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Seven from Rohatsu – Talk 1

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 12/02/1996
Location: Green Gulch Farm
In Topics:

A Series of Seven Talks from Green Gulch Farm Rohatsu Sessin, 1996Talk One
2 December 1996 Green Gulch Rohatsu Sesshin Lecture

Welcome to all those people in the practice period who have been here all along and welcome to the old friends returning. It's nice to see all of you. And welcome to new friends. It's good to get together in this old fashioned way. It's almost forty years now, thirty-eight years I think, since Suzuki-roshi first came to San Francisco from a little fishing village in Japan and started sitting with a few people in Soko-ji Temple in Japantown. And so very, very much has happened with our practice since that time, and so very, very much has happened in our lives since that time and in the life of the world.

About thirty-eight or forty years ago maybe there were five or six people sitting Rohatsu sesshin in San Francisco. Then for a long time we had–Zen Center had–one Rohatsu sesshin. Now we have three Rohatsu sesshins at each of the three temples and they're all full of people sitting. But whether there are five or six people or five hundred or six hundred people doesn't make that much difference really. The point is that we are still here sitting. And all over the world, in Asia and Europe and America, maybe in Africa too, I don't know, Zen practitioners are sitting, imitating Suzuki-roshi and Shakyamuni Buddha this week–these great teachers who taught us that this simple practice of just being radically and courageously present with our lives, without grasping anything, without pushing anything away, is the key to bringing forth our humanness in the most beautiful possible way.

So this week we're practicing sitting and walking and standing and cleaning and serving and eating together in silence. And all of this gives us a chance to find our life in a new way, to locate our life more firmly and more clearly than we usually do, because sesshin is such a clear and simple situation. It seems at first different from our ordinary life, and because of the contrast we think of sesshin as something special or extraordinary or difficult somehow. But actually sesshin is very ordinary and it's very easy.

The word sesshin, as I'm sure all of you know, means to gather the mind or to focus the mind, to enrich the mind, to make it available, fully available to us. Usually in our complicated lives in the world our life becomes closed to us. We feel like we just have to put our heads down and barrel through just to get through it, without really appreciating what it is. But in the easy and ordinary life of sesshin we only have to do one or two things and then we repeat these one or two things over and over again, period after period, day after day. And because of this tremendous simplicity and repetition to the point of monotony or boredom we collapse all our ideas about self and time and accomplishment and after a few days of sitting there we don't really know who we are or what we're doing or what's going on. We don't know whether it's the first day of the sesshin or the ninth day or the tenth day or what's what. And this situation being this way helps us to appreciate somehow what our life deeply is, what our life basically is. So the burden of my talk today is just to encourage all of you to relax and not worry and let go of everything and just allow yourself to enter into the spirit, the feeling of the sesshin. Allow yourself to forget about who you are and just be nowhere and nobody.

When I thought of being nobody it made me think of the story of Odysseus in the Odyssey, which I've been reading lately. There's a famous story in there about Nobody. I don't know if you remember the story, but Odysseus and all of his crew get captured by this cyclops, which is a gigantic, one-eyed, people-eating creature, and they're trapped in the cyclops' cave and the cyclops is real happy 'cause he's sorta gonna munch them you know kinda one by one–he has provisions there, fresh food for a while and he's real jolly, cheerful. And of course Odysseus is madly trying to figure out how to get out of this situation. Heh! And Odysseus, you know, is very clever. He's like the ultimate human being, very clever, very smart, but always has problems. So there he is trapped in the cyclops' cave and everybody is getting eaten–usually, I forget, the cyclops eats a number of people at once in a meal, not just one person but maybe three or four. So Odysseus has a plan. He pulls out all the wine from the ship and he gives it to the cyclops and he gets the cyclops pretty drunk. And so the cyclops is very grateful for all this wine and says, "Well tell me your name so that I can give you a guest gift." And Odysseus says, "My name is Nobody." And the cyclops says, "Well thank you very much Nobody, you're a really great person and I'll tell you what my gift is going to be to you– I'll eat you last. I'll eat all the others first and I'll eat you last. That's my gift to you." Nice guy, cyclops.

So, you know, this is all happening in the cyclops' cave on an island on which everyone else is also a cyclops. There are a lot of cyclops neighbors. So the problem that Odysseus has is how's he gonna get out of the cave of the cyclops without alerting the cyclops neighbors to come and help and, you know, imprison him again. So what happens is, while the cyclops is drunk and asleep, Odysseus takes one of the ship's masts and makes a sharp, huge weapon out of it. It's rather gory to explain in really vivid detail–they shove this weapon into the cyclops' eye, blinding him. And he starts bellowing. And of course all the other cyclops from the neighborhood come around and say, "What's the matter in the cave, there? What's going on?" And the cyclops says, "Nobody is here killing me by force or treachery!" And they say, "Well then, just sleep it off." So they all go away. And then Odysseus manages to open up the cave and they leave. And although they escape, they have many problems afterward because the cyclops is the son of a god, who then, in revenge, gives many more problems to Odysseus. So anyway the moral of the story is: Don't drink too much wine and get sleepy or you might lose your eyesight.

And also, the moral of the story is: Being nobody is the best way to escape an impossible situation. And that's what I'm suggesting to you. The best way to be nobody is not, as you would expect, to erase your life somehow, or try to erase your life to eliminate everything one by one or all at once. But the way to be nobody is just the opposite. The way to be nobody is to include everything in your life– to include so much that it spills over the boundaries of somebody– to include so much that it can't be limited by our narrow sense of identity.

Sesshin is about pulling our whole life together– right here into this one body and mind and right here on this little square of black cushion. All of our life, past, present and future, is right here and right now. Our whole life. All our many lives. All of everyone's life. The life of the planet. The life of the stars. All that we are and all that everyone is and was and wanted to be but couldn't be. All our successes and failures. All we wanted and didn't want. All we overlooked and grieved over and lusted over and abandoned. None of that is elsewhere. It's all right here right now on this cushion. So the characteristic of sesshin is that it's pretty intense. Maybe another way to translate the word sesshin would be "to make the mind intense." The word intense has a Latin word behind it, intensus, which literally means to stretch out or to stretch toward. And you can imagine that this word, intensus, probably came from the textile trade–stretching out different kinds of fabric. So sesshin is a stretch. It really stretches us and we have to allow ourselves to stretch out, to go beyond ourselves and to stretch in, to stretch toward ourselves, coming closer and closer in. So in sesshin we have to stretch in this way and we have to find in ourselves the most noble and most dignified person. We have to take our usual everyday sense of ourself in hand, not despising it or dismissing it, but stretching it along, gently but firmly into a wider and a deeper life. Literally, we are all made of stuff of the earth and the stars. Literally, we are all made of history of all the past, and we have to stretch ourselves gently to come into this bigger person.

The word intense is related to other words, particularly intent and intend. So if we have in sesshin a clear and a powerful intention that we encourage and work on, then we will be intent on what we are doing moment by moment, and our life during sesshin will have the kind of intensity I'm speaking of– fully stretched, fully used, solid, noble. And we won't wonder whether our life is real, useful. We will know that it is. And our life might be pleasant, it might not be pleasant, it might include all the things we ever wanted, or it might include completely different things we didn't want or never even thought of. But no matter what, we will know that it's real, we will know that we have been thorough in the living of it and that we have been courageous in the living of it, and really that's all that matters.

Of all the sesshins of the year this one is the most intense of all because it's the one, as I said earlier, that imitates the Buddha's time of sitting under the enlightenment tree. In Japanese we call this annual sesshin Rohatsu. Rohatsu means in classical Japanese twelve-eight, because December eighth, which this year is going to be the last day of sesshin, is celebrated in the far East as the day of the Buddha's enlightenment. So in a way our whole sesshin is a kind of ceremony of enactment of this event and we are all playing the Buddha under the Buddha's tree, enacting an event that happened almost two thousand five hundred years ago. Two thousand five hundred is just one of the many ways of saying right now. Right now, actually, Right Now, as you are listening to words that I am speaking, Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi tree making strong effort for awakening. In each and every one of your bodies, in each and every pore of each and every one of your bodies, there are infinite Buddhas–each one, right now as I'm speaking, literally and actually making this kind of effort. To say that a long time ago a man who is now dead did such and so is clearly a view that is not characteristic of the intensity of sesshin. This is just a conventional view that we come to in the middle of our complicated lives so that we can make appointments and go to the grocery store and so forth. But in sesshin it's pretty obvious that this view is flimsy, that it's a conventional story, an idea. The deeper reality is that it's really, really true that right now, on your cushion, a Buddha is sitting, breathing in your belly, straining right now in your body.

Why should Buddha go to all this trouble? Why did he decide anyway to sit down under that tree long ago and now? I know that you all know very well the story of how the Buddha began his path. Going off from his palace, on three different occasions he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse, and came to understand with a great deal of shock that all of us, himself included, someday will have to undergo these kinds of suffering. I think all of us, sometime or another in our lives, experience exactly this shock, exactly this trauma that the Buddha felt, when we realize all of a sudden for the first time, when we really realize for the first time, that we and all our loved ones, those people in our lives that we rely on, that we trust, all of us sitting here right now in this room, soon will be gone, soon will die. And that this world that we live in, starting with our very own body and mind, is inherently unreliable. I think when we recognize this we are shocked and traumatized as the Buddha was. But mostly we don't experience it, because we want to repress it. It's too hard, too much to actually take in. Eventually I think we all come to see intellectually that all this is so. We all know perfectly well that what I've just said is true. But mostly we continue our whole lives to repress the actual emotional and spiritual experience of this, because, you know, we just can't take it in. In a way you might say that this was the real genius of Shakyamuni Buddha, that he simply didn't repress this human shock, this human trauma. And because he didn't repress it, he actually could open himself to it, he felt that he had to turn his life around. It made him realize that his life was just a life on the surface and that he had no choice whatsoever but to go deeper and deeper into himself. And then there was a fourth visit in which he saw a monk in robes and realized that it was possible to pursue a way out of this dead end. And that's what he did.

What always strikes me with amazement about Buddha was his spirit, his effort. In the midst of this horrible trauma and shock he picks himself up and he says, All right then, I'm gonna find a way to end this human suffering, I'm gonna find a way to turn this around and I'm gonna not stop until I do. It's an unbelievable thing that Buddha had that attitude. I mean, most people would go insane and some do, or at the very least, you know, go home and hide under the covers. That's what I think I would do. I would hide under the covers if I had that experience that Buddha had. And I would never want to come out. Or maybe we would eventually get out from under the covers and be content to live, as Thoreau termed it, lives of quiet desperation. But the Buddha, you know, was too stupid for that. He was very naive in a way, very foolish. He believed somehow in a childlike way that he was going to see through the suffering of old age and death, that he would set out on his path, having no idea of where he was going or how he was going to do it, but just one day leave home and strike out on his own and end this human suffering. What chutzpah, you know. Can you imagine? But that's what he did.

So we have to have a spirit like that too this week, which requires us to be, you know, a little bit more naive and stupid than we might otherwise be. Because we have to actually feel that it's possible, more than possible, absolutely necessary for us to put an end to the confusion and attachment of our lives right now; to find a path toward our deepest selves, to walk that path to the end, discover ourselves there, liberate ourselves, and live a noble life based on that liberation. Over and over again I'm so surprised at how we fail to take ourselves seriously. We don't really respect ourselves, and we repeat to ourselves over and over again notions that we have received from others. That we're not Buddha. That really we can't awaken. That really our life is small and ordinary and limited. But we can't sit sesshin thinking that way. To sit sesshin we have to take ourselves much more seriously than this. We have to really recklessly and stupidly believe that it is not only possible, but even inevitable that we are going to be Buddha. And we need to intend to make that kind of effort to be Buddha right now in this very period of zazen, in this very sesshin. Like Buddha we need to leave everything behind and just begin right now, not knowing how or where we are going.

Please think to yourself in your own words how you can make this kind of vow to yourself. Right now, you might think or say to yourself, Right now I vow with all my heart to be awakened during this dharma talk. Before this dharma talk is over I vow to become Buddha. And, if I don't become Buddha during this dharma talk, then during the kinhin after the dharma talk I vow to become Buddha. And if not during the kinhin after the dharma talk, then in the next period of zazen I vow absolutely to become Buddha. And if not then, then the next period of kinhin or during lunch. I vow that during lunch, during this meal, I will become Buddha and I will not get up from this seat until I have attained full liberation. So each period of zazen, you know, sit down carefully, meticulously, with your posture and your breath and make that vow and actually practice the whole period of zazen with that vow. Should you succeed in realizing that vow then vow to become even more enlightened in the next period. To become enlightened beyond enlightenment and to become enlightened for the benefit of all beings in all world systems. And keep trying to make that kind of effort with that kind of a vow, even though it seems ridiculous and crazy. Because it only seems crazy, you know, from the point of view of our everyday, ordinary life. Because in sesshin life, in a life enriched with thick time and thick space, deeply, deeply in the body, deeply, deeply in the mind, what seems crazy is not at all crazy. It's actually quite sensible.

If you think about this vow in terms of success or failure then it seems crazy. But really there's no such thing as succeeding or failing at this. Success and failure are just concepts that seem reasonable from the standpoint of our narrowness, but make no sense at all from the standpoint of our limitless life. From the standpoint of our limitless life there's only the vowing and the effort and the vowing and the effort and the vowing and the effort without anything at all left over or anything at all left out. Suffering is endless but we are going to end suffering. There is no enlightenment but we are going to become enlightened just like Buddha. If we fail, what the hell, we fail. But of course there's no failure. How could we fail? This is the spirit of the Buddha, this wonderful straight ahead spirit, and this is the kind of spirit we need. And believe me, underneath all our thinking and worrying, lurking there is this spirit in each one of us. You might not think so, but really it's true. If you just stay with each period of zazen you can get the flicker of this spirit shining through around the edges of your thinking, around the edges of your despair or whatever it is that arises in your mind. Don't look for it– that will be ultimately frustrating. Where is it? Can't find it. Don't look for it, rather stay present with what's happening and allow it to come up. Don't let your fear and your confusion keep it from coming up. Because it wants to come up. It naturally wants to come up.

I would like to say some things now about posture and the details of our practice because these things are so very important. And although I know all of you know them it's important to remind ourselves. But instead of talking about it myself I think I'll let Suzuki-roshi talk about them because he talks about them really beautifully in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. So please listen to his words and as you listen visualize or practice the things that he's saying. Practice them now and practice them for the week.

"The most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep your spine straight. Your ears and your shoulders should be on one line. Relax your shoulders, and push up towards the ceiling with the back of your head. And you should pull your chin in. When your chin is tilted up, you have no strength in your posture; you are probably dreaming. Also to gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain your physical and mental balance….

"Your hands should form the 'cosmic mudra.' If you put your left hand on top of your right, middle joints of your middle fingers together, and touch your thumbs lightly together (as if you held a piece of paper between them) your hands will make a beautiful oval. You should keep this universal mudra with great care, as if you were holding something very precious in your hand. [Like a small bird, maybe a nuthatch or one of these warblers that we have out here that are so beautiful and delicate.] Your hands should be held against your body, with your thumbs at about the height of your navel. Hold your arms freely and easily, and slightly away from your body, as if you held an egg under each arm without breaking it.

"You should not be tilted sideways, backwards or forwards. You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head….[This is the] perfect expression of your Buddha nature. If you want true understanding of Buddhism, you should practice this way. These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. When you try to attain something, your mind starts to wander about somewhere else. When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here. A Zen master would say, 'Kill the Buddha!' Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature.

"Doing something is expressing our own nature. We do not exist for the sake of something else. We exist for the sake of ourselves. This is the fundamental teaching expressed in the forms we observe. Just as for sitting, when we stand in the zendo we have some rules. But the purpose of these rules is not to make everyone the same, but to allow each to express his own self most freely. For instance, each one of us has his own way of standing, so our standing posture is based on the proportions of our own bodies. When you stand, your heels should be as far apart as the width of your own fist, your big toes in line with the centers of your breasts. As in zazen, put some strength in your abdomen. Here also your hands should express your self. Hold your left hand against your chest with fingers encircling your thumb, and put your right hand over it. Holding your thumb pointing downward, and your forearms parallel to the floor, you feel as if you have some round pillar in your grasp–a big round temple pillar–so you cannot be slumped or tilted to the side.

"The most important point is to own your own physical body. If you slump, you will lose your self. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body. This is not the way. We must exist right here, right now! This is the key point. You must have your own body and mind. Everything should exist in the right place, in the right way. Then there is no problem….

"But usually, without being aware of it, we try to change something other than ourselves, we try to order things outside us. But it is impossible to organize things if you yourself are not in order. When you do things in the right way, at the right time, everything else will be organized. You are the 'boss.' When the boss is sleeping, everyone is sleeping. When the boss does something right, everyone will do everything right, and at the right time. That is the secret of Buddhism."

So there you go. It's the secret of Buddhism. You're the boss. When you sleep everything sleeps. When you get up everything gets up. When you make a mistake the whole universe makes a mistake. He says that's the secret of Buddhism. So if anybody asks you the secret of Buddhism, tell them page 28, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

"So try always to keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all your activities. Take the right posture when you are driving your car, and when you are reading…. You will discover how important it is to keep the right posture. This is the true teaching. The teaching which is written on paper is not the true teaching. [The teaching that you're hearing in my words is not the true teaching.] Written teaching [or spoken teaching] is a kind of food for your brain. Of course it is necessary to take some food for your brain but it is more important to be yourself by practicing the right way of life.

"That is why Buddha could not accept the religions existing at his time. He studied many religions, but he was not satisfied with their practices. He could not find the answer in asceticism or in philosophies. He was not interested in some metaphysical [experience], but in his own body and mind, here and now. And when he found himself, he found that everything that exists has Buddha nature. That was his enlightenment. Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen, it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism."

So please–today is our first day of sesshin, settling in with our body and mind–think about these two practices I'm suggesting for today: Vowing, developing a powerful, reckless, crazy intention to be awakened right now and to give yourself completely to that, and working meticulously with your posture in each period of zazen, in each meal, in each period of kinhin, during each break and at bedtime, being with your body and holding the mind so that it doesn't wander and wobble. We all went to a great deal of trouble to organize our lives to sit this sesshin. So please think about it and do your best. And the effort of each one of us is benefiting all of us. And I will try my best too. Thank you.