Excerpts from a Golden Wind Sesshin Dharma Talk by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Mumonkan Case 41, Bodhidharma's Mind-Pacifying

Good afternoon. Isn't it? Desu ne? A few of us have been learning a little Japanese, and it's one of the few things I can remember. This expression is a social convention, and like most social conventions, no matter what the culture, it reflects a yearning for mutuality. In every culture, every language, there is this: Isn't it? Don't you agree? This kind of feeling. We want this. We have a kind of nostalgia for a dimly remembered oneness. We know it's there. So it's not just a matter of good manners. Even in the most densely packed cities, in the midst of loneliness and alienation, we feel the need to have this underlying oneness expressed in little ways. We come to Zen practice not because we're looking for a new social convention, but because of our yearning for this remembered oneness.

I wanted to speak about this koan, “Bodhidharma's Mind-Pacifying,” because I think it really captures the heart of our reality. Right? Desu ne? This is how we all really feel: longing for acceptance of self, of each other, of conditions beyond our comprehension, and fiercely struggling to understand, asking, Why is this? How can I go on?

Bodhidharma Day is October 5, and Bodhidharma is our first Zen ancestor, coming from India to China early in the sixth century. Soyen Shaku can be considered the first ancestor of Zen in America. He was the first Zen Master from Japan to come here, in 1893, to speak at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and in 1905 he returned for a second visit. He was followed by his student Choro-an Nyogen Senzaki, who stayed on for the rest of his life, becoming the first Zen monk to teach zazen here in America.

Another first was a talk that Soyen Shaku gave in San Francisco on that second visit. Of course, the audience knew Soyen Shaku was a very important Zen master from Japan, and they were extremely eager to hear his great understanding; no doubt their expectations were that they would be able to take something useful away with them.

He said: “I have studied Buddhism for more than forty years, and have preached the teaching here and there. But only very recently have I begun to understand it. Now I understand that what I had understood is that, after all, I do not understand anything.” Needless to say, the audience didn't get it, and went away scratching their heads, amid some laughter. Nearly half a century later, when Soen Roshi came to America and gave his first talk in San Francisco, he quoted those words.

These days, I often think of Soyen Shaku’s words. In fact, I feel I’m just starting to understand in that same way what zazen is. I’ve been sitting for a few decades. What was all that sitting? I remember Eido Roshi’s metaphor of flies dashing themselves against the glass over and over; the window has been opened for them, but they don’t see the free space, they just hurl themselves against the glass. Sitting after sitting, hurling ourselves. What are we doing? I can only speak for myself. Just now, maybe I’m starting to see that some kind person has opened the window. Sometimes, when I’ve knocked myself senseless, I can get out for awhile, but there are lots of windows, lots of glass. And also, all those windows are open. That’s what is so wonderful about this practice. They are always open.

The word acceptance is a very important one. Mostly it's used in a way that's like resignation. Oh well, my life is really a mess, but I'll have to accept it. This is not the acceptance we are talking about. What we are doing in this practice is a radical acceptance. THIS IS IT! Shunryu Suzuki Roshi used to say, “Things as it is.” This is what our zazen teaches us more and more, particularly in sesshin: we have to go through it. There's no way around it. When we finally stop hurling ourselves and simply see things as it is— suddenly there’s an open window! It's always been open!

About Bodhidharma, most of you know the story of his encounter with Emperor Wu, in which his three quintessential teachings were, “No merit”— you cannot count on what you are doing to bring some wonderful result; “Vast emptiness; nothing holy”— MU!; and, “I don't know”— or as Soyen Shaku put it, “Now I understand that what I understood is that after all, I do not understand anything.” To finally give it all up. As it is now, just this. No inflection, no shading, no agenda.

Bodhidharma went to China at a very old age, they say maybe 120 or even 150; at that time, it took three years by boat to get from India to China. So speaking of fierce struggle— how amazing, to make that journey! And why? This question is asked numerous times in Zen encounters. Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Why did he make this supreme effort? What was he bringing? What is the truth of Buddhism? Why did he come? Why are we here? This struggle and deep anguish leads one to search and probe and question as Eka did, as we all do. A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming to China?” Joshu answered, “Oak tree in the garden.”

When I was a child, I was extremely interested in matters of a spiritual nature, but my parents did not want to have anything to do with religion. They were running away from the old Jewish mysticism of Europe, and making a new life as secular humanist-artists. One day I asked my mother about God. At first, she dismissed the question, but I continued: “Really, what is this, I feel something so mysterious. Isn't there something beyond what I can see around me?” She said, “Well, look.” She drew a circle. She said, “Inside this circle is everything we can know.” My mother was a brilliant woman, very logical. She amazed me with her ability to look deeply into matters, but always with this very rational perspective. So she drew a circle, and said, “Everything that can be known is in this circle, and that's all we can concern ourselves about.” And I thought, You know, everything I care about is outside that circle.

Bodhidharma sat facing the wall— for nine years, after his meeting with Emperor Wu, he sat facing the wall. Eka came and stood outside the door in the deep snow, wanting so badly to be accepted as his student. Snow was mounting up higher and higher. Over and over, Eka was pleading. Over and over, Bodhidharma said no, I won't take you on. Finally he told Eka, “The subtle and supreme teachings of the Buddhas can be pursued only by endless assiduity, doing what is hard to do and bearing what is hard to bear, continuing the practice even for kalpas; how can one of little virtue and much self-conceit dream of achieving it? It will end only in fruitless labor.”

Imagine if we got such a response when we applied to come to sesshin. “The subtle and supreme teachings can be pursued only by endless assiduity.” In truth, it's important to remember, as we sit in the midst of all kinds of turbulence, that this is absolutely as it should be. He said so, our first ancestor, he warned us. Why should we think it would be anything but “doing what is hard to do, bearing what is hard to bear, continuing the practice even for kalpas.” What makes it so hard is that we believe that there is somehow an easier way. If we can just find the right instruction, the right posture, we can get around this. But there's no getting around it. Those of you who have been sitting for awhile know how wonderful it is that there's no getting around it.

Eka, with such sincerity, in a state of such extremity, refused to be discouraged, and finally took out a sword he was carrying and cut off his arm at the elbow and presented it. Each one of us, although it's not written in the sesshin application, has to do this. Of course, you understand, I'm not speaking literally; but we must have the willingness, the spiritual fortitude. We have to be able to say, OK! Whatever it takes! And whatever it takes is cutting. Cutting. You may see “arm” as everything you've brought with you, everything you've constructed about who you are, about what you're going to get out of this, about what it's going to lead to— everything, cut! Thus, Eka presented this strange gift to Bodhidharma, crying, “My mind has no peace!”

I'm sure everyone has looked at what creates this state of no peace in the mind. Certainly one big thing is continually dwelling in the past and the future, having some construct of reality based on what we've already experienced or what we think will happen next. As you know, there is pain; but suffering only enters into it when we think pain should be otherwise, and think, what's next? The bell? When will it ring? Meal? What will I say in dokusan? These things are always entering into our minds. Or we drift off into some dreamy state of past things that happened, things that were said. These figments, these imaginary flowers in the air that we call reality, what are they? A metaphor that is often used these days is movies. What is a film? What are the films going on in our minds all the time? What are these projected images? Projected light, can you grasp any of it? Can you go up to a screen and grasp that figure there? The same is true of all those figments in our minds we are so caught up in, the movies of our lives. It causes us to live in fictional time.

As I said, I'm just beginning to understand zazen, and one of the things I've been doing is what Master Hakuin advises in his Rohatsu Exhortations, just breath counting; to really be nowhere but this time. The window opens. There's no other way to put it. Being-time, Master Dogen called it. But this continual march across the screen of the projected images returns again and again, and seduces us back into past, future. The Diamond Sutra tells us, “Past mind cannot be grasped; present mind cannot be grasped; future mind cannot be grasped.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring your mind here, and I will pacify it for you.” Bring it here. When you look for your mind, what do you see? The more we look into it, the more illusory it is— the more it evaporates. “I cannot find my mind. I have searched, and I cannot take hold of it!” Eka said. Remember what Dogen said: “To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” What is the self? You cannot take hold of it. And when that is realized, then whatever we see is It. With the blinders off, the golden leaves, the autumnal Ode to Joy performed by the geese, the changing light of this moment, it's all here. Look! Now your mind is pacified.

But before we can hear a teacher's words the way Eka heard Bodhidharma's words, we have to be in a state of readiness, and to enter into that state of readiness requires sincerity, willingness, absolute attention. And it also requires an awareness of how rare and precious this opportunity is. We can't have an arrogant or stiff-necked approach to spiritual practice. We do the Purification Verse every morning. This is essential to do, more often than just once a day. Whenever you feel some complaint, immediately recite to yourself, “All the evil karma ever committed by me since of old…” When there's no gap, then we are ready to meet Bodhidharma.

The Jewish High Holy Days, called the ten Days of Awe, begin with a very beautiful passage that is sung by the cantor. It really speaks to this readiness of mind. Before we undertake these days of solemnity, of atonement, we have to begin this way, and the same is true of sesshin. The passage goes in part, “Trembling, rising to entreat the awesome One, I now begin my plea; with limited good deeds I stand in fear; with limited wisdom, what hope is there for me? Grant me wisdom to transmit our heritage, Creator. Strengthen me as I falter in my fear, consider as rare incense my whispered prayer; consider as sweetest honey my uttered plea; may it be acceptable, not a worthless sham, so that pardon may be granted those whose emissary I am. Hear my cry as I begin, Master of all that mercy can fashion. My heart is in turmoil. I cannot rest. My faults have brought me to the point of tears. My heart is astir as I offer my prayer.”

The turmoil in our hearts is the same as the turmoil in Eka's mind. We have to cut off the arm. With readiness and purification… and finally, just MU. This turmoil in our minds— what is it really? ME ME ME ME! We come to sesshin and begin sitting, and it becomes, “ME ME ME MU ME ME ME MU ME ME MU ME MU MU ME MU MU ME MU MU MU MU.” Little by little, more MU and less ME. And finally, just MU. But ME comes right back. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's only through ME that MU can be realized! When we chant so strenuously “KANZEON!” in the morning, maybe we think it's some bodhisattva out there that we're chanting to, but the more we do this, the more we understand that Kanzeon is what's happening here, right in the very midst of MU ME MU ME MU, and thus compassion for ourselves and our own struggle builds.

So along with the willingness, and sincerity, and earnestness, and humility, we must have compassion for our own impediments, without which we would never be able to wake up. The impediments themselves are the karmic cause for our being here today. Isn't that wonderful? We all must bow in gratitude for everything that we think is wrong with us, or that has been done to us. Sesshin after sesshin, fiercely struggling, and then finding Bodhidharma not on some pedestal, but in our own hearts, in our own lives. At this moment, what more need we seek?

rinzai zen