“nothing special”

by Tom O'Conner- Dharma Teacher- IBMC

In about six weeks four of us are to receive our brown robes. It marks a significant milestone in our practice. And this summer, during our monks training, I feel that Rev. Karuna has been setting traps to help us on our journey.

We’ve been reading about what monks do, what they experience. There’s Thich Nhat Hahn’s Stepping Into Freedom which is for novice monks (say age 10) and not being that young you realize just where you stand in the scheme of things.

The other is Roshi Jiyu-Kennett’s Zen is Eternal Life.

As a Westerner she too seems to have started late. She asked her teacher how to go about her studies and he answered, “Expect nothing, seek nothing, just live.” For a person who had traveled around the world to study it did not seem at the time an adequate answer. But it was a skillful one.

As skillful as Rev. Karuna’s inviting her students to the Vesak celebration in Santa Ana. “And wear your robes.” We arrived and became part of the procession of monks and nuns. Hundreds of people were there. Many bows. We were ushered down to the front.

And I lived out the actor’s nightmare. That’s the one where you find yourself on stage, in a play, and have no idea what the play is, who you are in it, and what your next line is. I was suddenly in a ceremony, in Vietnamese, on the altar, on ABC Vietnam (they were filming it) and expected to just proceed. But all I had to do was chant, bow at the appropriate times, and bathe Baby Buddha. And because I was at the back of the line I could pick up what was expected. I got through it.

And then I figured out the lesson. As a Westerner our minds work overtime to analyze, criticize, and figure it out. We are looking for what Chogyam Trungpa calls Credentials. In Santa Ana I didn’t have my credentials in order. But at that ceremony no one was looking for credentials. That was the lesson. I was just part of an equation. There was a ceremony to be performed. It needed monks and nuns. A statue of Buddha. And a congregation. Since I was in robes, I was a monk. Anything more was my own concern, they had what they needed. Nothing special. Just do it. Just live.

Right. Easier said than done. At least in Western mode. Chogyam Trungpa talks about “credential sickness” and just being aware of it. Because the practice does require living differently. But different doesn’t make it special. As soon as we think it’s special it becomes a credential and loses its value as a part of the practice. The cushions, mats, robes are just part of the world of the Zendo. Just the way it is.

In Stepping into Freedom there are sixty-eight Gathas, sixty-eight short verses to be recited with everyday activities. Things like:

Taking the First Steps of the Day
Walking on the Earth
Is a miracle!
Each mindful step
Reveals the wondrous Dharmakaya.

Every activity is given attention. We are to become mindful, become aware of the reality of the activity—which is very different from the way most of us live. Anyone driving in LA sees the “multi-tasking of the commute”—cell phone calls, coffee, shaving, while making a left hand turn.

We spend our lives individuating. Making me, ME and you, You. Separate and distinct. Creating the story of MY life with me as the star and everyone else supporting players. And we create references and categories. The You I know does this, makes this much (or little), knows these people (or doesn’t), came from here, is going there. We conceptualize and categorize for easy use and handling.

Not very Zen-like.

The Hsin Hsin Ming attributed to Seng T’san, the Third Chinese Patriarch, has this to say about that:

Trusting In Mind

The Great Way is not difficult,
Just don’t pick and choose.
If you cut off all likes and dislikes
Everything is clear like space.

Make the slightest distinction
And heaven and earth are set apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
Don’t think for or against.

This doesn’t mean to not see what’s there. It means to see what is there—without filtering it through words, concepts.

It ends with:

Trust and Mind are not two.
Not-two is trusting the Mind.

Words and speech don’t cut it,
Can’t now, never could, won’t ever.

So where does that leave one? With the practice. With sitting Zazen. Joko Beck says it is just sitting there. It’s not about seeing colored lights—although that can happen. It’s not about having nice feelings, or becoming calm—and that can happen. Or becoming “spiritual” whatever that means. It really is just about sitting there. Hearing the sounds around you. Noting what is going on. Observing. Experiencing. Being here. That’s all.

But we don’t really have much interest in “Being Here.” Our minds wander off on their own. Much of our practice is just noting where it went. Into some kind of fantasy. It depends on our particular bent. Movies a la James Thurber. Conversations with absent friends. Or enemies. Righting wrongs. Revenge. Afternoon dalliances. Almost anything is better than sitting on a cushion. But that is what is, what we are doing, what life is at this moment.

And that is what we can always trust. Perhaps the only thing we can trust. Life is what it is. We just have to accept it. Nothing special, just what is. We can always rely on that and rest in that. If I became ill could I rest in that? I must because that is what is.

Of course, it only works if we can take the “I” out of it. Take the ego and non-existent self out of it. The “I” demands that the bad go away and good stay forever. The “I” wants this and doesn’t want that. The “I” makes the emotional investment. Our practice is to observe how the investment is made. Rev. Jhana had us create an emotion during one of his Dharma talks. We sat here and conjured up an emotion from nothing and then got rid of it.

We should note our thoughts and try to step back from them. Put a label on them. See that they are just an energy fragment. Joko Beck feels that if we “persistently label any thought the emotional overlay begins to drop out and we are left with an impersonal energy fragment to which we need not attach.” The practice is to work with this “until we know it in our bones.”

When we know it in our bones then we can act from reality. Without the delusions—“deluding passions are inexhaustable, I vow to end them all”—we can experience life as it is.

The moon’s the same old moon
The flowers are just as they were
Yet now I am
The thingness of things.

'Surangama Sutra'

A questioner asked the Buddha: “I would like to know about the state of peace, the state of solitude and of quiet detachment. How does a person become calm, independent, and not wanting to grasp at anything?”

“A person does this,” replied the Buddha, “by eradicating the delusion of ‘I am.’ By being alert and attentive, he begins to let go of cravings as they arise. But whatever he begins to accomplish, he should beware of inner pride. He must avoid thinking of himself as better than another, or worse or equal, for that is all comparison and emphasizes the self.

“The person should look for peace within and not depend on it in any other place. For when a person is quiet within, the self cannot be found. There are no waves in the depths of the ocean, it is still and unbroken. It is the same with the peaceful person. He is still, without any longing to grasp. He has let go the foundation of self and no longer builds up pride and desire.”
Sutta Nipata

So we just live and act and do what needs to be done. Nothing special. Just like the haiku:

An old pond—
A frog jumps in,