The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

Bodhidharma pacifies the mind. Passing through the gate of trust Barry Magid November 6th 2010

Download Talk

The Gateless Gate, Case 41 Bodhidharma Pacifies the Mind

I thought it fitting that before reading this koan I should have you all sit outdoors, just for twenty-five minutes on a nice autumn day, not in a snowstorm, it’s not asking you to endure too much in order to hear this teisho. Of course, I’m not Bodhidharma either. The ancients would probably say you get what you pay for. Or they would actually say that what you attain is in proportion to what you’re prepared to sacrifice. And this story, or parable, which is probably not historically the case, comes down to us as a model of the sacrifice demanded of us in this practice. I actually like to think of it as a dream, one that embodies our picture, an extreme picture of what we think is involved in sacrifice and surrender and acceptance by a teacher. And as such it contains, psychologically I think, a lot of very subtle and difficult issues, which I can only touch on a little bit. But I think that we can use the imagery here not literally, as in the sense that unless you’re willing to cut off your arm, you’re not the real thing, but to try to get a sense emotionally of what notions of sacrifice and surrender mean to us.

In a sense, when we come to sesshin, we’re symbolically asked to make a sacrifice, not to cut off our hand but to cut off our sense of choice and control, what we are willing to give up, and the hand is a good symbol of control, of being able to grasp something and do what we want with it. But to come to sesshin we have to voluntarily give that up, and it can be in very simple ways, like we give up control of when we go to sleep and when we get up, what and when we eat, when we’re allowed to speak, how long we’re going to sit. We give up control of who we sit next to, or in what kind of setting. Now all those can feel very minor or very big to us. For some people, not being able to sleep is like cutting off their hand. Really, it’s not just the physical limitations of sesshin, not just what you endure, but that you have to endure it because somebody’s telling you to endure it. It’s not just that you’re sleepless but that somebody is going to wake you up. At the most basic level we have to be willing to make that sacrifice, and it’s not just the price of admission like being led into Bodhidharma’s cave, but really being willing to see that as the practice itself, as part of what we’re trying to do is get free of the grip of likes and dislikes. And we see when they’re interrupted, when we don’t have that control, just how strong a grip they have on us.

There are many levels to this. The next, we might say, is what do we think is going to be demanded of us by a teacher in order to be a student, to be accepted, to be taken seriously? What do we have to give up to get that? What does it mean to become the student of a teacher? What does one submit to in doing that? What does one surrender to in doing that? That is having to pass through a certain gate of trust, of really being willing to just say “yes,” over and over, whatever is asked. And being asked by someone like me who may not fit your ideal of the perfect enlightened master but the one who’s right here in front of you, that you have to come to terms with. This is the opportunity you’re given. Are you going to say yes to it? Or are you going to say, Well, I’m not so sure.

The dilemma we face is that any situation where we have to submit to someone else will bring up for us old memories of traumas of when that submission was hurtful rather than for our benefit, and we really have to face what has been done to us in the past, and the fear that we’re going to be hurt again rather than helped by this practice. It’s a sad fact that many people have experienced practice in a way that is in fact retraumatizing, that too often, a student comes and is willing to cut off a hand to be a student of that teacher, the teacher looks at him and says, well, how about up to the elbow? When it’s never enough. Or the teacher has a sense that everybody should just be able to do the same thing, very cookie-cutter-like, no variation, no difference. In Japan the motto is, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, and hammering down is the training. Well, sometimes that’s very beneficial and sometimes you just end up with a lot of bent nails. It doesn’t go so smoothly.

So we have to be aware of the amount of trust that’s involved in this kind of relationship and we have to be honest and aware of the danger of being hurt, of being disappointed and feeling like something is being done to me rather than for me, and when that happens we have to be able to have a relationship with the teacher where we can bring that up and really expose it and have that worked through and acknowledged. It’s not part of what you got to do with traditional Japanese teachers but I think it’s absolutely necessary in a psychologically minded practice here in America.

The other aspect of this dream, this parable, that I think touches many people very deeply is this aspect of self-sacrifice, or self-mutilation, really, in the name of practice. Many of you have read or heard me talk about notions of curative fantasy or pathological accommodations, but what I’m saying of this kind of image is that the things I see people doing to themselves in the name of practice are often much more mutilating than anything that’s actually demanded of them by the practice. What people do in the service of their own curative fantasy is to say, I have to cut off some part of myself. I have to cut off my anger, my feelings, my needs, my desire for love, my sexuality, and God knows religion is often very guilty of colluding with this kind of fantasy, that some part of ourselves is profane and needs to be cut off if we’re going to be able to reach the sacred. . . .

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

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.