Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to come and share this afternoon with us.
Zen history tells us that this tradition was founded by the Chinese Zen master by the name of Rinzai – that happens to be the Japanese pronunciation of his name – Rinzai Gigen, who lived sometime in the eighth or ninth century in China. Rinzai’s sayings were collected and written down by his disciples and we know them as the Rinzai Roku, the collected sayings of Master Rinzai. In that collection there is one passage in which Rinzai says that living as a human being is like living in a burning house. The image of living in a burning house is quite powerful. The metaphor of the burning house appears also in earlier Buddhist texts. We started out the afternoon chanting Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, Myoho renge kyo. Chapter 25 is just one of many chapters of this very large sutra. Within the Lotus Sutra there is a passage in which it describes a rich man, who has many children, who are completely pampered and spoiled; children who are deeply engrossed in playing with their toys, enjoying elaborate comforts. While the children are inside the palace, inside the house, the father notices that the house is on fire. A whole passage deals with how the father lures his offsprings out of the burning house – they rather would have stayed inside, in order to continue playing with their toys, in order to continue enjoying the comforts to which they had been grown accustomed. Going outside and doing something new, and therefore escaping certain death by fire, was not on their mind.
This passage contains probably one of the first descriptions of what is called upaya, skillful means; the father used skillful means to get his children to come out of the house and thus escape the fiery death. More precisely, the Lotus Sutra tells us that the father promised the children even more toys, even more comforts – that was the only thing that got them to come out and be rescued.
Generally Buddhism teaches us that living in the human realm is like living in a burning house, where there is always something on fire. We are born, and like a candle, we ourselves, our lifetime is on fire, and it diminishes with every second, with every millisecond, with every nanosecond that elapses in this activity that we call time. There is no escape, intuitively we all know that our time is limited. How much we awake to what that actually means is a different question. It is a question that Zen practice addresses. Please do not be mistaken and do not read any value judgments into this. There is inherently no difference in value or appreciation for a human being who has awoken to that urgency of the human life and another human being who devotes themselves to living their life in a different fashion – no value judgment. So, when there is something on fire there is always smoke, there is always something smoldering, there is always something happening, even if we look firmly the other way. Here, in Zen practice, we learn to look at that fire, because that fire, that activity of Dharma that moves from one to the next, and further and further, without us being able to stop it, without us being truly able to fixate, to hold on. That energy, that experience is something that can truly help us to be awake to the change, to become awake to what is here, to awake to what it means to be a human being. In many cases Zen practice is being portrayed or painted as having solely this wisdom as the central focus. However, we should never forget that wisdom is only one side of practice. The other side of Buddhist practice, and Zen definitely is the practice of the Buddha, the other side, the complementary and necessary side is compassion. When wisdom and compassion come together, then we can awaken to what it means to truly be “one” and what it means to be human.
When we sit zazen, inevitably we will have the experience of oneness; we will get a glimpse of the truth that everything that exists is not different from what or who we are. We learn to understand and to experience that the unconditional affirmation of the separation between object and subject is what causes the trouble, is what creates fixation, is what creates confusion, and ultimately is not just the basis for our own personal challenges but also for the challenges of society and humanity at large.
We have had some violent events in the past couple of weeks that make people ask “What is that? What a horrible thing to happen! What a horrible person would commit such atrocities, would try to hurt other human beings?” These are valid and important questions. As a Zen practitioner, as somebody who acts and understands in the way that the Buddha approached things cannot allow themselves to just fall into the trap of objectification, of creating the distance between what we believe in, and the “other”. Evil, which is a concept that you find in many religions, is not a concept in Buddhism. Good and evil are objects, they are ideas, and to a certain degree I feel religions meant these concepts to be exactly used the same way that the rich man in the Lotus Sutra used the promise to give his children more goodies, more toys, and more comforts, so that they would come out of the burning house. In the same way human history and culture has created religions that present good and evil, but the ideas are only skillful means. Zen teaches that ultimately there is no such thing as an object: neither evil nor good. My first Zen teacher, Genro Osho, always spoke of one of his most fundamental and moving experiences. He awoke to the fact that there are no evil people, there are only evil actions; that is a very important thing to understand. In the same way there are no good people, there are only good actions. All of that, anything that is based upon such understanding is quite different than living in a world where one unconditionally affirms objectified good and objectified evil. What Joshu Roshi would say here is “Well, you have to understand that everything is yourself.” That is where compassion comes into play. You might have the wisdom to understand and have had the experience that there is no separation; however, once we return to the human realm we live in a burning house, here and now, in a world where apparently there are evildoers and there are people who do good. In this human realm, when we see somebody who has done something horrible, we have to look at that person and see ourselves: “this is myself.” Zen practice asks us not to fall into the trap of leaving out, of rejecting, of pushing aside. No, we have to follow that much more difficult way of embracing. Embracing is not necessarily something that comes easily, because, to truly embrace you have to let go of all those ideas, all those moral thoughts, the moral worldviews that we have; if we cannot let these fixated ideas go, in that very moment when we meet what appears to be bad, to be evil, then we ourselves are unable to compassionately manifest ourselves, without holding back. In the same way, if you find yourself looking with pity at someone or you have a thought like “Oh my, I am so glad I am not that person,” the Zen practitioner in yourself has to remind you: “No! This is your self! This this is you, this is not the other! There is no such thing as the other…” Once we start doing that, practice becomes really interesting. That is where we meet our own limits, that is where we run into our own opinions, into our own fixated construct of what the world is or ought to be; that is where the polishing of a more accomplished human being begins. There is no easy way to get to maturity. We are not a pumpkin that lies in the field and just naturally ripens. Human beings have a mind, human beings have a heart, they have thoughts and the ability to reflect on the own self. Learning to use that ability to ultimately transcend its inherent limitations is what Buddhist practice is about. The koan that you can carry with you in every moment of your life, that should spring up every time you try to leave out, to reject, to distance yourself, is: “This is myself! This is myself!”