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You are still here Barry Magid August 4th 2023

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Blue Case Record, Case 73.

A monk asked Great Master Ma, “Teacher, beyond all permutations of assertion and denial, please tell me why Bodhidharma came from the West?”

Great Master Ma said, “Today I’m exhausted and can’t explain. Ask Zhizang.”

The monk asked Zhizang and he replied, “Why didn’t you ask the Teacher?” The monk said, “The Teacher told me to ask you.”

Zhizang said, “Today I have a headache and can’t explain. Ask Baizhang.''

The monk asked Baizhang and he replied, “Even at this point, I myself don’t understand.”

The monk raised these exchanges with Great Master Ma, who said, “Zhizang’s head is white; Baizhang’s head is black.”

We have the monk coming, as they say, in all earnestness, asking, Can you just cut to the chase? What is this all about? Leave aside the four phrases and the hundred negations. Stop telling me all that stuff about Hegel and Heidigger. What is this really all about?

I think it’s as if the monk says, Once and for all, just hold back the curtain and show me what’s really there, and I would reply, It’s a lovely curtain, isn’t it? In each case, the monk is asking for a direct expression of the meaning of the coming of the West, and in each case he gets it, but in each case, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t think he’s getting an answer. He thinks he’s stumbling on an obstacle in the path, rather than seeing the path itself. I’m tired today. I have a headache. Just this?

Brother Zhi is a little subtle when he says, As for that, I don’t know. “I don’t know” is another kind of direct expression of Bodhidharma’s, right? When Master Ma says one’s head is white and one’s head is black, in one case white is the light illuminates the particular, and the black is the darkness of not knowing. Both are appropriate answers. But the monk doesn’t get it. In a way it’s too subtle.

We get another version of this in Case 17. A monk asks Xianglin: What is the meaning of the patriarch’s coming from the West? Xianglin says, “Sitting for a long time becomes tiring.” Here he doesn’t say, I can’t answer today because I’m too tired. He says, Sitting a long time becomes tiring. It’s like he’s really just handing him an answer. We don’t know if the monk gets anything about it at all.

Yesterday we talked about the monk who got mu for an answer, and how for generations monks are sent off with the question, What is mu? And whatever they say, it’s wrong. Wherever they go, they can’t find it. It’s as if it’s the most elusive thing in the world. In the Sandokai it says, The absolute works together with the relative like two arrows meeting in midair. When you’re looking for mu like the monk in the koan, it’s as if it's this impossible, improbable event, like two arrows meeting in midair. We just can’t find anything that makes it happen or that fits.

But in these koans, Zhizang comes at it from the opposite direction. I’m tired. I have a headache. I don’t know. Here, you can’t miss. Ordinary life fits the absolute like a box and its lid. When you come from that direction, everything is it. Everything. Every particular is a manifestation of the absolute. What wouldn’t be an answer?

Before sesshin we were reading from the end of the collected talks of Kyogen Carlson, and in the Epilogue, there’s this account of an encounter of a monk with his teacher, Jiyu-Kennett, and there again, we get a classic tale of a very unhappy camper monk, somebody’s who’s really struggling, and she says, I’ve been a monk here for years. I’ve done everything I thought I was supposed to do, but I’m still miserable. I get depressed, I get anxious, I can’t solve my koans – just nothing seems to work for me. What’s the matter?

And Kennett says, “You are still here.” And I think you could interpret that in at least three ways. Most superficial level is: You literally are still here. You’re hanging in there and you’re persisting. That’s what counts. Just stick to it. It’s true but probably not too satisfying to somebody who’s in that desperate a state.

The second level would be a somewhat trailing edge interpretation, putting the emphasis on the “you.” You’re still here, you’re still putting your self, putting your ego into the middle of the picture. We’re told koans that in the summer, the heat kills the monk, and in the winter, the cold kills the monk. What that’s supposed to mean is, in the summer you’re completely non-separate from the heat, and in the winter, you’re non-separate from the cold. You’re killed in the sense that your resistance disappears. Your ego and judgment disappear. You’re just hot. You’re just shivering. You’re just having completely the experience.

The Heart Sutra says, with no hindrance, having no fear. That’s what killing means. No hindrance. Just completely at one with the thing happening. So the second level of Kennett’s comment could be, you still have your ego in the midst of all this suffering. You need to just suffer. If you just stay in the middle of it, without the judgment, it would be a different experience.

The third way of talking about it, would be to treat it like we hear these koans and say, You’re true self is still here. Your true self is still right in the middle of what you’re presenting. It’s never been missing. You’re saying, You don’t get it? That’s it! That Is It. Not getting it. Suffering. That’s it. We’re not here to make all this change and go away, except to bring down all the barriers of resistance to and separation in the experience we’re having. It’s a dramatic version of the kind of thing I hear all the time in dokusan from people who say, after all these years, I’m still anxious, or I still get depressed, or my mind is still wandering all the time in sitting. Okay. Sitting long becomes tiring.

I sometimes describe this approach, what we’re doing here, as post-enlightenment practice. And I call it that, not because I’m attributing deep kensho to all of you, but because we’re trying to approach things from this direction of – You can’t miss – rather than – Where is it? Where is it?

Dogen talked about the identity of practice and realization. Zazen is not a technique. It’s not a means to an end. It’s not a way to become enlightened. The two are inseparably one. Your sitting is the manifestation of enlightenment. It is the manifestation of impermanence and interdependence and perfection. It’s just this. Just this.

Now the danger, sometimes, is when we talk about the identity of zazen and enlightenment, that zazen itself gets fetishized, and you get totally preoccupied with having perfect posture. Well, perfect posture is a nice thing to have, but that’s like getting hooked on being tired, as the manifestation of the absolute, and you figure out, Well, my practice will be taking a nap. Taking a nap is fine, and sitting with perfect posture is fine, but the point is much more not to zero in on anything in particular, but to see life as it is, as synonymous with realization; just being non-separate from whatever is happening.

Now we belong to this long tradition in which we practice non-separation through the practice of zazen. It’s sort of the stick that we need to be hit with to get our attention. It’s a very good vehicle to slow down, stay with what’s happening, and let it just be now. We tend to need the form, the ritual, the discipline, to hold us still long enough to have something of that experience. But we shouldn’t fetishize the sitting in the zendo and think that this is the only place the absolute ever manifests. It’s everywhere all the time.

And the question is, Do we train ourselves in a way that that becomes more and more obvious? And that’s not like we walk around all gaga, saying “This is it! This is it!” It’s much more that we are at home in our own skin, at home in our own life, a matter of no hindrance of non-separation, a sense of presence and okayness rather than judgment and lack in this chronic sense that Well, this isn’t it. I’m not doing it right. Like the monk in the Kyogen story even saying, This isn’t right. I’m not doing it right, is it! But it takes a sophisticated and mature practice to treat even your own doubt as It. That’s what we cultivate as we sit with all sorts of stuff going through our mind. We have all sorts of experiences and they’re all it. And gradually everything just evens out, the thoughts, the feelings, the sounds, the smells, the tastes. Just this. Just this.

From the perspective of mu, it’s so hard to realize that you have to do a practice of extreme effort and extreme concentration, and a kind of elite discipline and performance, and then you might have a ghost of a chance. From this other perspective, it’s just so simple that we don’t recognize it while we’re right in the midst of it. Which is it for you? So hard you can never imagine doing it? Or so easy that you can’t miss?

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