The Zen founder, of course, is Bodhidharma, the first patriarch, and this koan completes the arc that began with Emperor Wu asking Bodhidharma, What is the highest holiest truth of Buddhism? He did not recognize the meaning of Bodhidharma’s answer: Vast wholeness, vast emptiness, nothing holy, and he probably wouldn’t recognize this answer either: Sitting long becomes tiring. We began sesshin like the emperor and like Thoreau, whose words we used for the opening Wednesday night, asking: What is most essential in our life? What is most essential to get at in this practice? Both Thoreau and the emperor in their own opposite ways framed the question for themselves in ways that both inspire them but also in the end narrow their vision of what an answer could look like.
Thoreau starts off as we all do, wanting to live our lives deliberately, essentially, and he comes from an assumption that what is false and superficial about our life is what’s social and conventional, and that the truth, the essence is to get away from other people, go out into nature, which is simple, direct, the way he embodies a secular version of home-leaving like all monks do. There’s something very genuine about his attempt to simplify his life, to live directly, to live as honestly as he can, and yet the very way he frames his quest, going off alone, would make it very hard for him to discover that one’s most essential thing in life is love. It’s a hard thing to find if you’re going out by yourself into the woods. We can say he substitutes a love of nature for a failure to find his way to the human variety.
Emperor Wu likewise genuinely wants to penetrate the truth of Buddhism and bring Buddhism to his country, and he in many ways does very great works endowing monasteries and supporting Buddhism, and yet his notion of Buddhism is grounded in merit and holiness, the accumulation of good deeds that will undo past bad karma. So the very conception, the very way he frames the problem, leaves no room for him to hear Bodhidharma’s answer about emptiness, clearly undercutting the distinction between the ordinary and the holy.
Now Bodhidharma in his sort of absolute refusal to engage the emperor at the level the emperor comes to him with, he comes in embodiment for the way sesshin or practice completely blocks or undercuts any project we bring to it, and we all bring some project with us of what we imagine we’re doing, what we imagine we’ll accomplish. And as we begin sesshin, it’s necessary to bump up against that kind of limit, the refusal of sesshin to fulfill our expectations, to get with our own personal program. It will for a while but if our practice is really going to change us in a meaningful way, it has to obstruct us like Bodhiharma obstructs the emperor, and he gives us this uncompromising model of nine years of wall-gazing when the emperor does not understand his answer. He just goes off by himself and sits facing the wall, and that becomes the model for why in Soto Zen we sit facing the wall rather than facing the center.
When we block all these projects, when we’re stuck, we can reach a point of not knowing, where we don’t know what we’re up to and Bodhidharma’s “I don’t know” becomes the point at which we find ourselves. When our projects are blocked we can just do one thing after another in sesshin, just what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, all we do is show up, even forgetting any idea of what this is or what it’s for, and we can reach a clear space -- just this, just this. And that’s the place we saw in yesterday’s koan of the Buddha ascending the high seat, sitting there in silence, and Manjusri proclaiming: The teaching of the King of the Dharma is just this. The Buddha gets down, Nansen doesn’t say a word. We needed some way to be able to have the experience of just this, that silence, and yet it’s a very easy place to misunderstand, to get stuck because we can easily imagine that it’s the Buddha's silence that Manjusri is pointing to, and the “Just this” is a kind of state of a completely clear mirror, nothing reflected, nothing obstructed, no words, no thoughts, no action. And while we will find moments in our practice of that kind of clarity, it can set up a new and really quite terrible dualism in our lives when we think that that is what we’re supposed to be like, because then all the contents of our mind, all of our thoughts and emotions, become obstacles, contaminants. They spoil that nice clear calm mind we think we’ve come to meditation to attain.
Now while it’s necessary that we confront Bodhidharma and have everything cut off, there’s something inhuman about that stance. It’s uncompromising, obdurate, simply gazing at the wall, and basically we can’t live that way, and I think it’s interesting that we need to find a way to humanize our practice to bring what actually is human about us back into the center of our practice. One of the funny ways that I think that happens is that Bodhidharma himself becomes the object of caricature. He is probably more than any other portrayed in these Zen scrolls, and he’s always portrayed in a kind of funny, exaggerated, almost comic way, where all his features are exaggerated, his sternness, his absoluteness is sort of pushed to an extreme where he’s almost a figure of fun. It’s interesting that in some way it’s been necessary to humanize him, put a big funny nose on him, right? We want to bring something human back into our practice.
And that’s what I think this koan does. What is the meaning of the Zen founder’s coming to the West? It’s a seemingly profound and abstract question, something like the one the emperor asks, but he gets a very ordinary and also sort of funny answer: Sitting long becomes tiring. The meaning of the whole shebang, all these generations of teachers, and what does it come down to? Sitting long gets pretty tiring. Right? You’ve probably realized that for yourself. And that is really how the Buddha’s teaching of “Just this” manifests in your life, a sore ass. Not some regal silence but a painful knee, a wandering mind, tired legs, just this, whatever the content of the moment is.
When we come around to this we see that the contents of our mind, our thoughts and our emotions, are not obstructions or contaminants, they’re not spoiling that nice clear calmness that we think we’re here to achieve. Rather, those moments of calmness or clarity, if they have any value, it’s that they lead us to see that emptiness, or the perfection of our sore legs, our wandering mind, our anxiety, can lead us into a deep appreciation of everything about who and what we are.
Some of you have the beginnings of that experience and come and tell me the very thing that we come to sesshin to try to get rid of, suddenly is not a problem. Just this. It’s who you are. You can stay with that, be that, even in some strange way cherish and appreciate it even though for so long you thought it was the one thing that was ruining your life. Actually it just is your life. When we hear a phrase like, Sitting long becomes tiring, what does it mean differently when it’s expressed by an old teacher after years and years of sitting versus a person coming to their first sesshin and really just sort of complaining what a pain in the ass it is, right? What’s the difference? There is a difference, and it is that when Korin says, Sitting long becomes tiring, where tiring for him has no opposite. Just tiring. When you just completely allow yourself to have the experience of the moment, it’s not in contrast to some other experience you wish you were having. It’s not in contrast to the way it used to be or is supposed to be in the future. It’s just what’s happening now and that’s all there is and that's all you need.
The same way, as we get older, we mature in our practice so that older has no opposite in youth. It’s not in contrast to something that I used to have and I’m clinging to but I don’t have anymore. I’m just this age now. This is who I am. This is what I am. And we can extend that line to our moments of illness and difficulty, where we just know that is our life. It’s not a problem within our life. It’s our life. Korin is showing you the meaning of the gateless gate. When we start out, we think there’s a great obstacle we don’t know how to enter. What he’s showing you, sitting long becomes tiring, he means there is no obstacle anywhere. Enter right here.