Saturday, April 25, 2009

Let me respectfully remind you...

Transcribed from a talk given September 4, 2007.

In formal Zen training, at the beginning of each evening we are summoned to the zendo by a monk hammering on a board called a kaihan, and on the kaihan a verse is painted.

The verse is the same or similar in all traditions of Zen. This is something that predates a lot of divisions. A very simple verse. It says, “Be reminded that this great matter of birth and death is of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes us by like an arrow and opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to awaken. Don’t squander your life.”

Each time this board is sounded, we are reminded of this verse, we are reminded of this attitude of practice. Each week I speak about this activity, this practice that we’re engaged in, this practice of entering more and more fully into this moment, not being led here or there by our discursive mind, not being pulled around by our desires or chased by what we want to avoid.

This practice that we engage in is fundamentally simple. As I say over and over again, this isn’t a practice of adding something in to make it better. This isn’t a practice of developing skill, getting something, accomplishing. This practice is simply one of entering more fully into this moment just as it is, more fully embracing this moment and all of its contents as nothing other than our lives.

There is no other place to be. Last week I believe I spoke about coming home. For each of us, we can make this moment a place that we really want to avoid. In this moment all of our feelings, all of our thoughts, all of our likes and dislikes can make what’s happening right now the last place we want to be. And when we view it this way we spend a great deal of our time and energy trying to get out, trying to distract, trying to avoid, trying to be anywhere but here.

We can engage in this avoidance in limitless ways in our culture—innumerable entertainments and distractions. We can be fantasizing about the future yet to come, or we can be reminiscing about how things were in the past. But when we sit and stop for just a moment and breathe, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that these reminiscences, these memories of the past, aren’t so accurate, they’re just fantasies, our particular perspective on how things were, how we like to remember them.

When we think about the future, we realize that this too is just a dream, just our desires being manifested in our minds and in our hearts. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we find that we spend an immense amount of our time flitting back and forth—past, future, past, future. In traditional terms, this is called living like a ghost, clinging to bushes and weeds; our feet never touch down in this moment. When people are talking to us, we are barely able to hold a conversation; we can’t seem to make contact or to know them, thinking about this and that.

What a sad thing it is to come to the end of our lives and to realize that we have not spent a moment living, but rather we have spent all of our time thinking about what’s to come, thinking about how it was.

This caution, this reminder that we get each day, is that we each need to wake up to what’s going on in this very moment. Each of us needs to practise this activity of simply letting go of past, letting go of future, letting go of our senses and entering into this moment just as it is. There is nowhere else to be. This moment is not a place, it is not an object, not something fixed that you can place your hand on, but it is a dynamic activity unfolding before us over and over again.

If we allow ourselves to fixate, if we allow ourselves to get stuck on this or that, we immediately begin to think in terms of past and future. And this is our habit as humans. This is how we speak to one another—in terms of past and future. It’s a very difficult thing to take up this posture, to be still, and to commit ourselves to entering into this moment, to waking up to this moment as it unfolds before us. It’s a difficult thing to be born into our lives just as they are—difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable.

This practice of Zen, of Buddhism, this practise of waking up, is one in which we need to be very brave, we need to be willing to let go of our habits, of the ways of being that we’ve established for years and years of our lives, of constantly looking for landmarks, looking for approval, looking for touchstones by which we can judge ourselves, we can triangulate ourselves, we can identify ourselves and hold ourselves.

In this moment we need to have the courage to step forward and be born into the dynamic activity of this moment, to know what it is to be truly alive. The capacity, the potential of this human life, is limitless—this is what this verse reminds us of.

When one is able to enter into this moment fully, to become awake, all things are possible. And each of us, each and every one of us, has this innate potential, this capacity. So this reminder, this verse, asks us, “What are you doing? What are you doing with your time?” We need to take this life very seriously. Appreciate it for what it is, and don’t squander it.

So let me respectfully remind you: life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by like an arrow, and opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to awaken. Wake up! Don’t squander you life.


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  2. This is the first talk I ever heard! The one that made me a regular at the Tuesday sits.