Sunday, September 16, 2012

We Get Mail

Sent: Sunday, September 16, 2012
To: shokai
Subject: polishing the tile

Hey, it's me again. I've been thinking about the tile polishing story pretty much every day since you last emailed me and I think I'm starting to understand it, but I haven't fully applied it yet. I thought I'd check in with you to make sure I'm not leading myself astray somehow. Take as long as you need to reply I know you're probably busy with work and life.

I think the message in the story is basically the same as this line from Takuan Soho: "To have something in the mind means that it is preoccupied and has no time for anything else. But to attempt to remove the thought already in it is to refill it with another something. The task is endless. It is best, therefore, not to harbor anything in the mind from the start."

Just sitting down wide awake and doing absolutely nothing basically. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it "on-purpose, moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness". The purpose seems to be that when you don't want anything at all you see all kinds of thoughts that you normally get "stuck" on. I think this is what Buddhists refer to as judgements/opinions/preferences/distinctions/etc. When I maintain this type of attention I don't seem to get "stuck" in them as much. I still get caught up in attraction/aversion chain reactions to thoughts often and my mind still wanders at this point, but I think I'm starting to see what the lotus symbolism all through Buddhism means. And the phrase "opening the hand of thought". Just that opinions and judgements cant stick to you if you stay aware continuously and don't fuel them.

Is that the right way to understand the story? If you maintained that type of awareness then nothing could stick to you and you would drop off distinctions daily?

Sent: Sunday, September 16, 2012
Subject: polishing the tile

Good to hear from you! I’ve enjoyed our conversations and appreciate the opportunity to continue. 

You bring up some very good points about Nanyue’s polishing the tile and the lesson that he was teaching Mazu. I may use some of your quotes in my own talks, thank you. 

Non-grasping, or non-attainment or whatever label we put on it, is an important discipline in following the Way, and one that the Zen Masters of the past are constantly encouraging us to follow. Non-grasping applies not only to the obvious temptations of fame and fortune, but also to enlightenment itself, to our Buddha-nature. Not only does grasping fill our mind with the concept of the goal, whatever it may be, but it also creates the illusion that the world is somehow imperfect as it is, but could somehow be better “if only” our goal was attained. What we so often find is that even when we attain the goal, there is yet another goal to attain, and so on and on forever. 

Consider this: Mazu was sitting in silent contemplation, an excellent practice, with the “goal” (uh, oh) of “becoming a Buddha.” Not only did he have a fixed concept in mind, preoccupying him from experiencing the open hand of thought, but the underlying assumption was that his Buddha-nature was something he did not yet have, but could somehow come to be attained through diligent practice. Nanyue was trying to show him that a tile could not become a mirror as a tile didn’t have “mirror-nature,” but an ordinary person can become a Buddha because every person already has Buddha-nature (the potential to become a Buddha) within them. Nanyue was seeking to attain that which he already was. 

To look into this a little deeper, we see that in polishing a mirror, the practice (polishing) produces the effect (a reflective mirror). But in Zen, the practice (silent sitting) is the effect (expression of our Buddha nature). We all have Buddha nature, and it is expressed through the practice of zazen. Mazu’s error was that he was trying to become that which he already was. 

A mirror is always a mirror, but polishing can improve its reflectivity, clear away the accumulated dust. All persons are already complete Buddhas, but the layers of thought and ego-attachment, not to mention the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, encrust that Buddha nature. As soon as we stop the discriminating mind while sitting in zazen, that nature is expressed. 

To put it another way, the Buddha Way is both the way to Buddha-hood and the way of a Buddha (the way a Buddha behaves), and both are found in zazen.     

Next month (October 20), we will have a zazenkai (all day sitting) at the Chattanooga center from 12 noon until 9 pm. These extended periods are good opportunities for practice-enlightenment and to more fully express our Buddha nature through silent stillness. It would be great if you could join us! We’ll have our regular Sunday service the next day (October 21). 

In gassho,

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