falling off a tree. I decided that some people were just not capable of it, and I was one. This aspect of my practice was painful indeed. I was far from the condition of one Zen student we knew of, who did zazen steadily for many years, developing a wonderful character, spoken of by all including the Roshi as a true Zen man, without ever having the explicit experience called kensho. I had neither that faith, faith in the process, faith in the teacher, or faith in myself.
I was often demoralized, and yet there would be an occasional hint, an intimation, some makyo that seemed to move on profound levels. One time for a day I fell into [sangha member] Henry Vaughan's "deep yet dazzling darkness," such experiences kept me going. And always, at the end of each sesshin I would think that now, at last, I had learned how to begin to do zazen.
Toward the end of this time, when I was teetering on the brink, one of the endless fantasies that beset me was that of writing an essay entitled: "How I Managed to Spend Twelve Years Preventing Myself from Getting Kensho." This was when I realized—after so long—that my teacher's words about preoccupation with condition were actually true.
Among other "bad" or useless habits, I had been so preoccupied with scrutinizing the minute variations of condition in my zigzag course, that I had seldom truly focused on Mu. My fantasies were often out of hand. Even at the last, I remember sitting at the head of the Dokusan line before the kensho, unable to control the distasteful, even appalling, fantasies flooding my mind.
And then, almost without knowing it, everything fell away.
What would that be like, everything falling away? We're sitting here together, facing the wall, and if the person next to you experiences everything falling away, what do you imagine you would see? And if it were you who were sitting facing the wall and everything fell away, who would be there to see? Who would be there to be seen? What would be there? Like a blindfold dropping away… What happens when it all falls away? It's completely different than you can imagine.
I've often felt that many, many people experience this state and do not know it, and do not remember it, and do not name it, and therefore they're continuing to look for it. And what is that feeling of bliss and joy that we feel after a day of sitting? Isn't it possibly a reaction to those moments that we do not remember because we're not there to remember them? Because it's all dropped away, it's fallen away, and there is no witness.
One of the most repeated phrases in all of Dogen's writings is shinjin datsuraku: "body and mind fallen away, dropped away, body and mind."
When we remove ourselves from self-scrutiny, we simply allow ourselves to be present to the whole of the moment. Is there body? Is there mind?
I've always wondered where Dogen got this "body and mind dropped away", other than his own experience. Actually he's quoting his teacher Tendo Nyojo. But I wonder where it came from in the sutras.
There is a very interesting part of the Vimalakirti Sutra. It's a hilarious sutra, one of the wittiest sutras there is. Just a joy to read, not difficult at all. In one chapter, Vimalakirti has become ill (later, it is revealed that he became ill in order to make this sutra happen). The Buddha asks all the great revered teachers to come and visit him to pay their respects. Each one says he can't go because of some encounter he's had with Vimalakirti where Vimalakirti triumphed over him and his teaching. So the person says, "I am not competent to go because Vimalakirti has beaten me in Dharma combat." So the Buddha turns to Shariputra, (whom we know from the Heart Sutra) who is the head of the Abhiharma, that body of very explicit and detailed Buddhist teachings. He is the expert. Yet when Buddha asks him to visit, Shariputra says, "I can't go because once when I was meditating under a tree, Vimalakirti came along and said,
"O Shariputra, you should not assume that that sort of sitting is true quiet sitting. Quiet sitting means that in the three-fold world you manifest neither body nor mind. This is quiet sitting. Not rising out of your samadhi of complete cessation, and yet showing yourself in the ceremonies of daily life—this is quiet sitting. Not abandoning the principlse of the Way, yet showing yourself in the activities of the common mortal—this is quiet sitting. Your mind not fixed on internal things, yet not engaged with externals, either—this is quiet sitting. Entering Nirvana without having put an end to earthly desires—this is quiet sitting."
And Shariputra says, "At that time, World Honored One, I remained silent, because I had no way to reply to him. This is why I am not competent to visit him."
So here is the great master of the Abhidharma not able to respond to Vimalakirti: "not rising out of your samadhi of complete cessation," not rising out of that place of absorption and yet "showing yourself in the ceremonies of daily life—this is quiet sitting."
So what is it, that he's pointing to? What is the deepest samadhi, the deepest quiet sitting we can experience? Getting up when the bell rings and walking around the Zendo? Calling a sick friend? Making meals for everyone? Preparing the bowls for Oryoki? What are the "ceremonies of daily life?"
I often think about—the ceremony of putting your Metrocard in the subway slot; this is a profound ceremony that we perform, perhaps several times a day. The ceremony of how you relate to people in the elevator: how is it that we know when we can speak to them and when we cannot? Profound ceremonies of life, right here. The word ceremony simply emphasizes the dignified nature of everything we do when we are aware. I use that word dignified in the sense that we are present, we are fully alive to our life so that everything becomes a ceremony, and it becomes a dignified expression of our true nature, of this kensho that people desperately want. And yet it is always present around us.
"In this three-fold world you manifest neither body nor mind." So you manifest neither body nor mind. I think this is where Tendo Nyojo got this idea of "dropping away body and mind," letting go of that perception of body-ness or mind-ness, letting go of the objectification of the ego and just being alive, being this moment, the living moment which includes everything!
Letting go of every shred of self-clinging. How could you remember that? You couldn't. Who is there to remember that? That's the point that is so often missed in this kensho discussion. Let the husk fall away, let the chains and ropes of me, me, me, poor me, fall away—and right there is Mu. Right there is zazen.
"Whatever it is, I cannot understand it
Although gratitude stubbornly overcomes me
Until I am reduced to tears."