Nomon Tim compares the stepwise psychological process of practice to the unknowable emptiness side. How to hold both together?
I want to again welcome everyone to sesshin. And as I was saying last night I hope we can really invite all sides of ourselves to sesshin. Invite all of us here. The excited one. The scared one. The grumpy one. And let all of those voices be heard.
I want to invite us not to think that because of these august circumstances we are only supposed to bring along the “Zen” version of ourselves: that projected idea of our best self who is calm and collected and grounded. If we do that our practice is not real. Is not complete. We need to invite our real experience forward to this powerful community practice to be truly real and transformational
The question is how we listen to these many voices inside us. What is our relationship to them?
I’m reminded of the Rumi poem that’s very popular in mindfulness classes, probably I’ve quoted it in the zendo before. This poem advocates a kind of radical acceptance of everything.
The Guest House, Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
Maybe you’ve heard and contemplated that poem. What would it be to truly let everything in and greet it at the door laughing?
And it strikes me today contemplating that poem that we’ve probably all had that experience of something really terrible happening. At the time the worst possible thing. And then in the end, with time, realizing that somehow that challenging time or event led to some new opportunity, some new possibility, some new way of being. That maybe it was indeed “clearing you out for some new delight” in the end.
And yet how little we seem to be able to consider that possibility when we’re in the misery of these life challenges.
Here’s a response to Rumi’s poem:
Amy Newell – On Hospitality: A Reply to Rumi
Welcome all the visitors, you say.
Do not put bars on the windows
or locks on the doors. Do not close up
the chimney flue. Duct tape and plastic
sheeting will not keep the visitors at bay.
They’ll pound on the doors, they’ll break
your windows, they’ll breach the barricades
they’ll storm the beach, swarm in like ants
through cracks. They’ll leak like water through
the walls, and creep like mice, and curl like smoke
and crack like ice against the window glass.
Keep them out? It can’t be done, don’t try.
Welcome all the visitors.
Fine. There’s all kinds
of welcoming, however.
I do not have to throw a house party.
I will not post flyers.
There will be no open bar.
No one will get drunk
and lock themselves in the bathroom.
No one will break furniture, grind chips
into the rug, throw anyone else in the pool,
or lose an earring in the couch.
I do not have to run a guesthouse, either.
There will be no crackling fire.
And no easy chairs. I will not serve
tea to the visitors. l will not dispense
ginger snaps and ask my guests
“Did my mother send you?”
“Why must you plague me?”
“Why not stay awhile longer?”
“Who are you, really?”
If I must welcome —and I am convinced I must —
Let me build a great hall to receive my guests.
Like a Greek temple, let it be open on all sides.
Let it be wide, and bright, and empty.
Let it have a marble floor:
beautiful – and cold, and hard.
And should we really simply accept everything as it comes? Accept that it’s there certainly, but how to be gee
Zen seems to be so practical, so psychological, so scientific. If we do the meditation we’ll improve our psychic functioning. We’ll be able to be with all that arises with equanimity. We’ll be more grounded. More clear. More self-aware. Less triggered. And so on.
This is true as far as it goes, but it’s only one part of a rich heritage. And I think the other aspects of our practice are just as central and as important as these apparently sensible psycho-physical processes that we think about when we think about meditation. This whole thing doesn’t quite make sense in that simple a-then-b way.
In our morning service today we chanted the Heart Sutra – that great pithy, dense text on emptiness which is chanted at Zen centers all over the world, and in other lineages too. The Heart Sutra is such a universal Mahayana text. And the heart sutra doesn’t celebrate self-improvement really does it?
The Heart Sutra celebrates freedom from everything. Freedom in everything. Freedom in the senses. Freedom in the mind. Freedom in suffering even. With nothing to attain it says.
We don’t always listen to that part. Nothing to attain? What about attain a more grounded way of being? What about attaining more inner security? What about attaining more peace?
Consider the result of having nothing to attain: with nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance there is no fear.
Not just a more spacious relationship to our fear. No fear. And not that we had fear and then it went away when we heard these great teachings. No fear and there never was any fear.
Does zazen help us see our fear? Actually allow ourself to feel it? This fear we’ve held down in the dark for so long? Does it support us in allowing the scared, sad, worried part of ourself into the room like I was saying last night? Does zazen help us work with our fear? Is it our fear exactly?
Or does zazen help us see there is no real fear after all, nothing that’s really real in that way?
After the Heart Sutra we’ve been chanting an an enthusiastic dedication to prajna paramita, to the Perfection of Wisdom, here personified as a female bodhisattva. “Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the lovely, the holy…” have you appreciated that chant?
Prajna Paramita – wisdom beyond wisdom, the wisdom that knows there is no wisdom in that fixed way that we think about wisdom and wise people and so on. Wisdom that isn’t hindered by any idea, including any idea of “wisdom.”
Our verse is actually a somewhat edited and cleaned up version of the first section of chapter VII in the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 8,000 lines which we studied last October. We didn’t have time in that retreat to appreciate this chapter so I thought this would be a good time for that. And besides we have this intention to really explore our chant books which was a lot of fun in the Fall.
Our text are from words of praise spoken by Sariputra in a conversation with the Buddha
Sariputra: The perfection of wisdom, O Lord, is the accomplishment of the cognition of the all-knowing. The perfection of wisdom is that state of all- knowledge.
The Lord: So it is, Sariputra, as you say.
Sariputra: The perfection of wisdom gives light, O Lord. I pay homage to the perfection of wisdom! She is worthy of homage. She is unstained, the entire world cannot stain her.
She is a source of light, and from everyone in the triple world she removes darkness, and she leads away from the blinding darkness caused by the defilements and by wrong views. In her we can find shelter.
Most excellent are her works. She makes us seek the safety of the wings of enlightenment. She brings light to the blind, she brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken.
She has gained the five eyes, and she shows the path to all beings. She herself is an organ of vision. She disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion. 
She does nothing about all dharmas.
She guides to the path those who have strayed on to a bad road. She is identical with all-knowledge.
She never produces any dharma, because she has forsaken the residues relating to both kinds of coverings, those produced by defilements and those produced by the cognizable.
She does not stop any dharma. Herself unstopped and unproduced is the perfection of wisdom.
She is the mother of the Bodhisattvas, on account of the emptiness of own mark. As the donor of the jewel of all the Buddha-dharmas she brings about the ten powers (of a Buddha). She cannot be crushed. She protects the unprotected, with the help of the four grounds of self-confidence.
She is the antidote to birth-and-death. She has a clear knowledge of the own- being of all dharmas, for she does not stray away from it. The perfection of wisdom of the Buddhas, the Lords, sets in motion the wheel of the Dharma.
What are to make of these two views of our practice?
On the one hand the doing of practice is essential. We need time on the cushion, lots of it, time to unbend, time to settle, time to soften. And just sitting there won’t do for us either. It needs to be wise carefully considered practice. Skillful practice. Guided through our own attention to the what we’re most deeply feeling and learning. Guided by our teachers whom we really need to keep in touch with. Guided by listening to our wisest friends. And little by little we grow and develop. Like lotus flowers come up from the mud.
On the other hand there’s nothing to do. The Perfection of Wisdom is wise because she does nothing about all dharmas. She’s radically okay with things as they are. She moves through reality with total grace and ease. Doing good works for all beings without being caught by beings, or even the idea of there being beings to help.
This is our rich heritage. To hold these two opposites with grace and skill. We need to practice with great care. With extreme dedication. Make our practice the most important thing, the thing through which all efforts and activities are expressed.
And we need to lighten up so completely that there’s nothing left to think or do or hold or be. Enter radically into the womb of the Tathagatha – the birth-light of being.
Here’s a nice way of approaching this balancing act of practice, I’ve been enjoying sharing this teaching from the meditation teacher Dan Nussbaum in some of my classes.
In Meditation You Have Permission:
You have permission to do the meditation practice of your choice, or, not do it.http://skillfulmeditation.org/articles/threeconditions.html
You have permission to do the meditation practice you’ve been doing all along. You have permissionto believe in it or question it or enjoy it or let it take you where it takes you. You have permission to be bored. How else will you ever get to the bottom of boredom? You have permission to try something else.
You have permission to think. You have permission to worry. You have permission to wonder if you’re doing it right.
You have permission to wonder what doing it right means. You have permission to see yourself wondering. Did you start meditation to become a good meditator? You have permission to do it wrong. But if you have permission to do it wrong, how can you do it wrong? You have permission to be bad.
You have permission to remember what it was like to be carefree. You have permission to doubt those memories. You have permission to get back to those memories whether you made them up or not. You have permission to know how you make up memories.
You have permission to go over German verbs. You have permission to think about the different grades of motor oil. You have permission to wonder, How is this meditation? You have permission to note body sensations. You have permission to do something else with body sensations. Love them. Be suspicious of them.Forbid them. Give them meaning. Question that meaning.
You have permission to have feelings. You have permission to need someone, to worry out of habit, to fear vaguely, to feel disgust, to insist on getting things your way.You have permission to let things go on. You have permission to find yourself in unexpected mind states.
You have permission to get lost. You have permission to be curious and interested. You have permission to get transfixed. You have permission to feel calm. You have permission to feel sleepy. You have permission to sleep. How else will you know about waking up if you don’t have permission to be asleep?
You have permission to know yourself in meditation. You have permission. You have permission. You have permission.
By Dan Nussbaum
(advocate of open awareness meditation, no techniques)