By Nyogen Roshi
This practice isn’t worth much in good times. Anybody can handle good times.
But can you handle a flat? On the freeway? In the pouring rain? When you’re a half-hour late to an important meeting? How do you handle that?
For me, at least, I’m really grateful. I’m grateful for everything that has happened in my life. Most importantly, I’m happy that it was my good karma that I had 25 years with my teacher. As I get older, and my time with him is farther away, I can’t get him out of me. It’s like he sits inside my body. But in another way, I miss him very much. There was so much that I wanted to learn. But I had good fortune. Perhaps one day you will appreciate that about your life as well. All those tremendously difficult times I went through—where have they brought me? Here! You couldn’t get me out of here. What would I change in the past that would be worth giving this up? There’s nothing I would change. Because I would not be sitting in this beautiful house, sharing in this wonderful samadhi, if I didn’t have all of my warts, and my shadow side (not to mention the little bit of sunshine).
The totality of what I am has brought me to this place, and I would not change one thing that has preceded this. My karma is good. My practice is pure. That’s why I sit here in this place of almost-continuous bliss.
Do you live in a magical place? Yes.
I was watching the news tonight. I don’t see things quite the way I used to. I see the most amazing occurrences. I see magic! There was a news story about using dogs to work with Parkinson’s sufferers. They are beginning to think—and there is some very valid research supporting it—that dogs have special connections with their owners. For Parkinson’s sufferers, the dog is not only a wonderful companion. They know from studies that if you put a dog in a room with sick people, their blood pressure goes down and they sleep easier. It’s amazing. What is that energy there? In this particular instance, the patient had been a physical education teacher and a coach. Now he is 65 years old and is quite debilitated. He can’t do much. But the dog balances him, and the man leans on him to walk. His therapists say, “Just rely on the dog. Let the dog hold you up.” The dog does that. You might say that’s not so much magic. Well, what happens to people with Parkinson’s is that the body goes rigid, locks, and they can’t move. This can happen even while they are walking. And then they freeze, the legs cannot move. When this happens, the dog puts his paw on the man’s foot, the man relaxes and he can walk again. The doctor said they have no idea why this works.
Isn’t this magic? Medical science may tell you all kinds of things, but buy yourself a dog and do something that medical research can’t figure out. What is that? They ask the man, “Is this your best friend?” He says, “More than that.” More than that.
How does a dog care about an owner? Selflessly. You can treat it poorly, and the dog will just love you and crawl back to you. If you lie out on the curb and die of starvation, your dog will just lie there with you and do the same thing.
If you think there’s not magic around you, if your life seems grim, just consider this story. I don’t care what kind of theoretical answers the academics come up with to explain it. These are the same folks who write volumes and volumes of books on philosophy and theory. Do those volumes contribute to our well-being? Have they transformed the world? Are there fewer suffering people today? What percentage of our population is happier?
We’ve got bigger TVs, faster cars, and a higher suicide rate, more alcoholics and street killings. Does it foretell a rosy future for us? I don’t think environmental scientists are saying that. Now that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed, do you know how much less annual rainfall it is getting than it did just a few years ago? A hundred inches less. This is a very serious cry from Mother Nature. Very profound wisdom is being lost.
There’s magic around us all of the time. But don’t get caught in the conventional, egocentric view. You have an opportunity here, because of your good karma, to go totally mad. Totally psychotic. Where you care for the mandala around you more than you do for this egocentric “I.”
Wow, you say, that’s crazy. Yet isn’t that what all of the great teachers of the past have told us? That this is the path to liberation.
Some of you know my life intimately. I look back over my life—it’s been kind of a screwed up life—and if I changed one factor in it, I wouldn’t be here today. The fact that I sit in this exquisite house with some people who really sit! And as far as I can determine with nearly all of you, you really do want to practice Dharma for the sake of Dharma. For me, I’ve suffered the loss of loved ones and seen things that cherished be destroyed. Would I want to go through that again? Nope. Would I wish that on my worst enemy? Nope. Would I change it, if it meant that I couldn’t be here? Nope.
I’m very content on top of this cold mountain where I sit. For me, it’s not so cold. It’s very comfortable. It’s rather exquisite.
This is what Buddha Dharma is to me. It is a real, living journey. I don’t care what the circumstances of your life might be at this point. You have to accept how you are, where you are. That’s your karma. Forget the word karma if it seems too New Age. Call it blubby-blub. Where you are is your blubby-blub. As you are. This is just who you are. And circumstances produce this. Depending on the precision with which you can look at this, there is appreciation for it.
If I come down with lung cancer, I can’t rant and rave at an insensitive God, can I?
Just maybe, I shouldn’t pick up the cigarettes. Who do I have to blame? Myself. Always, here now, I have control. This is the place of power. So even someone with a heavy nicotine addiction, like I had, at any moment, can resist. If you said, “Nyogen, right now, do you have to have a cigarette?” “Well,” I’d say, “not right now. Now right now. Right now, I can handle it.”
Our practice has to be that immediate, that meticulous. Only dealing with the here now. When do I lose my control, going into my mind and discriminating consciousness, ruminating about what’s going to happen? Right now. Are you OK right now? Are you practicing Buddha Dharma right now? Can you take care of this space right now? Sure you can. And I’ll guarantee you even if somebody’s going to chop off your head, and you’re present in awareness, you can even handle that right now. Are you OK, are you OK, are you OK? Yeah, I can handle it, I can handle it, I can handle it.
Here now! Is there anybody who can’t handle this, here now? Well of course I can take care of this. And if I ride along with you in your car when you leave and I say, can you handle this right now? You can. You get home, can you handle this right now? Yeah, I can. If somebody would follow you through the course of the day, asking that question in every moment, what would you say? Test yourself. All day tomorrow do that. In any situation, ask yourself, can I handle this right now? You can!
This is the most amazing thing. Even if you see somebody else in terrific pain.
If you see a soldier on the battlefield, all shot up, and catch his attention for a moment and say, “Can you handle this now?” Yep. Take a heart attack victim, on the gurney, and stop him at any point along the way. “Can you handle it?” He may not like it, but he can handle it.
That’s the point of our practice. The conditions that you find yourself in are your karma. Your actions produce the next moment. This moment tells you what the past is like. Do you know what your future is going to be like? It will be very good. Why? You’re sitting here, taking care of this place. This will produce the next moment. That’s what Buddha said. You want to know the past? Look at your conditions now. You want to know the future? Look at your conditions right now. If you can see it, it’s absolutely true.
You have, at this point, some wonderful options to work with. Do you believe in Buddha Dharma at all? Do you believe in it? Do you really believe in it? Rinzai said, “I can be reborn in hell.” Does anybody really believe that? Or is that just a nice story to read and quote. Do you believe that Rinzai can turn rebirth in hell into a picnic? Does anybody truly believe it? I do. Could I do it? No, my practice is much too weak. But can Rinzai?
Yes. Can I see how he could do it? Absolutely. Can I actually do it? No. But I’m gonna try. If I don’t pick and choose, but simply take care of what comes up in front of me.
The picking and choosing means no discrimination, that’s what it means! Don’t come into this moment with any conditioned patterns. Don’t buy the delusional gossip of the ego that this place is unsafe. On the contrary, it’s the place that you are totally safe. That’s what I just tried to walk us through. “Are you OK? Are you OK? Can you handle it right now?” You can. You really can. Want me to tell you another secret? You will handle it, whether you like it or not. You don’t even have any choice. You’re going to go through with whatever your life is all about. The choice that you have—this is the magic that you have—is how you actualize it. You’re going to go through it. You can either go negative, or go positive. And then, the magic begins to take form. I always try to take the most positive, constructive, creative way, constantly reminding myself: not my way, but the Way.
Let’s go through this again so it’s not complicated. What is the Way? Where is the Way? Right here. The moment the question is asked, it turns the switch. If we don’t think, what else is there but this?
You say, “Nyogen, I know all that but I wanted to escape.” No, you don’t! It’s thinking about escape that shields you from this. If you don’t see it, you don’t see it even as you’re walking on it! Do you believe in Buddha Dharma? Do you believe these old teachers who aren’t trying to hustle you beads and incense and sell books? Why did they tell us these things? Don’t engage the discriminating consciousness, the picking and choosing. “The Supreme Way knows no difficulty, it simply dislikes picking and choosing.” This is the Way. You can’t force it; there’s the rub. You can’t come into this moment through the conceptual mind. Yet the conceptual mind is not outside of this Way. Non-thinking is the Way. And then I take care of what’s here now. Always in this moment. But watch what goes on. You think, “To stay focused like this boring! Let me go into my dream world (where I can suffer).”
Personally, I can’t build that dream world anymore, because it’s hard work! It is really hard work to hold that delusional structure together. I heard that it takes fewer muscles to smile than it does to frown. If you’re working fewer muscles, it means it’s easier to smile than it is to frown. But how often do you walk along and see people smile? You want to conserve your energy? Smile! Buddha Dharma is not grim. It’s joyous. Dogen said, “Frolic in a samadhi of bliss forever.” It should be exquisite.
As long as we’re hearing the Dharma, as long as we have a wonderful place to practice, as long as we have that abiding Buddha sitting here in lotus, with us, practicing zazen, shikantaza, you’re not off the path. You’re in the center of it! And whatever circumstances bring to you, rejoice. It’s those circumstances that have brought us into this beautiful, old zazen house.
How fortunate we are! Now, what do you do? Take care of this! And this changes; it’s impermanent. Have faith. Even when it seems that you’re away from the Way, when you’re away from this old house, out there on the Main Street, it’s still the Way. It’s easy to turn this into a picnic, but Hollywood and Vine: can you turn it into a picnic there? They’ve done it in the past. We like to read about the old masters. We like to fantasize about them. We like to think that we could do that. But thinking about it is not the practice. You have to do that. Then there’s no place that you fear. That’s what it says: it completely clears all pain.
You have a wonderful practice. You have a rich treasure. Right there in front of you. Open it up! And use it. See if these old masters have lied. But mirror it back on yourself. Don’t blame out there; look truthfully into yourself and see how you clutch. See the places you will not release. To the degree that you hold back, you stay outside the gateless gate.
It’s exquisite, and it’s you, your practice. It’s magic around you. A dog puts its foot on a very sick, suffering man, and the body releases. Muji. Isn’t it wonderful?