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Confronting Expectations Barry Magid February 25th 2023

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After giving so many talks on Zoom these last few years, it actually feels strange to be talking to a room full of real people and I have to get used to it all over again. I thought I would start by reading the opening paragraph from Joko’s book, Everyday Zen, but when I went downstairs to get my old copy of the book, I found in there a couple of photos, one taken at a sesshin in San Diego and the other would have been [inaudible] with Maezumi Roshi. These pictures must be close to 40 years old.

It’s strange to think that that much time has gone by. If people want to take a look at what I looked like with a lot of hair, we can pass them around after. So this is the beginning of Everyday Zen. “My dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn’t get her breakfast, but she doesn’t sit around worrying if she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened. As long as she gets some food and a little affection, her life is fine. But we human beings are not like dogs. We have self-centered minds which get us into plenty of trouble. If we do not come to understand the error in the way we think, our self-awareness, which is our greatest blessing, is also our downfall.”

Now I don’t think Joko read much Heidegger, but you can use this paragraph as an introduction for Heidegger for Dummies, because one of the ways Heidegger introduces the idea of Dasein, which is his word for human-being, means being there, being situated in the world. He says, Dasein is the one being for whom it’s being is a problem or is an issue, and this is basically what Joko is saying is the difference between herself and her dog. The dog doesn’t have any issue with how to be a dog. But human beings get very preoccupied with What does it mean to be a human being? And how do you do it? And how do you do it well? And what does it mean to screw it up and get it wrong?

Now this is, we can say, the problem of suffering. She makes this basic distinction here between suffering, which comes from self-centered preoccupation with things like our human nature or our liberation or our enlightenment, and the kind of problem a dog might have, which is not getting enough to eat or not getting affection. We obviously will suffer if we don’t get those things too, but it seems like we’re adding this extra layer.

What this immediately raises is whether the solution to our problems is to become more dog-like, and this seems to be an option that a lot of people opt for. Sometimes they don’t think they should become like a dog. Sometimes, they think, maybe I should become like a little child. I’ll go back to a place of simplicity and directness, before I developed all these cognitive capacities to create intellectual trouble for myself, and I’ll imagine that childhood is this kind of Wordsworthian state of naturalness that has gotten contaminated by adulthood and civilization, and I need to return to that in some way.

Sometimes we hear people say that what they want to do is become natural, like the dog or like the fish in the ocean or the bird in the sky, just simply being what we are and doing what we do without any kind of hindrance. And the hindrance is very typically identified with our conceptual lives, as Joko here says, our self-awareness, and so we develop these elaborate disciplines of meditation, of practice, that for a lot of people seem to be designed to free us from conceptualization, free us from thinking, and return us to this state of nature.

In our practice, we have this famous koan that asks, Does a dog have Buddha nature? For most people, the question really is, Do I have Buddha nature, and if I do, where did it go? Where is it? Why can’t I find it? We can say that one of the great obstacles that we encounter is this very particular concept of being concept-free. It’s sort of one of these strange paradoxes of practice that we get it in our heads that our thinking, our concepts, stand between us and the world, and we start creating what’s really a whole conceptual fantasy of immediate experience and directness, something that will return us to what we imagine is the purity and immediacy of our original dog or baby nature, and we somehow metaphorically and in our imagination, plug that in for what we think Buddha nature is.

Now Sartre, in Existentialism is a Humanism, says that because he’s an atheist, he doesn’t believe in human nature. And what he means by that, is religion provides us with this distinct picture of human nature that we then have to work with and within. And it’s actually very much what Joko is presenting in this first paragraph. If you’re a Christian, you have a picture of human nature as fallen, a picture of original sin, of perhaps pride, perhaps sexuality, as the thing that has contaminated your basic innocence, and somehow we need a faith or a practice of redemption to help us work through this built-in characteristic of what it means to be a fallen mortal human being.

And Joko is giving you, because she’s religious, also this picture of human nature. It’s basically in danger of being contaminated by, as she says, self-awareness, self-consciousness. If you look at early Buddhism you can say the root of suffering is not self-consciousness but desire, or attachment, and there are lots of ways we can talk about this, to put desire and self-awareness in synch with each other primarily through a picture of desire to control things so that they wouldn’t be impermanent. I can have what I want and not have it go away.

But in a certain sense, each one of these pictures denies us the naturalness of the dog, and in one of the strange things of this Zen practice of ours, is that it is simultaneously this long-term disciplined effort that we make to practice leaving everything alone. In our sitting, what we’re really doing, is first of all, sitting still, and sitting still, both with our body and our mind. We can think that the point of the stillness is a kind of imperturbability or being unmovable or unflappable by whatever happens, and we can think that our mind is supposed to have a kind of parallel, a kind of absolute stillness to correspond with our physical stillness, and for some people that turns into the fantasy of having the mind completely quiet, completely free of thought, completely free of emotion, the mind as the clear blue sky or the mirror that reflects nothing, just pure awareness.

In a way, these are all conceptual fantasies, the paradox being that they are all about being concept free. Now, we engage in this paradoxical practice of leaving everything just as it is, and we try in some sense to come to terms with our mind as it is, with our life as it is, because in Joko’s terms, we have a powerful sense that this isn’t it. And again, there’s this strange dichotomy that opens up about this notion that this isn’t it. Is that a good thing or is it a bad thing?

When Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness, nothingness, for him, was the capacity, the distinctly human capacity, to say this isn’t it. To negate what is. To imagine that things could be otherwise. To say that things could be otherwise than what they are, was, for him, the essence of freedom. And yet, we struggle to say what does it mean to stay with things just as they are? What things should we stay with and what things should we try to change?

When Dogen talks about the identity of practice and enlightenment, in a sense he’s saying, you don’t have to change anything. Zazen itself is the performance of enlightenment, the enactment of enlightenment. And he’s saying this to people who are already doing it. He’s saying it to a room full of monks who’ve been sitting there day after day and year after year, with most of them thinking, Am I there yet? And he’s saying Yes, you’ve already arrived. This is already it! And of course everybody's reaction was, I didn’t think it was going to be like this. I had something else in mind.

Dogen had his own particular picture of this kind of identity of human nature and Buddha nature and practice and enlightenment such that to live the life of the monk was to return yourself to this dog-like state of being perfectly human, being perfectly Buddha. For him, being a monk was like a fish in the water, the bird in the sky. It was the full exercise of what you are. Just to live this life, to sit in zazen, is to realize the impermanence and interconnection of all things. This is your Buddha nature. This is what we practice and enact in real lives day in and day out in this form of life.

What we do here as lay students is something significantly different in that we’re all living one form of life, and saying, well, this is it. Right? The founding statement of the lay Zen Teachers Association says, We believe that the dharma can be fully realized, expressed and transmitted in lay life, that there’s no particular form of life or training necessary to be a Buddhist, to be in tune with your Buddha nature, to realize who and what we are.

And so in that sense, we take on this Sartrian freedom to say, well, it could be otherwise. We don’t have to run things here like Dogen ran them in thirteenth century Japan. We won’t set that up as the real thing and see everything else as a compromise or deviation from authenticity. Authenticity is available to us right now in what we’re doing, as we do it. And a big kind of koan for everybody is really, Can I experience or trust that this is it? A real practice isn’t what guys in robes and shaved heads are doing, but what you’re doing right here. This is it. Just this.

What we do in our lay practice in this very basic sense, is practice over and over again with the identity of relative and absolute. See, by absolute we mean a sense of this is it. Nothing is missing. Nothing is hidden. This is reality. Not in comparison to something else, not lacking or having too much of this or that, but wholly, perfectly, completely just this. And where is that to be found? I’ll end with a little story from the Blue Cliff Record that illustrates this.

In the old days, there was a teacher who left the temple behind and went off to be a hermit, and he lived up on a mountain-top, in an area of a few small farmers and villagers. He really hid himself away, practiced alone, and in order to support himself, apparently he would gather nuts from the surrounding forest and press them to make oil, which he would go down now and then to sell to the farmers in the village. And even though he did his best to be out in the middle of nowhere, and be a hermit, one way or another somehow people heard about this strange guy on the mountain, and inevitably monks would make pilgrimages to try and meet this hermit master. And one day a monk shows up at the hermitage, sees the old man inside, comes in, looks at him, just sees what looks like an old peasant, and he says right out to him, You know, I’ve come all this way on pilgrimage to see the famous Zen Master, but all I see is an old man selling oil. The teacher says to him, You only see an old man selling oil. You can’t see the Zen Master. So the monk says, please sir, show me the Master. And the old man says, “Oil! Oil! Who will buy my oil?”

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