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Why do we sit? Barry Magid March 2nd 2024

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Blue Cliff Record, Case 28


Nan Ch’uan went to see Master Nirvana of Pai Chang.
Chang asked, “Have all the sages since antiquity had a truth they haven’t spoken for people?”
Ch’uan said, “They have.”
Chang said, “What is the truth that hasn’t been spoken for people?”
Ch’uan said, “It’s not mind, it’s not buddha, it’s not anything.”
Chang said, “You said it.”
Ch’uan said, “I am just thus. What about you, Teacher?”
Chang said, “I am not a great man of knowledge either: how would I know whether it has been spoken or not?”
Ch’uan said, “I don’t understand.”
Chang said, “I’ve already spoken too much for you.”


Patriarchs and Buddhas never helped people.
Patchrobed monks present and past running neck and neck.
When the bright mirrors are on their stands, the range of images differ.
One by one they all face south and see the northern dipper.
The dipper handle is hanging down.
There’s no place to seek.
When you pick up your nostrils, you lose your mouth.

We can imagine Nan Ch’uan and Pai Chang here, as dharma brothers challenging each other. The Mumonkan contains the first part of this story and ends with Nan Ch’uan having the last word. It’s not mind, it’s not buddha, it’s not anything. And in presenting it that way, it makes it look like he is the elder and is given the last word. Not mind, not buddha, not a thing. The Blue Cliff Record gives the longer account. It gives Pai Chang the last word.

What do we make of the question? Is there some teaching, some truth that the sages, the patriarchs, have never preached? In a way it sounds like it’s asking for something in one last final esoteric secret. What’s the real deal that nobody’s ever been let in on? And of course we can always fantasize that there’s one more big thing to learn that’s been withheld or that we still need to discover for ourselves. That’s its own kind of fantasy that we have to pursue to its end.

But another way to think of this question is Pai Chang challenges Nan Ch’uan and asks, Is there a truth you can speak that doesn’t simply echo the teachings of all the patriarchs and sages? Do you have anything original to say? Do you have any words of your own? Is there some truth that you can utter that isn’t just you handing down what you’ve always heard from everybody else? Nan Ch’uan has a lot of courage here. He says, Yes! I can! Pai Chang says, Well, what is it? And Nan Ch’uan says, It’s not mind, it’s not buddha, it’s not anything. What I’ve been taught all these years, is it’s all mind. Everything is buddha. Well, no mind, no buddha. In a sense, he’s saying, kill the buddha, forget the mind.

Pai Chang says, As soon as you say that, you’ve created another cliche. Now everybody’s going to run around and say, Not mind, not buddha. You’re going to get generations of students saying, I don’t know! So this is always the challenge. As soon as you open your mouth, you either parrot something you’ve heard before or, God forbid, you’ve said something original, you’ve got everybody around you parroting you, and that doesn’t feel very good either.

So when Nan Ch’uan is challenged by that, he’s able to bow and acknowledge this, and say, Well, What about you? And Pai Chang gets in this great line. He says, I’m not some great Zen master. How should I know? It’s a wonderful answer! Nan Ch’uan tries to mirror it and he says, I don’t understand. Pai Chang adds, I’ve already spoken too much. If you speak anything it risks the danger of it becoming the new answer.

I think that we can take this dialog back to the question we were asking yesterday: How do you answer when someone asks you, What is the meaning of coming to Linwood? What is the reason you practice? What do you get out of it? How are you going to sum up the truth of this for people? And it’s a very hard question. As we were saying the other day, I think that inevitably we come for all sorts of complicated, self-centered reasons. And that practice is in a sense designed to draw out all those curative fantasies and gradually give them the chance to wear themselves out. But what are we left with? Is there any way to speak about what we’re left with afterwards?

The verse says patriarchs and buddhas never helped anybody, and they say the Buddha never preached in all his forty years of teaching. In therapy training they used to have the expression, “The helping hand strikes again.” I think Thoreau says somewhere, “If I see someone coming down the path with the intention to help me, I run out the back door.” So often helping comes with some agenda. Every child and every parent knows this. Every parent has some idea of what being a good parent is, and inevitably there are aspects of that that backfire. The idea of helping always has some implicit or sometimes explicit agenda of what the good outcome is supposed to look like. My father thought education was very important, and I should go to school and study and in the end I could become any kind of doctor I wanted to be. That was a path that had a clearly prescribed endpoint.

So parents and teachers all have to learn what counts as helping, and what counts as this kind of controlling helping hand that can do good up to a point, but which in a way will always contain seeds of its own failures. Sometimes we try to find a way to practice that just cuts through all our preconceptions of what this is. I ask people to just look out the window and watch the river. I don’t know if any Buddhist patriarch has ever taught that before. But I don’t want it to turn into a technique – Oh ! That's what Magid teaches! He just asks people to look at the river. It’s very hard to do something simple without reifying it into the next thing as a technique that you do well or badly.

Sesshin is this very strange dialectic between structure and effort and just leaving yourself alone. Just sitting. Just seeing what shows up in the mirror. We’re told studying the way is to study the self and to study the self is to forget the self. Most people are in a hurry to forget the self. I think sesshin always has a kind of back and forth between those two things: studying the self or probably more like being confronted with the self, and having the self just be right there in front of you in a way that you can’t ignore it. David Foster Wallace, I believe, said Don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings; they’ll get in touch with you. That’s what sesshin does.

You don’t have to go looking for the self. It’s going to force itself on your attention, particularly day after day as things get difficult or boring or repetitive, or not the way you like – all our self judgments about how everybody else is doing things, and all our agendas about how we’re doing start to come out and display themselves, sometimes privately and sometimes publicly. In that sense sesshin is all about studying the self, your own repetitive versions of trying to control and fix and avoid and judge. All these things just come out, one time after another. Sometimes they come out so painfully that it all just turns to ashes in your mouth, and the self is just something that you see as Oh my God! Am I that? And sometimes that just allows things to fall away.

But there are other sides of sesshin where we do allow ourselves to finally just sit, with nothing to do and nothing in particular to be. Sometimes we can do that by sitting and looking at the wall, sometimes we’ll do it just watching the river, where all there is is the river. We watch all the ways the light moves on the river and the water moves, and the clouds in the sky and the trees. And for a little while, maybe, we forget about who’s watching. It’s just the river. All our attention is on how it’s changing and none particularly on what we’re doing. And for a few moments the self is forgotten. It’s just the river. And then we’ll come back and the self is there, as big as life, all over again and we have to go through this dialectic back and forth and over and over again.

Why do we do it? Eventually, I think, it's just something we do. I don’t think anymore about what I get out of sesshin. It’s just something I do. I can probably say I’m the kind of person who likes a fair degree of structure and routine and discipline in their life. I like that sort of thing. I don’t like being at loose ends. I’m a Thank God It’s Monday kind of person. But it’s like how some people are drawn to music or art. Sometimes kids are made to take piano lessons, sometimes kids grow up wanting to be Eric Clapton. Maybe it’s voluntary or maybe it’s involuntary, but they grow up playing and practicing, and after a while the original motivation doesn’t have much to do with it anymore. Music just becomes part of their lives. It’s what they do and who they are.

Sitting can be like that. We all get into it for crazy reasons, but after a while it becomes something we do. We may not have to make a profession out of it, but you can just have something that’s really part of the way you live and structure your life, and it becomes a habit. And if anybody says, Why do you do that? I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve been doing a long time. It can be a very unsatisfying answer, right? And yet, there’s something about not knowing, particularly what it is or why you do it, that leaves it more open-ended, more free from any kind of particular means-to-an-end kind of thinking.

I remember in San Diego after some dharma talk, people were talking about what difference zazen made in their lives, and one woman very earnestly said, My room is a lot neater now. I think that’s the kind of bi-product practice sometimes has in your life. I don’t think anybody would say, I practice to become a better bed-maker and a neater person, but things happen. As in this dialog, we end up with: I don’t understand. I’ve already said too much. Which I think is probably a good place to end.

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