The Zen Revolution - Podcast #30- Ego and the Long Retreat

Welcome to The Zen Revolution. The ego is so adept at creating our reality that each of us remains powerless within the constraints of our view. To broaden the view, as I mentioned in the opening statement of Chapter 19 of The Zen Revolution - Fire, is our work. *** Along with the steady building up of things, tenacity, strength, the ability to sit for months on end, comes an identity that is very difficult to break free of. The opening through to the Absolute can be lost to this identity, and so disregarded, the persona taken as the true thing ² and the interest in the pursuit wanes. Nature is perfectly happy for you to remain on the surface. It¶s the business of the individual to accept this or not. The trouble here, not only is the way through sealed from view, it hinges on the amount of ego. It¶s as if the consciousness is drawn to a microscopic point. Though the images beneath it change, the view remains tightly focused. The apparatus isn¶t made for a broad view. The breakdown of the psyche, to the point of establishing a new resolving power, is something extraordinary. It ceaselessly reforms, so cannot be taken apart. It¶s where you reside, so is vehemently defended. It nearly requires the dissolving potential of a breakdown, and who would readily walk into this? It¶s rare that a person is brought to this point. To make it more of a challenge, the changes to one¶s resolving power are

usually incremental, requiring a thousand new summits, a thousand plunges to the depths. ³Since your strength is insufficient, you might not be able to transcend samsara by a single leap; but, after five or ten years, you would surely have made a good beginning and be able to make further progress spontaneously.´ Huang Po (?-849) For me the thing didn¶t really come alive until it had turned dormant, my Zen identity forgotten: no robes, no standing, no special abilities. In fact, with a ruined knee hardly stitched together, I wasn¶t able to sit for more than a quarter-hour. It didn¶t matter in the least! When I sit alone now, I often vibrate from the seat to some strange, informal pose that wouldn¶t be acceptable anywhere. Ah well, if the wellspring in me can¶t be gently held, then what of it? More importantly, having no place to hang my hat, there was a shift in the focus ² where I was removed from the stage and the lens was lost. As I brought things in, it was to a new focal length. *** We use many methods to break apart our cognizance ² the koan is invaluable. One of the champions of this method, Ta Hui, is the subject of this week¶s essay. But first, from Zen Master Seung Sahn¶s Road to Enlightenment, an unpublished manuscript from 1965, this is:

Case Eight²The Rib-Honored-One and the Young Man
The Tenth Patriarch of Buddhism was Parsva. His name was translated as Rib. He was known as the rib-honored one. About 600 years after Buddha's death he advised king Kaniska to invite 500 learned Buddhists for debates on Buddhism. The fourth council was held in Kashmir, the result of which was recorded in the Mahavibhasa, the

great book of options. His layman name was difficult-birth. According to tradition, he stayed in his mother's womb for sixty years and was born as a white-haired old man. This was indeed a difficult birth! When he left home to become a student of Buddhamitra, the Ninth Patriarch, he was about eighty-years old, but his devotion to Buddhism was hardly challenged by much younger monks. He acquired the great meaning of all the sutras in three years, without ever lying down during that time, instead leaning on his side or with his ribs against the floor. He became a great Buddhist, transcending life and death, and gained the name rib-honored one. He was a leader in Buddhist circles, highly respected by Chinese Zen students. He set an example of practice and training to overcome life and death. While he was teaching in central India, Asvaghosa, a heretic who enjoyed criticizing Buddhism with his broad knowledge and gift of gab, left his place in a rage to go and visit him. Because his talent was well-recognized, his self-conceit allowed no contender, and he¶d heard that Parsva was like a living Buddha. Asvaghosa said, "I¶ve never lost a debate to anyone. To me, all these words have been as blades of grass to a woodcutter. If you can give me a single unbeatable word, I will gladly offer you my head." Parsva remained as the deep ocean to a drop of water or the high mountain to a gentle breeze, responding to his challenger with silence. "A living Buddha? Not able to give even a single word for an answer! Well, give me a word, Honored One." Parsva only remained sitting, silent. The young man felt triumphant and left arrogantly, without saying good-bye. But something touched his mind. He began to think about what had just transpired. "I said I could beat any word, but he did not say a single word ² only silence. Isn¶t it he who¶s beaten my word, instead?"

He went back to Parsva, challenging him a second time, but it was like trying to break a wall with an egg. He offered his head to Parsva as he¶d promised. Parsva cut his hair instead of cutting his head, and thus Asvaghosa became his student. He eventually became one of the founders of Mahayana Buddhism and the author of such masterpieces as the Sraddhotpada Sastra (The Awakening of Faith), and the Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha) and he became the twelfth patriarch of Buddhism. *** The revolution continues. As I alluded to in The Ground essay, the ego is insurmountable. All of the practice traditions begin with morality, with putting things in order. As you will see, this is more important than it appears. As much as spiritual traditions seem self-serving, inwardly focused, the opposite is true. If it is to be effective, the adept, through meditation, discharges the ego in the growing awareness of the Absolute. This is the key, the self absolved in the larger self, where the ego is finally abated. This week, a live recording from a talk I gave at Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles a few days ago. Enjoy. The technique of meditation ² very elusive. It¶s almost backwards, the way that we train, because it¶s just the way the brain works. But actually, meditation, for me, it really became effective when my mind, by itself, found the rapture, a deep state, that by itself cuts off all thinking. It wasn¶t by attaching to this koan, or this repetitive phrase, that got me to the point here I could get beyond thought ² by some way that I was able to finally just put everything down, it appeared by itself. Then I could understand, by looking back, what we were talking about. It¶s very difficult, very elusive, to grapple with the ego. That¶s why we have this group, that¶s why we work together, that¶s why we do these retreats, because it¶s so difficult. You can¶t imagine doing that much work, where your just sitting all day and you¶re not able, for a moment, to grasp it. Nobody can do it.

In my life, I went through about ten years of residential training and I did a lot of long retreats, and I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I really had a grasp on the practice forms: I knew all the« well I didn¶t know all the koans but I¶d finished a lot of work, but« I wasn¶t enlightened. I didn¶t turn into something else ² I was still the same person. You find a stasis with your life ² with whatever practice that you¶re able to do, whatever your karma is you find your balance all the time, instantaneously you find it, right? So your fine with it ² you can live with whatever suffering you have, however your life is, indefinitely. But, if you¶ve entered the practice stream that means this needs to be resolved, eventually. That¶s the work of it. It doesn¶t stop in the dharma room. You¶re just starting a very long story. Every great master has an epic tale. I have one here, of Zen Master Ta Hui, who spent most of his life grappling with this stuff and finally had a breakthrough, and he was an amazing authority on Zen because of it, but it wasn¶t easy for him. He almost gave up many times. For me, what was really a catalyst... I don¶t want to say that everyone do long retreats. I know it¶s very difficult, but it was that kind of intensive practice and then being in a normal life situation, not in a monastery, but with my karma, dealing with situations in my life. I couldn¶t simplify it, I couldn¶t put it into some kind of dharma exchange between people ² I was completely vulnerable. Most people don¶t have this clear approach to life, so whatever you bring to a situation is smashed right away. So if you¶re holding anything then you¶re in trouble. It¶s not like it reads in the books, not what we think, what we¶re doing. It¶s completely backwards in some ways. What was effective for me was, when I got into enough of an impasse in my life, and you see this in the teachings again and again ² people that come to this, maybe there¶s a death in the family or something where they¶re put into a place where they can no longer go forward with the stasis that they¶ve found. It can¶t continue anymore. This has to be resolved. It¶s a serious matter. I don¶t want to go into all the details, but I was in enormous suffering for a long period of time, just emotional stuff, I didn¶t have a good job or way to support myself²it was just difficult, living, and there wasn¶t anything remarkable about that period of time. Also I was a monk here before. What happened was my father had a terrible case of

diabetes and he lost both of his legs and he was blind and he was stuck in bed for five years (before he died). During that time Seung Sahn Sunim was here. I told him, ³I need to get a job and support him and try to get this family through this situation.´ He refused. That¶s when I left the school. That was about ten years ago. I couldn¶t resolve that. I didn¶t understand that. I do now. Seung Sahn Sunim was right. He was a Zen master. That was his job. This is a very serious thing that we¶re going into. But that cathartic period that I went through ² I was trying to figure out for myself, ³What is practice?´ When I finally came back to it, it was completely different, because I came back on my own terms. I learned how to practice on my own, without the formal shield that we have here. That¶s when I really started to.. be able to sit. It¶s ironic, but I don¶t think that has anything to do with it. I think it¶s the amount of time and that you keep returning to it. Your life will work itself out. It doesn¶t have to be a storybook relationship to the dharma. It can be really troubled, but it still works. That¶s the thing about this practice ² we keep repeating these teaching phrases over and over ² this is very clear, concise teaching. You can say the teaching words of a great enlightened master, repeat it back and forth ² it doesn¶t mean you¶re enlightened. The teaching is in there but you have to be really enlightened to touch what he¶s talking about, actually. We¶re just trying to keep that alive, that there is, eventually, that realm that we can attain. We can finish our work here. It¶s true. You can do it. But, man is it a long story. I have a story here from Ta Hui. This is what he was grappling with. This was before Dogen even, in China. That was the golden age of Zen, just before the Sung dynasty. When he was twenty-six years old, Chan-t'ang called him over one day and said to him, "You can talk about Zen very well; you can quote the sayings of former masters and write commentaries on them. You are eloquent in giving sermons and quick with the exchanges during interviews. But there is one thing which you still do not know". When Ta-hui asked what it was, the master answered, "What you do not have is the awakening. Thus, when I talk with you in my room, you have Zen. But as soon as you leave the room, you lose it. When you are awake and attentive, you have Zen. But as soon as you fall asleep, you lose it. If you continue like this, how can you ever conquer life and death?" Ta-hui agreed, saying that he himself had been agonized over

this for a long time. Only the enlightenment experience can solve the riddle of life and death. Unless one confronts one's mortality, a person will not have the necessary determination to achieve enlightenment. This was to be a central theme in Ta-hui's sermons and letters. Before Chan-t'ang's death, the master told Ta-hu the only person who could help him to reach his goal was Yuan-wu, a master belonging to the Yang-ch'i branch of the Rinzai School - the same Yuan-wu whose commentaries on the sayings of former masters were to be compiled into the The Blue Cliff Record, one of the most celebrated Zen classics. Various things intervened, and it was not until ten years later, when Ta-hui was thirty-six years old, that he finally had an opportunity to become a student of Yuanwu, who was then the abbot of a great monastery. According to Ta-hui's testimony, he had by then become almost despaired of ever attaining awakening, and vowed to himself that this was to be his last experiment with Zen meditation. He practiced with this master. They worked on these koans for awhile, and eventually he had a breakthrough. He said, ³One day while I was having supper in the abbot's quarters, I was so absorbed in the koan that I just held the chopsticks and forgot to eat. The master remarked to a bystander that my progress in Zen was as slow as the growth of the Huang-yang plant, a plant which allegedly grows only one inch every year. I then told him, "I am like a dog who stands by a pot of boiling fat: he cannot lick it however badly he wants to, nor can he go away from it though he may wish to quit." The master said, "This is exactly the case. The koan is really a vajra cage and a seat of thorns to you." I said, "When you were with your teacher, you asked him about the same koan. What was his answer?" The master at first refused to say anything. But I insisted, saying, "When you asked him about it, you were not alone, but with an assembly. I am sure that there are people who know all about it." The master said, "I asked him, 'To be and not to be - it is like a wisteria leaning on a tree. What is the meaning of it?' Wu-tsu replied, 'You cannot paint it, you cannot sketch it, however much you try.' I further said, 'What if the tree suddenly breaks down and the wisteria dies?' Wu-tsu said, 'You are following the words.'"

Ta-hui claimed that as soon as he heard this, he saw the whole point of the koan most clearly. His master tested him further with a few other koans all of which Ta-hui successfully answered one by one. Sometimes these koan answers I don¶t understand. The way that they answered them in the past, they clearly didn¶t get the point. What was interesting to me about this case, Ta Hui started the practice resurgence really. He kindof formulated, got it all together... the Kwan Um School comes from the Chogye order in Korea. Ta Hui was such an influence on them, because of his great respect for the koan. That¶s when it was made into a formal practice, at that time. Before it was much looser. His thing was, he went through I don¶t know how many, 35 years of practice ² he was a monk when he was 19 I believe - before he finally broke through. And he said it was because of this koan that he got enlightenment or whatever that was, but I think that that was wrong too. I think it just took 35 years of practice. It¶s not just because he answered a koan. All of you have answered some by now, I¶m sure. These formal practice things are not the answer. This is a long story and there¶s no other way to do it. There¶s no other way to go than through it, but the problem is the ego itself cannot be surmounted. You can¶t go around it. You can¶t make it stop. You almost have to get to a point that you trick it, you bypass it somehow, where it¶s not really paying attention, or your life¶s in such a disarray that you can¶t organize it anymore. That¶s really the thing about a long retreat. If you can go for 100-days sitting, you can¶t keep your stuff where it was. Your carefully organized things get lost. It breaks apart your entrenched karma. It¶s very useful for that. That¶s my teaching. If there¶s one thing I have to say about my practice life, that it is a very transformative thing, and everyone has their own story, I¶m not taking about how you approach it in your life. I¶m sure you have an equally valid point. Hyon Mun Sunim used to say, ³Everyone has their own religion.´ You have to make it your own. But for me, the transformative part was the combination of long retreats and getting my worldly attachments resolved. You always start with not making anymore karma, having a clean life, getting your life in order. Because your life has to become the practice, not just the formal part in the dharma room. Everything that you do rings of the practice, that¶s when it becomes alive. You have to get your things in order. That¶s more important than what

we're doing in here. That¶s when it starts to become something really deep ² and then how you relate to others, how you act in the world is like the constant breathing in and out. That¶s what it is. That¶s what they¶re talking about. The thing is, that takes a lot of time. You have to really trust yourself too ² somehow, some deep way, that what you¶re experiencing is the thing that Ta Hui was talking about, it¶s the same thing. I know myself, when I was just starting out I would have some experience, and it¶s mixed with so many other ones that you don¶t know what¶s what. But I know now that that was something deep. You have those experiences all the time. That¶s why Seung Sahn Sunim used to talk about this wheel of consciousness. I don¶t want to go through all of his teaching methods, but he used to say that there are different levels of consciousness and we¶re going through all of them all of the time. We¶re having very deep experiences all the time. It¶s part of your life. It¶s nothing special, but it¶s getting to the point where that becomes dominant. That¶s what practice is, and finishing with all those other things. You wouldn¶t be here if that wasn¶t important. The first thing is to get your karma in order. You don¶t have to have a good job and a good relationship. That has nothing to do with it. I¶m talking about a very simple way, just how you interact with whatever it is, even if it¶s someone who¶s aggressive or there¶s a problem. You¶re not trying to resolve everyone¶s problems. It doesn¶t matter what it is. Seung Sahn Sunim used to say, the most important thing to me, ³You have to take away this I, then anything is no problem. All of our work is to take away this I. That¶s what practice is about. Then your life is your practice. They are inextricably linked, this enlightenment and practice life. You can¶t take them apart. The story doesn¶t end, but it does become more interesting if you stick with it. Anyway there¶s one more thing, one more quote of Ta Hui. There¶s a collection of sermons called Swampland Flowers. I don¶t know if you¶ve read them ² it¶s one of the great texts on Zen and it¶s been part of our Kwan Um School for forever. They used to teach it during the retreats long ago. It¶s just gone back in print now. I recommend it. Anyway this is from that. A short quote: ³The Buddhas and ancestral teachers have always gone into the boiling cauldron, into the coals of the furnace« I don¶t know whether you believe

fully or no layman. If you say you possess a secret method not handed down from father to son, a subtle technique that doesn¶t use going into the boiling cauldron, into the coals of the furnace, then I hope you¶ll bestow it on me.´

- Ta Hui (1089-1163) That¶s all for this week. Next week is a return to the form of the classic essay, meaning much pacing, note taking, amalgamating, all that. In this vast collection of the Field of Weeds series, anything goes. Looking forward to turning the mill and seeing what comes of it ² and I hope you are too. Thanks for joining The Zen Revolution.