A Zen Reflection
2021 Zoom Zen Retreat
Empty Moon Zen
Tom Daimon Wardle
Senior Dharma Teacher
True confession: I do not want to give this talk today. Actually, I’ve had several months to savour the dread of today’s talk since “awakening” was chosen as the theme for this sesshin. We always select a theme for our longer retreats, something to give the various dharma talks a bit of a throughline, and awakening is an entirely appropriate choice for rohatsu, or for any other time of year for that matter, and I remember the meeting where we chose the theme, sitting by and saying nothing while internally going “Oh god…”, but I assured myself there was still time. A few weeks ago when we began planning in earnest, I casually brought up the question of theme again, as if we had never decided and asking my fellow teachers what they wanted to do…. Crickets. Total silence, so after a long pause, I said plaintively “Well, it is rohatsu, so awakening, I guess?” Everyone agreed, the meeting moved on, and inside, I died a little…
Ok, I’m being melodramatic, but I sincerely don’t like talking about awakening very much. After all, isn’t this whole zen thing supposed to be about something beyond words and letters? That precise language is literally in our founding credo: Attributed to Bodhidharma, the first Chinese ancestor, the exact wording is “A special transmission outside of the scriptures, beyond words and letters, pointing directly to mind, seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.” This modern paraphrase is a bit polished up from the original instruction: “Directly point to the human mind; see one’s nature and become a Buddha; do not establish words and letters.” He actually says explicitly NOT to establish words and letters, so wouldn’t it be a little ironic to talk about awakening? It’s even worse than that, actually! Of all the Buddhist traditions, Zen has produced the most literature BY FAR. It’s not even a contest. After all, words and letters are what we have…
And, of course, we do talk about awakening, so here we are. It is a totally natural thing to talk about, probably necessary, but it still makes me deeply uneasy. My problem is that the conversation almost inevitably tends towards reification, building awakening up into some big idea and defining it. Of course, the more ideas we have about what awakening is, the more ideas we have about what it isn’t. Inevitably we use our definitions to assess our own practice, to judge it’s depths, and thereby, ourselves. Perhaps you can see the problem. Nen, nen, nen. Stacking mind moments one on top of the other until we are miles away from what is right in front of us. This kind of analysis is a well-practiced habit for all of us already, so I don’t see a lot of good in stoking those particular flames any more than absolutely necessary.
If you read the literature, both historical and contemporary, there is a pronounced tendency to talk about awakening as some earth shaking, apocalyptic experience that banishes ignorance, levels mountains, and brings people to their knees. And maybe it can be, but there’s that zen hyperbole problem again. Some awakening experiences may very well go that way, but what about those that don’t? Personally, I am deeply skeptical about anything that promises the “and nothing was ever the same again and everyone lived happily ever after” type of ending. In my experience, even the most intense peak experiences eventually fade, leaving me with the same old me with the same old habits, the same old cravings, falling for the same old traps. Belief in this kind of apotheotic awakening can lead to enormous blindspots. I have actually heard teachers claim to have transcended the precepts or even to have become the precepts, as if everything they did was automatically OK because they were awakened, whatever the hell that means to them. History has marked well the grievous harm that can come from such foolish arrogance. Our ancestor Hakuin points us in a helpful direction, writing late in his life that he’d had at least 18 major and countless minor awakenings in his time. An instructive note with important implications for our own work.
Whatever it is and however it comes about, it seems to me that the idea of awakening as something rarefied and extraordinary is as unhelpful as it is impractical. For me, my own experiences of awakening have needed regular renewal and constant refining, and even so I still struggle. Often. For me, awakening is simply noticing what is right here in front of me right now: Here I am; what is vividly apparent? It is a reminder that the world is vastly greater than myself or my concerns, when I remember that I am not separate from the rest of all that is. An intimate moment in which I see something beautiful or funny or stupid, and the illusion that divides me from what I perceive evaporates. One big, tangled mess, all tumbling together perfectly. Just tumbling. Just noticing.
This is exactly what we train when we take to our cushions for practice: we notice. We count our breaths from 1-10, and we tend to think that the more often we get to ten, the better, as if that was somehow the point. I strongly suspect that by now we have all well mastered the hallowed art of counting to ten and that no one here really needs any more practice at it. Luckily, that is not the point, my friends. Rather, it is waiting for those precious moments in which we notice “Ah! I’ve lost the count! I’ve started thinking something again… OK, back to 1…” Here, we are practicing just noticing, the infinitely subtle art of paying attention. We learn to recognize where we are moment by moment, opening the hand of thought and letting the world back in.
Now we are approaching a kind of awakening I can recognize, even get excited about, because I know how much I need it. I feel it a thousand times a day: misunderstandings, missed opportunities, moments both large and small in which I feel friction, moments in which I get stuck. Maybe I don’t know the right thing to say, maybe I can’t say it, maybe I just can’t say it right. Whatever the case, I’m not in actually in my own life, I’m not intimate, and I’m very likely to leave the situation making broad, sweeping conclusions about just how awful this world really is, to say nothing of the miserable people that populate it, especially this one. But when I pay attention, when I notice these moments, something rather remarkable becomes possible.
To illustrate, I will share a recent experience I had that you could call a kind of small awakening. I was driving home after running some errands and I turned down a side street that goes very steeply uphill and around a sharp bend at the top to an intersection with no traffic controls. It is a configuration ripe for disaster, and as I began mounting the hill, I saw that ahead on the steepest part where the curve leaves you blind to oncoming traffic, somebody had just stopped, double parked, completely blocking my lane. At least this individual had the good courtesy to turn on their blinkers, but nonetheless my initial reaction was one of considerable ire and I began to reflect on the selfishness of our species and this particular specimen’s failure to correctly resolve that old philosophical saw about the needs of the many vs the needs of the few. I could see ahead of me a familiar, critical line of thought about how this is yet another of the many rapidly accumulating marks of the precipitous decline of western civilization…
Sure enough, I started on that road of thought, sloping downward nearly as steeply as the hill sloped up in front of me, but then I noticed. I noticed and I stopped myself. I didn’t take that road down. I know where it leads. I’ve been there before and it’s a very boring place. It was entirely reasonable to be upset with the other driver (who wasn’t even in their car by the way) but then I had a different thought as I shifted lanes to pass the double parked car, potentially into oncoming traffic, I came around the bend in the hill, shifted back to the proper lane, and carried on my way without any issue whatsoever. Everything turned out completely fine. It suddenly struck me what a marvelous thing it is that we live in this world where the tension between collective interest and individual interest doesn’t have to be a problem, a world that can absorb an astonishing amount of selfishness and keep going. Instead of driving home in the shadow of the decline of western civilization as we know it, I instead found myself driving the remaining blocks back to Mo marveling at the simple fact that there can be room for everybody in this world and everyone can get what they need.
So, it is small, and maybe a little silly, but that points to an awakening I can get excited about. And in my experience, you will find it, if you look for it. Actually, it may be better to say that awakening will find you. After all, as James likes to say, awakening is an accident, and practice makes us accident prone. The best part might be that it doesn’t matter if you miss it or mess it up. Every moment presents us with a new opportunity to awaken right here, together with all beings. And even so, please remember that awakening itself is still just another idea.