Steady. Present. Today
Here is a Zen story: Master Ummon (Yunmen in Chinese; d. 949) said to the assembly: “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day; try to say something about after the fifteenth day.” Ummon himself answered for everyone: “Every day is a good day.” (Case 6, Blue Cliff Record)
The first part of this koan is not as enigmatic as it may seem. In the old Chinese calendar the month was divided into two parts of fifteen days each, and the monks met on the first and the fifteenth days of the month to perform the Uposatha Ceremony, a ceremony of avowal of karma and of renewal. So Ummon was probably speaking on the fifteenth day, and his meaning was something like: Say something about the past, or about the future. Compare this time to that time. What is the difference between before you have avowed your karma and after? And he answered for everyone, “Every day is a good day.”
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Suffering and Mind
As most of you probably know, the Four Noble Truths is one of the core teachings of the Buddha. The first of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering. Suffering, or unsatisfactoriness, unease, is fundamental to existence. Suffering in Buddhism is not just unpleasant experiences; suffering can also be pleasant experiences, when we cling to them. There is the Buddhist teaching: “Everything changes.” Everything is transient, everything arises and decays. This transience the inevitable transience of everything in existence is difficult for us to accept and is a cause of suffering. When we are happy or things go the way we want we will cling to this state of happiness, but it inevitably changes.
Usually we think suffering is not getting what we want; but suffering is just as inherent in getting what we want. When we human beings get what we want, it typically results in a transient happiness, then once again unsatisfactoriness arises, as the habit of thinking we need something else, something more, to be happy comes to the fore again. One of the biggest habits of delusion our minds are susceptible to is thinking that we will be happy if we just get a few more desires satisfied: a little more money, the right relationship, a different job, a better society, etc. This habit-energy is familiar to all of us. The Buddhist term for this habitual mental approach is clinging or grasping. And this is the Second Noble Truth, that the cause of suffering is this very clinging or grasping.
The traditional Buddhist teachings also talk about suffering in terms of the Three Poisons: greed, hate and delusion. In Buddhist iconography the Wheel of Life, or Wheel of Becoming, is a symbolic representation of the process of rebirth how our minds and bodies, from moment to moment, follow habitual patterns of desire and clinging to keep the cycle of suffering in motion. At the very center of the wheel, the hub, are the Three Poisons, represented by a pig, a rooster, and a snake, intertwined and tangled together, biting each others’ tails. Greed is the feeling of needing more, of never having enough, or never being satisfied. Hate is avoidance, anger, resistance, aversion. Delusion is the fundamental delusion inherent in the experience we have of being separate and apart, of having a separate self, a separate ego. These Three Poisons are a cause of suffering in this human realm.
Whether suffering is described as clinging, or as greed, hate and delusion, suffering is a function of mind. How we think, how we view the world, our mental stance in the world, determines our suffering. The third Noble Truth says simply that there is release from suffering, and the Fourth Noble Truth says that this very mind that causes our suffering is also our release from suffering, in the form of a path of practice, of spiritual practice, which we can follow. This path releases us from both our own suffering and releases us from causing suffering for others.
The Path of Practice
In Buddhism when the term “mind” is used, it doesn’t mean, as it so often does in a Western context, mind as something different from body. Following the path is done with the body and the mind, and is volitional and intentional. The end of suffering is something we can intend, can deeply intend to bring about. It is something we as human beings can choose to do with our minds and bodies and actually do it.
So to follow the path, we have both teachings and praxis. The definition of the word praxis means “putting an idea into action.” Teachings are words, concepts, and ideas that help us understand the situation of our lives and that motivate our spiritual practice. Praxis, or practice, is putting the teachings into effect through our mental and physical actions. Practice is Buddhism is twofold meditation and ethics both of which are complete mind/body practices. Meditation is simple: we sit down in a specific position, balanced and alert. As we practice this very physical Yogic practice and it is a Yogic practice of its own accord our mind becomes stiller and calmer. Our compulsive thinking mind calms and quiets down; our incessant desires and aversions our “picking and choosing,” our “me and mine-ing” calm and quiet down. As we practice meditation our delusive thought patterns calm down and we very naturally experience a more inclusive reality, a reality that is less one-sided, less good vs. bad, me vs. others, less grasping and desiring, and more accepting and grateful. We experience a wider reality, a wider sense of self what Suzuki Roshi called “Big Mind.”
So when we practice meditation, we just sit down in this ancient traditional Yogic posture of meditation. We bring good intention and energy to our sitting practice, but we don’t control it so much. The fruits of meditation practice are calmness, compassion, and wisdom. These qualities very naturally arise without us even having to do much of anything about it.
Ethics practice or morality is also fundamentally simple: we refrain from harming others through our actions. We refrain as much as possible from killing beings, stealing things, making a living in a way that harms others, speaking ill of others, and so on. Both these practices meditation and ethics, or non-harming are simple in essence but are the practices of a lifetime. Our practice of meditation and our practice of non-harming are both always maturing, through the days, months, years, decades. There is no end; there is just our continued intention and effort.
The Fourth Noble Truth gets specific and lays out what is called the Eightfold Path of Practice. These eight aspects of practice are: Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Ethics, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and the last one, the eighth, is Right Meditation. Right Mindfulness, number seven, is kind of like meditation in everyday life, or meditation in action, though we can practice mindfulness as well during formal seated meditation. Mindfulness is awareness practicethe practice of paying attentionand can be practiced in any situation. During seated meditation we practice mindfulness of breathing, and of the present moment, gently letting go of our train of thought and bringing ourselves back to our breathing and to the present moment whenever we remember to. Formal meditation practice is extremely helpful to our ability to bring mindful awareness to situations of everyday life. Seated meditation practice, as Pema Chodron says, helps us “get the hang of” of practicing mindfulness in our everyday life.
This is important because practicing awareness of mind and mental states is the key to liberation from suffering. It is the key to wisdom. We have strongly delusional minds. A Western term that most closely describes this delusion is the ego, or egocentricity. We could also call it survival instinct gone amuck. When we perceive any threat, immediately there arises a strong process of defensiveness, protectiveness, and reactivity. These reactions occur instinctively but they are fueled by our thinking mind, which when it senses a threat to the self goes into high gear the only way it knows how: defensive thinking, justification, blaming, anger, fear, victimization. These are called in Buddhism “unwholesome dharmas,” and they are the cause of a great deal of suffering.
The great Zen teacher Dogen Zenji said: “Take the backward step that illuminates the self.” This backward step is mindfulnessthe observer, the mindful observer. When we feel a threat, our practice is, as much as possible, to be aware of the almost instantaneous and very powerful arising of the defensive complex of emotion/thought. In a difficult situation, this requires great patience with oneself. Since emotion/thought arises so powerfully and quickly, when you notice your mental state you will usually find yourself already in a state of reactivity, of anger. So even in the midst of difficulty, it is important to keep up mindfulness practice,to observeto whatever extent one canthe reactivity, the blame, fear, guilt, whatever all the “unwholesome dharmas.” Don’t try to replace them with “wholesome dharmas.” “Oh I shouldn’t be angryI’ve really lost it” just neutrally observe. Be willing to abide with these “unwholesome dharmas” as they are, not acting on them, but watching them, with a compassionate and patient abiding. Our natural process of defensivenessblaming, justification, fear, anger, and so onhas arisen in an attempt to protect of from experiencing the pain that the situation causes us. Mindful abiding, and patience with ourselves, allows us to slowly be able to directly experience the layers of anger, fear, and grief that compose such strong emotions. When we experience these emotions without defensiveness, they lose their power, and in their place arises a tender compassion for ourselves, and for others. “The armor of a Bodhisattva is no armor.”
The Real Teacher
This winter seems to have been exceptionally rainy. A couple of weeks ago I went out to Pt. Reyes National Seashore for a bike ride, and as I started to drive back I noticed the gauge showing that the car was severely overheating. I drove through the heavy rain the twenty miles to my office in downtown San Rafael, stopping three times to let the engine cool down. I was relieved when I reached the office, which was empty on Sunday of course, but nice and dry. I called my husband and daughter, wailing a bit about my misfortune and feeling rather sorry for myself. But they weren’t eager to drive six miles to my office in the rain to come get me and said I should call a tow truck to get the car taken to a shop right away, rather than waiting until Monday to deal with it. The tow truck could bring me home. I felt hurt that they weren't willing to come get me, but I called the tow truck. It took an hour and a half for him to arrive, and as I was riding with him in the cab the driver started up with an angry tirade against his boss, his job, and with how utterly f_____ up everything was. It was almost scary all I could really do was murmur in response, “That’s too bad!” I was towed to the shop about a mile or so my house, told the driver he didn’t need to take me any further, and rode my bike home the rest of the way through the rain. It was almost 6 pm and completely dark when I arrived.
All afternoon, I kept noticing my strong tendency to feel like a victimand along with it the impulse to want to make my husband and daughter feel guilty, to make them “pay.” I few times I even said it out loud: “Now I feel like a victim and a part of me wants them to feel like they should have come and picked me up. [‘Poor me!’]” All afternoon, I felt a tug between “unwholesome dharmas” and mindfulness practice. Yet when I eventually walked in the door at home, I saw guilt in my daughter’s face they hadn’t known, of course, that it would take so long and at the moment I saw her face, any vestiges of wanting to add to her guilt vanished. Compassion very naturally arose upon “seeing clearly” her face, without the interference and delusion of my own ego. And all afternoon, each time I had been able to notice and let go of my “victim” feeling, what arose in its place was appreciation. Appreciation for the dry, familiar office to wait in. Appreciation that I had my rain suit on, and my bike with me. There was nothing wrong with this whole situation; it was just a series of events. In reality, it was exciting to ride home on my bike in the rain, to be out in the evening with its own wild beauty.
This whole thing was not a very significant event, but it showed me clearly how a hurt, unrecognized, can cause more hurt, and how awareness can transform one’s experience of a situation from resistance, to neutrality and even finally to appreciation.
So suffering, difficulty itself is our teacher, our intimate, precise teacher. When we are suffering, when it is not a good day, immediately there is our chance to practice mindfulness, to practice awareness. The goal of our practice is not to be free from suffering, it is to understand suffering. Not to be free from thinking mind, from the complex of emotion/thought, but to be aware of it. As long as we are human beings unwholesome mental states will continue to well up. But awareness transforms. Awareness frees us, gives us a wider view. The Big Mind view.
Suffering will continue to arise. There is transienceeverything changes. There is the basic unpredictability and uncontrollability of life. But with awareness practice, we can become like a ball on flowing water. It’s not that we don’t suffer, as we are tossed around, but our attitude is different, so our experience is different.
I love this quotation about Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion: “She leads us to an understanding of suffering: from endurance, to consent, to delight in this temporary existence.” So every day is a good day. This “good” is beyond our usual idea of good and bad. It is appreciation of reality, even of our suffering, of our difficulties, of the world as it is, of ourselves as we are.
Suzuki-roshi said: “Accept things as they are.” Even more radically, Zen teacher Joko Beck said: “Practice until there is not a thing on the face of the earth that you judge.” Does this mean one is passive in the face of injusticeof people harming others? No. But one’s actions to change and alleviate injustice are able to arise more out of compassion than out of anger, fear, and resentment. Our actions come out of this Big Mind that has had some experience of what we call in Buddhism “emptiness.”
Zen teacher John Tarrant says: “When you forget your carefully assembled fiction of who you are, [and, I would add, what you think you need to be happy, and what the world should be like] you can find a natural delight in people, in the planet, the stones, the trees. There is no observable limit to this beauty, and no one is excluded from it.”
When you first get up from a period of sitting and look around the room, or go outside into the trees and the wind, you may experience of moment of Paradise, just this moment, as it is. You see the luminous quality of everything, the true nature of the world when freed from the “thought-coverings” of habitual thinking mind.
Someone gave me a Zen calendar, and one of the days said (it may be a Sufi sayingI’m not sure): “If on earth there be a Paradise of Bliss, It is this, it is this, it is this.” (Firdausi) Or as Ummon said, “Every day is a good day.”
We are immersed in this temporary, difficult realm of birth and death. Sometimes we are in a bliss realm and sometimes we are not. Sometimes we are happy and sometimes we are sad. Gary Snyder wrote a poem [“Steady, They Say”] in which he describes clambering through a rocky gully, seeing the beautiful sun and the rain, and at the same time experiencing a feeling of “despair at how the human world goes down.” Don’t we all feel this despair! The last two lines of the poem simply say:
Consult my old advisers
“steady,” they say
“Consult my old advisors” is to turn to that which we know underlies everything and is immanent in everything. When we take the “backward step” of mindfulness it is our old advisor. When we experience our truest nature in zazen, it is our old advisor. Is it us, or is it bigger than us? It doesn’t matter. The advice is: “Steady.” “Today.”
So we just continue our sincere effort. This is all we need to do. Steady. Present. Today.