By Philip Whalen
and death. That's what it's really about. We live in the midst of dying and die
in the midst of living. We go through our lives picking up all kinds of things
and calling it "me." We become very fond of this creation-life and inanimate
matter all glued together.
I live at the Hartford Street Zen Center. There
is a hospice here for folks living with AIDS. Everyone is perishing slowly. I
can understand a little bit about what they are going through-that the end is
not far away-because I am not well myself. Guys who are there and terribly ill
are alive and know what is happening-that it's the end of the moving, that if
you stop moving you're dead.
It's very real when we watch friends fade and
perish. Very difficult because we want to keep things as they are. But unless
you experience your own death-you are lost. Really get close to it. What we are
actually doing is dying all the time. Dying is an action. Ask, "Who is living?
Who is dying?" And when you go to the zendo ask, "Why am I here?"
business of "just sitting" is very difficult. Zen wants you to rip yourself
to pieces. We sit down, fold our legs and watch breath. Sit on a cushion being
bored stiff. Then our minds start flashing ugly pictures, sad feelings, weird
ideas, and our knees hurt. We are attacking the structure of the personality,
the casing, so we get distracted from what practice is about.
What are the
reasons why we do zazen? The reason is that we are greedy for satori, for enlightenment
and for friends to say, "Hey I couldn't do that!" Keep asking: "What
is it I am doing? What am I responding to? How am I acting with others and how
do they act with me?" All we know is mush-a gray field where we try to get
away or closer. All we may have learned through sitting is to handle our own intolerance
or impatience. But in the life of Zen practice you shouldn't come out alive.
One of the most destructive things about Zen is the relationship between teacher
and student. First, finding a teacher to work with is difficult, then hanging
out with a Zen teacher is complicated and peculiar, like getting radiation burn.
I remember the worst thing my teacher Baker Roshi ever said to me. It was at Tassahara,
dokusan, and he told me, "You're mean to people." He didn't elaborate.
was absolutely destroyed. People at different times in my life have told me I'm
scarey, but it's in the eye of the beholder. When angry I make myself ridiculous
and jump up and down, but not to intentionally scare. Usually I'm frightened and
upset so I holler and yell. It's difficult to get used to one's own failure to
control the temper, but anger is a state of mind that doesn't last, it goes away,
and shouldn't frighten us.
I got into this industry because I wanted to find
out, "What is life about? What does it mean?" And I still don't know.
But the teacher is a good Buddhist friend who helps you see where you're at and
what's happening. We have to do our own shining, polishing and cleaning, then
we need to check it out with someone who sees the process.
You go to your little
zafu and all of a sudden the heavens open, ears smoke, eye balls spin, and belly
button vibrates-"I got the answer! Been broken free!" You run off to
the teacher who says, "Oh that's nice, now go mow the lawn." And you
can see that we have fits of elation (and anger) and break through the veil, but
of course the veil comes back when we look the other way.
In my opinion, the
Zen industry is about the teacher-student relationship, about forging a new relationship
with the self, and about keeping trying to see what this kensho business is about.
Until one finds out "what is" etc., you are not much good to anyone
else. People need to sit down, that is my program, sit down and stay there until
you find out, "Why born? Why die? What does the predicament of being in the
body mean? What does, "Beyond the physical body" mean? Can't be "out"
until thoroughly "in"-the "inness and outness" thing. And
how to do laundry? I got a whole lot of dead underwear waiting in the washer upstairs.
At the end of it all, all we have is this funny Zen Buddhist practice, which
is no more than telling you to please sit down over there, put your feet up in
your lap, hold your hands in a certain way, keep your back straight and breathe.
Then you go on from there. Just things as it is. What we all are. And we are all
agreed that we want to sit and I am here to help you however I can-to teach you
and do individual interviews with you, and if you want any kind of initiation
or ordination, I can do that too.
The thing that I hope is that folks continue
with their practice, continue to figure out how to work with it, how to absorb
it into their own body and mind, into their own being. This is not a college course,
it's a living proposition, here for you to use, to dive into and soak yourself
in. What happens next is your own business, and with any luck at all it is also
Talk excerpts by Abbot Zenshin Philip Whalen are from the
Hartford Street Zen Center newsletter, 1996 and 1997.