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March 07 Newsletter » Dharma Talk

"To be attached to things is illusion; to encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment."—From "The Identity of Relative and Absolute" by Shitou Xiqian (700-790 CE)

During Village Zendo's ango period from January to March, we have been studying "The Identity of Relative and Absolute," and Roshi Enkyo has been giving line by line dharma talks on the text. Here follows her examination of the line: "To be attached to things is illusion; to encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment."

"Could it be just meeting your life as it is now, not as your idea of it, of how you think it ought to be?"
—Roshi Enkyo

Good morning and welcome to our ango zazenkai. Ango, as you recall, means "peaceful dwelling." It's a word used in the Japanese tradition to point to an intensive time of practice, a practice that goes all the way back to the rain retreats that the Buddha led in India. We use it here as a three month period to wake up our practice: to pay attention to how we are in the world, to pay attention to our conduct, in terms of awareness, of mindfulness, our consciousness of who we are, of what we're here for.

So often we go around in a dream—even when we're practicing we're in a dream and we begin to think of practice as just one more way for us to develop ourselves and be seen in this way or that and we forget the essence of our practice. And so these angos are our time to really look at that; to activate ourselves. I love ango period; I love sitting; the extra sitting period at night, on Saturday; and coming in early on Sunday. It adds a special spark and I see it in the Zen students too—a kind of, "Yes! That's right! Zen practice isn't just one more thing I have to do; one more program: 'go to the gym, go to the Zendo, go to work.' But it's actually, 'Ha! This can show me how to live my life.'" So it's a wonderful thing.

The text that we selected for this period is "The Identity of Relative and Absolute" written by Shitou (Japanese Sekito Kisen; Chinese Shitou Xiqian). He's the Dharma Grandson of the Sixth Patriarch and the Dharma Great-Grandfather of Dongshan, the founder of our lineage, so he's a very key figure in Zen. Today, I'm going to focus on the line "To be attached to things is illusion; to encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment."

I think on a superficial level we get that the car we drive, or the computer we use is not really who we are, even though sometimes, when we want some thing, it can obsess us. On just a superficial level, that's what this verse, "to be attached to things is illusion," means.


One of the documents given in a ceremony of transmission, (essentially a teacher's verification of a student's clarity) is "The Great Matter," meaning the Great Thing — life and death — that must be dealt with. The word for "The Great Matter" is daiji, and the character ji, the character for "thing" is very interesting. Like many Chinese characters, it has one stroke on top and one on the bottom, so that it's like two pictures, two abstract pictures one on top of the other. In ji, the part below is an abstraction of a hand, and the part above like an abstraction of a sign. So this word for "thing" is a hand holding a sign. It has some connotations having to do with work or the relation of a servant— as if it were like a barber's pole or a sign that says, "I take in laundry." It's a hand that has a sign.

"To be attached to things is illusion." My new computer is like a sign that says, "Roshi's got a smart new computer, therefore Roshi must be smart. It's fast—Roshi must be fast."

All these signs say "me, me," this is going to fill my emptiness. It's "Me." The only thing wrong with that is if the sign gets really big and heavy — MEEEEEEEEE — it gets in the way of the shimmering consciousness that is what we actually are. We're changing every moment. Our possibilities are changing every moment! It's not the sign, the thing, that is me.

Shitou, the author of "The Identity of Relative and Absolute," was very influenced by the head of the Hua Yen School that used the Avatamsaka Sutra as its core teaching. In the Sutra, one of the Boddhisattvas is talking. His name is Wisdom of Truth—not a bad name to have — and he says to the assembly, "Ordinary people seeing things just pursue the forms and don't realize that things are formless. Because of this they don't see Buddha."

"People don't realize that things are formless." What does that mean?

You know, everything is impermanent, even though we think it's a fixed form; everything is constantly shifting and changing. If I take my computer apart, crack it open and start pulling things out, I'll have a little metal over here and a little silicone over there, and if I continue to rip it apart, pretty soon I'm just going to be left with piles of different kinds of minerals and ores that I could melt down and make a big ring for my nose. Where is that computer now?

This is the same principle that we stress in Zen, in regard to our mental formations, our concepts, our ideas, our emotions. We become attached to ideas: ideas of success in with everything seen from the perspective of success or failure. Of love — I have it; I don't have it. And even ideas of who we are — that "sign" again. These things, these ideas, these concepts, freeze us and take away our spontaneity and our joy in life.

We are dynamic: new information is constantly flowing into us, but we can't see that if we get caught up in ideas of ourselves. So we miss the changing that's going on.

In the Avatamsaka Sutra, Bodhisattva Supreme Wisdom, says, "If one can remove the eyes' cataracts and abandon the concept of form, and not see in terms of things, then one can see the Buddha." We are blocked by our constant "thingifying," our constant creation of things; in particular, in our case, the idea of enlightenment, the idea of wisdom, salvation, of the other side. We try to see mu; we try to be enlightened, and in that trying, we fail. We're trying to be something else.

There's a wonderful story about the great crazy Sufi mystic Nasruddin. He was walking along a spit of land along the sea and there was a man walking on the other side. The man shouted to Nassarudin, "How do I get to the other shore?" and Nassarudin called out, "You are on the other shore!"

That's it, really. We don't see it. That's why we have to sit. Brilliant! Always so close, so intimate, right here. When we're walking down Broadway our eyes are jumping this way and that. We have to do that, otherwise we'd get run over by a bicycle. Here, when we practice; our eye is inward. That's why you see a lot of us looking down when we're walking and we're sitting. It's not that we're unfriendly; it's that, as Dogen Zenji advises, we're turning the light around inward and shining it directly on the mind itself. That's why we're quiet and don't talk during zazenkais. We're taking the opportunity to come back to a different quality of our mind; to quiet the activity of our mind; to detach from illusion; to detach from thingifying everything.

But — "to encounter the Absolute is not yet enlightenment."


The character for the absolute, ri, is typically translated as principle or truth; in Japanese there are many derivatives having to do with theory or ordering or what is right. The original character, though, from the early Chinese, is one of those that have two sides. On the left side is the character for jewel and on the right is the character for village. This character for village has two little lines and a grid which is a rice field; out of that comes the connotation of dividing, because the paths divide the rice field into different sections. So this character came to mean originally: "splitting the jewel", referring to the veins in jade or the grain in wood. So when you split a piece of wood or split a jewel, you do it along the grain or along the veins. And so this character ri or li in Chinese came to mean this deep quality. I'm trying to avoid using the term "essence" because we all go off into some Platonic space we don't need to go into, but it's a quality of that which cannot be separated from us … or from anything.

There's a famous simile that Fatsang uses in the Hua Yen: the statue of a golden lion with all its different parts — the hair, the eye, the fingernail, and so on. But the li of the golden lion is, of course, the gold that permeates every single part of it. But if you melted that gold down you could make a dragon. That's the li.

And I'm asking you today: where is that in you?

Consider how we separate from that quality in ourselves—that li that permeates every pore of our being, and that doesn't end with our skin.

Most translators interpret this li as "the Absolute." In the book, "Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness," Suzuki Roshi uses the term "oneness." Some people use "unity," but generally it's translated as "absolute" coming from the Latin meaning "the perfect" or "the completed." "Perfect" is scary for us psychological types, we don't want to get near that. But "perfection" is the perfection of the enso, the circle that always has a break in it and is not stamped out by a machine. It's the kind of perfection that is natural … and that we all are.

And that's what we're doing here; we're trying to realize that. We're trying to discern that perfection, that completeness. No reason to try to penetrate mu — recognize mu.

The Avatamsaka Sutra says, "Just as the ocean is one with millions of different waves yet the water is no different, so is the truth of all Buddhas."

Millions of waves — it's all water. But then Shitou says if you encounter it or merge with it, that's not enlightenment. Maybe today you will experience that wonderful feeling of deep bliss; the wonderful feeling that you are flowing; the movement of everyone else in the room; the dust particles in the sun are nothing more than you yourself — a wonderful feeling! But this is not yet enlightenment.

And what then is enlightenment?

The character for enlightenment—the left side of the character is a heart and the right side originally meant "I" or me. The character came to mean "to see," "to perceive."

Heart/Me/See. Just realize it. Nothing extra's there. Could it be just meeting your life as it is now, not as your idea of it, of how you think it ought to be?

Sometimes I have a temper, a volatility shall we say? And I'm sure that my analyst friends would like to go into great detail about where that came from and the conditions from which it arose. But I'm embarrassed by it, a little ashamed of it; and I try all kinds of techniques, and I try to learn new tools — I really do try. And I fail, and I fail, and I fail. Maybe I'm a little bit better; but I fail. And yet I have no choice but to continue to practice and to continue to lead this community. I don't have a choice about that — no matter how inadequate I am.

Dogen Zenji once said that sometimes we are a sixteen foot golden body of Buddha, and the next moment we're two heads, eight arms, Titan, angry. They're not separate, that angry Titan and that golden Buddha. As "Relative and Absolute" says later on, "Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid. The absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid air."

My encounters with the absolute sustain me and encourage me to continue my practice, and yet I fall into delusion. I do not ignore delusion; I confuse a false self with the real self: "Enkyo with a new computer." And as I try not to be discouraged, I think about one of my great heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, and his letter from the Birmingham Jail. It is the core, the heart of his teaching. Many clergy both white and black, were telling him that he shouldn't have gone to Birmingham; he shouldn't have fired people up and been arrested and put in jail, giving religion a bad name. He shouldn't have been angry. And from jail he wrote:

"I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." That is a description of the absolute.

(Speaking with intensity) And that is why I never tire of having us go to and bear witness at the Arraignments Court during Urban Sesshin. It's not a matter of "I've done that, let's do something else." It's a matter of realizing that every single day, 365 days a year, arraignments are taking place. Eight blocks away people are being put away for sleeping on the street, for being homeless, for being out of line, for being poor — and I want us always to know that; to know that's what's going on here; that is us.

Now to get back to my other point: Dr. King was a great man and he did have some imperfections, but he didn't allow those imperfections to force him to retreat into shame, depression and hiding. He allowed himself to be of use to the world in all his imperfection. In 1987, a book came out describing all his predilections, and a great African American academic from Berkeley, June Jordan, responded, and wrote something about him that I want to share with you:

"He made big mistakes. He was not a wonderful administrator. He did not abstain from whiskey, tobacco, or sex. He was not a fabulous husband and father. He committed adultery. He loved to party, dancing, horsing around, heavyweight Southern cuisine and pretty women—he did like him a little sugar in his bowl.... If you have never seen a mountain you may perilously fail to recognize it even as you stand inside its shadow or climb into its light. If you have never known a man certain of his faults, doubtful of his merits, and longing and laboring to be good, you may mistake him for a hypocrite or worse. But that will mean you never understood, you never grasped the ground rules for a fruitful, striving life. The goal may be perfection, but the one who reaches high is by definition some place not exalted and someone quite imperfect. Fortunately for this earth of ours, this faithful, striving man must be a very human being."

"To encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment." Enlightenment is simply to realize at this very moment that we have everything we need. You are perfect and complete. There is nothing to reach for. And yet you must practice and you must try to be of use in this world.



"The Identity of Relative and Absolute" can be downloaded from the Village Zendo web site.

Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" can be downloaded from The Nobel Prize Archive.

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