Dharma Talk


October 7, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote


The categories of loss that people are facing today are enormous. The consequence has been stress, mourning, depression, and disorientation. Hopefully, a Zen perspective can be of help with this.

I’ve been thinking about loss recently because everywhere I’ve been in the last weeks, people have appeared stressed, unhappy, restless, bored, irritable, craving sociability and human contact. A number have mentioned that when they thought that Covid-19 might be a 3 or 4 month sequester and inconvenience they felt able to deal with it. Now its presence has expanded well into next year and this knowledge of continuing anxiety and frustration has begun to lead many towards despair.

Within the framework of our habitual reality, life keeps chugging along in its fullness: Someone was killed in an automobile accident, others are fighting cancer,  people’s children (whose genetic programming in their teens urges them to be in cohort with peers) are having trouble. My daughter has just made her 11th move in her marriage. Lots of people are on overload.  

“And yet…..” At the risk of appearing facile, each day the sun rises on a new day. Some things appear to be the same and we can overlook all that is different in our disappointment as the parts of our life we don’t want reappear. The flowers in my garden are preparing for winter. So too, the trees. The squirrels and birds are stock-piling seed, and, if you’re reading this, your heart is pumping, millions of neurons in your brain are firing, bacteria and friendly viruses are churning your system--- you are alive. That is they key event to remember. You may not like the weather,  or the President, but you are alive to complain about it. Your ideas of the way things should be are, in this moment, ideas, hopes or wishes. The way things are is your actual life.

In stressful situations, many people seek comfort and relief in spiritual practice, thinking it will somehow save them from the rigors and disapointments of life. If you ascribe to Buddhism, you may believe that “awakening” or Enlightenment is a fence you can jump and if you reach the other side, you’ll be “home free” of all suffering and difficulty unpleasantness again. Poet Gary Snyder refers to such imaginary realities as “sexless nirvana,” which is how I sometimes imagine Christian descriptions of Heaven. Some fond hope of permanent bliss led me to use heroin for too long, because I just wanted all my pains and discomforts to go away.

If that idea of Enlightenment is unrealistic, it is fair to ask, “What can we do? What can we expect? and how can Zen help us?” Why do we sit za-zen?

There’s an old Zen instructional metaphor about an ancient, eternal hermit who lives in a weathered, old hut. Zen practice urges us to meet him or her. The old hermit is referred to. as “the host” and the hut is “the sack of flesh” we all live in. In the Zen classic Transmission of Light, the Zen Master Keizan unpacks this for us:

“Your skin, flesh, bones, and marrow are all “together, (neither one nor two) and the host inside the house is “I.” It does not have skin, flesh, bones, or marrow, it does not have gross physical or mental elements. Ultimately speaking, “If you want to know the undying person in the hut, how could it be apart from this skin bag?” So you should not understand the beings on earth as distinct from yourself”

The understanding from which that parable springs is that the “I” of the one speaking is not different from the “I” of the one listening. Your “I” is not different than the Buddha’s.  That “I” may live in what is apparently its own sack of flesh (or ancient hut), but it is still not different.

               An earlier tenth-generation Zen master named Hongzhi, offered a useful clarification:

“If the host does not know there is a guest, there is no way to respond to the world; if a guest does not know there is a host, there is no vision beyond material sense.”

This is to say that the host—pure undifferentiated awareness (which includes self-awareness)— has a body to experience and participate in the 10,000 things of the world. The world is not something to be ignored or spurned as ‘less-than’ Enlightenment.  If the guest (our transient body—the dilapidated old hut)—is not aware of the underlying ‘emptiness/formlessness’ of the host, the physical world is all there is and no spiritual dimension or possibilities exist.

Working on that puzzle in meditation and practice offers a clarity about our current suffering. The Buddha instructed us in The First Noble Truth that “Suffering exists.” It’s not neurotic. It’s not an undeveloped consciousness. It’s not a secondary state, but our actual reality. Wanting things to be different, wanting pleasurable states to continue. Unchanged are both forms of such suffering. Just as delusion is our actual reality, but we sit zazen with both. We sit in the midst of delusion and suffering and change, and one day, if we’re diligent and persistent and careful enough, we may glimpse “

the “original mind” as it is in itself, the universal ground of consciousness, concealed beneath the temporal conditioning that forces people to experience life through outlooks arbitrarily limited by their cultural, social, and personal histories.”

You might ask, if nothing helps, why bother? Why go through the effort? Well no one said that nothing helps or changes. The world is the world, and it’s beyond our control. Most of the time we’re able to filter out the suffering of others, which is infinite and constant. Occasionally we are reminded of it. Black men and women being murdered by police during their ordinary days. Slaves in Saudi Arabia, stranded Filipino workers, starving and out of work, millions hungry and fearful in America. People are suffering everywhere!

And somehow, we don’t, wake up to it and really experience it until it hits us. I have a recurring nightmare. Some of you have seen my dogs, Pablo and Chico laying on my couch behind dharma talk videos. I adopted  them together from the pound because they were such beautiful roommates. They played without any status differentiation. There was no alpha. They were just like one roiling pretzel. And they are always together today, always sleeping side by side. They are on my bed, side by side, sometimes squeezing me half out of it, with me on the couch when I watch TV. I have a recurring nightmare that one of them dies and in the dream I’m trying to figure out how to explain to the other one what happened because he is suffering and I want to help him but can’t. It’s a terrible feeling.  There’s something about the inability to clarify the shock of sudden pain, the inability to speak of it in some way which might help others, which makes the idea of offering comfort often seem so remote.

I had the same feeling when my granddaughter was tiny and had asthma attacks and we would take her to the hospital. The doctors would have to draw blood from her tiny vein, and I or her parents would have to hold her still, and were unable to explain to her why she was being stuck with needles, compounding their own helplessness. They knew this had to be done, but there was no way to detach from their daughter’s pain and fear and consequently no way to avoid their own pain. Sometimes all that you can do is be completely present to the moment, no matter how horrid it might appear. Within it, in its actual textures and qualities is the tang and bittersweetness of our actual existence.

For me, the first comfort one can find in suffering is its ratification of our common humanity. Our nervous system is sharpened and we can perceive clearly our affinity to the world’s suffering-- the suffering of other species, even the earth and its plants begging for water.  His Holiness, the Dalai Lama once described an exercise of taking in the worlds’ suffering and and anger, and fashioning it into a dagger with which one stabbed the black spider of ‘egotism’ nestled in the center of our hearts. Sufferring is certainly not the bliss that we were hoping for when we set out on a spiritual path, but it is reality. It is difficult and scary to do, but It has the salt and bitter tang of real life. It is by comparison with that salt, that sweetness is measured.

The problem is that our little self, deluded by self-importance (what Suzuki-roshi referred to as “small mind”) just runs like a gerbil towards what it likes and flees what it doesn’t like or fears. In that way we remain in constant motion, and have difficulty following Dogen’s injunction to “settle the self on the self Unless we can intuit that that everything derives from a common source, we’re caught for the ride, believing that opposite poles of a contradiction are different. We are like hosts who’ve forgotten our guest inside a burning building.

The rabbit doesn’t begrudge the owl for killing and eating it. They are both playing blameless roles. As humans, sometimes we are the heroes, sometimes the villains, at other times just the idiots. Sometimes we are the victims. Sometimes we’re the persecutors. Zazen help us develop the courage to see things as they are. We don’t have to like them, and very often will indicate our displeasure. Buddhists usually indicate their l positions by sitting zazen – before a nuclear power plant for instance. In some cases the barbarity of what they oppose is so great that a Thích Quảng Đức, the monk in Vietnam who first burned himself alive to protest President Diem’s cruelty to Buddhists makes that ultimate sacrifice. It is only in the rarest of exceptions, that Buddhists will harm others for their viewpoints.

With so many people shouting in the streets and waving signs today, I find myself at odds with this strategy for several reasons. A protest is actually a ceremony, an invitation to a better world. Most people do not accept invitations when they’re being screamed at.

 Secondarily, the audience of most protests is often displaced. It should not be the police or the political power-structure. The real audience is the broad mass of American people who will confer political power by adding their numbers to the protestors, if they feel they can trust them and and agree with the sentiments expressed. Currently, important protests are being co-opted as Republican election ads, citing the violence and chaos initiated by provocateurs, Proud Boys and in some cases the police, or allies of the protestors who choose to indulge their anger and outrage at the expense of order and discipline. These ads tar the protestors and the issue itself as the true values of Democrats. This could be nullified by several simple steps:

1)      Appoint monitors. Give them identical, easily identifiable vests and WHISTLES. Their job is to survey the crowd and at the first sign of violence, to blow the whistle and all real protestors immediately sit. That would leave the vandals and trouble-makers exposed allowing the audience (and police) to distinguish them from protestors.

2)      Be Silent. Let signs do the talking and let the discipline of maintaining silence be visible to the watching audience.

3)      Dress like you’re going to church It’s difficult to sell neatly dressed men and women as terrorists and provocateurs, and such dress upholds prevailing standards of decency and respect immediately perceived by the watching audience.

4)      Go Home At Dusk. You can’t tell the cops from the killers in the dark. Which offers too much opportunity for mischief. Protestors should announce plans to leave at dark, drawing a stark line between themselves and provocateurs.

 There’s a distinction between accepting “ the way things are, ”  and registering your protests as opposed to acquiescing without comment or education of the audience. Especially when someone or some group (or species) is being made to suffer. We do not have to acquiesce, but the way we resist is critically important, not only to honor our Buddhist insight of one interdependent universe, and in some cases vows, but to demonstrate what is true to the larger audience and to do so in such a way that the audience understands it. We try to clarify and not add to confusion.

Everything that exists in this moment, exists because of the prior moment. And everything that existed in that moment exists because of moments prior to that. The roots of everything, including  Donald Trump and the current political situations go way, way, way back and are tangled admixed with many other causes and events. Rarely are circumstances as clean as we would like them to be.

To change anything, that involves human beings, we must understand their intention and by skillful means, if possible, change the way they perceive. It is very useful in all such endeavors to understand that the “I” talking is the same “I” as that is listening. If we can’t see that, we will only compound the difficulties we’re trying to solver by alienating those we are trying to convince. Once people stop listening or being at all receptive, there is little hope of any change.

However, if we understand that, despite our apparent singularity, we don’t stand outside the world, are not as different from our opponents as we might like to believe. If we don’t pretend to be different, better or superior to them, the chances are better that we may be able to talk together without arguing. If we don’t pretend that we don’t also share many of the qualities that we judge in others, we may succeed in opening a corridor between us. We won’t always get our own way, but we can manage to keep a door open.

When we do that, something happens. People understand that they are in relationship. They may not agree with you, but they can feel when they are not being judged or equally, when they are condescended to or diminished. When that happens, they become armored immediately, and there is no discourse. Just turn on the news and watch the he said/she said ping-pong of fixed positions, vocabulary and judgments. Sides are chosen as in a sports event and both sides go at it because they haven’t realized that the “I” one talking is the “I” listening. That is a gate of zazen you can pass through and discover for yourself.  You’ll return to the familiar world but you will have experienced something that altered your horizons and perspective. In one way, that’s when practice begins,, because what good is insight if it is only yours?

My teacher once said to me, “If you are not being kind and helpful, who cares what your spiritual experiences are?”  People will often report phenomena from za-zen like--“Wow, Buddha came down. He gave me roses…. “ One can take that as a sign that they’re on the right track, but who does that help? If you imagine that za-zen is a technique to guarantee you personal happiness, you are enshrining the self            and all its prejudices that you are trying to expand. The focus of Mahayana Buddhism (Big Vehicle) is that we achieve Enlightenment to help others.

You might be wondering by now, why this talk is labelled “Loss.” What is the loss I am referring to? Loss is a byproduct of of attachment and affection. It’s the cost of a ticket to the Kingdom of Love. We don’t mourn the death of an ant, usually, or a spider. I’ve often remarked in my dharma talks that people rarely have strong feelings about artificial flowers. It is because they are not dying.

Occasionally we get a shock when we find a dead creature in the woods, or a dead bird in front of our window. At least it shocks me. Suddenly I have a pang for that little creature, for that life cut short. When I see a bee drowning in the water dish I have out for the birds, I can’t help but put my finger under it and lift it free. I watch it shake its wings and fluff itself and eventually receive enough warmth from the sun to be able to fly away. That bee wants to live and so do I. We both come from the same place and are heading to the same place. How can I not have tender feelings for it?

We may feel that the life we desire is the life we should expect, and the life we deserve. We may feel that because we’re kind and good people, we will be exempted from the final reckoning of delivering back our rented bodies. Zazen helps us see things as they really are. I’m not suggesting that the goal of such clarity is detachment that allows us to regard whatever we observe or whatever mental images arise in us without response. That would only be being half alive. Of course, we want to monitor and control our attention, but we also inhabit these flesh bags, and they are unrepeatable events. Precious for that. Full of feelings and sensations and rumblings and grumblings. That is our actual life. That is our actual mind.

There’s a story of a woman named Kisa Gotami, who lived in the ancient times of the Buddha. I’m sure everyone knows this story, but just in case. She was walking around blinded by grief and carrying her dead baby, which she couldn’t put down. She came to the Buddha and begged him-- “Help me. Help me, please. I’m suffering  so much I can’t stand it.”

The Buddha said, “Okay. Put your baby down I’ll look after it. I want you to visit every household in the village, and I want you to collect a mustard seed from every house where death has not claimed someone,” and he sent her off.

Buddha didn’t touch her forehead and inject some magic into her that lit her up like a bulb. He didn’t tell her that all things were empty of self (true enough.)  He told her the absolute truth. Because the absolute truth would do more to save her, by reintegrating her into the actual world, where her heart might be opened to the suffering of others and where she could experience her grief, and burn it to ash. In her actual life she might understand that her loss was the price of her love for her child, the cost of having a body, and seeing things as only separate and discrete.

We know that, life is not a Hallmark card, but somehow when grief touches us and we are reminded that everything (except all of it) is impermanent, it’s unnerving. The body doesn’t want to die. Even though, I suspect it knows how to die. Animals know how to die. I used to hunt, and I witnessed too many animal deaths, which were like a resignation. When there was no way out  the animal resigned itself, and died. Our human bodies have been dying for millions of years and  I suspect, that beneath our narratives and anxieties, they know how to do it.

There’s no way to escape the loss inherent in impermanence. There’s no way to run away from the pain in your knees when you sit long periods zazen. The only thing you can do with pain is become intimate with it, and curiously, the decision not to flee it, but to stand fast with it, curiously alters it. Investigate it. Separate the warp and the weft of it, let the light in. Discover its specific textures and qualities and learn the true taste of your suffering, which, is part of the true taste of being human.

When you do that, something changes. The flight, the pushing it away, the pressing it back somehow increases the difficulty. But examination will help us understand that this is the world,--clouds will sometime cover the sun. It will get cold, and uncomfortable or extremely hot. Experience them intimately. They are the qualities of being alive, as they are also the price tags for being human.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that this isn’t an extraordinary time in the short history of our life-span. History is filled with extraordinary times. The Black Death Yersinia pestis, wiped out 30 to 50 percent of Europe's population between 1347 and 1351. The death rate for Covid is around 3%. Try to imagine the extent and scale of the helplessness in that time. But suffering is not a competitive sport. Should your child get on a plane and come visit. Are you safe? If they want to bring a friend, are you safe? If someone drops over with someone you did not expect, are you safe These are not questions that most people have had to deal with for a century. And yet the Bird Flu, the Swine Flu, Ebola, have come and gone, and we might even say, “Warned us” that we are being hunted, had we been paying attention.

In their teens, children are preparing to leave their families and developing social groups which prepare them. Suddenly millions of kids are having that genetic proclivity truncated. They can’t go to school. They sit in front of the television and work at home, alone. They are not experiencing the critical socialization required for their healthy maturity. We don’t know the damage that that is going to do to them. But we can witness the suffering isolation is causing.

Parents everywhere are trying to find compensationsfor them, trying to help.The whole family is in the same boat, and that might be o ne bright side expanding family intimacy. But that doesn’t mean that the shadow of what our children have lost is going to disappear.

This awareness of loss is a common denominator of humanity. COnsideering it deeply can make us even feel differently toward our enemies.. We’re all bound up in this moment together. When we pass one another on the street, remembering this, in some way affects our nervous systems. I remember once being in Vancouver and realizing that everyone I passed in the street, had voted to take care of one another if they fell sick. It’s the same in England and France and Portugal, Italy and Spain. In those countries, where the people’s taxes pay for Universal health care, we can look at one another and feel some sense of community even among strangers. We can regard anyone on the street and sense the commonalities between us; know that they too are facing illness and disease (loss) know that that loss is a human common denominator.. And, because that loss is actually our humanity, we can understand these other people on a really deep level.

Having done that, we need to broaden the perimeters of our inclusion and understand that it is not just people who are suffering, but millions of species as well, even the water and atmosphere as a consequence of our banishing them from our consideration.

To remember that the “I” of the observer is the “I” of the observed is to reawaken the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of times past.. If we don’t know that we are killing and burying the Buddha.

The “I” of the talker is the “I” of the listener. If we don’t know that, we’re killing and burying the Buddha.

I think that is enough for today. I’m going to recite the Metta prayer.

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace. [3 times] [Bow]

I hope I see you next week. Thank you very much for coming.