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Liking and Disliking

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Apr 28, 2001
Location: Headlands Institute
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
An exploration of alternatives to the wild ride created by the conditioning of our “likes” and “dislikes”. If we live on this basis we become a victim of reality. The alternative is to be present moment to moment. Zoketsu also discusses the nature of consciousness.
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Talk given: One Day Sitting, April 28, 2001
Edited and transcribed by Barbara Byrum

 

The dharma, or the teaching of Buddha, is something very profound, and the other day I had a particularly profound experience of the teaching when I was opening up a bottle of Calistoga water. My wife taught me how to do it slowly, little by little, so that it doesn’t gush out all over. So I was doing that, and I saw the bubbles coming up to the surface, to the top, and I looked at those bubbles and thought, “Boy, that is amazing!” I thought it was really extraordinary how the bubbles rise up to the top of the neck of the bottle like little jewels, like little diamonds rising up the neck of the Calistoga water bottle. It reminded me of the little diamonds that you also see on the ocean waves when it is sunny out, twinkling, and so beautiful, so amazingly bright, and then gone, even before you see them. So quickly appearing and then gone, that you wouldn’t even think they were there. You can’t even say they’re there, that’s how evanescent they are.

So when I saw that, seeing the bubbles coming up in the Calistoga water, I thought to myself, “That’s just how desire arises, like little diamonds, naturally in response to conditions, just the way those bubbles in the water rise quite naturally in response to conditions.” I know there is a physical explanation for why those water bottles have bubbles rising up in them like that, and there is a physical explanation for the diamonds on the ocean waves, but whatever the explanation is, it really amounts to the basic movement of life, the basic shape and activity of what is. That’s how it is with inanimate things like water, gas, or light, and also we are exactly same way: we have this desire, this life force, arising in us automatically, just like these bubbles. We go on, we go forward, and our life force rises up. Our desire, our longing is natural. It’s our life. It’s our existence. And even though we think that we get old and die, actually the life force within us inexhaustibly comes up, and there is no end to it. It dissolves and disappears almost as if it were never there at all, just like those bubbles, and then another one comes, endlessly.


So, to me, this process of life, this pattern, this process of being, is something so beautiful and so natural. I think that our whole troubles start when we try to contain all that, when we try to define it, and we try to tame it. We try to get it the way we want it.

Life is fundamentally a wild system. It’s not tamable, but we think that that’s awful and that we’ve got to tame this thing. So we try to tame it, and it can’t be tamed. The wildness of life is not disorderliness. Actually wildness is quite organized, quite careful, and very precise. It’s just that it’s not orderly and precise according to our personal plan. It’s got another bigger scope, a bigger vision than we could possibly have. So we find ourselves unable to release ourselves to the wildness that is our own life because it is frightening. So naturally we try to tame it, we try to organize it after our own fashion, according to our own preferences, and that’s where all of our suffering in this life comes in. We want to contain life inside of ego, and you can’t do it. You feel overwhelmed by life. You feel confined by life. You feel constantly, subtly, but inexorably under attack.


I myself am so very limited. I myself is something very, very small. I myself goes according to likes and dislikes, which I have inherited according to my conditioning, just as all of us have. And that’s good. Likes and dislikes, conditioning, our history, are wonderful. They’re like weeds or flowers growing up. It’s natural. It’s beautiful. My likes and dislikes are like bubbles in that bottle of Calistoga water, beautiful little diamonds sparkling on the ocean.

The problem comes in when I start to say, “Well, I like that, so I should be having it. Where is it? I want it. How come it’s not here?” Now I am complaining. Or when I say, “I dislike that, so it should be gone. Why is it still here? I want it out of here.” In other words, when I believe in the literalness of my likes and dislikes, I try to organize my life around them, and when it doesn’t work, I am very disappointed. That’s how I start to suffer.

And then I notice that when I start to suffer, the people around me are also suffering, because being the kind person that I am, I spread my suffering around to everybody in the vicinity. They are probably doing the same to the people around them, and in this way we create the mess that we usually have in this world.

So, this is not a complicated thought. We all can understand this, and yet we can’t help ourselves and do it almost all the time. Actually, the more you notice your mind, the more you see that on a moment to moment basis you are attaching to or rejecting almost every moment of your life . You are creating suffering by confining and trying to tame a beautiful world.

I had a chance to really go into this quite a bit the other day when I was leading a sesshin in Mexico. I had a tremendous toothache. Toothache pain really gets your attention. It’s a really strong pain. You know, it’s really strong. I kept checking it out, yeah, it’s still there. Little cold water - yeah, it’s still there. Anyway, one thing that I saw right away (since I’m a genius, you know, and I figure these things out) was that I didn’t like it. I really, really didn’t like the pain, and then, after awhile, I would get angry at the dentist, whom I saw right before the trip.

It didn’t take me very long to realize that it wasn’t the dentist’s fault. To be mad at the dentist was not going to have much relevance here in Mexico with my toothache! Then I realized that as long as I persisted in validating the idea that this toothache pain should not be there, the more that I gave credence to that thought, the worse the pain was. Interesting, right? And it actually made the pain worse.


On the other hand, when I gave myself to the pain, when I just became the pain, so that there wasn’t anyone left over anymore to complain about it, or wish it wasn’t there, it was a lot easier to bear. But even then, I saw there was some little person over in the corner there who still didn’t like it. But I could prevent myself from making such a big deal out of the fact that that person didn’t like it.

So I am not trying to fool you, tell you a fairy tale, because pain, especially toothache pain, is definitely an unpleasant sensation, but it doesn’t have to be tragic. Furthermore, since this place was right on the ocean, even while I had a strong toothache pain, there were these little diamonds sparkling on the ocean. Even in the middle of the time when the pain was strong, there were little diamonds on the ocean. There was also a nice breeze blowing through the coconut palms, and they were moving around, and that was very beautiful. And it was still for me a wonderful pleasure to be able to sit in zazen.

So at the same time that there was a very strong and noticeable unpleasant sensation of the toothache pain, there were also many pleasant sensations going on at the same time, which began to be more noticeable the more I stopped trying to eliminate the toothache pain, being mad at the dentist, and whatever things I was doing, and just be the pain. And then I also saw pleasure at the same time. So even though there might be something unpleasant going on, there is also possibly something pleasant going on, which you will notice if you allow yourself to stop resisting what is unpleasant and just be the unpleasant sensation. If I could keep my awareness open and unprejudiced by the pain, then I found that even if there was toothache pain, I still could be a fairly happy person.

The truth is that liking and disliking is a very, very flimsy basis for living. Liking and disliking is actually something very weak, because if that’s your basis for living, then most of the time you are a victim of circumstance.

And that’s how the world goes. We can’t really control and dial up what we want and dial out what we don’t want. We can’t control the world around us; we can’t control what other people do; we can’t control our own bodies, and maybe you’re finding, to some extent, that you also can’t control your own mind. Have you noticed?

So, that’s shocking, isn’t it? You really don’t have any control over the arrangements, which is why liking and disliking is such a very, very shaky basis on which to live. If liking and disliking is your basis for your life, then you are constantly at the mercy of reality. Liking and disliking as a basis of living shuts us down and leaves us helpless, and definitely suffering a lot of the time.

The Buddhist analysis of consciousness shows that liking and disliking arise on every moment of consciousness automatically, whether we intend it or not. Liking and disliking arise automatically on every moment of consciousness, in response to everything that arises, moment after moment after moment. This desire is the nature of life. It’s not that it’s bad. So the problem is not the liking and disliking. The problem is that we take them as the absolute basis for our lives.

The alternative to that is what we are trying to practice today. To be present with what is. To be present with the liking and disliking. Just to be the liking and disliking. To allow the liking and disliking, without grabbing hold of it and shutting ourselves down, and shutting down the rest of the world, that is always coming forth in a magnificent way.

You know, life heals us. We don’t need to go to a healer. Life heals us, if only we would notice it, if only we would allow it. We have what we need every moment, if we only let it be.

What I really want to talk about today is the need for discipline in spiritual practice. I think any type of spiritual practice that would be effective would be disciplined, and discipline means going beyond liking and disliking. That’s what discipline actually is. And it takes a little bit of effort because it is so natural for us to base everything on our likes and dislikes, that it takes discipline to get to a play where we are no longer victimized by likes and dislikes.

Discipline means, basically, to pay attention, to keep coming back over and over again to where you are. To keep coming back over and over again to what actually is, and not to get caught up in all the likes and dislikes, and the thinking and all the confusion that comes in their wake. The word discipline comes from the word disciple. You follow someone’s way, and you accord with that way, you align yourself with that way, you become in agreement with it. And the word disciple comes from a root word that means to teach, or to be in agreement with, or accord with.

So in spiritual practice discipline means that you become your own disciple. You find a true accord with your natural and most essential self that exists in a wider sphere than your liking and disliking. To be disciplined means to be making the effort to be present enough to find accord in this realm of the openness of consciousness, without trying to limit it and push it around.

We spend our whole life trying to whip consciousness into shape according to our idea, and it never is that way. It’s always what it is, no matter what we do. So it’s good news that the purity of consciousness is never marred by our confusion. Even when we’ve been thrashing around like this for millennia, consciousness is undisturbed, and therefore, at any moment, fully available to us, right where we are.

That’s why we have to be disciplined. Disciplined means to be careful enough, to be present enough to let go of the chains of our habitual views and to see what’s really been there all along. To stop being hypnotized by our long habit, reinforced, to be sure, by everybody that we know, by our background, by everything that is in our vicinity.

Nevertheless, we have to be disciplined enough not to be hypnotized by our self centered habit, by our limited view of liking and disliking, our limited conception of me, myself, here, and the object over there, vaguely separate, and probably threatening. Discipline means to be joined with everything, to be in accord with everything, just as a disciple is joined and always in accord with her master.

Discipline is to pay attention. Attention means to let go of being somebody and going somewhere, just allowing awareness presence to come forward. Allowing it to be what it is. Stop setting something up that prevents it, because it is so exhausting to be somebody. And we put so much into this tiny little person that always has so many problems and is so beleaguered. But it isn’t necessary to do that. Instead, we can just be with our life. We can just be our life instead of being somebody. We can just be our life, including our likes and dislikes, but without having to be somehow under the compulsion of them all the time.

Nobody really understands anything anyway. It’s all a big mystery. Nobody knows why is there life, where did it come from, where is it going, what’s the future, what’s the past. Nobody can understand the myriad, infinite conditions that move life along its destiny, whatever that might be. So we don’t have to figure it out. It’s a fruitless effort to control and figure out our life. Instead, we should just pay attention in such a way that we can enjoy the pattern and the power and the majesty of life. That’s the great human possibility, to be able to be there for your life, to appreciate whatever what it may be.

Every life is a beautiful story which one never really knows the shape of until it’s over, and then wow! That’s why eulogies are always so great. But the story is going on all the time, and the great human possibility is that we would release ourselves to that story and become it. It’s something really magnificent and always interesting, and the alternative to that is something that seems so small and so not worth it.

For me, as I get older at an ever more rapid rate, I find more joy in practice all the time. By joy I don’t mean that I am giddy and that I am thrilled every minute. Sometimes, you know, I have a toothache and I don’t like it. But still there’s a quiet joy that you feel in just allowing life to unfold. And that means all of life, not just the part you like, but the whole thing, even the tough parts, the toothache parts, the sickness part, the old age part, the death part, the loneliness, the failure, the pain, the frustration. That’s part of it too. That’s also life. And all of that can be quite bearable, and you can even appreciate all of that if you aren’t so fixed on like and dislike. And the truth is, you better appreciate it all, because it’s coming anyway, and you don’t have any choice. You can’t avoid life. You are life.