Just Me

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Good morning. It's a lovely, cool, midsummer morning here. And I was, Wednesday and Thursday, I was in Las Vegas, visiting my brother, who lives there. And it was 118 degrees. I was really, it was just incredibly hot and I've never experienced anything that hot, a place that hot. So I was glad to get back to the natural air conditioning. Still the heat was, what I want to talk about today is just this and my gratitude for just this, this place, this practice, this moment.


And even for the blast of the heat as he walked out of the air-conditioned hotel lobby, it was I felt vividly alive in that moment. It was just this. So what I want to do is I'm going to give you a little context and then talk about the word just and then talk about an aspect of the practice that I've been doing with with that notion. So, our ancestor, one of the founding ancestors of Soto Zen, Dongshan, or Tozan, when he had practiced for quite a while with his teacher, Yunyan,


And it came time for him to go his own way and make his way into the world. Yunyan was also getting on in years. And Yunyan noted as they were, as Dongshan was getting ready to leave, if you leave, it will be difficult to see one another again. Dumshan said, it will be difficult not to see one another. Beautiful line, it will be difficult not to see one another. And then, just when Dumshan was about to depart, he said, he asked, if in the future someone happens to ask me whether I can describe your truth or not?


How should I answer them? After a long pause, Dung-Shan said, Yun-Yan said, just this is it. Just this is it. So to finish off this little piece, Deng Shan sighed, and he tried to take these words in, but it seems that he didn't, he heard it, but he didn't fully grasp it. And Yuen Yuen said, worthy Liang, that was his other name, Liang She, now that you have taken on this great affair, the great affair of our practice and carrying it forward, you must consider it carefully.


Dung-Shan didn't say anything. He continued to have some doubt. He doubted his understanding, which we can all empathize with, I think. Later, as he crossed the stream, he saw his own reflection in the water, and he was awakened to Yunyan's meaning, and he composed a verse. This is the verse. Avoid seeking elsewhere, for that's far from the self. Now I travel alone. Everywhere I meet it. Now it's exactly me. Now I'm not it. It must be understood this way in order to merge with suchness. I'm going to read it again and I'm not going to explain it.


Avoid seeking anywhere else for that is far from the self. Now, as I travel alone, everywhere I meet it. Now it is exactly me, and now I'm not it. It must be understood, it must be understood in this way, to merge with suchness. So I was thinking about Just This. And I remembered one of my favorite poems, which has the word just in it. It's by William Carlos Williams. Probably you know it.


The title is This is Just to Say. and actually the title is part of the poem. This is just to say, I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me, they were delicious, so sweet and so cold. And when I hear that poem, and this is the wonders of poetry, that moment just comes alive. You can imagine the poet's mind in that moment, even though what he's writing is a note to put up on the refrigerator. But it's not, it's a poem.


And the more you think about it, like the taste of a piece of fruit, the flavor kind of explodes and expands in your mind. Just this moment. And it's very mundane. I was also thinking, as I was flying out of Las Vegas on Thursday, the plane was late, and so it was kind of late twilight fading into evening as we flew over. The airport in Las Vegas is kind of parallel to the strip, which is just one of the most unusual spaces on the planet. It's quite incredible.


And you could think of it as alien. You could certainly think of Las Vegas as a place that for all the resources it uses should not really exist where it does. But we took off and then we we circled around over the strip and then sort of flying parallel to it at a relatively low altitude and it was just astonishing. I mean that was just this moment as I as I watched from the window and I felt the desire to, because Las Vegas is the capital of desire, I felt the desire to capture that image. But yet, like all moments, it passed.


We just flew by, but it was quite, it was literally electric, you know. We don't have to make something holy. That's one of the great things and just one of the things that I'm most grateful for in this practice is it's not about holiness. It's about how we meet the moment. So I've been looking at the word just and thinking about it. It seems that the root, perhaps, is about a properly conducted ritual. The root, I-U-S in Latin.


But it's a wonderfully, it's a word that has a wonderful umbrella of meaning. Means morally upright. Conforming to the rules. Marked by precision or exactness. righteous, sincere, and as an adjective, it's an adverb, sometimes it means, it can mean barely or merely, but it can also mean exactly, exactly this moment, just now. And I was thinking, and I looked this up and realized, well, it's nice to think, but I don't like making stuff up.


But I was thinking of just this could just be a verb. In other words, to just this, to put this into uprightness or correctness or exactness. That meaning was not there, and I am not proselytizing for that use of the word. Adjust. Right. Thank you. That's right. I appreciate Ken's adjustment to my expression here. Right. We have, going back to Deng Xian's story, just this is it.


And it's moment after moment awareness. Seeing just this moment, just this moment, just this moment. And that is the process of, that's at the heart of our meditation. So I wanted to talk about meditation and come back around to this notion of just this. Over the last few years, off and on, I've been looking at a book that's called Meditating Selflessly. Practical Neural Zen by Jim Austin. Does anyone know this book?


It's really good. He wrote this big telephone book. It was called Zen Brain. Is that right? Yeah. I don't find it too easy to read. But he's a neuroscientist who also is a very seasoned Zen practitioner. He practiced Rinzai Zen with Kabori Roshi, who was one of the great Rinzai teachers of the last generation. I think Lori and I met him on our honeymoon, is that right? Yeah, yeah. We got taken around to places in Japan, and that was the day that they were airing all their Hakuin scrolls at his temple. And he had us into tea. I don't feel like any great wisdom was imparted, but... It was not received, right.


Yes. Okay. I have nothing to say about that except that, as usual, she's right. But Jim is a very, Jim Austin is a very seasoned practitioner and also he's studied Maezumi Roshi and Aitken Roshi and really, and also he's an accomplished scientist. So what he does, he designates, and this is very useful for me, two approaches to meditation as two fundamental, approaches that are not mutually contradictory, they're just emphases. So, one, he calls concentrative meditation, which is a sustained attention that's focused and exclusive, more one-pointed.


So if you were doing a meditation, say on the flame of that candle, if you're really focusing on that, you would develop a very strong single pointed concentration. The same thing if you're, if you're using a koan or a short mantra or a visualization, These are all examples of a kind of turning in of the mind in a concentrated way. And it's turning inward. And this is what tends to evolve into what the Buddha spoke of as the jhanas, the concentrations. And they're described, if you read the story of his awakening, it describes him moving step by step through these respective concentrations.


And it's, using your mind in a directed way. So paying attention by really turning your mind towards one thing and gently or even resolutely putting other things to the side. So that's one approach to meditation. The other approach that he describes is receptivity. And I think that that is the basic instruction that we are receiving in our practice here. It's more effortless.


it's less focused, and it's really the approach, as Suzuki Roshi and Sochin Roshi say, about including everything in your meditation. So in this sense, the way I describe it is, all of your senses are operating. Your eyes are slightly open, your ears are open, all the senses, including your mind, as one of the sense organs, is open and receptive, but not so much active. And I would distinguish that as the distinction between seeing and looking, or hearing and listening. often when we see, but it's also true that when we see something, the hook of seeing something is that we get drawn into looking.


And that's the way our senses work. So we're training ourselves to maintain this open receptivity, this open awareness. And that's another, I would say that's another major school of meditation. And as we do that, other things happen in our mind. He describes, he quotes, Maezumi Roshi as saying, this kind of meditation of what we call Shikantaza is physically relaxed. It's as being physically relaxed and yet in a state of greatly heightened alertness.


So I think this is, you know, when Suzuki Roshi talks about uh the frog i think that's one of the it's one of the exceptions in in not always so the frog just sitting on the rock uh the frog isn't looking around for uh a fly to appear it's just sitting but it's its awareness is very open so that when when the fly comes close it can just go and have lunch. But it's not looking around, it's just keeping an open awareness that is attuned to everything that's happening around it. This is the way I would describe our meditation process. So as we're sitting and facing the wall, There's not a lot of sensory stimulation.


Sometimes we can see patterns of light shifting on the wall. Sometimes a bug crawls across. Sometimes we hear a car going by outside or a plane overhead. But mostly, as we sit there, we're sitting with ourselves. And perhaps the main organ that is engaged is the mind. And as distinct from a concentrative practice, we don't push things away, we let them fall away. That's the process of Shikantaza. We may meet them, and we let them fall, and we're alert for the next thought that is coming along.


And in this way, we become deeply intimate with ourselves. There's no directed course of our activity or of our awakening or of our practice. It's just this, just meeting ourselves moment after moment. So sometimes when we describe Shantaza, we sort of translate it or describe it as just sitting, which is interesting in all of the uses of the word just. You could think of it as sincere sitting, as upright sitting, as exactly sitting, as merely sitting, all of those things.


So this is the challenge because it's very easy for that sitting to slide into, for that receptivity to slide into just dreaming. And because like things that we see or hear, uh, all of our, all of our sensations and all of our thoughts, it's like they come with, uh, like one side of a piece of Velcro with all those little hooks. So a thought arises and we tend to match it up with another thought and then they're stuck together and they want to make a story. Which is, there's nothing wrong with it. That's wonderful. But it's not what we've decided we intend to do when we sit down. So I got this from, I got a practice that Jim Austin talks about.


And the more I read it, the more it made sense to me. And I've been more or less doing this for the last 10 years. And I'm going to tell you about it and we can try it together for a few minutes. So often when we're given Zazen instruction, the first part of it is really settle into our breathing, adjust our posture, get all of the physical elements properly aligned and adjusted. And then one of the instructions might be to count your breath. has a way of letting your breath lightly be a focus of concentration. So it's not that there's no concentration. Concentration is extremely important in our practice and it's one of the factors of enlightenment.


It's just that, well, the way I would describe it is we're being taught this impossible task of concentrate on everything. So to have this really open mind which is very clear and receptive and settled like a pond on a very still evening where there are no ripples, gradually the ripples die away and you just have clear water. So our minds can become like that. sometimes, but that's not a goal. So anyway, we are given instruction in counting our breath, basically to let that count rest on the exhalation and count silently to yourselves.


And then develop your count from one to ten and start over. This is very, it's pretty simple. For some people, including me, I actually find it really hard. I get to like two and I'm smelling them frying chicken down the street or thinking about a letter, an email that somebody sent me or something like that. And you get distracted. Then you just return without any judgment and start over again at one. And at a certain time, also as you're practicing, you can let the counting fall away and just be with your breath and thoughts. So,


What he suggests is breathing on these two words, just this. So you can breathe in on the word just and breathe out on the word this. I'll redo his instruction actually. I'll redo part of it because it's actually pretty elaborate here. Let just return to the silent beginning word that fully occupies each in-breath.


Let this become the word for each out-breath and the closing of each breathing cycle. You may find it useful to reserve a particular meaning for just this. let it signify that only this particular moment exists right now within a vast expanding awareness. What I'd say is you also don't need to attach a particular meaning to the words because the words rest really nicely on your breath. And it, for me, because it's the same words and the same feeling with each breath, I don't get lost in the way that sometimes I do when I'm counting.


And it brings me into this moment. And then gradually, as you're sitting, sometimes that just, it fades away. And that's okay. You fade into this, this is what, I think you, you fade into emptiness, is an expression that Suzuki Roshi uses. And you just allow yourself to be aligned with just the openness of the vast universe. And then if you feel like you're, when you notice, you feel like you're drifting away, and you need something to tether your practice, you're sitting at that moment, return to just this. So let's try it for a minute. Please sit upright. And align your body.


So on your in-breaths, silently say the word just to yourself. And on your exhalation, this. It's a little hard for me to tear myself away from it.


But what I noticed as I was just doing this is that my mind is still, there's a transparency there. That even as I'm holding those sounds in mind, I could hear an airplane fading into the distance. I could hear a dog barking. All of those activities of mind, of ordinary mind, are going. And you can't say which is the background and which is the foreground, which is very interesting. But just this was sustained. And I like something that Jim Austin also, he writes also in his book about this expression that we have in Zen of no mind, about which we have many misunderstandings.


He says it doesn't mean a vacuity, a mental blank, a state of unconsciousness. Instead, it refers to the basic clarity and receptive nature of our mind once we liberate it from discursive thoughts driven by unskillful emotional reverberations. So, The Korean teacher, Jinul, carefully explained, he wrote a book which I'd like to get, Straightforward Explanation of the True Mind. He carefully explained what this no-mind was. It was a mind not deluded by errant thinking. This mind could still access its full range of subtle discriminative mental functions.


Thus, no-mind refers not only to our being keenly aware of each moment in a calm, clear manner, it also can include our normal allied capacities for calm, clear, objective thought. And I think that's a clear non-emotive perception. So I think that's what's kind of, we can see this running parallel. We can see through just this and see these other perceptions without having any strong emotional response to it. And maybe it is, this is a whole open question, but can we see our emotional responses that way? Can we see the responses as also part of what we are taking in or what we're perceiving without letting those hooks that I spoke of find their ground and pull us along into some reaction?


So I think that I'm going to stop there and leave some minutes for talking. your questions and if you find this a useful practice, try it out and let me know what you think. But I think that at the heart of it, it's just my wish to express my gratitude and appreciation for what has been offered to us by our teachers that make my life available to me. And the same thing, of course, is available to everybody in this room and actually the same thing is available to everybody in the world.


but they have to have a way of meeting it. They have to have a way of bringing, of touching the wellsprings of their own being. So I'll stop there and your comments and questions are welcome. Linda. Now it's exactly me.


Now I'm not it. For me, the implication is that I am the entire universe and I am a part of the universe. I'm not all of it. We're having a dialogue. And so in this dialogue, you and I are really connected right now. And you are part of me. And I am part of you. And yet there are territories of our direct experience that are also not accessible to each other. And I honor that. That doesn't make me feel incomplete. You know, it makes me feel, oh, there's somebody, my universe includes somebody who's holding the Linda Hess section together.


Does that make sense? It's just a start. Yeah, that's just a, you know, that's a first attempt at thinking about it. Yes. Yes, I think that's right. It's the big mind, which includes everything, and it includes all the particularities of one's own life.


Anyway, thank you. Yeah, Ed. Yeah. Well, I think, you know, the image, the archetypal image is out of Roman times, I guess, is this blindfolded woman holding a scale.


And so it's about finding balance without preferences, I suppose. And that's the attempt. That may be, strictly speaking, I think that may be impossible or an idealization, but that's the idea. And so in order to do that, I think in order to contemplate justice in the world, which is an important principle to me, I have to have some ground of balance, some feeling of balance within myself, because otherwise I'm going to be I'm going to be certainly pulling down the blindfold. And all of these, the title of this book is Meditating Selflessly.


All of these efforts are not to negate the self, but to be able to work with the self in a way that recognizes that everyone has a self. And those selves are all there of equal value and import. And mind is not the be-all and end-all, even though in most ways one acts as if it is. That's kind of organically wired into us. So justice, the notion of justice and the notion of equality are not the same thing, but they're very intricately involved. Charles. Thank you very much.


What about the awareness of your heart? Yes. I don't know, but the aware, that's, you can feel your breath, you can place just this right there in the rising and falling of your hara. And that's, there are countless ways to You know, fine points of meditation. Our hara is really, that's where our energy and the seed of our practice is in many ways. You could have a very, and this is where you could have a very concentrative meditation practice that quite minutely focuses and zeroes in on your hara.


Or you can have a broad, you know, you can think of yourself, I like the instruction that we give at Upaya, which really makes a lot of sense to me, is our practice is having a strong back and a soft front. And the essence of that soft front is to have an open hara. so that the front of your body is open, exposed, and receptive to the world. And that's, so you think about, when I think about the hara, I think about, and I think about openness, I think about the way an infant walks. When they learn to walk before they've learned to be afraid of certain things, they'll walk sort of belly out, and the kind of, movie example of that to me is, think about Toshiro Mifune in those samurai movies, how he walks.


It's sort of like a swagger, but it's not. It's really like belly forward to the world and really open. And if you see, quite a few of you have met Huizu Suzuki Roshi, he walks like that. It's not a swagger, it's just open. And that's a physical manifestation of being ready to meet each moment. So I think that's a good place to end. And we can talk over tea. And I hope you will enjoy the rest of the day, the rest of the weekend.