With Renewed Resolve

In response to the US presidential election, Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat says we can turn turmoil into realization, and anxiety into right action.

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi
18 November 2016
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

For many of us, this election has served as a wake-up call. Perhaps we’d conveniently ignored the struggles of others. Perhaps we’d taken a lot for granted, and had become complacent about the hard-won rights and achievements of the past several decades. Now, instead of succumbing to anxiety about what the future will bring, we must turn to our practice with renewed resolve. It’s only when we fully enter into the timeless, formless reality of One Mind that we can act with clarity and compassion in the realm of differentiation.

We cannot allow ourselves to drift into passivity, either. Coming from emptiness, we act in the realm of form, understanding its nature as ever-changing, ever-evolving, ever-responding. Thus we can stand together on issues of concern, from the climate crisis to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. We can be inspired by the conclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “America”: “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Openly acknowledging our own uniqueness, we can work for the common good. We can be the bodhisattvas represented in Emma Lazarus’s sonnet on the plaque at the Statue of Liberty, which ends,

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This takes resolve; it takes plunging into practice with assiduity and conviction, recognizing that only we ourselves can turn turmoil into realization, anxiety into right action.

You may recall that after his audience with Emperor Wu, Bodhidharma went to Sozan, a mountain in the north of China, and sat facing a steep cliff for nine years. One cold winter day a practitioner named Niso Eka came and stood outside in the snow, pleading to be accepted as a student. “My mind is so filled with turbulence and anxiety,” Eka cried. “Please pacify my mind.”

What did Bodhidharma say? “Go away!” Again and again Eka begged Bodhidharma for help, and again and again, Bodhidharma refused. Finally he told Eka, “The subtle and supreme teachings of the Buddhas can be pursued only by endless assiduity: doing what is hard to do and bearing what is hard to bear, continuing the practice even for kalpas. How can one of little virtue and much self-conceit dream of achieving it? It will end only in fruitless labor.”

“Endless assiduity…” Here we are, sitting after sitting, sesshin after sesshin, continuing what we started a few kalpas ago, “doing what is hard to do and bearing what is hard to bear.” We may feel resistance to those words. And why? Seeking comfort is deeply embedded in the conditioned mind. We need to be aware of how powerful a tropism it is. We spend a lot of time thinking about how much better we’d feel if our circumstances were just a tad different from the way they are; if the political discourse were less offensive; if the outcome were different.

And meanwhile, particularly in sesshin, we try to find a better way to sit. We make this adjustment, that rearrangement, and think, OK, that works for me, but of course that “for me” moment has already moved on, and a new discomfort has taken over. Still, we persist in trying to find something that works. There must be an easier way, a better product, maybe an app or a nap, a dependable biofeedback device, a change in diet, exactly the right cushion.


I remember driving back to Syracuse many years ago after Rohatsu Sesshin musing, “The problem is really the cushions! The kapok ones go flat; the buckwheat hull ones turn into concrete. What I really should do is design a cushion that has a layer of buckwheat hulls, a layer of kapok, and a layer of memory foam.” Years later, I discovered that a Dharma supplies organization was selling exactly what I had fantasized about. So of course I ordered one. It was terrible. It didn’t help my zazen a bit. Oh, well!

Of course it’s not a matter of finding the right cushion or any other strategy. When Bill Clinton was running for President in 1992, a slogan that helped him win was, “The economy, stupid!”  When we’re running for the comfort zone, we can remember, “The mind, stupid!” As the Dhammapada puts it, “Our lives are shaped by our minds; we become what we think.” We become what we think when we believe what we think. When our thoughts are filled with negativity, fear, and despair, we feel hopeless; it seems impossible to continue.

It’s the mind. In “The Song of Zazen,” Hakuin’s line “Even those who have practiced it for just one sitting will see all their harmful karma erased. . .” has nothing to do with comfort or cushions or any other external arrangement. It does have deep significance for “fathoming the subtle and supreme teachings of the Buddhas,” as Bodhidharma told Eka, “continuing the practice even for kalpas.” What we must do is what Shakyamuni Buddha and all our Ancestral Teachers did: just sit down and say, “That’s it! I’m not getting up until I have truly seen for myself.” That is what one sitting means. One Mind, without limitations or conditions! And then we stand up and put our shoulders to the wheel.

Hakuin said in his Rohatsu Exhortations, “What is essential is a daring mind.” The story of Bodhidharma cutting off his eyelids so that he would not fall asleep during his sitting may be apocryphal, but it is exemplary of his daring mind. The question so frequently asked in one koan after another, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West,” cuts through everything. Why did Bodhidharma come to the West? Why has he come here, now, and what is the question that comes from our own hearts? What am I doing? What is my life for? To what will I devote this precious human life?

Eka stood in the snow begging, “Please, please teach me! I have come here to encounter my own truth. I need your help. My mind is not yet at peace. Please, pacify my mind!”

We are well acquainted with the feeling, “My mind is not yet at peace.”  When we can really acknowledge this with sincere and painful recognition, we are at the threshold. We see the difficulty we are in, and we don’t try to hide it. We begin to comprehend that the separated identity we have come to think of as the “self” leaves us feeling alone, incapable of responding fully to the challenges of our lives. We must be able to say in all sincerity, “I acknowledge my own shortcomings, my own blindness, and with complete humility, I beg for help.”

What we’re begging for is here, now. When we sit “just one sitting” in this vast emptiness, it is showing itself to us, as we recite in “Opening This Dharma”:

“We now can see This, listen to This, accept and hold This. May we completely realize and actualize the Tathagata’s teaching.”

Eka had such strong, deep yearning, such motivation to see This. He refused to be discouraged by Bodhidharma’s refusals, just as we refuse to be discouraged by disappointing outcomes in our lives. Finally, Eka cut off his arm at the elbow and presented it to Bodhidharma.

Each one of us has to do this. No, it’s not on the sesshin application; of course we’re not taking this literally. What it means is that we must have the willingness and the spiritual fortitude to do this practice without any conditions. To undertake our lives without any reservations. We have to be able to say “O.K., whatever it takes.”

And whatever it takes is cutting–cutting through everything we’ve been carrying around, everything we’ve been constructing about who we are, what we need, and how we’re going to get it.

When Eka presented his severed arm, crying again, “My mind has no peace! Please pacify my mind!” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it for you.” This statement led Eka into a profoundly exhaustive search. He went into vast emptiness. Then he said, “I have looked everywhere, and I cannot find my mind.”

Bodhidharma told him, “There, I have pacified your mind.” Because of his intensive struggle, because of his eight years’ practice and study before even going to see Bodhidharma, because of his authentic desperation and humble assiduity, Eka heard those words and had a deep realization.

We, too, must make this kind of exhaustive search in our zazen. What is the mind? Where is it? Who is searching? Where do we come from? What are we? “I cannot find my mind.”

The performance artist Laurie Anderson put it this way in “Ramon” on her album Strange Angels:

So when you see a man who’s broken
Pick him up and carry him
And when you see a woman who’s broken
Put her all into your arms
Cause we don’t know where we come from.
We don’t know what we are.

And you? You’re no one
And you? You’re falling
And you? You’re traveling
Traveling at the speed of light.

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat is the Abbot of the Zen Studies Society.