It's All Come to This
In times of natural disasters, or the man-made tragedies of war, the newspapers and television fill up with tales of human suffering. And over and over, the victims of such tragedies seem to ask the same questions, "Why did this happen to me?" or " Why did I survive when so many others have died?" And the media immediately provide experts to provide us with answers: we hear explanations of plate tectonics and structural engineering when there's been an earthquake; we get lessons in history and politics to accompany each new regional war. And these explanations are of use up to a point - of course we want to know how to build buildings that are better able to withstand earthquakes and so forth. But for the individual who plaintively asks why he survived when his whole family has been wiped out, what answer can there be?
Wittgenstein once said that in giving an explanation, the hardest thing is to know when to stop. At some point, all we can say is this is how it is. Life is like that. How do I know that wall is white? That's what the word "white" means is all I can say.
A large part of what this practice is about is nothing but allowing explanations to come to an end and to simply experience our life as it is. If you go back and read the stories about some of the old Zen Teachers in the koan collections, they sometimes would use some pretty drastic methods do get a student to stop thinking and simply be. When Rinzai was a young monk, he tried to do what a young monk did in those days to get instruction he went into his teacher, Obaku, and asked some basic question, like "What is the most essential element of Buddha's teaching?" But before he could even finish his sentence, Obaku hit him with his stick and threw him out of the daisan room. Three times this happened, Rinzai goes in to ask a question, and each time Obaku hits him. Finally, Rinzai gives up and goes to another teacher, and tells him the story. "What did I do wrong?" he wants to know. I asked a perfectly good question - "What is the essential teaching of the Buddha?" - but that old man kept hitting me? And this teacher looks at him and says, you idiot, you didn't do anything wrong - that was the answer!
So, after this, Rinzai was able to go back to Obaku, give a great shout and hit him back. What did he realize? Questions must stop, answers must stop, thinking must stop. Buddha's essential teaching? - it all comes down to just being fully, totally present, right here, right now. How do you express that? Anyway at all. A shout or a blow with a stick certainly can do it, but pretty soon everybody was so impressed with Rinzai's shout that they started shouting too, and it became a Zen cliche . If you do that sort of thing now, you'd just be imitating Obaku and Rinzai, and miss the whole point.
The poet Lew Welch, an old friend of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, from that first generation of American Zen students, used to suggest this practice: at some totally insignificant, random moment in your day, stop and say to yourself, "So! It's all come to THIS!" It all comes down to mailing a letter... taking a leak... drinking coffee. And it does. With no story, no explanations, no thinking, each moment is a complete and perfect expression of who and what we are, what life is. Even stories, explanations and thinking are perfect! We're not trying to make them go away, just see them as what they are, moments of experience just like any other. When we label our thoughts and see thinking as just one more thing our body/minds do, like itching or breathing, thinking is no problem. The problem comes when thinking tries to elevate itself to some higher plane, where it wants to look down on everything else, and say, "That's how it is, that's what it all means." That's why we practice labeling our thoughts and identifying our underlying core beliefs we need to put thought in its place!
Daisan is one place to express it's all come to THIS. (Of course, any place, anytime would do just as well!) It's also where we clarify what stands in the way of our experiencing this simple truth, what stories or explanations have gotten control of our thoughts, so that we are constantly judging each moment and ourselves, wanting them to be different from what they are.
Come in and show me what it all means.