A Shuso is a student chosen by a Zen teacher to lead a sangha during Ango, a three month period of intensive practice. The period closes with the Shusso Hossen ceremony, a special rite of passage in which the Shuso is recognized as a senior student. After giving a first-time Dharma talk, the Shuso's understanding is tested by questions from the community.
Below is the Shuso Hossen dharma talk given on March 19, 2010, by Village Zendo's most recent Shuso, Neil Soten Theise.
Book of Serenity, Case 91. "Nanchuan's Peony."
Officer Lu Geng said to Nanchuan, "Teaching Master Zhao was quite extraordinary: he was able to say 'Heaven and Earth have the same root; myriad things are one body.'"
Nanchuan pointed to a peony in the garden and said, "People today see this flower as in a dream."
Shining through detachment and subtlety, the root of creation:
Appearing and disappearing in profusion, you see the gate.
Letting the spirit roam outside of time, what question could there be?
Setting eyes before the body, you know the ineffable being.
When the tiger roars, blowing on the cliff starts, moaning;
When the dragon howls, moving clouds o'er the caves are dark.
Nanchuan breaks up the dream of people of the time,
Wanting knowledge of the magnificent Honored-One-to-Be.
Before I begin my talk, I'd like to first acknowledge that this is the third day of the passing of Alice Sumida, for whom we had a very touching memorial service two days ago. She was a patient with whom Chodo was working during the last weeks of her life. Alice was born in Japan and came to the United States as a young woman. We were told about her fierce, strong independence, about her suffering in the internment camps for Japanese residents in World War II America, and of her life here in New York since then. We also learned that she had been a student of Nyogen Senzaki, who helped to bring Zen from Japan to America in the early and middle years of the last century, a dharma ancestor of anyone who studies Zen in America.
And so, for her, and in remembrance of her teacher, I'll begin my dharma talk by addressing you in the manner in which Senzaki addressed Alice and their sangha before his talks, by saying "Good morning, Bodhisattvas!"
I selected this koan – Nanchuan's Peony – for my dharma talk for several reasons.
First, the protagonist, Lu Geng, was a lay student, which we know because he's described as "Officer Lu Geng." He was a ranking civil servant in his region in China. Lay practice has been a theme of this Ango period, these three months of intensive practice during which I served as Shuso, the "head trainee," because our study text was the Vimalakirti Sutra—named after its protagonist, Vimalakirti, a lay person whose attainment was on a par with that of the Buddha.
This theme of lay practice and how that, itself, is a vehicle for spiritual attainment is central to the life of our Village Zendo sangha. Indeed, there is no one in our sangha, ordained or not ordained, who doesn't actually lead the life of a lay person, needing to earn a living and otherwise leading the life of a householder.
Vimalakirti, though a mythical figure, is an ideal towards which we aspire. Despite the loftiness of his attainment – on a par with that of the Buddha – there is no unbridgeable gap between us and him. This reminds me of an event at the beginning of Ango, when we were all sitting at the Winter sesshin at Wisdom House and dharma transmission was being given to our Dharma siblings Shinryu and Anraku. There were two Senseis and two Roshis in that room above our heads during that late night, each of whom had sat where each of us sits now: each of them had been a Shuso, each of them had been a new Zen student, each of them had received, at some point, beginning meditation instruction, and each of them had been someone who had not yet learned to meditate but was troubled by the dilemma of life. All enlightened beings, including the Buddha and Vimalakirti, have passed through all these stages. So, that kind of attainment, while an ideal, is not an unreachable ideal: there is a continuum, from here to there. While it may take lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, it is not an unbridgeable gap.
Being a lay student means practicing the Dharma in the midst of all the responsibilities for our work and livelihood, for our neighbors and communities, for our nuclear families and extended families. And it means practicing not in a protected, insular monastic environment, but out here, in the world, in the homeless shelters, the marketplaces, the brothels, the bars, the places Vimalakirti is said to have skillfully engaged, shunning no aspect of the world outside of the monastic walls.
We've been looking closely at that and I think that, as Shuso, I've been a pretty good example of how life gets in the way of being a Zen student. You've seen me answering my cell phone during sitting periods and dashing off in the middle of a zazenkai. When Roshi asked me to be Shuso, I thought the difficulty would be that my work would interfere, so I spent several months preparing so that it wouldn't interfere too much, minimizing my work travel and responsibilities as much as possible. What I couldn't predict was the degree to which family would interfere and in the most profound way possible. Because, a couple of days before Winter sesshin, we got the first signs that my mom was starting to lose her short term memory, because of Parkinson's. Her cognitive abilities turned on a dime within a couple of weeks.
The first time I noticed this was the Friday night before I went up to the Winter retreat. She was lighting Shabbos candles as she has done every Friday night since she was twelve years old. But while she made the hand gestures over the candles and covered her eyes to recite the blessings and her prayers, she had not actually lit the candles, and didn't notice this even as she looked at them. When I pointed it out to her she, as well, realized something was amiss. And it has snowballed since. We've had trips to emergency rooms and visits to her doctors. I've needed to go to her house every six hours to give her medications that she could no longer keep track of, taking care of her until we could arrange for round-the-clock home care, dealing with insurance issues and financial issues, etc, etc. All the stuff that you can imagine. In some respects my Mom's decline has thus really shadowed my entire period as Shuso.
Now don't get too concerned. She's very smiley and happy. We've got 24-hour care with four wonderful, compassionate, loving women as home health aides, whom I prefer to think of as her "ladies in waiting." In fact, my Mom has come to realize that this is actually a privileged moment in her life. She's completely taken care of. "Bring me my applesauce!" she says, and they do! And she feels very safe. So it's nice. She's smiling all the time, because for the first time in her life she's not taking care of anyone, but she's just being well taken care of herself. As a chronic worrier, often quite anxious, she's now simply full of affection, sweetness, delighting in the present moment, all worries gone. After all, if you have no short-term memory, you can't remember what there was to worry about!
The second reason I liked this koan is because I can recognize a certain earnestness in the way Lu Geng presents things to his teacher, Nanchuan. One gets to a point in Zen practice – many of you in the room will recognize this—when one starts to "get it" a little bit. And when you hear someone else say what you think you're trying to get you get very excited and you rush into interview with your Teacher and say "Wow! I just read so and so…", just like Lu Geng does: "Teaching Master Zhao was amazing! He says this!" and it resonates! Such enthusiasm we have!
For me it's not usually a Buddhist text, it's usually a Sondheim musical. I go rushing into Roshi: "The closing number of Act I in Pacific Overtures, ‘Someone in a Tree'—it's non-duality! Stephen Sondheim gets it!" I even gave her the cd of the show. I don't know if she ever listened to it, but I was so excited. It's been particularly interesting to me over the last few days, as I've been doing my shtick during Urban Sesshin about complexity theory and the Dharma, and I hear people saying, "As Shuso said this morning; blah blah blah blah!" Just like me and Officer Lu Geng and I recognize it, I still do it all the time, but now, hearing it thrown back at me, I want to say, "Don't tell me what my wisdom is, show me what your wisdom is…"
But Lu Geng is all caught up in the moment and wants to show his teacher, Nanchuan, what Teaching Master Zhao said: "Heaven and earth have the same root, myriad things are one body." I'm not going to go into detail about this, because anyone who's heard my talks on complexity theory – I think that's most of the people in this room—knows that this is essentially everything I've been talking about. I've spent the last five days talking about it and don't need to say more.
But the way Nanchuan responds to Lu Geng is what I want to focus on for the rest of this talk. It's sort of the way Roshi responds to me when I give her the cd documenting Sondheim's enlightenment: she puts it on a shelf and follows up with what might seem, in the moment, like a non-sequitur. Nanchuan says, "Look at that peony. People today see it as though in a dream."
There are lots of Zen texts that refer to "seeing things in a dream", which I always, imprecisely, take to mean something like "kind of fuzzy, not real." But it has become more precise from studying the Vimalakirti Sutra where, in Chapter 7, Manjushri asks Vimalakirti, "How does the bodhisattva regard living beings?"
Vimalakirti replies, "As a conjurer looks on the beings he conjures up, thus does the bodhisattva regard living beings. As the wise view the moon in the water, or a face or form seen in a mirror; as shimmers of heat in a torrid season, as foam on the water….as the tracks of a bird in the sky, as sights in a dream after one has wakened…"
So Nanchuan is pointing out that we see things the way we do during a dream, thinking the dream-like beings and experiences are real, though upon waking we'll know for sure that they are not. Last night, in fact, I was having astonishingly vivid, wonderful dreams. My boyfriend Mark and I were traveling, experiencing and seeing amazing things. And I was thinking, "This is so much better than being Shuso!" And then I woke up! And here we are…
In the awakened state to which we aspire, we would see peonies, we would see ourselves, we would see each other, as we should see all living beings: as evanescent, ever changing, never fixed. That's what it means to see things not in a dream.
The peonies, however, in the here and now, are real, aren't they? Think of a peony and what do you think of? They have long straight rigid stems and then there's this explosion of soft fluffy petals at the top, maybe pink or white or crimson, the kind of flower you just want to push your face into. Of course if you see a flower like that in the spring market you'd want to take a bunch of them home.
But if you really know peonies, then you know when you see a peony like that at a market, that's not the peony you want to buy, because if you do, you'll take it home and that afternoon or certainly by the next morning you'll have nothing but a puddle of petals on the table. And you won't have had the peony. The peony you look for is a hard stem that ends with what looks like a hard golf ball; it's not particularly attractive. When you take it home and put it in a vase, you'll watch over the next two or three days as it starts expanding, opening, becoming this incredibly beautiful, fluffy thing. Then, over another few days, the petals slowly and then more quickly start to drop, becoming a foam of soft petals around the vase on the table top. So, if you know how to buy a peony, you can have nearly a week experiencing the life of peonies.
People who know peonies, know that their beauty is precisely in their evanescence, in how they're going to change. Reading this koan, I imagined Nanchuan walking by this peony in full bloom in the garden. But the koan doesn't say what time of year it is. Perhaps he was walking through a garden like the community garden Mark and I belong to at 9th Street and Avenue C, where you can see the peonies just starting to come up through the ground, just little leaves and little stems with buds. It will be two months before they fully blossom. Or maybe Nanchuan was pointing at an autumn peony, flowers gone and leaves starting to wither. At that time, next year's buds are already present, but underground, getting ready for next spring. All of that—it doesn't matter what time of year—all of that is a peony, if you know how to see a peony.
We're like those peonies. Experiencing my Mom's transition over the last three months, my suffering was really two-fold: I didn't want to see her decline and I didn't want my life to be interrupted and disturbed as I took on the enormous responsibilities of her day-to-day care. But it was a delusion that my Mom was now entering a period of decline. Nine years ago she called me on the phone to announce, "I've decided to stop dying my hair." My Mom had amazing red hair when she was young. My English cousins always called her "Auntie Ginger." She was very proud of her red hair. It was only when I was talking to her about her decision to stop dying her hair that I found out that those monthly visits to Miss Lou at the beauty parlor when I was three years old were to get her hair dyed. Miss Lou was her colorist! In my entire life I'd never actually seen my mom with her own red hair! Therefore, in fact, before I was even born, the petals had already, however slowly, started to drop. I just hadn't really acknowledged it. The last three months have simply been an acceleration phase of the petals dropping.
With the petals dropping more quickly, so quickly I can't ignore it, I sort of clutch around it at first, and go, "oh NO!" Looking with open, awakened eyes, though, I have to think that this is one of the most delightful periods of her life. If you ask her, that's what she'll tell you. "How are your eighties, Mamaleh?" "Ah, this is the very best…"
So what am I getting upset about? She feels safe. She has no worries because, in part, she can't remember what she was worrying about. She's been taking care of people her entire life and now we all take care of her. And she's really loving it.
For me, well, I'm upset that I may be witnessing the end of my mother's life. That could be 20 days or 20 years away, but now that we have the systems in place and have organized our lives around it, it's not really so bad to be taking care of my Mom. It's actually kind of sweet. We go and visit her and it's all hugs and gratitude and smiles.
So as long as I see my mom as fixed, I have something to lose, and as long as I see myself as fixed, I have reasons to weep; but if I see us both as changing, evanescent beings, what is there to cry about?
This isn't a conceptual thing. If I actually experience this, experience us, both my Mom and I, "as figures in a dream after waking," there's really not much trouble here. On the other hand, I think of Master Ikkyu who, upon the death of his young daughter, went to his teacher with his grief. His teacher pointed to the Absolute and said: "The world is a dew drop world…," meaning, it is all here just for a moment and then vanishes, like dew on the morning grass, which might be a solace.
Ikkyu then wrote the verse:
The dew drop world
is the dew drop world.
And yet… and yet…
This dilemma – does one dwell in the Relative or in the Absolute? – goes to the point of what I've been speaking about throughout Urban Sesshin. It's never one perspective or the other. At this level of scale, of the day to day, of the Relative, we're all fixed beings and it's very sad. I cry a lot. If one shifts one's perspective to that of the Absolute, we're all one being and there's nothing to cry about. But it's never just one or the other, not this one or that one. It's both. Always. This is the "non-duality" that is central to the Vimalakirti Sutra.
Knowing about this stuff isn't enough. To quote Shuzen Sensei's talk last weekend: "Knowing about something is not the same as knowing something." That is the point of practice. These theoretical ideas, these words that I'm tossing at you, they ultimately have no value without your actually feeling them for yourself, not as concept, but as experience.
Shuzen Sensei used photosynthesis as an example. We all know all about photosynthesis, but do we know photosynthesis? Look above my shoulder at the green leaves on the altar and back near the entrance to the Zendo. The sunlight coming in through the window and the carbon dioxide in the room are feeding these plants. And then they give off oxygen and we're breathing it in. That's photosynthesis, we all learned about that in third grade.
So take a moment and lower your eyes. Return to your breath. In and out.
And know that with every in-breath you are intimately connected with these green leaves. And with every out-breath, you nourish them. In and out. Back and forth. Over and over.
This is our practice. If you know this, if you go beyond knowing about it to actually knowing how interconnected all life actually is, then you know that all life is essentially one life. And then you know how to buy a peony. You know how the peonies that were on the altar last year, in May, are still with us in this room today.
When people have told me over the years, "Gee, I'd love to meet your mother," I always joke, "You've already met my mother," because everyone who has met her knows that she and I are so very much alike, I am so my mother's son. But it's not really a joke because in meeting me you have met her. It's kind of sad to me that for all the years I've attended these Shuso Hossen ceremonies and sort of fantasized about what it might be like if I ever got to do that, I always pictured Mark sitting there and my mom sitting next to him, and pictured doing the ritual bows to both of them. But she's not here, because with her deafness and her confusion she declined to come, asking me to just tell her all about it later. But if I wake up, I know that when I bow to Mark, I bow to her as well, as much as if she were in the room, because she is in the room. And if we know how interconnected everything is, how all of life is one life, then, Bodhisattvas, when we bow to anyone, when we greet anyone, we greet all life on earth, in fact we greet the whole universe, and in doing so we greet ourselves at the same time, because all of us, each and every single one of us, is all of this.
The last line of the koan's verse says,
Nanquan breaks up the dream of people of the time,
Wanting knowledge of the magnificent Honored-One-to-Be.
The honored one-to-be is the future Buddha, Maitreya. Nanchuan wants us to wake up. He wants to wake us up from this dream that we are fixed and separate, so we can experience ourselves as alive and whole and beatufully changing moment by moment. We want to wake up. That's why we're here in the first place. We want to be awake, but we already are. Just as the peony in the winter ground is already the peony of the spring. And if we wake up, then we'll see we have knowledge of the "Magnificent Honored-One-to-Be" because all of us are that Buddha. That Buddha is already here: the cabby honking the horn outside the Zendo window, all of you listening to me, the women sitting with my mom who watch out for her and protect her, my boyfriend Mark and all the food he's prepared for you outside beyond those screens (which, by the way, is the best part of the morning), and all of life that has ever been, is, and ever will be.
So I chose this koan for several reasons: Because it speaks to our lives as lay people. Because it so beautifully sums up what I've tried to convey about the science I've been studying for this last decade, what I've been calling the "Science of Being." Because it was one more chance to make a reference to the Vimalakirti Sutra, which has so enriched our practice during this Ango. Most of all, because my mom loves peonies. They're her favorite flower.