Living in Accord with Birth and Death

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Sesshin Lecture: confirming Buddha nature; sesshin: gathering of heart/mind; what's the business under the patchwork robe?; story of Patacara

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Welcome to the Green Dragon Temple, first day of Seshin. Also bringing greetings from San Francisco City Center, where we had a shuso ceremony and closing of the practice period in the city on Saturday. And then yesterday, Tassajara, we had a shuso ceremony, and today is closing of the practice period at Tassajara. So here at Green Goats we are continuing our practice period through this week of Seshin, and we'll have our shuso ceremony on Monday, a week from today, and then close the practice period here the day after that. So it's a very rich time in our three centers.


Lots of dharma being expressed. Lots of teaching, lots of good questions. Here in our practice period we've been working with the theme of developing or establishing and confirming confidence in Buddha nature, or in your true nature. So we've been looking at this various ways for the past several weeks, a couple of months. And our practice of zazen actually is, in itself, a practice of expressing confidence in Buddha nature, based upon our own experience, our own, say, our own inner request, our own


nature that seeks something that's true. And also being confirmed by the tradition of many, many generations of practitioners. We have some various ways of reminding ourselves of what's most important, and of establishing and finding, and again and again confirming our own sense of what is Buddha nature. So although those words may be abstract, your experience, and particularly during Seshin, there's an opportunity to deepen your experience of your sense of Buddha nature, and confirm it and realize it for yourself. The word Seshin comes from two words, actually.


The first part, Setsu or Ses, means something like to respectfully bring into alignment, to respectfully, say, order, or sometimes gather, sometimes it's translated as gather, gather together what may be dispersed. And Shin means heart-mind, recognizing that heart-mind are one. Sometimes it's translated as mind, and sometimes as heart. So, it's just a reminder that what we're doing here in this room for the next seven days, and also as we move around outside this room for the next seven days, that it's something


essential. What is mind? What is heart? What is mind? Something essential. And the various forms that we use in our practice are all here to provide a kind of a laboratory or playground even. See if you can make it a playground. So, you can freely disport yourself in the Buddha field of this Seshin in time and space that is actually marked by the schedule of the Seshin. So if you're climbing on a jungle gym, my three-year-old daughter has to sometimes reach for the bar, my three-year-old granddaughter has to reach for the bar, not knowing if she's


going to actually be able to reach it. And sometimes her feet are off the ground, she swings on the trapeze, finding who she is, finding out who she is. So it might be difficult sometimes to realize that the schedule and the forms of practice in Seshin are very much like our version of that jungle gym for grown-up Zen practitioners. But you may find yourself sometimes not knowing if you can reach, even survive, the next breath. So that's where you actually have an opportunity to discover and deepen your confidence in


Buddha nature, in your own true nature. Earlier this week, when she saw Eva, she considered a question about what is under the patchwork robe. This robe is also a form, a reminder of Shakyamuni's enlightenment. Whether you have this kind of a formal robe or not, you may have the same kind of question and the same realization of Shakyamuni Buddha. When Shakyamuni sat under the Bodhi tree, after touching the earth, realizing his complete


connection and interconnection with the earth, realizing that he had every right to actually sit right where he was, be wholeheartedly present right where he was, and he noticed the morning star fading into the dawn light and had this profound feeling that all beings, all beings, every minute particle of the phenomenal world was completely connected, not separate from him, that he was mutually dependent and interdependent with every particle of the world that surrounded him, and he had the thought, ah, all beings, all beings, realize the way simultaneously. And over the generations there have been many, many questions and a lot of study into them.


If this is so, how do we feel sometimes so apart, so separate from all beings? And in looking into that we discover the depth of our own habitual mental formations that separate us from this realization, this awakening. But again and again it's been confirmed in our lineage and in our own experience that this is due to our own habits, due to our own fears, due to our own attachments that cloud our experience and prevent us from actually feeling the truth of how connected we are, how completely interconnected we are, with the very earth underneath us, the sunlight,


the birds singing, the crickets chirping, the banana slug crawling across the path, not crawling actually, because crawling requires feet, sliding on their own path, right, creating a path, a slippery path. So in considering the question of what's under the patchwork robe, this robe, this particular form, the 43rd ancestor of our lineage, Liangshan, was asked this question by his teacher, Tongan, and Tongan said, What is the business under the patchwork robe? So what are you really about underneath the form of your practice?


What's really the most important, essential, and innermost request that you have? And Liangshan could not answer, as a young student he could not answer that question. And so then he asked his teacher, Tongan, can you tell me? And his teacher said, ask me the question. And so he asked his teacher, what is the business under the patchwork robe? And Tongan said, it is within, it is what is most intimate within, reminding him that what is most essential, the essential teaching of Buddha nature is already his own treasure


within himself. So for each person here sitting in this room, it's a question. And my feeling is that everyone here has already made some deep vow that you wouldn't be here if you hadn't made some deep vow. When I was about 10 years old, and I've told this story before, but I was concerned about birth and death, particularly about death. And when I was nine, my father bought me some sheep, said, here's a project for you.


Some ewes who were pregnant. And I didn't really know much. And I didn't get much help. And then when one of the lambs died, I was pretty upset. And I didn't know what I should have done. And I didn't know if this was something that could have been prevented if I had known more. But I had to accept that this had happened. That this, what had been handed over to me as a project, was a matter of life and death. And somehow that translated to me as I was considering it and having some moment of acceptance, a deep acceptance that there is birth and death.


And it's not something that I can exactly control. I may have some influence, but I actually can't control. At that time, I felt that I wanted to live with some clarity and some accord with this reality. But then I forgot about that. It's as if I made a vow, and then I forgot about it. I got busy with other things. A few years later, hormones took over. And it wasn't until maybe 15 years later, when I was about 25 years old, that this question really clarified again for me. And I began to recover my sense of some vow.


And actually, at that time, I didn't even make the connection with that vow that I had made when I was young. And it was only after some more many years of practice that it occurred to me that I had made that vow. One of the great teachers of our lineage, Nagarjuna, said, It is the mind that looks into the matter of birth and death that is the mind of awakening. That is bodhicitta. So here, we have an opportunity to awaken that mind, to sit fearlessly and face whatever arises. When birth arises, be present with birth. When death arises, be present with death. When the breath comes in, be present with the breath that comes in.


When the breath goes out, be present with the breath that goes out. When the breath doesn't move, be present with the stillness. When the breath does move, be present with the stillness. So throughout this experiment of being a human being, many people have discovered that sometimes it's incredibly difficult, incredibly difficult to see into the nature of birth and death. One of our ancestors was a woman who lived in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha.


I want to tell a little bit of her story. Many of you know it. She became known as Patachara, which means someone who wanders with a cloak. But before she had that name, I don't really know. We don't have a record of what her family name was, but we know that she was a daughter of a wealthy household in the town of Savatthi. Her father was some kind of a financier or banker. So there was a thriving market economy in Savatthi in those days. So this young woman had everything that she needed,


or at least what her family thought she could have wanted. And they were in the process of arranging a marriage for her. When she realized that she had different ideas, she did not want to go through with this arranged marriage, and she was falling in love with one of the servants in the household. And she knew that she could never tell her parents that she was in love with a servant. Remember, this is the caste system in ancient India. So they eloped and went off to live in another town. And she became pregnant. And when she was close to giving birth, she felt, well, maybe she could go back now. And it often does happen. There's some disagreement with parents and children.


When the children grow up and come back with grandchildren, there's an opportunity for some rapprochement, some forgiveness. But she couldn't convince her husband to go back. And so she had the child on her own. It was the custom then to go back and be with your mother for childbirth, so that she could assist and take the active role of grandmother. A couple of years later, she was pregnant again, and this time was more urgent. And finally convinced her husband that they should go back, and that she could go back to her family and make amends and have her baby there. And so they set out.


And on the way, a big storm came up. Wind, thunder, lightning, heavy rain. So they scurried about trying to make a camp quickly for some shelter. And when they were looking for some branches, her husband encountered a poisonous snake that bit him, and he collapsed. And as he was dying, she went into labor. And that same night gave birth to her second child. And so the next morning, she realized all she could do was leave her husband's body there and take her two babies, her two-year-old and her newborn, with her,


and continue the journey on her own to her hometown and her parents. And on the way, she came to a river that was swollen by the big rains of the night. And she felt that she couldn't cross the river holding two babies, so she instructed the two-year-old to sit down on the bank and wait for her, and she'd go across and come back. And so she did that. She waited across the river and placed her newborn on some leaves on the other bank and then came back. She kept looking back to check on her little baby there and then was dismayed to see an eagle coming down. And an eagle was coming down to snatch up her newborn baby,


and so she started yelling at the eagle, and that confused the two-year-old on the other bank, and he thought his mother was calling him, and so he jumped in to come to her and was swept away by the river. So in that moment, she had lost her newborn and her two-year-old, and her husband lay dead. And so miserable as she was, she felt she should still go to her parents. And when she arrived in the town of Savati, she asked the first person she met about her family, how they were doing. She hadn't seen them in several years, and this person said, Don't ask about them. It's such sad news. This big storm last night caused the roof of their house to collapse.


It collapsed on them while they were sleeping, and now they're all dead. And the town is just preparing to dig them out and prepare a funeral. So this was too much. She went mad with her grief and wandered around tearing off her clothing. Sometimes weeping hysterically and sometimes just in a daze. I don't know how long this went on, but at some point she found herself in the Jeta Grove where Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching and his sangha had gathered. And when she approached, some members of the sangha tried to drive her away because she was a mad woman.


But others took some compassion and someone gave her a cloak to cover her nakedness. And when she approached the Buddha, the Buddha said, Sister, recover your presence of mind. And somehow the Buddha's words and his presence was enough to break through her miserable, disoriented state of mind. And she asked, Can you help me? And he said, I can't help you. You have already shed more tears than there are in the ocean. And you're welcome to practice the Dharma path with us.


And so she took up the practice as a member of the sangha. After some time, she felt that maybe there was some ripeness to her practice, but at the same time she felt that she was like a failure, that the practice was not really working for her. And still at that time she dedicated herself again and again to concentrating her mind and following the rules of the sangha. And at that time, she had a deep awakening experience. And she wrote a poem, which has been recorded in the Theragatha, and it was translated in the book


from the Theragatha, based on the Theragatha, Stories of Buddhist Women. I think it was Susan Mercott and Deborah Hopkinson who did the translations. And the translation of her poem goes like this, if I can remember it. When they plow their fields and sow seeds in the earth, when they take care of their wives and children, young brahmins find riches. But I've followed the rule of my teacher. I've done things right. I'm not lazy or proud. Why haven't I found peace?


Bathing my feet, I watched the bath water spill down the slope. I concentrated my mind the way you train a good horse. I lit a lamp and went into my hut. I checked the bed and sat down upon it. Then I took a needle and pushed down the wick of the lamp. When the light went out, my mind was freed. So, Patachara went on to become a very important teacher for many people. And she's one of the names that we chant when we chant the women's ancestors.


It's a very interesting and deliberate kind of image in her poem, in her poetic expression of her awakening. Beginning with a first feeling like she's failed, right? A little bit of comparative thinking there. These other people, the kind of people that she grew up with, the Brahmins, were having successful lives. They were wealthy, they had children, all of which she had lost. So she was taking another path and that wasn't seeming to be so successful either. But then again, she said, I concentrated my mind. I'm following the rule, I'm not lazy, I'm not proud.


Concentrate my mind the way you train a good horse. For those of you who are equestrians or horse trainers, you may immediately have some sense of that relationship of training a horse. There is a relationship of training a horse which is somewhat similar to working with your mind in meditation practice. If you are, say, a subtle and careful trainer, you're actually listening to the horse. You're actually tuning in with the horse. If you're sitting on the horse, you realize that just shifting your balance affects the horse. There's a whole method of training horses now without reins,


without a bit in the horse's mouth, which depends upon having a relationship with the horse, a friendly relationship and a relationship that is skillfully tuned to every subtle movement of the horse so that you're actually in balance. So when we talk about alignment in sitting, we've talked somewhat and used the word alignment, that there's a practice of sitting, it's actually a practice of a kind of tuning in, becoming aware of your body, becoming aware of your mind, becoming aware of your breath. So when Patachara says, I concentrated my mind the way you train a good horse, this is my feeling. There's a sustained quality of attention. And everyone is capable of this.


And she probably had done this for years and years and many times found that all of her old wounds and distresses would come up and take over her mind and she wouldn't be able to stay concentrated. But as she worked with this practice, she discovered that she had the capacity, the capacity to be fully present, not deterred by her old memories, not deterred by the comparative thinking of her own situation compared with the wealthy Brahmins who had been her, say, in her high school class. And then for her to say that she washed her feet, she's clearly taking care of herself. And the bath water is spilling down the slope.


This is kind of an image of something being released, recognizing there's a flow that your life actually is flowing. And for her to then carefully go in and check her bed. Good practice. Pay attention to where you sit. Pay attention to where you lie down. There's a sense that she's maintaining her awareness in this activity of going in and preparing her bed. And then I imagine it's an oil lamp with a wick


that maybe comes up through, it would be like a little, a small pitcher, a little spout with a wick coming up and there's the light. And so then taking the needle and pushing down the wick is the way of extinguishing the light. But that precision of mind, symbolized by the needle, pushing down the wick. And entering the darkness. Entering the darkness without fear. Where all identity, all attachments, anything that she may hold on to drops away. At that moment, she says, my mind was freed. So what a beautiful instruction,


guide for us. And inspiration. For anyone who's experienced some loss. Whether you lost your parents when you were young, as Dogen did. Whether you lost a lamb, that was a 4-H project. Whether you lost a child, as Padachara did. Or a lover. This is part of what Buddhism always has addressed. The nature of suffering. The aspect of loss.


The loss of a sense of material freedom. As the people in San Quentin, when I go to the San Quentin meditation group. And actually it's that loss of freedom that's brought them home to themselves. So there's actually a quality of renunciation for entering a 7-day Sashin. You may experience some withdrawal symptoms. Things that you're used to doing or having. An opportunity to express yourself in words. So we're giving up some of these usual habits.


Usual involvements. For this period of time, for 7 days. So that we can come home to ourselves. As Buddha said to Padachara, recover your presence of mind. So just a chance to recover your presence of mind. How wonderful. So in this way, we have a chance to clearly establish confidence in Buddha nature. Your own true nature. That which is not dependent upon ideas, concepts, any particular belief, any habits


that you've accumulated. How is it that you are completely connected? So, let's enjoy this playground. And also take it seriously as a laboratory. So, our lives are short, actually. And you don't know what happens tomorrow. Still, we're preparing for lunch.


Thank you to the people who are doing that. For the rest of us, we can take a moment if there are any questions. I'll stop talking and hear questions. If there is one. Very peaceful. Very peaceful. Thank you for listening. May our intention... May our intention...