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Gatha on opening the Sutras

This Dharma, incomparably profound
and minutely subtle,
is rarely encountered
even in hundreds of thousands
of millions of ages.

Now  we can see it,
Hear it, hold and maintain it.
May we completely realize
the Tathagata's true meaning.


This Gatha, or verse, is recited in one form or another in most Zen centers at the beginning of the Teacher's teisho, or dharma talk. Since we will be reciting it here from now on as well, I'd like to go over it with you in some detail.

This dharma: One might sum up the whole verse with just the first word, THIS. This moment, right now, is the teaching and the Teacher. Dharma can mean both each instant of existence and the Buddhadharma, the Buddha's teaching. Buddha taught that each moment was empty that it had no fixed, permanent nature or essence. And it is this fact about the impermanence of each dharma, each moment, that is at the core of the Buddha's teaching.

Incomparably profound: A profound teaching may one we call deep, or here we might take it to mean more like encompassing everything. Each moment encompasses everything; each moment is all there is, and so is literally incomparable.

and minutely subtle: Something is subtle when it discriminates between small distinctions. Each moment encompasses everything and yet each is unique and subtly different from every other.

is rarely encountered even in hundred of thousands of millions of ages: A literal interpretation might refer to the old Indian conception of karma, in which we might struggle through millions of lifetimes as a bug or animal before we have the chance to be born a human being. And then through countless human lifetimes before we ever encounter a teacher and have a chance to hear the Dharma being preached. And if along the way we commit some misdeed, well then we slide all the way back to the beginning in this great  karmic game of Chutes and Ladders before we get another chance at being human!

I'm reminded of an old saying by the great book collector and bibliographer John Carter, that when you're out scouting  among the old and used bookstores for rare first editions, it's not the early bird that gets the worm, but the bird that knows a worm when he sees one! The most basic reason we rarely encounter the Dharma is we don't recognize when we see it. Everyday we chant Each moment, life as it is, the only Teacher, but who truly recognizes each moment as their Teacher? We all come to practice with ideas what a Teacher should look like. I sometimes think the most important teaching I have to offer is NOT looking like anybody's idea of a Teacher! When I was first starting out as a Zen student, I had the good fortune to encounter Soen Roshi. Now he was EVERYBODY'S picture of a Teacher: charismatic, enigmatic, his every word and gesture a ritual and a lesson. His calligraphy hangs in the daisan room; a haiku that reads, Bamboo/from each leaf/pure wind That could describe him as well, from each word, each gesture, pure Zen. A wonderful teacher. The only problem, for some people, was that studying with a Teacher like that was like taking swimming lessons from a fish. He swam perfectly, effortlessly, naturally while they tried to do a fish imitation! And this practice must ultimately be about being yourself, not learning to imitate somebody else, no matter how marvelous. We rarely encounter any true teaching if encounter means coming upon something outside ourselves.

Now we can see it, / hear it, hold and maintain it: This moment, our true Teacher is always right here, immediately available to us, to see, hear and touch. During oryoki practice,  we could add, smell and taste it. How do we maintain it? By maintaining our practice, maintaining our attention.

May we completely realize the Tathagata's true meaning The Tathagata is another name for the Buddha, one that means, the one that comes forth [from Essential Nature into particulars, in Robert Aitken's definition]. When we realize the essential  Buddha nature of each moment, we ourselves come forth as the Tathagata. Though we recite this verse at the beginning of my teisho, each of you must completely realize the true meaning of your own teisho, your own life, moment after moment.