Whenever I give a talk, the listeners and I may find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: as words and phrases can often become abstractions, I try to explain something that can’t be explained, and the listeners try to hear something that can’t be heard. Since by necessity this is the situation, we can sympathize with each other—me with you for that which you can’t hear, and you with me for that which I can’t say. At the same time I can always strike my stick on the floor, Bam!, so at least this is possible. Maybe I can’t explain it, but I can demonstrate it, and then the rest is up to you.
This can cause a certain amount of frustration on your side and loneliness on mine. But the bigger question is, How can we come together? And how can we realize ourselves? When we chant phrases like, “for all sentient beings,” it’s pretty abstract. But it becomes less abstract when we begin to find out what this sentient being is, and that includes discovering that things go into making up this sentient being. All of our dualistic thoughts and deluded feelings, whether they’re good or bad, whether we like them or not, constitute a sentient being. Our meditation practice is not about trying to deny these aspects of ourselves. Many people have this misunderstanding, but the truth is quite the opposite.
In Poland, where I have some students, I met with a woman who is in her early sixties. Since the end of World War II all of her memories of the war have been suppressed. For some reason, however, at this time of her life all of her memories are returning and surfacing. What is she to do with them? What are any of us to do with the content of our mind? How can each of us work with our own situation? This is the practice of meditation.
Each one of us holds the very same wish and aspiration: to be able to work with the difficulties that life brings us, based on the awareness we cultivate through our practice. As you continue your journey and your practice grows, you will see that there’s a beginning and a middle and an end that, in reality, are all the same. For convenience, or because we are speaking about it, we separate this One, this Same, into three parts, but actually it is just One. In time you will discover this for yourselves, unless you become scared and run off—which believe it or not, happens frequently. But what comes up in our meditation is not new. It’s old stuff, and you can only run off so many times before you realize that there’s no need to run anymore. For many people that’s the moment when their practice begins to engage.
The late Uchiyama Roshi explained that there is a seed or cause that has auspiciously brought you in contact with the path. This alone points you in the direction of dharma. This is one interpretation of dharma: looking for something that seems to be missing. Maybe some truth is what is lacking in life, and at a certain point we are actually able to experience this. Either through our grief, or our experience of sickness, or loss, or a change in a relationship, or just a feeling of impermanence that is no longer tolerable, we begin to look and to quest, and we begin to practice zazen as part of that quest.
What zazen really is has been explained in many different ways. Suzuki Roshi used to say shikantaza is our zazen, but as I’ve mentioned, the words and phrases used to express Zen practice can sound pretty abstract, and almost any explanation is conceptual. It can’t really touch the experience itself. Suzuki Roshi put it very simply: “Just to be ourselves.” Four words, but what they express is so deep and so subtle that we miss it until we begin slowing down. He said our practice is following our breath. But the true meaning of this, the deep meaning, is that you are vividly alive. The method says to follow your breath, but its meaning is that you are invisibly present and alive, just like a spinning top that goes faster and faster until it disappears. Without method, without expectation, without counting your breath, you are alive moment to moment, alive in this space that is nowhere else but right here within yourself. Others have said that zazen or shikantaza means being present in this very moment, but even that’s not it. It’s being the moment. It’s being each moment after moment after moment—in zazen, before zazen, and after zazen as well. And of course that’s the manifestation or actualization of your original mind. “Just to be ourselves.” This is shikantaza.
Every year when I travel to meet with students in Poland, the schedule is very intense. Last year when I was standing beside a window on a hot and crowded train going from Gdansk to Warsaw, just watching the scenery go by, suddenly I became acutely aware that my breath had become naturally deeper than it had been before. After some time I became aware of the sound of my breath and began to follow it. It was very wonderful because I was unaware that more than three hours passed by. I felt only that I was being embraced by the sound’s traveling.
You pass a lot of scenery when you’re on a train. In Poland we passed devastated environments, broken-down homes and the families who live in them watching the train while standing or working outside, lots of garbage and litter everywhere (I did see some good graffiti, too!) and also beautiful forests and plains. I was receiving all of this as it passed by, and at the same time I was aware of my breath. Even though I had been standing the entire time, after the train reached its destination I got off and felt completely renewed.
When you practice like this, you receive everything you see on the inhalation of the breath. You don’t pretend not to see it. In our contemporary lives we pretend a lot in order to protect ourselves. There’s TV, newspapers with bad news, city noises and so many other things that seem to be assaulting us. But no matter what it is, you can take it in, and because you do receive it, on the exhalation you can let it out. You let it go. This is the shikantaza breath. It can be compared to the alchemy of turning lead into gold. You fill up with your sorrow or anger or any other feeling that you usually try to avoid, and by doing so you acknowledge that it is there. But this is only part of the practice, because the fact that you have done it means that, on the exhale, you release it and let it go. It actually needs this acknowledgment in order to be really released.
It’s a little odd, but in general we tend not to be aware of other people’s anger, or even our own anger, despite the fact that our whole meditation practice is about awareness. What you can do, what you can’t do, what you want or don’t want to do, is still about awareness. Our practice is to have the courage to actually feel and accept these aspects of being human. They’re just a small part of us and our practice will help us to make room so that we can receive and feel these things and therefore let them go without attaching to them, just as you receive and release the passing scenery when you’re on a train.
I think it’s pretty true to say that we’re all on a train. The scenery is going by quickly and you can’t hold on to anything; you have to stay and keep going down the track. It’s when you hold on to something, or even try to hold on, that you are not on the train anymore. But our way tells us to release what we are holding so that we can keep going and stay on track. What it really comes down to is the wisdom and compassion of non-avoidance. You just keep going, and as you do, you can work with the practice called the compassion breath. Then you know how to transmute what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think every day. Compassion breath involves, on the inhalation, taking in suffering—your own or someone else’s—and on the exhalation letting it go. And the truth is that, with practice, this process helps you learn to be kind to yourself and to all beings as well.
We have the capacity to take in an enormous amount of negativity and to let it go its way. We don’t avoid anything because we know we can work with it. Most people don’t know what to do when they notice unwanted thoughts and feelings within themselves, or see a dead animal on the road, or killing on television shows or in the news, or the many homeless and starving people right beside them as they walk down the street. And then there’s drugs, alcohol, AIDS and cancer. People feel overwhelmed, and the result is that often their hearts turn hard and cold. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. The normal response to these things would be that everyone should be crying—this is the awakening of compassion—but the ignorance of sentient beings causes us to continue to enhance samsara. The practice of compassion breath allows our hearts to remain soft and open while our spirit and life-force are replenished. And our tears are part of this replenishment, an important part. You do not have to be a Buddhist to do this: it is meant to be used by all human beings, everywhere, even while standing on a train.
The Tibetan Buddhist nun Ani Tenzin Palmo said that compassion practice is a form of discipline. Most people really don’t like discipline, but it’s necessary. Maybe it would be easier to say it’s preparation, but whatever word we use, we need discipline and preparation for the effort to stay on the train and allow the scenery to go by. Pretty soon, even before you know it, you’ll be sixty, and that’s not so old. Scenery changes quickly.
When you’re a child, a day seems to last a long time. Sometimes at the grocery store in town you may see a father holding a baby, and the baby is completely surrendered into the father’s arms. The child’s body/mind shows its purity and trust. As the child becomes older, naturally it wants to grow in all ways. Then in almost no time at all summer holidays don’t come so often, the seasons drift by, new babies are born and at a certain age friends start dying. This is true for every one of us. But regardless of what age we are, we should do our best to see the whole picture.
When we talk about “saving all sentient beings,” we are talking about everyone in that picture and also all forms of life. But the real meaning of the phrase remains beyond our reach and again is pretty abstract. Our practice can help you to make a good start toward breaking down that abstraction by revealing how you can take in and release your suffering, which includes the suffering of others. It’s not uncommon at the beginning of this practice for people to feel a little afraid to allow suffering to come in. If this is true in your case, you can practice imagining yourself doing it, or pretending, until you see what’s actually there. The point is that as you begin to do this, little by little you are actually transforming what you receive. And little by little from the particular you make your way into universal suffering by imagining all the other people in the world with the same feelings and conditions you have, who are suffering exactly like you. Now your suffering is in the right perspective, and it’s no longer personal.
Compassion practice includes your active participation in accepting this suffering, but that is not all. At the same time that you take all of this in and then release it, there still is the blue sky and the bright morning sun shining on the green grass, though even a dark sky will do. And you begin to realize that confusion and suffering are also void, empty and nonsubstantial.
Do you understand? You’re on a train, and the scenery is going by. Included in the scenery are all the ways in which you project upon yourself, abuse yourself or create a dialogue within yourself that occupy a whole day, or three days or maybe a week, and still you aren’t aware of it.
Then at the end of the day you’re so tired, completely exhausted, but still you’re on the train, holding on, and the tighter you hold on to the passing scenery, the more the train seems to drag to a stop. In reality the train doesn’t stop, it continues on, living dying living dying, but in our deluded understanding we’ve stopped the train. We’ve even gotten off the train! The fabrication or delusional system of our small minds is that powerful. We believe we’ve stopped the whole train and gotten off, and maybe we’ve even stayed for a couple of days or months. Some people pass their entire lives this way. But the train is going on. Believe it or not, it continues on. And while it does, while this whole drama flies through space and time, you can actually apply your compassion practice to engage your suffering and the suffering you see in the world around you, and experience how to let the grip go. Even doing this much begins to transform all that lead into gold.
In the late 1970’s the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced to his community certain practices for difficult times. He was one of the most controversial and influential Tibetan teachers to transmit dharma to the West, and he and Suzuki Roshi had a very close relationship that our traditions continue to this day. There’s really nothing in Zen like the compassionate breathing practice he introduced us to. We’re so fortunate to have some kind of practice that can work with the unwanted thoughts and feelings that cause suffering and fear.
When Rinpoche first said to us, “Let’s try to take on the suffering of other people,” he was quite shocked at the response. Most of the students said they didn’t want to do it. Suzuki Roshi wanted to encourage us in the same direction, but he was more subtle and mild, and so he would say the same thing but in a gentle way. He would say that “the bodhisattva path” or “to help other people” is our way. But the truth is that most of us were not really on the Mahayana path; we were just interested in our own self-realization. Suzuki Roshi knew this, and I think that’s why he presented it in the way he did. And it did help us, because we do have to realize which track we are on.
It is said that having the capacity, the foundation and the vessel to take on the suffering of others is one of the great joys, because you can make someone else happy, not just yourself. Of course, we usually do not realize, as we do this for someone, that the other person’s joy includes our joy, too. But when you focus just on yourself, your universe becomes small and smaller. Eventually it becomes as tiny as the head of a pin. That’s it. There’s no spaciousness. There’s no room for joy. There’s no humor. There’s no curiosity. There’s no discovery. In this way your world becomes so diminished that you have imprisoned yourself within your own conditioned mind.
There are more than six billion other people in the world at this time, and many of them look exactly like you. It’s true. They have a character and karmic pattern just like you. I see students from around the world quite a bit, and I can see an American, a Pole, an Icelander, a Chinese, and for each country there is an equal. When I was in Iceland recently, I saw someone walking down the street, and I said, “Oh, there’s Gary! In Iceland!” You really do wonder sometimes when you see the same karmic force, the same values and ideas, the same features, build and color as someone on the other side of the world.
Think of all the people who have the same feeling you have, maybe of failure or of anger at someone. Sometimes when we become very angry, we can do something about it in the situation, and sometimes we can’t. So who do you beat up? Guess. You know the answer—the closest one to you is yourself. And you do it even though you may not be aware that you are doing it. This is why we have to become softer. We just need to be kinder to ourselves because we deserve it. Why beat ourselves up? Isn’t it better to just let go of the dialogue? Let it go completely? We’ve been doing this for thirty, forty, fifty years. It’s very strong conditioning. And our compassion is the practice of unconditioning. We already have the discipline, and we already have the strength, so all we have to do is to let it go. Little by little allow the old story line to dissolve.
But it isn’t so easy. Even when we decide to take on the practice of acknowledging and letting go, we may fear that if we do let go, something terrible may happen to us. Probably something even worse. You may be in the present, but it can be quite frightening to be in the present. Let me assure you that being in the present won’t hit you like the first time you smoked marijuana or had some LSD or peyote or whatever new “designer drug” people are taking these days. It won’t overwhelm you like that because it’s organic. It comes from within.
When Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi went out for a smoke one day, Sojun Weitsman’s little boy asked him, “Roshi, what are you doing?” This is the ultimate Zen question you have to ask yourselves: “What are you doing? What’s going on?” If you do this, you will begin to not accept habit or impulse as your way of life.
When you are practicing, please remember that your breathing is very important. Even those of us who sit every day may forget to apply it, but do your best to remember the breathing. On the inhalation you take in some of the suffering—either your own or someone else’s—and on the exhalation you let it go. Repeat this three or four times: receiving and releasing, taking in and letting go. Then you may move from the personal to the universal. That’s it. Even if you’re not practicing this on an intense schedule, if you just practice it for a minute or two or three when you’re sitting or standing in your ordinary life, you will have some experience you can begin to rely on. This is true even when you’re doing it for someone who’s quite far away from you or who is dead. Try it. Do it for someone who is alive, someone you do not like or someone who is dying. It will also clean up your own negativity, your own karma. This compassion breath will burn it up.
Once I painted a traditional Zen circle made in just one stroke, known in Japanese as an enso, and wrote inside of it, “Breath sweeps mind.” Just the sound of the breath painted it. We can hardly hear our breath because we are so busy listening to our thinking all the time. Twenty-four hours a day, just the same. Are we that conditioned that we don’t get tired of it? You may say yes, but maybe you aren’t tired enough. You say you are, but I’m not convinced, because when you really are tired enough, you will change. Your behavior will begin to change, and you will take up this practice wholeheartedly. Life isn’t that long, and besides, no one else can do it for you. You’re the only one who can turn your lead, your heavy stuff, into gold. That’s all you have to do, and you can do it through the breath. That’s what we practice in zendo, and that’s what you can practice outside, in the bigger zendo, in action.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said many times that it is not the Buddhist way just to accept something on faith. We should put everything to the test and decide for ourselves whether to have faith in it. So there is a relationship between action and faith in the buddhadharma. That’s why I encourage you to put this practice to the test. You can start by taking a look and seeing for yourself where you spend most of your life. In bed? On your feet? On your seat? And while you’re there, what is it that you are doing? What do you long for? Everything to change? Nothing to change?
Somewhere deep within most of us we’re not convinced that we can really make a shift or change. When we hear a teaching such as this, something inside of us is conditioned to reject it and say it’s just another fantasy we shouldn’t take seriously. So I don’t know what it takes. Our conditioning is so strong that maybe the rug has to be pulled from beneath our feet, or the whole floor has to drop away. Believe me, I know from my own experience. Even when I was in the hospital after a cancer operation, I was still smoking. Can you believe it? That’s how stupid we are! I had a carton of cigarettes in my lower drawer. That’s how much I was in denial and unaware of addiction. But whatever we practice is what we get. It’s really true. So if you’re practicing abusing yourself, all I can say is that it’s not beneficial to yourself or others.
That’s why I want to encourage you to try. Even though your delusion practice is excellent and maintains its energy, exhausting and undermining you at the end of the day, and you get carried away with it every time, you should still try. At least during meditation practice, when it comes up, you can be aware of it. And gradually in your world, in the big zendo in action, you can become aware of it. You have some way to work with your conditioning, your life and your world: some real way that is not abstract but solid, to help you stay on the train.