Thursday, March 5, 2009

What are you afraid of?

Transcribed from a talk given February, 2007.

What is it that you are afraid of? What is it that you are ashamed of? What is it that makes you angry or sad? Do you know? Are you aware of these things in your life? The source of these things, the origin of these things, will lead you to suffer over and over again if you are not familiar with these experiences in your life. It’s not that you don’t have them. But to use the traditional term: you are ignorant. Each of us, as we go through our day to day lives, meet fear, meet anger, meet grief, meet shame. In our effort to avoid this difficulty, in our effort to try to grasp a place that is free from these things, we do all kinds of bizarre things.

Our culture, it seems, can provide any number of activities for us to avoid feeling these thing, to avoid experiencing our greed, anger, and delusion as they manifest in emotion—fear, shame, grief. If we’re not aware of these things in our life, then our desire, our desire to avoid these things, our desire to find a place in which we are free from these things leads us to do all kinds of activities. If I’m feeling sad, maybe I’ll eat a tub of ice cream. If I’m scared, maybe I’ll smoke a couple joints and have a drink. If I’m angry, maybe I’ll just tune out and watch the television for a few hours.

This avoidance does not alleviate our suffering. This difficulty does not go away. We bury it. And in our day to day experiences it bubbles up when we meet new people, when we meet new situations, when we try new things. We find that these things that we thought we had under control—fear, anger, grief, shame—pop up. The more strongly we avoid them, the more present they become in our day to day lives, until the point where we find ourselves imprisoned. Imprisoned by all of these emotions that we really don’t want to experience. Slaves; doing whatever it takes to keep away from it. Is this the way that we want to live: looking for the next object, the next activity, the next distraction that can keep us from feeling this awful feeling. It’s not the only way to be.

Master Linji, Rinzai in Japanese, taught that hidden in this lump of red flesh resides the true person of no rank. What does this mean? It means that within each of us there is the potential of being free, free of all this. Free of all this resistance, avoidance, seeking. The true person of no rank is the person that comes and goes as it is appropriate without regard to how I feel. How do we realize this? How do we experience this? How do we become a true person of no rank?

Zazen has been called, by another master, the backward step. In this activity, when we experience something, when something arises—grief, fear, anger, shame—rather than avoiding it, rather than trying to get away from it, rather than trying to replace it with something else, something we take as being better, we receive it. There is nowhere else to be but right here in this very moment. Just as it is. These emotions, these difficult feelings, these difficult experiences are not outside of us. When we try to cut them off, we accomplish nothing but cutting off ourselves.

People ask all kinds of questions about practice: what happens with this, what happens with that, how do I go about doing this? And it has almost become a kind of joke around here that the response always seems to be, “more zazen, more sitting.” You don’t have to go anywhere. You don’t have to do anything in particular. Just as we are, we are complete. There is nowhere else to be.

Many people look at practice as a way of improving, as a way of becoming more, becoming better, becoming more refined. From the beginning the Buddha taught that each of us is already awake but we don’t realize it. We don’t have to become one with this vast universe; already we are one with this vast universe. All you must do is awaken.

What is it that we are attached to? What is it that we try to avoid? What is it that we try to keep outside of ourselves? These things, these fixations, these attachments, these ideas are the very things that bring us to suffer over and over again. The activity of sitting is just this: the activity of sitting. When we sit, if grief arises, then the practice is simply to sit with grief. If anger arises, the practice is simply to sit with anger; with fear, with shame, with joy, with love. Not attaching good and bad, right and wrong to any of these things. This moment, just as it is, is complete. When we are able to meet this moment as it is, as nothing other than our lives, when we are able to experience this moment and realize that there is nowhere else to be, we are no longer led around by our nose like an ox, no longer desperately trying to avoid that which is uncomfortable, no longer desperately pursuing that which we perceive as being pleasurable, completely at home in this moment just as it is.

Following his statement: “hidden in this lump of flesh resides the true person of no rank”, Rinzai says, “who among you will stand and unfurl his banner.” These practices, these teachings, are offered up; this is an observation; “this is how I have seen things” is the way that the teachings are presented. Who among you has the strength to practice it? Who among you has the strength to place your life into this investigation? Who among you has the strength to simply sit with your grief, with your anger, with your fear, your shame, your joy?

When we sit, when we engage with this moment, when we open ourselves to receive the activity that is this very moment, we are doing zen practice. If we come here to this practice place in hopes of finding a way to avoid, to get away from, to seek pleasure, then we are simply turning Zen practice into a distraction.

Each evening, at the end of the evening we do a chant: “The Final Instructions of Daito Kokushi”. There is a verse in it that says, in the first lines, “All you people who come to this dojo to study Zen, make sure you come here out of interest of the way and not for clothing or food.” It’s easy to write this off as a very dated expression. But what Diato is saying is exactly what I have said: don’t come to Zen practice looking for escape, comfort. This practice is available so that we can come to know our lives intimately, completely, with all that is pleasant, with all that is unpleasant, and letting go of our preferences for one or the other to experience the vastness of this universe as not being separate from “I”. The realization of one true nature, or as I said last week, the manifestation of true love. I hope that all of you will find the strength to engage in this practice.


  1. it's an excellent idea to transcript your talks, Eshu. I really appreciate your efforts to present the Zen Center in a timely manner through blogs and facebook.

  2. A blog is an excellent idea Eshu, but the black background and white text is aesthetically unpleasant and difficult on the eyes after awhile. A good colour for a dark and brooding blog perhaps, but I don't think that's what you want to go for.

  3. time for an Itunes channel too...
    no doubt