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Seven from Rohatsu - Talk 4

Talk 4 of 7

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 05, 1996
Location: Green Gulch Farm
A Series of Seven Talks from Green Gulch Farm Rohatsu Sessin, 1996


Talk Four

5 December 1996 Green Gulch Rohatsu Sesshin Lecture

Well I can't help it. I keep thinking about the Odyssey. And the more I think about it the more it reminds me of sesshin. Maybe it's because sesshin is such a basic kind of a thing and the Odyssey is such a basic story. Or maybe it's because that at a certain point everything reminds me of everything anyway. Do you know what I mean? And I was thinking that I could save myself a lot of trouble. I could just suspend the rest of my talks and just read from the Odyssey without comment at all and that would probably be enough. Not a bad idea. I'm considering it. And in the Odyssey the character of Odysseus is almost like the character of Buddha in the story of Buddha's life. Just like the Buddha, he sets out on a journey that has a destination, and all sorts of difficult and impossible things happen; but he just keeps on going like Buddha, just keeps on going without fanfare. Unstoppable. And in the poem, two words that are used all the time to describe Odysseus are resolute and resourceful. It says, the resolute Odysseus or the resourceful Odysseus. And that's just how Buddha was, you know, resolute and resourceful. And that's how we have to be, too. Resolute and resourceful. Resolute, because you can't go on a difficult journey without strong resolution and we need to keep our resolve in front of us all the time and strengthen it and work on it all the time. And resourceful because, as with the story of Odysseus and as with the story of Buddha and as with our own story, there isn't really any way to make a plan and carry it out. You know--ABC, it's all going to work-- here's how we're going to do sesshin-- this period we're going to do that and then this period we're going to do that. This, you know, won't work. There's no way to do sesshin. There is no, I'm going to do sesshin. Sesshin does us, right? So we have to be resourceful, ready all the time to improvise and to let go of our expectations and just see what happens.

Anyway, I know that some of you are having various adventures with pain of all sorts. Which reminds me of the Odyssey. Because Odysseus has to go through all sorts of trials and tribulations. One time he has to go through this narrow passage past an island to get out into the open sea, and there are two cliffs that the ship has to pass through. And one cliff is really, really tall. You can't even see the top of it, it's up in the clouds. And up in this high cliff there is a big cave, and in the cave there is a horrible monster. And the monster has twelve feet, which are waving in the air all the time, and six heads. And in each head are these terrible teeth, three rows of teeth in each head. And this is Scylla, a terrible, constantly hungry monster who, anything goes through that passage between the two cliffs, and Scylla is right there snatching it up. And if you have twelve men rowing your boat, six of them are going to be meat when they go through that passage. On the other side there is a lower cliff, and at the base of this cliff is Charybdis, a powerful whirlpool that sucks everything down into it. It sucks it down and after a while it spits it up again, but when it spits it up it's meat, you know. It doesn't come out looking good. So you have to negotiate your way between Scylla and Charybdis and either way you're in trouble and it's a very narrow passage. Very narrow indeed. So on goes Odysseus through the passage. And he's very worried about Charybdis so he sort of steers clear of Charybdis but, what do you know, Scylla comes down and snatches up six of his men and Pggchch eats them up.

But the rest off them manage to escape and sail out into the open sea, and eventually arrive on the island of Helios, the sun god. Which is not a bad place, nice and warm, fairly cheerful spot. And Helios has prize cattle, like we used to have here. Green Gulch used to be the home of prize cattle. George Wheelwright raised prize, special cattle. And that's the kind that they had on Helios. And Odysseus has been warned, that whatever you do on Helios, do not eat those cattle, you know. Let them alone. Everything's fine and cool on Helios, just don't touch those cattle. So they land on Helios and they take a rest. It was a harrowing experience, you know, getting through the passage between Scylla and Charybdis, and they're very happy to be safe and they're having a good time. But a bad wind comes and they can't leave because they can't get any wind. So they're stuck on this island--it's nice, but they're stuck there for a while, eating the ship's provisions and drinking wine and having a good time. Then after a while Odysseus decides that he will go exploring, you know, far away on the other end of the island. And he's gone and of course, as you can imagine, while he's gone they kind of run out of food and they're getting hungry and the cattle are looking better and better. And they're talking it over and they come up with some good justification, Well, you know, it will be all right and probably nothing will happen and if we make the right sacrifices it will be OK and anyway if something does happen we can deal with it. So they figure out a way to eat the cattle. Which they do. They eat the cattle. And they have a great feast. And back comes Odysseus. And, you know, he's really upset they ate the cattle, but what's he going to do? So OK. They ate the cattle? They ate the cattle, that's that. So let's go. The wind gets better. Off they go.

Of course, as soon as they hit the wine-dark sea and the tar-ridged sea, a big storm comes. Pggchch . Ships destroyed. Everybody's dead. Right away, you know. Except for Odysseus, who's floating along on a ship's timber, all by himself in the wide sea, the current of which is now bringing him--guess where--right. Scylla and Charybdis. He's going back there, inexorably, right back to Scylla and Charybdis. Ah, dear. This sounding familiar?

So this time he avoids Scylla but he can't avoid Charybdis, and the whirlpool starts sucking him down. And he then notices, just at the right moment, that the cliff of Charybdis has a beautiful fig tree growing on it. On that same cliff with the whirlpool is this beautiful fig tree. So, just at the last minute, he manages to grab a hold of a branch of the fig tree. And the little piece of ship gets sucked into the whirlpool--Pggchch --while he's hanging there on the fig tree, suspended in the air. And there's nothing that he can do until Charybdis spits up, you know, what got sucked down. And it takes a while and there's not a thing you can do, you know, to make that thing come up again. Just nothing you can do. You're just hanging there. Nothing you can do!

So it takes a long time, and there's the most curious metaphor to describe how long it takes. It's very odd. John, you can appreciate this metaphor. Here's what it says. This is what it says in the Lattimore translation of the Odyssey: 'At the time when a man leaves the law court for dinner, after judging the many disputes brought to him by litigious young men, that was the time it took the timbers to be gorged out.' Isn't that odd? That's how long it took, so they must have had really long days at court in the time of the ancient Greeks and poor judges are sitting there like in OJ, you know, on and on and on. And at the end of a day they're thinking--Pshsh, brother! That's how long it took for Odysseus to hang there on that branch. And finally the ship's timber was spit out again and it says, 'Then I let go with both hands and feet and dropped.' Then I let go with both hands and feet and dropped. And he lands on the ship's timbers and off he goes. So I thought you'd be amused by this story. Just a little entertainment, a little break here. We need a break.

But back to Buddha. Remember? We left Buddha there. Buddha just had his rice pudding. Can't forget about Buddha. Buddha had his rice pudding and a cheerful glimpse at this pretty maiden, who looked really good after all this time of seeing these skinny ascetics. And--this is really what it says in Ashvaghosa's poem-- the maiden was wearing a wine-dark dress. 'And her arms were brilliant with many white shell bracelets. And she looked just like the ocean, wreathed in foam.' So it must have been quite a sight for Buddha to see this maiden. 'And her blue lotus eyes were open wide and she made her offering to the Buddha with great faith that touched the Buddha's heart.' And then it says, 'By partaking of the rice pudding, Buddha, through the satisfaction of the six sense faculties became capable of obtaining enlightenment.' How do you like that. By partaking of the rice pudding, Buddha, through the satisfaction of the six sense faculties, became capable of obtaining enlightenment. So now the Buddha's really refreshed and, as I told you the other day, he sits down under the bodhi tree and remembers, from when he was a boy, this kind of natural state of meditation, and he thinks he'll practice that. And he makes a resolution that he's never going to move until he conquers sickness old age and death. And he sits down and everything is great--for a little while. Until, in the nether realms, Mara, the nasty Mara, gets wind of what's going on. Oh oh. Shakyamuni Buddha is there under the bodhi tree. He's going to attain enlightenment. That's going to be bad for me. You know, I do not want Buddha to attain enlightenment. It's going to mess up my whole scene, which has been going very nicely all this time. I've got to stop this.

So Mara marshals all his forces, getting ready to prevent the Buddha from attaining enlightenment. I'm going to read you a passage from Ashvaghosa's poem, which is called the Buddha-charita, acts of the Buddha, which is the story of Buddha's life. And although this part doesn't have a title, my title for it is, So you think you've got problems? Because Buddha really had problems:

'Then [I'm skipping a whole part here] as soon as Mara thought of his army in his desire to obstruct the tranquility of the Buddha, his followers stood around him in various forms and carrying lances, trees, javelins, clubs and swords in their hands; having the faces of boars, fishes, horses, asses and camels, or the faces of tigers, bears, lions and elephants; one-eyed, many-mouthed, three-headed, with pendulous bellies and speckled bellies; without knees or thighs [Wouldn't it be nice to be without knees or thighs?] or with knees vast as pots; [I'm telling you, it says this. I'm not making this up.] or armed with tusks or talons; or with skulls for faces; or with many bodies; or with half their faces broken off or with huge faces; ash-grey in color, tricked out with red spots; carrying ascetics' staves with their hair smoke-colored like a monkey's; hung 'round with garlands, with pendant ears like elephants; clad in skins or entirely naked; with half their countenances white or half their bodies green; some copper-colored, smoke-colored, tawny or black; some, too, with arms, having an over-garment of snakes. [Oooo!] Or with rows of jangling bells at their girdles. [On and on and on. Different kinds of nasty creatures.] Some, as they ran, leapt wildly about; some jumped on each other. While some gamboled in the sky, others sped along among the tree tops. One danced about brandishing a trident. Another snorted as he trailed a club. One roared like a bull in his excitement. Another one blazed fire from every hair on his head.

'Such were the hoards of fiends who stood encompassing the root of the bodhi tree on all sides, anxious to seize and to kill, and awaiting the command of their master, beholding, in the beginning of the night, the hour of conflict between Mara and the bull of the Shakyas [That's Buddha]. The sky lost its brightness, the earth shook and the quarters blazed and crashed. The wind raged wildly in every direction, the stars did not shine, the moon was not seen, and the night spread forth still thicker darkness, and all the oceans were troubled. Then Mara gave orders to his raging army of demons for terrifying the sage. Thereupon, that army of his resolved to break down his steadfastness with their various powers. Some stood trying to frighten him, their many tongues hanging out flickering, their teeth sharp-pointed, their eyes like the sun's orb, their mouths gaping, their ears sticking up stiff as spikes. As they stood there in such guise, horrible in appearance and in manner, he was no more alarmed by them or shrank before them than before over-excited infants at play.

'[Then they start doing things and there's a whole list of the things that they try to do to him.] One of them, wrathfully turning his gaze on him, raised his club to hit him over the head and his club became immovable. Some lifted up rocks and trees, but they were unable to hurl them at the sage. Instead they fell down with the rocks and the trees. The rocks and trees and axes discharged by some who flew up into the sky remained hanging in the air without falling down like the many-hued rays of the evening clouds. Another flung above him a blazing log as big as a mountain peak. [Special effects.] No sooner was it discharged then, as it hung in the sky, it burst into a hundred fragments. Another, shining like the rising sun, let loose from the sky a vast shower of red hot coals, just as at the close of the eon, Meru, in full conflagration, throws out the pulverized scoriae of its golden rifts. But the shower of hot coals, scattered full of sparks at the foot of the bodhi tree, became a shower of red lotus petals through the exercise of universal benevolence on the part of the Buddha. And the Shakya sage, embracing his resolution like a kinsman [You know, like you run up to your brother whom you haven't seen in a long time or your sister, Ahh, how are you! That's how he embraced his resolution. With warmth and kindness.] did not waver at all from his posture in spite of these various afflictions and distresses of body and mind which were cast at him.'

So if you're having trouble, take heart. It's not so bad. It could be worse. And, you know, Shakyamuni Buddha, despite all of his wholesome roots and positive karma from past lives, had all that suffering on his night of enlightenment. So tune in later, we'll go forth with this story. But let's leave it right there for now, kind of keep Buddha suspended right there.

So remember that we're imitating Buddha this week. We are Buddha under the enlightenment tree and we are having the same experiences that Buddha is having and we're sitting up late at night, abandoning ourselves to our zazen. So if you're having demons hurling hot coals at you and if your knees are as big as pots, it's not abnormal. This is exactly what should be happening, right? It's supposed to happen that way. And if it's not happening like that, of course that's all right too. And I know that some of you are having the experience from time to time of a deep and blissful concentration, which reminds me a little bit of the Odyssey, of Odysseus' being on the island of Helios enjoying himself or on the island of Calypso. So enjoy your concentration but don't eat the cattle. Let them roam around but don't eat them. And you may very well experience--J. , wake up--you may very well experience different sights and sounds, other phenomena of concentration. It's wonderful. Better than the special effects in the movies. Because you can have special effects in your body, you know. They can't do that. Even Mr. Lucas down the road hasn't figured out that one yet. How your body can disappear or become gigantic. And you will notice, if these things do happen by themselves, that as soon as you try to stay there and say, Oh boy, this is great, this is really something--in other words, as soon as you start roasting that nice cattle meat--pretty soon a storm comes and munches the entire boat.

As soon as there is the slightest, subtlest preference or desire or even hint of definition and identity, as soon as Somebody appears on the horizon--Whomp--instantly it's gone. So you can't possess it or name it or make it into a self. You just need to stay present and go straight ahead--keep on going--forward, in a circle, without falling to the right or to the left. At that time, if you want to find out how you can stay with it without defining or grasping, which is so natural--to define or grasp--because we're so afraid not to, you can just raise the question, What is this? and breathe with that question, dissolve the question into your breath until there is no question, but just an alertness and a sense of being there and going ahead. And if we can do this in sesshin, this is how we can live. We can train ourselves this way and we can live this way. Just going straight ahead. Aware of desire and preference and identity, which, after all, is what keeps us alive, but not getting tangled up in it, knotted all up in it. Being able to see clearly the difference between desire and preference and the actual experience of our five senses--which takes equanimity. When we have enough equanimity or spaciousness we can see the difference and we can have balance in our life and we can do what is necessary. If we get mixed up and knotted in our desires and preferences and don't see the difference between our desires and preferences and the actual sensation of what's happening in our life, we will be blinded and we won't even experience the five senses. So working with our good concentration is a very intimate and subtle thing and it can show us how to live.

So, what is Buddha? Another case that asks this question is Case 21 of the Mumonkan. What is Buddha? Once a monk asked Yun-men--good old Yun-men, you know, our old buddy. Once a monk asked Yun-men, 'What is Buddha?' And Yun-men said, 'Dried shitstick.' You know this story? That's the end of the story. Dried shitstick. What is Buddha? Dried shitstick. So--a famous case. Everybody knows this case. Good answer, right? What is Buddha? Dried shitstick. Yun-men was a great Zen teacher, very powerful. He had various techniques, some of which could sound mean. But I think mostly he knew that hanging on to ourselves looks innocent enough but it's so pernicious. So he was very, very kind. He just did not want anybody to hang on to himself. Even a high-class Zen self. Forget it, you know. So he was famous for posing difficult questions and before anybody could say anything he would give the answer. That was one of his famous techniques. Another one was one-word answers. Somebody would ask a question and he would burp-splurt out one word. And this is one of those cases because in Chinese dried shitstick is just one word. Fvthaa something, you know. So, What is buddha?-- Dried shitstick.

So what's a dried shitstick? Well, in the monastery in those days they didn't have toilet paper. They used to use some sort of a stick to wipe their bottom after they went to the toilet. Some sort of a stick--I don't know what it looked like. Aitken Roshi, in his commentary on this case, points out that in the United States in the old days, in the outhouses on the farms, they would use corncobs. Did you know that? Yeah. He said that on his grandfather's farm there'd be a little corncob hanging there by the toilet. I suppose it was soft. It might be nice, you know. So in the old days in the monasteries, I mean, they probably had very little paper. Imagine. Paper! It was like something really precious. Maybe the abbot had three pieces of paper, you know, and nobody else had any paper. The abbot like would write a sutra, you know, on a little bit of paper and wow! Did you see that paper? Wow! Paper! Precious thing! Paper must have been very rare. It's hard to make paper. Big process. Now, you know, we throw away bushels. I mean I myself throw away giant baskets of paper every week. Huge thing of paper. Comes in the mail. I don't know where it comes from. And I'm a simple monk. So think of a big office, you know. How much paper they're throwing away. And in this monastery they had so little paper that they had to use a stick to wipe their butt. But let's not feel sorry for them. It was probably a really nice, soft stick of some sort. I don't know how they did it but they were probably pretty smart and they, you know, they had a nice soft stick. And it could very well have been much better than toilet paper.

They didn't have tooth brushes either, and they would use a stick to brush their teeth. Yeah. They have little--they're cute-- little tooth sticks. I have one. Achaan Amaro gave me one. They still use them in Thailand. They brush their teeth with a stick. It probably works really well. To tell you the truth I didn't try it. But they probably work pretty well and they didn't even use Tom's of Maine. They just used the stick. So they probably had a very nice stick for butt wiping that was very successful. Probably very absorbent and soft. At least I hope it was. I hate to think of them, you know--they had a hard enough life as it was, you know. Imagine going to the toilet and Kkchch, Kkchch, Kkchch, Kkchch, Kkchch. Forget it. It would be terrible. So I like to picture these ancient worthies with a very soft, pleasant shitstick. When they went to the toilet they were probably really happy and they just nicely wiped it all and it was really nice. And better than toilet paper. I think it must have been better. And this does not remind me of the Odyssey.

But it does remind me of a passage in Jack Kerouac which impressed me so much I remembered it for twenty-five years. Jack Kerouac was an extremely enthusiastic writer, you know. He was so enthusiastic he would take speed and write for days on end without stopping. And I forget exactly what the story was, as usual. But something had to do with--somehow he encountered somebody--I think it was like maybe an Indian person who, when he went to the toilet, would wipe his butt with a rag with soap and water. You know, clean his butt out really well. And this impressed Kerouac. And Kerouac started doing this himself. And here's the good part. Kerouac in his book said, All those middle-class people out there think that me and my beatnik pals are just a bunch of unwashed people. But I have a much cleaner asshole than they do. They're all walking around with a dirty asshole. He spelled it--I'll never forget--he spelled it a-z-z-h-o-l-e . Azzhole. Maybe that was because of the censors at the time or maybe that's just how he pronounced it or something. But he went on for pages about this, you know, about how it was that all these people who were putting him down were walking around all the time in their nice suits and dresses and everything with dirty azzholes. And he took great satisfaction in the fact that this was not the case with him.

One of the great things about camping is being able to shit outdoors. I don't know if you appreciate this but, assuming it's not raining, it's a very luxurious experience. Now it's true that when you shit outdoors you can't read. Probably. Because you're squatting down there, you know. But you can have great scenery, you know, really great scenery. And squatting down to shit is very good. It's very healthy. Supposedly the entire plumbing of the lower bowel will work better if you're squatting than if you're sitting up on this big white throne that we have. The Japanese had squat toilets. They still do. Not all, but many Japanese toilets are squat toilets. And so in the early days of Zen Center--in those pioneering years--we were really into squat toilets. Did you know that? Yeah. We had a lot of squat toilets. It was like Zen and squat toilets really went together. It was like, no squat toilet, no Zen. That's how --it felt like that, you know. People who sat on those other toilets, I mean, you know, come on. What kind of practice could that be? So we had these squat toilets. We had them here in Cloud Hall. Not all the toilets were squat toilets but some of them were. We had one in Greens Restaurant. Yeah, that's right. In Greens restaurant we had a squat toilet. We really did. The house that we used to live in up in Spring Valley had a squat toilet. Squat toilets. Very good. All the squat toilets were later removed. We don't have any anymore. They're all gone. But they still have some in Japan. I remember when I was in Japan a few years ago I had an emergency case of going to the toilet before getting on a train in Kyoto and I ran around to find the bathroom. And there was a squat toilet. You have to be careful of your pants, though. Because it could happen that you shit on your pants or pee on you pants and this is not pleasant. It's difficult.

Katagiri-roshi and Suzuki-roshi, I believe, when they referred to this koan, translated shitstick as toilet paper. And Katagiri-roshi often would say, and I can just see him grinning, you know, Oh, Buddha is toiret paper! Toi-Ret-Paper! Boooda. Toiret paper. So we're back to paper again. Paper is very precious stuff. My grandmother used to wipe herself with the outer covering of the toilet paper roll. She would take the outer covering of the toilet paper roll and stuff it between the coils of the radiator in front of the toilet. And she would use that instead of the regular toilet paper to save paper, which somehow really used to piss my mother off. It was really upsetting to my mother that she would do this. But she could never break her of the habit. She did it all her life.

Yesterday I saw a paper clip on the ground. A really nice one. You know those big ones? Metal paper clip. Shiny metal paper clip. And I picked it up and carefully put it in my little jar full of paper clips. I never buy paper clips. You don't have to buy them because you find them everywhere. You never have to buy paper clips. Paper clips are really precious, you know. They're so nice and shiny and they work really great. What a great design, paper clips. Even though people think that paper clips are worthless and they throw them away--you take a paper clip off your papers and you just toss it in the garbage. But suppose you needed a paper clip and you had to make one. Go ahead and make a paper clip. Go and mine the metal out of the ground and take it through the process of making it workable and then get the machine. Well, you have to make the machine. Then make the machine. How are you going to make the machine? Well, I don't know. You make the machine and then make these paper clips--make yourself a paper clip. How long would it take you to make one paper clip? If you could do it, it would take you hundreds of years to figure it out and then execute it. A paper clip. How long would it take you to make a roll of toilet paper? If you didn't have a shitstick and you wanted to use toilet paper. Take you a really long time. Because all these things are precious and tremendous energy goes into making every little thing. The clothes that we're wearing right now sitting here come from all over the world and have to be manufactured by people and transported here by gigantic vehicles. My wife Kathie has a project in her class where she gets everybody to figure out where all the clothes come from that they are wearing. And then she puts it on the map. A big map of the world. Clothes come from all over the world. Everything is precious. A huge amount of energy goes into making up each and every thing that people make.

And what about all the stuff that people don't make. Suppose you needed a stone. For a paper weight. Or like the sea otters. You know, sea otters in the ocean get stones and carry them around with them. Did you know this? Because they like to eat sea urchins and they can't chomp them. So they get their little stones and they go tap tap tap tap until they bust the sea urchin open then they eat it. It's amazing. If you go by the ocean and you get close enough to the sea otters, you can hear the tap tap tap tap of the stone, as they're lying on their backs, swimming along eating their sea urchins. But suppose you needed a stone and you had to make one. Imagine making a stone. What if you needed a cloud and you had to make a cloud--you had to figure out how you're going to make a cloud. I need a cloud. How am going to do it? Couldn't make it. It's precious, how that cloud got there. A stone is a miracle and a cloud is a miracle and a paper clip is a miracle.

And painful knees are a miracle. And every thought that comes into your mind is a miracle. How could you make a thought? If you needed a special particular thought, how could you make it? Where does it come from? Where does it go when it's gone? Clouds and paper clips and thoughts and pain and toilet paper and oryoki bowls and chop sticks and shitsticks all appear miraculously because of the network of empty causes and conditions that no one will ever understand. And that's Buddha. But that's just something that I'm telling you. The important thing is for you to appreciate this personally, for you to have this kind of respect and appreciation for each and every thing inside and outside as Buddha. For you to see personally that your love is absolutely limitless. And that each and every thing and person and thought and sensation that you come into contact with draws forth your love and draws forth your life. If you stay with your breath, counting, following, riding the waves of the breath and finally just letting go and going beyond the breath into the limitless and intimate realm; simply being present with nobody there to get credit for it, absolutely nobody; not minding whether you're eaten up; just being willing to let go of the branch and drop off, then, I think, without any words at all you will be able to see what is Buddha. And you will be able to know who really is Shakyamuni Buddha who is sitting here with us all right now, attaining enlightenment moment by moment through our ordinary human bodies.

I'll read you master Mumon's comment on this famous case of Yun-men: 'It must be said of Yun-men that he was too poor to prepare even the plainest food and too busy to make a careful draft.' It's referring to Yun-men's terse technique. He's too poor to make an elaborate statement and too busy to make a careful draft of his words. Of course, it wasn't that he was too poor and too busy. It's that this was his expression. Mumon goes on: 'Probably people will bring forth this dried shitstick to shore up the gate and prop up the door. The Buddha Dharma is thus sure to decay.' So, when we bring up this case and we hop up and down and wave our shitsticks around and make it into Zen, you know, it's the beginning of the end. Just see for yourself and then forget it. And I'll close my talk today with Mumon's verse on this case:

A flash of lightning,
Sparks from flint;
If you blink you eyes,
It's already gone.

Yes, it's gone that fast. One instant, one hour, one week, one year, one lifetime.