Dharma Talk

What the Buddha Taught

May 6, 2020

  Part 3 Eightfold Path 1-4

It’s strange teaching on the Internet. About 20 years ago, my teacher asked me to start teaching, and I did, but I never taught outside of Buddhist centers. I didn’t do public Dharma talks. In 2015, I was transmitted, meaning  freed you from my teacher’s authority. It’s signaled to others by wearing brown rakusu or okesa (the large robe) instead of a the normal priest’s  black ones. When my three-day transmission ceremony was over, I made a committment to myself that I would not do any public teaching for five years, because I wanted to settle in to this new identity.

The five years are now up, and as it so happened, my friends Tony and Cheri Head, fellow Buddhists, urged me throw my line in the water, without a hook – and to see what would happen.They felt that people had some real need of the dharma, and it’s been very gratifying. 2000-something people have been following these talks. It’s a little daunting. Especially because it feels so impersonal to be on the internet. But in this time of shelter-in-place, it’s better than nothing, and my little zendo will only hold six people.

So, even if you all wanted to sit with me, there’s no … we would be a sardine’s sangha.

A little piece of business. I’m going to dedicate today’s talk to my friend, Michael McClure, who died yesterday. A great poet. A great luminous being. One of the Beat poets who became a mentor and friend to the counterculture and the Diggers, a practicing Buddhist and an incessantly creative person.

I want to review quickly last week’s discussion of The Four Noble Truths which will lead us into a discussion about the Eightfold Path.

You remember, Buddha said, “I teach only dukkha, and the elimination of dukkha.” And “dukkha” was a Pali word that was translated by Europeans as “suffering” and I don’t think they entirely got the sense of the word. I prefer “anxiety” or “unease”, although in many cases it is suffering. And dukkha refers to the mental component of sufferring.

It is not so much that you are sick, for instance and your body feels bad, but if you embellish those physical conditions with “Oh, my god, how am I going to get the kid…? What am I going to do? I’ve got a big report to write!” That’s dukkha.

And, dukkha always wants things to be different. You either want to keep something that you like in place or you want to eliminate something that you don’t like. You have too much of something or too little. People don’t like sickness. We don’t like old age and death. I’m not going to see Michael McClure in the sunlight anymore. But, by the same token, now that he has left the world of form, he is sunlight and wind. He’ll come back as the rain. He’ll come back as the bird’s song, because he has never not been part of this universe., nor have we. Not for one instant.

So, getting what we don’t want, not getting what we want, and wanting things to stay pleasant. These are all the nature of dukkha.

So, the first Noble Truth is The Truth that Suffering Exists. Meaning – you are not neurotic if you suffer. You are not unstable if you suffer. You are not at some lower level of consciousness. This is a human phenomenon that happens to everyone. It is important to accept your suffering, in the sense of not fleeing from it, because if you can’t see it, if you can’t identify this mental activity, you can’t own it, you can’t investigate it. You can’t change it. If you deny it, you are denying reality.

The second Noble Truth is The Truth That There is a Cause of Suffering. Remember, we talked about grasping last week? Holding onto things you like, holding onto what you want, holding onto preferred states of mind?  We live in a very emotional country.People give free rein to their passion here, as opposed to say, a culture like Japan. When we say, “I’m angry.” That is like saying my self, the totality of myself, is angry. On the other hand, Tibetans say, “Anger exists,” or “There is anger.” It is less committed to a person or an identity so there is more room to negotiate around it.

Desire is a kind of grasping. Aversion is a kind of grasping, pushing away, keeps you attached to what you don’t like. Common to all these statements is the ignorance of our absolute connections to the Universe we consider “outside” of us. Not seeing these connections, is a big problem.

The third Noble Truth is The Truth That There is an End to suffering—meaning we can learn to let go, to leave things more alone. When we meditate, we’re not trying to stop the mind. We’re letting the mind be the mind. We’re putting the mind in our mudra, we’re putting the mind in our posture, and when we’re completely enveloped in mind, that is stopping the mind. We’ve ended the dualism of it being a separate thing.

I used the expression last week, “Not one/Not two”. I said this in reference to the mind and the body. We can’t say they are one and the same, and yet, they are not two either. And it is like that with everything.

Fnally, there is The Truth of the Path That Ends Suffering. And that path is The Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path Is written as a list, but is actually a circle. Each of the steps are interdependent. One is related to all..

So, the first training is to identify your suffering, to identify your anxiety, to identify your dissatisfactions, to identify your greed. What don’t you want to ever change? What can’t you stand abiding? Most people have had the experience of being in some incredible event or place in their life, and suddenly the thought comes up, “I don’t ever want this to end.” That’s grasping.

Buddha described the Eightfold Path in terms of “Right”. Right Understanding, Right Speech, Right Effort…. My teacher substitutes the word “Buddhist” because Buddha meant “Right” in the sense of “correct in terms of his teaching. He didn’t mean that everyone else was wrong. In English, “right” carries some negative connotations which can make others appear to be wrong, so I follow my teacher and I say, “Buddhist Understanding”, “Buddhist View”— meaning that’s the way we Buddhists understand things.

What is “Buddhist Understanding”? My friend David Chadwick, who had been an early student of Suzuki-roshi, and who has been compiling Suzuki-roshi’s] archives for 50 years, once attended a lecture when Suzuki-roshi was talking. David was a favorite of Suzuki-roshi because he is an intensely authentic person, and a bit eccentric, and at this lecture he raised his hand and said, “Sensei (teacher), you have been talking for 30 minutes and I don’t understand a thing you’ve said! Tell me one thing I can understand!”

Suzuki-roshi took the question very seriously, and he stopped, and considered a few moments, and then responded, “Things change.” That is the fundamental Buddhist Understanding. We can refine what he said in many useful ways, but that’s the essence of it.

No one has any strong emotional attachment to artificial flowers. They’re not dying. They don’t have a time span. The fact that we humans have a time span makes time and life precious. The fact that we have an end to life as we know it makes that life precious. That is Buddhist Understanding.

Meditation helps us develop the strength allow our awareness of such feelings, and to look at everything and regard everything with the kind of tenderness that we reserve for flowers. Everything is passing. Everything we love. Even the person we don’t like is dying. He fears death just like we do. He runs away from what he doesn’t like just likewe do. She pursues what she likes just like you do.

On some fundamental level, we are all identical human animals.

We all have self-awareness. We all have a sense that I’m over here and you are over there. “I’m” inside looking out at everything else which is “out there.”  Buddha refused to answer the question of “did the self exist” or “did the self not exist”? But he did say that the self is not fixed, and that may be the most important thing that I’ll ever remind you of. Because if you understand that the self is not fixed, can really feel that it your guts,  it means that the self is in flux just like everything else. So, over time, you know, we have named it. We have a word, “the self”. I don’t know how you think of it. Maybe you think about it as a little walnut with your name carved on it, tucked under your liver, or a little homunculus behind your forehead doing your seeing and hearing. It doesn’t matter.

The truth is you can’t find its location. It doesn’t have a shape. It doesn’t have a color. If I tried to sell you a car and I couldn’t remember the brand, and I couldn’t remember where I left it, you’d be a little suspicious.

What I want you to be suspicious about is not that it doesn’t exist, but that over the course of your life, we’ve all been told who we are, and what we’re like. We imply what we’re like by comparing ourselves to other people. But we’re really an unduplicatable experience. There is no one else experiencing the moment in exactly the way that you do. In zen practice we say, “Put no head above your own.” This is why we don’t regard our teachers as gurus. Maybe an uncle or an aunt, someone who has been out there ahead of you, helps you when you’ve got a knot.

So, looking at the world from the point of view of yourself, [and listen to the word “point”—this is the clue that we have reduced the complexity of the universe to a single point] which is what we do every day. From this point of view our world is named and previously known. For all that this affords us – words are important. They are usefu—if I say, “Go to that tree over there” I don’t want to have to describe that round upright cylindrical object from scratch,  from its roots, branches, and leaves, just to motivate you to pick up an axe. But there’s an unseen cost to this language. It’s kind of like having a car. The freedom of the car is alluring and transformative, but sooner or later, the price of fuel, upkeep, insurance and repair may begin to weigh heavily on us.

Once we have the word, we have a fixed idea. And, while it’s not impossible, it does so facilitate communication that it makes it more difficult to see things as fresh and new and immediate. The same is true about our ideas concerning our self. It’s not that the self is an error. Nor am I implying that the ego is a critical evolutionary mistake. It has a function. However, like everything, it has a shadow side. It exacts a use tax from us. So, when your Mom shook her finger at you and said, “you are a naughty person”, we tend to believe it. Or when we make a mistake repeatedly, we may say, “God, I’m always this way.” And over a lifetime, we fix these ideas into an armature of a self. It makes change very difficult because we begin to consider our identity as something with fixed properties.

One of the reasons that we meditate is to allow it to soften, allow it to dissolve. To allow our small mind to just keep spinning and spinning and spinning, but by not paying undue attention to it – by paying attention to our posture and our breath, little by little we soak into Big Mind. In Big Mind, there are no problems. The answer to every question is there. We could define a problem as a dilemma with a limited number of solutions all of which are unacceptable. However, with an infinite number of possible solutions where’s the problem? As the Heart Sutra says, “With no fear, the mind is no hindrance

 It’s our small mind that likes and dislikes, that says, “Zen is too uptight, man. We gotta sit like this, I don’t like that. I’m into freedom.” I was like that when I came to [SF] Zen Center. I had long hair, I’d been living in communes, lots of lovers, shooting too much heroin. I was going to give a couple months to Zen and get enlightened, straighten out a little and then I wouldn’t have any more problems in life. And I got into the monastery at the urging of a girlfriend who was practicing there and it was a horror show.

People were not interested in what I had to say.They didn’t care about my crazy stories and adventures. People were quiet. They got up at 5:30 in the morning. They sat still. They didn’t move. It made me nuts. When I tried to meditate, after about five minutes I began to have convulsions, sitting on my pillow like I had St. Vitus dance, while the monks sat on either side of me like oil-paintings.

And, of course, I was crazy. I just didn’t know it. Little by little I began to appreciate what form offers us and how, by suppressing prejudices and personal affections and attachments, or at least by having something much larger to see them against,  you actually participate in something much, much bigger.

So, this is all the first Buddhist Understanding, this is like an armature in the center of a sculpture which gives it support and order.

The antidote to this self-centered belief that  “I’m in here and the rest of it is out there. It changes but I don’t -- which is a delusion.—is understanding Buddha’s phrase “Dependent origination”.

Dependent origination means if this exists, that exists. My awareness couldn’t exist without my body. Eyes, ears, nose, tongue – my senses. The mind is receiving them and moving them around. So, it’s not independent of mind and neither is it mind, eyes, ears, nose, etc.

So, in the same way, my body is not independent of sunlight and water and oxygen and food and exercise and shelter and clothing … you just keep expanding it infinitely. Take it out to Earth’s place in the universe. If we were closer to the sun, water would boil off – we wouldn’t be here. If we were farther away, water would freeze – we wouldn’t be here. And we can continue out to all the forces holding planet and then its galaxy in place.

We are dependent and contrary to some easy ideas about Freedom, the dependency is what makes our freedom meaningful. Americans have some very superficial  ideas of freedom. We usually understand it to mean that we get to do whatever we want whenever we want to. It’s kind of horrifying watching pandemic deaths rising in Nebraska, in Michigan, in Iowa as governors rush to “openin up”, contrary to all scientific evidence. The Sherrif of Sonoma County has just (May28,2020) refused to enforce stay-in-place orders because he believes there’s not enough evidence that they’re effective. So his ‘freedom’ allows him to disregard doctors and public policy experts who are trained in this field, and to disregard the law which he is supposed to enforce. And we may wonder why life feels chaotic sometimes.

Because everything is interdependent and  dependent on other things for its existence, we can’t actually say we have a self. A three-legged stool without legs is no longer a stool. Because it doesn’t exist independently of its legs. Reality is more like riding a kayak in a river. We don’t control it; we use its power. We develop skill to be intimate with it and, by being intimate, we learn where we can exert ourselves and where we can’t.

Regarding our self, when we sit zazen, when we practice this form correctly, little by little we’re bringing body and mind into discipline. We’re teaching it, “You don’t have to grab everything that comes through your mind. You don’t have to believe everything you think.” Be intimate with it, see it, accept it, let it go. As Suzuki-roshi says, “Let your thoughts come and go. You don’t have to serve them tea.” That’s the phrase I put out with the announcement of today’s dharma talk.

Katagiri-Roshi, a Japanese Zen teacher who came to America to help Suzuki-roshi once observed that the rigors of a monastery were like putting your life into a bamboo tube. “Even if you’re crazy,” he said,” the craziness is in the tube too, so it’s alright.” Accepting that we actually have no self is what liberates us to accept this right now, moment, as brand new. We can greet it without baggage, say “Yes” to it (in Suzuki-roshi’s words.) The person you had a fight with 10 minutes ago is a different person now and so are you. The mother who yelled at you is a different mother 10 minutes later, and the feelings she aroused in you are gone as well, unless you dwell in the past.

If we can let go of dukkha, if we can let go of attaching to the momentum and centrifugal force of our thoughts whirling around, “Boy, if she ever says that to me again, boy, I’m going to be so mad.” If we realize that such thinking is tantamount to rejecting the actual moment where we live, we can step off the conveyor belt and rest.

You are in the moment when you are following your breath, when you are following your posture, when your mind is attached to this moment. This is the life you have to live. Everything else is a memory, or a wish or a hope or a fear. This moment. {Clicks tongue} Right here. Right now. This is what we get.

Buddhist Understanding is the core lens.

The next step is called Buddhist Thought.

One thing Buddhist thought does is keeping both these understandings—the singular and the independent— afloat. Yes, I have a body, I can look at myself as a separate existence, but it is an arbitrary way of doing things. It’s not the only way. It’s equally logical to see myself as a part of all of it; equally logical to say that when I’m eating a bowl of rice, I’m eating the frogs, the crickets, the marsh, the water, the people who waded in up to their knees and picked the rice, dried it and packed it and shipped it. I’m eating the whole world. That’s neither just poetic nor false. It’s both and. Not one, not two. Not just one, and not just all of it out there. Both/And. Not one, not two.

We’re not always one way or the other. One of Suzuki-roshi’s great books is called Not Always So. Not always so means knowing the next moment is not always as you predict. That objects, people, situations are more than our superficial understanding. Meditation practice shows us the dancing-cloud quality to the mind, always transforming, changing. Try to enter situations “not knowing” what is going to happen. Yes, you had a fight yesterday but now is a new moment.

If you go in not knowing, you have the full access of your spinal telephone, which is plugged into the universe. Imagine that the back of your head opens onto infinity. It’s all out there. And if you don’t even know who you are, everything is available. You can say “yes” to all of it!

This is where meditation really works. We do 10 minutes in these little dharma chats. You can do 20 or 30 once or twice a day, it’s better. If you can take a couple days a year and go somewhere and sit all day, three or four days at a time, you’ll really make breakthroughs and then daily meditation will keep those insights in place.

[When I say, “sit all day” it’s not literal. During long sesshins we sit regular periods, usually 30 or 40 minutes, then we do walking meditation between them. After three or four periods we might study or hear a lecture, there will be a quiet meal, in the afternoon there’s usually a little silent break, and you continue this schedule until 9 or 9:30 at night, and begin the next morning at 5:30. It’s difficult. It can be painful, but I have never sat a sesshin (which is what these long sits are called in Japanese) without feeling transformed, and so I recommend it to you. Others cook for you and serve you, so that you’re liberated from all responsibilities except meditation. It’s an extraordinary gift.]

So, Buddhist Thought really involves observing and interrogating our thoughts, interrogating our feelings. Don’t believe everything we think. We don’t know. We just don’t know.

Buddhist Speech follows from this. Primarily it’s practicing kindness and compassion in speech. We don’t inflate our self. We try not to. I’m laughing because for many years I’ve made my living as an actor, and the joke is that actors are egocentric, and narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. There may be some truth to that .But it’s also true, if you have ever worked in the industry, you learn quickly that there are only about 12 people – the biggest stars— allowed to be that way. The rest of us—the worker bees— learn very, very quickly that 99% of your union is out of work at any given time, and if you are hard to get along with, if you are too difficult, or demanding there are 20 other guys or gals out there who can do the job and are ready to replace you. So, actors are actually taught humility every day. Every day that we work. The schedule is inflexible. The food is inflexible. Something is always going wrong—the sound, the lights, someone has a loose hair, an object has been moved from the last take. They may appear pamper you but on some level they are keeping total track of where you are at every given moment so that you don’t cause the production to be delayed.

Buddhist Speech. Okay, here’s a little confession. I was once talking to my friend Fu Schroeder, a very senior priest, the Abbot of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, and I was describing someone to her rather sarcastically. She listened politely and then said softly, “Wow, the way you talk about that person doesn’t make me want to meet them.” She stopped me in my tracks by making me realize that I was putting a personal spin on this description, paying more attention to how I felt about it, than I was to being kind, or simply accurate..

I have a lot of trouble when I talk about Donald Trump for instance. It takes all of my awareness not to speak judgmentally and harshly about him. This doesn’t mean I should be disguising what I see. It doesn’t mean forcing yourself not to observe, but whether I like it or not, I’m made of the same stuff as he is. I’m a human being. He’s a human being. We have the same full spectrum of emotions blowing through us. We’ve had different experience: my father wasn’t in the Ku Klux Klan. We had different values in our homes. I’m not saying this to apologize for for him. I have a close friend who is an Ayurvedic astrologer. His name is Brent Becvar and he’s worked for many years with Deepak Chopra.. Once I was complaining about somebody and he asked me, “Can you imagine any circumstances in which you might behave in that way?”

When I really stopped to think about it, I thought, “Yes, I could.” So, this person that I was judging was applying behavior that was  not foreign to me. He was using them for different purposes.One of the things that we do when we talk politics, and I have difficulty with leaking negativity in certain circumstances, when I am harshly critical or judgmental. I forget that I’m  creating a fiction that I don’t possess the qualities that I’m attacking. This is the way wars get created.

It turns out that it’s quite difficult to get most young people to kill. So when armies are training recruits to follow orders, they begin a ceaseless dehumanization of the enemy— “Nips”, “Japs”, “Gooks”, “Krauts”, “Nazis”, “Slopes” -- whatever it is. Dehumanizing language. So that you and your fellows become the reservoir of all goodness and virtue and all the evil is out there which you are being trained to stamp out..

If you want to see the secret Donald Trump, the one he hides from the world,  watch him come down the steps from an airplane. He holds onto the rail, he looks at each step intently. He’s aware he’s on television, and careful  “step”, “step” is to insure that he doesn’t make ever appear foolish. And in that minute, you see him as an old, doddering man and I can have pity for him. I’m not going to excuse his behavior, I’m not going to excuse things that I think are contrary to kindness and compassion, but you can see that this is just a man. And that without the full Senate behind him, without all these wealthy people behind him, he’s just an old, codger, who hates the lithe and beautiful Obama who tripped so lightly down the same steps, looking out and waving. At home in his body.

So, in Buddhist speech, we try not to blow ourselves up. We try not to make ourselves better than other people. We understand that in some way, everybody is trying to get along. Or, as my friend says, “We’re all bozos on the bus.”

These first three steps on the paths all identify moral conduct: Buddhist Understanding, Buddhist Thought, and Buddhist Speech.

The next step on the Eightfold Path is Buddhist Action.

Our behavior, and our physical acts, and our mental acts, (which is what thinking is) express our understanding. When we pay less attention to ourselves, we actually have more bandwidth to be aware of and take care of other people. Everybody is suffering. Everybody is in trouble. When we can shift our attention away from ourselves, we begin to see this clearly; begin to see others like flowers passing away in front of our eyes.

We are lucky. Anyone who has a faith, or a practice, or a discipline is actually lucky. They have something like a keep, helping them stay upright and balanced. The surest way to alleviate your own suffering is to help someone else. It works like magic.The minute you begin considering someone who is suffering and begin strategizing how to help them, your own problems recede, immediately.

 I did a video yesterday for a media event called “Never Alone”  It’s conceived and run by two women, one of whom is a really close friend of mine, that I met years ago – a startlingly beautiful woman I met walking in Paris. I stopped to talk to her, gob-smacked by how gorgeous she was and she was so present, and so clear, I brought her home to meet my wife. (Perhaps at an earlier time in my life, I might not have) I had the sense that we would be friends and we’ve stayed friends. Her name is Gabriella Wright and to look at her, you would think she would have no problems. She’s an actress, and gifted with rare beauty. Well, her sister committed suicide which shattered Gabriella. What she did with her suffering was to transform it into an organization and event called, “Never Alone:Worldwide Suicide Prevention Movement”, designed to teach young people how to reach out to others when they are struggling.

What struck me was that she took her personal suffering and used it to help the suffering of others. In the US right now, 60,000, 70,000 people have died [as of 4/29] from this pandemic. Another 100,000 die every year from obesity and alcoholism. Another 50,000 from gunshots. Overdoses take more. Each of those was a person, with a network of others who knew and loved them. And she took her suffering, and she used it as a springboard to worry about people who were alone and depressed in this pandemic. Living alone and without comfort, without support.

To me, that’s a perfect example of Buddhist Action.I would rather make a sandwich and give it to a hungry person, than give a speech about hunger to 10,000 people, because making the sandwich is replicable. You can see it. You can do it.

I’m only going to do one more today, because we are running long, and this one is a tricky one to discuss.

Right Livelihood. Buddhist Livelihood.

This is difficult because we live in a culture who size, wealth, power, and indulgence exploits the environment and exploits other people. This fact runs contrary to kindness and regard for other species and other things. Like it or not, going along with it or resisting it, we are a part it. There is no place to stand outside of it. Sometimes, we don’t have a choice.

I had a friend named Peter Bluecloud who was a Mohawk ironworker….He was also a poet, and  wonderful artist. And when he moved to the Pacific Northwest, he got work as a logger.

We used to sing together at times for the hell of it. And one afternoon, he confronted me once, because he knew I was an environmentalist, and he said, “Do you resent me for cutting down these trees?” I had to really think. Some part of me thought, “Sure. Yeah, I do.” But he continued, “Look, I have no resources. I have a house. I have a family. This is what I have to do. What I try to do is make a bed of branches, so when these trees fall, they don’t break apart. That is what I can do to tender my respect to them.”

So, I thought, “Yeah, that’s true. We don’t always have a choice. Those people on the meat lines in Iowa and Nebraska – that’s their job. The governor tells them that if they don’t come to work,  she will take their unemployment money away. These people are in trouble. They are cutting up cattle and chickens and pigs on assembly lines that move so rapidly that they sometimes wear diapers to work because they can’t take bathroom breaks. They are suffering that kind of work because, as a Nation we are eating the cheap meat such labor conditions produce. Now, they are literally risking their lives (and some are losing them) to keep the ready flow of cheap meat coming to us.

Buddhists try not exploit others, we take vows not to intoxicate others, so you don’t see too many Buddhist bartenders or drug dealers. Most Buddhists wouldn’t work in a slaughterhouse, but I’ve met Buddhist soldiers, who’ve tried to practice compassion even on the battlefield.

So, it’s hard because there’s no pure place to stand outside of all of it. We’re all a part of it and we have to try, where we can, to reach for the most enlightened possibilities that we can if we hope to alleviate the suffering of others.  I would like to believe that because I have LED lights in my house, and solar panels, and I drive an electric car, that I am making a difference. But I can’t really rest on such meager laurels. I live in a 1700 square foot house by myself. In Guatemala this space could hold 25 people. Just by being an American, I use up an inordinate share of the earth’s resources. There is no way I can avoid my complicity. I have to be responsible for my garbage, I have to be responsible for what the industries do to their workers and their waste when I buy their products. When I buy a computer, and we send the old one to China and kids there are getting cancer from taking them apart, how can I pretend to be separate from that?

So,to me it means that we will always have to be trying. We’ll never be perfect. But we can try to make our televisions be reclaimed by the manufacturer so that the mercury doesn’t leak into the environment. We can try to do recycling. We can try to keep pushing our limits, minimize our use of plastic. But none on the top of the pyramid. of us can afford to be proud and be self-congratulatory.

I just saw a new documentary film where I learned for the first time that to build my computers, and to build my cell phone, they are blowing up mountains of crystals, as we once blew off the mountaintops. To mine coal. We may think that we exist outside of such destruction because our computers are so ‘clean’ and pollution free. But they’re not.

So, this thinking about Action  leads directly to Buddhist Effort, but we’ll continue that next week. I think I’ll sign off this week, and thank everyone for being here, bow out and say my little prayer. The little three-line prayer. Do you remember it?

May all beings be filled with loving kindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.