Small Potatoes

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Sunday Lecture: "Just to be alive is enough" (Suzuki Roshi) - dissatisfaction even when we "have everything" - acedia/noonday sickness - spiritual dryness - "small potatoes" - little details of life can be what is most fulfilling - poem

AI Summary: 



I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagata's words. Good morning. Good morning. I see some old faces. I see a lot of new faces. How many people are here for the first time? Of course, we're all here for the first time in this particular grouping, but who have never been here before or heard a talk in the Zindo. How many? Is that the same? No. How many people have ever heard me talk before? Well, then you know what to expect. I remember going to take a vacation in Hawaii and when I rented a car,


I got in with a map and all and headed for the scenic spot, but somehow took the wrong turn and ended up at the city dump. Wow. And one of the reasons I ended up at the city dump is because the person I was with at the time insisted that I look at the map and like many of my gender, I refused to look at maps or take directions. And I use this, I begin this talk with this metaphor because in some ways, I think my talks are like that. I have a general direction I think I want to go in, but I usually get lost and I might end up at the dump. But there's always the off chance, the possibility that I'll end up at some wonderful scenic spot


I had never realized was there. And I think I like to have that kind of risk involvement, that kind of emotional risk, rather than have some assured script in front of me in which I can quote chapter and verse and know exactly where I am and present the Dharma to you in such a way that is clear, concise, with a beginning, middle and ending totally wrapped up. After all, we live in the information age and we can go to our computers now and have access to almost any text that has ever been written on any subject. Plus libraries, plus the proliferation of magazines regarding spiritual questions, practices and so on. So there's no dearth of information on what these questions refer to.


Still in all, we have to get in the car and go somewhere. In this past week, that is to say about a week ago now, I came down with the mother of all colds. I mean, I've had head colds before and common colds, but this, this was exceptional. This one came on so that it really stopped me up. I could not, my eyes closed, my sadness passages were totally blocked, my ears were both stuffed in, I had a mild fever and so on. And there's not much you want to do or can do under those conditions, but just wait. You can, of course, take meds and I took a couple of things, but they didn't seem to help much. They didn't seem to relieve the symptoms particularly. And I remembered, well, I remembered and thought about a lot of things, of course,


at that time, but one of the things that came up for me was something my, my root teacher, that is the one who originally ordained me, Mel Weitzman, Sojourn Mel Weitzman of the Berkeley Zindo. In the story many of you heard, he was in a space, a difficult space, practicing at Tassajara 30 some years ago when Suzuki Roshi was still alive. And Roshi must have noticed it because he came up to Mel and said, Mel, just being alive is enough. Just being alive is enough. Well, that sounded, you know, I've heard that story many times and I haven't actually made it a koan in my life, but at that moment, feeling that I was more dead than alive,


I asked myself that question, is just being alive enough? How about right now? And I began to study that question or rather my mind would come back to it again and again. What do we mean? What is being alive to begin with? Do we mean just existence? Survival? Do we mean being alive in the sense of having abundant energy at our disposal? And what is enough? It's one thing to answer that question. Well, we can answer it a number of ways. One is, I would think, I might have answered that question if Mel had asked me, is just being alive enough? And at the moment I would have said, well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes I feel that just being alive is great


and sometimes I feel that maybe I wish I were dead. It all depends on the circumstances. When I came out of heart surgery, opened my eyes on the world again, just being alive was enough. Stripped of everything else, stripped of all the superfluous. It was enough just to be able to breathe, see the light, hear voices, be a being among other beings in this world as it was. But at what point, or let's put the question another way, let's rephrase it. How about, instead of just being alive is enough, how about being just alive? In the sense of barely alive. I mean, when people are on life support systems and so on, are they alive? It's not an easy question. When we are, our lives are together


and we feel pretty much fulfilled by life. Our relationships are in a fairly workable condition and our work is going all right. We have enough to live on and so on. We might say that just being alive is enough and yet when we look around us and see the suffering in the world and so on, there's still something missing, we feel. Maybe. There's still some underlying dis-ease, dissatisfaction, something more to be gotten. After all, the whole myth or legend or story, the really archetypal story of the man who leaves home, who has everything, Shakyamuni Buddha, for example, in this case, is a person who had everything and was dissatisfied with having everything. There was something else, some deeper question that needed to be addressed.


And this story occurs again and again in different mythologies and different religions and so on about, and in Buddhism, different sutras and so on, about someone who already has all the riches he or she needs but goes out in search of something else, something more. That 2%, 10%, 20% that is missing intellectually, psychologically, emotionally. So it seems that there's something just around the corner, just down the road at some other place or condition that will fulfill that need to make you feel that this lack, this lacking, this absence of that one thing that will make life totally worthwhile in a world of suffering,


in a world of dissatisfaction, in a world in which you get, you lose, in a world where the big fish eat the little ones. How do we deal with that? So those questions, you know, once we have a roof over our heads maybe and food in our bellies and what we call the essential survival skills mastered to some extent, then maybe a deeper craving arises, it seems, that is in the human psyche for some understanding. A different kind of suffering, a more subtle form of suffering arises. What does it all mean, Alfie? And I can't rest until I find out. And someone will tell me, or some book, or some place, or some condition in which I can actually say with total certitude from moment to moment, regardless of the conditions, yes, life, just being alive is enough.


I worked in a, what do you call it, a nursing home. Among one of many jobs I had in the past, I worked in a nursing home for a while. And the old woman in room four, when I would come in, would grab me by the arm and say, let me go, let me go, let me go. Just being alive was not enough. It was too much. When we're in extreme pain, in extremis, it's time to go, and I can't go. And now, we kept her alive on steroids until her money ran out, and then we let her go. If you've been under fire, or in a situation where you've almost lost everything, everybody, just being alive for a little while is enough.


And then slowly, little by little, the old dissatisfaction creeps back in, doesn't it? In Buddhism it's called craving, or dukkha, or dissatisfaction, or stress. The need to feel totally at ease in the midst of conditions, whatsoever they are. So we take up practices. We turn to God, we turn to Buddha, we turn to Freud, we turn to Marx, we turn to somebody. Somebody that supersedes our need for security and entertainment. Some teaching that will carry us over. Some practice that will open up the vista in which at last this cage that we seem to be living in, this cage that is made up of our conditioning, all our views, all our wants, all our preferences, does not seem to exert the power it usually has over us,


and we feel free. There are stories about that all over the place. Spontaneous awakenings to a reality that is expressed or is experienced as joyfulness. Lack of separation anymore between self and other, and so forth. It's called enlightenment in some traditions. It happens with people spontaneously, without ever having had a religious experience, in which all the conditions that seem to inhibit our freedom, in some sense, a kind of birthright we have, no longer apply. I probably told you the story before about this young,


well, not a young woman, actually she was an old woman, but it happened to her when she was a little girl, that she had one of these, we would call it religious or spiritual or opening moments in her life. She was young, she was like five or six, in which she said, the world did not exist. These are the words I have now for it, but the way it seemed to me is that the world did not exist the way everybody thought it did. What existed was light. And everybody was dancing as light. And I told my mother that, which was a big mistake. Because, of course, she immediately took me to see what was wrong with me, what psychologically was wrong with me, and I realized that what experience I had must be some sort of pathological experience because all the grown-ups were treating it that way. And for the next forty years,


I lived in a state of almost continual depression. And only little by little have I been able to remember that state of being in which I was totally free, in which I knew everybody was also totally free in experiencing it, totally free meaning that the usual binding force of our life no longer held sway. And I was so happy, I wanted to tell my mother, I wanted to tell everybody that that was so. So when she said, when you talk about somebody like Shakyamuni or people having this enlightenment experience as such, I know that there is at large in the universe a dynamic force in which that is true. And that we all long for that. She said, I know it intellectually now, and I can reconstruct it, but I cannot say that I live from that premise, that I live from that disposition. In fact, it's a common experience among people


who've had some opening experience and who then want to practice with that experience to hit the wall, we call it here. Hit a place that is classically called ascidia for monks, or the noonday sickness. A kind of ascidia is actually, I think it's a Spanish word, I think it was originally a Castilian word that was used, it was pronounced, according to Thomas Merton, it was pronounced as afedia, A-C-E-D-I-A, in which you're living in a kind of sargasso sea, which is not a breath of air, nothing moves, it's nothing. You're caught between two worlds, as it was. The old world seems to be dead, and no new world is arising for you, and you're just there. But the there feels like torpor, feels like deadness. In some sense we could call it maybe classical depression. But it's not unusual in spiritual practice


to hit this kind of place in our life. And in fact, it can be a place, even before spiritual practice, or before we begin to look, in which that becomes a motivating feature, a fact, that we are caught in this bardo, this state between two worlds, as it were, and nothing seems to move. And it's extremely painful. And it must be practiced with that. At that time, if someone asks you, is just being alive enough? You might say, oh God, no. I don't feel like I'm alive, I feel like I'm dead. It's the dark night of the soul. The old Buddha is dead. There's a poem. The old Buddha is dead and the new one has not yet come, and I am born as in a dream. Who will tell me what is real? Me, that has put on this human flesh so hard to come by. It's that state. We know that it's a privileged state to be a human being,


but did we know when we bought the ticket that we'd have to pay this price? It's like taking a bad drug. I just want to go back being old me. Old deluded me, who suffered in a very ordinary way. I don't want to be on some spiritual path anymore. I want to get out of here. Give me some problems. Let me have some life, some vitality again. The teacher says, that's really good. Go sit with that. Develop patience. Develop generosity. Allow for endurance. Make friends with that state. The search for peace, for consolation, for truth, and so on, will eventually lead many of us into those waters.


But in some sense, at that place, when we can feel that very deeply, we can be free. There don't seem to be any answers right then. All you can say is, I don't know. Just don't know. No longer do the old answers suffice. The new Buddha, the new answers have not come. In fact, you're suspicious now of answers. You're suspicious of all of the pursuit that you have followed. You're suspicious, in fact, of the search itself, of the searcher. There doesn't seem to be any choice but to surrender and give up. This kind of crisis occurs in many of our lives, whether we're practicing in robes, out of robes, in whatever walk of life we find ourselves. It's just that when we get together and talk about these things,


we find out there's a long history of people going through these states. And so we can, I suppose you say, console one another, or sit with one another, or listen to one another, as we sit in the Sargasso Sea and nothing moves. The world goes on tormenting itself with wars and discrimination and all sorts of violence and horror, in spite of all the efforts for thousands of years that religious people have led. Technology leads us into some fields that open up a way of life that makes it easier for a lot of people and takes away from other forms. Everything seems to point to pessimism and despair. Oh dear God, help us. Why have you forsaken me? Why did Bodhidharma come to China?


Why did Shakyamuni leave home? Why are you here today? Why am I here sitting talking about this with you? Because we are dissatisfied in some deep level with the way we are living our lives. There is something else that is already the case. We just can't quite reach it. We know it's part of our heritage as human beings. It becomes a thirst, a craving in itself, a form of bondage. We finally have to hit the place where we don't even care for that. To hell with it. To hell with enlightenment. Give me a hamburger. I've got to feed the dog. Maybe I should take dance lessons. Or as the joke goes,


I'm either going to kill myself or go bowling. You've heard that one. So it's good we go bowling. Of course, I'm not advocating that we should just suffer this in passivity and necessity. I'm sure that we have all sorts of neuroses that can be addressed by therapies of different kinds and practices of different kinds. I hope you don't think I'm poo-pooing that. I think what I'm trying to get at is this place where all of that, we tried all of that, and it's still not working. So we're maybe even willing to get up at four in the morning or even, in your own case, in a rainy morning and come out to a place like Green Gulch and hear some guy, some old monk, get up who doesn't have any answers and tell you, well, you could have stayed in bed, folks.


The trouble is we can't stay in bed. The trouble is the cold finally went away. The trouble is I got better. And as soon as I got better, that cutting edge of, oh, I can smell the world again. Things look bright again. I'm hungry again. I'm alive again. Is it just enough? Yeah. Well, it's been now about four days or three days. I hate to tell you this, but there's something missing. But I took a vow, and that's why I wear this robe, that I would faithfully not run away from that, that I would come back again and again to my imperfection, to the fact that I would once more end up in this sargasso sea, once more be able to admit I am depressed, that things do not make sense.


I don't know why I'm here. I need help. And then it starts again. This is called the wheel of samsara, the wheel of suffering. To be willing to get into that wheel, really get into it, and notice the pattern over and over and over and over again. That's what I, for me, in my own personal history, that's what the vow is about. Get back on the merry ground. Make mistakes with people. Just when you've got your life together, along comes somebody, something, gives you a new point of view, shakes you up. I think you know what I mean, because we're all in the same boat, aren't we? All in the same boat as human beings. So one of the strategies that we can use, even if we don't feel it most of the time,


is to know that we're all in this boat together, and to have some compassion for one another. Everybody sitting in this room knows these stories, intimately. It's the story of our life. It's the story of our literature. It's the story of our drama. Now, what is enough? What is enough? The old Buddha is dead.


The new one has not yet come, and I am born as in a dream. Who will tell me what is real? Zen comes along and says, this is real. What's in front of you is real. Pay attention to what's in front of you. Life is small potatoes. Life is small things, small details, just like Mama said. Maybe that's the place to start, with the small potatoes. I love poetry. Somehow in poetry, because it is poetry, it is language, and of course we are trapped in language in a sense, but we have to use language to get untrapped from language and our concepts. There's no other way. And poets, who seem to intuitively know that in some deep level, touch places in us with language,


that although they are inexplicable and unpronounceable and so on, remind us of all these questions. Stir them up. Not necessarily answer them, but give us some feeling and direction, and here's one. I just read this recently, and I thought I'd like to share it with you today. I call it small potatoes. In fact, that's what I thought I'd call this talk, small potatoes, because it's in this poem, which is called The Simple Truth. It's by Philip Levine, an American poet, a well-known American poet. He won the Pulitzer Prize, many prizes. Lives in California now, grew up, as some of you know, in Detroit, was part of the working class for years. Anyway, it's a very humanistic point of view. It's not necessarily a Buddhist poem, but it's a very human poem. The Simple Truth. I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,


took them home, boiled them in their jackets, and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt. It's a haiku right there. I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes, took them home, boiled them in their jackets, and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt. Then I walked through the dry fields on the edge of town. In mid-June, the light hung in the dark, froze at my feet, and in the mountain oaks overhead, the birds were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers squawking back and forth, the finches still darting into the dusty light. The woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland. She was someone out of my childhood in a pink, spangled sweater and sunglasses, praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables at the roadside stand and urging me to taste even the pale, raw, sweet corn trucked all the way, she swore, from New Jersey.


Eat, eat, she said, even if you don't, I'll say you did. Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme, they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker. The glass of water, the absence of light gathering in the shadows of picture frames, they must be naked and alone, they must stand for themselves. My friend Henry and I arrived at this together in 1965 before I went away, before he began to kill himself and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste what I'm saying? It's onions or potatoes, a pinch of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious. It stays in the back of your throat like a truth you never uttered because the time was always wrong. It stays there for the rest of your life unspoken, made of that dirt we call earth,


the metal we call salt, in a form we have no words for, and you live on it. Hmm. Let me read that last one once more, that last verse. Some things, because we all know this, the simple truth, we all know this. If we don't know, we will before we die, I think. Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme, they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker. The glass of water, the absence of light gathering in the shadows of picture frames, they must be naked and alone, they must stand for themselves. My friend Henry and I arrived at this together in 1965 before I went away, before he began to kill himself and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste what I'm saying?


It is onions or potatoes, a pinch of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious. It stays in the back of your throat like a truth you never uttered because the time was always wrong. It stays there for the rest of your life unspoken, made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt, in the form we have no words for, and you live on it. That's also a description of our suffering, eloquently spoken, beautifully phrased in my opinion. And we live on that. And I would go put myself almost all out on a limb and say we live for that. We live for intensity in our life as human beings, for the intensity of our experiences however desperate and sorrowful they may be. We feel alive then. Even in the midst of our tears, if someone said to you at such a moment when we have betrayed our love, is it worth being alive? And you realize that you have experienced this deeply.


You could not but utter yes in the face of all of that. I think that's what he's talking about. There's some deep affirmation in that for me. A way of affirming our life no matter what happens. Or life affirming itself as us, another way of putting it, because you can't really separate the two, can you? Well, I like the poem. I wish I'd written it. I really do. No, I write poems that don't make any sense at all because when I try to make sense, they don't come out quite like that. They come out too sensible or too obvious.


That's why I like postmodern poetry. Poetry that doesn't have any resolution. Like you might say he's more of the romantic tradition. But because it feels that life is unresolvable in modern poetry, postmodern poetry. Where we're suspicious of the language itself in which he speaks. And it calls attention to itself. Postmodern poetry is more like filming with a... Somebody say something? Postmodern poetry is my... Somebody tell me to stop. Postmodern poetry is more like when you film with a camera in a movie and you see lens flare. It reminds you of the medium in which you're watching the story. So that you're not so involved in the story. You're also caught up in the form in which the story is being told. That's partly what practice is about. To give us a lot of lens flare so that we're so engrossed in our story but at the same time we can see that we're making up the stories.


This kind of poetry, however, is more transparent. It plunges us in the old style right into the feelings themselves. And I really still admire that. Anyway, it's a koan. It's a conundrum. It's a question. Very simple. Five words. Is just being alive is enough? Is it? Is it? It's a good one to use, moment by moment, day by day.


I think it's going to be my mantra for a while. And to answer truthfully from moment to moment that there isn't a right or wrong answer. In fact, in time maybe the questioner will fall away. The question will fall away. It won't matter. Small potatoes. That's enough. There's not much Zen in this, but it might just be an old man babbling. But then again, maybe we've taken a drive, and there's some kind of lookouts we've come to, as well as the city dump. Anyway, we're going to have a discussion in about whenever we get out of here, and then we'll have some tea as it will announce to you, and then we'll come back and we can bring up this question


and explore it a little more length. But I think I can probably quit now. We can hash it over a little bit more later. Anyway, thank you for your patience. Come again, because I'm not going to be in here next week sitting here. This is called the hot seat. We have to take turns doing this. When our turn comes up, then we have to be willing to take the risk and make fools of ourselves. But I hope I haven't disparaged the triple treasure of ourselves, or that I haven't been too pessimistic. I know there must be people in this room who are going through some heavy times. There always is.