Post enlightenment practice: presence rather than transformation Barry Magid February 9th 2013

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 6 Ummon's every day is a good day

The Main Case

Ummon said, "I don't ask you about before the 15th day, try to make a statement about after the 15th day." He himself replied, "Every day is a good day."


Throwing away one, he picks up seven.
Above, below, in the four directions, none can match.
Placidly walking along, he treads down the sound of the flowing stream.
His relaxed gaze discerns the tracks of flying birds.
Grasses grow thick, mists overhang.
Round Zibutti's cliff, the flowers make a mess!
Voidness is lamentable.
Don't make a move!
If you move, you get thirty blows!

We can use this case and the verse as a stepping stone to continue our discussion of post-enlightenment practice. The imagery of a poem of Ummon’s question about the fifteenth day is based on the calendar in which the full moon, which is our symbol of enlightenment, occurs on the fifteenth day of the month, so Ummon is literally asking, don’t tell me about before, try to make a statement about after. When no one in the audience knew how to respond, he himself said, “Every day is a good day.” In doing that, he cuts through a distinction that preoccupied most of his audience before and since about the whole notion of before and after enlightenment and what transformation is. And his use of before and after can open up for us other dichotomies, dualities, such as inside and outside, self and other, self and the world, and how do we see those be transformed after the fifteenth.

Now the verse points out a particular kind of ditch or place where people get stuck, and it’s one place we can start. Often in order to be clear about a solution, you have to first see all the errors you can make getting there. Someone asked me once, ”How did you get to be so wise?” And I laughed, and I said, “Well, I started by doing every unwise thing that everyone could ever think of. Sort of went through those one by one and eliminated them.” We have to see all the unwise things we do first. This verse is about one place where people get stuck. Just throwing away one, he picks up seven. Throwing away one is this sense of throwing away oneness, or a kind of picture of enlightenment as getting into any one state. This is a particular picture we carry around, where we think we’re going to break through to or slowly cultivate some state of absolute equanimity, and then that will be the one permanent thing in this impermanent universe.

So throwing away one he picks up seven. Letting go of that picture of oneness, he picks up seven, he picks up multiplicity. The number seven is arbitrary. It’s the many. Placidly walking along, at home in the world, following the sounds of the stream, being very clear-eyed, so clear-eyed he can even see tracks, the tracks the birds make in the sky as they go past. But at the same time, walking in a world where grasses grow thick and the mists overhang. This is the symbol of entanglement and non-clarity. So we are at home both in that world of clarity and unclarity and not one or the other. Subhuti is his foil here. Subhuti was a disciple of the Buddha who was renowned for being able to enter into deep states of samadhi, of emptiness, dwelling deeply in emptiness, and apparently this was so impressive the gods showered him with flowers. Well, Ummon’s take on that was all those flowers just make a mess. What do you think you’re doing -- hiding out in the void? And in a sense what we see is Subhuti’s solution. See, Subhuti’s achievement leaves him with a relationship only with the gods. It’s a transcendent kind of practice that the god’s admire, but it doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the world or anybody else. So Ummon gives his verdict that voidness is lamentable, getting stuck there is a shame, not an achievement. Don’t make a move. If you move, you get thirty blows.

That can open us up to the next step of what we imagine. Don’t make a move is a kind of fantasy of impeccability. If you move you get thirty blows. So don’t move! Don’t let anybody catch you or you’ll get punished. Is there any way to not make a move in this life? How do you avoid the thirty blows? Well, basically you can’t, if you’re alive. You can try this move of Subhuti’s, of transcendence, but if you’re going to live in this world, you gotta move, you’ve got to engage and you’re going to get your thirty blows. It’s unavoidable. Yet our fantasy is always that we will find some trick that will let us escape consequences of being alive.

See, the basic position that most people have to start with, growing up, is one of helplessness and vulnerability, and in that state all of us to one extent or another feel like we were either neglected or injured. It’s the rule of suffering that ends up bringing us to practice. And like this verse, we start off looking for strategies to avoid being hit and it means that we develop an initial stance towards others that basically says, Are you going to heal me or are going to hurt me? Are you going to repair the damage done to me when I was young or are you going to re-injure me? Are you going to hit me again? And the world gets experienced just in terms of what are you going to do to me or for me? And our own stance from that position is passive in that all the strength, all the agency for good or ill is out in the other person.

So the danger in that mode is that we live in a world entirely in which all the power is in the other, however that other is perceived, and whether the world at large, a spouse, a teacher, whatever it is, and our preoccupation is -- what are they going to do to me? And we have no real agency in repairing our self; all we can do is try to get what we need or be careful we don’t get hurt. So we can be in an extremely passive position, and our first attempt out of that passivity is basically through discernment or what really becomes hyper-vigilance. I can’t control the other but I can get really careful about sussing out what kind of person the other is. Are they good or are they bad? Are they going to help me or are they going to hurt me? And that first stance is one in which we often get very preoccupied with checking people out, as I say, in a hyper-vigilant kind of way. Are they really what they appear or is there something hidden behind that curtain? Are they going to reveal some bad side of themselves that is going to jump out at me and re-traumatize me? Or do they have all the goodies? Are they the one who is finally going to heal me? Do they have the magic wand, the balm or the wisdom or the insight? And we get very good at figuring out who’s out there that’s got what I need. But all our agency is now into discernment, trying to figure it out.

The next step out of that is trying to own more agency because part of where we’re trying to get to, is having some capacity to take charge of our own life, it’s own direction. We still tend to think that what we need is in the hands of others. But we start thinking that, well, maybe I can influence the other person. It’s not just a matter of my seeing if they’re good or bad, but maybe I can win them over, and usually this takes us into a stage of compliance of one kind or another: I will figure out what the other person wants or needs, and if I get really good at figuring that out and doing it, then either they’ll take care of me or at least they won’t hurt me. I’ll be safe. And so there we get a model of agency as taking that position of compliance or submission or in this business, discipleship, being a good student.

A lot of Zen centers, a lot of practice places are filled with people who see in a teacher the person with the power, the person who can either hurt or heal, and everything they call practice is mostly about just getting on their good side so they can get what they need. Whatever they’re doing on the cushion, really what they want is, just let me be in the presence of the person who has what I need and maybe finally I’ll get it. This is a kind of stage of practice that’s focused on a guru, teacher as guru, who is the embodiment of what’s missing in you. And we’re still in the stage where we don’t have any idea how to get generated ourselves but we feel like the best we can do is be given it by the person who has it. That always leads to some kind of relationship of dependency and compliance.

Now after a while we may move into another stage of practice where we say, I’m really tired of trying to wait for somebody else to give it to me. I’m really going to make it for myself. This can come about in two kinds of ways. If we’re focused on the side of safety, if we’ve been traumatized one way or another, the first move is going to be the autonomy of -- nobody’s going to do that to me again. And I will keep myself safe by never putting myself in a vulnerable position anymore. And so I’m going to repudiate the stance that says, You’ve got it and I don’t, and try to move to autonomy, where I’m going to have it myself and I don’t need you for anything. And very often people in that mode will end up like Subhuti, actually. They will be people who try to generate in their own consciousness, in their own self, everything that was missing, and become completely spiritually, emotionally, autonomous.

Part of the dilemma of that solution is if you really want to be safe and autonomous, it helps to pare your personal needs down to nothing so you don’t need anybody else for anything, so asceticism is often an accompaniment of this position. And you can go pretty far with that, but the dilemma is that it cuts you off from everyone in the interest of safety and self-creation. Another move in that position is an attempt to recover agency but move out of compliance. See, you try to change sides in a certain way and you try to become the giver, and the way that usually works is that in response to my own neediness or vulnerability, which I don’t know what to do with, I decide that really all that neediness is in other people. I see their suffering, I see their needs, and I will devote myself to taking care of them. I will become a good person and by being good I will try to heal what’s missing in myself or hurt in myself, and I will devote myself in a bodhisattva-like fashion to the needs of others.

Now this has the advantage over Subhuti’s position, of at least being very related. It gets you in the world, and it actually does you some good. The pitfall here is what I call, Saving all beings minus one. You really still can’t stand the idea that you’re as needy as all the people that you’re helping. One way or another you project emotionally onto the other people all the vulnerability you can’t stand, and you help them, and you never let yourself be in the position of getting, only giving.

A version of this is often that a person can feel so worthless or damaged in themselves that they don’t feel that they deserve anything, they don’t deserve being given anything, but they will redeem themselves, they will try to get themselves back to being a worthwhile person in terms of everything that they give to others. There you get a kind of bodisattvahood that’s secretly about self-redemption, but it usually is an endless and a hopeless task. People in that position usually are throwing snow into a well and will never fill it up. No matter how many good deeds they do, they never get to the point of feeling truly good about themselves, I mean just in the sense that they’re never allowed to stop doing good. It’s their only identity, their only meaning in life is what they do for others. I guess they’re useful people to have around, but it’s not a happy place to end up.

Now, what we have to be working towards here is trying to find some balance between vulnerability and agency. We’re trying to find how we’re supposed to fit in with other people in the world, but the right kind of fit. And it has to, in some way, end up where both agency and vulnerability are equally shared on both sides of the equation. So that goodness and agency don’t just belong to a teacher, an island with all the vulnerability and all the passivity, nor is it a matter that all the abjectness is projected out and I am just going to be giving and doing all the time for all those poor people out there. Somehow we have to see ourselves as both giver and given too, and find a way to own both of those positions.

Now that fit is easier said than done, and in the verse of this, you have a very romanticized or bucolic picture of just sort of wandering through fields of all kinds of conditions, freely moving through all forms. It’s hard to figure out what that looks like in practice. It brings us back to Butei here, who as we said yesterday, his mind is like tofu, a round bowl that is round and a square bowl that is square. That’s a picture of a perfect fit, right? And yesterday I used that as a model in contradistinction to the model of effort, and this kind of practice is a means to an end, of endless attaining, fixing, or extirpating. A lot of practice got stuck in a metaphor of a kind of battle against the self, battle against the ego, or however we conceptualized the parts of ourselves that were rigid and constraining. And so there’s a lot of military metaphors in Zen of killing the ego, and a lot of sesshins look like they try to do that literally, not metaphorically, and so we were trying to say, all right, let’s frame a post-enlightenment practice where we’re not in that business of killing anything else, but we’re just trying to practice in a way that emphasizes presence rather than transformation into something else.

An emphasis on presence, regardless of content, is what you hear in Ummon’s saying, Every day is a good day. Regardless of the content of the day, we’re present in that day. We show up to that and the immediacy, the vividness of it, its presence, is what we’re concerned about, is it’s goodness. Not goodness in terms of good versus bad, but the goodness of the absolute, of just being present, right now, right now.

The image of the tofu and the bowl is the image of effortlessness fading in non-separation with any set of circumstances. Whatever shape the bowl is, we adapt to that. And that’s a good way to practice up to a point. But we have to go beyond that, I think, because first of all, if we’re honest, we’re not really tofu. We’re not really quite that fluid and flexible that we can fit into any shape container no matter what. Joko at one point wrote, “I could live with anybody.” But it was also true that she divorced a husband when he became psychotic and a danger to her children. You draw the line somewhere. You’d better, right?

Most of us, if we’re honest, cannot fit into any situation, certainly not any relationship or any job, equally well, which would be the ideal of that kind of image. It’s more like we’re going to start feeling procrustean rather than tofu-ish, there’s going to be some piece of us getting truncated. And what we have to recognize is that we’re not just the tofu, but we’re also in charge of making the bowl. That’s part of the recovery of agency and what I was talking about before. It’s not our job to be simply so passive and so fluid that we fit naturally into whatever is offered.

It’s also the case that we need to find the right kind of agency to create a bowl for ourselves where it’s a good fit. And it’s part of what we do in designing a sesshin. There are lots of models of sesshin out there. I try to reinvent them a little bit, not completely from scratch, obviously, but find ways to create a container for this experience that’s going to be a good fit, and there is no one good fit for everybody, and there’s a way in which that container is always going to be a work in progress. We don’t have to have the kind of practice that says, well, this is the bowl -- fit in it. That’s a kind of procrustean, or kill the ego, kind of practice. Whatever doesn’t fit, you just cut off, but we don’t really want that as a model for our life. We want to have agency in the structuring of the container, agency in structuring our practice and our lives and our relationships.

Now, the next big question which maybe I could take up further tomorrow, but -- why do things take the shape they do? Who made the bowl? And how much flexibility do we have as bowl-makers? See, Ummon, in another famous koan, asks: The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robe at the sound of the bell? There are all these possible shapes for bowls. Why are we always using these little round ones? Now, Ummon’s answer, and the answer that really comes down to us in Soto Zen particularly, is to drop the Why. The world is vast and wide. When the bell sounds, we put on our robes. That the universal, the vastness of the world, as expressed, embodied in our particular life through the form of putting on our robes, the form of the fact of being a monk, so for Ummon and for Dogen, the answer to Why do we put on our robes? Is like the answer to Why do birds fly and why do fish swim? Like them it’s totally inherent in our nature for our true self to take this form.

What came down to us from Dogen was the deep sense that the form of zazen, this form of seated meditation, the life of being a monk, was the fullest expression of what it meant to be human. That’s really what he believed. The part that we most often quote from him is that practice and realization are one. He was really the best person to articulate the sense that in particular the practice was not a means to an end. Zazen is not a technique of meditation, it’s the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease. It’s not a technique. We don’t sit zazen in order to become something else. We sit zazen to express what we already are. A bird doesn’t fly to become more bird-like. It’s already as birdy as it’s going to get. And this is really what Dogen is saying about zazen, that we don’t do zazen in order to transform ourselves into Buddhas, but every time we sit down like this, we are fully expressing what it is that we call human, what we call enlightened, what we call Buddha. It’s all right there, just in sitting, because this is pure presence. That’s what zazen is.

As happens with people who are religious geniuses, they tend to get carried away with their vision. So Dogen did not only say zazen is the perfect expression of realization, but I happen to have a list of six hundred rules from monastic life that are also the perfect expression of being enlightened. If you feel like what your goal is here, a big part of what presence is about, we can say, is re-uniting the sacred and the everyday. This is another one of those before and after the fifteenth splits, that we’re trying to unify in our practice. What’s sacred. What’s profane? Is there a difference? And so one of the goals of a certain kind of monastic ideal is to have a form of life that perfectly embodies in every aspect, morning to night, realization, where everything is sacramentalized and off from that everything is ritualized, as a way to remind us of the sacred in the midst of doing the dishes and going to the bathroom and sweeping the floors as well as in zazen. So you get a picture of perfect presence, perfect unity of the transcendent and the ordinary in this form of life that is supposed to embody it perfectly.

That works very well if you’re a monk, but if not, what are you supposed to do? The dilemma is that if you have that vision of things, a tradition that you inherit, you’re liable to think that everything else that you do is a falling away from that ideal. And so the real challenge in our kind of lay practice, if you’re not going to live the life of a Japanese monk, how do you have that same kind of unity of mind of the sacred and the ordinary?

Now there’s lots of different kinds of solutions to that, and that’s the first lesson that we tend to get stuck in, when we find an embodiment of that kind of unity to think it’s the embodiment of it, it’s the one and only. And that’s the big challenge in almost every practice. It’s very easy to get stuck thinking that my Ureka! moment is the moment that everybody is supposed to have. But putting down one and taking up seven might open us up to the possibility of pluralism as well. Maybe there are seven different ways to do this right, not one.

Another version I’ve always been very attracted to is found in the writings of Wendell Berry. He’s a farmer in Kentucky. He writes beautifully about how man is the sacred and nature all come together in a life of farming. See, we can find the sacred and the transcendent in nature, for instance, but what’s our relationship to nature? Is what’s awe-inspiring about nature present only in wilderness where as soon as we walk into it we spoil it? Or is there some way in which our relationship to nature can be one in which we have our own agency, that we’re not just passively standing there and going, Wow! What a view! but we’re engaged in some active way as participants. So for Berry, being a farmer, is that perfect joining of agency and dependency. You’re dependent on the land but you also transform the land, you make the land into the container that’s a perfect fit for you. It’s a beautiful vision. I’ve read his books for thirty years at least, now, I love them. I have shelves of them.

But I would no more become a farmer than I would become a Japanese monk in Eihei-ji. And that’s the dilemma: We can see this picture of a unity and it really works, but it’s not my life. That is the challenge that we all particularly have in lay practice: To figure out what kind of bowl we are going to be making for ourselves, to put our not-so-squishy tofu into. We do that, and then we try to figure out how we make a sesshin for lay people and older lay people. What really suits you? What fits?

You should all really have the question: If I was designing this sesshin, how would I do it? I’d like you all to think about that. Don’t just treat sesshin as -- you show up to it and you like these parts and you grumble about these other parts. It’s a challenge to write your own schedule, to think about how would I do this? What would suit me and what would suit the people around me so we’re doing this together so it brings out the best in all of us and we support each other? When you’re home you have to figure out your own schedule. Do you sit everyday? Do you just go Saturdays? What do you do?

Well, this is a bigger version of that. How do we decide what to do here? We’re given this chance. It’s pretty rare for people like us to take a few days off and just sit. How do you want to do that? We don’t have to be completely passive in the face of that question. Have you noticed? We’re the grownups now. We get to decide what to do. So this is one shape of bowl I’m offering you, but it’s not stone. It’s much more flexible than you imagine, and so we’re all going to try to co-create it together. That’s really the task of our practice -- to co-create the practice we all want to have. You’re not just in the position of taking it, receiving it from me, but whether you realize it or not, you’re all in the business of co-creating this sesshin.

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