Despair and Reliance

Dharma Talk by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei

Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004

Hand over hand
eagerly I crawl
back to uncertainty
—John Hewitt

Over the last week, I sat for a while with a sangha friend. He’s paraplegic, and just as he was packing to go to sesshin, some skin lesions opened up and he was told to lie flat for at least a week and put no pressure on those points. I was in the midst of a fibromyalgia flare-up, and had been advised against sitting for long periods. So we had some time together to practice.

old tree

photo by Lee, Kwan-jo

Today, I’d like to take up with you some of what we explored, as a way of looking into despair and resilience in spiritual practice — and to use that as an entry point into a koan from the Gateless Gate.

After sitting for a while, my friend and I began to talk about the experience of chronic illness. I’ve read that nothing is quite as concentrating or clarifying as illness, and while it does concentrate, I’m not as sure that it is invariably clarifying. To be honest, during the times when pain is intense, I sometimes find it difficult to sustain absolute bareness of mind, and not simply lapse into feeling vaguely betrayed. My friend works the same edge, as do many practitioners who experience chronic pain. We talked about how this kind of pain differs from the experience of acute illness, where there’s seemingly an end in sight, a way out. When the moment-to-moment texture of experience is shaped by a feeling our bodies fundamentally avoid, the mind habitually wants to know what’s wrong. And it may feel like something is wrong “all the time,” which then can subtly agitate the mind. It’s one thing, as we all know, to recognize that time condenses to a moment, and that “all the time” is just now — to know that the feeling is not reality, just an empty bubble in the stream. But to overstate the obvious, this is not easy practice, if there is such a thing. It is, however, just practice.

So, what helps? In asking, I hope you’ll hear the story not just of two friends with a particular situation, but by extension the story of the human condition, the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. We’re all in the room, so to speak.

We shared things we’d been reading. I was in the midst of a book by a Harvard medical researcher, which summarizes much of what’s current in brain-body work. He’s studying how the mental state affects the physical, and vice versa, and I was using his findings to help visualize how dopamine is released from the brain’s frontal cortex — and how the goal- and reward-seeking circuits and neurotransmitters function.

But what really drove the book, and touched me, was the researcher’s personal experience. He had injured his back very severely about 20 years earlier and been told that, basically, this was it. It wasn’t going to get better, although it might get worse. Finally he consulted with a physician who spoke bluntly — and oddly. As they looked at pictures showing where the scar tissue was pressing directly on his patient’s nerves, the doctor said, “You’re feeding the volcano god of pain.”

The researcher said, “What?” The doctor explained, “Every time the volcano god of pain appears, you appease it by saying, ‘I won’t walk a mile if I can just have relief from the pain.’ And so you offer it your ability to walk for a mile. But the volcano god of pain is insatiable. You make that offering and it needs more, and so you say to it, ‘I won’t lift my young child in my arms if you’ll just not make me have the pain.’ And for a moment, it’s a happy world, but then the god needs more. You’ll go on continuing to offer more and more of your life to this volcano god.”

So, what’s the plan? Within a skillful, careful, therapeutic setting, what the researcher was asked to do was recognize that the messages of pain that he was receiving were largely — not wholly, but largely — habituated. There was a distance he could go to recondition his muscles, to gain back function, but it would be very, very difficult and very, very subtle — and very, very demanding. To begin with, he’d have to change his fundamental relationship to this “volcano god of pain.” And as he did that, he also began to find his real work: studying the nature of pain itself, and the ways in which patients and physicians might deepen the experience of exploring it together. Maybe we can stretch the story and recognize “therapeutic setting” as, in one sense, a metaphor for “zendo,” and let it keep reflecting back and forth.

photo by Lee, Kwan-jo

The book was such a refreshing break from the way this subject is usually dealt with, both by pop culture and by a plethora of superficial spiritual teachings. There’s a subtlety demanded of us as we enter here, or else we end up feeling like we have “gained” or “earned” well-being when we have it, and feeling guilty for illness when ill. It’s the same as in our metaphorical zendo — you didn’t do anything wrong to be deluded, nor will you do something right and be enlightened. We’ll have smooth times when we think we have it kind of figured out, settled. Then we’ll hit the wall, the challenge, and realize, “There’s a whole different affair going on here.” The Buddha said, “Things are not what you think, and neither are they otherwise.” In other words, we shouldn’t assume we know— just practice. Just enter it. The researcher says he still makes mistakes, misreads his body and overdoes it, and he’ll be down for six months at a time as a result. But for me, he’s an inspiring example of finding peace with the pain god in intimate practice. He wrote the book on it, after all.

My sense is that most people are silently convinced that there is no relationship available with these gods of pain and fear and anger except appeasement. The gods are insatiable, and we’re somehow content with an underlying despair. Aggressive people feed their gods with compulsive activity — fixing themselves, fixing things — the “make-over” shows are endless and heart-breaking. More passive people feed the gods small compromises of character, becoming progressively less generous in any real way. But in our culture, to my eye, there seem to be very few who are genuinely realizing a freedom that’s not dependent on feeling good. We really need to take this up together, and deeply.

My friend had been reading some teachings by the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh — teachings which caution that hope can ultimately be an obstacle, because it creates an idea of the future. We then become dependent on that future state for our present peace. So, together, we began to look at whether hope is helpful or harmful.

The presence of hope has the disadvantage of potentially displacing focus from the present onto an imagined future. If we live in hope, we could be living a dream: we can’t hang onto that. But hanging onto hopelessness isn’t clarity, either. Science has tracked how the absence of hope that pain will be relieved diminishes the brain’s capacity to release endorphins, which in turn worsens the experience of the pain. As you get more messages of pain, the sense of hope decreases, and the pain increases in response. So it just becomes an endless loop.

How to break that loop, then, becomes the really interesting koan — the place of leaning in, of really seeing. When the state of mind and body called for is neither hope nor hopelessness, what is it? I wonder, in a sense, if this isn’t where all practice leans in. Aren’t we just describing Bodhi mind, the mind of awakening — of breaking free of the loop when, essentially, the loop is exactly what we are?

This is the spirit of the koan I’d like us to examine: “Xiangyan’s Person up a Tree.” Xiangyan said, “It’s as though you were up in a tree hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What’s the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ That’s a way of asking, ‘What’s the meaning of Zen?’ or ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ If you don’t answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?”

Wumen comments on the koan: “Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it’s all in vain. Even if you can expound cogently upon the whole body of Buddhist literature, that, too, is useless. If you can respond to this dilemma properly, you give life to those who’ve been dead, and kill those who’ve been alive. If you can’t respond, you must wait and ask Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, about it.”

He adds a verse:

Xiangyan is just blabbing nonsense;
His poisonous intentions are limitless.
He stops up the monks’ mouths,
Making his whole body a demon eye.

To even bring it up, in one sense, is to separate in order to have perspective. As we gain that perspective, we also engage the complications — the difficulties, the dilemmas. So that’s why the poisonous intentions are limitless. To heal is to take up the poison. To be at home is to be everywhere: every place, every condition. And so Xiangyan brings it up.

Xiangyan was active in the ninth century. When he came to his teacher, Guishan, the teacher said to him, “I’ve been told that you’ve been studying under my late master, Baizhang, and that you have remarkable intelligence. But the understanding of Zen through this medium necessarily ends in intellectual and analytical comprehension, which is not of much use. Yet you may have some insight into Zen. Let me have your view as to your own being before your parents were born.”

Xiangyan’s great doubt sunk into his guts in that moment. He had no problem understanding Buddhism. It’s not really that hard to “understand.” I’ve long thought you could put a pen in the hand of almost anybody of moderate intelligence and they could write a fairly compelling book about the philosophical connections — the implications — of the core teachings. But what’s the use? It still comes down to who you are in the dilemma, in the pain, in the problem. So Guishan dares to bring it up directly. “Who are you? Who were you before even your parents were born?” Xiangyan couldn’t respond. He retired to his room and looked through all the notes of his former teacher’s talks, but he couldn’t find anything suitable.

Xiangyan reads all his notes, but they don’t help him come back to that meeting, where this question is holding up his life on the tip of a pin. Who are you? Don’t give me the notes, don’t write me a book, just show me right now. What is this life? Who are you? He couldn’t find anything that could help him, so he went back to Guishan and said, “I failed to find the response to your question. Please teach me the essential point.” Guishan said, “I really have nothing to teach you. And if I tried to express something, later you would revile me.” Teaching isn’t given; it’s realized. The weirdest state of mind I’ve seen traveling around is demonstrated by those who are convinced that they “have the teaching” others need; even worse is to catch yourself in that state of mind. Arrogance is as endless as the self. You’d ultimately revile your teacher, even if she or he gave you the greatest teaching, because it would just add to the burden.

Xiangyan thereupon burned his notes and determined that he would just be a “rice gruel monk” and face Guishan’s profound question moment by moment. A rice gruel monk is someone who has nothing built up, nothing carried around, nothing prestigious or accumulated. Rather than trying to resolve it by intellectual inquiry, hearing that Nanyo’s temple tomb was being neglected, he asked Guishan’s permission to go there and serve as caretaker. Guishan approved, so Xiangyan built a small hut near the graveyard and spent his days cleaning the grounds, absorbed in the koan.

One day, while sweeping up fallen leaves, his bamboo broom caught a stone and it sailed through the air and hit a stalk of bamboo with a little sound: tok. And with that tok, he was awakened. Hurrying to his hut he bathed, offered incense and bowed in the direction of Guishan’s temple, crying aloud, “Your kindness is greater than that of the greatest parents. If you’d explained it to me, I’d never have known this joy.”

I’ve wondered some about the meta-message, the structural message in that story — about how Xiangyan positioned himself to train. People often say to me, “I can’t practice, I can’t train, because this hurts or that hurts or I’m this way or that way.” Xiangyan, within the koan, within the dedication, found the way that he needed to work. He was sweeping. I don’t know why. I don’t know why he didn’t stay at the monastery. I like to think — well, maybe he had the occasional sciatic problem or some such. But he found a way to not break the commitment to his own life, his own awakening. This is what my paraplegic friend gives me over and over again. This is what my friend living in isolation in Arizona gives me, sending letters asking about how to practice within pain, with a body hurting so badly that writing a five-page letter is like running a marathon. And yet, these long, thoughtful letters appear, revealing a commitment and concentration that stills my heart. Koans arrive, are inescapable. Those who meet them fully are teaching us constantly.

Xiangyan packed up and returned to his teacher, Guishan, and showed him a poem he had composed about his understanding:

One tok has made me forget
all my previous knowledge.
No artificial discipline is needed at all.
In every movement I uphold the ancient Way
and never fall into the rut of mere quietism.
Wherever I walk no traces are left
and my senses are not fettered
by rules of conduct.
Everywhere those who have found this truth
all declare it to be of the highest order.

Guishan was pleased with this poem, but his senior disciple, Yangshan, wasn’t satisfied. So Xiangyan wrote another poem which, again in the meta-message of the koan, compels us to see how study really lives.

Clarify. When we’re doing koan study, we often say that part of it is about presenting it to your teacher, so that your teacher meets you in what you’re realizing. There’s no gap. But koan study isn’t realized until you can say it so that a baby understands it, until you can say it so that the guy at the deli counter understands it, until it is so embodied and flexible and alive that there’s no “Zen-y” thing there. So Xiangyan wrote another poem to meet his elder dharma brother. He said:

My poverty last year was not true poverty;
This year it’s the real thing.
Last year a fine gimlet could find a place;
This year even the gimlet is gone.

Yangshan said, “You’ve attained Tathagata Zen all right, but you don’t even have an inkling of Ancestral Zen.” However we understand Tathagata Zen and Ancestral Zen, he’s basically saying, “Go deeper.” It’s not quite alive; there’s still some thing there.

So Xiangyan writes yet another poem. Beautifully, simply, here’s evidence from the ninth century revealing what real study is. He’d had an awakening! He’d experienced falling away in that tok. But his expression was then committed to this —constantly clarifying, available, generous. No badge, no outfit, no big whup: just being present. There was no moment, no place, no meeting that wasn’t the koan. There was no “over” and “done.”

He writes:

I have a single potential.
It can be seen in a solitary twinkle.
If you still don’t hear me,
I call the acolyte and ask him.

In other words, this is no big deal. The acolyte — the baby monk — can express it equally well. The novice student, the person here for the first time, receiving beginning instruction, is revealing the truth — utterly, absolutely.

I presume he kept writing poetry. But that’s the last one in the records. Once, he took the high seat before his assembly and said, “It’s as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What’s the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’” Taste the bark of what you’re holding onto. You’re dying. You’re living. How will you practice this?

Let’s look briefly at the form he’s using to pose the question at hand. Bodhidharma was the monk who brought the teaching from one country to another, who traveled the arduous path, who faced the cultural imprecision, who dealt with great difficulty. Why? To teach the Way. What drove that, in other words? What drives our life? If you don’t answer, you evade your responsibility.

Someone’s asking you! Someone needs you. People ask me, “Why practice? Why do this?” I can say, because of everyone whose lives you’ll ever touch. But that’s imprecise, isn’t it? You are the whole body. Everyone hurting or happy, facing a cruel situation or a kind one — that’s you. That’s this. But I can say that till the sun goes down, and it won’t matter until it gets under your skin, into your bones and breath. And then everything is the same. And everything, everything, is utterly different.

The taste of that tree limb is forever on the tongue. For those in chronic pain, like my friend and some of the correspondence students I work with, it’s hard to be very abstract about the matter. But all of us face the question in our fundamental solitude.

What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West? There’s someone asking you. No one else can answer. It can’t be put off until later. Tell me… tell me now, what will you do?

Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei is Daido Roshi’s senior Dharma successor. She serves as Vice-Abbess of ZMM and Abbess of Zen Center of New York City.

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