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Caring for the Lamp

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 12/01/2004
Location: Mar de Jade
In Topics: Everyday Zen

“We are literally and truly continuing the experience of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Your practice and my practice is the continual unfolding of the Buddha’s enlightenment. This is really the truth. It’s as if the light that arose not from the Buddha, but through the Buddha from life is literally still shining in the world now, shining in all of us. We have this obligation to let this light shine through in our hearts and not to cover it over with our own confusion.”
Rohatsu Sesshin, December 2004, Mar de Jade

It occurred to me that since this retreat celebrates the Buddha’s enlightenment we should say a word about that. On the night of enlightenment, Buddha practicing with a great deal of intensity. One thing that I have always admired about the Buddha is the total commitment that he made to his practice. He sat in meditation in the spirit of giving his whole life with absolutely nothing held back. He vowed that he would remain with his practice no matter what happened. We might think that the Buddha was an extraordinary person and that he must have had so much bliss and happiness and deep experiences on his enlightenment night. But actually it was the opposite of this. The Buddha had a tremendously hard time. All of his desires and all of cravings, fears, and afflictive emotions came to him, his guilt and his self-doubt, and his shame.. it all came to him vividly and strongly. The only thing that saved him was his commitment to his practice, to remaining seated on his meditation seat patient with all things that arose. In the end, at his deepest point of extreme suffering he trusted his own body and trusted the earth on which he sat. He gave himself over to the wisdom of his own flesh that comes from the earth and to the earth itself, to the immediacy of the reality of his own body and his own life. In doing that, finally his mind quieted. His experience of enlightenment just unfolded. In other words, he didn’t create it, it just happened, as a natural occurrence just like the morning star rising in the sky. He then found a kind of peace that was deep and that was lasting. Although in the story enlightenment is presented as a moment– as a moment when he finally found peace– if you really study the Buddha’s life and really think about it, you realize that it began in a moment, but the Buddha’s enlightenment unfolded day by day for the rest of his life.

Everyday for the rest of his life, he built on the experience, understood the experience more, expanded it, and deepened it every single day. Even at the end of his life the experience of the Buddha’s enlightenment didn’t end. It went on in the people that he lived with and practiced with. They developed the Buddha’s awakening still further. It’s really the truth that hand-to-hand and person-to-person we receive the Buddha’s experience a direct line of descent. We are literally and truly continuing the experience of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Your practice and my practice is the continual unfolding of the Buddha’s enlightenment. This is really the truth. It’s as if the light that arose not from the Buddha, but through the Buddha from life is literally still shining in the world now, shining in all of us. We have this obligation to let this light shine through in our hearts and not to cover it over with our own confusion.

You could say that there are two sides to the Buddha’s enlightenment. One side is positive mind, negative mind, trying to understand the difference between positive mind and negative mind and being clear that one wants to cultivate positive mind, and little by little let go of negative mind. This is the way that we allow the light to shine through. This is the way we make it bright every day. The Buddha experienced the truth of this in his awakening. That’s one side of the Buddha’s enlightenment. The other side is to see the root of human experience beyond positive and negative mind. To see that at the deepest level there is no positive or negative mind. This is the other side of the Buddha’s enlightenment. We may think that these two sides are somehow in contradiction to one another. Or that one is better than the other or deeper or higher or more important. We may think that we like one better than the other. But really the Buddha’s enlightenment is one thing and these are only two sides of one thing. There is no having one without the other. If we stick too much to the side of positive and negative then it’s too easy to get caught in desiring positive and disliking negative, or in trying to be perfect. If we stick too much to the side of beyond positive and negative, thinking that we can live beyond positive and negative, probably we are deceiving ourselves and we’re in for big trouble. So there is no other way than to see both these sides and to embrace them both. It’s like the story I told you yesterday about the person who came and said, “I’m ill and my mind is in confusion please heal my sins.” The teacher said, “Please bring me your sins and I will heal them for you.” The man said, “I can’t find any sins to bring,” and then the teacher said, “well I’ve healed them for you, now please rely on your practice.” This story means that the man meditated on his positive and negative thoughts and sins and realized in truth they don’t exist. In truth one can bring the mind to such quiet and intimacy that there can be no such thing as positive and negative or good and bad. All the mistakes that one feels that one has made just seem like clouds in the sky, nothing of any import. So we too if we give ourselves to our practice can see this. This experience can be a source of deep and lasting peace.

Let me share with you one more story about his point. One time a Zen master said, “Just go beyond positive and negative, that’s all you need to do.” He said to all the monks assembled, “Can you respond to this or not?” One monk went over to the attendant and hit him. “Attendant, why don’t you respond?” he said. Then the teacher got up and went back to his room. Later, the attendant came to the teacher and said, “Why did that monk hit me? Did he understand something?” The teacher said, “The person standing sees the person sitting, and the person sitting sees the person standing.” That’s the story. Don’t you love Zen stories? They tell you all you need to know. Now, I will try to explain a little bit. Here the Zen master is quoting an old poem that says, “If there is the least thought of positive and negative the mind is lost in confusion.” This reminds me a lot of what Peter was saying yesterday. He was saying, “I thought I was in a big mess but now I see I’m in a much bigger mess than I ever thought I could be.” This does happen. One of the stages of our practice is when we begin to notice that practically everything we say, do, and think is wrong. This can lead to the despair and frustration that Peter was expressing, but actually it’s a really good thing when we experience this. Once the mind produces positive and negative the mind is lost in confusion. You notice that every single thing that comes into the mind is, “I want this, I don’t want that, I like this, I don’t like that, and so forth.” Everything that comes in the mind comes from that. You can feel that, “Oh my God, this is impossible.” “The only way out of this is to cut off my head and throw it into the ocean.” But when you think that way you’re only one breath away from understanding that at the root of all of these positive and negative thoughts, at the source of them, if you could just breathe one more time and crawl out to the edge of the thought and let yourself gently slip off, you would be at the root of these thoughts, and you would see that there are the root even the most difficult of the negative thoughts is actually also the pure mind of Buddha’s enlightenment.

Now, I realize when I say this you might not believe it. You might think it’s a very crazy idea that I read it in a book or I just made up but it’s really the truth and it’s something you can see for yourself. When you see this for yourself you will have tremendous patience and tolerance for all the crazy things that might come into your mind or anyone else’s mind. All your mistakes, all your stupidity, all your desire, and all your confusion is just fine. It’s just perfect and you give up this quest that you’ve been on your whole life to find some other sort of perfection, where everything will be good and nothing will be bad. You realize what a fantasy this is and always was. Then there is a great freedom to think all the thoughts that you think and to fulfill all your desires. You can fulfill your desires in a way that is not destructive to yourself and not destructive to others, in a very simple way. When your desire cannot be fulfilled you don’t need to get desperate and upset about it. You can feel, “I wanted this and instead I got that: it’s even better. Just what I really wanted, just what I really needed.” So you can live like that.

That’s what the master is bringing up to his students and he’s saying please respond. In other words, can you live this truth at this moment, can you demonstrate it, can you express it, and can you live it? Now I think what happened is that the monks were intimidated by this idea and nobody said anything. Because everyone thought “I might get the wrong answer, maybe I would have the incorrect understanding so I better shut up maybe somebody else will say something,” but nobody said anything, so one monk hit the attendant and said, “Speak up why don’t you?” Then the teacher left. Why did the teacher leave? Because his job was over. His job is just to bring up the matter, but he can’t solve the problem for you, so as soon as, someone responds then he feels, “Good, now the job is over I’m leaving.” So he just went back to his room and had tea. The last part, the attendant asks the teacher whether the monk had understanding, and the teacher says, “The one standing sees the one sitting and the one sitting sees the one standing.” To appreciate this line you need to know that in ancient China, when there was a Dharma talk the teacher would sit down and everyone else what stand. I’m not entirely sure why they did it this way, and as far as I know, this style is not preserved in any contemporary form of Buddhism. Maybe they were standing there as a sign of respect. But I think they were standing there because the talks weren’t very long and they weren’t supposed to be long. So when he says, “The one sitting sees the one standing and the one sitting sees the one standing,” he’s referring to this. The monk and I saw each other. We are of the same mind. The monk understood that a response is always necessary. There’s no way not to respond. That’s not quite right. There’s one way. You could be dead. If you’re dead there’s no need to respond, but if you’re alive, you really have no choice. Life comes to you and grabs you by the collar and says, “Here I am, what are you going to do?” and you always do something. You are always doing something always. “Oh, I never respond. I always hold back,” you might say. But that is not true. You are responding every moment. But how do you respond? Do you respond with your whole heart or do you respond with your fear and avoidance? So the monk understood that one must always respond and he expressed that. But there’s another meaning that we can find in the phrase “the one seeing understands the one standing” and vice-versa.

This story expresses the two sides of our practice—the side when we sit and the side when we stand and go forth into the world. It also expresses the two sides of Buddha’s enlightenment—the side of sitting, the side of seeing beyond good and bad, and the side of standing–of going forth into the world, trying to do good, and letting go of what’s bad. Life will not let us alone. It is a very demanding teacher, life is. Every moment it presents us with the same question the teacher presented. What will you do now, every moment, what will you do now? So that’s why we need to practice. I am sorry, but there’s no escape.

Really, I am practicing with everybody. I really don’t see much difference in people who come to the retreat and people who don’t. When in a few days we go back to Puerto Vallarta, we’ll be in the airport, and we will speak to the nice people behind the counter taking our tickets and our bags. We’ll be practicing with them, and with the people sitting with us on the airplane and the people that take us in the van back home. We’ll be practicing with them too because they’re in the same situation that we’re in. Life is calling them every moment too. How will you respond to this call? What kind of world will you make by your actions? What kind of world will you make for yourself and for your family and for all of us? So the light of Buddha’s enlightenment shines equally all over the world. At this very moment there is no more light in this room, than there is at the airport in Puerto Vallarta. We make this effort, and we appreciate the happiness this effort can bring into our lives. I am always happy to be in retreat because it reminds me of what I really need to be doing and how I really need to lead my life. When the retreat is over I try to continue every day in this same way. In a way, for us as practitioners, our life is no different than any one else’s life. But in another way, the way that we understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing our living is completely different. The things that we thought were important before are no longer important. We don’t need something special to happen in order to find a deep joy in any moment of our living. At the same time, we have a great sympathy for all the suffering going on around us, which is so really immense all over the world. That’s enough to say for today.

Thank you very much for listening.

This talk transcribed and edited by Elisa Gerber

® 2004, Norman Fischer