I was listening to a scientist describe his near-death experience. It reminded me of an experience I had when I was little. He talked about going into a blackness that was unimaginable. Black nothingness, he said, totally black nothingness.
As a child I lived in the country. When I had to have my tonsils removed, they didn’t take me to a hospital, they laid me on the doctor’s desk and gave me ether. I can remember he was having me count and I was looking up and seeing the the overhead light. I remember counting, and then going down this “tube” into this state of blackness. As a little kid, I was intrigued by something. How did I know there was blackness? This was a problem for me as a little kid. I thought, “something wasn’t asleep.” How did I know there was blackness? The scientist never asked the question. He tells about going into the blackness and coming into a light and it has transformed him.
But who knows about the blackness? You understand that if it’s really zilch, nothing, you won’t have anything to report back. So what is it that reports this state of blackness?
Can you experience this state of blackness? Sure, deep samadhi. If you stay there, it’s a pitch black poison cave of hell. It’s non-functioning. If you push right on through, up it all comes. And you are then transformed. You have cut through the root of seventh-level consciousness. Again, it doesn’t mean non-existence. Then you are closer to where you can “frolic,” like Dogen says, “forever in a samadhi of bliss.” There’s no time there.
Part of what I’ve been trying for us to understand–and in the process, restating it for myself–is to put down the struggle. We’re all mature enough here to recognize that we’re not going to change the color of the spots on our skin. We are who we are, and we’re just getting older. It’s a process of constant change.
So I’ve talked about dropping the expectation. And not struggling in your zazen. Don’t fight with yourself and your zazen. There is a place that you have great determination to hold to the practice. But throw away all of your fantasies, all of your hopes and desires for some sort of a psychedelic experience. Be content where you are, as you are. That’s karma. You can’t deny it.
I can go into my mind, and I can wish. But all I will do is ruminate in pain and suffering. Rumination does in fact cause pain and suffering. Our practice isn’t a denial of the affirmation of life. It is the expression of that affirmation of life. You are not denied anything! It is the attachment that you must deny.
I want us to understand how to approach this so we don’t have to sit 20-30 years without appreciating the depth and the sweetness of zazen. Zazen simply means no separation. No separation from what? No separation from your life. Where do I separate from my life? In your discriminating, egocentric consciousness. Not in reality. You can’t separate in reality.
Where is all of this? Inside or outside of me? Each one of you is a mountain unto yourself. Only you are experiencing this talk. Only you have sensitivity to your body. Only you hear the sounds of the street. Only you know the psychological churnings that are going on within you right now. You sit on Cold Mountain alone!
But this is the path in. Accept that. Is this inside or outside? It’s not clear. We’ll say “no inside, no outside.” You can’t find the place where the old teacher and his words separate from you. You can’t find it! Show me the space where it separates. Even the physicists have no problem with that anymore, they know they can’t find it. Where is the eye and what the eye sees? Where is that fine line of separation? You can’t find it.
Where does the sound begin and end? Can’t find it. Can’t find it. It’s all one thing.
What separates? Discriminating consciousness. In that discrimination, up comes the pain.
We’re working to bring about the moment where we will simply stop struggling, stop looking for something, and simply sit. If you’re counting your breath, nothing more than that, you don’t look for the big “goodie day.” You are the big goodie day. And it is perfectly manifest right there. All you have to do is still the discriminating mind. Dogen said it so simply: non-thinking. If you think about non-thinking, you’re missing it. It means have the courage to simply step forward and do it! Step from the top of a 100-foot pole.
You have no room for error there, if you’re standing atop a telephone pole. You can’t fudge it. When you step off, you’re off. Toward the ground you go. So have the courage, step forward, and put the discriminating consciousness aside. No matter how fascinating you think it is, it isn’t. It will eventually bore you and cause you pain because it doesn’t deliver. It’s the painting of a rice cake, as Dogen said. He confounds it for us by going on and saying the painting of a rice cake is nothing other than the Way. But not for a hungry dog. Just smelling that vat of boiling fat won’t do it. We want some nice, sloppy chops that we can chew on. We want the whole thing.
How do I do non-thinking? When it’s counting my breath, that’s it. Pain comes up–oh I wish I could get rid of–just forget it. Inhale one. Two. Three. Empty, clear! That’s all. Let it be miserable, and if you truly can do it, I will promise you that you will transform it instantly. You can make every sitting a good sitting. But you really have to be willing to do it. Just sit.
My mind is banging! My back is in pain! The neighbor next to me sounds like he’s snoring rather than breathing! Somebody over there is an arrogant jerk and I know it!
So OK, that’s how it is. Inhale one. Two. I don’t struggle with it. I don’t struggle with the pain. Inhale one. Two. I don’t want to be anything more than what I am because I can’t be anything more than I am.
God, that’s depressing!
Be depressed. Accept it.
Bodhidharma sat facing the wall. The Second Patriarch stood in the snow. He cut off his arm and presented it to Bodhidharma crying, “My mind has no peace as yet! I beg you master, please pacify my mind.” “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it for you,” replied Bodhidharma. “I have searched for my mind and I cannot take hold of it,” said the Second Patriarch. “Now your mind is pacified,” said Bodhidharma.
I’ve encouraged you many times: give it up! Realize that you’re going to fail in all of your endeavors. Take that blow first: you will fail. Your most cherished dreams and fantasies aren’t going to come true. You’re going to fail. Give it up.
And then, as a miserable, wormlike failure, just sit there. Count your breath. Follow your breath. Work on your koan. Sit shikantaza.
Bodhidharma as we know is the Twenty-eighth Patriarch, or the first of the Chinese Patriarchs to transmit Dharma. He was a fascinating guy. He had studied, if you can imagine this, with Hannyatara for 40 years. For us, he is alive and well. Bodhidharma was the son of a king. He was the founder of the Shao-Lin monastery, the home of the martial arts. One of the things Roshi told me that might have happened there was that the peasants that Bodhidharma started to work with were in such poor physical condition that they couldn’t sit. Maybe this practice of martial arts was taught to strengthen them, as was common in India. One of the other stories Roshi told was that Bodhidharma, who was quite old by the time he got to Shao-Lin, had political enemies in India and his family may have sent him to China as a defensive strategy.
When Hannyatara was near death, he told Bodhidharma “60 years after my death you must go to China.” He followed his teacher’s instructions. He was said to be 120 when he went to China. He took a ship and it was a long, three-year journey. Look at the drawings of Bodhidharma. He was the son of a king, he must have been quite elegant in reality. But the way they portray him! They talked about this “toothless, old one.” There are different stories on that. He may have been poisoned, or at least assaulted, and lost his teeth that way. Always it seems to be this way, that we really go after these amazing, gentle creatures. It’s like the shadow side just can’t tolerate having that much light in existence.
When Bodhidharma got to China, his first encounter was with Emperor Wu. The Emperor asked, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness. No holiness.” Emperor Wu clearly wasn’t ready, so Bodhidharma crossed the Yangztee River and went to the abandoned Shao-Lin Temple. And there occurred the famed nine years of wall-sitting. He just sat down to wait. Always the teacher waits for someone who can take the Dharma higher.
By the time Bodhidharma’s student, Eka, comes by, Eka is already middle-aged. He’s quite a prominent scholar. He has studied all of the Hinayana and Mahayana texts but in spite of this great learning, his mind was not at ease. Perhaps in some sense it was even more of a problem for him. For most of us, there is a time that comes, the more we learn and read, when we realize that there is something we’re missing. So it could actually cause more agitation in a student like Eka.
He’d heard that there was this old Bodhidharma here, across the river, sitting facing a wall. Eka was a very sincere practitioner. He went to see him every day. Every day Bodhidharma would turn him back, turn him back. But Eka wasn’t to be discouraged; he was desperate. He had actually reached the point of spiritual crisis. In Christianity, they call it “the dark night of the soul in despair.” Where it’s like you’re on fire or you’ve swallowed a ball of molten lead and it sticks halfway down. You can’t spit it out; you can’t swallow it. Just screaming like Eka did, “Put my mind at ease!”
It was December 9 and it was snowing. Bodhidharma finally asked why Eka kept coming around again. These are his words: “The subtle and supreme teachings of the Buddha can be pursued only by endless assiduity, doing what is hard to do and bearing what is hard to bear, continuing the practice forever. How can a student of little virtue and much self-conceit like yourself ever dream of achieving it?”
What a rebuke! Eka had really put himself into this, driven himself, he had studied and had done everything he could. And he was coming daily, begging this old monk for instruction. This old monk didn’t have a lot of people around him. He was sitting in what was probably a ratty old place, an abandoned temple. Scraggly teeth, bare-chested, hair hanging, earring, pretty strange guy! He doesn’t have any students and here’s Eka thinking, “what the hell is with this guy?! He doesn’t even have anyone around him and I’m begging him to teach me!”
So on December 9, snow falling, Eka has reached the point of spiritual crisis. He just stands there. Finally Bodhidharma takes pity on him. “Why are you standing in the snow like that? What do you want?”
“Your reverence, please, open the gate of mercy and save all sentient beings,” Eka said. Do you catch that? How desperate he was but how sincere? “Open the gate of mercy and save all sentient beings.” He didn’t ask for self-salvation. He was right. He was really right.
Bodhidharma sent him off and turned his back. Can you imagine Eka’s desperation? How many of us would actually stand there with the snow stacking up and freezing? His feet must have had frostbite. Hungry, tired, middle-aged. Particularly if you pursue this with vigor, this kind of a story tears at you.
With that, Eka took out a short-handled sword and cut off his left arm, and presented it to Bodhidharma. “Is this enough? What more do you want?” And at that, Bodhidharma permitted him to enter into the room. This brings us to the point of this koan.
By the way, Eka was an unusual man. He just disappears in the lineage chart. They say he went off and lived in poverty, died somewhere around 100 years old. But there’s really nothing more to tell us about this fascinating character.
So Eka has stood in the snow, cut off his arm and cries, “My mind has no peace! I beg you, master, pacify my mind!”
Bodhidharma says, “Bring me your mind.”
You can’t bring your mind to Bodhidharma. You search for it, it’s empty. This mind that you’re talking about is the mind that flits about, involved in hallucinations, fantasies, desires, attachments. See? Churning constantly but you can’t find it. Where is it? You can’t find it. As long as I look for it outside of myself, I’m hopelessly lost. Dogen said, “Turn the light inward. Take the step backward.” You will find nothing outside of yourself. A little earlier I tried to get you: “Inside or outside?” If I think outside, I’m still involved in the conceptual, egocentric world, separation. That’s delusion. That’s pain-producing. Where is this mind?
Bodhidharma says, “Bring your mind here. Bring it to me!”
The response: “I have searched for it.” Do you realize what kind of a search Eka’s gone though? Years of study. Years of zazen. Literally begging for this teacher to open the door and give him instruction. The teacher refused; Eka stood and abused himself. And don’t think this was the first night he stood out there. By then, he was coming to such a fever pitch that he probably hadn’t slept for weeks. Standing there in the snow, and finally, he probably couldn’t move. “This is the place that I die. Alright.”
The teacher gives a little bit. “What do you want, standing there, crazy like this, in the snow? Full of conceit. Full of self-importance. What can a miserable creature like you hope to do here? Here we’re doing that which is hard to do. Bearing that which is difficult to bear. How can you ever hope to achieve it?”
Eka says “I have searched for my mind and I cannot take hold of it.”
Settle into a samadhi of being. Where is that, Nyogen? It’s here! Don’t make it mysterious. It’s you, as you are. Well, that doesn’t seem enough! Try it before you knock it. You’ll like it; you’ll like yourself! A samadhi of being, not ruminating around in this empty space, this mind. Bring your mind out and show it to me. Bring it here! Set it down in front of me. Well, I can’t. Where is it then? I’ve looked, and I can’t find it. Then it’s pacified; it’s taken care of. It’s non-existent! You have to hold up nothingness, emptiness. You have to hold onto it to punish yourself. That’s how ego functions. Do you see what a really twisted place we’re in? There isn’t anything there!