I’d like to read a long poem called Relying on Mind, attributed to the Third Patriarch, Seng-ts’an, whose Japanese name is Sozan. You may remember him from "Nothing is Hidden," in his dialogue with a young novice monk who came to him and said, “Master, please emancipate me,” and the Third Patriarch said, “Who put you in bondage?” The young monk said, “No one,” and the Patriarch said, “Then why do you seek further emancipation?” This poem elaborates on that sense of original emancipation which gets obscured so that we imagine we are in bondage. . . . .
Now when I read this, I feel a tension within the poem between two perspectives: One, the predominant tone of the poem is descriptive, it’s trying to present how things look from an enlightened, non-dualistic perspective, but that description is in recurrent tension with the side of the poem that is also prescriptive, telling you what you need to do to get there. Let me read back to you some examples of each part of that. “The Supreme Way is not difficult, it just precludes picking and choosing.” “See the Way with your own eyes, quit agreeing and disagreeing.” “Don’t pursue worldly concerns, don’t dwell passively in emptiness.” “Just put a stop to your opinions.”
You can hear the prescriptive tone in all these words: don’t, stop, cut it out. But then there’s a whole other presentation that says things like “it’s just selecting and rejecting that makes it seem otherwise.” Right? It just seems we’re in bondage. If we just see things clearly, there’s no problem, and there are these lines that actually seem to go against the grain of effort or doing anything, such as “Suppressing activity to reach stillness just creates agitation.” He’s looking at all the ways in which we come down on one side or the other, or try to pursue something. “Accept your nature, accord with the Way.” “Stroll at ease trouble-free.” “Resisting thoughts perturbs the spirit!” “Why treat what’s yours as foreign?”
I think that’s psychologically the most interesting line: “Why treat what’s yours as foreign?” Why treat anything that arises in your mind as not you? As something that you need to get rid of? “The wise have nothing to do.” Yet I think this is the tension we all feel one way or another in practice, between the side that says just sit, leave everything alone, look in the mirror, and the side that engages our inevitable conscious or unconscious secret practices where effort or gain or striving seem inevitable.
As I wrote recently, it strikes me how much every kind of spiritual or philosophical tradition has one side of it that treats freedom as freedom from, and talks about one aspect of our mind or our nature we somehow have to get rid of in order to become enlightened or spiritual or good, and it varies quite a lot from one kind of tradition to another. The stoics in general wanted to banish emotional reaction to become in accord with reason. The romantics wanted to banish reason to get into accord with emotion. Christians saw sexuality as part of original sin and the holy life was one of celibacy. In Buddhism there are many strands of self-denial in which we speak of attachment or non-clinging, and that can be getting rid of possessiveness at the most basic level, like being a homeless monk with no home, no possessions, relying totally on alms, with an identification of attachment to a clinging or emotional dependency, emotional needs or sexual needs, and most of these traditions have strong celibate, monastic strands to them, thinking that sexual and emotional attachments are impediments.
We can say all of these traditions and philosophies try to grapple with things of suffering we want to be free from, but the most basic suffering is that inflicted by sickness, change, old age, and death. These are things we have absolutely no power over whatsoever. At some point in our practice we come to some kind of reconciliation with these aspects of life. In Buddhism we put them under the heading of impermanence. We see that we can never get rid of those things, and they are fundamental to what life is. Yet all of practice seems to be about -- well, if I can’t control those things, let me control something else. I’ll put a lot of effort into controlling my thoughts, my emotions, my behavior. Maybe if I master all of that somehow there’s going to turn out to be a connection. And the mastery over here is going to give me relief from the fundamental lack of mastery over impermanence in the big picture.
So we have to watch out for that picture in our own practice, what we think we’re mastering, and how that mastering is supposed to connect, or be relevant to all the aspects of this impermanent life that can’t be mastered. It can only be accepted. This poem, line by line, sometimes translated as Trust in Mind, offers a picture of resting in how things are. Being in accord with the Way means being in accord with how life is, including its impermanent nature. How do we get in accord with it? As Joko would say, we have to begin by seeing clearly and acknowledging all the ways we reject and resist life as it is, how we try to reject being in accord with something we imagine is bringing us suffering. That’s really the foresight of the language in the poem that says, Don’t do this, Quit that. It’s really seeing the ways your judgment tries to push away and control the uncontrollable, tries to show you a different perspective that opens up when we leave everything just as it is.