Norman gives the second talk to the Loon Lake 2010 Sesshin on a second koan regarding The Insentient.
The Insentient 2 – Talk 2 Loon Lake Sesshin 2010
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | November 2, 2010
Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
A monk asked Huizong, "Do insentient beings understand dharma when it is spoken?" Huizong answered, "Insentient beings always speak the dharma. The speaking never stops." The monk said, "Well, then why don't I hear it?" Huizong said, "You don't hear it, but that doesn't mean that others don't." So the monk said, "Tell me, who hears it?" Huizong said, "All the sages hear it." The monk said, "Do you hear it?" And Huizong said, "No, I don't hear it." The monk said, "If you don't hear it, how do you know insentient beings understand the dharma?" Huizong said, "This fortunate person doesn't hear it. If I did, I would be equal to all the sages. Then, you could not hear me expound dharma." The monk said, "If so, human beings would be left out." Huizong said, "But I speak to humans, not sages." The monk said, "What happens to sentient beings after they hear you?" Huizong said, "They are no longer sentient beings."
This is another story about sentient beings and insentient beings, like the one that we were studying yesterday. This is very unusual religious literature, don't you think? Really not like most scriptures. You have to wonder, "What are they trying to tell us here? Or are they trying to tell us anything? Maybe they are just trying to confuse us so that we can finally shut up and give up all of our usual attempts to understand something."
We have to ask, "What is a sentient being, anyway? What is sentience?" Well, to be sentient is to have the power of central perception, to be conscious, to perceive, and to be aware of your perception. That's, technically speaking, what sentience is. So usually we would say that animals are sentient, and plants are not sentient. With sentience comes mobility and choice. At a certain level of complexity, sentience becomes sentient of its own sentience, and there is perception of a self that is being sentient. Self-consciousness. Then, right away, there is language. There is being human and all the special joys and sorrows that go along with that.
That's all fine and good, but why would we really need to think about that? What does it really amount to for our lives? Did you ever really investigate what is perception anyway? We hear something, we taste something, we see something; but if you investigate this carefully, you will see that hearing something is very doubtful. What is really going on when you hear something? Where is the hearing coming from? Where is the sound coming from? The more you investigate this, the more it becomes clear that ultimately there isn't anything to hear, that there is some element of illusion in the middle of hearing. The same with seeing and all the other senses. It's not that it's a dream and nothing is going on. It's just that what appears to be going on is probably not what is going on. Maybe you understand that what is going on is that your own mind is being activated – that is what you are actually perceiving.
So in a very literal sense – and you can experience this – the object that you are hearing is actually yourself. You are, at that time, the hearing, and the hearing is you. You realize that others are your self, and you are them in the moment of apprehending, of perceiving that other – the hearing or seeing or sensing another. It really is yourself that you are seeing and hearing, and your self, at that time, is nothing other than that other. The whole world is like this. You are the world. For you, the world is your self, and your self is the world.
So maybe if we did this investigation, we would have a deeper appreciation of what we heard from Dongshan yesterday, when he said to Yunyan, "I don't hear your teachings." Maybe this is what he meant. I am serious. Please do investigate your acts of perception. It's very quiet around here this week. You don't have so much to do. So you could make a discovery. You could take some time to investigate what is actually going on in seeing and hearing and tasting and touching and thinking.
Buddha was a human being, and he gave teachings. He gave teachings for himself, speaking to his own human situation, and he gave teachings for us, who are in the same predicament that he was in. But also he saw that if being human is basically the problem, then the solution is to go beyond being human. This is part of being human. If you are human, you can go beyond being human. You can release yourself from the trap of being human.
So, as I was saying yesterday, it is a tricky thing. We come to practice wanting some relief, some peace. Maybe some knowledge, some insight. We want something, somehow, of benefit to our own lives; but, little by little, as we go on, we realize that our practice is not really about a personal, human need. It goes way beyond this. In a certain way, practice does not solve any of our human problems. It shifts the ground we are standing on, so that all of our problems disappear. Maybe it shifts the ground, and all the problems roll off and fall down somewhere. They don't get solved. They may still be there, but they don't appear anymore as problems. And now we have a whole new set of problems that didn't even appear before, such as, "Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them." What a problem! It's a big problem!
Yesterday I gave you a very profound saying that I hope impressed you. "What is, is. What is not, is not." Today I have an even more impressive saying that I hope you will really take to heart. You ready? "Time is passing." This is a profound truth, and it is always true. There are no exceptions. It is true for sentient beings as well as insentient beings. Time is passing. There are no breaks in time. Time is constantly passing. If you really consider this fact, you will be simultaneously amazed and terrified. Time is passing, even for tiles, walls, and pebbles. This means that every moment dies to itself. As soon as it arises, it is gone. You cannot find any duration. Arising and passing away are simultaneous. That is why there is no seeing nor hearing. That is why we are both sentient beings and insentient beings.
We all know this. This is literally built into our bodies and our emotions. This is what we are. On the one hand, one could say – as we always say conventionally – that we are born, we live for awhile, and then we die. That would be the world's shortest novel. "She was born. She lived. She did a few things. A few things were done to her. She knew some people. They knew her. Maybe. She died." End of novel.
That is the usual story. But on the other hand, we are not born, and we don't die. And this is really true. Elements are constantly being rearranged. Life-and-death flows on, as it always has. That is the dharma.
Please investigate this in your practice. You can do this quite directly. When you sit down, feel how gravity holds you to the earth. It's in your body; it's in the feeling of your sitting down. Give yourself to that holding of the earth. Trust gravity, because gravity is your body. The earth actually is your body. Feel your body as earth. Feel earth as your body. Earth is insentient, and your body is also insentient. But it is also sentient, because in your body there is breath. Breath is spirit. Breath is consciousness. So when you sit, also feel this breath, this spirit, which literally lifts your body up. You are soaring up into space. The only thing that prevents you from flying out of here is your body, which holds you to earth.
Your body is being uplifted by consciousness to the sky and being held by gravity to the earth. If you didn't have breath, if you didn't have consciousness, your body would not be uplifted, and it would fall down, and it would, little by little, sink back into the earth as the elements of it dispersed. It would rejoin the earth where it came from. But as long as you have breath in your body, as long as you have spirit, consciousness, that is not going to happen. Your body will be held up in the dignified way that it is being held up right now.
So be present to that reality, which is the most fundamental reality of your life. Feel it now in your sitting and all day long. Be present with this and allow it to carry you forward into every moment of your life from now on.
"Do the insentient beings understand the dharma?" They are beyond understanding. They speak the dharma ceaselessly, without ever stopping. Which just means, time is passing. "Why can't I hear them speaking?" "I do hear them speaking, and also I don't. " This means that I live their teachings. I am their teachings. They are the process of my body and my perception. But also, wrapped up in my human problems, wrapped up in my human concerns, I forgot. I failed to notice. So I am swimming around in the lake, flailing a little bit, and saying to myself, "I am dying of thirst. Where is the water? Where is the water?"
"Who hears the teachings of the insentient?" "Sages hear it." That part of ourselves that understands who we really are and intuitively appreciates our Buddha-nature. But the trouble with sages is that although they know it, and although they speak it, we can't understand them, because even though they are us, they are so far beyond our human problems that it is incomprehensible. So we can't understand, and we don't yet know that we don't need to understand.
It's funny, you know. I have at this point achieved a sufficiently advanced age. I have spent much of my time wearing Buddha's robe and repeating Buddha's teachings, so that people think that I must know something. It just stands to reason. But this is definitely not the case. I am as confused and clueless as the next person, and if I have any advantage, it may only be that usually I don't mind. So to me it's kind of comical that this being the case, people like you, at this very moment, are listening to me and taking me more seriously than you should.
This is how I actually feel about it, and that's because you already know the teaching of the insentient. This is really true. You have everything you need. You don't need any improvement. You don't need any fixing. When you come to talk to me, you already know what it is that you need to hear from me. You know it already. And if you leave the room feeling satisfied that you have heard something that you needed to hear, it's because it is what you already knew, and that's why it strikes you as worthwhile. It's true!
Speaking dharma by means of speaking dharma actualizes the fundamental point that Buddha ancestors entrust to Buddha ancestors. This speaking dharma is spoken by dharma. Speaking dharma is neither sentient or insentient. It is neither creating nor not creating. It is not caused by creating or not creating. It doesn't depend on conditions. This being so, just as birds fly in the air, speaking dharma leaves no trace. It's just given to Buddha's practitioners.
It's just the gift of our life, of our practice. It's no mystery. It's not something from the exotic east. It is just appreciating the gift of our life and letting go of all our complications. Everything that we think about it is wrong.
Let us investigate these things seriously. On the one hand, everything is perfectly fine, and there is nothing that we need to do. But as long as we are here, and there is nothing else to do, why not deepen our appreciation of the truth? Do investigate your body as you sit. Feel gravity. Feel consciousness illuminating and lifting your body. Do investigate seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and touching. Do investigate the mind, thoughts and feelings as they arise and pass away. But don't do what we usually do, which is to think that somehow the thoughts and feelings are the most important things. One identifies with one's thoughts and feelings, and the idea of one's body. Not one's actual body, but the idea of one's body. Why would you identify more with those things than everything else?
So investigate your thoughts and feelings. See how they arise. See how they pass away. Investigate the ways in which you are a sentient being. See how there is no hearing in the hearing and no seeing in the seeing. Can you see the darkness in the light and the light in the darkness? If you look, it is there. But you have to step back into your looking and beyond your looking. This is not a matter of the usual way that we do things – an extra, outward effort. It is the opposite of that. It is a matter of stepping backward into your life. Or maybe staying still while your life goes forward without you.
What happens at the precise moment when sentient beings hear the dharma expounded?
What does happen? Let's find out.