Transcription of a talk given May 29, 2007
When you are hearing the sound of the birds, how do you manifest one true nature?
In our tradition, in Rinzai Zen, this question is what we call a koan. Once we come to the place in practice were we have settled the mind to some degree, we are centering ourselves in focusing on our breath, we come to rest in the present moment, we become aware, we become aware of sounds in the world around us, we become aware of smells, sights, bodily sensations and thoughts.
Becoming aware without becoming caught up in them, fixated by them, we begin to investigate the experience of this moment. And if we are in a relationship with a teacher, we are pressed to go further. In many schools of Buddhism and in a lot of the popular reading material that you find about Buddhism and meditation, you’ll here this term “mindfulness”.
Mindfulness is a very useful tool in practice in that we become more and more aware of our surroundings, more and more aware of the sensory information that we are receiving, more and more aware of how we’re interacting with the world around us, and this is good to a point.
In the practice of Nyorai Zen, Tathagata Zen, which is the practice in our tradition, we have to come to this point of absolute awareness, mindfulness, absolute clarity between what’s being experienced and our subjective self.
But we then have to take a step beyond.
How do we manifest one true nature when we are hearing the sound of the birds? This practice is the investigation of this acceptance of this unconditional fixation to the concept of separation, or an “I” which is distinct and separate from things outside. In our tradition we investigate this practice in a very concrete way. In the experience of this very moment, in hearing the sound of the birds, we simply sit and investigate. We can observe that in one sense, as we sit and we listen there is distinctly “I”, there is distinctly “the bird”, there is space, distance.
The thinking mind may be struggling with what kind of bird it is. Is it a Sparrow? Is it a Robin? But as we sit, as we breathe in the sound, as we breathe in the space and as we exhale “I am”, we find that at once, self, other and distance unify. The thinking mind drops away and there is just this sound.
In our experience of this universe we uphold the self as being necessary, as being crucial. We accept this concept entirely. But in the simple practice of listening we can ask ourselves this question, “having ears open, do we need to try to hear the bird?” Having ears open, already the sound is heard. We have this opportunity to experience this moment, to experience the activity of the universe as it manifests in our life, as non-dual, without separation.
This experience requires consistent, concerted practice. The mind is something which is very busy. The mind is something which we are very attached to. This concept of inside and outside, self and other, as fixated permanent structures is something that we attach to very deeply. Having fixated, having attached to it, we make decisions, we make choices, we make judgments—good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral. What’s important is that we understand that these decisions, these choices, these judgments, are based on a subjective opinion, which is based on an understanding of reality as fundamentally separate. And we can in our own lives, in this very moment, experience that this universe, that this activity that gives rise to all things in this universe, is fundamentally one.
This koan, “how can I manifest one true nature when I am hearing the sound of a bird,” is a simple practice that we can engage in with a focused mind in any area of our life. It doesn’t have to be a sound. When we are seeing a flower, when we’re smelling food, when we feel the temperature hot or cold, how do I manifest one true nature? Can I let go into this activity and realize this as nothing other than myself. And this is difficult practice, because as we engage in this investigation, we find that over and over again, what jumps out at us is “I”.
This barrier of self, this barrier of “I” is something which we impose upon reality, which we impose upon this very moment, which we ourselves fixate and attach to. It’s not such a big thing, in fact it’s just an idea. And as we go forward in our practice, as we investigate the content of this moment—the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the physical sensations, even the thoughts—we find that it is in simply letting go of our obsession, letting go of our fixation of self, the idea that we are apart from things, that we can actually experience one true nature.
In practice, this training with koans is not something that is done in abstraction in our minds. It’s practiced in a face to face relationship with our teacher. The question is posed, “how do you manifest one true nature when you are hearing the sound of the birds?” We repeat, “how do I manifest one true nature when I am hearing the sound of the birds?” And the question comes from our teacher, “Demonstrate! Show me!”
The moment we open our mouths, we fixate the self, we enter into the world of trying to explain, we’ve separated, affirmed the duality. In the moment we meet our teacher eyeball to eyeball we are asked, challenged: “let go of your fixation with self and show me the sound of the bird!”
Usually when I talk like this the minds get very busy: “What would I say? How would I respond?” This type of training is something in which you have to let go of all of that. Coming into the moment, coming into the space of this very moment, we find that already we know what to do, already we know how to respond, already we make the demonstration, manifesting one true nature.
I guess this is a look into the realm of the world of Rinzai Zen practice. Having this experience of dissolution, experiencing the manifestation of one true nature, is one side, its practical application is that as we arise, as we have completed the activity of dissolution into zero, into oneness, we can’t stay there. I’ve said over and over again, “this universe is activity, there is no place to rest. We arise. But having manifested zero we arise knowing that this manifestation is impermanent; we don’t fixate to a self as being separate, lasting, fixed and permanent.
We can see clearly a flower is a flower, a bird is a bird, a person is a person. But we also understand that fundamentally all things in this vast universe are one. This experience of one true nature is powerful. And it will alter our behavior, alter our perception of things in this world. It will alter our relationships and alter our work. It will alter who we are, who we take ourselves to be.
So I think that a lot of people come to Zen practice and they sort of loosely want to change, but I think that it is important to understand that as we engage in this practice we want to maintain some control over how it is that we change. We want to keep the things that we like about “I” while getting rid of the things that we don’t like so much about “I”. But the reality of practice is that these things are twins joined at the head. As we let go of one, we find that the other often follows.
Where does this practice go for us? How is it that we will go forward from this place? If I surrender my death grip on the self, what will I become?
These are all questions of ego. Already, in this moment we are not separate from the activity of this universe. Already, in this moment our capacity is infinite. Letting go of our fixation with self we manifest one true nature with all things in this vast universe. Having manifested absolute zero we arise in clear distinction without fixation. When we enter into practice we must let go of this grasping, this desire to know, to predict, our expectation or our projections; enter into the space of “don’t know” and meet this moment honestly, straight-forwardly and completely. This activity, the activity that is this very moment, is the complete content of your life. There is nowhere else to be.