One Sunday, at a temple I practiced at some time ago, there was someone new in the audience for the abbot’s talk. These talks always began with what to me felt like a brutally obscure koan followed by a story I could never relate back to said koan. After the talk, the man came up to my teacher and said - “I know what that koan is all about…” and he rattled off an explanation that sounded like fine Zen Buddhism. The abbot listened and nodded. When the man was done speaking, after a beat of silence, the abbot replied - “And did that change your life?” The man had no reply and the abbot walked away.
“Did that change your life?” It’s an interesting question about our relationship to the dharma. I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately. When I hear the dharma, or a teaching, what do I do with it? Does any of this change my life? Do I let it change my life? Do I actually want it to?
The question my teacher asked was a kind of everyday shorthand for - “Did that free you from delusion?”
Delusion is essentially misunderstanding the way the world is. From the perspective of the dharma, the world is impermanent, interdependent, and empty.
How else could we express that? I could say, there’s nothing that’s not subject to change. I’m vulnerable to others. I can only be described in relationship to everything else. I am who I am because of who you are. And most importantly, I could say I am embedded in this world, I can’t stand apart from it. Those all express some facet of the dharma - the way things already are.
If we were stopped on the street and questioned about one of these, it’s not like we’d deny things change, for instance. Or if we were called on in a discussion group we wouldn’t have trouble saying all of us are interconnected.
“Did that change my life?”
Delusion isn’t about not knowing definitions or having the “right” answer to give to my teacher or dharma siblings. It’s a subtle thing that drives me, and my approach towards life.
Think about that - we can be driven by a misunderstanding of the way things are.
When there’s some aspect of my life, some experience of the world that I find difficult and want to change, whether I realize it or not, the solutions I come up with can unknowingly treat the way the world already is, me as I already am, as a problem. Something I have to make other than it is.
When I try to fix myself, or my life, by gaining something I lack or getting rid of a part of myself I hate, that's delusion. When I believe I can and need to protect myself from my life, that's delusion.
And what better technique for improving myself and my life than Buddhism? To me, the teachings sound like a strategy, a technique to implement. And I have many pictures of how I will look and feel in all circumstances, once I succeed.
But because the dharma is a description of how the world is, it could never aid me in my goal of fixing things. The Dharma can only give me “already’s". I am already embedded and inseparable from the world. I couldn’t stand apart from my life to add what I think I lack, no matter how hard I might want to or try to.
Did saying any of that change my life? No, and I don’t want it to. I much prefer hoping I can change my experience. Delusion is a project whose imagined rewards are so seemingly necessary for me to live my life, that I don't want to let go of this approach.
Here’s one piece of dharma from a koan about sanctuary I’ve certainly turn into a project every now and again -
One day, when the Buddha was walking along with some of his sangha, he pointed to the ground said, "This is a good place to build a sanctuary." One among them plucked a blade of grass and stuck it in the earth and said, "The sanctuary is built."
From the perspective of delusion it sounds like it’s saying that if you look hard enough or put enough work in, you can make a sanctuary anywhere. And that sanctuary will have a particular content - it certainly won’t feel however we’ve been feeling in all those moments without refuge and sanctuary.
And whether we've heard this koan or not, people come to the zendo wanting to feel sanctuary as opposed to something else. After a stressful week at work, a failing company, a difficult relationship, a broken arm, people come in looking for refuge.
I love that people do this and can find real comfort and solace here. I do think it's one of the functions of a place like this.
But Barry's pointed out to me - that's fine, but people will miss the real refuge they have access to if sheltering from life is all they’re up to.
He’s right. For people who only come to the zendo for relief, sanctuary is all about creating boundaries. Sanctuary is delimited by the threshold to the zendo, or by time away from work or family.
I’ll use practice and the teachings to make myself into a person who has emotional control in any circumstance, who is the same in all these moments.
There is a wall between sanctuary and not-sanctuary that I try to build and protect. And so what I call sanctuary is actually a fortress.
This kind of sanctuary will never stand for long. And if you’re like me, you might start pulling in other strategies beyond coming to the zendo to make this project happen.
I’ve pretended I understand and believe some piece of the dharma to others, maybe over coffee, maybe in discussion group. I’ll try and convince Barry in dokusan that I believe something that I’ve had no experience of. Hoping I can convince myself, or I’ll believe it eventually. I’ll pretend it’s this way now because it’s going to happen and I’ll get there later. All moments of calling what’s happening “not sanctuary.” All moments of trying to repair myself and what’s happening.
Did any of that change my life?
So how can a teaching deconstruct a perspective like that? Barry’s pointed me to an idea that Philip Bromberg works with - in therapy we should be “safe, but not too safe.” Bromberg is a psychoanalyst who’s work resonates a lot with Zen stuff.
I found a paragraph in one of his papers that struck me as providing a lot of insight into the abbot’s question. Compare the two -
"The analytic relationship inevitably repeats the failures of the patient's past but must do more than just repeat it. Something new must occur — something that has to emerge out of what patient and analyst do in an unanticipated way. I've called these unanticipated relational events “safe surprises,” because it is only through surprise that a new reality — a space between spontaneity and safety — is co-constructed and infused with an energy of its own.”
Consider the sanctuary example. Did that project of dividing the world into sanctuary and not-sanctuary change your life? No. It’s simply a repetition of all the failed efforts at repairing life we made before we came to practice. All our endless striving to move away from who and where we already are.
Bromberg notes this is inevitable. It’s really OK to be deluded about all this. But we have to also let the teacher - whether our actual teacher or life as it is - unravel and disrupt that way of treating life. It has to change our lives.
I want to take a minute to talk about a word he uses in this excerpt before taking on any of the rest of it - “safe.”
If some project of change we’ve been pursuing for years - making us into who we think we need to become - if that falls apart, we might fall apart.
I remember when two senior students at a temple I was at left somewhat suddenly, I asked the abbot what happened? He said, “it’s a shame, they were on the cusp of realizing something.”
Looking back on the rest of the conversation we had, I wonder if some project they had was finally, surprisingly, disrupted by the “analyst” - the teacher and the dharma.
What’s life on the other side of that unraveling? What is there when we stop making? I don’t know.
If we can’t stay with “I don’t know,” the only way to stay with the failed project is to see all our attempts at control as all for naught. We cling to the ashes of our failed attempts to make us into something different, because the alternative is too scary.
I’ve had that feeling myself. More dramatically in the past, but even becoming a residential student again involved giving up on projects and pictured outcomes. I sat with the ashes of those pictures before letting “I don’t know” come in close. That felt appropriate - a little wistfulness, and appreciation for the loss of an imagined life that deserves a moment’s silence, and a kind of “So long fantasy! It’s been fun.” Sangha, teacher, and practice give me enough safety to stay with, and discover who I am when the ashes blow away.
In Zen practice, there are a few ways we can find the right amount of safety (safe, but not too safe) that we need to be able to hold the feeling of our perspectives changing.
Cultivate your ties to the sangha. Make plans, meet for coffee dates, hang out. Arrive early to sitting, maybe invite folks to stay a little after sitting, just to catch up. Study a text together.
Cultivate your relationship with Barry. Schedule dokusan with him as you engage this stuff. He’ll only respond to your initiative, but he’s always just an email away - if you're serious about all this, you have to make a commitment to do that.
And then there's the discipline. Show up. Even when it feels like there’s no reason to do it, show up. Let it hold you in whatever state you’re in.
Within that safety, and openness to disruption, let’s revisit the sanctuary.
The dharma is the way things already are. So we might ask ourselves after failing to make a sanctuary - "What if sanctuary isn’t a task after all?" What if it’s not something I have make myself feel? What if it’s just what’s already so? What if sanctuary is the natural state of everything in the universe?
In other koans, the "grasses" sometimes refer to thoughts, concerns, anxieties, and so on. Often what we come to practice to rid ourselves of. And in this koan, that everyday content of our life, is where to make a sanctuary.
In the koan, where the man declares that the sanctuary is built, a twelfth century teacher, Wansong, comments on that line, saying, "Repairs will be difficult.”
Wansong's pointing out that the real difficulty is in our attempts to change, to fix something unbroken. To me, sometimes, I only see the moment as a broken half-constructed version of the sanctuary I picture. An incomplete thing I need to repair. I am an incomplete thing I need to repair.
Repairs have never been necessary. This moment, which is to say, life, whatever its content, is already the place of rest, refuge, and home.
Over and over this has been one of the biggest surprises for me - I don’t have to make something happen. I don’t have to make myself experience something other than what’s happening.
Did that shift in perspective change my life? In some moments, something withers, and on the other side of disappointment, something new about life, about myself is allowed to be expressed. I put down my tools.
It’s just a moment of no longer defining sanctuary by the distance between the moment and some imagined repair to it. The moment, my experience, is no longer defined by what I judge it to lack.
In these moments, when I'm very lucky - Yes. My life is changed.
This is what I’m going to commit to in the New Year. I’m going be more disciplined about asking - Am I trying to use the dharma to make something happen? To make me into someone better? to fix some aspect of my life or my experience?
I’ll look for where the dharma might safely disrupt that project. And then hold it close. I’ll lean on the sangha, study with Barry, study the dharma, and try and find the right kind of effort. The effort to stop making. The effort to let the way the world already is startle and surprise.
And ultimately, I hope to investigate two questions I think are my real task of practice - Who am I if I’m not something I have to make happen? Who am I already?