Skip to main content

Being In A Family

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 03/05/2000
Location: Green Gulch Farm
In Topics:

dharma talk given at Green Gulchlast weekend i went to a family wedding in miami. i don't usually attend weddings like this, large and formal. there were maybe a dozen bridesmaids and grooms men, all of them wearing black. the women wore the same simple black dresses and the men wore tuxedos- there was music playing and they all walked down the aisle in pairs. they were all young and good looking- they looked like princes and princesses. it must be a strange feeling to walk down the aisle with music playing and with everyone in the room looking at you; this is not an ordinary walk, like going out for a stroll, and you could tell by the looks on their faces that they felt that it something unusual, something special. they looked as though they were about to burst with anticipation, as if they were walking straight into a sunrise and were going to walk through it to the other side of the world. finally the groom came in flanked on either side by his parents, and then the bride’s parents came in and walked a little way down the aisle and waited. there was a long pause. the music stopped. then the door opened and the bride appeared all in white,with a long train of white gauze behind her, looking exactly like an angel. she joined her parents, the music started up again, and the three of them went slowly walking down the aisle. what impressed me about all of this was seeing the bride and groom walking down the aisle with their parents. you could see it was their parents because they looked alike. the young bride and groom looked like young versions of their parents. it was as if they were walking down the aisle toward a launch into a life that would be the new life to replace the parents lives- as if the parents were the old model and the young ones were the new model of the same person.

in my stepping down ceremony, my retirement ceremony as i left office as abbot, rick asked me a question about family. rick and iva had a new baby in november, jacob. so his question wasn't an abstract point of dharma, it was something very immediate and personal to him, something from the heart. i never can remember what happens in these ceremonies. i am paying so much attention to what people are saying and how they are saying it that i usually completely forget afterward what happened- but i do remember that i told rick to let go of his family and he said forget about it, that doesn't sound right, i won't let go. so he was acting like a good student, giving the teacher a hard time. you shouldn’t believe your teacher just because he says something. if it isn't true for you it’s wrong. maybe some time later it will be true for you and you will appreciate it; maybe not. so you should remember the times when you disagree- usually you do anyway, usually those times are memorable. anyway, he disagreed with me and afterward he said i don’t care what you say, i’m not letting go of my family. he really loves his family a lot and to me this is something very very beautiful- love is something so unlikely- so selfless- it breaks your heart when you see it.

every human being comes from a family of some kind. we all have fathers and mothers. this kind of social unit is the basis of human psychology and human society. no matter how good or bad our parents were how supportive or unsupportive they were in our lives they always remain with us- even their absence is powerful. when we are babies if we are lucky our parents will establishing a powerful bond with us, as rick and iva have established with jacob. iva says that even when she’s away from jacob she is thinking about him and can even sense how he is- whether he is hungry or sleepy or cranky. she can't be away for very long before she has to go back to him. but the truth is that once this bond is established parenting is a long slow process of letting go of the bond, all the way up until the time that you give your child away, in a wedding ceremony or in some other way. even after that you still love your child, and the bond is still there, but also you let go. if you don’t let go then there are problems. this is the hard part about being a parent. it’s very sad and at the same time sweet.

i have been writing about this in my book about mentoring young people:

“All of this points toward the need in families for a new kind of love to be developed as the family changes to include the new young adult. It’s a love that includes in it some distance, some spaciousness, a wide mutual respect that will allow each person’s independent development. To grow this kind of love takes sensitivity and courage; it requires that each person in the family undertake the subtle task of tending more thoroughly to his or her own business, while not losing sight of or warm concern for the other. Such love is not characteristic of young marriages or young families and it should not be. Young marriages and young families are occasions for a wonderful and intimate closeness in the midst of which it is hard to tell the difference between you and me, husband and wife, parent and child. This can be a wonderful time – as magical for the parent as for the child, a time of uncanny self-transcendence and joy. But such a time must by imperceptible degrees come to a close over the years, and we need to be ready for it. We need to remake relationships not only between son or daughter and parents, but also between husband and wife: the family dynamic changes across the board when children get ready to come of age as adults.

“The work of developing this wider more inclusive love is one of life’s most rewarding experiences. For most of us most of the time there is a great deal of fear and strongly held desire in our loving. While this is normal it can also, over time, become confining. Eventually it can transmute; no longer love, it can become a form of dependency driven by fear, and it can even, insidiously, take the form of an antipathy that we persist, by habit, in calling love. Love is dynamic; it can't stay the same. It has its stages, and to miss these stages, not to cooperate with them, is to watch love die without realizing what we are watching. As love in the family matures we can see that the one we love can never be possessed, can never be held onto. From the standpoint of a dependent love, this can seem tragic. But it is only tragic if you don’t like it and you refuse to accept it. If you can accept it you see that it is a good thing that we cannot possess or hold onto the object of our love: because if we could it would not really be a living being; it would only be our invention, and inventions are finally not lovable. The coming of age of a son or daughter is a unique time in a family’s life for the development of this new wide love. In any case, whether parents choose to undertake this or not, it is impossible for them to hold onto their children or protect and shield them from the world. Just as Buddha’s parents could not hold him within the safety of the palace, parents cannot ensure that their children will always be safe and well and that their lives will be successful and free from pain. Sometimes pain comes; it may be unpreventable. But pain, although we all try to avoid it when we can, is not necessarily negative; it may be exactly what we need to deepen our lives. Mature love always contains a measure of letting go, which brings with it some sadness, but I do not think there is any way around it, and I do not think the sadness is a bad sadness. In the end, again to use the story of Buddha analogously, the son or daughter who must leave home does come back to be our teacher.”

we think of zen practice as being about our individual lives. in bism we have the idea of leaving home, as buddha did- leaving our family in order to seek the way. but in reality everyone leaves his or her family- to be whole as a person is lo leave your family- even though at the same time you might be in your family. real love always has that distance in it- i don't think you can really love unless you can let go- letting go is the spaciousness in the center of love. with letting go we embrace life as it is, rather than life as we wish it were. because you can never hold onto life; its nature is to pass by- every moment life is passing by. our practice then is all about this kind of loving, joining the community of life, the flow of life. in zen practice we are always doing things together-sitting together walking together working together eating together. joining ourselves hand to hand with everyone and just going ahead with our life. sitting on our cushions isn't something lonesome. even if we are sitting on a mountaintop far away from anyone we are siting in the middle of our family. our life, if we really see it and enter it fully, is always in the middle of our family, the family of everything. we are always embraced and held in the bond of life, moment after moment.

this is actually an expression in judaism- to be bound up in the bonds of life. it’s a phrase that’s usually used in connection with our parents when they have died. there’s a prayer that ends, “may they always be bound in the bonds of life.” i am thinking of this because after the wedding i attended i went to visit my parents graves. they are buried side by side in a cometary in miami and whenever i go there i visit their graves and say a prayer. this time the cemetary was closed so my son aron and i had to jump over the fence to get in, but we did, and it was nice because it was very very quiet, and we said some prayers.

lately i have been studying a fascicle of dogen, zenki, the whole works. this fascicle is dear to us because it is the name of our senior teacher- tenshin zenki reb anderson. it is a pun – the whole… works (with whole as noun and works as verb), and also the whole works (whole as adjective and works as noun). it is a particularly beautiful writing of dogen and the main meaning of it is as i have been saying, we are all always at every moment deeply held right in the middle of the totality of life. all of our acts are totally inclusive and decisive. wherever we are, that is the place to be because wherever we are is the place where all the world comes to fruition, where all of life comes in and goes out. whatever we are doing- the whole world depends on us, the whole universe was created only for us at this moment. this is the secret of zen practice, i think: to live as if every moment were like that, as if every moment were our first and our last moment, as if every moment was like that moment of walking down the aisle into the sunrise. and this not something we make up, not something in our imaginations. reality really is like that, existence really is like that. what we are trying to do is to wake up to it.

zenki begins like this: “the great way of all buddhas, thoroughly practiced, is freedom and realization (making our life real). freedom means that in the middle of life you are free of life and in the middle of death you are free of death. this is existence itself- freedom from life, and embracing life. this is how practice is. you let go of life and you vitalize life. such is the thorough practice of the great way.”

we have the words letting go and the word embracing. but dogen is telling us that when we really appreciate what our life is we see that those conceptions are just conceptions- really living means letting go and embracing at the same time, seeing that there’s no real embracing without letting go and no real letting go without embracing. when we’re born we aren't really born and when we die we don't really die. this is how our life is on every moment- and if we can appreciate this we can live completely, and we can love completely.

later he says, “the whole works of living and dying is like someone bending and stretching the arm, or like someone asleep reaching back for their pillow in the dark. this is making our life real in a vast and wondrous light.”

i think this expression is marvelous- it is from the oldest sutras where it would say, just as fast as a man could stretch or flex his arm out a god appeared and spoke to buddha. this image of stretching out the arm is an image of something very natural and simple. you don't have to think about it a lot or make a plan about how to do it. just naturally you do it and it just takes a moment. there’s also an old saying, the elbow doesn't bend backwards. this is how it bends when you stretch out your arm and it can't go any other way. also we have an expression- to reach out. the phone company uses this- reach out and touch someone. and in the case of dogen’s second expression- reaching back for your pillow in the dark- it is even more clear that stretching out the arm means reaching out to someone- that image is from a famous koan about compassion. the koan says that compassion isn't something special or unusual- it's just like reaching back for your pillow in the dark- something natural- even reflexive. in other words- all activity is reaching out. getting up in the morning, brushing your teeth, going for a walk, feeding the dog- all of these are acts of compassion. life is reaching out, life is compassion. the whole works means that life is embracing and letting go and when we live our life like that then compassion is something just very natural. this expression stretching out the arm also makes me think of a phrase in the bible that i have always wondered about. i hear it every year when i go to a seder at passover time. it says in the service- god freed the people with a strong hand and and outstretched arm. to me this seems like a strange expression and i have always wondered about it. but now that i have studied zenki again i think i can understand it. i think it is as dogen says here- god is the outstretched arm that is the whole works. in every moment of time deeply lived we are embraced by the family of all that is.

i always feel when i am doing zazen and breathing in and out that i am most purely living this truth. when i breath in i am vitalizing my life- embracing it completely- saying yes to life and whatever it will bring. and when i breath out i feel i am letting go of my life- giving it up, and finding freedom. every moment i practice like that whether i know it or not- i breathe in and i breathe out. when i was born because of the love of my father and mother, who were good people and who lived good and simple lives, i came into this world and took one big painful inhale and then i let out a cry. and when i pass out of this world i will let go one big exhale, a sigh. but i do this every moment in between- accepting life, letting it go. this is the whole works. this is love, true love. and whether we know it or not we are all practicing this.

thank you very much for your kind attention.