Dharma Talk

Owning the Body

April 15, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

 Welcome everyone.

Two announcements:

At the end of this little talk, I’m going to recommend some books to you. So if you can get a pencil and paper or have your phone ready, that’s great.

I’m also going to time this meeting on the little meditation timer I told you about called “Insight Timer” It’s a great little deal. You’ll hear it do three in 15 seconds.

And then I’m going to ask you about whether you would like to meditate with me at all. Maybe five minutes or so before we start a talk next time. Something I’ve never done before.

There’s my insight timer.  Okay.

I want to thank Sherry Head for getting me online. I see people are coming in, coming in. Bob Jones – how great to see you.

So, today I want to talk about owning the body.

Suzuki-roshi, who was the founder of my lineage, and let’s show you Suzuki-roshi because I’m going to talk to you about this book … [holds up book] This is Suzuki-roshi. This is one of my two favorite zen books. Not Always So, and the other one is called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. And there is an audio book of this which I narrated. I’m going to give you some reading for those people that like a little more than a quick lecture.

So Suzuki-roshi mentioned that when you meditate correctly, when you put a little pressure on your diaphragm as you’re breathing, your posture’s right – he called it “owning the body”.

And when I first heard it, I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I imagined that it was something like owning property or owning a dog. That the purpose was for my mind to take ownership of my body and command it to do what I want it to do. Very authoritarian impulse I had. I can see now.

As time went on, I realized that that was a little dualistic. Mind over here, body over here. Who is this “you” telling the body what to do?

That’s something we’ll get at, a little later.

And I was trying to align my understanding with this phrase that Suzuki-roshi talks about all the time: “mind, body, not one, not two.”

So, as time went on, I began to change my understanding. I began to soften it a lot. And thinking more deeply about it, “owning” is taking responsibility for something. If you own a house, you take responsibility for it. If you own a dog, you take responsibility for it. You take care of it.

And part of that is to become intimate with it. To know it completely.

So, if you have a house, you know where the screen door sticks. You know if a board sticks up on the porch. If you have a dog, you know what his or her characteristics are. I have two dogs, and one is sort of a dimwit, but a fantastic athlete. He always has to run ahead and run in front. And the other one is a great hunter, but he looks a little dull. He takes his time when he sniffs and looks after gophers and moles and things. He’s in lethal mode. And each of these dogs I know so well that they’re like an additional personality.

So, I thought, “Oh, okay. This is a kind of owning.” This kind of owning is based on intimacy. And intimacy is not dualistic. Intimacy is the complete union of mind and body.

So, it’s not a hierarchy. It’s not the mind telling the body what to do.

Thinking long-term, it also involves commitment. So what is my commitment? What is the commitment we make to the body?

I think, pretty often, we take it for granted. I have this body. I have this mind. What’s to do? … Suffer.

So, what is the commitment?

Well, there are several levels of commitment, right? We decide we want to feed it well. We want to give it clean air, clean water. I think the organic movement reflects that. I think different medical forms: Ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy – they all are maybe a little less aggressive than Western medicine. They have their successes. You could probably say they are empirically verifiable, like Western medicine. I certainly have used both.

So, commitment to the body. If this commitment to the body is actually going to work, it has to include the mind.

We know that dark thoughts, anger, jealousy, envy, anxiety are bad for the body.

We know that when we slaughter animals in the slaughterhouse … There’s a woman named Temple Grandin who understood that when cows saw other cows die, they flooded their meat with adrenaline. Made it tough, made it difficult.

So, anything with a nervous system, there’s an interpenetration of mind and body.

We have to take responsibility for that mind/body dualism.

So, the deepest kind of intimacy, let’s say the intimacy that you have with a lover or a life partner, doesn’t make demands. You kind of go with the flow. You have your own ideas, you have your own feelings, but you realize that you can’t just make edicts. You can’t just say, “You will do this.”

Anybody who has ever tried to break a habit is aware of this, or anyone who has ever had an addiction knows how difficult it is.

So, a good wood carver follows the natural grain of the wood. He doesn’t cut across the grain; he doesn’t want to split it. He actually has to accept the way the wood is.

And in the same way, we have to accept how we are.

There is a self, which is a momentary awareness, and then there is the self we imagine we have. And over time, that imagined self begins to take on all the characteristics of a thing. A fixed thing. Separate in space. Some people imagine a little “them” up behind their forehead, doing their talking and listening, sniffing, chewing, eating, liking, disliking.

Some people imagine a little acorn with their name on it tucked under their liver or something.

Buddha never said whether the self existed or didn’t exist. He was not going to get caught into that loop. Certainly, we all have a feeling of a self, we all have a feeling of self-awareness.

So why dispute that?

The important question [observation?] is that there’s not a physical organ that represents the self. Just because it has a name, we tend to reify it. “Reify” means to privilege it – to give it solidity.

And so, the idea of a self wouldn’t have survived evolution if it didn’t have meaningful things to do. Brush your teeth. Cross on the green. Put on a coat when it’s cold out. It’s a guide but it’s not a warden. It’s there to help us.

So, even a dog trainer rewards behavior that they want to encourage, and we can do the same thing. But a dog trainer doesn’t see a dog as just all goodness and all sweetness and light, and we shouldn’t see ourselves that way either. We should recognize that as human beings we can be incredibly dangerous, and sometimes we’re the most dangerous when we think we are the best people. Because when we have an idea of ourselves as only good, there’s nothing to do with the negative aspects of our personality than to put them on other people.

So, the things we say about other people that we don’t like, or that we hate, or that we’re angry at, are really aspects of ourselves that we’re not accepting. If we don’t accept them, we can’t work on them.

There’s a guy by the name of John Welwood who coined the term “spiritual bypassing”. Spiritual bypassing is when you and I are having an argument and you are furious at me, and I’m saying, “I’m not angry. I’m Zen. Oh, no, I’m above that. That’s not me.” That’s spiritual bypassing.

That’s using your spiritual practice to pretend you are above normal human emotions. When we do that, we can’t accept them. And accepting them doesn’t mean, “Okay, go ahead anger, do what you want. Go ahead envy, jealousy, do what you want.” No, it means we accept them as real. We accept them as our own, and by doing that, we can become intimate with them. And by becoming intimate with them, we’re in relationship with them.

And we can look, “Oh, what is that anger? Well, why did I just give the finger to that driver who cut me off?” That’s like pulling a trigger. That could be really dangerous.

So, when we are intimate with something, we actually have a kind of control. A kayaker doesn’t control the river. He rides on it, and he uses the energy of the river or she uses the energy of the river.

There’s a woman in Santa Rosa whose name is Bonnie Bergin. Bonnie Bergin runs a university of dog training [Bergin College of Canine Studies], and she’s the woman who invented the concept of the service dog. And every one of her dogs has 108 commands. It’s astounding to see them. They will pick up spilled pill bottles. They will turn on a light switch. They’ll open a refrigerator door. They’ll help people out with a sleeve, and dogs that work with autistic people [people on the Asperger’s spectrum] have additional commands. Sometimes they’ll lay on the body of a small boy or small girl.

Well, they start training these dogs when they are four weeks old, and they start by observing them. For instance, when you put milk on a puppy’s nose, it sits down. So they are beginning right away to teach that dog to sit. And at four weeks, they are teaching it to pull, to play, to sit, to come. They never use negative reinforcement. They don’t judge the dog for being a dog. And we shouldn’t judge ourselves for being a self.

I have an old friend, an Otoe Indian, and he’s a very able horseman. A very good horseman. And many years ago, he told me something about horses that I didn’t know – and I grew up with horses.

He said, “When you are working with a horse, if you and the horse have a great relationship … if the horse stumbles or falls when you are going down a steep hill, it will hurt itself, so as not to hurt you. But if you and the horse have a bad relationship, it might as well step on you.”

So, for that reason, he always broke his horses in chest-deep water, so that the horse could blame the river. The horse had no negative association with him. That’s a kind of intimacy. It’s a deep watchfulness, and if we accept ourselves as fully as we can and we stay watchful, things will rise to the surface. And when they rise to the surface, we can own them.

Because there’s another definition of “owning”, like when you own behavior. When you own a debt, you admit that that debt is valid. “Yeah, I own that.”

So, if we admit that our self is changing from moment to moment to moment but has some habits it picked up along the way, we can own those habits. It doesn’t make us a bad person. But if we don’t own them, we put them on other people.

So, if we are the “good” guys, the good guys bombed apartment buildings in Baghdad in the middle of the night, full of men, women, and children … because we were the good guys and we didn’t like their leader. That’s spiritual bypassing. That’s not owning your shadows.

So, in both the stories about the animals – the dogs and the horses – there’s a kind of generosity which we can mimic in regard to ourselves. We don’t try to break the spirit. We try to be open to that creature, and in the same way we can be open to and generous of our own minds. We don’t have to deny that we’re a human being, and human beings are like radios turned to the human frequency. And everything that’s available to any human being can blow across your radio.

And it’s up to us to decide, “Oh, am I going to let this remark out past my teeth? Am I going to flip this guy the bird?” Or am I going to look at my own anger and clean … do my own housekeeping?

Take this little corner of the world … last week I talked about taking a square foot as an altar and making it impeccable. We have the same kind of housekeeping that we have to do in this mind/body relationship.

So, however you are, however anyone is, is a result of circumstances -- experiences that may be foreign to the rest [others] of us. So, each of us is an unrepeatable experience.

Yeah, there are billions of humans on earth, but none have quite the catalog of experiences that we do. So, once we understand that, if you need to blame something, you can blame the experiences. But don’t block out the behavior that you want to examine.

So, what do you do when you find something that you don’t approve of in yourself? Selfishness, envy, something small and petty. I laugh when I catch myself on one of my little cheesy impulses, that ride to the surface.

Well, the first thing is to see them. Just to see them. And sometimes it’s a kind of, “Holy crap. Why did I say that? Why did I do that?”

Well, if you are used to emptiness, if you are used to meditating, if you are used to dissolving your small self into big self, you have the whole big mind of the universe available to help you find an answer.

And it will come up, just like lightning pierces the dark and illuminates things. Answers to these questions will show up. But you have to ask them. And sometimes you have to keep them on the back burner for a long time. Maybe it feels like you are not doing much, but you just have this question, “Why do I get so angry? Why do I get so angry?” And every time you have a decision to make, every time you have something to do, that question is there. And one time, (snaps fingers), it’s gonna click, and that question will be answered. And that question won’t bother you anymore.

Suzuki-roshi once said, “The secret is just to say yes, then there’s no problem. ‘Yes’ means to be yourself, right now. In the present moment. Just yourself. Always yourself.” And then he adds, “Without sticking to an old self.”

So, when we meditate and we do follow our exhale, we are completely in the present moment. And we are generating a new self, every moment. And when we revert to habit or when we revert to seeing things the way we are used to seeing them, we can get in trouble.

I’m getting down to a minute and a half now.

There are a couple things I want to touch.

So, owning the body is in this very instant. This very instant is our life. Not an imagined instant. Not a life we would rather have, but this life. The kitchen, the garbage, cleaning up after yourself, making your bed, taking a shower. Getting angry, getting impatient, this is your real life. And unless we accept this real life, we have no hope of changing it.

The Buddha nature you think you possess, is not your Buddha nature. That’s an idea of Buddha nature.  The spiritual being you think is you, that’s not you.

When you meditate and you fall into emptiness, that’s your real nature. That’s who you really are. That’s not an imagined being, and that being just keeps saying yes to whatever comes up over the spinal telephone.

This is not a rapid process. This is a process that requires patience, actually Suzuki-roshi calls it “constancy”.

So, I’m going to close with a quote from Suzuki-roshi.

I’ve always said that you must be very patient if you want to understand Buddhism. Perhaps constancy is a better word. You must force yourself to be patient, but in constancy, there’s no particular effort involved. There’s only the unchanging ability to accept things as they are.

For people who have no idea of emptiness, this ability may appear to be patience, but patience can actually be avoidance. People who know, even intuitively, the state of emptiness, [they] always have open the possibility of accepting things as they are.

Seeing things emerge from emptiness – fresh, new, in this moment. The tree that you thought you knew, [in] this moment is a different tree. The person you had a fight with ten minutes ago, in this moment is a different moment. Even though it may be difficult, you will always be able to dissolve problems with constancy. This is why we meditate.

Thank you. That’s my little talk for today.

Now I would like to do two more things before signing off. I’d like suggest a couple of books for people who really like to read or think about things more deeply than you can get out of a 20 minute talk. So the first two books are by the man that founded my lineage, Suzuki-roshi. The first one is called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book has sold more than 1 million copies. You could say that Suzuki-roshi was one of the great popularizers of Zen, and San Francisco Zen Center, with its three monastic practice centers is a kind of mothership. Or maybe a dandelion is better, which has sent out spores across the country.  And then Suzuki-roshi invited many Japanese teachers, who came and joined him, and set up their own systems and started their own centers.

The second one is this book Not Always So. This is the second book of Suzuki-roshi, and I don’t know, I’ve read these books 50, 60 times. I never get tired of reading them again. I find something every time, as my knowledge increases, these books increase.

Now there are a couple more books in different traditions that might appeal to different people. There’s a teacher named Tsoknyi – he’s a Tibetan, he’s a Rinpoche. It’s called Carefree Dignity. It’s a book that has meant a lot to me.

There’s a great Vietnamese Zen master named Thich Nhat Hanh, widely regarded as a living saint. And it’s called The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.

And then there’s a very basic how-to book written by an early teacher of mine, Robert Aitken called Taking the Path of Zen.

So, that’s all the business. I would like to hear from people … Oh, no. One other thing.

So, there are some people who have difficulty with form, and things that look like rules, and things that look like commands. This is the way we sit. This is what we do. This is my training, and this is the way that I teach because I know it works. But I also know other methods work.

And so, if people are curious and exploratory, my daughter also teaches meditation and her training is different from mine. In Zen, we don’t even proselytize our children. My Zen teacher’s son is a Wicca advocate. My daughter got her training through yoga. 

So, her name is Ariel Coyote Ford, and she runs online meditations at Instagram or Facebook. Her training is different. It’s maybe more permissive or maybe more generous than mine. I don’t know. I just teach what I know. But she’s very good. She’s a PhD psychologist and so she has a wealth of insight about human beings. So that’s a possibility. And that’s why I also gave you the names of books by Tibetans and Vietnamese, because no one owns enlightenment. No one owns insight.

But it’s also true, that once you find something that works, once you make a decision, you have to commit. If you keep going from guru to guru, from teacher to teacher, you’re just like a water strider – those bugs with the five legs that float on the surface tension of the water.

What you want in any practice is depth, and the only way you get that depth is through constancy.

So, the final thing that I’d like to know is if people would like to meditate before class. I’m happy to come in five or ten minutes earlier, before these lectures and meditate with those people who want to.

So, if you just send me a “thumbs up” to that, those of you who are listening, if I get enough, we’ll do that.

Anyway, I’m going to close (Okay, Chico) with that same three-line prayer. I’ll give you the line, and then we can repeat it together.

May all beings be filled with loving-kindness.

May all beings be freed from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

Thank you very much. If there are still people who want to do this again next week, I’ll be here next week. See you later alligator.