list of teachings

Balance and Trust
Spring 2008

In the book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki-roshi said that everything that exists is a little bit out of balance, but it exists against a background of perfect balance. This is what makes it beautiful. In this talk I am going to talk about the interdependence of balance and imbalance.

I was reading online recently about economics, and I came across the term “Market fundamentalist.” And it occurred to me that I have known some people who fit this description. A “market fundamentalist” is someone who implicitly trusts the “free market,” “market forces,” to correct economic imbalances—to bring them back into balance. If there is a shortage of some particular item, demand for it will result in more of that item being produced. If something is being priced too high, competition will ensure that the price of it comes down as others see the opportunity to sell it for less. Regulation or interference by government is not required. This of course is a strong simplification, but essentially this is the conservative argument for less government and less governmental regulation. Things will find their own balance, and that is for the best.

Now this is a sensible-sounding view of the world, and as far as it goes, accurate. The problem is that a “market fundamentalist’s” viewpoint remains rather narrow, because they actually do not take the logic of this view far enough; they doesn’t expand it out wide enough. They apply this thinking only in one particular limited realm, that of economics. What if this thinking were expanded to include, say, the realm of nature. And the realm of human beings. In nature, too, “left on their own,” all things eventually come to balance. If there is an overpopulation of say, rabbits in an area, then the population of predators that eats rabbits will also soon expand, because they have this readily available food source. When the rabbits are reduced in number by the predators, then the predators decline as there is not enough food to support a large population. This is also a sort of “free market,” the law of supply and demand. You might say, if you were a “market fundamentalist,” that this is all “natural” and no interference is required. But of course every system is much, much more complex than this simple example, which has plucked just two variables out of immense complexity. And it’s especially complex when we start including human beings in the picture.

I read a story a few months ago about how the rat population in India is a big problem this year. A certain kind of wild bamboo flowers about once every thirty years, and when it does it causes the rat population to explode. Then this big population of rats goes on to eat crops and as a result, there’s fear there may be famine this year. So, among other things, local authorities are supplying free rat poison and paying farmers to kill rats. They’re not letting the situation come back into balance “by itself” because that could take years and there would be a lot of human suffering involved. So of course we interfere.

The hills of Marin County—where I live— are covered with nonnative invasive French broom, which crowds out native plants and is highly flammable to boot. And it’s true that nature itself could bring things into balance. Let the broom carpet Marin, and sooner or later evolution will produce a lifeform that lives off French broom, and its proliferation will be brought into balance. And this is exactly what would happen were there no humans in the picture. However, there are humans in the picture. Humans that have minds that think about things, that plan for the future, and that try to reduce harm to ourselves and others. We don’t want to wait 1,000 years for the broom to be brought under control. So, you could say, we “interfere,” we manage, we regulate. But the fact that we human beings have minds, that we manage, regulate, make mistakes, whatever we do, is also part of the overall picture. This is our nature. When you talk about “free market forces,” or “letting things be,” this ultimately has to mean also letting human beings be who they are — letting human beings do what they do, which is think, plan, regulate, adjust, change.

So in any realm, if a person looks closely at what it means to let things be, to accept them as they are, or what it means to work to change things, there can be no clear line drawn. The more closely you look at it, in fact, the harder it becomes to make a distinction between these different concepts. That human beings change things is actually “letting things be as they are” since this is the way we are by nature. This is the way things are. If we didn’t exist on this planet, everything that happened would be “natural” and would be the way things are. That we exist on this planet is also “natural” and the way things are, it’s just a different “are.”

This thinking can be extended to all of existence. The very biggest picture is that everything is ultimately, intimately, completely interconnected. One thing cannot be separated out from another. A perturbation in one thing affects, in some way, everything. This is interdependence, and the image used in Buddhism to visualize this interdependence and interpenetration of everything is the Net of Indra. All of existence is visualized as a vast net, and at every node in the net is a jewel, symbolizing an individual existence. Every jewel reflects every other jewel in the net, forming a vast, complete, total whole and this whole is in complete balance. It has to be in complete balance because it is everything; there is nothing else to compare it to. So everything that happens is in a sense perfect, is just as it should be. Everything is in perfect balance.

So if a market fundamentalist were to follow their thinking out a considerably wider distance than they do, the conclusion is inevitable that everything is always already under the umbrella of what economics calls “market forces,” or what is actually more accurately called “cause and effect.” Everything in the universe follows the law that when “this” happens, then “that” follows as an effect. And that in turn creates another effect, and so on, the ripples never-ending, the scope infinite in both time and space. We are totally enmeshed in the net of Indra. In this net, everything that happens, in a sense, could not happen any other way, and therefore it is perfect, it is in perfect balance.

I went hiking in Redwood National Park on the North Coast last October. As I was looking out across a big valley, filled with redwoods, I saw a bird flying through the air, and as it flew it made one call. Its call echoed in the wide space of the valley, and at that moment I experienced in an almost physical way how clearly that bird’s flight and call could not happen any other way. It was perfect; it was “right” in some deep way; it was the inevitable result of an unthinkably complex net of causes and conditions that led to that exact moment. And yet at the same time, it was not predetermined. It was just part of the constant, complex unfolding of things as they are. It’s a paradox. Things unfold within the law of cause and effect, yet this unfolding is not predetermined. This is the mystery, the paradox, that we live in and that we enact every single moment of our lives.

Dogen Zenji calls this complete interconnectness and interpenetration of everything, this perfect balance, “One bright pearl.” He said, “The whole universe is one bright pearl.” Yet Suzuki-roshi said, “Everything exists against a background of perfect balance. But the reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance. This is how everything exists in the realm of Buddha nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect balance.”

In Buddhism we talk about form and emptiness. We call the perfect balance, the background, emptiness. But remember that the word “emptiness,” sunya, also means fullness, roundless, completion. Things losing their balance we could call the world of form. Something is differentiated out of nothing. And that things come into existence out of nothingness, is only possible because of the background of emptiness, or fullness, or perfect balance, so the two completely depend on each other. Form IS emptiness, emptiness IS form. They are not different, and they are not the same. Balance and imbalance depend on each other.

So what are we to do? This may all sound philosophical but it has big implications for how we live our life and how we understand our life. Whatever we do, we can know, fundamentally, it’s OK — it’s OK to be a human, and have a human mind— the kind of mind that wants to fix things, and make them better, and eradicate the French broom, and let free market forces set prices, or  have government programs set prices, and think and debate about which is better. It’s OK to be a human and have a human mind that tries to understand what it means to be a steward to existence, and that tries to penetrate the mysteries of form and emptiness with our minds and with our practice — all these things that humans do — this is all OK. And it is even more OK if, as we do the various things we do in our lives, we have some understanding of, some actual realization of the background to everything we do; the perfect background to everything we do, which we call emptiness, or the realm of perfection, or things as they are, or One Bright Pearl. We ourselves are form — we are out of balance, perpetually entangled.  Suzuki-roshi said, “If you see things without realizing the background of Buddha nature, everything appears to be in the form of suffering. But if you understand the background of existence, you realize that suffering itself is how we live, and how we extend our life. ...When we lose our balance we die, but at the same time we also develop ourselves, we grow.” 

This is practice. We grow by losing our balance. Suzuki-roshi said it another way when he said, “We fall down by the ground, and we also stand up by the ground.” We exist against a background of perfect balance, and at the same time we are out of balance, we experience our lives as being always out of balance. Yet this itself is the One Bright Pearl. Dogen said, “You and I, unaware of what the Bright Pearl is and is not, entertain countless doubts and nondoubts about it and turn them into indubitable fodder for the mind...Who can be anxious as to whether birth and death are or are not the Bright Pearl? Even if there is doubt and anxiety, they are the Bright Pearl. There is not a single activity or thought that is not the Bright Pearl. If you want to understand the complete roundness [of the one bright pearl] but you don’t understand, being in the black mountain demon’s cave is good, strenuous practice.” So, being out of balance, suffering, having difficulty, is “good, strenuous practice.” Suffering itself is how we live, and also how we extend our life and practice; how we develop ourselves; how we grow.

According to the law of karma, the law of cause and effect, everything we do matters, and everything we do makes a difference. Our life is an evolving path, an unfolding path, that changes according to the steps we take on the path. And in Indra’s Net, this net of total interdependence that we completely exist in, a change in one part of the net affects every other part. As poet David Whyte says, “Every action, no matter how small, influences every future action, no matter how large.”

The fundamental attitude of practice is: Everything I do matters. And also, that everything teaches us. Every situation is an opportunity for practice and every situation is our teacher. With this attitude, everything we do is practice. It is not limited to time spent in meditation, though time spent in meditation is invaluable in helping us experience directly the perfect background to everything we do, and in helping us come back to perfect balance. There’s the Zen saying, “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, grass grows by itself.” Sitting quietly, doing nothing, we sit here, and our own true nature resumes itself. We sit here, at home, in the middle of existence, just as it is. 

Everything is our teacher. Early last spring I went to a memorial service at San Francisco Zen Center for Ananda Claude Dalenberg. Claude was at Zen Center when I first came, and then was in his mid-forties, and had been studying with Suzuki-roshi already for many years He was kind of a Zen Patriarch to me. But he was also a very ordinary and even occasionally contrary person, somewhat of an antidote to all the shaven-headed and to me somewhat scary, “serious” monks at Zen Center. He was the only priest who wore his okesa, his outer robe, over regular Western clothes; it was startling then; now lots of people do it. His Zen talks were simple and rather devotional. At some point he left Zen Center and went on to become a Pure Land Buddhist, which is a more devotional style of Buddhism. Anyway, he was also a bit of a father figure for me.

During his memorial ceremony, a couple of people mentioned how one of the things he often said was that everyone was his teacher. This was literally true for him, and it is also true for all of us. Each of us has many teachers, and the way they become our teachers is because we view them that way. Each person and every situation demonstrates the dharma. Every person and situation, when we are open to it, can help us see our own conceptualizing, often critical mind. Every person and situation can lead us to an understanding of reality that is beyond our usual conceptualizing, comparing mind. When we pay attention, everything shows us our own mind. Everything preaches the dharma.

This last Valentine’s Day I made the pronouncement to my husband that Valentine’s Day was mostly a celebration promoted so greeting-card companies could make money, and that we should celebrate it this year by just going out to breakfast together; none of that other stuff—cards, chocolate, etc. So we went out for breakfast, and it was very nice.

After Claude’s memorial ceremony there was a reception at which one of his daughters showed a film and slide show she had put together celebrating his life. Part of it was a little movie of him taken at the hospice, on Valentine’s Day, just a few days earlier. He had had a stroke some months or years before, and it was very difficult for him to talk, or control his movements very much. He was lying in the bed and his wife was holding up in front of him Valentine’s cards he had received, one by one, and reading them to him. Then the camera showed his face, which looked exuberantly happy, and he sort of struggled to get his tongue and mouth to do what he wanted it to do, and he mouthed the words directly to the camera, “I love you.” Suddenly I felt my criticism of Valentine’s Day was rather beside the point. I wished that I had sent him a Valentine’s card, for him to smile about on his deathbed. It can never be extraneous to tell someone you love them.

Charlotte Joko Beck has a phrase, “You should practice until there is not a thing on the face of the earth that you judge.” This is accepting things as they are. This is One Bright Pearl. This is perfect balance. But at the same time we don’t ignore form, we don’t ignore suffering, we don’t ignore things being out of balance. There is commercialization of Valentine’s Day. The French broom is taking over Marin County. And these are just the small issues. We have to make decisions about what to do in complex situations all the time. So what do you do? You constantly find your own way. You trust yourself, and you find your own way.

S.R. said that the Bodhisattva’s way is called “the single-minded way.” “Even if the sun were to rise in the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way. This way is each moment to express his true nature and his sincerity.” He called this single-minded way one railway track thousands of miles long. And he said that there is no need to become too curious about the railway track; just appreciate the sights you see from the train.

Our conceptualizing, thinking mind is by nature delusion. It belongs to the realm of form, to the realm of being out of balance. It is delusion because it divides one thing from another. It’s a necessary delusion because it allows us to exist in and deal with this world of form, allows us to differentiate one thing from another. But this mind is too active for our own good. And it’s easily fooled and it usually goes too far. So in Buddhist practice we say, “Don’t think.” Most of the time we are always thinking, planning, reacting, defending, worrying, comparing, judging.  When we sit in meditation, the thinking mind doesn’t disappear, but becomes more of an undercurrent, becomes less important, has less of a hold on us. And when we sit, we do get a taste of pure, clear awareness, free of conceptual thought. Sometimes this happens when we first stand up after a period of zazen—the world appears more clear and vivid.

So it’s important to have a taste of non thinking. And if you continue this practice, more and more you will acquire the mind of non-thinking, the mind of calmness, the mind of readiness, that is ready to respond to whatever needs to be responded to. So  encourage yourself to let go of your thinking mind! Non-thinking is not suppressing your thinking or even trying to stop it. It’s just letting go of thoughts and waking up to this moment. It can be done. Don’t think. Return to zero. Just feel your breathing. Just see the world. Just hear the world. Just rest in things as they are. Just appreciate the sights from the train.

And you really can trust yourself. Perhaps when you hear the words, “trust yourself,” your mind says, “I know I should trust myself, but I don’t.” But you can trust even when you don’t trust yourself. The most important thing, as S.R. used to say, is your sincere effort. 

An old Zen teacher once said, “I follow my own way endlessly, and everywhere I go, I meet myself.” So don’t think. Trust yourself before you think. Trust your practice, trust your effort, trust the railway track. Trust your difficulties, the being out of balance. And trust the background of perfect balance; this incomprehensible but completely supportive ground, that we call in Buddhism our true nature.

Gyokujun Teishin
Pure Forge, Pervading Heart