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Don't just exchange wrong for right Barry Magid November 27th 2009

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The Book of Equanimity, Case 16 Mayoku thumps his staff

The Main Case

Attention! Mayoku arrived at Shokei's place holding his staff.
He walked three times around the meditation seat of Shokei and thumped his staff once. Shokei said, "Right! Right!"
Mayoku afterward went to Nansen's, walked three times around the meditation seat of Nansen and thumped his staff once.
Nansen remarked "Wrong! Wrong!" Mayoku said, "Shokei said 'Right!' Why do you say, 'Wrong'?"
Nansen said, "For Shokei, it is right. For you it is wrong."


"Right" and "wrong" - watch out for the trap;
it seems to be putting down, seems to be approving.
Who's the elder is difficult to tell; who's the younger is difficult to tell.
He knows to release when it's time.
What's special about my snatching away?
Thumping the golden staff, standing all alone;
circling the rope mat thrice he plays at leisure.
Being agitated a Sangha spawns right and wrong.
I reflect that a demon's seen in a withered skull.

This morning in my opening remarks I said how zazen is something we can’t do right or wrong. Yet that ground of practice where there is neither right or wrong is hard to maintain. To say that we can’t do zazen right or wrong is not to say that there are no mistakes in the zendo. What we do here is formal and ritualized. We have lots of little rules and it’s easy to get them wrong, particularly in oryoki. We can do it for a couple of decades and still get it wrong, as I demonstrated, forgetting when a chant would come. So mistakes constantly will happen, and we have to constantly correct them and try to get to perform the ritual correctly the way you master a dance or learn the words of a song.

There’s no real ultimate satisfaction to be had from simply getting everything right and never making a mistake. I’m not sure anybody would be satisfied if her tombstone said, “She never made a mistake.” I’m not sure that’s a sign of a rich and full life. So there’s something beyond not making mistakes, just learning to do everything right. Now, in this case, we’re talking about right and wrong at a deeper level than the level of mistakes. Mayoku comes to Shokei’s temple and instead of following any of the usual rituals for a visiting monk, he simply walks right into the hall without saying a word, walks around the teacher’s mat three times and bangs his staff. Now I think we can well imagine that this is the action of someone who feels like, I’ve finally got it! I’ve been stuck in this one-up one-down student-teacher dyad for the last couple of decades and now I’ve had an experience and I realize I totally stand on my own two feet and I’m the equal of anybody, and I will come in and I will do this thing and demonstrate to the teacher and to everybody else, I’ve got it!

I think that’s a genuine experience, and people will feel a great release and sense of rightness that can be expressed this kind of way, but here Shokei responds to this by saying, Right! Right! Now that’s a trap, and Mayoku steps into it, because basically what it looks like is that he’s exchanged wrong for right, and right feels better. Then he goes to Nansen and does exactly the same thing. He should have quit while he was ahead, I suppose. But he’s going to do it again. If it worked so well the first time, let’s do it again. So he goes to Nansen and he does the same thing, and Nansen says Wrong! Wrong! Well, Mayoku can’t quite get why he’s getting the opposite response for doing the same thing.

What you have in this little scenario is some expression of how right and wrong are actually empty on both sides of the equation. To Shokei and Nansen, it doesn’t matter if you’re right, it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong. But Mayoku gets stuck wanting to be right, not wanting to be wrong, not understanding what can be wrong when he’s really just stood his ground. How could that be wrong? Well, it can’t be wrong, it can’t be wrong. Of course, if you can’t be wrong, you also can’t be right either, and that’s part of the dilemma here.

Sometimes people will come to visit me here and they’re from some other center where they’ve been practicing, and sometimes they either subtly or not subtly let me know how many years they’ve been practicing and what they’ve realized and achieved. They don’t want me to get the idea that they’re a beginner. They want to make sure I know they’ve been keeping at this for ten or fifteen years. Well, of course, doing that makes pretty much the opposite impression of the one they’ve been aiming for. If you’ve really been doing this for a long time, you don’t have to convince anybody of it. You don’t have to wear it on your sleeve and prove it. You just come in and be yourself, meet someone, you don't have to hand them your resume, you don’t have to show off where you’ve been and who you are.

See, I think that it’s very typical that you could take any sangha like this and 95% of the people, you could put them down the left side, the ones who always worry they are doing something wrong. And down the right side you can put down all the people who say, I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing. And maybe there would be a couple of people left over who have forgotten about right and wrong and they’re just sitting. When we talk about sitting, one of the things “just” means is that they’re not doing it right and they’re not doing it wrong, they’re just sitting. That’s hard. It’s too simple.

See, when we’ve spent a lifetime feeling there’s something wrong with us, and we all in one way or another are feeling that way, and we end up in this kind of place, we want to put it right. We want to stop being wrong, and the great temptation is to say we’re going to switch sides. Instead of wrong we’re going to finally be right. And that does feel great. But it’s very much a half-way point, and one that’s very easy to get stuck in. I guess if you’re going to be stuck, it’s better to be stuck feeling right than wrong, but at least it feels better. It might not look a lot nicer to the people around you. That’s a different issue. People who feel wrong elicit sympathy from the people around them. People who are right all the time elicit something else. Right? So what you have in this kind of story, and what we’re always bumping into in this practice, is -- how do we practice from a place that is not about right or wrong? It’s about just sitting. We can’t go there directly.

What we have to do over and over again, and what this koan illustrates, is that we really have to watch where we think we get it wrong. We have to really watch where we think we get it right. We have to be honest about that. We have to expose it, or the teacher has to do something to reveal it. And then undermine it. Undermine the wrongness. Undermine the rightness. Then we see what’s left over. What’s left over is our life as it is. And that really is this great undifferentiated expanse that extends freely in all directions. It’s not divided into the good side and the bad side, although it certainly may be divided up into things that hurt and things that are comfortable.

One of the great lessons we have to get in our life is that when our life is hard, when our life is difficult, when it’s painful, it doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong. When our life is comfortable, going well, it may not be because we’re doing anything right. That’s just how our life is going. It’s not about us all the time. It’s not about what we’re doing one way or the other. Our pain is not our fault. Sometimes our comfort and our good fortune isn’t a sign of our having been so much smarter or so much more enlightened than anybody else. Sometimes it’s just what’s being served to us through no effort or merit of our own. So watch your practice. Watch out when you do it right. Watch out when you do it wrong. Come back to just sitting.

Next Talk

Barry Magid December 19th 2009 On Aging, "I got what I wanted"

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