On Creating American Zen
John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland
During the recent Great Summer Sesshin, we introduced the first installment
of our reworking of the CDS Sutras and Services. This is an ongoing
labor of love, and it's our sense that, over time, we'll find out what
works and what doesn't, what we leave behind without residue and what
wants to re-emerge.
The changes so far are a new translation of the Four Boundless Vows;
two new dedications for the morning chanting service; a new meal service;
and the addition to the afternoon readings of a new translation of
Shitou's "Taking Part in the Gathering" (the Sandokai) and
our first inclusion from the Western wisdom tradition, Rilke's "Ninth
Duino Elegy". We'll be reworking the end-of-evening and end-of-sesshin
services as well, in time for the October sesshin. We intend to add
more selections to the afternoon readings as time goes on, including
a new translation of the "Jewel Mirror Samadhi" and more
western works. And we'll be looking at the Refuge Ceremony with an
eye to the ceremony at Rohatsu sesshin this year.
What we can't convey in these printed words is the beauty of the new
musical settings Rich Domingue is creating for many of the chants.
These settings bring in the kinds of melodies and rhythms we as westerners
have known all our lives, and so have the power to touch us in deep
In both the written and the musical work, we began with a simple question:
What is this for? What is the purpose and meaning of a dedication?
A particular chant? The new words and music arose out of a desire to
get back to the root intentions of the tradition, and to discover ways
to express them in a genuinely western idiom.
Following are some excerpts from the talks we gave during the sesshin,
introducing the new liturgy.
On Messing with Tradition
John Tarrant: At one point in my own training, I decided I'd try to
really understand instead of just spitting out the Japaneseness of
the tradition. I'd try to get really good at all the picky details.
And then after being a teacher for a while I just couldn't do that
anymore. It didn't seem to match my experience of the openness and
the heartfelt quality of the dharma. Getting on people about which
foot they stepped into the dojo with -- I just stopped caring about
that. I thought that if you've honestly tried to go into something
and then live it-- if you've gone back to the source and had the experiences
that the ancestors were talking about -- then with some caution and
perhaps some daring we can start to re-dream the forms and the language.
I think that's the project we're doing; we go back to meet the ancestors
themselves and ask, what do you think about the dharma in the West?
And they say, Oh, why don't you try sitting outside for teisho with
a fire burning in mid-summer. It will at least be a weight loss program.
But let's experiment. Some things seem obvious and successful, but
part of experiment is that we'll do things that won't work or won't
work for enough people, and I'd like us to have a kindliness with that
-- play and chew things and then make your own contributions of language
and thoughts Zen is great in not making its own belief system a delusion;
it keeps letting go of the fixed things.
Joan Sutherland: I'm concerned that this doesn't get reduced down
to something it's not. There's no question that we're iconoclastic,
but that's not all we are. The impulse wasn't just change for change's
sake, which is why we include Shitou's great and ancient work as well
as the new things. It's my perhaps rather annoying desire to say, Look,
here's something that I've found so beautiful and helpful, and perhaps
you will, too. With even the new things, maybe especially with the
new things, it's an expression of my gratitude. At some point I realized
that my job as a zen teacher, my obligation, was to make new and interesting
mistakes and present them for your consideration. I think somehow we'd
be letting you down if we didn't...What we're doing is passing through
our fingers a golden thread that's been running for a very long time,
and will run a long time after us. I'm not too worried, really, about
our impact on it.
Susan Murphy: What comes down to us is certainly a gift. Yes, the
gift must be passed on, but one thing that Lewis Hyde makes very plain
in his book The Gift is that the gift is at least a three-way move.
It comes around the corner, out of the dark, and when we let it go,
we don't know where we're letting it go to. We let it go again around
the corner, out of our sight. And that's what fertilizes the darkness
and the flow of the gift: the not-knowing. Trying to keep hold of every
single thread of the tradition is slightly futile, slightly poignant,
too, and it doesn't quite trust the indirection of the passage of the
gift. There's something here about allowing that unexpected surprise
and the not-completely-knowing aspect of inheriting the gift.
John Tarrant: We're looking for a high degree of transparence and
simplicity in the translations. I don't think we always achieve it,
but that's the point. We're trying to be fairly faithful to the tradition
and at the same time bridge to the kind of lives we lead. I do think
that this is an ongoing process, an organic thing that I don't think
that two people can just sit down and completely do a liturgy. I think
it's good for everybody to participate, and in a certain sense feel
your way into what you think the dharma means for you, and whether
these words express that. So I suppose that's the big question that
we always have to put our chests and our bodies up against: What is
your actual experience? What do you hope for? What do you taste and
know with your own hands and your own tongue and your own nose and
your own feet? And how do these words match the simplicity and ordinariness
of it as well as the grandeur of it?
The Sandokai says, "When you let these words in, you encounter
the ancestors." I think what he's saying is that if you go through
these words into where they come from, you'll meet the ancestors face
to face. The next line is, "Don't limit yourself to your own small
story." The literal Chinese is "not set up own compass/ruler." Don't
judge it by the story you already have in your head. Don't compare
it. Don't put your ego on it. In other words, don't get stuck with
the words; don't limit yourself. That's the wrong kind of identification
with the universe. Don't make your own rules, people often say. But
it seemed like his project is more democratic than that. He's not saying;
Listen to me because you're stupid. He's saying, Let go of the ego
story, what Joan calls the small story. He's saying, do make your own
rules, but in the deepest way. Understand it for yourself, by letting
the words draw you so that you fall through into the shining reality
itself. Bang! Like that.
This is the second installment of our comments on the Liturgy Project,
a re-imagining of our sutras and services. During the great autumn
sesshin we introduced two new ceremonies, one for the close of each
evening and the other for the end of sesshin. Once again Rich Domingue
worked with everyone on the morning chanting service, which is already
evolving in a beautiful way beyond the changes we initially introduced.
Joan on Translation
I thought it might be helpful to say something about the way John
and I are working on the new translations, a project whose foundation
was laid about twenty years ago, long before we knew each other. When
I was a graduate student, the abbot of a Rinzai temple came over from
Japan to teach for a short time in my department. In what turned out
to be a seminar of one, he'd review my translation of the great koan
collection, the Gateless Gate. After awhile I realized that the focus
of his meticulous remarks wasn't really my knowledge of Chinese grammar
and vocabulary; he wasn't editing my scholarship, but my understanding
of the world the koans opened into. He was trying to give me the very
heart/mind of the text. "Not that, this" he'd say, and the
whole thing would fall open before me!
As John and I work together on the Liturgy Project, we've come naturally
to our own blending of scholarship and the koan way. For each piece
of work, I do a literal, word-by-word translation. Then we live with
that for a while; I muse on it as I drive in the car, meander through
other people's translations and commentaries, dream about it when I
sleep. After awhile we sit down together and go through the piece phrase
by phrase, asking two interrelated but distinct questions, one scholarly
(What does the original Chinese actually say?), and one from the realm
of the koans (What is saving all beings, I wonder?). What does it mean,
and what does it MEAN? Then a long, dreamlike phase of effortless communion
and argument ensues. Interestingly, we've never compromised; we stay
with each piece until something emerges that we both think is exactly
In the koan way, it's lovely to understand something, but eternity
itself is made visible when we articulate the understanding in a way
that brings it alive for someone else. We spoke in the last article
about transparency as a virtue for the language we choose, meaning
that we hope the reader will be able to see through the words to the
eternity behind. In the other direction, eternity only appears through
the common vehicle of particular minds, particular expressions of the
timeless voice. When, after much thought, we choose "heartache" to
translate kleshas, which is usually rendered as "hindrances" or "passions",
we're attempting to allow the transparency to work in both directions,
to allow our own experiences, our own sensibilities, to vivify the
John and Joan on Liturgy
When we set out to re-imagine the liturgy, we began by asking ourselves
some questions: What are the ingredients of a good ceremonial service?
What is the purpose of a service? What are the different modes of a
Buddhist service? What do we already have that is good? What features
could we borrow that would ground us because they are originally American
or European or African, and so would sink directly into our souls?
What features seem archetypically true for human beings meeting together
in ceremony? We decided that we want a service to do several things:
To evoke a ceremonial connection with the sacred; to open the heart;
to teach the wisdom tradition; to root us in place, connecting us with
each other and with our ancestors; to embrace time, the hours of the
day and the seasons of the year. Here is our first list of the elements
of a service.
To enter a ceremony, there's always purification, a confession, a
casting away of the accumulated delusions that cause us to suffer.
Every tradition has some form of purification. The Catholics have the
Confetior, which begins, "I confess to almighty God..." Judaism
has a highly developed purification in the Day of Atonement, and Islam
has the fast of Ramadan. Smudging with sage is a Native American custom
that has become general. A purification announces our readiness for
the sacred to appear, declaring something along the lines of: Well
I know I'm not perfect, and here I am. I come without vanity. I choose
this, my own flawed life, since, even if is is full of error, it is
real; it is what I have to work with. I place my ancient twisted karma
on the altar in order to enter the world where Antonio Machado dreamed
that "the golden bees/were making white combs/and sweet honey/from
my old failures."
In taking refuge, we say that, once our hearts are opened by the purification,
there is a way for us to follow, and that way will sustain us. In the
Buddhist tradition we name the elements of that way as the Tao, the
teachings and methods of meditation, and the companionship that holds
our practice. Together these make a harbor. It's good to sing this
chant, because in hard times we might forget its truths. John remarks, "As
I was singing the refuge vows to Richie's waltz setting, they went
deep into my heart. I've chanted the refuge vows in many traditions,
but I realized that I'd always held them off without even being aware
that I was doing that. Now the music carries them near; they are to
do with my life, they are full of promise and danger."
Testament Of Faith
Then there's a necessary statement of faith and knowledge. In Judaism
we have the Shema, and in the Catholic Church, the Credo. In Zen it's
the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is our description of reality from
the point of view of the meditator. It only makes sense if you enter
sacred time and space. It encourages meditation and also the arts of
life since it says that the world of flesh and blood is exactly the
world of spirit and eternity. A visiting Catholic priest asked a Rinzai
master, "What is the Heart Sutra about?" "Don't worry," the
master replied, "It's just an old sutra."
Warding Off Misfortune
Next we have a dharani to ward off misfortune, a shamanic chant, which
brings in something from the ancient layers of the psyche. This is
the most plainly irrational moment in a traditional Zen service. It
can't be translated because it is the pattern of sounds that's important,
not the meaning. And even there we're deep in the realm of the unknowable,
because what we chant are our western pronunciations of a Japanese
transliteration of the Chinese, which itself was a transliteration
of the Sanskrit. This chant evokes the power of meditation to protect
us and lay down a path through the dark.
A dedication goes in many directions. First it offers the accumulated
virtue and power of the meditation to others. A dedication is an act
of magic, a transfer of energy from here to there, or everywhere. We
receive something from meditating together and we want to keep the
gift circulating. At the same time we call down the ancestors into
the middle of our lives, assuming that they want to come and be near
and aid us, acknowledging that what we do is their activity that they
depend on us and we on them. And we thank the ancestors. Ancestors
might be those who taught us the meditation path and are gone now,
but all those who bent towards us to ease our way count--an aunt, a
third-grade teacher, a sympathetic boss. These are our benefactors
and mentors. There is also the tree of long communion, the mountain,
which suddenly begins to dance, and the earth, which is itself alive
and our greatest benefactor.
Our chant of Hakuin Ekaku's "Song of Zazen" is another testament
of faith as well as a description of the method--meditation, meditation,
meditation. If the Heart Sutra lays out the promise of meditation,
the Song of Zazen reminds us of what it looks and feels like in our
own lives to be coming into relationship with that promise. It is the
joyful embodiment of the shining Mind revealed in the Heart Sutra.
When It's Hard
We include Torei's "Bodhisattva's Vow" because it's the
one place in the traditional liturgy that acknowledges that our relations
with each other are sometimes a mess. It allows us to be honest about
that, and it offers a method for dealing with the shadows when they
appear. It's the Zen version of an attitude adjustment, reminding us
that the wisdom path endures and that the mess itself can be a gate
into that path. Although it can strike us as sentimental, it's one
of the few places where the path of surrender and love is celebrated-and
that from a master of the koan tradition.
Asking For Help
The Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo, a chant in honor of Guanyin, is the nearest
we come to an outright prayer in the service. As the feminine embodiment
of compassion, Guanyin holds a place similar to Mary's in Catholicism,
and in this chant we ask for her blessing and acknowledge our desire
for her help. This is the chant we sing to welcome the newborn and
ease the dying on their way. Joan remarks, "Rich's musical setting
of this chant captures the sense of open-ended yearning that a Zen
prayer might be: We simply ask, for ourselves and for others, and the
asking is enough."
The second dedication is the Kaddish, a remembrance of those who are
gone. Here we acknowledge that we are mortal and those we love disappear--and
that even apart from that there are losses. We have expanded the sense
of remembrance to include people who are ill, suffering, at war--in
other kinds of difficulty--so that we have the opportunity to offer
our meditation for them as well. It's tremendously important that we
not sit separate from the world, but that we sit in the world, and
that everything that's going on in Chiapas or East Timor right now
is here with us. When we bring this awareness into a retreat, the retreat
changes. The perspective opens up a bit and we tend to break open our
own story to include the stories of others. A greater kindness, a deeper
sense of gratitude, is in the air.
The Final Blessing
The service ends with the Four Boundless Vows, which lead us back
into the world. The vows are full of impossibility and beauty. You
can't actually get from ignorance to wisdom, and yet we do it every
day; you try again and again without success, and then suddenly you're
through the gate. Life rests on a mystery that is nearer than our opinions
about that mystery. The mystery itself will bless and sustain us, and
we will find ourselves able to extend its beauty to others.
The Four Boundless Vows
I vow to wake the beings of the world
I vow to set endless heartache to rest
I vow to walk through every wisdom gate
I vow to live the great Buddha way
There was a man who went from South Central Los Angeles back to Mexico
to find the place of his ancestors. The village was gone but he followed
the traces up into the hills. The people were thin and living in caves
and farming the poor land there. There was not enough corn so they
ground dirt with the flour to make tortillas. But they kept the ceremonies
alive and they told each other, "Dance or die."
The Dharma is not something that displaces the ordinary beauty and
mistakes of life-it is inside them. Emptiness is not what happens when
we get rid of life, it is what we become aware of when we have more
life. We might say that as we have more awe we have less reason for
So this is the heart of the liturgy project that we have been working
on-we dance or we die. We are bringing the Dharma out of the museum
into the middle of our lives. And it's not completely manageable by
us-it's alive and goes where it wishes. That is what we are all doing-dancing
and dying, dancing so that our souls don't die before we do, dying
to our hindrances so that we are free to live.
This is what our liturgy project is about. We are making ceremony
and translations and poems for times of day and seasons of the year,
the times and seasons of our life. Our installment this month touches
on the four vows of the Bodhisattva-the vows that take us over troubled
waters to the other side.
This time we want to begin talking about our new translation of the
Four Boundless Vows. As we've said, the vows are full of impossibility
and beauty; they both evoke the mystery upon which our aspirations
rest and lead us directly back into the world. And so we decided we'd
chant them in English rather than Sino-Japanese, and that we'd try
to find language that was simple and genuine, the language of our everyday
lives, so that our experience of making vows is not something we hold
separate, but is deeply felt, so that the mystery might shine through
There's a beauty in voicing this ancient chant in Sino-Japanese; it
connects us back through time, and it can be an expression of the huge
element of the mysterious in what we do. In our practice, there's so
much that happens in the dark and is private and quiet, and we don't
know very much about it at all. Maybe for years we don't know; maybe
we never know. Chanting in a language we don't understand is a kind
of acknowledgement of that quality in our practice. But we came to
believe that the Vows, through which we make our promise to the world,
is a place for clear expression, because then we come face to face
with the mystery of what the Vows actually ask of us, rather than layer
on the mystification of a foreign language. What it means to each of
us to wake the beings of the world or walk through every wisdom gate
are deep enough questions on their own.
The important thing we've learned is not that we have to chant the
Vows in Sino-Japanese, but that we recognize the importance of having
portals through which the mystery can come in. There's no intrinsic
value in mispronouncing the Vows in a foreign language-it wasn't foreign,
after all, to those from whom we inherited our tradition-but it is
important that we have in our practice and our ceremonies these portals,
these cracks through which the light can enter in unexpected ways,
and we've tried to allow for that entering.
The Four Vows are a response to the Four Noble Truths, the core belief
of Buddhism. In Chinese they come down to just four words: suffering,
accumulation, extinction, way. In other words, suffering is an inevitable
part of life. Suffering is caused by the accumulation of difficulty,
vexation, blind passions, kleshas, impurities, hindrances-whatever
word you want to use. It is possible to end this accumulation, and
this practice is a way to do that. The Mahayana move is to say, what
must we do about these truths? Knowing these truths, what's our relationship
with the world? Okay, there's suffering. Let's help; let's wake things
up. Suffering is caused by the accumulation of bad stuff; let's set
it to rest. And so let's take every opportunity; walk through every
wisdom gate to do that. Here's this way and it looks pretty good, it
seems to help, and so let's take up this way.
The Four Boundless Vows
These are the vows of the bodhisattva, the one who wants to awaken
the whole planet, to wake up with the planet. And we take vows also
for ourselves because they open the path ahead of us. These are the
vows of the journey of life as a pilgrimage of consciousness. "Boundless" always
associates for me with kangaroos for some reason. This may be just
peculiar to me. But "great" isn't quite it because there's
something about "limitless" that needs to be included in
the meaning. So "spacious", "grand", even. That
sense of transcendence is in the title, that sense of going beyond.
And impossible. They are the four vast vows of the bodhisattva.
The first line is, "I vow to wake the beings of the world." The
turning word here is "wake". It was interesting to go back
to the original and find that there's one reading of the word, which
means to ferry across, and that's how you get "save" in a
lot of versions. But another variant is "to un-delude". Isn't
that wonderful? I vow to un-delude the beings of the world. When I
think about saving myself, that's abstract, but to un-delude myself,
yeah, I can put my hands around that. The cleanest and most poetic
equivalent we could come up with for that was "wake."
When making a choice like this we go to the original. We also go into
our own experience of the dharma. The experience of being saved wasn't
it for me, but the experience of waking was close. Being saved has,
for me; the sense of the raft taking us over the perilous waters and
that is an earlier stage than awakening-perhaps it is the stage of
finding the practice, discovering that we can do a practice and that
it will open a way for us.
Being saved is a good thing but it is not the same as being awake.
There was an old Zen teacher who would lie in bed every morning and
call aloud to himself, "Master!" "Yes!" he would
reply. "Are you awake?" "Yes, yes!" "Don't
be deceived by others!" "No, no!" That was his way of
chanting the first of the boundless vows. Waking is the experience
of things clarifying. With awakening, we can see what we couldn't see
before. What was foggy isn't foggy any longer.
Somebody from Tucson said a great thing about this at a retreat. She
said, "I realize that I'm in a more spacious box than the last
box I was in, but the way I realize it is by those times when I'm outside
even the bigger box, when I'm not in a box at all." The bigger
box is being saved, having no box, no deep commitment to one's personal
story, that's stopping out of the confinement altogether. That's the
wakening. When we wake we're really one with the current of life and
everything is very clear. And then, of course, we're not clear again
and we don't know how to return to clarity.
When it's dark again, it's hard and dark and difficult, but when we're
outside the delusion, we've awoken and it's clear. We are in a different
realm. There's a lot more space and a sense of transcendent connection.
When we vow to wake the beings of the world, we vow to see our connection
with other beings, to feel our connection with other beings. If we
are one with them, if we have the deepest empathy, then the waking
is a movement that comes by itself.
I like "wake" better than "save" because it shows
the task in its true dimension. Because you can have a fantasy of a
horse you'll take hay to, but the project won't succeed because there
are too many horses. How are you going to enlighten? That's the question
everybody must grapple with at the bottom of the soul. And there is
an answer that rises out of the depths of meditation. The only hint
I want to give about that is to say that when the meditation gets to
a certain depth, we see an intimate connection between ourselves and
all other creatures. We see with the eyes of the other.
So we can speak not just of waking up horses, but of speaking with
rocks and buildings the way Francis of Assisi spoke to birds. If we
truly experience our link with all of creation, it's a little easier
to wake it all up, and the stars sing out together as the great poet
said long ago.
I don't mind letting go of "saving beings" because I don't
know how to end the kind of suffering the Dharma speaks about except
by waking up. How else do we save?
The Four Boundless Vows
I vow to wake the beings of the world
I vow to set endless heartache to rest
I vow to walk through every wisdom gate
I vow to live the great Buddha way
This time we'll complete our discussion of our new translation of
the Four Boundless Vows.
I vow to set endless heartache to rest
The old version of this line is: "Endless blind passions, I vow
to cut them down." Clearly setting heartache to rest is a different
matter than cutting down blind passions. "Heartache" was
an important choice, one we spent a lot of time with. The Sanskrit
word klesha has the sense of the things inside ourselves that get in
our way: the hindrances-our greed or our envy or our sloth-and our
passions, the cravings and intense feelings that accumulate and cause
suffering. In Chinese the word is more like "vexation," which
brings in the sense that painful things happen not just inside ourselves,
but in the world as well. There are wars and famines, and children
die. It's important that as we open our hearts, we open not only to
our own suffering, but to the suffering of others as well. Other people
have wars and famines, and their children die. We wanted to combine
these two things: that which hinders us from inside, and the inevitable
pains of life. In the end we settled on "heartache" because
it did seem to contain all of that, and it brought in the heart, the
sense of being touched in that way, and the idea that the breaking
of a heart can be one of the most profound wisdom gates.
Setting things to rest rather than cutting them down was also important.
We had the image of a body of water that's turbulent and then gradually
calms and settles. The Chinese character's first meaning is "to
cut down," but its second meaning is "to settle," like
a court case. We went for the second meaning because that seems more
in alignment with what we're doing. We're always talking about inclusion-about
bringing all of ourselves into the meditation hall and all of our lives
into the practice. That doesn't seem congruent with chopping things
down somehow. Mindfulness is a process of learning to bear our own
nakedness, and that's what we're talking about here. Can we bear it?
Can we not flee? Can we just stay with who we are for three and a half
minutes without flinching, or having a judgment, or feeling sorrow
or inflation or something else well up inside us? The more we practice,
the more little moments there are in which we can do that. That's the
process of setting to rest, which doesn't require that any part of
us, or any part of the world, has to go sit out in the foyer. It doesn't
require that we have to be, or pretend to be, anybody other than who
we are, or that the world has to be other than it is. What it does
require is that we look fearlessly, that we look compassionately, and
that we work to set to rest those places where we cause suffering for
ourselves and for others, which are the places of our heartache.
How we go about setting things to rest then becomes a wider field
of possibilities. Sometimes simple mindfulness, becoming conscious
of something, is enough to change it. Sometimes we even need to have
tenderness for our pain, as in the practice of feeding the demons in
the Tibetan chod meditation. And sometimes we do indeed want to cut
something down. Sometimes for ourselves and for the sake of all sentient
beings we just have to STOP doing something we're doing. But talking
about setting to rest includes all these possibilities, makes it clear
that our way is about healing rather than annihilating.
When we talk about cutting down endless blind passions, that's pretty
much either an interior event, something we do within ourselves, or
it proposes a relationship to other people's suffering-let me cut down
your blind passions-that's troubling. Setting heartache to rest brings
in a more kindly awareness of the world around us, becomes an aspiration
in which there is no inside and outside, and allows us to consider
how we might help with some small piece of the world's heartache: dangerous
schools or nuclear waste or a friend in trouble.
I vow to walk through every wisdom gate
In the Chinese, the verb which we adapt as "walk through" is "to
study" in the sense of to go to university, to read a book, to
underline the important parts. "Dharma gates" originally
referred to the teachings, the books we study in this way, the sutras
themselves. So we're vowing to study the hundreds of thousands of words
of the Prajna Paramita literature and all the rest of the canon. Almost
everywhere in the West people have interpreted this line in the koan
way, to mean that we see that the world is offering us moment after
moment to wake up in, and we vow to try to walk through these gates-the
hawk's cry, the dirty dishes in the sink, love and rage and boredom-as
they appear. We're understanding "walking through wisdom gates" in
the way of the old koan: A pilgrim says, "I've just entered this
temple. Please give me instruction." And the teacher asks, "Can
you hear the sound of that stream down in the valley?" The pilgrim
says, "Yes, I can." The teacher says, "Enter there."
The old teachers said this another way, that everything is expounding
the dharma all the time. All around us, hundreds of thousands of sutra
scrolls are being unfurled in every moment-by each of us with everything
we do, and by every rock and semi-trailer and distant star. The whole
world is that vivid and alive, that inspirited. And all we have to
do is remember that. All we have to do is see what's already true,
to recall how to read those scrolls.
So the question becomes, how do we walk through? Rilke offers a clue
in "The Ninth Duino Elegy", which is now part of our afternoon
reading during sesshin:
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window-
at most: column, towers But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. Isn't the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?
When we walk through the wisdom gate, everything comes with us. Everything.
The story is that when the Buddha awakened under the bodhi tree, a
great light spread out from there in all directions. And as this light
traveled through space, jail cells were opened and prisoners were set
free, people who were ill were healed. Even, they say, the graves opened
up and dead people arose. Everything that was broken and wounded and
lost in the land was made whole again. When we wake up, in that moment
everything wakes up with us and everything is whole no matter what
its condition-complete and perfect in that moment.
I vow to live the great Buddha way
Here is the mystery each of us navigates for ourselves. What does
it mean to live the great Buddha way? In our meal service we say:
Out of the mysterious source
we and the things that sustain us come.
Waking and eating, embracing and sleeping,
we walk on the empty sky.
Shitou Xiqian's "Taking Part in the Gathering" (Cantongqi/Sandokai)
is a work of great subtlety and beauty, and it was written during,
and in response to, a time not unlike our own. Shitou, who lived in
eighth century China, was moved to write "Taking Part" by
the feuding between the Northern and Southern, or gradual and sudden,
schools of Buddhism. Shitou responded to the quarreling by expressing
his understanding of the deepest nature of things. "Taking Part" is
the work of a generous mind, at once spacious and vivid.
As a boy Shitou had studied with the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng, and
so he was alive at the very time when the patriarchal line from India
was broken, when the robe and bowl of transmission disappeared. And
so the bad news was that the old myth was lost, and the good news was
that the old myth was lost-allowing truly Chinese expressions of Chan
to develop and flourish. Shitou himself had grown up on the frontier
and was to blend Chan, Huayan, and Taoism in his teaching. Before this
threshold era, Chan was largely a practice of intense introspection,
of seeing into the true nature of the self. Shitou raised his eyes
to take in the whole world, introducing into Chan the idea that all
beings are part of that self.
John Tarrant and I translated "Taking Part" from the original
Chinese, and those of you familiar with other versions will notice
some significant differences in our understanding of the text. And
so our translation project is a powerful practice for us, as we deepen
our understanding of the great traditional texts and try to convey
their beauty to you. What follows is an abridged version of my talk
on "Taking Part"; the full text can be found on the PZI website.
Taking Part in the Gathering
By Shitou Xiqian
The mind of the great Indian Immortal
moves seamlessly between East and West.
It's human nature to be quick or slow,
but in the Way there are no northern or southern ancestors.
Shitou begins by reminding us that, from the perspective of eternity,
Buddha nature pervades the universe. Then he says that, from the perspective
of the everyday, people and things have different qualities. Both of
these perspectives are true. Then he makes a subtle distinction: yes,
things have different qualities-some people like chocolate and some
like vanilla-but as soon as you make better and worse-all chocolate
lovers should be sent to vanilla re-education camps-this is the entrance
of heartache into the world.
The mysterious source of the bright is clear and unstained;
branches of light stream from that dark.
Shitou flips the usual Zen imagery by making eternity the Dark and
the phenomenal world the Bright. The Dark is the Taoists' Great Mysterious,
the deepest don't-know mind of all. To even speak of it this much is
to come into the realm of the Bright, the visible world, the world
of our days and nights in which we make bright distinctions between
things. But the light streams forth from the dark: The Source isn't
some special place where we fill our jar and carry it carefully into
our life; every moment is a branch stream, every moment flows from
Trying to control things is only delusion,
but hanging onto the absolute isn't enlightenment, either.
Anything we need to say about the delusion of control? But repudiating
the world isn't it, either: Guanyin can't hear anything if her face
is turned in the wrong direction, away from the world. Enlightenment
is not the experience of eternity; it's the integration of that experience
into our lives-the way each of us discovers how Guanyin uses those
thousand hands and eyes.
We and everything we perceive
are interwoven and not interwoven,
and this interweaving continues on and on,
while each thing stands in its own place.
Here is a beautiful evocation of the nature of life: All things are
woven together, as in Indra's net, but this weaving isn't a static
thing; it's always going on, always changing, world without end. At
the same time, each thing, each being, is vivid in its particularity,
has its own time and place.
In the world of form, we differentiate substances and images;
in the world of sound, we distinguish music from noise.
In the embrace of the dark, good words and bad words are the same,
but in the bright we divide clear speech from confusion.
Shitou returns to his polemical base note, about the emptiness of
our judgments, the ephemeral nature of praise and blame.
The four elements return to their natures
like a child to the mother.
Fire is hot, the winds blow,
water is wet, the earth solid.
The eye sees form, the ear hears voices,
the nose smells fragrance, the tongue tastes salt and sour.
Everything, depending on its root, spreads out its leaves.
Both roots and branches must return to their origin,
and so do respectful and insulting words.
Here's the other side of the Heart Sutra, which Shitou includes not
to dispute, but to complete. And this specificity of things, the pattern,
matters; whether the roots sprout as a fire engine or a teacup is likely
to make a critical difference at some point. There's an invitation
to each of us to spread out our leaves, our particular expression of
Buddha nature with all its quirks and talents, even as we hold in our
hearts that everything eventually sinks back into that rio abajo rio,
the river under the river, from which we stream.
The darkness is inside the bright,
but don't look only with the eyes of the dark.
This is standing in the midst of life, insisting that only emptiness
is real, and so nothing in the transitory world really matters. When
questions of sexism in Buddhism have been raised, the answer has sometimes
been that there is no gender in emptiness, so the issue is illusory.
Seeing only with dark eyes in this way, we close those eyes to the
hurt of others. When Issa's young daughter died, the poet, who had
a profound understanding of emptiness, expressed his no-less-broken
heart: "The dewdrop world/is the dewdrop world,/and yet, and yets"
The brightness is inside the dark,
but don't look only through the eyes of the bright.
This is forgetting that we're always standing in eternity, and instead
insisting that only the concrete is real. This is the realm of our
bright fights: I am Serb, you are Croat, and that's all that matters.
When we lose our sense of connection into the dark, it's a terrible
alienation, a true desert place. As the Chippewa song reminds us: "Sometimes
I go about weeping, when all the while I'm being carried across the
sky on a great wind."
Bright and dark are a pair,
like front foot and back foot walking.
Each thing by nature has worth,
but we notice it is shaped by its circumstances.
Again, everything has Buddha nature, everything is precious in exactly
the same way, and yet each thing naturally takes a unique shape depending
on a complex interplay of karma, circumstances, chance.
Things fit together like boxes and lids,
while the absolute is like arrows meeting in mid-air.
In the everyday world, things are always meeting, coming apart, or
being adjusted into relationship, like an endless Escher print of boxes
and lids. Things seem solid, enduring, and we have to work to fit them
together. This is one kind of encounter. And sometimes the meeting
is a moment when the universe just is, vibrating in a timeless, changeless
present. There's a suddenness and inevitability and perfection about
such a meeting, as when two strangers in the checkout line catch sight
of the same thing and smile, their eyes meeting, just for a moment.
When you let these words in, you encounter the ancestors;
don't limit yourself to your own small story.
Any dharma gate we wholeheartedly enter leads to the ancestors; they
are always present around us, and from any point the universe opens
in all its immensity and grandeur. But oddly we spend a lot of effort
with our little protractors and grids, trying to cram the infinite
into the tiny box of what we already know. Our practices, our lives,
can be so much bigger if we'd just relax and take in what's really
If you don't see the Way with your own eyes,
you won't know the road even as you're walking on it.
Walking the Way, we're never near or far from it;
deluded, we are cut off from it by mountains and rivers.
Rely on your practice; how can you know the road under your feet if
you don't trust your feet? This is not the same thing as putting all
our trust in our feelings, however, which can be a way of limiting
ourselves to our own small story. We practice because it allows a bigger
perspective than that; a way of living that includes the companionship
of the ancestors. No matter what our circumstances, we're always walking
the Way, but when we're deluded, when we're stuck in the small story,
we can't feel our feet anymore, and it's as though we're trapped in
the mountains of anger or drowning in the river of depression.
You who seek the mystery,
in daylight or in the shadows of night, don't throw away your time.
Being trapped in our delusions is a very painful way to live, but
Shitou reminds us that there is a way out. The dark is within the bright,
the bright within the dark. Try not to get stuck anywhere; try not
to limit your experience before you even have it; try to keep letting
things open up; try to fall through every dharma gate.