Sandra Holmes Dharma Talk: Dwelling in Unity


Dwelling in Unity

by Sandra Jishu Holmes
Talk given to Zen Group at Naropa during the years 1993-1995
I’ve chosen Psalm 67 as a takeoff point for my talk. The translation in the New English Bible reads (with a few minor changes of personal pronouns):

God be gracious to us and bless us,
God make your face shine upon us,
That your ways may be known on earth
And your saving power among all the nations,
Let the peoples praise thee, O God;
Let all peoples praise thee.
Let all nations rejoice and shout in triumph;
For Thou dost judge the peoples with justice
And guidest the nations of the earth.
Let the peoples praise thee, O God;
Let all peoples praise Thee.
The earth has given its increase
And God, our God, will bless us.
God grant us your blessing,
That all the ends of the earth may fear you.

I noticed a Buddhist poster entitled Great Compassion Makes a Peaceful Earth in the Naropa library here, which shows baby leopards lying down with baby deer and pandas and every kind of creature of the forest and plain. It’s a little bit like the famous painting of the peaceable kingdom with lying down with lions. I think that this is often what our image of “dwelling in unity” is ….. That our lion nature will lie down with our lamb nature. That evil will somehow be tamed and good will prevail. Some of us enter into zen practice with the idea that we can finally root out those parts of us that we don’t like and transform ourselves into someone “wholly good.” Of course we are wholly good just as we are. As Rabbi Don said on Tuesday, we are the inner life of god.

I just finished an internship with Jon Kabat-Zinn who created a stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It is for people who have lived with chronic physical or emotional pain for years and have been recommended to the program by their doctors. They come with every sort of pain from agoraphobia and nameless anxiety to cancer and chronic back pain. They come with braces and crutches and all sorts of devices to try to make their pain more bearable. And what does Jon teach them? He asks them to watch the clouds and see how they constantly shift and change. He asks them to notice if they have an attachment to a particular form or shape of cloud. They are guided through a body scan. They are asked to mindfully observe every inch of their bodies. To simply observe the painful areas of their bodies. To observe the pain with alertness and mindfulness. To stop trying to fight, resist and manage the pain. To study its character and shape and how it changes. To separate out all their concepts and ideas about the pain from the actual sensation of the pain itself.

We were brought to an experience of the present moment by having each person take a raisin and feel its texture and stickiness, see its color and wrinkly nature, smell its fruitiness and then pop it into our mouths. Roll it around on our tongues awhile and then bite into it and experience the distinctive flavor burst of a single raisin. Chew it until it’s completely liquefied and then feel the impulse to swallow and then finally swallow it. Feel the liquid slide down your esophagus and feel yourself being one raisin heavier.

The participants were asked to begin to directly experience their pain in this same way and were introduced to meditation practice. At the end of 8 weeks of this discipline, these people who were not looking for a spiritual path, but simply relief from their suffering are beginning to be able to dance and move with it. Rather than having “make it go away” be their only thought, they are beginning to see that no experience is a granite block filling their universe, but that at each moment it shifts and changes like the clouds and the weather. They are beginning to separate their desire to be free from pain, their desire to control or resist it, their desire to be what they once were, from what is actually happening right now. Beginning to experience the truth of this very moment. The living god that Sister Rosalie so clearly described for us or the truth, or living zen for that matter, does not exist apart from this very moment. And we can only find it by fully experiencing this very moment. And in fully experiencing this very moment our relationship to our pain changes.

In the psalm we read “God make your face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth.” Father Kennedy talked about the different theories of how revelation occurs. Our direct experience of this very moment is one of the ways of revelation. Pain is one of the ways of god that can wake us up to our true nature. The metta practice we did yesterday is another way that our basic goodness or true nature can be revealed to us. Buddhism is a religion in which a large emphasis is placed on revelation by direct personal experience. The Buddha told his disciples not to accept anything he said on face value but to directly experience the truth for themselves. Of course a system of checking that revealed truth was instituted. There is a system of validating a student’s revelation or insight by a lineage holder. This happens on the every day practice level between the student and teacher during koan study. And of course all of the great enlightenment experiences of the patriarchs were verified.

In zen practice koans are traditionally used to help students get past their discriminating mind and directly experience the present moment. During the Wednesday discussion someone observed that he practices meditation because it is a direct path to god. That’s a beautiful description of zazen. Koans present paradoxes, seemingly absurd situations or statement that reveal a deeper truth once you get past the discriminating mind.

An example of a famous koan is:

A monk asked, “all things are said to be reducible to the one, but where is the one to be reduced?” Joshu answered, “when I was in the district of Ch’ing I had a robe made that weighed seven chin.” If you try to use your logical mind to understand this koan you completely miss the point.

I’d like to present you with case # 12 in the mumonkan or the gateless gate, a collection of koans from 13th century China. It’s called Zuigan Calls himself “master.”

The Case

Every day Master Zuigan used to call to himself, “Master!” and would answer, “yes!” Again, he would call, “Thoroughly awake! Thoroughly awake!” and he would answer, “Yes! Yes!” “Don’t be deceived by others, any day or any time.” “No! No!”

Mumon’s Commentary

Old Zuigan himself sells and himself buys. He has a lot of masks of goblins and demons to play with. Why? Nii! Look and see! A calling one, an answering one, an awake one, and one who will not be deceived by others. If you take these different appearances as really existing, you are altogether mistaken. If, however, you would imitate Zuigan, your understanding is that of a fox.

Zen master Zuigan was born in 9th century China and was a dharma successor of Ganto. When he first met his teacher he asked, “What is the eternal truth?” Ganto replied, “You have missed it!” “What is it when I miss it?” asked Zuigan. “It is no longer eternal truth,” said Ganto.

Does this remind you of the scene where Jesus’ disciples are weeping at his grave? You’ve missed it! Christ is among the living.

Master! – Yes! Zuigan! – Yes! Jishu! – Yes!

Not two, not one, its like the foot before and the foot behind in walking. Who is the one called and who is the one who answers? “Lord be gracious to us and bless us,” who is the one called and who is the one calling?

Old Zuigan himself sells and himself buys. He has a lot of masks of goblins and demons to play with. He brings the calling one on stage and the answering one. He brings the awakened one on stage and the one who will not be deceived by others. Oh! What a play!

Stephen Mitchell has translated Psalm 67 and a portion of it reads:

Let all earth’s nations honor you
And all people shout out your praise;
Christian, Muslim, and Jew,
Idol-worshipper, agnostic,
Buddhist, Taoist, scientist,
Brown-skinned, yellow, and white.

But if we are the inner life of god, who are all these characters and who stands outside of god? Old Zuigan himself sells and himself buys. He has a lot of masks of goblins and demons to play with. Rinzai, paraphrasing the great zen master Shakespeare, once said: “We are all puppets on a stage, but who is pulling the strings?” The answer is in the question. “Who is pulling the strings?” or as Rabbi Don says, “Who comes out of the desert?”

Psalm 139 reads, “Lord you know my standing and my sitting and my lying down.” Don’t be deceived! Wherever you stand, be awake! If you sit, be awake!

There is a sequel to this koan. One day a monk came to see Master Gensha. Gensha asked the newcomer, “Where have you been recently?” “With Master Zuigan, sir.” “I see, in what manner does Master Zuigan instruct his disciples?” asked Gensha. The monk reported in detail how Zuigan would every day call out, “Oh master!” and then answer himself. Listening to the monk, Gensha asked him, “Why didn’t you stay longer to continue your training?” The monk said, “Master Zuigan died.” Gensha then asked him, “If you call out to him now, ‘Oh master!’ will he answer?” … The monk was silent.

I ask you, “Now at this very moment, where is the master?”