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There are No Distractions

By: Nomon Tim Burnett | 06/14/2014
Location: Samish Island, Tassajara Zen Center
In Topics: Zen Koans

1st talk at 2014 Samish Island Sesshin

ONE MORNING by Rosemerry TrommerOne morning
we will wake up
and forget to build
that wall we’ve been building,

the one between us
the one we’ve been building
for years, perhaps
out of some sense
of right and boundary,
perhaps out of habit.

One morning
we will wake up
and let our empty hands
hang empty at our sides.

Perhaps they will rise,
as empty things
sometimes do
when blown
by the wind.

Perhaps they simply
will not remember
how to grasp, how to rage.

We will wake up
that morning
and we will have
misplaced all our theories
about why and how
and who did what
to whom, we will have mislaid
all our timelines
of when and plans of what
and we will not scramble
to write the plans and theories anew.

On that morning,
not much else
will have changed.

Whatever is blooming
will still be in bloom.

Whatever is wilting
will wilt. There will be fields
to plow and trains
to load and children
to feed and work to do.

And in every moment,
in every action, we will
feel the urge to say thank you,
we will follow the urge to bow.

~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Good morning, I’m really grateful to be here and I’m really grateful to each and every one of you for being here. A community springs to life from this sacred ground. A community springs to life from our hearts, from our intention. From our love.

It’s wonderful to stop isn’t it? Just to be. Just to breathe. Just to step out of the frame of busy and trying so hard. To drop all that. We can’t quite explain why this is but of course we do try. 6 talks this week by myself, Michael, and Norman who is arriving tomorrow afternoon.

In case you’re curious he’s coming later this year because he was invited to give a sermon at Stanford Memorial Church – “memchu” I grew up hearing it called. His talk is part of Stanford’s graduation ceremonies. He’s giving this talk just about exactly now and will hop on a flight tomorrow morning. A nice opportunity for him to serve and offer some of our Zen attitude to the brilliant young minds of that place. Maybe he’s also considering with them the peacefulness of just being.

Why would not doing much be helpful? And of course we’re always doing something. So maybe there’s a little confusion in that very idea of not doing. We’re always doing.

We don’t really stop until we die. I recently was with someone who died. There is effort and hard work right until the final minute. Then stopping. Real stopping. It was unbelievably peaceful to sit in the room with her for a few minutes. If her body was still her exactly. I am really grateful to have received that teaching. Maybe it’s essential training to be present at a birth and at a death. How else do we start to know the dimensions of this life?

But probably we won’t have that experience this week. No one is that pregnant or that close to death as far as we know. Maybe we will. But we will also see many births and many deaths in our experience. Sometimes an overwhelming amount of things bubbling up and falling away. Some we like, some we don’t like. Even living this simple life for a week is so full. So rich.

We want it to stop in a way I guess, we hunger deeply for peacefulness and slowing down, but we don’t want it to really stop: we fear the real peacefulness of death. We are funny creatures that way.

And the minute you try to say something about this it’s a little off, a little tangled up. Better to say less probably. The standard joke is “well there was a Dharma Talk on the schedule so we have to give a talk” just follow the schedule if our first teacher at sesshin. But is there anything to be said in these talks?

Our Zen ancestors had some great ways of expressing this. Here’s a story from the Book of Serenity:

As Dongshan was presenting offerings before the image of his teacher Yunyan he retold the story from before about depicting reality. A monk came forward and said, “When Yunyan said, ‘Just this is it,’ what did he mean?”

Dongshan said, “At that time I nearly misunderstood my last teacher’s meaning.”

The monk said, “Did Yunyan himself know it or not?”

Dongshan said, “If he didn’t know it is, how could he be able to say this? If he did know it is, how could he be willing to say this?”

I’ve always loved Yunyan. He’s the one who also gave the wonderful teaching about knowing the one who is not busy. And through various strange circumstances we are in possession of a whole box of books by the wonderful teacher Darlene Cohen on dealing with our busy mind more wisely that is based on that case as we mentioned last night. I hope you take home a copy of that book and read it after sesshin.

In our story Dongshan is a teacher now and he’s remembering his teacher Yunyan’s teaching phrase, “Just this is it.” I love his humility. One of his students asks about that teaching and Dongshan says, “I didn’t get it at first.”

His student goes on with a very wise question, “Did Yunyan himself know it or not?” Meaning is there anything to get anyway? Is there some phrase, some teaching, some wisdom that’s a something that we can get, that we can understand, that we can know? We conventionally think that way of course. But is that really how it all works?

Dongshan brings up both sides of that: there is a kind of knowing but that knowing is without a separate kind of knowledge. Knowing without knowledge might be a way to describe it. “If he didn’t know it is, how could he be able to say this? If he did know it is, how could he be willing to say this?” If you know it you know it can’t exactly be said in a way.

But we have to say something, we have to do something, we do need some method, some way to work with his mind and heart. Our main method this week looks like it’s zazen – seated meditation. Of course we are doing lots of other things, but I think “zazen” appears most often on our schedule. What is our goal in zazen? What is it we hope for?

The word for this week of ritualized life is sesshin. Sesshin is composed of two characters: “setsu” and “shin” – this in the odd Sino-Japanese concoction which is the way the Japanese pronounce Chinese characters when they’re referencing them as Chinese. Kind of Church Latin in a way. Setsu means to touch or make contact with. Shin means heart or mind, heart and mind. To touch the heart. To touch the true mind.

All kinds of experiences arise in sesshin but somehow as we settle there is some kind of contact with something. How that shows up as subjective experience is all over the map of course, how could it not be? We look like we’re more or less the same and more or less doing the same thing here but of course we are all at the head of our own karmic trajectory, pushed along by our past, our habits, our tendencies the collection of thoughts and emotions that we string together into some more or less coherent idea of “me.” So each “me” meets this contact with the heart and mind differently.

When I started practice there was a kind of ban on talking about your meditation experience. The idea was we’d just confuse each other because our experiences are so different. Someone might describe an experience you find desirable and that would trigger all kinds of stuff. Better to say nothing. Also implied I think was that the wise Zen masters should be told as they can take it all in with complete equanimity. I think we hold this a little more lightly now.

We can trust each other to have a little equanimity! Our varied meditation experience isn’t exactly a secret, but it isn’t exactly all that interesting to talk about either. Some things may be really helpful to share and helpful to say out loud to explore our patterning. And it can be profoundly helpful in releasing from our projections to hear a little about the foibles of other minds in meditation.

Funnily when I teach the mindfulness classes it’s the opposite: we do talk quite regularly about meditation experience. And that speaking out meditation experience is a practice itself. It’s a practice of describing to yourself and others experience as experience. Releasing as best you can from judgment, from summarizing, from twisting experience into future goals and past regrets. Just to talk simply and honestly about it. Here’s what I noticed. Here’s what I felt. To identify less tightly with it. We don’t need that “I” in there really: where’s what arose, here’s what happened. We don’t do that so much in Zen but internally we are talking to ourselves all the time about it right? So who do we talk to ourself about our meditation experience?

How do we approach this desire for settling, for contact with something. How do we work with our love of that expansive open feeling that comes sometimes. What about when that’s not happening? What if we feel overwhelmed instead? What if we feel resistant? What if we are just too tired? What if we just hurt? What if we get really stuck in something.

Does Yunyan’s practice of “just this is it” apply to meditation that doesn’t feel remotely like meditation?

I received an interesting list of likely meditation states from one of my teachers recently, I’m not sure where she got it, but it seems helpful.

There are 10 categories of experience in this scheme and I saw it presented as a kind of wheel with one moving into the next and back around. I don’t know that it’s always that simple but the idea of a wheel matches our experience here I think. This sense of going around and around in some way.

1st is Contact – this is what we want. That contact with the moment, with the heart, with this place, with each other; contact with peacefulness and connection. Just being present is a kind of experience of contact.

2nd is Expansion – the heart opens, the narrow feeling of “me” opens up wide, ahhhh. Wonderful. Big meditation experiences for all their joy and ultimate confusion are here. Usually the moment we get excited about Expansion and try to hold onto it it’s gone.

3rd is Overwhelm – that openness lets a lot in. Floods of emotion. Difficult memories. Worry. Pain. Why are they saying it’s peaceful to sit here? It’s horrible. Overwhelm can be so challenging. Of course we try to let it go, we return to the breath in the belly, we try not to add fuel to the fire. We seek relief. Sometimes there is no relief. Overwhelm is overwhelm. Maybe we can be with overwhelm with some awareness. And somehow even here “Just this is it” – it’s just overwhelm.

4th is Distraction – the mind just won’t settle. The famous monkey mind. We hardly know where we are and what’s happening. The bell rings and we’re surprised and maybe a little ashamed. Another good zazen period wasted. Sometimes distraction has an enticing creative quality to it – that’s kind of nice, I remember my neighbor at the Tassajara zendo telling me he’s written some wonderful plays in his mind during zazen – other times it’s just noise. So random. Where did that come from? Distraction, distraction, distraction. “Just this is it”?

5th is Unconsciousness – we go to sleep. We check out. Our body is still here, but we are gone. Vague states we can’t quite put a name on. Something almost remembered. People often come to the dokusan room looking for an escape from sleepiness. Sometimes we need to sleep. There’s an essay on giving yourself permission to have all of your experiences in meditation where he says “you have permission to go to sleep, how else will you learn about waking up?” Can we sleep with Yunyan’s “Just this is it”?

6th and 7th are Avoidance and Rejection – we want out of here, and we are totally justified in wanting out of here because this whole thing is messed up. This mushy, vague, Soto Zen retreat is not working for me. The food is wrong. The cabins are too funky. Norman’s pretty good but I don’t know about these other jokers. I have so much to do, what am I doing wasting time here? Can we recognize this as avoidance? What are we trying to avoid? Can we recognize rejection? And even here even in the middle of the mind actively trying to wriggle out can we again breathe with “just this is it?”

The 8th and 9th meditation states in this system are Feeling Fake & Numb. This is the flip side of Avoidance and Rejection in a way. Here the problem isn’t the sesshin, the problem is me. I’m not doing it right and I’ll never learn how to do it right. I’m faking it and they’ll find out sooner or later. Maybe some projection: she’s such a great meditator, I’ll never be as good as her. And a strategy for dealing with this might be to just go numb. Who cares really. I like the talks so I’ll just sit here and suffer all day until then. This numbness is it? Don’t think so. So interesting to see if we can bring up awareness in this state.

And of course they get all mixed together, we’re distracted and don’t get up to go when the han sounds. I’ll be late anyway, my body hurts, I think I’ll stay in my room. And so on. And of course these examples are a bit of a caricature – these experience states may be arising in much more subtle ways. We can use them as a kind of exploratory tool if we like. Is there contact here? Is there expansion? Are there moments of overwhelm? Was I hanging out in distraction for a while there? Am I resisting the full possibility of setting my stuff down? Is there avoidance and rejection bubbling up? As I look at the buffet table is there a flash of annoyance or rejection which I usually ignore and drop back into my breath? Is there a numbness or the self-doubt of being a fake. These states can be quite brief and subtle too, but the idea here is that there are still interesting and worthy of our kind attention.

Then 10th meditation state is Intention. This is seen as a very powerful state in Buddhism. A quality of mind that can turn the wheel right round. Accessing a sense of Intention is how, on the one hand, we can bring our subjective experience right back around to Contact and Expansion, that’s nice, but more importantly we cultivate the Intention to be with all of these states as the practice. We take Yunyan’s teaching seriously. We honor that all states are simply what’s happening and we can turn towards even the most unpleasant state with awareness, with kindness, with patience.

So we have this kind of driver of Intention, why are you here at Samish this year? What’s your intention? It’s a little different from goals or hopes. It’s less about outcome and more about direction. Which way are you moving in this life. Intention has a quality of turning towards, of opening. Maybe it’s a kind of ambition that’s liberated from desire and clinging.

The idea here is there are no distractions. Everything that happens is practice, is path. And if we don’t like something and want to exclude it from our sesshin experience maybe if we’re lucky we’ll catch ourself. Maybe we can see it for what it is, maybe we can breathe with “just this is it”? Maybe some words from this model of 10 experiences or some other model will come to mind to support us?

We don’t think this way usually, though do we? We have this idea of distractions and all of the aspects of ourself and our experience that we would like to get rid of. Distractions can’t be meditation, distractions are the enemy of meditation.

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