Start from a Hopeless Place

landscape-768423_640I’ve had it pointed out to me that if you listen to a lot of my talks or read a lot of what I’ve written, you find I’m just saying the same things over and over again. I feel that as well. So when I stumbled on this passage from Dogen’s “Record of Things Heard,” my first thought was I should look for something else—it’s a category of thing I talk about all the time. But the truth is that even if it’s the same old thing, I get excited about it. There are some things that I think we can’t drive home enough.

Dogen instructed,

Zen master Dai-e said, “You must practice the way with the attitude of a person owing a vast debt and being forced to return it despite being penniless. If you have this frame of mind, it is easy to attain the Way.” In the Shinjinmei, we read, “The supreme way is not difficult—just refuse to have preferences.” Only when you cast aside the mind of discrimination will you be able to accept it immediately. To cast aside discriminating mind is to depart from ego. Do not think that you learn the buddhadharma for the sake of some reward for practicing the buddha way. Just practice the buddhadharma for the sake of the buddhadharma. Even if you study a thousand sutras and ten thousand commentaries on them, or even if you have sat zazen until your cushion is worn out, it is impossible to attain the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs if this attitude is lacking. Just casting body and mind into the buddhadharma and practicing along with others, without holding onto previous views, you will be in accordance with the Way immediately.

Dogen starts with this: “You must practice the way with the attitude of a person owing a vast debt and being forced to return it despite being penniless.” For people who struggle daily with actual debt, this may hit pretty close to home. But Dogen is addressing monks, who wouldn’t have had this particular problem.

What is the attitude of a person who must pay back a debt and has nothing to do it with, or who sees no end? What is the level of acceptance? What is the clarity in that? Dogen doesn’t say, “You must practice the way with the mind of someone who owes a vast debt and is trying to find a way out of it,” or “You must practice the way with the mind of someone who knows there must be a loophole.” It’s this: you must practice as if you have a responsibility that you cannot imagine ever getting out from—ever. How do you wake up knowing there is no end to your work? How do you wake up knowing that everything that you seem to receive, you are then obligated to give away? You know this is good Buddhism because it sounds so bad on the surface; but in fact, what he’s saying is something beautiful.

Later, Dogen says—and this is a kind of refrain for him—”Do not think that you learn the buddhadharma for the sake of some reward for practicing the buddha way. Just practice the buddhadharma for the sake of the buddhadharma.” To understand this is to understand the whole thing. But it’s also the hardest thing.

When I was a kid, I would go to the supermarket and look at all the breakfast cereals, and I could see at a glance which ones were for grownups and which ones were for kids. How? The cereals that were for kids had a prize. There was something at the bottom. There was a reward. If I made my way all the way to the bottom of a box of Froot Loops, then, in addition to the myriad rewards of having eaten all that sugar, I got some sort of plastic toy. I knew there was something waiting for me.

But the cereals for grownups? The only reward was fiber. Fiber forever, all the way down. We understand this; intuitively, we grasp this distinction between what is for kids and what’s for adults. It is one of the easiest litmus tests we can apply to our lives.

When we talk about this in the context of this tradition, we often speak in terms of “being buddha”—that in this tradition, the ground is not that we are learning to be buddha, not that we are moving toward being buddha, but that in fact we are starting from the place of accepting that we are buddha, and that there is a responsibility that comes from being buddha. And we move from there; that’s Step One. It’s not a prize. But if that’s too much to take in—and if you’re a normal person, it might be—back up, and start with the idea of just being an adult. It’s the same.

There has to be some moment in your life in which you acknowledged to yourself that you are an adult. Maybe you even remember it. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. And exactly like acknowledging that you’re buddha, in the very moment when you acknowledge that you’re an adult, you also acknowledge that you cannot go back. You might spend an evening or a weekend acting like you’re not an adult, but you can no longer pretend to yourself that you are not one. It’s not a part-time job. It’s your role. And when you admit to yourself that you are an adult, you acknowledge, primarily, that you have a responsibility. It’s not about what you wear, or how you speak, or the kind of job you have. It’s accepting responsibility—not just to your life but to everything to which you are connected. You have a responsibility to everything you affect. And what this tradition says is that everything you affect is everything.

To accept who you are, to accept your status in the world, is to accept that you have a responsibility, one that is too big for there to ever be a way out. There is no other side. There is no point at which you have paid your debts. There is no moment at which you are permitted to regress. To admit to being an adult—to admit to being buddha—is to agree to what has always been your situation. It’s to say, “OK. I won’t fight this.”

When you come to this practice, when you come to the zendo, when you come to the cushion, when you come to Buddhism, it’s natural that you want something: to be a certain kind of person, or to have a certain kind of insight, to feel a kind of change. But we cannot say, in an honest way, that if you dig deep enough there’s a prize. There’s no prize. This is not cereal for kids.

Imagine, though it may be hard, that you’re taking care of your spouse or your best friend at the end of their life. Imagine everything that entails: all of the work, all of the frustration, all of the love. All of the expectation that comes to you. If you see it all, it’s overwhelming. Now, if I’m trying to encourage you in that role, I can tell you something like “You know, if you follow through on this, you’ll be a stronger person,” or “If you see this through, perhaps you’ll become kinder. Perhaps your heart will open.” But if you’re really doing that job, you know—you know how hollow it is for me to tell you that the work is about you and what you will get. It’s transparent. It’s obvious. You know that it’s a lie. Even if what I’m saying is true, it’s still a lie.

In the same way, I can try to tell you that you should take up this path because it’s going to transform you, or because it’s going to show something to you that an ordinary person can’t see. But if you have taken that first step of knowing you’re an adult, then you know I’m full of it—I’m just trying to convince you to do what you already understand you have to do.

By the way, that thing that you have to do, that role that you have to play—it doesn’t have to look like this, like Zen. That’s not the point. It doesn’t have to smell like incense. What this practice offers, for some, is a way of framing that responsibility, a way that feels useful because the responsibility, felt in its totality, is too big. How do you even start? How do you manage it? This practice is one structure for taking that on; it’s one kind of guidebook. But it’s not the only one. And when it’s really working, it’s working outside of anything that looks like practice. It’s invisible.

“Even if you study a thousand sutras and ten thousand commentaries on them, or even if you have sat zazen until your cushion is worn out…”

We fall into thinking sitting is medicinal or magical or that its effects are somehow proportionate to the time we put in. Some people like to do the math to figure out how many hours they’ve sat; you can read books by Zen teachers that begin with “I’ve sat 35,000 hours.” Who cares? That’s a ridiculous thing to say. To imagine that zazen is quantifiable, or that your responsibility is quantifiable, is to imagine that if you just sit 36,000 hours, then you will finally find that prize—it’s just one layer down. Dogen says, though, that even if you do this, “it is impossible to attain the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs if this attitude is lacking.” “This attitude” is the attitude of responsibility. So the opposite is also true: if this attitude is not lacking, if this acceptance is true, that means that you are on the Way. Period. There’s nothing more to it.

This comes from a talk given at Zen Nova Scotia; the original can be found on the ZNS podcast

No Struggle (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 6)

This is the last in a six-part series on Keizan’s “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen.” You can click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast.) There’s much more to be said about this wonderful text; I’d like to come back to it sometime. For now, I hope these have been a useful introduction.

Screenshot 2018-09-15 19.41.02In reading Keizan’s instructions for zazen, we’ve been told, first, that we should understand who we are in the great scope of the universe (we were also told not to spend too much time on arts and crafts, and to watch what we eat). Finally, after pages and pages, he starts offering concrete sitting instructions:

When you are sitting in zazen, do not prop yourself up against a wall, meditation brace, or screen. Also, do not sit in windy places or high, exposed places, as this can cause illness.

Don’t slouch, and don’t sit in a place that might make you sick. You might think you don’t need to be told this, but there’s a long tradition of people sitting in zazen on the edges of cliffs. They scope out their meditation spot, their zazen rock. So we might hear in this—maybe—Keizan teasing a little bit about that impulse.

Sometimes when you are sitting you may feel hot or cold, discomfort or ease, stiff or loose, heavy or light, or sometimes startled. These sensations arise through disharmonies of mind and breath-energy. Harmonize your breath in this way:

Open your mouth slightly, allow long breaths to be long and short breaths to be short, and it will harmonize naturally. Follow it for a while until a sense of awareness arises and your breath will be natural. After this, continue to breathe through the nose.

Now, this is similar to how I would usually teach someone to sit. I was taught that when you first sit down, you take a deep breath in through the nose, then exhale through the mouth. (I was also told to exaggerate that a little bit, to push in those few initial breaths. That particular point doesn’t seem to be included in what Keizan is saying here.)

Harmonize your breath in this way: open your mouth slightly, allow long breaths to be long and short breaths to be short.

That’s a very classic instruction. The Satipatthana Sutta, which really goes into the breathing and the mindfulness around breathing, has this kind of talk about being aware of long breaths being long and short breaths being short. It sounds very natural.

The reality, however, is that when you first sit down, your breathing will not be natural. Nothing about this posture is quite natural. Just acknowledge that. Allow yourself, in the beginning, to pay attention to your breathing, to work with that discomfort. Somehow, we take up this posture, and suddenly we don’t know how to breathe anymore. Just notice that. Notice if you’re intentionally trying to breathe deeply. Notice if you’re having trouble breathing deeply. Spend a little time, and after a while…you’ll just breathe. When that happens—when you find that you’re just breathing—you can move on.

The mind may feel—

I want to interrupt and point out that Dogen doesn’t talk like this. Dogen never gets into “you might feel like this, you might feel like this.” It’s like a commercial for some sort of medication: “You may experience dizziness. You may have irrational fear.” But Keizan is happy to go there:

The mind may feel as if it were sinking or floating, it may seem dull or sharp.

These are all within the umbrella of zazen.

Sometimes you can see outside the room, the insides of the body…

One way or another, I suspect everyone has some version of this experience. If you’ve ever started to dream in zazen, then in a way, you’ve seen outside the room. I had a very intense experience of this when I first entered the monastery. So much of monastic life has to do with knowing where things go. I think the first place that I trained had eighteen altars. And they all had to be just right. Everyone else had it memorized: this goes here, and this goes here, and this goes here. So in those first few months, any time you’re in the room, you’re memorizing the room. You’re constantly memorizing the space. And what would happen was that very late at night, or very early in the morning when I was sitting in zazen, I would suddenly see, in three-dimensional space, another room in the monastery. I would be studying it as if I was actually there. And then—fooom!—I’d realize, Ah! I’m sitting here facing a wall. And it would happen again. As I got sleepy again, it wasn’t that I would dream about high school or about something interesting: I would just dream about the actual room next door, in all its particulars. It was very vivid. (I don’t think I’ve ever had Keizan’s experience of seeing the insides of the body, but it’s an interesting possibility.)

… the forms of buddhas or bodhisattvas.

We know from looking across cultures that in religious experience, people see what they’re looking for. So if you have one mindset and you settle into a certain kind of place, you’ll see angels; if you have a different kind of mindset and you settle into a similar place, you might think that you see buddhas. Or something else. None of it is real.

Sometimes you may believe that you have wisdom and now thoroughly understand all the sutras and commentaries.

Consider how he says that—and then doesn’t say anything more about it. The message is clear: if you believe these things, you’re wrong. Period.

These extraordinary conditions are diseases that arise through disharmony of mind and breath.

Again, disharmony of mind and breath is the disharmony of the mind with what’s happening now. These are juxtaposed. Multiple things are happening at once; it’s the whole organism, not a chicken and an egg. It’s not just breathing, it’s not just the mind. It’s the present. And when things are not on the same page, you go all sorts of places.

When this happens, sit placing the mind in the lap.

Okay… So, have your hands in the cosmic mudra, palms up, thumbs touching, and there’s this common instruction: place your mind here. Different people interpret this differently. Some people will say this means to place your attention here, meaning to keep your attention on your hands. It’s a way of turning the lens to where you are in space so that you’re not looking out here and out here and out here. It’s the positive version, perhaps, of “navel gazing.”

The other way to understand this is to literally place your mind where your hands are—to relocate mind (let’s not say your mind) to your centre of gravity, so that mind is operating from a place other than your brain. Some traditions take this very seriously, this idea of moving your consciousness around the body. I wouldn’t recommend dedicating your life to it, but as an experiment, I recommend trying it, sitting in this posture and trying to feel what it’s like to let your mind, to let the base of your consciousness, move away from your head. One thing you’ll find, or that I have found, at least, is that you can’t will it to happen, because you’re willing it from your head. To the extent that you can do it, it’s an act of letting go—and a fascinating one.

When the mind sinks into dullness, raise attention above your hairline or before your eyes.

Above the hairline is a really interesting place to be putting your attention. I was taught we should be constantly aware of our eyes when we sit. Specifically, we should be aware of how we narrow and widen the aperture, how our field of vision gets narrower and narrower as our mind gets narrower and narrower. When you see that clearly, you also see how easily you can just open it up; the degree to which we open it up is the degree to which we’re here.

When the mind scatters into distraction, place attention at the tip of the nose or at the tanden.

That’s the spot below the belly button.

After this, rest attention in the left palm.

In other words, the one that’s on top. (It’s OK to switch them, though.)

Sit for a long time and do not struggle to calm the mind, and it will naturally be free of distraction.

There are various zazen instructions that speak to what we should do if we start falling asleep, if we’re overcome by drowsiness. I hear some of that in this. Sometimes the advice is to splash water on your face, or hit yourself, or even get up and walk around. Keizan is offering us some more concrete tips—again, not to get into a particular mind state but simply to not get too distracted. And in every case, you’re bringing yourself back to here. None of it is very deep: think about the tip of your nose, think about the edge of your hairline (which perhaps you’ve never thought about in your life). Place your attention on your belly button, or in the palm of your hand. Come back to the body over and over and over again.

Although the ancient teachings are a longstanding means to clarify the mind, do not read, write about, or listen to them obsessively because such excess only scatters the mind.

That’s a very classically Zen thing to say: go ahead and read the sutras, but don’t get stuck on them. You can go listen to teachings, but don’t get stuck. Don’t let that be where you spend your time.

Any time you make a decision to do something, or be involved in something, or look at something, that’s a decision to have a certain kind of thought, to fill your mind with a certain kind of activity. It’s like food. And, just like food, it’s useful to start to recognize what different kinds of thoughts do to you, how they affect you.

To get there, you need patience. You need to pay attention. And you also need some faith in the process. Read any teachings you want to, but trust that you already have what you need. Go ahead, fiddle with your breathing a little bit, but trust that it’s going to come into its own. Play with your brain a little bit if you want to, even move your awareness around; you can trust that eventually it’s going to land where it needs to land.

Just don’t let yourself get caught up. Just don’t look away.

Avoid Getting Caught Up (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 5)


This is the fifth in a six-part series on Keizan’s “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen.” You can click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast.)



But yams are OK.


As we continue with Keizan’s “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen,” we learn he has something to say about arts and crafts:

Avoid getting caught up in arts and crafts, prescribing medicines, and fortune-telling.

I suppose the rule about arts and crafts can apply to anyone, but there was a time not so long ago, and certainly in Keizan’s time, when the village priest did a lot more than what you would think a village priest would do. So the village priest was also the local fortune teller, and he was also the doctor. Here, Keizan is saying, Don’t get sucked into what people expect of you.

Stay away from songs and dancing, arguing and babbling, fame and gain. Composing poetry can be an aid in clarifying the mind but don’t get caught up in it. The same is true for writing and calligraphy. This is the superior precedent for practitioners of the Way and is the best way to harmonize the mind.

Don’t wear luxurious clothing or dirty rags. Luxurious clothing gives rise to greed and then the fear that someone will steal something. This is a hindrance to practitioners of the Way. Even if someone offers them to you, to refuse is the excellent tradition from ancient times. If you happen to have luxurious clothing, don’t be concerned with it; if it’s stolen don’t bother to chase after it or regret its loss.

He also has some thoughts on old dirty clothes:

Although we shouldn’t be too anxious about bodily comforts, inadequate clothing, food and sleep are known as the “three insufficiencies” and will cause our practice to suffer.

And it just gets better:

Don’t eat anything alive, hard, or spoiled. Such impure foods will make your belly churn and cause heat and discomfort of bodymind, making your sitting difficult. Don’t indulge in rich foods. Not only is this bad for bodymind, it’s just greed. You should eat to promote life so don’t fuss about taste. Also, if you sit after eating too much you will feel ill. Whether the meal is large or small, wait a little while before sitting. Monks should be moderate in eating and hold their portions to two-thirds of what they can eat. All healthy foods, sesame, wild yams and so on, can be eaten. Essentially, you should harmonize bodymind.

It’s very practical – Eat well; don’t dress up too much.

But what interests me is this first part: “Avoid getting caught up in arts and crafts”—and songs and dancing, or writing poetry, or calligraphy, or whatever it is. A point that we come back to over and over—and it’s particularly relevant in talking about this text because there’s a lot of don’t—is that none of this is about morality. There are certainly Buddhist texts from this era that would say singing and dancing are immoral, so I don’t want to pretend that the idea isn’t out there. But what’s at the heart of this is not some idea about purity or impurity: he’s talking about preparing for sitting.

What is it that distracts you? What is it that invites you to disengage from being here? If you’re not sure, it’s an easy experiment. Go home, in the middle of all your stuff, and just sit down on the sofa, with nothing to do. And then start to feel what the magnet pull is for you. After you’ve been sitting there doing nothing for a while, when you start to feel antsy and star thinking, I should do something—notice what that is.

For many people today, it’s their phone. You think you have control over your phone, but if you could watch a fast-forward video of your life, you’d see that you’re just constantly checking it. You don’t know you’re checking it, but you’re checking it. I do this sometimes. I leave it in the kitchen and as I walk by I push the button, because maybe there’s something important that will reveal itself to me. And then I keep going, and I think, Oh look, I didn’t engage! But I engaged. I checked the window into another world and then I stepped back. Really, what I’m doing is I’m hoping something exciting happened so that then I can pick it up and play, so I can read something. Someone will tell me something I didn’t know.

When I was younger I didn’t have this; back then, I think my distraction most often was my own mind. I was a daydreamer. So if I just sat there on the sofa, pretty soon I wouldn’t be on the sofa anymore; my body would be on the sofa, but I’d be somewhere else. I wouldn’t stay where I was. If there was a remote control, I’d be in the television. And if there was nothing to do at my house, I’d get in the car and I’d drive around, or I’d go see a friend. I wanted to be in motion. I wanted to be engaged.

Now, in my mid-forties, I see myself on the other side of that equation, where my life contains so much encounter (kids! sangha! job! internet!) that I find I often want to withdraw a little bit. I catch myself thinking, Oh, I wish I could just sit on the back deck and do nothing but sit on the back deck. But until recently, when I hit that place of being overwhelmed, my instinct always was to find something, something to entertain my mind.

I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe it’s projects—some people feel they just have to have a project. Maybe it’s hobbies. Maybe it’s talking on the phone. It doesn’t mean don’t talk on the phone. It doesn’t mean don’t read the news. But notice what your relationship is to that. Notice how it goes beyond utility.

We have a natural impulse to disengage from the present. I think we’re just born with it. We’re born looking for some place for our minds to land. Certain things, out of habit, become our vehicle for that impulse. It isn’t my phone’s fault. It’s just that my phone is particularly suited to the task of taking me from where I am into something else.

Really try to notice this. I spend a lot of time thinking about this because I also spend a lot of time forgetting this. When I travel and I’m in an airport, I have three hours before anything exciting is going to happen. I sit down in a place where there’s nothing to do, and there’s no one I know. And I just start to feel this draw: Now I need something, I need an entertainment. I need something that will take me out of this wide view, which is sitting here watching all of these people walk around, these people from all these different places, with all these different destinations. Something that will take me out of that and into something that’s just for me. Something narrow. So I get out a book, or I get out my phone, or I listen to something. Anything to make my experience of the present smaller—and, if possible, to make it feel like I’m accomplishing something. Because what a great feeling: I can say I’ve finished that book, or I did some work.

Keizan says, avoid getting caught up. There’s a little humour in this: he’s talking about what you should do before you sit, but in this particular case, if you actually did it, if you get it, then you’re basically doing zazen already. You’ve snuck up on the act. I don’t know how you’re sitting in that moment or how you’re standing in that moment, but if you can figure this out, then you’ve largely figured that out.

It’s the same as earlier in the text, when he says to figure out who you are, first, before you sit. It’s not that if you do A then you can do B; it’s that if you do A, you’re already doing B. He keeps showing this.

At the end of this section, clothed in this conversation about whether or not you should be eating yams, he’s really saying, harmonize bodymind. Get in touch with that. Which, again, is another way of saying, do zazen. Figure out that relationship before you sit down—then you’ve solved your problem.

From every direction, he’s saying, implicitly, do not use zazen as a tool to accomplish something. Zazen is the end: it’s the endpoint. It’s the end expression of the practice. It’s not the metric and it’s not the means. It’s complete. It’s finished. Sit like that. Sit from the top of the mountain. Sit as Buddha, not as a Buddha-to-be.

And don’t eat anything alive!


Like a Fool, Like an Idiot (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 4)

chuttersnap-755818-unsplashThis is the fourth in a six-part series on Keizan’s “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen.” You can click here for Part 1, Part 2,and Part 3 (The original talk can be found on the ZNS Podcast.)

There are two basic approaches to teaching zazen in this Sōtō Zen tradition. The first one—and sometimes the only one—that we learn is Dogen’s. It’s very straightforward: he says, choose a place that’s like this. Sit on a cushion like this. Put your hands just like this. Hold your back like this. This is what you do with your eyes. Go! That’s zazen.

If you were to go to Japan and ask for zazen instructions today, you would basically get that. No one would want to talk about your mind. No one would tell you, “Don’t think about this,” or “Do think about this,” or “This is what it might feel like.” They’d face you against a wall, explain the posture, and say, “Now do this forever.” There’s a tremendous faith in that, that those basic instructions alone are enough, so we don’t want to confuse you with anything else. That’s one flavour of Zen.

Keizan has a different approach, but one that ultimately speaks to the same thing. Instead of saying, ” Choose a quiet place” or “Sit on a cushion like this,” Keizan begins by saying, “First, realize your true nature—know who you are and your place in the world. Then do zazen!”

If there is something that is radical, something that is critical in our understanding about what this tradition is, it’s this: rather than practice to become something, we practice with that thing as the starting point.

We are told, in this tradition, that only a buddha can do zazen, that zazen itself is a gesture of awakening. Not a path, not a means, not a tool. It’s an expression of who you already are, what you already are, and what everything already is.

So Keizan begins not by telling us how to hold our hands, but how to hold ourselves in the world. It sets a high bar. Earlier, he said:

Putting aside all concerns, shed all attachments. Do nothing at all. Don’t fabricate any things with the six senses.

Don’t force anything. Bring no pretense to this. Sitting as buddha is not the same as sitting as if you’re a buddha, imitating one or declaring “I’m going to be a Buddha today!” It’s deeper than that.

Keizan continues:

Who is this? Its name is unknown; it cannot be called “body,” it cannot be called “mind.” Trying to think of it, the thought vanishes. Trying to speak of it, words die.

The language here gets very vague. When he says, “Who is this?” it’s not the same as “Who are you?” He’s asking us to question the relationship between body and mind. It’s not enough to call it “body”; it’s not enough to call it “mind.” Don’t imagine that they’re separate.

He writes:

It is like a fool, an idiot. It is as high as a mountain, deep as the ocean. Without peak or depths, its brilliance is unthinkable, it shows itself silently. Between sky and earth, only this whole body is seen.

This is very poetic, and as we explore it, what we see is that Keizan is talking about something that we might call awakening, or that we might call buddhanature. And at the same time, he’s talking about your body. He’s talking about them as the same thing. “It is like a fool, an idiot”—this is language we hear echoed in Precious Mirror Samadhi (“With practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot”).

This is not advocating for idiocy. And it’s not celebrating ignorance. The fool, in the context of these teachings, is someone who is not caught up in his or her own mind. The intelligent person…what does the intelligent person do? The intelligent person thinks about stuff. And then, she thinks about what she thought about that stuff. And then maybe she brings in some other ideas that seem relevant to that, so that in one instant she can find herself twenty steps removed from the reality of what’s happening right now.

The fool is used in contrast to everybody else. Everybody else is the smart one. Everybody else is living inside his or her own mind. Everybody else is imagining that they are a vehicle for this pink, wrinkly mass that rides up here in the skull, looking out and seeing the world. The fool has no such idea. The fool isn’t thinking about the fool’s thoughts. The fool is just present. From a cultural standpoint, it’s too simple; there’s not enough depth. There’s not enough analysis. There’s not enough questioning. So compared to the person who has something to say and something to analyze, that person who is just simply there looks, well, like a fool.

The fool has no reference point, not in the way that we do when we identify ourselves with a thought, or a story, an idea. Often we think that we are the thing that we’re thinking, and if we’re desperate we think that we are something that we thought once, a thought that was just really, really good. We carry that idea like a trophy. But the fool is just here and here and here.

A karate teacher I met years ago came from Okinawa and was trying to give us American students a pep talk. He said that to be really good—at anything —you have to be a little stupid. It’s the same idea. He used the example of digging post holes. It’s repetitive work—there’s a tool you stick in the ground to pull up the dirt, and that makes the hole. You just do it again, and you do it again. He said, there’s a particular kind of mind that can do that, that can say, “I’m going to wake up today and I’m going to dig post holes, and I’m going to do that until the end of the day, and then tomorrow, because it’s my job, I’m going to wake up and I’m going to dig post holes again.” Smart people, he said, can’t do that. They’ll overthink it. They’ll ask themselves in every gesture, why am I doing this? Why am I here? What does this mean? What does this mean about me? What does this mean about my life? If you’re thinking that way, you can’t do it for a day, much less for a lifetime.

To dig really deep—into Zen, into an art, into a relationship, into your work—you have to be able to just do something over and over and over again, without asking why. This is true from the moment of waking up. If you’ve ever heard the alarm in the morning and lain in bed thinking, “Why? Why do I even get up in the morning?” then you’re being too smart for your own good.

Keizan says:

Between sky and earth, only this whole body is seen.

We should understand this is exactly the way that Dogen talks about buddhanature: there’s nothing but this. We all have a reference point; we have that feeling of separation, an idea that there’s something else. Keizan is saying, there is nothing else. This thing that’s waking up in the morning is infinitely vast. Not because you’re important, but because everything is important.

This one is without compare—he has completely died. Eyes clear, she stands nowhere. Where is there any dust? What can obstruct such a one?

This image comes up a lot in Zen discussion as well: the dust. You can only have dust on something if something isn’t the whole thing. And you can only have dust on something if something is capable of being unclean. But if we’re talking about something that permeates, and we’re also talking about dust, it doesn’t work.

Clear water has no back or front, space has no inside or outside. Completely clear, its own luminosity shines before form and emptiness were fabricated.

We like to talk about form and we like to talk about emptiness. According to Keizan, they’re both made up.

Objects of mind and mind itself have no place to exist.

Again, you can only have a location, you can only have a reference point, if you’re distinct, and if you’re separate.

This has always already been so but it is still without a name. The great teacher, the Third Ancestor Sengcan temporarily called it “mind,” and the Venerable Nagarjuna once called it “body.” Enlightened essence and form, giving rise to the bodies of all the Buddhas, it has no “more” or “less” about it.

This is symbolized by the full moon but it is this mind which is enlightenment itself. The luminosity of this mind shines throughout the past and brightens as the present. Nagarjuna used this subtle symbol for the samadhi of all the Buddhas. But this mind is signless, nondual, and differences between forms are only apparent.

The moon has been a useful tool for talking about form and emptiness, or absolute and relative—the moon is always full, and yet it’s also useful to say that it’s not, that it’s always in flux, that it’s always changing. The moon shines, but not really—it just reflects something bigger. We have all sorts of stories about the moon. We look up and we say, oh, it’s at this stage, or it’s at this stage. In the same way, we look at our lives and we imagine we’re at this stage or at this stage. “I’m still young!” “Oh, now I’m in middle age.” We can see my peak; we can locate that moment in the past. Or perhaps we can see that peak just around the corner.

That’s one way of looking at your life. But there’s another in which it’s just full, and it’s always full, and it can’t be anything but that. And like the moon, it’s not that it’s shining from within: it’s made visible by the things around it.

I really love this text. I love how Keizan lays out the foundation of the practice. Remember, these are instructions for zazen. He’s saying, know thyself – first. First, know who you are. Not in a personal way. Not the you that has a name. The other one. That’s the one who’s going to sit like this. That’s the one who makes this gesture of awakening.