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Ordinary Mind Zendo's four practice principles Barry Magid April 7th 2012

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As you may have heard Karen Terzano just returned from England where she has established an outpost of Ordinary Mind in the sangha there. Some of you were at sesshin last year with Timo who came over from Finland with a request for a teacher to help lead a group there. She’s responded and it looks like they’re going to set up an ongoing group. As part of that project they wanted to translate some of our chants into Finnish and there’s nothing like working on a translation to make you think about what you’re saying.

Karen worked with them on a translation of our Four Practice Principles and they apparently had some questions about this opening line: “Caught in a self-centered dream only suffering,” and whether dream or delusion was the right word, and whether caught is like an animal gets caught in a trap and what kind of metaphor that is. It got me thinking about that version that we’ve been chanting here since 1996, and which we’ve used because that’s the version that Joko used at the Zen Center of San Diego all these years, and it was in turn its own translation or adaptation of the Four Noble Truths which was put together by some committee. I was not part of that original translation effort, but when we started the group here, the intention was to continue using most of the forms and texts that they use there for the sake of continuity and connection with Joko’s group.

But as I talked with Karen about the translation she was doing with the Finns, I decided I didn’t like the translation we were using very much. In the second line, in particular, we say: “Holding to self-centered thoughts exactly the dream.” It seems redundant. It doesn’t really add much to the first line. “Caught in a self-centered dream only suffering.” So I suggested to them an alternative line, which I’ll suggest to you as well, and we’ll decide what to do about it. It begins by saying, “Caught in a self-centered dream, waking to a dream within a dream.” Then take the last two lines: “Each moment life as it is, the only teacher. Being just this moment, compassion’s way.”

What is the alternative to being in a self-centered dream? That’s really what I was trying to think about in revising that second line. What do you wake up to, if you wake up to a self-centered dream? Too often in Zen there’s a kind of language about waking up as if we’ll wake up and then see reality directly, as if it was something now fixed and clear, only we’re no longer looking at it through cloudy self-centered lenses. But actually the world and the self are equally empty, equally lack any fixed, continuous permanent essence. Both are dreams. Both are impermanent, transitory, without substance. The suffering of a self-centered dream is the suffering of trying to hold onto and maintain a permanent point of reference, a permanent unchanging “me” in the midst of a changing world, that somehow you’re going to be able to hold and maintain in the midst of a flux. That’s always going to be a losing battle.

So part of what happens in practice is a kind of dissolving of the boundary between how we see the self and how we see the world as inseparably part of one thing that’s always interconnected and always changing. “Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher.” What is it that a teacher is teaching? Each moment life as it is, is that sense that all there is is that transitory moment that we’re not separate from. What it’s teaching moment to moment is that we can’t cling to it. What it teaches is that each moment we either resist it or try to hold onto it, and you watch what your mind does. As you go about your daily life, moment to moment, while it’s pushing something away or trying to hold onto something else.

So the teaching of each moment, with life as the teacher, is just to put in our face, over and over again, that clinging or resistance, and it’s constant and it’s always available. That was really what Joko wanted to emphasize as the core of our practice, just the awareness of that moment-to-moment rejection of life as it is, rejection of the flow and impermanence of life as it is.

The last line, “Being just this moment, compassion’s way,” is the turn into what the alternative looks like. Being just this moment contains within it responses, responsiveness, a natural compassionate response, not compassion in the conventional sense of do-gooding but compassion in the sense of allowing everything to be just as it is, without clinging or rejection. That’s really the essence of compassion: Letting something be just what it is.

I happen to like that as a nice condensation of the last line in the traditional Four Noble Truths, which articulate the Eightfold Path, which I can never remember. I brought the book up to recite it again. This is Aitken Roshi’s translation. It’s always good to look at other people’s translations of things. He says, “Anguish is everywhere,” instead of all life is suffering. Anguish has the advantage of seeming like an emotional response to things as they are. Suffering is a word that for better or for worse is both something about the quality of existence itself and our response to that. And he says, “There’s a cause of anguish,” without saying what it is. There’s liberation from anguish and liberation is the Eightfold Path. This translation dodges the traditional question: What’s the cause of anguish? It’s usually built in.The cause is desire or clinging or attachment, and each one of those words has problems and in Joko’s translation, she says that self-centeredness is the essential cause of anguish or suffering.

So it’s good to put something in there, like self-centeredness or desire to try to make us think about what that is, what’s the cause of what we call suffering or anguish. The third truth is a promise of liberation. Liberation, of course, is another loaded word in this business. Just what is that liberation supposed to look like? And the Eightfold Path is the way to go: Right Views, Right Thoughts, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort or Lifestyle (the committee couldn’t decide), Right Recollection, Right Absorption, (right absorption being right concentration or samadhi or meditation, I believe). Indians have a great fondness for lists, as far as I can tell. I don’t share it.

The problem with that version is that there’s a certain parish Buddhism quality to the Four Noble Truths because it asks, what can we tell everybody about this practice in a way that anybody can understand it and anybody can do? But what that translates into in the Eightfold Path is a prescription of what to do, turning practice into a set of techniques or right actions, rules to follow, and it plugs into a kind of distillation of the monastic vinaya, all the rules of conduct, that if you do all this stuff, you will essentially embody a selfless non-clinging life. The idea being, if we take the ideal monk as the model of non-self-centeredness, let’s take a description of all that person would do and make a rule out of it, and if you do all that stuff, maybe it will follow that you will achieve that inner state of non-self-centeredness.

The Heart Sutra works from the other direction, starts with an assertion of emptiness, and says, if you realize the emptiness of all five conditions, if you realize the emptiness of self and world, everything automatically and spontaneously flows out of that. You don’t follow a rule to get from here to there but you start with an awareness. When I was thinking of the second line again, “Waking to a dream within a dream,” it’s with an intent of coming back to a more Heart Sutra-oriented sense of centrality of the realization of emptiness, a realization of a dream within a dream, a dream of self waking up into a dream of the greater world. And it’s realizing the emptiness of things that allows you to simply meet each moment just as it is and let it go. Meet each moment and make a response in the moment. Those are the third and fourth lines.

Now at various times, I’ve said that matters of liturgy are the prerogative of the teacher, and other times we’ve thought that we would experiment with a little more democracy in making decisions. I’m on the fence about this one, which I suppose means I’ll err on the side of democracy and make it the subject of some future discussion group about whether you would like to change what we recite with the Practice Principles. It would be a good discussion because we have to weigh the value of “well, we’ve always done it that way,” against what we’re actually saying and why we are saying it that way.

I will leave it up to you all to discuss and decide.

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