Friday, January 31, 2014

Losses We Live

Koun Ejo

The priest Eihei Ejo studied with Dogen. One day, in the course of seeking guidance, he heard the koan, “A single hair penetrates many holes.” Hearing this, at once he attained realization. That evening, he went to the teacher’s room, made his bows, and said, “I do not ask about the single hair. What are many holes?”
Dogen smiled and said, “You penetrated it.”
Ejo made bows.

The empty space does not permit even a needle to enter from the beginning.
Void and independent, who can argue about it?
Don’t say, “A single hair penetrates many holes.”
Completely naked, there is not even a bit of scar.

I would like to touch on a couple things that jumped out at me from Keizan’s ‘Circumstances’. During the several days student and teacher talked, Ejo felt that he was in complete accord with Dogen. Of course this is a wonderful feeling…I see with the same eyes that my teacher sees with, thus the almost triumphant walk back to the zendo from the dokusan room. Fortunately, Ejo did not stop there in his meetings with Dogen but continued to look at and discuss various points of his understanding. “After several days passed, Priest Dogen revealed an extremely different understanding. At that time, Ejo was surprised and was about to raise an argument, but he realized there was something beyond his own truth and quite different.” How many students come to teacher’s wanting little other than to be approved of, I wonder? Please do not so quickly go by this possibility. Look deeply and honestly. What are you searching for? What do you want, really? The unspoken part of koan work is the sense of rejection or disapproval that happens again and again and again as your response is rejected with a, “Please be more intimate” or “Make it more personal” or “That is too intellectual or abstract or conceptual” or simply ding-a-ling. I sense that some reject koan work because they fear the very same thing—rejection. But what a powerful way to practice…to sit right in the middle of life, a life where we are constantly turned away from…”where seasons imitate the losses we must live.” Initially, I imagine, Ejo had these feelings. He thought to argue. He was challenged. He was startled. He was probably many other things…but ultimately he wanted something which he felt even more deeply, more tangibly than his personal dismay or hurt. And that yearning or desire is what allows us to practice year after year, lifetime after lifetime. We yearn beyond the day-to-day, below the small inconsistencies and worries, beyond the needs and wants, the likes and dislikes.

Because we do not meet often, I would suggest that the way Ejo came to Dogen day after day to match his understanding and to measure himself with his teacher, is an excellent way to read books. Question the author with your understanding, with your insight. This way of reading isn’t a combat or test or game but a way to be active and alive in your reading practice. If the author cannot match your insight or understanding, find a better book but it is OK if you do not understand all that you read. Years ago, it took me many, many readings of Kim’s Mystical Realist before I felt I was seeing eye-to-eye on many pages with the author. I still read Secrets of the Blue Cliff over and over and I am having a kick wrestling with Cultivating the Empty Field and wondering how to put his passages into my own words. To be mature in dhyana is to be mature in expression so when you feel you understand a passage in a book, put it into your words. Stay active and alive.

Early in Keizan’s teisho, he said, “However, everybody without exception is awake and clear. It is therefore not something nonexistent, nor is it some distinguishable form. It is not movement, stillness, hearing, or seeing. Have you reached it?” So again, Keizan beats the drum he has been banging since the beginning of the book, maybe even, since the beginning of time. You yourself have to taste it, smell it, chew it. It isn’t enough to say, “Zazen is enlightenment, enlightenment is zazen" which is echoed all too often. This saying is no more complete or accurate than saying form is emptiness, emptiness form but still not knowing the difference between salty and sweet, night and day or dry and wet. “All of you are blessed to copy the appearance of the Buddha and use the bowls and robe he used.” This is a great encouragement but don’t let ‘copy’ morph into its other meaning. Don’t just go through the motions because I already am and because zazen is enlightenment. To copy (how to walk, how to use the utensils, how to sit upright, how to bow) early in the practice is a wonderful thing. It shows an awareness and respect for those around you and for the tradition. Yet, at some point, the copying needs to drop and you must find your own expression, your own words, your own true posture when walking, sitting, laying or standing. This practice is not to become Buddhas as wonderful as that may be. It is to become yourself to the very bottom. And that bottom, which is bottomless, has no gaps. It is utterly seamless.



ps To slide us into the next book, Cultivating the Empty Field, Hongzhi wrote:
Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest.
Riding backward on the ox, drunken and singing;
Who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat?
In empty space you cannot stick a needle.


  1. Meeting notes from 2/1/2013

    Matt, Will, Pat, Eric, and Ryan

    (Cafe Artista) The koan ‘single hair … many holes’ is a glimpse into seeing all in a tree. Is the key found in-between, in “piercing”? Seems so. We talked quite a bit about and around the three pillars of zen; faith, doubt and determination. We wondered about the origination of this triptych and thought you might know, Jack?

    We appreciate your encouragement to “Please be more intimate”. Sometimes/most-times hard to face. Like the fox ghost still waiting for life to start.

    We compared and contrasted determination vs. letting go. We want to let go of being the central character in the movie called ‘My Life’. It was brought up that there is a big difference between Zen and Christian faith. One includes doubt and Christian faith requires certainty. Faith is to act in the face of doubt.

    Many holes = many ways into Zen.

    Sinusoidal activity between determination and letting go. A continuum of presence.

    It was suggested that we write our own enlightenment story to go along with all the ones presented in the book. After all, wouldn't that be most intimate.

    We struggled a bit with the two meanings of copy. We could only come up with one. A facsimile. ‘Faking until you make it’. Respect for the forms doesn't seem like copying.

    “… that yearning or desire is what allows us to practice year after year, lifetime after lifetime. We yearn beyond the day-to-day, below the small inconsistencies and worries, beyond the needs and wants, the likes and dislikes.”

  2. In the "single hair" I sense it is the "single" that is the point. What is the single here that penetrates? This work, this study, sometimes with a teacher has the feel of barriers that require penetration...which can create a need for some "doing".
    But it is the single hair that penetrates, it is this singularity in our position to life where outside and inside are released into just this! The singularity of being, in stillness...and penetration pops through all barriers at once. No barriers ever existed, nothing to be done. Just this! is the single hair.
    As to the tradition teacher/student relationship with approval/rejection tendencies, I wonder whether there might be a better way. We certainly can leave behind old traditions if they no longer serve us well. Seeds of traditional paternalism should be questioned if Zen is alive and thriving within us. Zen doesn't care if the whole beloved house goes up in flames, it is always the phoenix rising from the ashes, always pure, always undisturbed.
    Copying falls away and expression depends on this one thing, this one hair.

  3. As someone still relatively "early in the practice" (just about to make Shoken this weekend), I still do a lot of casting my eyes around the zendo to "copy" (sit facing in/out, gassho or not, and, heavens help me, when to pick up the breakfast trays). I've also been at it long enough that I find I am beginning to live into and have my own experience within those copied (and eventually learned & internalized) forms, being present in them, aware from them.

    As for that need for approval, that's certainly alive in me; like any pilgrim I ache to know whether my offering is accepted. Just as alive, if not more so, is the need for something more--to see through the delusion, to be alive to what is (all of it!) rather than what I tell myself about it. As much as I fear my inevitable 'wrong' answers, I look forward to koan work and how it will enliven my experience and enrich my synthesis with that "something beyond [my] own truth and quite different." There is a question, well not a question, per se, but rather a persistent sense of questioning that I have carried as long as I can remember, and it is the truth of that which I crave most.

    As for hairs and holes, or needles in bowls of water, I couldn't say just yet, but that's ok.


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