Thank you for picking green, Barry. It’s the color of new growth. Thanks for reminding me. My first thought about getting a green rakusu was good. I can hide better in the forest. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Ordinary Mind Zendo’s hermit. I live in Maine and I really do spend a great deal of my time hanging out in the woods with the trees and the rocks. I’m really comfortable there. But I’m a hermit who loves people. I just love them best one or two at a time. So sitting up here in front of all of you -- you’ve got to know I’m way out of my comfort zone. And what that means for me is I’m on the verge of tears, I don’t know why. My insides are quivering, they’re watery, my hands and feet are cold, and my mouth’s dry, and I’m in love with all of you.
The first time Barry brought up the idea that possibly I might have something to say that might be helpful to people, that I might be a teacher, I took it and I held it for a really long time. My primary practice is walking. I walk a lot, long distances. So I walked with it for months. And when I thought about it, I thought about the teacher sitting in the zendo, wise and compassionate and knowing the right thing to say at the right moment, and all those fantasies we have about what we really want in our lives. And I said, No, that’s not me. I’m not a teacher. I’m a hit-and-run helper, you know? I don’t want to be seen particularly, you know? I want to walk down the street, you drop your eggs, I’m going to help you pick them up. And if you don’t have that dime at the check-out counter, I’ll give it to you. If you’re having a rough day loading bags, I’ll smile at you and crack a joke. If you’re really down, let me be your ear. But then I’m on my way.
This has been great for me. It had been working -- until I took a walk, took a pilgrimage with a group of people, took them out to Spain to the El Camino, Santiago de Compostela. And this was a very spiritual walk for these folks, for us. A friend I had made when I walked the Appalachian Trail, his trail name was Serene, he had decided he wanted to come on this trip, and the very first night we were on the road, we stayed at a hostel and at that hostel, because there were so few of us at that time, we sat at one great big huge table and we had a family style meal. I don’t how it got started, but people started standing up and talking about why they were there, what they wanted, what they were hoping for. And Serene stood up and he said, “I want to have a more spiritual life,” and he talked a little more about it, and he came back to that at the end: “I want to have a more spiritual life.” Half-way on that journey, exactly half-way, he died on the trail.
In dying, besides the hole he left in the world, he gave me a great gift. We have only now and now is so very important. If we don’t use it, it’s going to be lost. You can’t gain the minute we lost yesterday, or the hour you let pass today. I came away with the sense of urgency that I had not had in years. And of course when you don’t know what to do -- what do you do? You write your teacher. I said, Barry -- I’ve got this sense of urgency: I need to go to work, I need to get this done, I need to have help in a more meaningful way. And of course he said to me, Well, then you’re going to teach. OK. I was in a place where I could listen. And so I held it and I said, Yes. And then I kind of stuffed it away, you know? I didn’t know what that was going to mean. I just kept walking.
I always saw myself as a signpost. I was going to teach by embodying the dharma, by living the dharma gate, by being as open as I could be and being as receptive as I could be. When it came down to talking about it or teaching it or giving instruction in it, I was going to tell the person, Well, there’s that teacher over there and there’s this book over here and you might want to listen to those tapes over here. I never saw myself as telling you something from me, from my experience. For whatever reason, that terrifies me. I can give you a lecture on microbiology and entertain you while I do it, and if you really want to know about the dharma, I’ll take you on a walk. You’ll find out. But try to say something about it, I don’t know. I don’t have trouble telling my story. I’m a 30 year veteran of twelve-step programs, not a problem.
So what is it? I don’t know. Maybe we can find out together. All I know is that I want to talk to you a little bit about teachers and about teaching and about knowing and understanding. I have a great love of people but I also have a great distrust. I have reverence for books. They’ve been my best friends all my life, but they also scare me, and so do words. I think maybe that’s why I’ve kept quiet, because I know the two sides of that. I know it because I’ve lived it.
There’s a koan that talks about a man hanging by his teeth from a branch. He has to say something about the dharma. To save this person you have to tell him the dharma, but if he opens his mouth, he falls to his death. What do you do? That’s the koan, in short. Now, since we’re not a sect that has secrecy about koans, I’ll tell you the answer as I know it, or as I knew it. That is, you open your mouth anyway because it’s that important. It’s that important. And in Rinzai, where I trained first, you stand up and you fall over and you’re dead, even when the teacher hits you, you stay dead. I knew the answer, and I’ve played it out for a couple of Rinzai teachers and I passed. It wasn’t until I came walking up that path from the river beach today that I understood, You do it because it’s that important. It’s that important.
There’s all kinds of teachers out there. Barry stole my original quote so I had to go search for another one and I like this one even better. It comes from the Dhammapada, and it’s something Buddha said about teachers, teaching and tradition. This particular translation says:
Do not believe in anything because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything because it’s found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely by the authority of your teacher or elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down in many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason
and it is conducive to the good and benefit of all, then accept it and live up to it.
Pretty good. I’ve got a bone to pick with it, but I’ll bring that up in a minute. Don’t believe what you read, don’t believe what you hear, don’t believe what you’re told. What do we do then? How do we ever learn anything? In my experience, there are two kinds of teachers -- human teachers. I mean there are lots of teachers lots of times, all the time. But human teachers. The first kind of teacher is the person that has walked the walk, and they have found something that works, that helps, that’s beneficial, and they want to share it, they want to help others to find this, they want them also to have the experience. These are good teachers. Every once in a while they get caught up in seeing only their experiencing and forgetting there are other ways of being in the world. They have great lessons to teach us, not only in what they tell us and how they model, but also they help us learn how not to idealize them, or be them, or become them.
Then there are those teachers who also are good intentioned for the most part, who want to find the right way, and do the right thing and help others, but they haven’t quite worked through their own fear yet. And they sometimes get rigid and it becomes their way is the right way and there are wrong ways. I mean, we all want to know the right way. It makes us safe, right? I mean, we’re going to get salvation that way. And if somebody comes and tells us at some point that that’s not the right way, those kinds of teachers can sometimes let their fear play out in a lot of different ways. The wonderful thing about it is that they too teach us. They teach us how to listen to us, they teach us how to have compassion for us and for them. They teach us how to take that discord we feel, and that chaos we feel, and turn it and work with it until it’s useful.
Then there’s the teachings themselves. Sometimes I get confused with the word dharma. There’s dharma, the teaching of buddha. There’s talk about the dharma. But there’s also the dharma which is thusness. And this is where the confusion between knowledge and understanding can come about. If we only have teachers, we have two kinds of teachings from them. We have the teaching of them being thus, them, being. And some of the examples I always think of, when I think of this, is people like Mahatma Gandhi, who held brotherly love for all the British brothers and respected them through all the years of conflict and persecution. I can’t remember a thing that he said, but I have that vision of him still that I carry.
And then there’s people like Rosa Parks. Remember Rosa Parks? She was the little old black lady who one day after a twelve hour day of work, sat down in the only seat in the front of the bus reserved for white people, and when she was told to move, she said, No. She was Rosa Parks, and that No started something called the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. So there’s teaching by being. All of us, every single one of us is called to be a teacher in this way: To be fully what we are, and that’s the great journey. To find out what that is and express it and be it. That’s being dharmic. A tree is dharmic, just being a tree. It doesn’t know it’s a tree. It doesn’t think about being a tree. It’s a tree. It gives shade and support for nests and food for woodpeckers. It also drops limbs on cars and sap on your new clothes or sheets hanging out on the line if you happen to have a line under a tree, and birds sit in it and shit on it and you have to clean that up, but it’s dharmic, and that’s what we’re called to be: Teachers of the dharma.
And that may take the form of being a Christiaan Barnard doing the first heart surgery, or it may take the form of being a teacher in grade school that helps some kid get over his math phobia, or it might be being a nurse or street sweeper. But if we’re fully that, we taste the dharma. We are the dharma and the dharma is us. I think where I’ve gotten confused for many years is not understanding, and I don’t know why -- tears are coming again -- you need to know I’m an emotional person. I laugh easy, I cry easy, that’s me -- but talking about this is a thusness of some people that are called to be quote unquote formal teachers of the dharma.
I like the first form much better because the second form triggers my mind too much. I kind of look at language, you know, like a king cobra, beautiful, beautiful thing that can turn on you and kill you in a second. What am I talking about? Let’s talk about knowledge and understanding first. Knowledge is something that we gain and we can accumulate. It is something that we can have more of or less of and when we read books, we gain knowledge. Many years ago I read a book by Joko Beck, surprise, surprise. In that book -- I’m running over aren’t I -- in that book there was a section on hope, giving it up, maybe you all have read that portion. It made sense to me. Analyze, observation, hmmm. I’m hurtin’. But if I didn’t want things to be different from the way they are, then I wouldn’t hurt anymore, right? Makes perfect sense.
So I, being the diligent Zen student, worked diligently at that. And I got there. I got there. Snip: the desire, snip: the hurt; there wasn’t any more of that, but there wasn’t any joy or laughter or even tears. All of a sudden I started having these thoughts come up like, There’s no reason to live. I think all the Zen practice also helped me with the next thought, which was, Well, if there’s no reason to live, there’s no reason not to live. The snare was there, although I didn’t know it. The snake. Higher and higher. The word got me into this, but then I got a book by somebody called Barry Magid about psychoanalysis and Zen, and I read that book, and something that needed to be comforted was comforted, and I didn’t understand it and I didn’t know it, but it kept coming back.
To make a long story short because we’re running out of time, life came back. I’d gotten caught in formlessness that led to nihilism, and I was with a group and a teacher at that time who, because of their experience and not understanding my experience, was not able to help me. So the thing that I want to say to you, to cut this very short, is that it’s all good. It’s all teachings. I wouldn’t trade a moment of anything in my life for anything. Believe no one. Trust everything and everybody. When it gets tough, get curious. What is that? I don’t know. As soon as you know, you’ve shut the door. You’re gone. What is that? How come that hurts? And don’t forget to do that with joy and laughter too, What is that? What is that? Because that’s where it’s at. That’s where the magic is. Stay open and most of all: trust yourselves. Right where you are. Need I say more?
This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.