Alive or Dead?

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SF-01147
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Sunday Lecture: Koan: "Alive or Dead" (Daowu's condolence call); mind fleas; confession; too busy; leap or die when at an impasse; story of Buddha and king - what else can I do but walk in righteousness; Dogen's death poem

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Did you all get this terrible cold that's been going around? Anyone not have a chance to get the cold? Oh. So this story is a koan from the Blue Cliff Record. It's called, A Condolence Call. Buddhist master Dao Wu and his attendant, Jin Wan, went to a house in the village to offer condolences. Jin Wan struck the coffin with his hand and he said to his teacher, alive or dead? Dao Wu said, I'm not saying alive. I'm not saying dead.

[01:05]

Jin Wan asked, why not? Dao Wu said, I'm not saying. I'm not saying. On the way home, Jin Wan said, say something right now, teacher. If you don't, I'll hit you. Dao Wu said, you can hit me, but even if you hit me, I'm not saying. Jin Wan hit him. Later after Dao Wu had passed away, Jin Wan went to see Xi Xuan and told him this story. Xi Xuan said, I'm not saying alive. I'm not saying dead. Jin Wan said, why not? Xi Xuan said, I'm not saying. I'm not saying. At these words, Jin Wan had an insight.

[02:07]

Later on, one day, Jin Wan took a hoe and he went into the teaching hall and he crossed from east to west and from west to east. Xi Xuan said, what are you doing? Jin Wan said, I'm searching for the sacred bones of our late teacher, Dao Wu. Xi Xuan said, waves flood every place. White caps overwhelm the sky. What sacred bones of our teacher are you looking for? Jin Wan said, this is just what I needed to strengthen me. Fu of Taiwan, when he heard about this story, said, the sacred bones of the late teacher are still here. So in the last couple of months, a lot of people

[03:14]

have come here to live in residence with us at Green Gulch and to practice with us. In December, there was the Rahatsu Seshin, and this room was filled with meditators. And then at the end of December, about 25 people came for the New Year's retreat. In January, there was a retreat by the Buddha. We had a large group of people come, maybe 50 or so, who spent three weeks here in the January intensive. And in a few weeks, another group of people are coming to begin the spring practice period. One of the most common questions that people ask me after they've been here for a while and they're about to go home is, how do I keep my practice alive when I'm back with my family and my job? So that's what I want to talk about today. How do we keep our practice alive? And what does it mean to have a lively practice in the first place?

[04:19]

So I imagined that some of you might think that those of us here at Green Gulch know the answer to these questions. And of course, we do. We do know. And you laugh. And of course, we don't know. Nobody knows. Alive or dead? Each of us alone must answer this question for ourselves. Alive or dead? Impounded or free? Which is it? The main thing is not to be afraid to ask the question in the first place. The answer for the poor monk Jiwon, who'd been practicing meditation and precepts for many, many years, was terrible anger and frustration, which is not a bad place to start if you want a lively practice. Unfortunately, if you don't have proper guidance,

[05:27]

anger and frustration can lead to some rather useless practices, kind of worldly and disturbing. Some monks have withered healthy limbs. Others have simply sat lost in cosmic trance. And Jiwon hit his old teacher in the head. This is pretty rough stuff. And there are many stories in the Buddhist tradition of students trying to get something from others, in particular from their teachers. You know, like, I want it. I want it. Give it to me. Give it to me now. Well, this is exactly the way that humans think. And it starts when we're very, very young. When I became the mother of an infant, I was greatly relieved to realize that there's just a limited number of possibilities of how

[06:29]

to respond to a screaming child. You can change their diaper. You can feed them. You can comfort them, play with them, or put them to sleep. Basically, you hold the space while they regain their sanity by calming down. And this is the same for the monk, Jiwon. He needed to calm down. But unlike the infant, in the case of Jiwon, he's about to be born. And his teachers know this. And that's why together they hold the container so that he can be born in a healthy way. So if you hear from the story, each of them gives him the same response. I won't say alive. I won't say dead. Why not? I won't say. I won't say. They hold him out of kindness. So at crucial times in the relationship

[07:33]

between a teacher and a student or between a parent and a child, it gets to be very much like a mother chicken with her egg. You know, if the mother opens the egg too soon, then the baby is underdeveloped. But if she waits too long, it may suffocate and die. Now fortunately, the young chicken inside knows when it's time to signal and begins pecking. And this is what Jiwon was doing when he knocked on the coffin. Alive or dead, you know, peck, peck, peck. He's knocking. He's knocking on the shell. What's about to be born inside of Jiwon is the knowledge of his own freedom and of his own true nature. And meanwhile, in the village where he lives, nothing much will appear to have changed at all. The farmers will continue planting rice in the valley, and the dogs and cats will sleep in the shade.

[08:35]

Alive and dead, arising and passing away. Reality itself, as it's always been, as it always is, a wondrous world, a wondrous day. In John Terrence's book called Bring Me the Rhinoceros, he tells this story of the condolence call. And in his version of the story, when Jiwon was born, when Jiwon's mind finally opens, and it becomes buoyant and light and gentle and clear, he suddenly realizes an ability to laugh. And he laughs at himself, most of all. He laughs at his teacher, and he laughs at the floor, at the ceiling, and at the walls. And then his teacher joins him, and he laughs, too. And then he walks the young monk outside to meet the bright new day. The story of a young monk confronting

[09:44]

the question of birth and death and of his spiritual awakening is a story that has been told in many forms in all the traditions of the world. The body of Jesus emerges alive from a cave. Eve awakens in a garden. And Moses stands on top of a mountain. White shell woman comes back from the sea. And within each of these stories, the sights and the sounds and the smells and thoughts and the tastes and the textures are all dancing together, making the shape of a human being. But at all times, these shapes are changing and free. So I want to propose to all of you that, like the icons of religious folklore, we are here on this earth to fully awaken to life.

[10:47]

And if you accept that proposition, then, like Jinmon, you need to start from where you are. You need to start from your frustration, your anger, your boredom, your greed, your ignorance. These are the same visitors that came to disturb the Buddha when he was sitting there under the tree, trying to understand the problem of human life and its solution. A friend of mine calls these visitors mind fleas. I think that's a good name, mind fleas. And ironically, it's the presence of mind fleas that signals to us that we are in the right place for a spiritual awakening. If you don't have any mind fleas, then there's just two possibilities. Either they haven't hatched yet, or you've already done the work of quieting. There's a story I heard from the old tradition

[11:53]

about a monk who used to sit out in the front of the monastery, and he'd open his hampari and take the fleas off of his chest hairs and put them on a piece of paper so that they could get a little bit of sunshine before he replaced them on his chest. That's what I read, anyway. OK. So alive or dead, we're not trying to kill the mind fleas through the practices of awakening, but we're trying to find out what inside of us is still alive, is life-enhancing and life-affirming, and what has already died. So one of the reasons that we sit upright in meditation is to give ourselves time to see what's going on, to look at our insides of our minds and the insides of our feelings, and to sort

[12:55]

through the storehouse of perhaps old grudges or old ambitions, things we don't need anymore that can be simply in the light of our wisdom and our investigation. These mind fleas seem to disappear all of their own. And this kind of an honest life takes a bit of courage, for us to actually be willing to look honestly at ourselves and to say what it is that we find, to confess not only to ourselves but to someone else about the kinds of thoughts that run through our heads. And this is part of a lively practice as well. It's called the practice of confession. And having made confession many, many times, and also having listened to confession, basically they go something like this. I'm worthless, I'm stupid, I'm hateful, greedy, talentless, and ungrateful. And what's more, that's a lot better than most

[13:58]

of the people I know. I once said to my teacher, why don't you criticize me? I thought I was being very brave. And he said, well, if you would stop criticizing yourself for a while, maybe I could take a turn. So again, this is lively practice, the kind of practice that makes us squirm. So we start where we are. We start with confession, confessing to the ideas that are running through our minds. And these ideas tend to repeat themselves. I don't know, you've probably noticed that. But like the monk going from east to west and back again, this is the kind of thinking we do. It's called discursive thinking. Back and forth, back and forth. And usually, we use our discursive thinking

[14:59]

to try to find something that we believe is outside of ourselves, something that we think we're missing. Now, this young monk, Jin Wan, when he had his spiritual awakening, had a new kind of thinking, a new use for discursive thinking. He was looking for the bones of his dear teacher, Dao Wu. And Dao Wu is the one that he'd hit in the head, those bones. So perhaps he wanted to thank him. You know, we don't know. Or maybe he wanted to cry with shame at having not trusted the old teacher in the first place. But either way, it's kind of silly because the old man is dead, you know? Or is he? Is he dead? Is he alive, or is he dead? I won't say.

[16:01]

Master Xishuang said, waves flood every place. White caps overwhelm the sky. What sacred bones of our teacher are you looking for? Master Fu of Taiwan said, the sacred bones of the late teacher are still here. So what are the bones that they're talking about in this story? Well, I think they're talking about the bones that are right here in this room, the bones in our hands, in our feet, in our legs, in our hips, our chest, our head. You know, we are our ancestors. We are not only the inheritors of life itself, but of the responsibility for enacting the play. And we get to choose, you know? Either we protect, enhance, and affirm, or we subtract,

[17:10]

reduce, and ignore. The Buddha was offered worldly power and sensual pleasure. Eve was offered the unearned fruits of a garden. Moses, the tyrannies of a jealous god. And the white-shell woman, eternal life under the sea. So what are we being offered, you know? What kinds of enticements are we being offered to pull us away from ourselves and from our sacred duty? The one I hear about most often is the enticement of busyness. It's the one I know the best as well. You know, over and over again, people say to me, I am just too busy. I'm too busy to sit. I'm too busy to practice. In fact, I'm too busy to even think about sitting or practice. That's how busy I am. So I don't think it will come as a surprise to you

[18:17]

that the thing that we exert the most control over in our community of practice here is time itself. In fact, it's the very core of our practice, and we call it following the schedule. So any of you who've ever lived here or listened to the sounds, they're all following the schedule. There was actually supposed to be a bell that rang when I bowed at the altar. And I kind of waited a bit, and I thought, well, maybe he's fainted. And then I came around the corner, and he had vanished. He was busy. So at 840, there's a very lively wake-up bell that runs through the halls. Don't we wish? At 440.

[19:18]

Excuse me. 840, Eastern Standard Time. And then we arrive at the meditation hall at three minutes to five before the doors close. A lot of people just squeak right in at that very moment. Breakfast is at 720. Work meeting at 820. Lunch at 1215. Dinner at 6. Class at 730. And most of us try to be in bed by nine. There are two days off, and on one of those days, you can sleep as long as you like. Sounds pretty nice, huh? So you might say to yourself, what is the point of that? Actually, when I first heard about the schedule at Zen Center, I met my first Zen student many years ago. I thought they were crazy. I said, you get up at what time? I'd never in my life considered getting up

[20:19]

at 4 in the morning. Well, what I would say about the point of that is that the schedule eventually forces each and every one of us into a crisis, a kind of impasse where it appears that we must either leap or die. So, you know, where do we leap to? Well, we don't know. We just leap. We leap. We leap outside of the restricted thinking that we've been doing about our preferences, our views, our opinions, ourselves, what we do like and what we don't like, what we will do and what we won't do. So in other words, we leap beyond the restrictive boundaries of words themselves, words like, I like it, I don't like it,

[21:21]

yes, no, alive or dead. These are words. That's all. This is from the Song of the Julmira Samadhi. The meaning is not in the words. The meaning is not in the words. And yet, it, the meaning, responds to the inquiring impulse. Move, and you are trapped. Miss, and you fall into doubt and vacillation. Turning and touching are both wrong. It's like a massive fire. So whether you're busy or not, or whether you're ready or not, leaping is recommended as the most lively practice of them all. You know, it's like, I remembered, I was thinking about this, and I remembered, it's like so vivid,

[22:23]

one of the most, it must have been a very powerful image to me, but Flash Gordon is in the dungeon of Emperor Meng, and the walls are closing in on him. Is there anybody here who remembers Flash Gordon? Anybody remember that? I guess it happened a lot, but, and, you know, you think he's just been going to be squished like a bug. And that's when the segment ends, right there. The walls have shut on Flash Gordon. So this is the signal for leaping. When the walls are closing in on you, it's time to leap. And these are the very walls that Jin Wan eventually was able to laugh at. So here's a final story I want to tell you from the old sutras about the walls. One fine day, King Pasende of Kosala paid a visit to the Buddha. The Buddha said, where are you coming from at midday, great king? And the king said, having stabilized the country

[23:23]

and conquered a wide stretch of the earth, I am greatly involved in administration. Of those things done by warrior kings. And all the while, drunk with authority and obsessed with lust for sensual pleasures. Sounds like a politician, doesn't he? The Buddha said, if a trustworthy messenger arrived from the east and said, great king, a huge mountain as high as the heavens is advancing and crushing every living thing. Do as you will, sire. And another messenger arrived from the north, from the south, from the west, all with the same message. With the impending destruction of your entire kingdom, what should you do? The king said, at such a time as that, Lord Buddha, what else can I do but to walk in the law, in righteousness, and to cultivate what is of benefit to everyone? And the Buddha said, well, I tell you, great king,

[24:26]

aging and death are closing in on you. What should you do? The king said, my elephants and chariots, horses, and infantry are of no use when aging and death are closing in on me. Magic, spells, and gold are likewise of no use. At such a time as this, Lord, what else can I do but to walk in the law, in righteousness, and to cultivate what is of benefit to everyone? So in this story, the Buddha has basically helped the king to reach an impasse. You know, he trapped him. Trapped him inside the walls. The king, you could say, is our ego, our self-centered views, our self-centered narcissistic self. And so the Buddha has helped this ego to reach the place where leaping is not only possible, but it's necessary. He leaps, the king leaps, into righteousness,

[25:28]

into selflessness, and to devotion to the common good. So for each of us, our true virtue is in not refusing to jump. So in closing, I want to offer a death poem that was written by Zen Master Dogen in the last hours of his life. 54 years, lighting up the sky, a quivering leap smashes a billion worlds. Ha! Entire body looks for nothing. Living, I plunge into the yellow river. 54 years, lighting up the sky, a quivering leap smashes a billion worlds. Ha! Entire body looks for nothing. Living, I plunge into the yellow river.

[26:31]

Thank you very much. May our intentions be as pure as the water.

[26:39]

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