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By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 02/16/1998
In Topics: Zen Koans

Norman talks about finding happiness by letting go of desire and aversion. He tells us that non-attachment does not mean denying our humanness.The way to be happy, according to buddha, is simple: just let go. If you let go a lot you have a lot of happiness; if you let go a little you have a little happiness; and if you can’t let go at all you will have a lot of misery. The practice of letting go is recommended not because it is a good idea or is morally superior somehow but because it is practical, and, furthermore, it is really the only way. Because whether we let go or not things will slide away and we won’t be able to prevent it. Better to let go and cooperate with the way things are than to try fruitlessly to resist the irresistible shape of reality.

But letting go is hard to do because our human mind persistently wants to hold on; it has an enormous and ancient habit of holding on. In fact, holding on is all we know; holding on is literally us, and we do not want to give ourself up. Letting go feels like death and we are frightened of death because it means the end of us. And actually letting go is a kind of death- it may be literally sometimes death: we have to let go of our life sometime. But actually whether it is what we call death or just everyday letting go it really is death anyway. Every moment we have to die – every moment anyway we do die to this moment of our lives. It is gone and it will never return. If it is a wonderful moment it will go away and if it is a terrible moment it will go away in exactly the same way. Every moment dies to itself and this is how every moment of our lives takes care of itself completely; every moment contains within itself its own perfect resolution. To practice letting go is to participate with this actual moment by moment dying which is life: to let go is to join our life.

This sounds drastic in a way and I know a lot of people don’t like to hear about this kind of thing. Letting go really is dying but dying isn’t just dying: dying is freedom, release, peacefulness. Dying means laying down the burden of our life and going off into the mountains for a big hike, just wandering around, like a cloud. Dying means that we don’t hold onto anything of the six senses- whatever we see hear smell taste touch or think we just appreciate it for what it actually is – we don’t “me” it and try to hold it fixed- we just let it come and go- we allow it to be born and die as it really is being born and dying moment by moment. This is really the kindest way to live and it is the only way to love: to let each thing really be what it is and then to let it go- to let it be free. To try to hold ourselves or our world or another person in place is impossible. Nothing can be held in place. Life is very pressured, very stressful, very burdensome- and this is why- because we are trying mightily to hold in place what cannot be held in place, we are trying to preserve the unpreservable and fix the unfixable. Actually everything has integrity as it is; everything is surrounded by immense space: each of our thoughts, even our miseries, certainly trees and grasses, the sun and moon and clouds, our human body- everything passes and reappears as it is, all of it operating together in a marvelous harmony of freely passing by, if we will only let it, if we will only let go and allow it to be that way in the course of our living.

The life of letting go is the life of freedom, the life of nonattachment. Nonattachment doesn’t mean we are distant from things or have no warmth or no care for things; the word nonattachment is good because it suggests some distance and in love there always has to be some distance- some spaciousness or openness. In ordinary everyday human life there is always some desire- if there weren't any desire there couldn't be any life. But if desire is held onto too strongly it becomes very confining. If there’s too much strongly held desire in our loving then our loving becomes confining too and soon it is no longer love, it turns into dependency, or even antipathy; real love has to have some distance in it, some nonattachment. With the eye of nonattachment we can see that the object of our love can never be possessed, can never be held onto. When I say this maybe it seems tragic to you. In a way it is tragic, tragic if you don’t like it and you don’t want to accept it. But if you 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 not lovable. Any living being needs its own integrity and its own freedom and spaciousness- so there has to be always some distance and nonattachment in loving. And desire, if you study it carefully and very closely, has this aspect to it: desire has spaciousness around it if you will allow it, if you don’t insist on crowding your desire too much. We do crowd our desire as a rule, and then it becomes usually painful because it can never be fulfilled. This is what hungry ghosts are- beings who crowd their desires into a very tight corners and so experience the tremendous suffering of endless unsatisfiable desiring. All addictions are like this- this is the mind of addiction, the hungry ghost crowded desire mind. But if we practice letting go and open up space for our desire and for the object of our desire- allow our desire to be itself and then to go away and allow the object of our desire to be itself and then to go away then we really don't have to suffer and we can enjoy our desire and its object whether we satisfy our desire or not. Actually everything is already letting go- you and I are already let go. So there is no need to satisfy our desire. Sometimes when it is right for us to do so we do- but even then we don’t possess anything. We just enjoy something for a moment and then let it go. So desire can come up and it need not be a big problem.

It’s the same with aversion. Aversion is unpleasant inherently but desire which seems on the surface to be pleasant is also actually unpleasant when it is crowded. You would think that since aversion is inherently unpleasant w e would automatically want to let it go. But actually we don’t; we want to get rid of it or we want to feel badly about it; in other words we recoil against our aversion- we have aversion for it, which means that we just want it to go away right now because we don’t want to feel its unpleasantness. We don’t know how to give it room, let it be, and let go of it. So in a way we actually encourage our aversion by being aggressive toward it. Instead of this we need to allow it, let ourself completely feel the unpleasantness of it, just be peaceful with it, and let it go away. Then aversion is not so big a problem either.

We don’t have to defeat our humanness in order to be happy. Defeating our humanness will not work. It’s like a general sending squadron after squadron of troops on suicide missions against a huge and impregnable wall, trying to breach the wall head on. Instead of this we have to just send a peaceful scout or two to ride slowly along the wall- until the way around it is discovered. It’s necessary to accept the real facts and real consequences of being human. That’s the way to be happy and to help others to be happy.

Blue Cliff Record, case 25: Once the hermit of Lotus Flower Peak held up his staff and showed it to the assembly. He said “when the ancients got here, why didn’t they stay here?”

There was no answer from the assembly so he answered himself, “because it’s not any help for the Way.”

Again he said “What about it?” And he answered himself “with my staff across my shoulder I pay no heed to people- I go straight off into the myriad peaks.”

The other day we were talking about Iron Grindstone Liu, who lived in a hermitage on Kuei Shan. And I was saying that she had done her time at the monastery and had graduated to a hermitage, where she was living a life of peaceful ease. Actually the zen stories are full of such hermits who lived near the big monasteries, so I think it must have been a very usual practice that after you saturated yourself with monastic life until, as Han Shan says, you forgot the road you came by, then you’d give it up- just let it go – and wander off like cloud into the mountains. The Grindstone was like that and here is another hermit, who lives on Lotus Flower peak, where, the story goes, he lived for many years, and whenever someone came around he’d hold up his staff and say- “when the ancients got here why didn’t they stay?”

In Christian monasticism there is a tradition of the hermit. The Christians monastics understood that there are two types of monasticism: cenobitic monasticism, for monks who live together and who make communal life the focus of their practice, and eremitic monasticism, for hermits, who have graduated from the cenobitic life. The cenobitic life is necessary because it teaches you the virtues of kindness and peacefulness; you learn how to meditate, how to get along with others, how to overcome your more gross defects of outer and inner conduct. This is a necessary prerequisite for the eremitic life, which is a life of, as Christians would call it, contemplation of God, or, as we would say, the freedom of everyday suchness. Oddly, in Chinese Zen an image of the eremitic life is Hotei, the big fat Buddha, returning to the market place with a big bag of gifts. Unlike Christian hermits who shunned the world, Chinese Zen hermits weren’t antisocial. They were in their innermost being outside society because they were free of it, but they weren’t antisocial. In any case, as time went on in both Christianity and in Zen the eremetic life gradually more or less disappeared; at first people said, well, no one is ready for it, but later it came to be viewed as a negative thing. Thomas Merton fought for twenty years to convince the abbot of his cenobitic monastery that he was ready for the eremitic life, and finally he did convince him. I think the same thing happened in Zen. Cenobitic practice is very strong and very useful and because it is communal it tends to set up establishments. And establishments are very powerful and have a way of protecting themselves. Anyway, in the old days in China there still were a lot of hermits like the hermit on Lotus Flower peak.

In Zen all monks have to have a traveling staff; it symbolizes the life of the monk, homeless, wandering from place to place to study the Way; in other words, the staff stands for awakening itself. So the hermit means “when the ancients attained awakening why didn’t they dwell in awakening?” For twenty years no one could answer this question so one day he went up to the monastery to see if the monks could answer and when no one could he answered himself: “because it’s no help for the Way.”

I like baseball a lot, and like everyone who likes baseball, I am convinced that life is a lot like playing baseball. You are the batter and there is one pitch after another. If you miss one pitch you forget about it and get ready for the next pitch. If you hit a home run you have to forget about it and get ready for the next pitch. In baseball there is a tremendous failure rate: in any time at bat there are maybe on average four to six pitches; so in ten times at bat there would be maybe fifty pitches. If you hit three of these successfully on average you are doing very well, so in baseball a failure rate of ninety per cent is very good. So you don’t think about it. You are concerned only with one pitch, and that’s this pitch. This is why the awakened ones can’t abide in awakening- if they stay there with the home run they hit last time they're going to miss the pitch that is coming now. Having hit a home run on the last pitch is no help for this pitch right now. In other words, the hermit is telling us, the only way is to let go let go let go, moment after moment. There’s nothing to do know or have. Just be ready to live.

To make the point even stronger and clearer the hermit goes on: what about it? what’s it like? how do you do it? And he answers “with my staff across my shoulders I pay no heed to people: I go straight into the myriad peaks.” “People” here doesn’t exactly mean people- it means sticking to people, or it means the people inside of us, all our delusions, that are sticky. So I just pass by them all- maybe with a smile of a greeting- or a shrug of the shoulders -oh well, too bad- maybe with love – but with some distance- and I go off into the myriad – thousands on thousands of peaks- blue peaks and green peaks as far as the eye can see. I just keep on going until I disappear into the peaks.

So that’s all for today. May we all disappear into the peak of each moment and find a lasting happiness there!