Sacred Space

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Sunday Lecture

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Good morning, and welcome to Green Gulch, a fog-hidden whereabouts unknown. How many people are here for the first time? How many people have been coming a lot of times? Well, then, some of you will have probably heard me, will hear me say the same things you've heard before, and some of you will probably hear something for the first time from me. I can't help wondering what it's like to come here for the first time, trying to remember


back the way it was for me, a long time ago. How curious it seems to walk into a space, particularly if you've had Zazen instruction. Do people have Zazen instruction today? You step into the Zindu with a particular foot, you step out with another foot, you approach your seat a certain way, you bow to it a certain way, you turn clockwise, you fluff your cushion, there's a proscribed way for doing everything. And I don't know about you, but I used to wonder what that was all about. The truth is, I still do, a little bit. There is such a thing, well, let's see, I won't say there's such a thing, but there


is in our psyche, or in our human realm, a need for some space that we call sacred. To be in our home, it's usually not in a public building, like a municipal building, it's often in a place that we call churches, a place set aside for a particular reason, for a particular ceremony, for a particular ritual. I've said this before, but it must go way, way, way back in human consciousness. I think, the picture I get is of some grotto, where in the, before human history, some grotto, some cave, we kept the family bones. Some relic of those people that part of a culture, or civilization, or our culture that


we felt was vital to us. That there's some tangible way of getting in touch with those things that pass away in a world of transience. The word sacred has something to do with the word sacrifice, sacerdotal, that is to say a function of an official who mediates in that space, ritualizes that space, performs certain functions in that space that help us to get in touch with what was once maybe considered to be out there, an outer space, the gods, the powers over which we still have forces of very little control, to propitiate, to ask for favors.


And then we come into these spaces, into this kind of space that we have set aside, and by doing so, feel changed, or feel in contact, or feel the need to touch into some place that is, wherein we honor, maybe I could say the ineffable, the untouchable, the ungraspable, the unfindable. Of course, in the old days, we sacrificed in such places, sacrificed animals, blood sacrifices humans, because we thought by giving away the power to those forces over which we had no control, we would be spared the disasters that befall, can befall us. Natural disasters, disasters of war, famine, sickness, and so on, the four horsemen of


the apocalypse kind of thing. At some point, coming into this space, particularly in the role of wearing these robes, these vestments that we put on for these occasions, that have been handed down to us by our teachers and by a tradition, and bowing in front of the altars and to one another, it seemed to me at one point that I was expressing gratitude, that it was a place to come and express not my neediness for consolation or answers, but for gratefulness, for gratitude, for just being here together.


And I still feel like that, even though I can't bow very well anymore. My knees won't hold me so well, but I can still bow enough that when I touch my head to the floor, when I go down to Mother Earth and feel myself raising my hands, you know, that's the old way. Actually, the bow was the old way that messengers came as well, before potentates and kings. They bowed and raised their hands. It was the most unaggressive way, maybe, posture we could take, is to fold ourselves up, touch our heads, our arms to the ground, and show the emptiness of our hands and lift them to the sky. In the tradition, we also say we're lifting up suffering from the earth, or we're lifting Buddha, our Buddhahood, our original mind, our natural being, life itself, giving it a lift. These are, of course, just interpretations.


We can ascribe any kind of meaning to it whatsoever that we wish to, but I feel comfortable with those meanings. And then, of course, you walk into a space like this, and part of it is by taking a certain step by performing certain functions and so on, it helps us consciously, mindfully, to pay attention to actually the way we, first of all, touch the world, manipulate the world, step into the world or out of the world. And it has some property of respect and attention to the details of our life. In the monastic training, of course, part of that practice is to help us realize that our whole life is rituals. Our whole life can be a rite. The whole world can be the sacred, a sacred place, your bedroom, your garage, your office.


We can take, by practicing in a special space where the bones are kept, the bones of our history, the bones of our ancestors, the heritage is kept. We can be mindful of that by walking into our offices and our garages and particularly even in our automobiles, the moving zindo. Actually, parenthetically, a wonderful place to do zazen when you're in gridlock. A real test of your equanimity. But at any rate, hopefully, I guess, one could hope that these practices that we do that seem so strange to us in many ways, so imposed, as it were, from the outside, will awaken us to the world and ourselves in it as it is, as we are.


And that that very act of whatever we're doing, brushing our teeth, going to bed, getting up in the morning and so on, are activities that are not different from the realm of the sacred. In fact, in Zen training, the sacred and the ordinary are not two different things. If they were, we would be dealing with the kind of duality in which we are sacred for two hours every Sunday and the rest of the week. The world is a place to exploit and use for our pleasure and benefit, maybe. And then, too, you come into this kind of space. You know, Zen has often been depicted as spare, you know, cool and spare. Not a lot of iconography or statuary. But you walk into this room, in this space, and you look around and you see, well, we've


got at least four different images in here. That one back there, that's Manjushri. That's in all zindos, Manjushri, the one that is holding his stick in such a beautiful way, kind of holding it very delicately. This is called a kokutsu. It's kind of like the Egyptian ankh. Of course, it's an emblem of some sort of title or some sort of power tool, like a talking stick and so on, that we can hand around. But the way Manjushri holds it back there, I've never seen one quite like that, the delicate way in which his fingers, or her fingers, it's a kind of non-gender form, holds the, you could say, the world or the emblem of the world in his or her hands in such a way as to feel the delicacy of it all.


And then a half-smile on the lips. Manjushri is the embodiment of our psychological state called wisdom. It's a personification, as it were, of that quality in all of us. Of course, in Buddhist wisdom, it's quite a different thing from just knowledge. Buddhist wisdom has to do with our release from the ramification or the clinging to any view or concept whatsoever. And so it's a kind of form that reminds us of what we call in the practice the emptiness of all things. By emptiness we mean the lack of any inherent, absolute existence that one thing has apart from its relations with other things. Our whole world is relational and interdependent. We all know that. We just forget it. So we have these personifications, these beautifully carved statues and so on to remind us.


And sitting below is a figure of Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha. Usually that's in the Buddha Hall. We have, usually the hall that a talk is given in is called the Buddha Hall and it's separate from where we sit. But in Green Gulch we incorporate both. This is both the lecture hall and the sitting hall. So we have these statues, these forms brought in together here. So the Shakyamuni form, sitting back there as you know, is sitting with the gold form, is sitting with one hand like this and one finger over its knee pointing to the earth, which is a replay, so to speak, a frozen replay of that moment in the myth or the legend or call it what you will of the story. All of our story at that moment when we get in touch with the fact that we are of the


earth and earthy Mother Earth. When Mara confronts Buddha, says, who do you think you are that you can become free of, that you can preach the truth? After tormenting Buddha with all sorts of temptations, he finally says, you know, that's a real ego trip you're on to think that you know the truth. Where's your witness? Buddha points to the earth as his witness. So that is a depiction of that. So you have wisdom, but you also have the wisdom that is, the wisdom of form is emptiness and emptiness is form, and then you have the virtue of pointing to the earth itself, the solidity of our life, the absoluteness of something that has given us life. And that is itself a sentient being, the earth itself, the whole cosmos, everything is seen as sentient being in the Buddhist sense of the word of cosmology.


There is nothing so small in the Buddha way of looking that is not worthy of our attention and our love, or so large. And then here, there are two more. This is interesting, this one faces Buddhism. There's wisdom, but wisdom has to be balanced not only with the kind of down-to-earthness and everydayness, but also with compassion. This is called Jizo, personification, which incidentally all of these came from, originally from an Indian pantheon and were subsumed into the Buddhist literature and so on as time went on in history. And Jizo is a kind of figure that, well, it's a little bit like Saint Christopher, I think, in the Christian tradition. It's kind of a patron saint for those who are travelers, but it also has the added dimension of the traveler who is going into the hell realm,


into the underworld, into those places that we are thrust into when we suffer grievous loss. Jizo is willing to go into the underworld with us. In other words, even in the underworld, there's the possibility of compassion. Even in prison, there is the possibility of expressing our compassion. Even in the hell realm, psychological state or an actual physical state where we are confined against our will, there is the possibility of both wisdom and compassion. I forget what it's holding in his hand, but of course the staff is the staff of knowledge and experience. And it's interesting how the person put the halo behind the aura, just as we have in Christian Eastern and Middle Eastern iconography.


We have this in the Buddhas, in the Indian as well, this aura of a personal power, and particularly the personal power that is derived from compassion and giving. The ability to venture into uncertainty, which we are faced with all the time and more so day by day. The willingness to step into uncertainty, to unknowing. Day by day our practice is that, step into the unknown and the unknowable. And the willingness to do that, to step out of our cocoon and our little safety net that we have laboriously built up around ourselves. And then below is Tara, a Tibetan figure, Tibetan Buddhism, female in this case.


And she has the one hand up in the mudra seal of, I think that is wisdom. And the foot is stepping out, stepping ready to step down into the world again. Another figure of the willingness to step forward. Not just sit back and watch, but to engage, to step into unknowing, into the unknown, into the unknowable, the ineffable. Into the hell realm, or the heaven realm, or whatever realm, whatever state of mind. I've heard there's a theory, by the way, that rather than these being an outcome or a result of our need for sacred space and imagery, that actually we created those sacred spaces and imagery so that we could feel that. So that by walking into churches that have such, walking into sacred space,


we are inspired, we take in, we breathe in the spirit that that space and those things represent and inspire us to attempt to live. But, you know, it's still a mystery, isn't it? Finally, you know, in our precepts, in the Buddhist precepts, I think it's the fifth, the disciple of the prohibitory precepts that bodhisattvas and people who become in duly ordination and priest ordination take, actually swear to,


in the Buddhist precepts, one is that the disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate mind or body of self or others. Of course, we immediately think of things like drugs and alcohol and that sort of, but even more than that gross plane, on the gross plane level, it is not to intoxicate ourselves with all these religious ideas or sacred ideas at the same time that actually is very ordinary. And that is where Zen steps in, where we take what is sometimes inflated or exaggerated and make it a part of everydayness, a more direct encounter with our life, a simple encounter, and not become stuck on our views and our habits. However refined we have made them, however we become, however mindful, however smart, however learned, you know, Buddha as super scholar,


however much we master of the sutras and of the practices, the whole thing again is to step into the uncertainty of the next breath you don't know. This breath I understand, but the next breath I let go of it all. I think that was a great lesson that Suzuki Roshi taught, was the ability to be ordinary, the ability to be so ordinary that we can see that being ordinary is quite extraordinary. And we've all heard this thing about, you know, what is Zen, chopping wood and drawing water, or getting up and turning off the alarm clock, or making breakfast for the kids. I know that years ago, there was one of the, what should I say,


when people like Baba Ramdas and other Westerners had traveled to the East, they came back with these ideas that at least in your own home, even if you aren't a church goer per se, you don't belong to any religion or any order, you can still always set up an altar in your own space. A place, a corner of the house, in the room, I remember years ago, Ramdas saying when he came back from India, he went into his home and immediately, even before he unpacked his boxes or his trunk, he went to a corner, put down an incense bowl, poured out a little water or something, put it up there so that they have the four elements and bowed to it. And ever since that time, I've tried to do that, even for moving around in a hotel room, to have one of these little Buddha figures, you know, that you buy in a store, about that big, that you get from Thailand and so on,


and a picture of a clown, a laughing clown. And wherever I'd go, I'd put that up. That's the one space where no matter what happens, all of these figures and all of this kind of psychology is possible. There's a step into uncertainty without fear. Because, you know, from moment to moment, our life changes, or as you've heard, life jumps. I used that phrase a week or so ago in a talk I gave here for One Day Sitting, and it actually came from a situation that I heard about, about an American who was an American citizen in Mexico, vacationing in Mexico, and he got picked up by the NARC squad


with a half a litre of grass on him, marijuana, and was taken into the husgao, into one of the local jails. And when he came in, I mean, he was, you know, you can imagine the shock. One moment you're on the beach enjoying yourself, the next you're being dragged into jail, into a Mexican jail. And the guard said to him, I don't know whether in Spanish or English, he said, Senior, life jumps, doesn't it? It was at that time, it was at that moment when everything is ripped off, when all of our certitude and certainties and our position, status, etc., is ripped off, or the doctor tells us we suddenly mislaid our future, or when someone tells you you're going to be shot at dawn, or whatever. At that moment, when it's ripped off, we not only step into uncertainty, but we live that uncertainty.


And that is a time when it is quite natural to sit down and fold our arms. Well, of course, I guess we can beat our heads on the wall, but sooner or later, after beating our heads or pacing the cell, or whatever we finally do, you just sit down in your hotel room, in your motel room where the wind is blowing, in the room that is empty of all consolations, those things that we need, we feel we need to survive. And you just look ahead and stare at the wall, and let it be exactly what it is. In other words, we die a little bit to the old self. And I think in all practices we have to die to the old self, not once, but again and again and again, to all of our certainties and certitudes, to all of the teaching that comes to us. I use the term flop dog. You've heard me say that before, and I was using it a week ago, that we become flop dogs, that is, we become total flops.


We just flop down. But we don't quite flop down like we don't sink down into despair. You can sink into despair, but if you sit up straight and put your hands on your knees or fold them in your lap and just look at the wall, the prison wall, or whatever psychological imprisonment you have, and don't move, and sit with that, that is stepping into uncertainty. That is the practice. And we don't need all of these things. Suddenly the whole world is the sacred place to do that. Every place you sit then is your zafo. And not once do we do this, but again and again and again and again. Because at any moment, as all of this shifts for us, as you leave here today, as you drive out on the highways, as you return home, what phone call is waiting? Some little bug is going to get you someday.


That used to be a song that Phil Harris sang. Maybe old timers remember it. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots that happen. We are part of a great recycling system. And is that recycling system sacred or profane? It is our intention that makes it one or the other. The last time I sat up here, I told a story about karma. Some of you might remember it. It was just a personal story, but it was very interesting, because if you had moved this way, or if I had gone through that door, or if I had done this thing, maybe those things wouldn't have happened, and something else would have. Better. And we are faced with those existential choices all the time, aren't we? I think walking into a sacred space is reminding us of that fact.


That we are vulnerable. Terribly vulnerable. Painfully vulnerable. Oh. I don't like to tell war stories, but I will tell one. An actual experience that happened to me that made me aware of this many, many years ago, 50 years ago. 52 years ago. I was in what was called a Battalion Aid Station in Korea. Battalion Aid Station is a medical station that each battalion has. Actually, each company has a medical tent,


but the Battalion Aid Station is a kind of collecting place on the line before you start sending the people back to collecting stations, mass hospitals, and so on. It's like an emergency room in a general hospital. It was fairly quiet. We were always fearful of getting overrun and that sort of thing, but the war had stabilized on the 38th parallel. And so there'd be long periods of boredom and so on, and then there'd be sudden shellings and mortarings and so on, and there'd be sudden rushes of casualties, and then there'd be nothing happening for maybe days at a time except patrols at night. So things didn't seem so, you know, so bad. And one morning, this officer, this lieutenant, came into the aid station, and he was suffering from a sore throat,


a strep throat, and asked if we could have a shot of penicillin, so we gave him a shot of penicillin. And he was walking back to the headquarters bunker. We lived in log bunkers built into the ground for protection, lots of sandbags on top of them and so on, hard to penetrate except for a direct hit. And I said, well, sir, I was a corporal. I said I was making out of what was called a morning report about sickness and casualties, and every day you'd have to take the morning report down to headquarters, company headquarters, headquarters, company headquarters. Which is right on the line, which is on this ridge, but on the reverse side. So he said, okay, you do that for me. And he picked it up and he took it outside, and about 20 seconds later, there was incoming. Boom, boom, boom. And somebody yelled for medics to go out and so on,


and they brought the lieutenant back in. And he'd been hit in the back of the head with shrapnel. I remember he was bleeding from the eyes, like tears. And in his hand was the morning report. Now we say we have this saying, but for the grace of God, right? There go I. But of course, you know, in some sense he did not take the shot for me because we didn't know this was going to happen, but in a sense he did. And so one is left with a certain sense of guilt. But for the grace of God, there go I. I wish it had been me. And because of those, we all have that kind of thing, I think, that we all feel somewhat guilty because someone else is taking the shot for us. Recently, a very dear friend of mine, a close friend of mine, realized that she has cancer.


And it might not be so bad, but she said, Why not me? Instead of, Why me? Why not me? I think that's stepping into uncertainty. So these rituals, I guess, I don't know exactly what I'm driving at, but I feel that all of these rituals that we do, these mindfulness tasks about how we step into sacred space, how we treat the world as sacred space and so on, remind us of the brevity of our being and of the vulnerability that we have and of the interconnectedness of all of us with everything, and that, Why not me? Sooner or later, we shall all be gone, we shall all be feeding worms or dust, and others, we'll leave behind a few things that others will remember us by, and then those things also will vanish,


and we will be as if we never were. Even the memories will vanish. This is a direct experience of what we call emptiness, the fact that we can't hold on to anything however much we want to. But while we're here in this changing form, with these practices, we can be mindful of this, of birth and death, and we can perform our life as if it is sacred space, and as if at any moment either I or you or somebody is going to step out, and that's going to be it. It's going to be the end of the line for that person or place, thing. And that's true of families, it's true of countries, it's true of nations, it's true of tribes, it's true of individuals, it's true of practices, it's true of Buddhism. We cannot afford to be attached, because in the end, what you get you lose.


And we have to be prepared to step into that space. Vis-a-vis this, I found a poem, somebody actually read a poem to me by this wonderful Polish woman poet who won the Nobel Prize a few years ago, Wysława Sąbrowska. You know her poetry? This is... It's called Could Have. Translation, Could Have. It could have happened. It had to happen. It happened earlier, later, nearer, farther off. It happened, but not to you. You were saved because you were the first. You were saved because you were the last. Alone, with others, on the right, the left.


Because it was raining, because of the shade, because the day was sunny. You were in luck, there was a forest. You were in luck, there were no trees. You were in luck, a rake, a hook, a beam, a break, a jam, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant. You were in luck. Just then, a straw went floating by. As a result, because, although, despite, what would have happened if a hand, a foot, within an inch, a hair's breadth, from an unfortunate coincidence? So you're here? So you're here? Still dizzy from another dodge? Close shave, reprieve? One hole in the net and you slip through? I couldn't be more shocked or speechless. Listen, how your heart pounds inside of me. I couldn't be more shocked or speechless. Listen, how your heart pounds inside of me. That last line, those last two lines really tie it together.


Flop dogs. Give up attachment to our practice, and do the practice without knowing. And know that the truth is a matter of, a play of infinite varieties of information. The name. The lieutenant's name was Pickle, by the way. He was 22 years old. He was 22 years old. Anyway,


it's kind of funny too, isn't it? We got to be able to laugh at it. So are you ready? Ha ha ha ha! Ha ha [...] ha! Come on, laugh! Oh, better than that. They have a laughing club in India, did you know that? They meet every day and laugh, and they found out that laughing, even if it's forced, is good for the immune system. Every day we should laugh a little bit at ourselves and all of this seriousness too. Whereas the English say, the situation is impossible but not serious. Okay.


We'll have questions and answers in a few minutes. I've talked now for 45 minutes, somehow, said something, and now your job is to forget it, which I don't worry about. I have sat here 20 years listening to talks, and I can tell you, I can remember about as much as I can count on five fingers what people said. So the main thing is not that the talk, you know, this is supposed to be called Te Show, Dharma Talk, you know, but the thing about the Dharma Talk is that what you do is watch your own mind, your reactions, you feel it, and then, as Suzuki Roshi said, you let it blow through you like a wind, and let it go. We let our whole life go like that.


Okay. Thank you.