It’s OK to Let Go – A hospice experience

Most of you know that I’m a nurse and I’ve been working with a hospice program in Rhode Island. The story I want to tell you is about this patient I’ve been taking care of since July. She has cancer of the liver and intestines. We have been doing guided meditations together for several months and have gotten very close. I care a lot about her. Her husband is very nice and they have three daughters with little children – it’s a lovely Italian family, very close. Through the months I’ve gotten to know all of them, even the grandchildren.

In the past few weeks my patient has gotten sicker. Her pain has increased, so we’ve been trying to get the pain under control. She’s needed more and more care in the past few weeks and I’ve spent a lot more time with her. A few days ago she went to bed and didn’t get out of it again. When I went to see her Friday, she was almost in a coma and in a lot of pain. We changed her medication again and she got more and more confused.

This was the one thing she had been afraid of: losing control and not being able to understand what was going on. I understand that fear. I think that’s why all of us are in this room right now: not being able to understand what’s going on, not being able to control in a clear way what we need to do with our lives. I don’t mean control in the sense of being rigid, but being able to control our destiny, our needs, our ability to be with our families, with our lives.

She used to say to me, “What is it going to be like when I get so sick that I won’t be able to express what I need? I’m going to be so dependent. My family might not be able to take care of me.” I told her that I thought it was going to be okay, that I thought she was just going to be lying in bed and she would slowly lose consciousness. I told her that after all these months her family would be ready and able to take care of her, and that I would come and help as much as I could.

That’s pretty much the way it happened. She got weaker and weaker. As she needed more equipment, I would bring it to the house: johnnies (nightgowns) that are easy to put on, and pads for her bed in case she was incontinent, and a commode if she couldn’t walk to the bathroom anymore. It’s a step by step process when people die. Gradually you can’t do these things for yourself, so the hospice is prepared for that. You bring these things to the house and sometimes it seems premature to be bringing them and there would be a little resistance. But I knew that the time was going to come soon.

She would say, “Do you think we’re really going to need this?” And I would say, “Maybe we won’t need it, but why don’t you have it on hand anyway?” It’s the same with our practice. Sometimes we don’t want to think that we need something or that we’re going to have to do something. Sometimes we need to listen to people with experience, like hospice nurses. Many families don’t want to look at death. Many families don’t even sign up for the hospice because in a way it looks like a death certificate. Hospice care is intended to be care for the terminally ill, but we always tell people that they can still get better even though they have hospice care. We would be happy if they got better, but in case they don’t, we’re really adept at being able to take care of people in their homes when they’re terminal.

When we sit and practice, sometimes someone who is older and has practiced longer will say something to us. Instead of rejecting it outright, it helps to say to yourself, “I’ll put that in a corner in case I need it.” This Italian family would do that with the things I brought. They would hide them, put them over in a corner and cover them up. Slowly these things would come out of the corner as they were needed. It’s important to just listen, keep an open mind, and to know when you need something and have to take it. It’s important for our whole life to do that, whether we’re practicing Zen or practicing dying or whatever.

When I went over on Friday, she was in a lot of pain. I gave her some other medication that helped more. Then I sat on her bed with her. (That was another thing she wanted to control. She didn’t want a hospital bed. She wanted to stay in her own bed. It turned out to be a nice thing, as it was a queen size bed, big enough so that at times her husband and her three daughters and I could all sit there together with her at the same time. It’s not possible to do that with a hospital bed.) Her husband was sitting on the other side of her and we were both holding her hands. The pain started to go away and things settled down. I said to them, “Why don’t we just try to pray for a little while?”

They know I’m a Buddhist, but it doesn’t really matter. They had a strong Catholic background, but we knew each other so well by now that we all knew what we meant when we talked about prayer. For about twenty minutes we didn’t say anything. We were just quiet and closed our eyes, and it was wonderful. It was wonderful for me to sit silently for twenty minutes with these two people. It’s not like having robes and meditation cushions and all the paraphernalia, but it was just sitting on her bed. There was an agreement between us that helped us to just sit and be quiet. After twenty minutes I looked up at her face and she looked at mine, and she gave me the most beautiful smile I’ve ever received.

She had been very confused and in and out of consciousness, but she gave me this beautiful smile. It was such an incredible gift after months and months of trying to get calm together and accept the time when she was going to be this sick. There was no thinking, just this wonderful moment. I thought, “Oh, this is how it’s going to be. This morphine is going to help her and she’s just going to slowly fade out and it’s going to be okay.” That was the thought that came after her smile, so much like the Buddha when he held up the flower to Mahakashyapa. I was thinking, “I give this to you, this comfortable home death, me the wonderful hospice nurse.” I had the idea that her dying was going to be just right.

Then Saturday morning I went to see how she was doing. She was okay but she didn’t look very comfortable. We had a retreat going on here and I told her family that I was going home for a while and to call me if they needed anything. I called several times during the day to see how she was. Then at five o’clock they called me to say she was groaning and clammy and they wanted me to come.

When I went there, her abdomen had gotten swollen. I think she was bleeding internally and there was a lot of pressure. With every exhalation she would just grunt, about twenty times a minute. She had a terrible grimace on her face. I thought, “Oh, it’s not supposed to be like this! Not this wonderful lady!” The family were all looking at me and wanting me to fix it so that she was not in any pain. So I called the doctor and got permission to give her twice as much pain medication.

An hour and a half later she was still making the same noise, so I called the doctor again to see if we could get an even stronger medication. It wasn’t terrible, but she seemed to be so uncomfortable. And yet in many ways we felt strongly we were doing everything we could for her. Her family were holding her hands and telling her how much they loved her. It wasn’t being obviously received, because she was in a coma. Once in a while she was a little bit awake, but basically she couldn’t say “Thank you for saying you love me.” She just kept grunting and moaning every time she exhaled.

I finally called a nurse that I work with and asked her to bring over more morphine, because I was afraid we were going to run out. She came over, a more experienced nurse than I. I asked her, “What is this exhalation, this grunting? Is it pain, or what?” She said many people do that when they are dying and it’s not seen so much as pain but as a reflex, because it can be hard to die. This grunting really disturbs people when dying people do it. Researchers who have studied it basically feel that it’s not pain, it’s just hard effort.

We all felt better after that. We sat there holding her, five of us, each holding one of her hands or feet. We often talk about the direction of our lives, and it can be a high-faluting idea, but basically what it boils down to is, “What am I doing just now?” I was just sitting there. I wasn’t one of the daughters or the husband, but I had a role. I felt that I was trying to perceive. I emptied out and just perceived, and it came to me all of a sudden what was happening, all these long hours since five o’clock in the afternoon and now it was ten o’clock and she was still grunting.

I said to them, “I think it’s time for us to tell her that it’s okay to let go.” Nobody had told her that. We had all kept telling her we loved her, but nobody had said, “It’s okay to go away now.”

Her husband is a great guy, a genuine Rhode Island Italian about sixty-two years old. He was earthy, and kind of hid his feelings a lot, but he was very warm. He looked at me and said, “What do you mean by let go?”

I said, “Die.” He didn’t want me to say it. “It’s time to tell her it’s okay to die.”

He said, “I can’t do that!”

I said, “Well, maybe she thinks it’s not okay because everyone is holding onto her so tight.”

One of her daughters is a nurse and she said, “I was just thinking that myself.” So she leaned close to her mother’s face and said, “Mom, it’s okay with me if you go right now. I think it would be really good if you started to try to let go right now.”

The husband was on the other side, and every time his daughter said, “It’s okay to let go,” he would cover his wife’s face so she couldn’t hear what her daughter was saying. He didn’t even know he was doing it. He wasn’t angry with his daughter. It was just as if he had this question: is it okay to let go? He wasn’t sure it was okay, so he was protecting his wife from hearing it.

I didn’t try to control that. I didn’t say, “Wait a minute, do you see what you’re doing?” I just let it happen. Finally another daughter said, “Mom, it’s okay to go to sleep now.” She was modifying it.

I said, “Is going to sleep and letting go the same thing?” And she said, “Well, not quite. Just out of pain and asleep.” At that the husband said to his wife, “Yeah, I think it’s okay for you to die now.” Then he started to say Hail Marys over and over again in a beautiful way, about fifteen of them.

He was telling her to let go, but he was thinking that there was something unfinished between them. Then I really admired him, because in front of this audience, his three daughters and me, he said to his wife, “I want to tell you something. I want you to forgive me for anything I’ve done in our marriage which has hurt you.” It was so beautiful. He said, “I know that I’ve hurt you many times and I am really sorry and I want you to forgive me.”

Up till then she hadn’t moved at all, but just then she moved her head towards him. He told her again that he loved her. It felt complete. All the daughters said that they wanted her to let go and that they loved her very much but they wanted her out of pain. For about ten more minutes we sat there quietly and watched her grunt.

I really wanted her to stop, to relax. I was trying to keep an empty mind and just perceive what was going on. I said, “I think she’s trying to think that it’s okay to let go. I think she knows that you think it’s okay to go and now she’s trying to do that.” We all sat there patiently, not rushing her, not forcing her. Two of the daughters left the room and I moved closer to her and held her. She started to relax. We thought, “That’s wonderful.”

Then something happened which I didn’t expect. Again, it’s like our practice not to make some thought about the future but just to take things as they come in the moment. At that moment some really dark blood started coming out of her mouth. Nobody expected it. Of course I had to act as if this happened all the time and not look worried about it. I got a pad and a basin and said, “We have to let this come out. She needs to have this come out. Maybe when she lets this come out, she’s going to let go.” Actually, she was letting go. I told her it was okay to try to let it all come out.

The blood kept flowing slowly. The daughter, who was only about twenty-eight years old, was incredible and got some tissue and kept cleaning her face. It was so quiet in the room. The beautiful thing about it was that even though it was such an ugly thing in a way, there was complete attention by the three of us. Her husband even kissed her on the mouth – totally unconditional love.

I called the other two girls in. She was just resting; her respirations were very slow. I said, “Now she’s going to let go.” She stopped breathing. All of a sudden her husband took the basin and got up and started to take it to the bathroom. We knew each other really well. I said to him, “Wait a minute, we’re not finished. This isn’t finished. I’ll take this out and you go back to her.” I could tell that he was scared all of a sudden. She wasn’t going to take another breath, but this was the finish of it, so I told him, “Go back and look at her – watch her stillness.” Then I left the room and stayed out for a few minutes.

They all started to cry. It was beautiful just to let them get it out. The father had never in his whole life cried before his daughters, and he was crying. Then all these other people who had been outside in another room all night came in and began to cry and say Hail Marys.

My karma is that I’m very composed and tight, even though I’m always telling people to let it out, to relax. In essence I wasn’t in this family, so I kind of stood back and watched it all and watched myself too. I come from a middle-class Protestant background and I was telling myself, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with being Italian and screaming and yelling and saying Hail Marys.” Then I got into it: I almost cried, but I held it back. I was so relieved that she was out of pain. Then after about ten minutes this wonderful thing happened. The father and his three daughters went into another room and closed the door, just the four of them. I could hear them laughing. They were so high, it was like a five-hour retreat of being at her bedside and they all had gotten so close in that five hours.

There were certain family dynamics between the daughters. They would talk to me and complain a little about each other. Basically they got along but there were frictions, and now all the friction was gone because they had done this bedside retreat together. They were talking and laughing and telling each other how much they loved each other and how much they had helped each other. l wondered what the rest of the family was thinking, because their mother and wife had died just ten minutes ago and here they were laughing their heads off. It was a great thing. I wanted to tell you about it because it was so wonderful for me.

It’s wonderful when you can take your work and take what we do here and bring them together. You don’t have to use the word Buddhism or Zen. I’ve started using the word “pray” because that’s what most people feel comfortable with. It isn’t threatening to them. I say, “Let’s be quiet and listen to what God has to teach us.” I never used to use the word “God,” but I do now because people like it. I say, “There’s this whole universe and whatever makes this universe work is God. So let’s be quiet and just listen.” That’s a sneaky way to get people to do what I like to do.

This woman was the first hospice patient that was all my responsibility, and she was the first person since I’ve been a nurse that prayed with me. I never had the nerve to ask before. I asked her early in our relationship if she would like to try some guided meditation, since it might help her relax and relieve the pain. She said she wanted to. We ended up doing guided meditations that were in a book on grief meditation. She got in touch with a lot of her grief and was able to let it go. I taught her about breathing and how that could help her feel stronger, and she would use that to handle her painful memories. She meant a lot to me. It was wonderful to see how her family pulled together, even though it was not an “ideal” death in a sense, with her constant pain and so forth. One of the things we teach here is how to let our minds go anywhere without hindrance, no matter what the outside circumstances.

Inka Speech

(Holding up the Zen stick in the air, then hitting the floor.)

“This” is just like this.

(Holding up the Zen stick in the air, then resting it on the floor.)

“This” is just like this.

If you understand “this” then you understand the rivers, the mountains, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, all sentient beings, all come from “this.”

You must understand that Rinzai’s KATZ, Ku Ji’s one finger, Jo Ju’s Mu, Ma Jo’s “no mind, no Buddha,” Dong Sahn’s “three pounds of flax,” Un Mun’s “Dry shit on a stick,” Pai Chang’s five hundred generation fox, Duk Sahn’s carrying his bowl and last word, Hok Am’s “Bodhidharma has no beard,” Nam Cheon’s killing the cat, Hyang Eom’s “up a tree, hanging by your teeth,” Kyong Ho’s cow with no nostrils, Mang Gong’s “ten thousand Dharmas return to one; where does the one return?” Ko Bong’s “the mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken,” Seung Sahn’s “dropping ashes on the Buddha,” all return to “this.”

Maybe someone will appear and say, “I understand ‘this.'” This stick will hit this person thirty times.

Maybe someone will appear and say, “I don’t understand ‘this.”’ This stick will hit the person thirty times.

Because “this” is not dependent on understanding or not understanding.

But if you want to attain “this,” your head must become a mass of iron with no holes. How can your head become like iron? You must crush your eyes, your ears, your nose, your tongue, your body, your mind, and pour melted iron into your head.

Then what?

AAAAAAAAH!

The elephant is afraid of the mouse; the mouse is afraid of the cat; the cat is afraid of the lion; the lion is afraid of the elephant. (Making circles with her finger,) Around, around, around.

(Students then came forward and asked questions.)

The Mahaparanirvana Sutra says, “All formations are impermanent. That is the law of appearing and disappearing. If both appearing and disappearing disappear, this stillness is bliss.” But this world is full of suffering and problems. How can you become still, and attain this bliss? How can you save the countless millions of beings?

KATZ!

(Holding up the Zen stick in the air, then hitting the floor. Holding up the Zen stick, then resting it on the floor.)

Hit the floor, sound. Don’t hit the floor, no sound.

Gilding The Lily

Dear Bobby,

At the “leaping tiger” retreat in Lawrence several weeks ago, I had two interviews with you. I was the one who practices with Katagiri Roshi (sort of tall, thin, old, no hair).

During the interviews you gave me two koans that brought me to “don’t know.” Now, I have written something about them. Perhaps when you have the time, you can send me a bit more Dharma teaching.

In gassho,

Leo

Reflections on Two Koans

Q: If the whole universe is on fire, by what samadhi can we avoid being burned?

A: By a samadhi of “oneness with the fire.” To realize a deep samadhi of the universal fire of pain, suffering and death is to become one with it; to consume as we are consumed, to assimilate as we are assimilated.

Concretely: we have to enter fully and go straight ahead, as if putting our hand through the flame of a candle.

Q: A monk is bound hand and foot hanging by his teeth over a precipice, when he sees someone passing below who needs a word of the Dharma. It is his duty to give the word; if he does not, he fails his vows and dies. But if he opens his mouth to speak, he falls and dies. What should he do?

A: Like this monk, we are all bound hand and foot by greed and desire, beginningless greed, anger, and self-delusion.” And we fear that if we were to speak a word of the Dharma, act on the truth by giving voice to it, we will surely fall into the emptiness of karmic death. Yet the true (Dharma) cause of death is birth; our concern is only how we function in between. Is life not a fall from a precipice?

Concretely: Soon enough, this shirt I wear will be a dust rag, this car I drive will be junk. A shirt is to be worn, a car is to be driven, and a monk is to give the Dharma.


December 30, 1981

Dear Leo,

Thanks for your beautiful card. It was good to hear from you. I enjoyed meeting and talking with you while I was in Kansas. How are you?

Your reflections on the two kong-ans are very wonderful, but a kong-an is never completely answered unless there is absolutely no trace left of the person answering it. So I must tell you that one more step is necessary. Soen Sa Nim often describes Zen as being like a glass of water. It quenches your thirst, probably better than any other liquid, but it has no taste. It does not shout out to you, “Hey! I’m pink! I have sparkling bubbles!” Or, “Taste me! I’m thick, rich, and chocolatey!” Water is only water.

As in all other religions and philosophies, there is the possibility in Zen practice of “gilding the lily,” of adding something of your own to an already perfect glass of water. We do this because our minds are complicated — full of many ideas about what is right, what is wrong, what is pure, what is simple, etc. So, Leo, what I am saying to you is that although your answers are very good, they are not complete.

Sometimes when a student answers a kong-an incorrectly — very incorrectly — the teacher says, “Your answer is like trying to hit the moon with a stick,” or “You’re scratching your left foot when your right foot itches.” But your answers were not that far away from the truth. It is like there is a piece of slightly rose-colored cellophane between you and the truth.

So I ask you again: You’re hanging from a branch by your teeth. Your hands are tied behind your back; you can’t reach the tree in any way. Someone beneath the tree asks you, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” If you answer, you fall to your death; if you don’t answer, you will be killed. How do you stay alive?

Also … The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of Samadhi can you escape being burned?

I hope you only go straight — don’t know, soon finish the great work of life and death, and save all people from suffering.

Sincerely,

Bobby

P.S. I hope you will send me another letter soon with the correct answers.


January 30, 1982

Dear Bobby:

Deeply appreciate your response to my efforts on the kong-ans, and the invitation to try to go further, beyond that “rose-colored, gilding” ego mind blurring the path.

Now, for a month, I have been holding that branch firmly between my teeth and hearing the question from below, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” The bark is rough on the mouth; the taste is sour. Perhaps I can spit hard enough to cool the fire of the universe.

From between my clenched teeth, the sound of a hard spit or a loud, from-the-belly “Mu” answers the questioner from within the concrete situation, like a finger pointing toward the Dharma: “here is one hanging between life and death!” And the questioner may realize the truth of their own peril, that he or she may be next, that he or she is also at that moment hanging between life and death. Stopping to help the monk or going on, either way the danger remains, and awareness of this immediate reality brought on by my outcry cuts through the question.

(Maybe I am gilding here again; if I were facing you in interview, I should simply clench my teeth and directly bring out the noise.)

———-

If the whole universe is on fire, the samadhi through which I escape being burned is the samadhi of coolness; coolness of detachment and emptiness. Detachment from the fiery universe of greed and desire by entry into the emptiness beneath it, where “all five skandhas are empty.” Don’t we struggle toward this every time we sit?

———–

Well, going straight to don’t know … don’t know if these answers are correct. Thank you for the struggle.

Yours in gassho,

Leo


February 11, 1982

Dear Leo,

You can’t spit hard enough to cool the fire of the universe. It is still on fire. Your “Mu” sounds like a whimper by the time it reaches the questioner’s ears. How much longer can your clenched mind bear the rough bark and sour taste?

Someone is totally depending on you to show them the Way. What is this Way? Leo, each moment is candidly revealing itself to you. Please try to pay attention!

You wrote to me about the samadhi of coolness — coolness of detachment and emptiness. You must be very careful. If you have detachment, you have attachment. If you have emptiness, you have fullness. If you sit on your cushion and have even a second’s thought about struggling towards the emptiness beneath the fiery universe of greed and desire, you are already lost. You are lost in the dead realm of opposites. How can you keep your mind present and alive?

Once, when Soen Sa Nim was explaining to someone how to sit, he said something that I found extremely helpful. He said imagine that you have lost your only set of car keys and you have to get somewhere very desperately. Just at that time your mind is totally focused on trying to find those car keys. You don’t stop and think about the nature of car keys, or about where they originally came from; nor do you stop and read books about what other people have done when they have lost something that they need very badly. You also don’t try to feel detached or empty about the keys. You only look for them! Where are my keys? Where are my keys!

So again I must tell you that I can’t accept your answers. You are very lucky that you have such a dilemma. Where is your mistake? What can you do? Drop the particular situations in both kong-ans and try to keep a mind that just doesn’t know.

Thank you for your struggle.

Sincerely,

Bobby

Doubt

A Dharma Talk given on February 15, 1982 to Winter Kyol Che, a 90 day retreat held at the Providence Zen Center each winter, led by George Bowman.

George asked me to speak about doubt. If you don’t understand doubt, if you don’t believe in doubt, if you don’t believe in trying to understand doubt, then it’s very hard to practice. It took me years to really attain my understanding of what doubt is. For years I sat on the cushion in the Dharma Room on Hope Street. George and Louise and I spent many hours there and Soen Sa Nim gave many Dharma talks. He was always saying, “Only go straight, don’t-know.” And I was always wondering, “What is don’t-know?” I wouldn’t admit to anybody that I didn’t understand what don’t-know meant, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure, and more and more trying to understand don’t-know was what kept me going. That was doubt. That was a big question, this thing that nobody could explain to you – that’s what doubt is.

Teachers all talk about it in different ways. But they’re all pointing to the same thing. Our minds are always trying to label and attach, to make our own identity fields concrete by saying, “Yeah, that’s how I thought it was,” by always trying to make something. When we do that, we’re not doubting. It’s when you can’t understand something that you start to purge yourself – when you are actually stumped. You just sit there and you are stumped. That’s doubt.

Practicing with other people really helps me see where I am stuck in my own mind. One of these people was a girl named Polly who lived with us for a while about 2� years ago. About a week before Annie was born a little 6-year-old girl got killed in our yard, in an accident. She was holding onto a pony with a rope, and the rope was wrapped around her wrists. A horse grazing at the other end of the field called to the pony. The pony wanted to go see the other horse, so he ran, dragged her with him over the stone wall and she was killed. Polly and I were both home that day. Polly had seen the whole thing happen. At the time Polly was 19 or 20. The little girl’s father and I got there at about the same time. I saw the little girl lying in the grass. This happened about a week before I had Annie, so I was very pregnant and very emotional at the time. I couldn’t believe that I was watching this little kid die. I felt really shaken up. Her mother was there too and she also was very pregnant, so I had complete empathy for this woman. Walking back to the house after the emergency squad had taken her away, I was shaking. We had been in the middle of a directors’ meeting, but I wasn’t going to go back to it. I had been thinking, “Oh God, how can I go back to the directors’ meeting if this is happening?” Not that I could go to the hospital; it wasn’t appropriate at all. I didn’t even know the little girl that well but I felt as though I should be doing something. Just then Linc said to me, “You have to just practice.” He shook me and said, “The best thing you can do right now is return to the directors’ meeting and do your best right there. That’s the only way you can help that girl’s mother or father or her!” Then I realized, “of course!” I saw that all I could do was just do my job. So I dropped the mind that asked why that had happened to that little girl.

Polly was very shaken up. She kept asking me why that had happened, and she asked Soen Sa Nim. Soen Sa Nim explained karma to her – the law of cause and effect. He said that in a previous life she had maybe killed this pony or done something mean to it, and so he had come back to her. The way Soen Sa Nim explained it, it wasn’t as if she had sinned or she had finally gotten justice – not a fatalistic idea but just that that’s the way nature balances itself, that’s just what happens in this world. It sounded very coarse. The little girl killed the pony last time and the pony killed her this time – a poor little 6-year-old girl. Anyway, you could see that explanation wasn’t enough for Polly at all. She continued to keep the question, “Why did that happen?” or, “Why are the people in Africa starving to death?” She had lots of questions just like that: “Why is this world so unfair?” “Why are some people born rich and some born poor?” That’s one way of experiencing doubt – asking, “Why is this world so screwed up? What’s it all about?” and thinking, thinking, thinking, and with this mind, later that year, Polly went to Texas, found Reverend Moon’s teaching, and joined his group. I think she is still with them.

Many times when we experience the doubting mind that is trying to understand the puzzles of the world, we have the idea that we can find a light, a God, something that will give us something to believe in, something to attach to, some ideal to make our fears and anxieties rest. But it is very dangerous to try to take away your uncertainty. When you’re uncertain and insecure and don’t want to feel like you don’t know, it’s dangerous to look for someone who knows, who will guide you, show you the way and give you the truth. There are many teachers and religions who offer to release you from doubt and give you something.

The reason I thought of Polly was because this morning after practice, we read a kong-an from her. It’s good teaching. Polly has written to Soen Sa Nim several times since she had this revelation in finding Rev. Moon, and Soen Sa Nim has just tried to tell her that she has to find herself – not find it, but find herself, in every moment, every situation – not to depend on anything, any teaching, any teacher, any way, but just to understand herself. Several letters have come back and forth, but every time she kind of doesn’t get it. Here’s the letter:

Dear Soen Sa Nim,Hi. Sorry I don’t have any pretty paper. Just now I want to write you. I’ve been thinking of you. I’m on a subway train to Manhattan from Queens. There’s a cute little boy eating a lollipop. It’s morning – a new day. Take care, Soen Sa Nim; I am one of many who love you and are grateful.

Love, Polly
Dear Polly,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

Don’t check; don’t hold; don’t be attached. Only go straight, What am I? If you attain I, you will get correct direction, correct truth, correct life.

That’s it. In one sense this letter to Soen Sa Nim is just like this – I’m on a train, this boy is eating a lollipop, it’s a new day. When everything is O.K. – a cute little boy, lollipops, a new day – then we can rest a little bit and believe in things. But when a child gets her head smashed by a pony out in the yard, then it’s a different story. Then everything falls apart. Our life is always fluctuating between happiness and sadness, comfort and discomfort, certainty and uncertainty. And if we let our minds move, then we’ve lost our way, we’ve lost ourselves. Soen Sa Nim says here, “Don’t check, don’t hold, don’t be attached.” Just boom, boom, boom. Only go straight. What am I? That ‘What Am I?’ is extremely difficult. It’s as if you’re sitting in the middle of the ocean in a teeny little teetery boat. It’s not giving you what you want, and you’re not supported. It’s scary sometimes, but you have to be able to get your own guts strong, to be able to sit without anybody saying, “I will help you. I am the way. I am the light.” But just, what is this? If you can do that, if you can just be completely purged of any other idea, then you’re going to get strong.

Eido Roshi said something once that I thought was very beautiful. He was talking about Zen Master Un Mun who said that every day is a good day. He said, “I’m not talking about the 15th day (the full moon day on the 30-day moon calendar), but tell me about after the 15th day, then what?” Nobody could answer. Then he said that every day is a good day. What Eido Roshi said about this story is that we have a full moon idea. If everything is lit up and you can see it all, then you feel ‘ah, that’s beautiful, that’s complete.’ But then there is a whole period after the 15th when a little less and less and less of the moon is showing. Eido Roshi said that it’s always a full moon; it’s always a good day. Even though just a crescent shows, it’s there. It’s just not lit – there’s a shadow.

Last night George told a story about a man who sat for so many kalpas and didn’t attain the Dharma; the Dharma did not appear. We make that in our minds because we think there is something to appear. We think that there is some Dharma that is going to appear when it has already appeared. It is already always a full moon, but we have an idea of full as being lit. But the whole teaching is that if your mind is complete, then everything is complete.

How can you get this complete mind? How can you not have the mind that needs to have a good feeling, that sees the moon as the fuller the better, the mind that doesn’t want anything like a kid getting kicked in the head to happen? Things like that are going on all the time. That’s our life. Good feelings, bad feelings – we’re never going to get away from them. The whole teaching is to completely make peace with everything – to be able to just be with anything completely.

The whole Zen teaching of doubt is just to keep that doubt. Interview after interview I get so frustrated when I try to give people what I’ve understood about what don’t-know is. So many times it falls on deaf ears because there hasn’t been enough hard training yet, not enough suffering yet, not enough not checking and letting go. So, all the words come to mind that I hear from George and from Soen Sa Nim and from everybody: you have to have try mind; you have to not make anything in your mind; you have to persevere. If you can do that and have great faith in your practice, then you can sit.

I remember on Hope Street, for five years, talking to myself over and over – “I don’t know why I’m getting up so early; I don’t know why every night at 7 o’clock I go down the stairs and hit the moktak.” Sometimes I’d just think, “Wow! The last thing I want to do is go down there.” I found it unpleasant in the Dharma Room because it was so noisy outside, but I had faith – I completely believed in the teaching, in the practice. With faith, slowly, slowly you can begin to put down your ideas, and your doubt grows. Your ability to slow down and to attain a quiet mind gets stronger. So if you have one sitting period when you perceive that every day is a good day – when you completely see that – then that’s enough to keep you going for another ten kalpas. Just stay with it and don’t give up. It’s a beautiful thing just to keep trying.

What we can do is completely get our own center so strong that we’re not holding anything – just what Soen Sa Nim says: “Don’t check, don’t hold, don’t be attached.” If you can do that, then you can just slip some energy to somebody because you’ve got energy to give. When you can’t slip some energy in, then more suffering is necessary. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. (It seems like I’m giving myself a Dharma talk.) People have to work out their own karma. You just have to make your center strong. You have to understand great doubt, have faith and just keep trying. Then your job is going to get clearer and clearer.

Death, Dying, and Kong-Ans

Zen Master Seong Hyang and Kwang Myong Sunim, JDPS

Excerpted from a workshop at the Whole World is a Single Flower Conference, Providence Zen Center, October 1999.

Kwang Myong Sunim JDPS: This workshop is entitled “Death, Dying, and Kong-ans.” Maybe we could start with a kong-an: what is death? [Pause] What a huge kong-an! Perhaps the biggest kong-an faced by humankind. What is death? [Pause] How many people have been with someone who was dying? What kind of experience was it for you? Frightening, sad, positive?

Student: Last year my father died. That was very difficult.

Zen Master Soeng Hyang: I want to ask you, did you chant or use this practice at all after his death?

Student: Yes, I did. I chanted Ji Jang Bosal…

ZMSH: Did you find that helpful?

Student: I think that was the beginning of dealing with my grief; Ji Jang Bosal was all that I could think of to do.

ZMSH: The fact that you said, “That was all I could do, was Ji Jang Bosal,” at least it was something! We can say, “At least it’s something,” but it’s really something when we really do it! If we have that person in our consciousness and do this repetition, there can be an incredible increase in intuition about the whole relationship. This is someone you knew, cared about, and had a lot of questions about. Death of a loved one is not cut and dried. Many questions appear: “Is he peaceful? Is he not peaceful? Was I a good son? Was he a good father? Could we have done more?” But this is really beyond life and death. Chanting Ji Jang Bosal after someone passes away helps open your heart so that the line of demarcation between life and death fades, and what’s left is intuition and intimacy. Then it’s not just about you and your father.

KMSN: This question of how to practice the bodhisattva path with the sick and dying is an important question. If you are holding anything about life and death, then it is very hard to meet the other and help them. If you can be present with wherever they are, in their anger, in their fear, in their courage, in their dying, and go with them, then a just-like-this experience appears and correct function becomes possible. So how do we meet this person who is suffering and in need? Perhaps first by confronting who we think we are, what we think death is, what we think life is, what we think about the whole process. What is death and who is it that dies? It is only in sitting with these kong-ans and bringing one’s realization forth that one can be truly present for another. The specific function of that realization in a given moment may mean holding hands, breathing in and out together, or perhaps facilitating verbal expressions of regret, sadness, or gratitude.

ZMSH: I had a patient only a few weeks ago who had a prison background. There was absolutely nothing I could do. Inside, I just did a mantra the whole time. I sat with him, his wife, the young children who were there. But I couldn’t fix anything. I just did my mantra and tried to breathe slowly. There was no way I could get him to connect with my breath or with his own breath. There was no communication and there hadn’t been, not enough for him to relax and say, “I’m sorry” or “God, I need to talk about this.” We all have to live with suffering constantly, don’t we? Can we get right in the middle and say, “Come on, guys, let’s breathe!” It has nothing to do with whether they are physically dying or not. If each of us tries to be in that place where it’s not death or life but intimacy, then maybe we can help teach that to other people and encourage people to practice. Also, things cannot paralyze us when they aren’t comfortable or not exactly the way we’d like them to be. We can keep our hearts and minds open, and look for the possibilities. And then that awareness, whether it’s out of humor or profound, exquisite communication, is something that can evolve and develop as we practice.

KMSN: An ongoing practice for me is trying to sit with a patient who is vomiting — I still find it hard to keep my center when a patient is vomiting blood or fecal matter! There is initially a reflexive response to protect oneself — to grab a towel and duck out of the way. But if I can stay in the room and at the bedside, the purely physical revulsion and disgust passes and only then can I be of some service to that person; perhaps wiping their forehead and mouth with a slightly damp, cool cloth. In the midst of the entire stink and mess, a deeply profound meeting transpires! It is one thing having romantic notions about helping the terminally ill, or having blissful ideas about meditation practice. However, the reality is something quite different and can be profoundly confronting if there is an “I” who wants to help or if this “I” wants to attain enlightenment.

Student: What can we do to help someone heal who is terminally ill?

ZMSH: My answer to that comes right from our Zen practice. Say you have cancer: when you have any kind of personal kong-an, if you enter the kong-an even when it’s uncomfortable or you have no resolution to it or feel it might kill you — even if the kong-an is cancer — then you enter it and ask, “What is this?” What is my relationship to this? How are you? What is this all about? That’s the healing. Whether it actually dissipates and leaves your body — and there are documented cases of that — or the person takes it on into another realm, there is the intimacy of entering that and not hiding. If you have the opposition of “I’m against this and I’m against this,” this means only more pain and more suffering. Just melt into it. Melt into “What are you?” That’s what I tell people. But even with a kong-an, it can be very frightening to do that. Some people who have tumors visualize a little Pac-Man eating their cancer tumors. To me, that seems oppositional: that’s more fighting!

Ji Hyang Sunim: Recently, I’ve been getting calls from hospitals and hospices in the area about people who are dying and are interested in having a Buddhist nun visit. These are people who haven’t been practicing so I mostly just talk to them. I worry, though, that there is something more direct or closely related to practice that I could be doing, only I’m not sure how to bring that home for them. Do you have any ideas?

KMSN: Go for some training. What I do is Clinical Pastoral Education, an accredited program for ministers, ordained, and lay people who want to learn how to care for the spiritual needs of others. In addition to using your experience as a dharma practitioner and as a human being, professional training will give you the skills you need to facilitate clear communication with the sick or dying.

ZMSH: I would say that a good 80% of the people that I’ve witnessed dying, that had no practice, died as they lived. There was no increased potential to focus in for that last two weeks or one week or 24 hours or five hours. I’ve seen televisions on, radios on; I’ve seen anger, like “Why didn’t you give me that when I asked for it?” It’s very sad. It’s like when someone drops into the middle of a Yong Maeng Jong Jin with no training: they probably are not going to have a good time. Zen Master Seung Sahn always says, “Hurry up! Hurry up! We have no time!” It’s true, and it’s so much harder to practice when you’re sick and in pain.

KMSN: There is a danger in getting caught up in the forms of religion or particular meditation techniques, or having some idea about Zen practice or Christian practice. It isn’t the practice itself that is significant; it’s how the practice manifests through us as human beings. Attachment to form bogs down natural human process. Death and/or being present with someone who is dying is not a Zen Buddhist process, nor a Tibetan Buddhist process, it’s a sentient being process. But, as human beings, can we recognize and meet the dying in the totality of being, then respond appropriately? Again, in a given moment, that may simply mean bringing a bowl for a patient to vomit in. It may mean ten thousand things. But there is a danger in getting distracted by form when fundamentally, death, dying and kong-ans are just human beings expressing humanness.

ZMSH: You know, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. It’s not time or no-time, not before or after. When you really just take it to your center and sense, “What was that?” or “Who was that?” That intimacy and love are still there. You don’t worry about the time that has gone by, or practicing and not-practicing. It’s intimacy, letting that come into your heart and your consciousness. I love that story in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, about the grandmother who was crying for her dead granddaughter and somebody checked her because she was a Zen Master. “You’re a great Zen Master, why are you crying?” And she said, “My tears send her to heaven.” I love that. That’s what that means: love is just flowing, and you send it to them.

Student: Do you believe in life after death?

KMSN: What do you believe?

Student: I don’t know.

KMSN: That’s where it begins, not knowing. Thank you for listening.

Commentary on Hyang Eom’s “Up a Tree”

It is taught that this kong-an has only one answer that will truly release all the tethers that tie us to our ignorance. Only one response will be universally received as correct: “Ahi, that’s it, that’s how you stay alive!”

What is that answer? How do you stay alive? How can you generously offer your wisdom while tied and bound, dangling above a fatal fall with only the grip of your teeth to save you?

The gift that is offered by this kong-an is total bondage, total physical and intellectual bondage. Only a Zen student would be so foolish as to accept such a gift. Only a Zen student would recognize it as a gift, rather than seeing it as a manipulative mind game that has no answer.

Open the gift. Inside is only don’t know. Such an expensive gift, and yet few will accept it Accepting it means abandoning the familiar, and that can be terrifying. And yet, not knowing is very familiar territory for us all, a place where we can be empowered. Not knowing allows us to let go of false assumptions. It frees us of preconceptions and attachments. When the mind doesn’t know, it is sitting exactly in this moment. Men it is in this moment, it is wide open … a perfect receptor … a perfect reflector.

In the Temple Rules of the Kwan Um School of Zen, it says, “In original nature there is no this and that. The Great Round Mirror has no likes or dislikes.” No likes or dislikes means letting conditioned, structured mind states dissolve so that our natural wisdom and compassion can manifest themselves. In Zen, this wise and compassionate state is simply called having a clear mind.

The Buddha gave all kinds of teaching, and he said that he taught that way to save all different kinds of minds. But if there is no mind, then there is nothing to save. So, if you can completely engage in the question, the “don’t know” that a kong-an offers, where is your mind? Doing meditation and a kong-an practice, tapping into the generosity of those techniques, your mind becomes very spacious.

Even while being tied and bound, our mind can feel as spacious as the sky. Look up at the sky and think of it as your mind. The sky doesn’t have any hindrances. If a cloud appears, the sky doesn’t complain. If there is thunder and lightning, if there’s pollution, it remains just as spacious. There is no tightening, no fear. Our practice can help us to open to those qualities, so that we’re not hindered by the ropes around our limbs and the fall beneath our feet. Just in that moment – don’t know – be in relationship with that situation. How do you stay alive?

Out of this spaciousness comes the ability to realize our wisdom and remember how to be in relationship with the lessons, the opportunities that appear in our life. Few ever say it is easy. A wise teacher will encourage cultivation of patience, forbearance, generosity, precepts . encourage courage.

And then, what? We have the sky for inspiration, our teacher’s encouragement, total support from the tree’s branch. How do we share in the generosity?

KATZ!

The universe awaits your response.

Clowns & Dharma Teachers

Dear Bobbie,

I’ve just written to the Dharma Teacher Association to ask for a leave of absence as a Dharma Teacher. This is a confusing and difficult step for me.

I have not been practicing (sitting, bowing) for a while now. I’m not being a Dharma Teacher, and I’m not sure what relationship to have to the Zen centers.

My life is full and I feel that I’m meant to live in the world. I also need the Dharma, and love and respect Soen Sa Nim and my friends in the sangha of the Zen centers. I don’t know what the balance is or just how to find it. I feel that perhaps I need just to have a freer relationship to the Zen centers.

I would love to hear any thoughts or advice you might have for this confused being.

I hope you and Linc and Annie are all well. When will you be out here again?

I am going to school in Theology (!?) and the Arts, and my art is clowning. The main reason for the theology part is that I get a PhD, but I also want to integrate my spirituality with my clowning.

I am also in love and feel that I’ve found a real and good mate.

Please do write! I hope you’re not too busy. Please give my love to everyone.

Love,

Jeanne


Dear Jeanne,

Thanks for writing. I’m glad that you are happy and feeling fulfilled with your mate and your schooling. I’m also pleased that you wrote to me and trusted me enough to ask such a meaningful question.

You said that your life is full and you feel that you’re meant to live in the world. Then you said you also need the Dharma, love and respect Soen Sa Nim and your friends in the sangha of the Zen centers.

I have some questions for you. I know you want me to ask them, or else you never would have written to me, knowing what a crusty and dyed-in-the-wool Dharma Teacher I am.

What is most important? What is the purpose of your life? Is living in the world and teaching about the Dharma the same or different?

What is a perfect clown? A low class clown can only make people who are already happy laugh. A middle class clown can make people who are sad laugh. A high class clown can teach all people how to make each other laugh.

A high class Dharma Teacher can be a high class clown. A high class clown is already a high class Dharma Teacher.

I feel that Soen Sa Nim has given me the most precious gift that can be given – so I feel a tremendous obligation to him and to his School. Not an obligation formed from “shoulds” or guilt. But a very deep heart-felt obligation to support and try to transmit the teaching that he is so generously giving to me. So that is where I am being a “Dharma Teacher.” I pay my dues and try to keep my practice (life) alive without feeling any distinction between Zen centers, Dharma teaching, and “living in the world.”

So I guess I feel that nothing is free – especially my teacher’s teaching. Paying for that teaching in some clear way is very important. To me, the best payment is making my relationship to the Three Jewels as clear as I can.

So being or not being a Dharma Teacher isn’t important. Being anything isn’t important. What is important is having a big question -“What am I?” and “going straight – don’t know.” Then your mind will become clear and a high class clown following a compassionate heart will appear.

I hope you always keep a big question and try your hardest to understand.

Much love,

Bobby Rhodes

The Bodhisattva Ideal

A talk given during the winter 1982 Kyol Che intensive meditation retreat at Providence Zen Center.

People often ask me what does the Bodhisattva vow – to save all people from suffering – really mean? A student said to me last week, “I really want to practice and help people. How can I keep this mind?” “What you have right now is wonderful,” I told him. “All you have to do is try to keep it; just try. There’s no formula.” But he didn’t really believe that. He thought there was possibly something else that I could hand him.

I often feel frustrated with my own practice, questioning how much I’m able to affect other people’s lives, or the quality of my own. That’s what Soen Sa Nim calls “checking.” You start to look at what is happening with your practice, your friends, family, or your Zen Center. But the Buddha said, “I have every kind of medicine to help people no matter what their problem is, but I can’t make them take it.” We are Buddha, we have Buddha’s mind, so we have every remedy for every kind of suffering. We are Bodhisattvas and all we have to do is accept our ‘Bodhisattvaness’ and it will seep out. Any thought of how long it will take or how much we can do – any single thought – is not practicing.

In an old story, Zen Master Huang Po was walking with a man. When they reached a river, the man walked right across the water without breaking stride. Huang Po said, “If I had known he was that kind of man, I would have broken his legs before he reached the water.” He meant that this act was completely unnecessary. You have a physical body and sometimes an obstacle like a river appears and slows you down. Then you have to either get wet, or build a bridge. In itself, that’s not good or bad, that is just water, slowing you down.

Huang Po said, “Your practice is like being an insect with very sensitive antennae.” Your mind, your consciousness, your perceptions are like antennae. If your checking mind moves those antennae feelers even the smallest amount, then you’ve lost your way. Huang Po was saying, don’t check. Don’t think in terms of opposites, or of yourself as separate from anything. only completely perceive; believe in what you have already. You are already Buddha. Just give yourself to everything.

We make hindrances for ourselves. We also make “The entire universe is suffering.” What does it mean to ask, “How can I save all people?” There is a story about one of Buddha’s disciples. One day, as he was meditating, this man had an intuition that the Kapila Kingdom would be destroyed by a war in seven days. He wanted desperately to stop that war. He said to Buddha, “Do you know that next week many of your people are going to be killed?”

“Yes.”

“Then why don’t you save them?”

“I can’t.”

“But you have magical powers. Why can’t you save them?”

But Buddha said, his mind not moving at all, “You can’t make merited karma disappear.”

Then the man did an incredible thing with his wisdom and power. He shrunk the whole kingdom, put them in a small bowl and took them up to a high heaven where it was very safe. After seven days when he thought it was safe, he brought the bowl back to earth. But when he took the cover off and looked inside, he saw that the miniature country had been destroyed by a miniature war.

I was very I relieved when I first heard that story, because it pointed out that even special magical powers can’t help people if they aren’t ready. This story taught me that we don’t need to develop special abilities or perform miracles. Becoming a Billy Graham isn’t going to help, either. Even if you have tremendous charisma, the other person has to want to practice. Buddha said, “You can hand somebody medicine but you can’t make him take it.” Soen Sa Nim has said, “The only way to make karma disappear is for your consciousness to become empty; then there are no miracles, only correct view and correct practice. This is the true miracle.”

We often hear: “correct view, correct practice.” But until our mind completely digests it and knows there is nothing beyond that, we aren’t going to be able to do what we can in this lifetime. There is a story about a man in India who came from a caste that slaughtered cattle. His grandfather did it, his father did it. His job was to hit the cattle over the head with a hammer and kill them. But his mind was very pure. He always asked himself, “What is this? Why am I …. ?” He hated the job, but he had this question all the time. One day, at the instant he killed a cow, he got enlightenment. From the outside, his life looked miserable; all day long he slaughtered sentient beings. But his outside action wasn’t important; it was how he kept his mind. He wanted to help people and understand his life.

This is why the question, “How can I keep this mind that wants to help?” impressed me so much. The student who asked it really wanted to learn. We don’t have to worry about losing that mind, because we already have it. Complete sincerity is all that’s necessary. As we practice more, we learn to see what helping means. I can see now that there is no way we can intellectually grasp how to save all beings from suffering. It’s a waste of time even to try to measure whether it’s possible. As Soen Sa Nim says, “I hope you soon get enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.” I grab that once in a while, but we don’t even have to think about it. We just have to try becoming empty mind and get correct view and correct practice.

At work I am trying to become more of a correct nurse. Last week I saw how I could be doing more, and it’s on such a simple scale, I often think of work as being 5 or 6 hours of busy work, and then an hour or so of free time. I’ve started to see what nonsense that is. I get paid for 8 hours, so why don’t I give the nursing home the whole 8 hours? If I don’t do that at work, there’s no way I’m doing it anywhere else. So last week I started to do that – be more of a correct nurse. That night driving home was a complete experience, I wasn’t feeling guilty about anything; I was just driving home. I knew I had done a good job that day. Having that mind, you are ready for the next step, If someone appears in front of your car, you’re ready to put on the brakes. You have to give yourself to each situation: correct view, correct practice.

I work with a lot of under-educated people at the nursing home. Some of them steal and cheat and fight each other. It would be ridiculous for me to preach to them. Some of the people know I’m a Zen teacher, but they’re too embarrassed to ask about it. A lot of them think it’s cultish or that I’m a real goody-goody. So when a girl at work asked me for advice one day, I was excited about it, but I tried not to say too much. She is a hyperactive sort of person and gets things confused, so I told her to try taking just 10 minutes a day to relax and reflect on her life a little, to see what’s happening. She said, “Yeah,, that’s a good idea.” The next day as I walked by her I overheard her complaining to somebody about how she always got confused. I said, “Well, don’t you remember what I told you to do?” She had completely forgotten what I had said!

It was good teaching for me. I was really hoping that finally, after working at this place for eight years, somebody was going to ask me for advice and get helped by it. I used to be on the day shift and people still come to me and say, “You were the best nurse we ever had on the day shift. I wish you would come back.” Then I realize that my practice has helped people just by making the quality of life a little better

It’s our lazy mind that makes this idea of saving all people something difficult. We don’t want to realize that we can do it, and that it’s right in front of us. As long as we think it’s something far away that only special people can do, we don’t take the responsibility for doing it. If you can completely be here right now and give energy to your practice, you can do it any time. Don’t try to measure how long you will live, or how big is the universe. It’s completely impossible.

When I was little I used to think there must be a wall somewhere with nothing on the other side. How could life and time be infinite? We don’t understand where we’re going and where we come from, and we don’t need to. We just need (claps her hands) to hear that, then we know. So keep listening.

Believing in Yourself

A talk at the Women and American Buddhism conference held at Providence Zen Center in September 1984.

It was wonderful for me to hear everyone share of themselves this weekend. It convinces me once again that we’re all one big family. I hope we keep sharing our dharma with each other. As has been mentioned already, there is a tendency for human beings to separate, to think “my practice is the best.” We build walls, names, and ideas. It’s a human condition and it’s very destructive. We are lucky in this country because we have this opportunity to share ideas. But we have to make an active effort or it’s not going to happen. There’s a pull toward separation all the time.

I was sitting in a sesshin with Sasaki Roshi last May. It was about the fourth day of the retreat. I was about to have my sixteenth interview. Things were so different from what I’m used to with Zen Master Seung Sahn. I had answered a couple of his questions, but there was one kong-an that I had been trying to answer for a day and a half and I kept thinking, “Where is my mistake?” All of a sudden a wave went through me, this wonderful feeling that I’ve had before many times. All of a sudden I had gotten it.

You have to believe in yourself. It’s not so much that he was looking for a word; he was looking for a belief, a confidence to just have it come out … believing in yourself. Then I went up and answered the kong-an. It was the same answer I had given two hours earlier. I just had confidence. I didn’t care what he said. That is how I thought of the title for this talk.

The past several years many of the Zen Centers in America have been having trouble. All of those things that we think of as hard times don’t really have to be a hard time at all. All of those things are your teacher. Arrogance, laughing at someone, laziness are all different traps. You say “thank-you” when anything appears. 1983, 1984, thank-you. All of the things that appear in this universe are for each one of us. Then there’s no winning and no losing anymore. That’s real freedom: freedom from life and death, from winning and losing, from pride and arrogance. Freedom from everything.

I led a retreat in Toronto last weekend. It was wonderful, nice weather, more people than usual, and everyone felt good. We always have a circle talk at the end and share something about the retreat. Several people told me they only see a teacher about every three or four months. They seemed hungry and grateful. You could say anything and they wanted to hear it. It’s really easy, especially to say something nice. They almost draw it out of you. So three of the people who had been at the retreat took me to the airport the next morning. They said things like, “I can’t wait until you come back,” and “It was such a great retreat.” They were full of admiration, and I saw the orange caution light appear.

That’s dangerous, this attachment of people liking your teaching or needing and wanting you. It weighs exactly the same as someone saying “Thanks a lot, but I’d rather have so and so come up and teach. You weren’t so great.” Good speech or bad speech, if either one touches you more than the other, you’ve got problems: clinging, grabbing, not believing in yourself.

If you need good words to feel good about yourself, then it’s devastating when someone gives you bad words. Neither one needs to touch you. At the same time, it’s wonderful if someone tells you your teaching is inadequate and shallow. It’s the same thing as “Wow, it’s great, I can’t wait until you come back!” Your mind doesn’t need to move with either. You can feel a little sad about one reaction and a little proud or happy about the other, just happy that you make people happy. But then that feeling is gone and you’re getting on the airplane, watching an old lady trying to pick up her heavy bag, helping her to carry it.

You’re right there the next moment. I think that’s the goods you get from sitting and practicing. That is Zen – being able to answer the next moment with no trace of the last.

I want to share one story that’s been helpful to me. When Zen Master Seung Sahn, my teacher, had been in this country for six or eight months, everybody was always asking him questions about Korea, Buddhism, and enlightenment. Somebody asked him if there were any women Zen Masters in Korea. He said, “No, women can’t get enlightenment.”

I just looked at him. He gave these wonderful dharma talks about “don’t make man, don’t make woman, don’t make anything.” So I said, “Soen Sa Nim, you always say originally there is nothing. Don’t make distinctions. Don’t make good and bad or man and woman. What do you mean women can’t get enlightenment?” I wasn’t angry, I was just shocked that he was saying that. He looked at me and said, “So you’re a woman!”

“I am a woman.” “I am a man.” Already enlightenment has passed through your fingers. It’s not a thing. You can’t get it. Nobody can get it. Buddha didn’t get it either. So we don’t have to worry. We’re all in the same family and that’s wonderful.

An eminent Zen teacher once said, picture yourself as an insect with sensitive antennae. How they stay alive and find their food depends on those antennae. To attain, or understand yourself, you can’t let those antennae move at all, not one tiny vibration from either of them. They have to be completely still.

In a sense he’s saying that any phenomenon appearing in our life makes us check or doubt ourselves or others by thinking and separating. If the antennae or the mind move just a fraction of an inch, you’ve already gone straight to hell. That’s why enlightenment sounds so difficult. How could we ever be so clear that our minds don’t move at all, that we can always just be there? The only time that the antenna is not moving at all is when you’re meticulously paying attention to each moment.

So it’s not the dishwater or the ninety-day retreat. Either one is food for our practice. One is not better than the other, although sometimes one is more supportive than the other. We have to become sensitive and balanced about those things and it’s not easy.

Zen Master Seung Sahn once gave a talk at the end of our ninety-day winter Kyol Che retreat. He told about the high class Zen student, who only has to hear one word and he or she gets it. The second-class Zen student needs to sit a seven-day retreat and then gets it. The low-class Zen student has to sit 90 days and then gets it. So he asked, “Did you get it?”

Most of the people in the room began feeling horrible, doubting themselves, their practice. Then Zen Master Seung Sahn immediately said, just now, even this mind that doubts itself, this is enlightenment. It’s “I didn’t get it” enlightenment.” He said it so compassionately and beautifully. It felt like he’d taken out a silver tray with twenty-five beautiful little cakes on it, one for each of the people in the room, their favorite flavor and color. Enlightenment cakes. I didn’t get it, and that’s it! Just believe in yourself, this mind, this moment.

I really want to encourage people to find a teacher and a practice, anything that helps you practice consistently and to your fullest. It doesn’t matter who the teacher is or what the form is. If you decide to get up in the morning and do 108 bows, to sit twenty minutes twice a day, or do a retreat twice a year, whatever it is, get yourself to do that.

We all have this resistance to practice. It’s not an easy thing to practice hard. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to pay attention. We could be doing any kind of practice as long as it means mindfulness and consistency and accountability to someone. It’s important to get some feedback about your practice once in a while.

There’s a story that goes with that. Up in the seventh heaven, the King of Kings of all the heavens and the universe was sitting on his throne, feeling tired and old and thinking it was time to pass on his responsibilities. He looked at his attendant and said, “I want to find a person to replace me: the perfect compassionate, all-knowing person. I’m ready to retire.”

The attendant said, “How can we find this being?” The King of Kings said, “Don’t worry. There’s a certain fellow that I’ve had my eye on.” It was Shakyamuni Buddha, in one of his previous incarnations.

So the King of Kings went flying down over the different realms and found the Buddha in a cave. The King manifested himself as a hawk, and had his attendant manifest himself as a dove. The hawk soared around and made threatening moves toward the dove, right over the Buddha’s head.

The Buddha looked up, very compassionate and loving, and saw the dove’s predicament. He yelled up to the hawk, “Please don’t attack that dove. Don’t eat it!” The hawk said, “Why not? I’m hungry.”

Buddha replied, “Oh, the dove will suffer so much! Please don’t kill him.” But the hawk said, “I’M HUNGRY!”

So Buddha said, “You may have one of my fingers to eat.” The hawk produced a scale and put the dove on one side of the scale, which dipped way down. Then he said, “Give me an equal amount of meat and I won’t eat the dove.”

So the Buddha chopped off his hand and put it on the scale. The scale barely moved. The dove was much heavier. Then the Buddha cut off his forearm and put that on the scale, but the dove was still much heavier. He continued to dismember himself to try to equal the weight of the dove, but everything he offered didn’t weigh enough.

This great question of how much can I give, how hard should I practice, appears when our practice is genuine. In this story we’re racing through Buddha’s mind, the great caring mind of “what can I do?” until finally he gets it. Because he had a strong question and a strong direction, he got it. He put his whole self on the scale and then it was much heavier than the dove. Then of course the hawk manifested himself as the King of Kings, and the Buddha became whole again.

This is a very lofty old story. We tend to think we couldn’t be that compassionate. But that’s our situation at the moment, seeing other beings in distress. Because we’re not sensitive enough, most of the time we don’t even see that distress, or sense the sadness that is going on around us. The longer we practice, the more we begin to see the suffering of others as well as our own suffering and faults.

It’s at this point that a lot of people draw away from practicing. As you become more aware and sensitive, you think you’re worse than you were five years ago, but you’re not.

The day after my Toronto retreat where I had been so “wonderful,” I was at work and I couldn’t get one of my patients to swallow her medication. I was very tired and eventually lost my temper, and had to get one of the aides to give the pill. Walking down the hall I could see my frustration, my lazy karma, my laziness enlightenment. Zen Master Seung Sahn would call that “losing it” enlightenment.

If you can’t see that in yourself, you can’t teach anybody else. You can’t share or be anybody else’s friend unless you see those things in yourself. So when you are losing your temper, take a good look at it. The next time you see someone else acting that way, there’s no separation – you have complete understanding and maybe you can give that person support. That’s our job.

So they loved me in Toronto and the next evening I’m an impatient, weary nurse. Which one is correct? KATZ! I hope we all learn to believe in ourselves and help others.

Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barhara Rhodes)


Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) is the School Zen Master and Guiding Dharma Teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen. She received dharma transmission from Zen Master Seung Sahn on October 10, 1992. She was one of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s first American students and studied with him since 1972. She was given inka in 1977. A registered nurse since 1969, she works for Hospice Care of Rhode Island. She helped found Providence Zen Center, and lived there for seventeen years, serving in a number of administrative capacities. Zen Master Soeng Hyang has a daughter and lives with her partner, Mary, in Providence.