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Unwashable Bowls
June 2009


A couple of months ago in the San Francisco Chronicle there was an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was on tour, giving concerts again for the first time in many years. The story said, “He wouldn't be returning to the stage at this point in his life if his ex-manager hadn't stolen his life savings.” The reporter also commented on Cohen’s “humility, grace and dignity,” and I remember thinking, “He’s remarkably calm about his misfortune!” As you may know, he studies with a Rinzai Zen master, Joshu Sasaki-roshi (who recently turned 102), and lived and practiced in his monastery in the mountains near Los Angeles for five years. In the Chronicle interview the reporter asked him, “What have you learned from Zen?” and he replied, “Zen has helped me to learn to stop whining.”

Maybe you’ve noticed in your life how easy it is to whine. We all whine! It doesn’t seem to matter how good things are, or how much we have, we’re always liable to whine--there’s always something more to want, something different to want. This is our human tendency.

When the Buddha taught the Four Noble, or basic, Truths, the first basic truth was that “suffering exists.” The word the Buddha used, “dukkha,” that we translate as “suffering,” is also often translated as “discontent” or “unease.” Each of us experiences discontent or unease in our lives. In terms of material things, it’s very easy to experience a gap between what we have, and what we wish we could have. There’s always more to want. And in personal matters, or I think better we could call it spiritual matters, probably everyone experiences a gap between the way we are, and the way we wish or hope we could be. And we experience a gap between the way the world is--the way people treat each other and the way they treat the world--and the way the world could be.

The Buddha’s teaching says that this sense of a gap, this thirsting, this wanting, is innate in us, as human beings. In the case of desire for material things, this thirst knows no end—it’s like a bottomless pit that can never be filled. We all see many examples around us of the excesses of greed. I remember a news story about a woman who was divorcing a wealthy man, and who received a settlement of $500,000 a year and yet who said, and truly felt, that she could never live on that small an amount of money. In the case of greed for material things it’s clear to see its bottomless nature: that no how no matter how much one has, one still is not content.

But, as the Buddha’s teachings say, desires are inexhaustible. Not just for material things, but for things to be different than they are, other than they are. So the sense we have of discontent, of a gap, something missing, some yearning, some longing, some wishing for things to be better, this gap between the way things are and the way we wish they were, is our condition. This is our suffering.  We’re all in this together. Each one of us has difficulty in our lives and each of us has to face suffering in our lives; and we all want to know what we can do about it.

The second basic truth is often translated as “The cause of suffering is desire.” This is really a mistranslation, particularly since it leads to a common misunderstanding of the Buddha's teaching that our Buddhist practice is to eliminate desire, to somehow get rid of our discontent and our desires. Or to feel that we should be content with what we have and who we are.  However, the Buddha did not say that the release from suffering was to get rid of desire. He said the release from suffering was to follow the path of practice and thereby understand the nature of our desire, our discontent. The Buddhist path is not a path of renunciation; it is a path of understanding. You could say that it is a path of investigation. Our practice is to investigate and to see clearly our life as it is.

So this gap, this yearning, this discontent and longing is the field of our investigation. It is the field of our practice. Usually we are liable to have a dualistic view of suffering. We think, “Oh, I am having a difficult time, and I want to get out of it.” We think there is something wrong with us, and we wish we could change who we are; we wish we were better.  But as we practice, more and more our understanding widens into another way of experiencing our life; widens into an understanding of nondualism.

The Zen teacher Robert Aitken said:  “Inadequacy is our field of noble effort. Without inadequacy, there is no Buddha way.” So we could say that without difficulty, without problems, there is no Buddha Way. Actually, without problems, there is no human life.

Suzuki Roshi said: “Everything we see is always changing, always losing its balance. But the reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony. This is how everything actually exists; losing its balance against a background of perfect balance. So if you see things without realizing the background of perfect balance, 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.”

So we live in the midst of various difficulties, in the midst of being out of balance. We live with this transient body, this transient mind, this temporal existence. But everything exists against a background of perfect balance. And we will have some experience of this perfect balance through our practice of zazen meditation and our practice of studying our life with nonjudgmental awareness. We come to experience the world with a wider mind, what Suzuki Roshi called “Big Mind.” Big Mind is open mind, a mind of acceptance of things as they are. Suzuki Roshi said: “With Big Mind we accept each of our experiences as if recognizing the face we see in a mirror as our own. For us, there is no fear of losing this mind. There is nowhere to come or to go. ... So we have imperturbable composure, and it is with this imperturbable composure of Big Mind that we practice zazen. We enjoy all aspects of life as an unfolding of Big Mind.”

Just sitting down, with ourselves, “under the control of Big Mind,” as Suzuki Roshi said, our mind becomes strong enough, imperturbable enough, to accept imbalance. It becomes strong enough to see and appreciate the very discontent, the longing, as itself our own Big Mind, our own Buddha Nature. It’s quite natural that we feel out of balance. But being out of balance is actually not a problem. Through our practice we will have a taste of this, and our understanding of suffering will be changed.

There is no ultimate state free from suffering. The Prajna Paramita teachings, the wisdom gone beyond teachings, say that Nirvana and Samsara are the same thing. The world of perfection, Nirvana, and the world of imperfection, Samsara, are the same thing. They are facets of the same reality. Suzuki Roshi: “We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence. We should find perfection in imperfection. For us, complete perfection is not different from imperfection. We do not seek for something besides ourselves. We find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering.” Our very difficulties, our very yearning and longing, is also our spiritual teacher. It is our desire to understand this human life. This sense of “something missing” is at the very heart of our life and our practice.  As Suzuki Roshi said, “It is wisdom which is seeking for wisdom.” 

Everything is always losing its balance, and this is what makes it beautiful.

Suzuki Roshi said: “I am not talking about something that is strange or mystical. If you think so, it means that you are not truthful enough. You are not feeling deeply enough to feel what is true… Dogen said that if you want to attain renunciation from birth and death, don’t try to get out of birth and death. Birth and death are our equipment for this life. Without birth and death we cannot survive. It is our pleasure to have birth and death. This is how we understand truth.”

Dogen Zenji in a talk to his monks once spoke about “the virtue of unwashable bowls.” He said that such bowls can’t be washed “because they have no bottoms.” We could say, “The virtue of unsolvable problems” or “the virtue of persistent faults.” But maybe it’s better not to call them problems, or faults. They are just bowls with no bottoms. Each of us, our depth and complexity and potential is so great, that it has no bottom. We can’t be defined. And we can’t be washed. We can’t be washed free of who we are. The words of a Leonard Cohen song go:  “Everything is cracked; that’s how the light gets in.” We think we shouldn’t be experiencing this gap, this yearning. But it is our very life and practice, our very depth, our very enlightenment.

Buddhist teachings say that this human life is really precious. What each of us experiences in our life is really precious. Father Thomas Berry, a well-known Catholic “ecological theologian” and author, died just a few days ago.  In his writing he described the universe as “that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.” Each of our lives is this way also – it is an ultimate mystery emerging into being.

As we practice, we develop tolerance for ourselves, just as we are. And even beyond tolerance, we develop appreciation. We develop tolerance for how the world is, and beyond that, we develop appreciation.

Each of us already has everything we need. Buddha nature is native to us. But also, our buddha nature is always developing. So in any situation, we bring the mind of practice to it. This means, first of all, to the best of our ability, we don’t cause harm. Sometimes, because of our ancient twisted karma, our unwholesome conditioning, we do cause harm in spite of ourselves. We think, How can I skillfully talk to this person when I am so upset? Maybe we can’t. Maybe it’s better not to. But we just do our best, and that is good enough. There is no perfect way. There is no way free from suffering. There is just doing our best, with good intention, and that’s enough. Secondly, we pay attention. There is a Zen story about a student who said to a master, “Please write for me something that expresses the essence of the teaching.” The master picked up his brush and wrote the single word: “Attention!” The student said, “Is that all?” He wrote again, “Attention! Attention!”

Practice is to pay kind attention to our mind and our life. We can make a vow to accompany ourselves through all our difficulties with warm compassion. Knowing that we are Buddha. Buddha suffers. Buddha is out of balance. Dogen Zenji said, “We fall down by the earth, and we get up by the earth.” Suzuki Roshi commented on this, “A person who falls on the earth, stumbling on a stone, will stand up by means of the same earth they fell on. You complain because you think earth is the problem. Without the earth, you wouldn’t fall, but you wouldn’t stand up either. Falling and standing up are both great aids given to you by the earth. Because of the mother earth you can continue your practice. You are practicing in the zendo of the great earth. Problems are actually your zendo.”

Here’s a poem by Dogen:

All my life, lost between the true and the false.
Long days, the snow has covered the mountain.
This winter, I realize that the snow IS the mountain. 

“All my life, lost between the true and the false.”
For a long time (he is saying) I have had problems and difficulties, lost between the true and false. And I still do have problems and difficulties; I am still lost between the true and the false.

“Long days, the snow has covered the mountain.”
I thought my true nature was being covered by these problems and difficulties.

“This winter, I realize that the snow IS the mountain.”
Being lost between the true and the false, and having problems and difficulties, is not something that will end someday and we will live in complete clarity. This being lost IS the truth, is the Buddha Dharma; is the snow and the mountain itself. They are one thing.

*      *      *

Many years ago I had an experience of seeing the world in a way I had never seen it before. It was the morning after I finished the first long sesshin I had ever sat, a five-day sesshin with Sasaki-roshi in Portland, over forty years ago. Some friends and I took a drive up the Columbia River gorge, and stopped at an overlook point with a beautiful view of the river. There was a gift shop there, and when I looked at the racks of souvenirs for sale, somehow, suddenly, I saw the whole world as a gift. My usual mind would have looked at the souvenirs and dismissed them as trinkets. But this morning my mind saw more deeply, and saw how everything is a gift to everything else. These little souvenirs were made by someone, somewhere, and their purpose was to give pleasure to someone else, to be something that someone else would want to have. Embedded in them was the effort to assemble the materials, manufacture them, transport them, display them, all for our benefit. Embedded in them also was the gift of a livelihood for the shopkeeper, and a livelihood for the chain of people who brought them into existence, and transported them to this place. They had a beauty and simple integrity.

I had never seen the world like this before, and it was very different from my usual mind. Yet when we have an experience like this, we realize that it is a more true way of seeing the world than our usual mind of “picking and choosing.”

The mind isn’t and can’t be in a state of appreciation and acceptance like this all the time. But each time we get a glimpse, even a small glimpse, our mind changes, and gradually, our whole life changes, our whole outlook changes. We are more able to see and appreciate existence as a gift. We see the perfect background to everything that makes everything beautiful.

Layla Smith
Gyokujun Teishin