A Dharma Talk delivered by Pat Enkyo O’Hara, October 1998, at the Grail House Sesshin
“May we exist in muddy water with purity like a lotus.” We chant that phrase at the end of our oryoki meals every day. It is a wonderful reminder of our lives. Our practice is so simple and we make it so complicated. Of course, it is interesting and useful to study philosophical texts and questions of historical revisionism and epistemology. Yet our practice is so simple: may we exist in muddy water with purity like a lotus. Those of you who are gardeners know that muddy water is wonderful. It’s filled with nutrients, it’s what everything is made out of and it’s smelly and dirty. But only out of the muddy water can we have the lotus, that beautiful, beautiful flower. And we are the lotus all the time that we are in the muddy water. You pull the lotus out of the muddy water and you put it into some distilled water – plop – it doesn’t work. So right in the midst of where we are, right in the midst of where you might be today, you are pure as a lotus.
It is so hard to see our purity in the midst of our suffering. Mitsuji (Larry) rode up to this sesshin with me, through those gorgeous red and yellow leaves of our East Coast fall, and during our ride, he asked how it felt to be sick, to have this rheumatic condition that I’ve been struggling with for the past six months. And it occurred to me that for most of my life I’ve wanted to see myself as strong and tireless, as the one person who will always be there. So I created a super strong, tireless persona. And look what’s happened – now I get tired all the time. I even had to go and rest this morning. It feels like the rug gets pulled out from under me, or at least under the ‘me’ who expects the tireless one to show up. It’s kind of disappointing when she doesn’t but right here you have the lotus in the muddy water. The opportunity to be with just that.
It is ironic that the very quality I think is my strength, my tirelessness, has been obscuring my ‘purity’, of just being as I am. It’s as if I’ve been carrying around some baggage that I didn’t know I had with me: my notions of who I needed to be. See, if I’m strong enough I won’t have to depend on anyone else and so won’t be let down. Some of us think if only we were smart enough, or pretty enough, or enlightened enough we would never have to dwell in muddy water again. We could just be a sweet-smelling lotus. When we reach out to some ideal like this we are rejecting ourselves. When we reject ourselves, we reject the Buddha. “May we exist in muddy water with purity like a lotus,” is such a simple thing and yet so hard for us to experience.
We arrived here early and the caretaker, Alice, came up to talk to us and her eyes filled with tears. She asked that we remember the twenty-year-old son of some dear friends of this place who killed himself yesterday by jumping off a tall building at college. Twenty years old. I remembered when I was in high school my friend, Tom Adams, who was our senior class president, killed himself. Now, some thirty years later, I think of Tom. He was a brilliant, witty kid and I wonder what for him wasn’t good enough? When people suffer so deeply, so deeply that they end their precious life, what is missing, what truth is not being seen?
Think of your life right now. Not your idea of your life right now, but your life right now. I see some lotuses sitting on little black cushions. I see some Buddhas breathing in and breathing out. I see some tears for the suffering that we’ve known or that others have known. What is your life like right now? Maybe it’s sleepy. Maybe your knee hurts, or your hip. Or maybe it’s your sense of self that’s sore. “Why didn’t I get that service position this time?” Or, “Why did I get that service position this time!” (Laughter) Retreats are very helpful in showing us in a relatively innocent situation, how we operate in our life. I think I only got in touch with my enormous capacity for self-pity when I first began doing service positions. (Laughter) Just to ring the bell, it’s a simple thing, but it gets complicated when we feel like we have to do it perfectly. I was clumsy and self-conscious. I can remember sitting and doing zazen and weeping at my inadequacy, and I’m only telling you this in case any of you, by any chance, should happen to be feeling in any kind of similar way (Laughter). “No creature fails to cover the ground on which it stands.” That’s what Dogen says, and I always think of that. “No creature fails to cover the ground on which it stands.” How do you understand that? Here, in the midst of our lives, can we appreciate that? Can we do what is in front of us to do? Fish swim, birds fly, Zen students practice. Peacemakers create healing by bearing witness. It’s what we do. We also say, “Being on the finest horse we don’t know how to ride it.” It’s just that the key to all that we do here, sitting on our cushions facing the wall, bowing, doing whatever service position we have, is just to be on the finest horse. So, we’re always on the finest horse. But we think it’s a nag. I think my horse now is crippled. I’m feeling very sorry for my horse, but I am the horse. I’m riding the finest horse and you are riding the finest horse. Can you see that? How do we know how to ride it? This happens to be one of those days when I seem to be saying these really obvious things to you. It’s where my mind is. But in the 60’s we had a phrase that Ram Dass popularized, it was very simple: “Be here now” Just be here now! And that’s the way we ride the finest horse, and that’s how we are the purest lotus. Being here, being present in this moment. Being aware in this moment. Rejecting nothing. Meticulous effort over and over again. Being meticulous with your practice. Being meticulous with yourself. Not judging the quality of the muddy water, saying, “Oh, this water stinks to high heaven. I’m going to take a walk somewhere else, maybe see a nice waterfall.” Taking meticulous care of that horse means being attentive to it and seeing how it manifests moment to moment.
You know, when you’re really meticulous, mistakes don’t bother you. It’s the oddest, most peculiar thing. When we’re really sloppy, or we’re not aware and not paying attention, mistakes are these horrible disasters that can’t seem to be fixed, or we take them to heart. But when we begin to have a meticulous mind, when something goes wrong it’s no problem, it just went wrong. Then it doesn’t bother you that the bell didn’t sound right, or the plans you have are not going the way you want. That is because you are already in this moment, not the moment when things went awry. You’re not living in an expectant mind; you’re present, paying complete attention to everything, now.
I learned about attention from my teachers who were so picky with their adjusting this and correcting that. “No, not this way,” they would say and I would think, “Oh please, give me a break.” Now I see that I’ve become that way myself because when there’s no guilt, or blame, no, “Bad Enkyo!” And just, “Oh, I’m slumped, I’ll sit my zazen a little straighter now” then paying attention is just a question of being alive.
A very slight difference makes all the difference when you practice. In oryoki we pay attention to the slightest things. You can’t know how to do oryoki perfectly. You’ll never know how to do oryoki perfectly. You just practice oryoki for the rest of your life. You do it over and over and it constantly reveals itself as a beautiful way to take a meal in silence with your community, or even alone. As I’ve told many of you, I did that for almost a year, just ate my breakfast oryoki style alone because it’s such a beautiful practice to do. But you don’t ‘learn’ it, so don’t be concerned that you don’t know it. You’ll have a chance to experience it in the next few days during this sesshin. Please appreciate it. During retreat we have an opportunity to study our habitual way of reacting. We have meditation, service positions, and oryoki as upayas, skillful means to help us to see how we are experiencing ourselves. We practice this so that we can be more aware of how we relate to ourselves and others. If we are punishing and angry with ourselves, we are likely to extend that throughout the world. So the practice of a bodhisattva, to save all sentient beings, the practice of a Zen Peacemaker, to heal the suffering of the world, starts in such a simple practice as acknowledging that we are on the finest horse, that we exist in muddy water like a lotus.