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Cypress Tree 2 – Enlightenment – Fourth Talk Loon Lake Sesshin 2010

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/10/2010
Location: Loon Lake
In Topics: Zen Koans

Norman gives his fourth talk at the Loon Lake Sesshin continuing his comments on koan The Cypress Tree – Enlightenment.

Cypress Tree 2 – Enlightenment – Fourth Talk Loon Lake Sesshin 2010

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | November 10, 2010

Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum


I trust and hope that everybody is doing okay. You look good. We seem to be having a good, quiet sesshin. Everybody is pretty settled. Everybody seems to be doing their best to pay attention to their practice. I know that some of us are having some grief, some pain, some anguish, some tears; but that's okay. Grief is good. It is difficult, but it softens the heart and brings compassion and love.

The food is very good. Do you like the food? At every meal I am really grateful for such carefully prepared food. When the food is prepared by practitioners who are sharing the sesshin [meditation retreat] together with everyone, you can see the difference, and you can taste the difference. There is a subtle caring for each and every detail. In sesshin it doesn't feel like there is a big idea to make delicious food. There is honest attention to all the details – cutting vegetables, for instance. Then the food tastes very good without a big idea that it should be good. You can actually taste the practice in the food. I could certainly taste the practice in the food. This is the sort of food that you can put into Buddha's bowls.

So we can have the pleasure of oryoki practice, an ancient Zen practice of eating. This is not just eating food for sustenance, or eating food for pleasure, but eating food as the practice of Buddha's way, an essential practice in Zen. So it is really great that we can do this practice, and to tell you the truth, every time we do it, I am completely amazed that we can do it. In Japan, of course, monastics always eat like this, but they have a huge establishment to support it. Even at San Francisco Zen Center temples, where we eat like this in sesshin and ango periods, there is a pretty big establishment that supports it. People have full-time work doing this. They receive support to do it. So to me [the fact] that we can do this without all that extra support, without any establishment at all, is amazing. To think that people have jobs and families and lives, and they come to sesshin, and somehow they can do this – you can do this, we can do it: to me, it is a really lovely thing. I hope you are appreciating what a fantastic practice this is, to prepare food offerings to bodhisattvas. This is not doing chores. This is not doing the necessary work to support the "real" work on the cushion. That's not what this is. This is the real work. This is the practice.

A monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does the cypress tree have Buddha-nature?" Zhaozhou answered, "It does." The monk said, "Well, when does it become Buddha?" Zhaozhou said, "When the sky falls to the ground." The monk said, "When does that happen?" Zhaozhou said, "When the cypress tree becomes Buddha."

That is our subject for today.

We are so complicated, and we are always making things worse and harder on ourselves. Every blade of grass has a purpose and a place in the universe. Every cypress tree is Buddha, so why not you? You have your place in the universe already. You are here for a reason. I don't just mean here in sesshin for a reason. I mean that you are born for a reason. Your place is essential. Even with all the failings that you think you have, and all the ways you see that you think you could improve, your place is already clear and simple. All you have to do is take your place.

This is what we do in sesshin. We each have our spot, right? When the bell rings and the han sounds, we go to our place, and we take our spot, and we live our life. We are not even meditating. We are just living our life. Very simple. All the complications can swirl around like leaves in a big wind; but if you sit there long enough and keep on occupying your place, all this will settle, and your life will be very clear. Even if it seems like it will never settle, it's clear anyway, and there is a person in there who is clear, even in the midst of your confusion. If we stay in touch with that person through our practice, even in the midst of tremendous difficulty, we are staying in touch with our true heart, and eventually things are going to settle, even if it takes a really long time. Even if it is a lot of work.

So our practice, our life, is very, very simple. To practice is not to avoid the problem of being human. Practice could be used as a very sophisticated denial system, but this is not what we are trying to do. To practice is to fully confront and embrace the problem of being human. Maybe we are just balancing our lives so that we are living in our body, living in our breath, living in our heart, living in our mind, living in our perception. We give all of this loving attention, instead of doing what we usually do, raging on and on and on with our complicated thoughts and desires and theories. These things will be there too, but they don't have to be the only thing, and they don't have to completely run us.

We appreciate everything as it is, and also it is something else. We don't know what. But there is a kind of respect here, a respect for each thing's buddha-nature. This painful, raging thought in my mind – it is what it is. But also I understand that it is something else. I don't know what, but I can feel that expanded dimension. And that person that we think we know? She also has an expanded dimension.

Practice helps us focus in a very simple way on each thing, but not as an object. Each thing is an object, so we take care of it that way, but also it is more than an object, so there is a deep respect.

Yesterday I was talking a little bit about the vastness of the Mahayana – the sense you find in all the Mahayana sutras of ineffable vastness of time and space, squeezed into every moment of time and space. That is the secret of our practice. Such a beautiful thing to contemplate and such a beautiful way to live. We don't have to have special or exciting experiences. Each thing moves us in its sincerity, because each thing brings up everything – all that we could ever want or need, right here on each occasion. This means that when we sit on our cushions, the whole world is there. All worlds are there.

In the moment of our sitting, we are the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, because we understand that moment as more than a limited, historical moment in time and space. If you have a lot of problems sitting, you will recall that the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree also had a lot of problems. He suffered a lot, sitting there on his seat. He felt guilty about abandoning his parents and the life that they had chosen for him. He felt tremendous fear and was tormented by demons. He was tempted by his passions, but he kept sitting, and he broke through to awakening. He was illuminated, and in his illumination the whole world was illuminated. That light shines in my consciousness and in yours. So that right now as you sit, you are illuminated by the Buddha's light, no matter what else is happening.

At the end of his commentary to the cypress tree story, Dogen says:

The cypress tree is totally immersed. Because the cypress tree is totally immersed, I make effort. Because I make effort, I am not an object.

We are immersed in our lives, and because we are immersed in our lives, we have to make effort. Everybody is always making some effort. There is no way not to be immersed in life and make some effort. When we are drawn to the dharma and make effort in the dharma, we go beyond objectifying ourselves. We go beyond standing next to ourselves and evaluating ourselves every minute. When we can let go of all those pesky self-evaluations, we can open up our lives. Then we can enjoy our lives as they are.

Another monk came to Zhaozhou and asked, "Does the cypress tree have buddha-nature?" And he said, "Yes, it does." The monk said, "Then when will it become Buddha?" Zhaozhou said, "When the sky falls down to the ground." "And when is that?" "When the cypress tree becomes Buddha."

Now when you first hear a story like this, it sounds like a silly joke – not even a particularly good joke either! You can imagine eight year old kids having this conversation: "Well, just because!" [Laughter] This is one of the endearing features about Zhaozhou. He was so plain and so poor. There were in Zen history really important, impressive Zen masters who made powerful statements through word and deed, or with their staff, or with their shout, or with their amazing phrases that nobody could penetrate. But Zhaozhou was known for his plain and simple responses. That is why I like him so much. He is my favorite Zen master, because he would say things like, "Wash your bowls."

The buddha-nature of the cypress tree and the sky falling to the ground are both quite apparent, if you look at the tree and you look at the sky, but we don't notice them. We think that the sky is overhead, but if we really respected the sky, and if we really respected our own experience – instead of enslaving it to our confusion and desire – we would notice that the sky has already fallen to the ground millions of times every day. And the cypress tree is shining with Buddha's light. Things are as they are, and also they are more than that. You are as you are, and also you are a lot more than that.

So let us, dear dharma brothers and sisters, be a little more open-minded about things. Let's not assume that our typical prejudices are all there is. I am not even saying to drop your prejudices. Probably you need them. They are there for a reason, at least for the time being. I am only saying to notice that there is something more.

So about this second cypress tree story, Dogen says:

Clarify just how the cypress tree has buddha-nature. Is it high or low? What about its life span and physical dimensions? What about its social class and clan? Are hundreds of thousands of cypress trees in one class or in different classes? Does the cypress tree become Buddha, practice, and arouse aspiration for enlightenment? Or does it become Buddha without practice and aspiration? What is the relationship between the cypress tree and the sky? Does the cypress tree become Buddha when the sky falls because the tree-ness of the cypress tree is already sky? If the cypress tree and the sky is so, is that the beginning of things or the end? Investigate all this thoroughly and in detail.

I will tell you one little story. This is a translation that appears in Hongzhi's recorded sayings about his relationship with Dauwei.

When Honghzhi was about to die, he asked Dauwei to take charge of his affairs after death. [Perform his funeral, I guess.] So Dauwei came to him, and he asked, "Is the master [Honghzhi] at peace?" The attendant said, "The master has no disease." Dauwei laughed and said, "What a dull bird!" [Don't you know I am asking about enlightenment state right now? I'm not asking about his body, you fool. What a dull bird.] So master Hongzhi heard this and accordingly responded to him with a poem that had the words: "It is easy for a dull bird to leave the nest, but difficult for a sacred turtle to shed its shell." So together with this poem, Hongzhi left Dauwei a box. There was a warning on the box that said, "When there is an emergency, open this up and look inside." Then he died. Not long after he died, Dauwei began to suffer from painful boils on his back that were leaking and inflamed. He remembered Hongzhi's words, and he looked into the box. He found that it contained cotton flowers, a big box full of cotton flowers. He used them on his wounds, and when he had used up the box of cotton flowers, he died.

That's the story. Hard to believe that it is true, but it is a good story anyway. I guess we are all dull birds sitting here, when we could be doing something much more fun and edifying. Poor Dauwei had painful boils on his back, just before he died, which is a historical fact.

So enlightened masters, unenlightened masters, magnificent turtles, tortoises, and dull birds – I guess nobody escapes the trials and tribulations of a lifetime. But that's okay, because

this is a beautiful life.

Looks like maybe the sun is coming out today, and the sky will light up the trees.

Thank you very much.

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