Roshi: The Sea of Time

The Sea of Time

A talk by Roshi Enkyo O’Hara

Listen to the audio.

We’re sitting here on the 11th floor of this building on Broadway, ancient Broadway which, as many of you know, was a Native American footpath that led all the way up to Albany back before the colonialists arrived. So in a way we could be aware that we are all kind of floating in a sea of time, in a constantly shifting stream of change. Each moment of time succeeds the one before. It’s as if we we’re all carried along on this vast impermanent flood of Dharma, all the Dharmas, a flood of life and death.

So for me this image of a flowing stream of life teaches me how to meet my life moment-to-monent, how to experience my life as a life of value, and thus to serve. I think of it as a vast flowing river like the Hudson, our magnificent Hudson River, and it brings to mind for me one of my favorite passages from the early sutras, actually the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 Lines which is the one that precedes the Diamond Sutra, it’s a little earlier than that, and drawn from that was the Diamond Sutra. But I love this little piece of it, this little short segment of it: it’s at a riverside and there’s a Bodhisattva who’s sitting in a ferryboat, piloting people back and forth across the river. And it reads like this:

She courses in dharmas as empty, signless and wishless;
But she does not experience the Blessed Rest, nor does she course in a sign:
As a skilful ferryman goes from this [shore] to the other shore,
But does not stand at either end, nor does he stand in the great flood.

You know, I like this so much because first of all it does evoke the wisdom  and compassion of our practice. But it also is a teaching on how to live a life of service and caring; and also how to meet the inevitable change that life brings up for us.

“She courses in dharmas as empty, signless and wishless.” That’s the Heart Sutra. This Bodhisttva experiences what is arising right now. What is up? What is up for us right now? It’s not a fixed thing. “She courses in dharmas as empty.” Whatever it is that is arising right now [snaps fingers] it’s gone. It has no substance. It’s transient, and it’s made up of all the other things that are also arising in the moment and all the other things that are arising in our own heart and mind as a result of our particular history and of our particular experience. It’s like a wave in the Hudson–”it’s like the cold Atlantic coming in the bottom of the Hudson and the warm water coming from the mountains meeting. It’s not fixed. Also “signless” –“ it can’t be fixed by any particular word or phrase: “success” or “failure”, “old” or “young”, “good” or “bad”, “sick” or “healthy” –“ signless! And “wishless.” To desire what is not here is a joke. To desire what is not here does not help, does not serve.

So instead, she navigates this ferryboat from shore to shore, from Manhattan to Staten Island, from Staten Island to Manhattan, not stopping and resting at one side or the other, but moving with the flowing stream of time. We can’t stop –“ but we can think we can stop. Or we can think we’re stopped, but actually we’re always moving with the stream current, constantly! And to be present to that, to be: Ah! This moment! This moment so unique and so different from the previous one, from the previous Sunday that we were here, from the previous five minutes ago. Right here! Or, as Dogen says, “Right on top of our heads. This moment.”

You could say that this is the ferryboat here. We’re in it together and we’re making our way across the sea of life with its suffering and its temptations and its struggles. You could say this is the Sangha Boat and each of us –“ each of us –“ is the pilot. You could say that the boat is you yourself, and also that you are piloting it. You could say that the boat is Zen and we are making our way across a sea of change. You could say that the boat is a religion, and that’s how we save ourselves.

A couple of you are frowning. “What? A religion?” Isn’t that what attracted us to Zen? That it’s a way of life, not a religion?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and how we think about what we mean by religion. You know, if you look at the origins of the word there is some disagreement about it, which is very interesting. Does it come from religio –“ the Latin word that means “to bind” or “an obligation”, ” a reverence”? Or does it come from relegeri which means “to reread” or “to go over again”; a kind of scrupulousness, a care, an attention to precision, a clarity? You see one: is it bonding, of holding; the other is a scrupulous caring. But both of them seem to me to give off this feeling of reverence, of attention, of obligation. It makes me think of a Bodhisattva who supports us. Our Bodhisattva inside of us supports us and our bodhisattva energy supports this group. Think of a boat that’s holding you in the shifting waters. Think of your own scrupulous, attentive zazen as holding you.

These days I’ve become very aware of how my zazen holds me and protects me and gives me a sense of grace. Even now, when I’m feeling kind of fragile. And when I say zazen I don’t just mean what we do on the cushion. But rather what we do with all of us sitting in this boat together as we travel down this stream of time.

You know, if we consider when Zen first came to us –“ came to the West anyway –“ in the 19th Century, you know, that wasn’t so long ago, it came at just the same time that modernity was on the rise. Both romanticism and secularism were making waves in this stream of time. And it was a period of great reaction against conservative, hierarchal and fundamentalist aspects of religion. At such a time a new religion would not have been so acceptable. Rather, a more scientific and creative, psychological and individualistic social entity or movement was called for. And so the Zen that came to us courtesy of our Asian teachers, scholars and translators was a Zen that was shaped, probably unconsciously, by the flood of the tides of western modernity. It was just the way things were then, the character of the times.

And these wonderful scholars and poets and philosophers complied with the kinds of translations, the presentations that they used to explain in psychological and romantic and scientific terminology, the Buddhisms that they encountered. “They’re not religions; they’re something else.”

So for Thoreau and Emerson, William James, and those to follow, the Buddhism they encountered was very different from the Buddhism that was existent in the East. It was non-conformist for one thing. And we all know that the mid 20th Century Zen was the cool way to go for artists, musicians, and writers; it was kind of a self-made practice, like Alan Watts and the Beats –“ you know, it was that movement that brought me to Zen. It was not a religion! It was a Way.

There are other ways, of course, that became popular after Zen. The times they keep changing. The post-modern era arrives. We become disillusioned with the idealism and romanticism, the certainty of every pronouncement by science, the impotence of secularism to relieve our suffering, to help us make meaning in our life.

So we flow along this river of change, romanticism, individualism, non-conformism, post-modernism; and we see the old forms of  family and community falling apart; we find that we’re more easily able to connect with someone thousands of miles away through the internet than we are to be intimate with our local neighbors; we’re inundated with information and the impossibility of true connection–¦

I think many of us feel sometimes lost, as if our lives are being shaped by forces outside of our control; and thus a thirst for something meaningful arises: something that can support us, that can hold the self as it flows through these streams of change. So I think that now we have a kind of sense that we want something that will hold us, that will “bind us” –“ God forbid! –“ will help us to look scrupulously at our lives, and at what is happening in the whole world; a kind of binding, holding.

You know, an old English definition for religion, from the year 1200 or so, is “living under monastic vows.” We’re not monastic here, but I can’t think of a more powerful vow than Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. What do we mean by that?  I vow to save them.

You know each of us included in that sentient beings. And not only us — Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them –“ but also all the beings that there are, all the experiences that we encounter. The vow is all-inclusive and demands that we free our own thoughts, that we free ourselves so that we can care for all beings, for all existence–”those parts of ourselves that we call “the other.” And what is it that would support that kind of endeavor, what can help us to do that–”to save all beings? It’s the power, in my view, of this boat that I’m referring to; of this “holding” in the Zen boat, for this group. We don’t expect it to stay in one place, we don’t expect it to not change, we don’t expect Zen to be one way or one thing. We all get in the boat and we try to manage these flowing waters that are swirling around us. We gather physically in the boat on a Sunday morning, we sit together, we chant, we bow, and we essentially live in this oat, crossing the water of change, the water of our lives.

It is the power of holding, it is the Dharma of Sangha.

You know I, of all people, have been so resistant to word “religion” –“ to the idea of religion. And yet, I’ve found this boat and it is the holding that I experience in this boat that frees me.

Some of you may know that a couple of weeks ago during my annual physical my doctor became quit alarmed and sent me right upstairs and I had some heart tests and that’s an odyssey that is not yet over for me. I have been thoroughly checked and had various tests and am on a bunch of medications that have made me a little bit spacey and strange. But the most disconcerting thing is to see a doctor who’s upset and frightened about my life. “You’re talkin’ about me? About my heart and my life?” And it’s scary. I mean, it’s so scary that you know it’s really easy to kind of disassociate from the whole thing: must be talking about her, sitting next to me.

We all know that we’re going to get old and die. But when we’re faced with a serious diagnosis, you know, we don’t want to take it in. It’s hard to stay present, to listen carefully, to ask questions. I was very fortunate to have Joshin Sensei with me, who was able to serve that function. But as for me, I’m in the boat. And you’re with me here in the boat. Hmmm?

I’ve gotta say I’m so thankful for being in the Zen boat going down these rivers. I’m being held by that, I’m being served by that, I’m being saved by that. So we can call it a religion, or we can call it way –“ but it heals, and it soothes, and it serves. Of course we move through time, just like that verse that I quoted at the beginning. If we’re lucky we can find ourselves in a boat that will serve us, that reminds us of the fundamental boundlessness –“ I like that better than “emptiness” –“ boundlessness of all dharmas, of our very lives; how everything is contingent, everything is relational, nothing is fixed.

In this boat we can see that we are fundamentally free, and can free ourselves from that clinging, suffering that arises out of holding on to something that’s not here, that’s an idea. All of it is an idea. This is how we save ourselves from suffering.

Get in the boat with me.

Let me close with a gatha:

What holds you?
What binds you?
It doesnt need a name,
nor an idea,
nor a desire.
Isnt it your own hand on the rudder?
Her hand on the paddle
Coursing together through the flood of our lives.

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