Dharma Talk

Issa’s “And yet”….

September 9, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

[3 bells bow]

Good morning everyone. Welcome to this strange day.. I woke up this morning, and the sky was orange. And I sat za-zen and two hours later someone called me, alarmed and said, “The sky is black!” It was so dark I suspected it might have been an eclipse, but it was smoke from the fires blotting out the light. Now it’s turning orange again.

On Monday nights I participate in a small zen group made up of seasoned Zen people, who bounce around ideas and talk together to keep ourselves on track. I am the teacher of several, but not all, and so the helm, so to speak, rotates from week to week. One of the members, who is my student, brought this wonderful poem by a Japanese poet. And it is so simple, and yet has such depth that I wanted to talk about it today.

The quote is sourced in a book by Gary Snyder called Danger on Peaks. It’s a wonderful book. I consider Gary my first teacher – and though we had no formal relationship, when I was year later, formally ordained, he, along with my Zen teacher Chikudo Lewis Richmond, signed the back of my rakusu. Gary was the one of the first people where I read about Zen, and certainly the first person I’d ever known who practiced Zen and modelled a life I admired. Consequently, I refer to his writing and thinking often.

Here’s the back- story. There was a Japanese poet named Issa who was fated to lose four of his children. On the death of his two-year-old, I think it was a daughter, he wrote the following haiku:

This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
And yet.

Gary Snyder observes in his essay, that Issa’s “And yet..” is our perennial practice, and may be the root of the dharma. We’ve all seen dew on the -- there for a a short time until till it is warmed away by the sun. The Buddha’s fundamental insight concerns impermanence and change. Everything is changing. Everything as luminous and impermanent as soap bubbles.

There a danger that that sense of impermanence, that sense of the world being essentially “empty” of self] can be misinterpreted and devolve into a form of nihilism. The reason that most religions establish guard-rails to protect transcendental insights in morality and ethical rules because insight without some guidance or procedural forms may not be enough. Perceiving that things are impermanent, may lull the careless into considering them unimportant. If a human being is, for instance, as insubstantial as a soap bubble, why not kill? What could it matter it it’s an illusion?

Karl BrunnhöIzl, a German physician who became a senior teacher in a Tibetan lineage of Buddhism wrote a clear and intelligent book about The Heart Sutra. He called it The Heart Attack Sutra, because of its shocking directness attacking the heart of the matter, which to him is the union of Emptiness and Compassion. It is this compassion which protects us against a nihilistic conflation of emptiness and meaninglessness in this sutra.

Issa’s “And yet,”….reminds us that ‘empty of self’ or not, each existence is an unrepeatable gift, here for a short time, and consequently as transient (and therefore precious) as flowers. We may feel that “I” am “in here”, and everything else is “out there.” But this feeling is based on an idea of a self which is separate and discrete (and usually more important) than everything else. Humans generally have an agreement that what the ancient Chinese referred to as “the 10,000 things-- the “world”-- is composed of separate, named ‘things’ each with a separate independent “essence.” Usually ‘our examinations stop there.

From the moment people communicate with us when we are infants, they are instructing us in a vision of the world. We learn to see the world the way we are taught. “Look at the birdie. Look at the tree. Look at the grass. Ah, what cute cheeks. Come to Mommy. Come to Daddy.” At a certain point we have learn to run those descriptions as an unbroken event like a film. From that point we are considered initiated into the culture, and our long skein of human history.

The Buddha observed that the idea of people and objects having a singular, independent existence. is a fundamental human delusion. It is a central point of Buddhist teaching. But how, one might ask, can ‘reality’ we all agree on be a delusion? Let me make an effort to clarify this..


In terms of traditional Buddhism this is a heretical doctrine, denying Buddhist fundamentals (often expressed with numbers as mnemonics) like The Four Noble truths, the Eightfold Path, The Twelve Linked Chain of Causation, the Three Fires and Nirvana. This sutra suggests that our ordinary thoughts, emotions, and perceptions do not really exist as they seem to, and that also extends to all the concepts and frameworks of philosophical schools—non- Buddhist schools, Buddhist schools, and even the traditions to which the Prajnaparamita Sutras belong. You cannot look for logic here, because this sutra destroys everything and makes us question even what the word “no” means. The word ‘Emptiness’ points at something beyond verbal description and intellectual understanding. In this sense it is like a koan, the succinct devilish questions used to train novice Buddhists, to exhaust their intellects. It is to this Emptiness that Suzuki Roshi refers when he says that it is absolutely essential to believe in nothing; in that which precedes everything.

When we look deeply, we can understand that nothing truly “stands alone.” We couldn’t be here without oxygen or without water. We couldn’t be here without sunlight, or the microbes in the soil nourishing our food. We couldn’t be here without pollinating insects or the birds controlling the pollinating insects. We couldn’t be here without the people who planted, harvested, milled, spun, wove, sewn the cotton that I’m wearing etc. etc.. You can expand this example out to the earth’s place in the solar system and beyond. If we were closer to the sun, water would boil off. If it were farther away, water would freeze -- we wouldn’t be here.

The reality (as opposed to the illusion) is that there is one thing. Buddhism is not a duality. We don’t discuss good and evil much, or dualisms of any sort.. There’s one thing, and if anything is sacred, it’s that one thing, which is all of it. Everything comes and goes, every supposedly single thing can be destroyed, but not all of it.

And yet… I love that statement. And yet…. And yet, you can’t live in that reality. You can’t live in formlessness or the highest states of Enlightenment. In his new book on psychedelics and therapy called How to Change Your Mind, author Michael Pollan discusses a region of the brain known as the Default Mode Network. The Default Mode Network is what keeps us from being high all the time. It keeps us focused on the agreed-upon description of reality as a way to conserve energy and concentrate on our survival.

If our ancestors had been so transfixed by the beauty of a luminous blue butterfly, they would not have been attentive to sabertoothed tigers. Our normal waking consciousness is bound by this area of the brain. However, this region is relaxed and relieved of duty by ingesting psychedelics and by meditation. When that happens, different neural connections are allowed to be made and and old boundaries, including those of our ego, are allowed to be superceded.

“And Yet…” reminds us that we can’t exist in an enlightened state perennially, impartially watching the arrival and dessication of dewdrops without emotion. Enlightenment is a verb. It’s not a territory. We don’t hurdle a fence in the mind and, on the other side, suddenly emerge as a bliss-ninny cranking out wisdom forever on the basis of this one experience.

When we behave as an enlightened person, when we remember the oneness, and when we act on it, we are acting in an enlightened way. When we follow the Eightfold Path, we’re acting in an enlightened manner. When we don’t, no matter what your personal spiritual experiences are, you’re just another Bozo on the Bus. A zen master who is not paying attention is just another Bozo on the Bus. A zen master who uses the Dharma as a merit badge, an aide to seduction, whatever, is just another Bozo on the Bus. This dewdrop world is where we live.

Gary Snyder addresses this in a chapter of his book Danger on the Peaks, titled “After Bamiyan”. You might recollect that in 2001 the Taliban required several weeks to blow up these 200-foot- statues of Buddha carved into a cliff face in Afghanistan. They are considered world treasures and date from the 5th century and required two centuries to finish. First, enormous alcoves were carved out of the rock and the Buddhas framed within them. Then mud and straw was utilized to sculpt a head and fine features, and those faces hands and feet were covered with stucco. One was 115 feet tall and the other was 174 feet tall. The larger one was once painted carmine red; the smaller one was multi-colored, and they were described by travelers back as far as the 6th century CE. They were a World Heritage site.

March 2001, the Taliban declared them idols, and insisted that under Muslim law they had to destroy them. In devout Muslim practice representations of people are prohibited lest they be considered idols. Perhaps all that artistic devotion was then transformed into the splendid and beautiful Arabic calligraphy and ornate architecture..

The story of the destruction of the statues is complicated. Supposedly Osama bin Laden gave the order to destroy them but his lieutenant Mullah Muhammad Omar thought it was a bad idea. Omar felt they should protect the statues as a tourist site, and raise money from them for children, and to support other cause. When they announced publicly that they intended to destroy the statues, there was an outcry of protest around the world. Many countries offered to buy the statues and offered to pay to have them covered and cared for as a World Heritage site. The world’s offers made Muhammed Omar furious. “You are willing to spend money for statues, while the Afghan people are dying of starvation. Our children are ill. Where’s the money for them?”

He also rejected the concept of a cultural heritage as a ‘globalizing’ influence by heretical nations, suggesting that human beings have common interests and common history that they want to acknowledged. So, they set about destroying the statues and it took weeks. They had to dril bore holes in them, and set charges of dynamite. They were not sufficient so they aimed and fired mortars into them. The statues were very resistant since they were basically stone and the effort to destroy them continue for many days and weeks. Needless to say, they were eventually destroyedRecently, a Chinese couple paid to have a holographic representations of the originals projected into the now empty carved out arches where the statues had resided.

There was a great deal of controversy about the destruction in the West about their destruction. During that period, Gary Snyder observed

Last week they were blown up by the Taliban. Not just by the Taliban, but by woman and nature-denying authoritarian world views that go back much farther than Abraham.

It’s worth repeating. “Not just by the Taliban, but by woman and nature-denying authoritarian world views that go back much farther than Abraham.”

And then, in the extremely practrical manner of Zen Buddhism, Snyder brings the issue back to what is central

May we keep our minds clear and calm in this moment and honor the dust.

There were a number of Westerners who believed it was sentimental to care about these statues. A Buddhist scholar wrote to Gary, and said, “Ah yes, but the manifest Dharma is ‘intrasamsaric’”, (whatever that means, )“and will decay.”—a rather trivial and one sided interpretation.

Here’s a sophisticated Westerner and other Buddhist scholars, saying, “Nothing lasts.” John Wellwood, one of the creators of the Family Systems school of psychology, would call such behavior “spiritual bypassing”—avoiding suffering by suggesting that your consciousness exists on a higher plane. Well, we know that nothing lasts, but this is where Issa’s “And Yet” becomes important.

“And yet” reminds us that the impermanence is all we have. IT is the impermanence which makes things precious. No one has strong feelings for or about artificial flowers, for instance. They are not dying. It is the transitory, fragile nature of flowers that makes them precious and appreciated, and it is that way with everything.If we deny it, we are bypassing our own humanity and will literally have nothing.

Emotions are as real as anything else. No more, no less. It’s not that all need be expressed, but neither should they be denied. It becomes the social neurosis of some spiritual practitioners and communities to deny them by pretending that they have evolved beyond them, suggesting implicitly that any display of emotion is a less enlightened state. And yet, teachers like ChogyamTrungpa and Edo-roshi were often drunk but still capable of teaching the Dharma. Many zen teachers, Leonard Cohen’s zen teacher was banished from Japan as a thief. He may not have been an exemplar of the eighfold path, but he could still help students pass through the Gateless Gate—which is how Rinzai school Buddhists describe passing the Mu koan. He was a fine teacher with many students. There have been alcoholics, all sorts of roustabouts and roundabouts teaching Zen, and students must be careful, but these imperfect people still understood and could transmit the Dharma. They had the same struggles that you and I will always have, even after enlightenment. Because Enlightenment does not free us from our karma, from the consequences of thoughts and deeds. But when we meditate, those thoughts are actually working on Emptiness and cannot affect us. We may have the same problems as before, but we have them “inside the bamboo tube of practice” so they are contained.

Impermanence is never an excuse to let compassion evaporate, to fail to remember the transitory nature of everything as perfect expressions of the Creative universe. They are precious because they are impermanent – and that is what Issa’s “And Yet” reminds us of.

Yes, we are not artificial flowers. We’re real flowers, and we treasure them because they are dying, because they are passing. And if we’re alert, we’ll treasure everything like that. We will treasure other people like that. Because everything’s on display is actually in the process of disappearing at different rates and spans of time..

This is the truth of reality. When we see impermanence, we are seeing the world, things as it is, as Suzuki-roshi used to say. This expression is not a grammatical mistake. All the ‘things’ are part of one big ‘it’.

It’s important in our sense of practice to remember that impermanence does not stop us from being kind. Impermanence does not stop us from being studious. Impermanence does not render things valueless, or prevent us from treasuring the beautiful expressions of human mind and culture of ages past. Impermanence does not stop us from sweeping the street in front of our house, washing our windows, helping the homeless.

The Earth itself is in motion, and everything on it is in motion. So, we don’t always notice the speed with which things are altered.l. The fact that everything is impermanent means that it is not a neurotic state. The idea that you can stand outside of impermanence is a mental pet. There is no place to stand outside of impermanence. This is it.

And yet,… all of our spiritual wisdom, all of our insights, all of our wisdom, all of our kind, luminous, gentle spiritual practices – whoosh—in the words of The Heart Sutra—“gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond….:”.

So, the real question is how do we live as transient beings in transient world? What can and can’t we control? What are the practices that we hold fast to even in the midst of change? For arguments sake, I’ll offer that there is only one thing in the Universe that we can control, and that is our intention. Buddhists try to fix their intention with the force of habit on kindness and compassion, but the emphasis is on try. We are all fallible and should not pretend that we are not. But, that fallibility should never be an excuse not to make the effort, and so we refer to Buddhism as a “practice” because when we inevitably fail, we right ourselves and return to our intention. Carried out fully, an intention of kindness and compass leads one directly to something very much like Buddha’s Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path is a clear, simple blueprint for an enlightened life. Beginning with the view that everything is impermanent, and, based on that,  the other categories follow--Right Livelihood, Right Speech, Right Effort…[I pointed out in another talk that in the tradition of my teacher, I use the word Buddhist instead of the word “right” because it is “our” way, and I would not want to insist that all other ways are wrong..

People thinking superficially (or not thinking at all) are an eternal part of “all of it.” They are the spice in the stew, keeping the plot rolling along, creating consequences and conditions which create further consequences and conditions. In the words of Zorba the Greek---“the whole catastrophe!” It is, for instance relatively easy to misread Buddha’s insight as a kind of nihilism, or even sociopathy and before you know it, Buddhists in Myanmar are burning Hindus alive. In some ways, life is much simpler if you have no empathy, or care about the feelings of others; if you are never torn by doubt, if you never have to wrestle with conflicting impulses or ideas.

The idea of always living in the eye of the storm, untroubled by anything, is a compelling fiction, but the effort costs us our humanity. Sitting zazen for many years, and reading Buddhist literature, and you have talked to a lot of people you can get a pretty good imitation of detatchment operating as your schtick. “Oh yes, I’m above it! Oh, that poor person is on fire. What an interesting phenomenon!”

John Wellwood calls this ”Spiritual bypassing” and by that he means using spiritual language and memes to disguise the parts of yourself that are not polished---anger, anxiety, envy, etc. But that effort separates such a person from everything else. They are seeking a personal salvation instead of trying to save all beings, and that search chains them to the idea of a self that must be perfected. It’s a difficult double-bind to dodge and is actually a variety of magical thinking—“If I can stay untroubled, maybe I won’t age. Maybe I won’t be moving toward death. If I can stay perfectly calm, maybe I won’t get wrinkles on my fac, or get wattles on my neck.” It’s focus is “the self”---well-rounded and half an inch in diameter.

Discussing such pursuits of enlightenment and awakening with my teacher, Lewis Richmond, one day, he responded, “Listen, if you are not kind and helpful to people, who cares what kind of spiritual experience you had!” That seemed to hit the nail on the head.

“And yet…” reminds us of the treasure that is the dewdrop world. To do as little harm to it as we can, to care for it as much as we can because it is an unrepeatable experience. A house fly is the shape of the deepest mystery in the Universe. I laugh at myself, but I keep a plastic cup and a piece of paper in my bathroom, and as I’m washing up at night there are often large houseflies (they feel like sparrows) buzzing around. When they light on my mirror under the lights I capture them and liberate them outdoors. sending them out of my house, or spidersThey don’t want to be here. They have important business to take care of and it saddens me to find them stuck between my windows and the screens where they died insistently trying to escape.

Such compassion towards the world feels natural and is not necessarily Buddhist. The ancient sect of Jains walk with a jangling staff to warn ants and snakes and bugs from their path. They carry little nets to rescue insects from pools of water. To extend kindness, to extend the understanding that everything wants to live. A bee struggling in water to get out is using every once of its energy to live. When you put your finger in and you lift it out, they shake their wings off and they wiggle their butt, a little. They dry off and they fly away. I don’t know if they feel gratitude, or if they feel luck or if they feel anything, but I feel some tenderness toward that bee and that tenderness toward that bee, makes the world comprehensible. If there were no bees, there would be little pollination and much less fruit, flowers, and vegetables. So I am interdependent with these little creatures, why would I not care for them? I’ve established wild bee hives on my farm, hollowed out logs with very thick wall that make it easy for the bees to keep a comnfortable temperatures. They are fifteen feet or so off the ground, away from the Yellojackets that hunt them. The entrances are very small and easily defended, and I don’t take the honey. Placing the hives in the trees is an expression of my gratitude and that’s enough.

A tenderness toward plants, toward animals, toward soil, toward rock which supports lichen was once normal among humans and still exists throughout the world in indigenous communities.. If rocks were not alive in some unknown, unimaginable capacity to us, how could they support living lichen?

From my understanding – it’s not even an understanding, but some unthought instinct to treat everything as if it is alive. I water rocks in my garden to nurture the moss on them. They have things on them. I water the rocks and I talk to them and the plants. It simply feels natural. Who’s to say whether it’s crazy or not? It doesn’t hurt anything and it helps locate me in the universe And it also dilutes my sense of my self being all important.


Q1: So, what about the unseeable live things? The microbes in our body. The infections and the parasites? Should we not take medicine to kill them? What do the Jains do about medicine?

A: Everything wants to live. In the course of living we inevitably do harm to other species. The question is how to avoid causing undue harm. When we are sick, we take medicine. We are asking the germs or virus to leave our body. We are not denying their existence. If I find a scorpion or a brown recluse spider in the house, I take them outside. We should not feel badly about wanting to live. We could say it’s “ the wanting” that keeps everything turning over. We are not ending all parasites; only those which threaten our existence..

Threats to our well being – a tree growing over our house – we might have to remove the tree. It is impossible to live without doing some harm. We couldn’t use toilet paper. We couldn’t write on paper. There’s nothing we do that doesn’t cost something to some other form of life. We are their cost, which does not mean that we should not exist, but that we should be conscious of what we’re doing and express our gratitude by using no more than we need.. Bill Gates can build a 66,000 square foot house, because he can afford the $127 million dollars, but at some point does that manifest any feeling that the earth and its creatures are precious?

Eventually, the virus are going to win but that doesn’t mean I have to forfeit my care of this body. They’re struggling; I’m struggling, and in that degree we are equal. I don’t hate them. I don’t consider them evil. It is just life trying to express itself. So is the pandemic. They are straightforward, so we have to learn to be appropriate when we encounter them..

Humans can make the opportunity to diminish the number of times we are opportunistic. The other day it was 113 degrees F. where I live. It’s never been like that in the memory of anyone who’s lived in Sebastopol. None of my neighbors had ever seen anything like it. It was 109 over there; it was 104 in the shade. I look at that and I see on the television that they are still selling 400 horsepower cards. And people are being urged to “Take your life in your hands, be all you can be. Have an adventure!” And in the midst of the pandemic and the political campaign, not a word is mentioned about global warming and the tax it is placing on nearly every environment and life form on earth.

One of my neighbors is drilling a well. Speaking with the well driller this morning, I asked him how deep he was and he answered 480 feet. My well, which was done about 25 years ago, hit water at 280 feet.

I asked why he thought he had to go so deep. His answer was illuminating-- “Well, the aquifers are shrinking. The water table is dropping. There’s a lot of people sucking water here.” As he said that I’m aware that one of my neighbors waters his lawn every morning, The well driller went on observing, “You know, these aquifers don’t get replenished by the rain. They don’t get filled up. When they are empty, they are empty.” That reminded me of an article I read about the aquifer under Phoenix. The town leaders were planning to drain it out within 50 years, and I read this about 20 years ago.One way or another we will come face to face with impermanence. We can’t escape it.

So, the And Yet urges us to embrace it. Fearless. Clear eyed. Do what we can, radiating compassion and kindness because the world is literally us. If I’m made of sunshine; if I’m made of microbes in the soil, if I’m made of water, if I’m made of your efforts, everything … I don’t want to say “is” me, but I’m certainly all of it.

I’m going to read ISSA again.

This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
It means nothing. It is ephemeral – that “but”.
And yet.

Gary reminds us that this And Yet is our perennial practice. And I’m hoping to remind any one of you might believe that there is some place outside of change, outside of impermanence to stand There is not.

It’s like being a kayaker shootiing the Grand Canyon rapids. You can’t control the Colorado River, but you can learn to play with its energy, develop your skills, your resilience, your patience. These are the tools we need to live successfully.

Please be good to yourselves, good to each other, and be careful. [bow] Thank you very much.