ON OPENING THE WAY: Foundations of a Spiritual Life

ON OPENING THE WAY: Foundations of a Spiritual Life July 3, 2021





Foundations of a Spiritual Life

Chris Hoff

Empty Moon Zen


This was going to be a Dharma talk about the ordinary. But, because of something that happened this past Wednesday. It is now a Dharma talk about the 10,000 things, and gratitude.

Let’s start with the 10,000 things. Early this week I was doing, what I often do when it’s my turn to do the Dharma talk. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to say. Searching for a topic that would make me sound like a smart Zen person. I was leaning toward the topic of the ordinary, ordinary Zen. Primarily because I have spent much of my life in an effort to escape the ordinary, in search of the extraordinary. So, I felt like the ordinary was a topic I had actual experience with. But the more I wrestled with the idea. Any kind of coherent talk seemed elusive.

Here I’d like to reference Dogen. The 10,000 things. Dogen wrote:

That the self advances
And confirms ten thousand things
Is called delusion;
That the ten thousand things
Advance and confirm the self
Is called enlightenment.

Me, earlier this week, searching around in the dark for the right thing to say to you all this morning is unfortunately what Dogen would call, “the self advancing.” It was me going out in search of the 10,000 things. Now I don’t know if I was quite in a state of delusion. Probably? But I did know that I wasn’t getting anywhere with a Dharma talk.

Then Wednesday happened. Wednesday is a clinical supervision day for me. It is when I meet with the therapists, I am responsible for in group and in individual settings and discuss cases. It is work that I thoroughly enjoy doing.

This Wednesday I had one of the people I supervise come to her individual session and immediately start to cry. So much so that it took her several minutes before she could actually tell me what was happening, what was wrong.

And then, when she could. She dropped a bomb. The previous day she had been diagnosed with cancer. And it was life threatening. She told me this was the first chance she had to cry about it.

We spent the next hour talking about life, death, family, cancer, grief, work. All of it.

For a while. Time stood still.

It is here I want to talk about Gratitude. Or maybe nihilism, or how there is a critique of Buddhism as some sort of nihilistic project. Let’s try both.

I still don’t understand how some folks conflate Buddhism with Nihilism.

I have known from the beginning, before I had any real understanding, that this practice was much more dangerous than any nihilistic project. Nihilism is all empty. Devoid of meaning. Any action useless. Zen, though encompassing the empty, accounts for the form of the world. In all its beauty and brokenness. And in the world of form. We are required to act. And this is, in my mind, what made Zen so dangerous.

Dangerous, not in the life-threatening sense, But in an “if I actually let myself experience the whole world, it will overwhelm me, and I will drown in all of it” sense. At least that was, and has often been, my fear of this practice.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I am also going to talk about Vow. So, about Vow.

I am a long-time member of a 12-step program. And in any 12-step program part of the process is working the steps. And during my first time through the steps, I had reached the 3rd step. Which says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” Now that might be a hard swallow for some of you here at a Zen Buddhist service. It might be the God thing. Or the turn your life over thing. But don’t get caught up with that. What I wanted to share is what someone said to me when I reached this important step in the 12-step program. When I was reviewing and working on my third step, a friend at the time said to me “Chris, be careful if you go through with that step, you never know where you might end up.”

And he was right. Look at me now.

I don’t think the 3rd step in the 12-step program is any different than the Four Vows we often chant here. Beings are numberless, I vow to free them, etc. They have become my 3rd Step. As a matter of fact. I will say to you all now. Be careful, if you go through with those vows, you never know where you might end up. Or who you may find sitting across from you, in their most perilous moment.

I forgot about gratitude.

I don’t hear gratitude spoken about much in Buddhist circles. I think nowadays it gets thrown in the bucket of toxic positivity, or even spiritual bypassing. Another new age platitude among many. But in the Maha-mangala Sutra. The one where a Deva asks Buddha what are the highest blessings or protections? The Buddha lists gratitude among the highest blessings.

So, about my experience of gratitude. On Wednesday night. After I had some time to examine what had happened earlier, I had this realization.

The Buddha, at his moment of enlightenment, did not go out seeking the 10,000 things. Rather he sat under the bodhi tree and the 10,000 things came to him. Culminating with morning star and his enlightenment.

And I know this. The Buddha, the morning star, and the whole world was in my office with me on Wednesday. The 1
0,000 things came to us. And for a moment I knew to my core why I sit. Why I struggle with Koans, and Dharma talks. And why I try and I try, over and over again, to pay attention. And one more time I was ever so grateful for this practice, the vows, and the ability to sit with the beautiful and broken world, not overwhelmed, not drowning.

Browse Our Archives