Dharma Talk, Zazen-kai, March 11, 2012

Welcome to Westwoods, what a nice spot we have here. The outdoors, sunlight we have today, it’s really nice and a little breezy. It’s a place that took us all in, here, we all share the same space, we all share the same time, the same activity in what we call a zazen-kai, “meeting to do zazen”, meeting as a group to investigate and to learn how to let the self, that “I am self”, that ego, how to let it fall away, dissolve, disappear. That is the activity that we follow while we are in this formal practice. The activity of becoming less and less, and the more we do this, the easier and the more naturally the self arises, which it does inevitably anyway. Sometimes when people read about Zen practice they get stuck on ideas that are written down in books and say something like “you have to kill you ego – you have to eradicate any thought of self”. This is not even half of it, this is only one side of the medal, it is only one dimension of many because it never mentions that that ego, that “I am self” and the self, they are natural phenomena. Without self there is no no-self.

Whenever you practice, whenever you do zazen, whenever you go into that direction of becoming less and less and less, don’t forget that this is not a one-sided activity and never think of it in a two-dimensional way. The teacher who came up with these basic teachings, we all know him as Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. From the point of view of somebody who is in the Zen tradition that person Siddhartha, he was like we are – nothing divine, just a very ordinary inquisitive human being who took the time to go through all kinds of teachings, all kinds of practices during his lifetime. What it came down to in the end was that he sat himself down under that tree and did not get up until he had penetrated to the point where everything fell away and all became clear to him. We all know the story about the eight day, in the morning when he saw the morning star suddenly he realized: all sentient beings are Buddha – this is myself, everything is not only connected, but everything is myself. That is a very powerful message, but we should not look at it in merely a two-dimensional way. There are places and times where there has to be distinction, where things are distinct, where there is subject and object – and there are places and times when no-place in no-time appears, and where there is no distinction between the subject and the surroundings. Zen practice is not a method that helps you with anything but learn how to balance, learn how to equally engage both in the activity of self-affirmation and the activity of letting the self completely go. There is no magic to it, there is no secret, and all we have to do to find out is to sit down, open our inner ear, experience that there is – no inside, no outside – and take that into our everyday lives and manifest it with everything we do.

One of the first things that Sasaki Roshi always stressed, and he put it in a metaphor; he said – and he liked to talk about Hitler and Roosevelt at that time, so you can imagine this is way back – “even Hitler and Roosevelt shook hands”. What it means is that you have to embrace both, even the good and the evil shake hands, even the opposites come together and neither side has the claim to perfection nor the possibility of being complete without each other. Completeness means that there is nothing that is left out; there is not a single moment in your lives that you should leave out. We all have that tendency, just because that is how self-consciousness works. We have the tendency to come to a point where we don’t want to be there – “no, I want to be somewhere else” – and we start thinking ourselves into those places, we start feeling ourselves back into places that we remember to have experienced having been more soothing, or sometimes just the opposite, disturbing – anywhere but where we are at the very moment. We have those feelings and those thoughts. Not leaving anything out means to bring together past, present, and future – in the very moment. When we chant here, all together, even though we have some 20 different people, we chant with one voice, we chant with the same air, the same breath, to the same beat, and that allows us to let go of that “I am”, “I am chanting”. The “I am” disappears and just the activity of chanting takes over, without the need to think we inhale just when it’s time to inhale. As soon as we start thinking, because we can’t follow the chant, off we go – we fall off, we leave the group, and we have to catch up, come back into the activity, the one action that happens at the same time.

It is an interesting approach, it is an interesting thought that many of us come here to work on our own lives, to work on ourselves, and in order to do that we have to learn to just let that go. We have to learn to let go of that habitual identification with a specific name, specific properties, opinions, the past, the hopes for the future. All of that, all of it is restrictive, it keeps us from being truly in the moment, letting happen and being fully with what is happening.

It is only a few hours we spend together here, but as I said before: don’t let even a single billionth of a second of your lives slip away – unlived, unattended, neglected. Not 80, 90 or 95 percent – give yourselves 100 percent to the tiniest fraction of your life that you can imagine. We all are very lucky, we have the time to come here, we have the means of transportation, we have this wonderful place for which we are grateful, the sun, nature. One year ago, on this day, I don’t if you remember, there was a big earthquake off the coast of Japan near Miyagi prefecture. Miyagi prefecture and the capital city of Sendai is somewhat close to us because our teacher Sasaki Roshi, he was born in Sendai, he grew up near Sendai in a farmhouse and the temple where he started his studies as a Buddhist monk at the age of 14, Zuigan-ji, is right there. 28,000 people died as the fallout of the earthquake. It is an interesting inquiry: how do we as individuals not feel for those who have died? How can we sit here and not be over in Japan and help? They are still digging out of the mud and there are still all kinds of big projects to remove the mud that was swept miles and miles over what used to be fertile farm land. How do we reconcile that?

This is what in our tradition one would probably call a koan, a koan that has no right or no wrong answer. Give it a little introspection, look at that, observe if you feel guilty, observe if you feel uninvolved, observe if your thoughts come up “Oh well, the universe works without will and desire, it just happens…, we all have to die”. Listen to yourself and once you go and you start exploring a problem like that, then you are entering into that activity of being with the moment, because there is no right answer, there is no magic answer: “this is the right thing to do”. The moment you reach out with your hand and you shake somebody’s hand completely – how in that very moment is it that all of this comes together – earthquakes, tsunamis, power plants – but also beauty, a sunny day like today, the privileges we all share.

I am telling you this because I wanted us to not be fooled into thinking that Zen practice is something that happens just here on the cushion. This is the safe lab, this is the lab section of life, where you have your protective gear on, where you can experiment without having too much to fear. Whatever we find out in the lab, we have to take out into the world, into that world that has suffering, suffering in all kinds of shapes and forms, and learn how to deal with it, how to act, how to not turn away. How do we not turn away? I remember old friends who gave me a book by the title of “Not turning away” and my friend’s inscription on the first page reads “as if we had a choice”.

So, fellow Zen people, fellow humans, friends, thank you for taking time out of your lives to come here and to share it with us. What we have been reminded of all the time, and what Joshu Roshi always stresses: no matter where you are, no matter what you do, even the slightest, smallest possible amount of time of your lives – don’t let it pass by without having been lived 100 percent. Roshi is 105 years old on April 8, and he has shown us how to do that, but nobody can do it for us, nobody can do it for you but yourself. Let us live that, let’s live the plus, let’s live the minus, let’s not leave anything, anybody, any time, any place out – learn to embrace everything without discrimination.