The medicine of suchness is life-saving, because even the happiest and most fortunate human life inevitably contains suffering. And sometimes – in our personal lives or in the wider world – we face terrible things that arouse anxiety, depression, fear, despair, or rage. Our climate and ecological emergency is one such terrible thing, bringing us face to face with loss on a scale never before contemplated by human beings. Our Zen practice offers us suchness as a medicine that can alleviate our despair and help us access strength and gratitude.
In Zen we say practice is nothing other than your everyday activity. As long as you view the Dharma as something special – a particular activity you view treat as more sacred, or a state you hope to attain that will be of an entirely different nature than the mundane existence you currently endure – you’re missing the point. At the same time, if we think practice is nothing other than just continuing our half-awake, habitual way of living, we’re also missing the point! What is the nature of our life and practice? Zen Master Dogen explores this koan in his essay “Kajo,” or “Everyday Activity.”
I continue in a second episode with my reflections on Chan master Hongzhi’s “Guidepost of Silent Illumination. I discuss the interdependence of absolute and relative and why that matters in real life; how skillful bodhisattva action arises out of zazen; how silence is the supreme mode of communication, and how serenity and illumination – calm and insight – are both contained in zazen.
In this episode and the next, I’m going to riff off of 12th-century Chan master Hongzhi’s short text, “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” one of the most positive and encouraging Zen teachings a know. By “riff” I mean I’ll play off of, and spontaneously elaborate on, Hongzhi’s words, as opposed to explaining or analyzing them in an exhaustive or comprehensive way. I take this approach because it’s more fun, but also because “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” like most Chan and Zen writings, is essentially poetry.
In this episode I finish up our study of 13th-century Zen master Dogen’s essay, “Bodaisatta Shishobo,” or what I’m calling the “Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings,” with a discussion of “identity action,” or “being in the same boat” with living beings. Even if you’re not a big fan of Zen texts, or of Dogen, I hope you’ll stick around because this episode is on the importance of a bodhisattva – the importance of any of us – making a practice of seeing ourselves as “being in the same boat” with other beings. Can you imagine how different our societies would be if we all tried to do this?
In his essay “Zazen Yojinki,” or “Points to Keep in Mind When Practicing Zazen,” 13th-century Zen master Keizan Jokin presents “clarify[ing] the mind-ground and dwell[ing] comfortably in [your] original nature”[i] as our fundamental job as Buddhists if we’re seeking liberation. I explore the meaning of this phrase in this Dharma Talk, reflecting on a nondual experience beyond words, and why Zen and Mahayana so often use terms like “mind” or “actual nature” when pointing to it.
The list of supposedly-highly-realized Buddhist teachers who have abused their power and acted in harmful ways – particularly in the realm of sex – is long, and getting longer all the time. Unethical and selfish behavior is incompatible with our Buddhist ideal of true enlightenment, and transgressing teachers are often exactly those held up as especially inspiring examples of realization and practice, so what does all of this say about realization and practice? Were the teachers ever really enlightened?
Nyoho practice is looking for opportunities to act in accord with the Dharma in the midst of our daily lives, in very practical, physical ways. We view no act as too mundane or insignificant to perform with care, and no object or being we encounter as beneath our respect or attention. In this episode I hope to convey the significance and beauty of Nyoho practice, and the wonderful opportunity it presents in terms of how we can incorporate it in into our everyday lives.
We have a practice in Zen of trying to make even our smallest actions reflect the deep truths of the Dharma, including interdependence, impermanence, no-self, suchness, and Buddha-nature. I’m going to call this practice “Nyoho,” a Japanese term which means doing something “in accord with” (nyo) the Dharma (ho): Treating each and every thing we encounter with respect and care, and performing even the most mundane actions in a considerate, gracious, but efficient manner.
The Ten Oxherding pictures are a Zen teaching, but many Buddhist practitioners are familiar with the experience of trying to motivate yourself to practice without the rewards of explicit, tangible goals or markers of progress. The oxherding pictures describe – rather than prescribe – stages of practice we go through over a lifetime. They can be inspiring and encouraging as long as you don’t try too hard to evaluate which stage you’re in, or strive to get to the next stage.