Why Can’t I? How Can I?

January 10, 1981

Dear Bobby,

Why can’t I resolve to practice Dharma fully? Why can’t I commit myself to it? Why don’t I trust any of my teachers?

How can I resolve to practice Dharma fully? How can I commit myself to it? How can I trust my teachers?

Thank you for your efforts.

Love,

Patrick


February 24, 1981

Dear Patrick,

Why can’t you resolve to practice Dharma fully? I have never met you, but I can guess two big reasons why you can’t resolve to practice Dharma fully: (1) you have too many selfish desires, and (2) you don’t understand how valuable the Dharma is.

Why can’t you commit yourself to it? You can’t commit yourself to it because you can’t control your desires long enough to find out what “it” is. What is “it”?

Why don’t you trust any of your teachers? How can you trust a teacher if you don’t practice or commit yourself to the Dharma that they are teaching about?

How can you practice Dharma fully? You must see that your selfish desires are endless and that no matter how much you try to satiate them, they will just grow stronger and increase in number. Then you must understand that desire leads to suffering. If you can understand this completely, then you will understand how valuable the Dharma is.

How can you commit yourself to it? You can commit yourself to it by making a firm decision to control your desires.

How can you trust your teachers? You must practice and commit yourself to the Dharma.

What is Dharma? What are you?

Long ago Bodhidharma sat facing a wall for nine years, He killed all Buddhas. He killed all eminent teachers. He killed all people.

What does this mean? When you understand this, you will have no problem with your practice, commitment, or your teachers. Practice = commitment = teachers.

Sincerely,

Bobby

”What is this Seed?”

onehundred day retreat, which she will finish in early May.

January 13, 1978

Dear Bobby,

It was nice that you called the other night. I wish we lived closer so we could be together more often.

I washed the painter’s pants and they did shrink some. You’re right; they are really comfortable. Thank you.

I don’t understand your 100-day meditation at all. I wonder what you’re looking for. Aren’t you satisfied with yourself? I think you are great. You love people and they love you. Why aren’t you satisfied with yourself? I just don’t think you need much improvement. Don’t you think you are a good person? I’m not trying to criticize; I just don’t understand at all what you are trying to do.

I hope you find what you want. Please take care of yourself.

Love,

Sally

January 19, 1978

Dear Sally,

The world is full of suffering. How can it be stopped? Every human being has a seed of compassion and wisdom that must be very carefully nurtured. It is our responsibility to find this seed and do everything we can to make it grow.

First, you must believe that you have this seed. Then you must ask yourself with all the strength you have, ”What is this seed?” If you truly search for it, you will understand that everyone is just like you. Everyone has it. You will have no more desire for yourself; you will only want to teach everyone how to find their seed.

Enlightenment is believing in yourself. Enlightenment is finding your seed. But your job is not over yet. Your mind must become strong enough to be totally wise and compassionate moment to moment in any situation.

This is much more difficult than attaining Enlightenment.

So, I must do a rigorous practice now, so the seedling isn’t washed away in the flood, or withered in a drought, or plucked by desire.

I hope you understand this. There is nothing esoteric or mysterious about what I am doing. Soen Sa Nim teaches some very simple techniques which help you to become strong. I feel that after being his student for more than five years, I am ready to try this long retreat. Don’t worry Sal; I will be O.K.

Thanks for your big sister letter. I’m looking forward to seeing you in May.

Much love,

Bobby

What is Checking?

August 21, 1981

Dear Bobby,

I’m writing you because I’ve been told that Soen Sa Nim is flooded with mail, and I’d like to decrease his burden by one correspondent and also, if I may, add to yours by one, which a recent PZC Newsletter suggested. Is this OK with you?

I like writing to someone because I feel in touch with fellow seekers and encouraged and reassured about the worth of seeking through correspondence.

I don’t understand “don’t check.” Does it mean practice not reflecting upon your own feelings, behavior, etc? Does it mean let go of praise and blame? I was at PZC last Wednesday night. During meditation, we stood up to walk. My foot was soundly asleep, and I fell right back down. I started to laugh at this, but I cut it off because I thought that laughter in that time and place might be rude. Is this checking? What is?

I met Annie for the first time last week. She is quite friendly, a wonderful greeting for a stranger just arrived!

What is inga?

Thank you for reading this, for your excellent talks that appear in the Newsletter, and for being there.

Sincerely,

Carolyn


September 4, 1981

Dear Carolyn,

Thanks for your letter. I’m happy to correspond with you. It was good of you to think of Soen Sa Nim; he is very busy now, although he would certainly answer you if you wrote him.

You asked me about what “don’t check” means. There are two basic divisions of checking. One is checking yourself and the other is checking something outside of yourself (i.e. other people or situations). I can use the example you gave me in your letter about your foot falling asleep to explain something about ways of checking.

There you are, sitting in meditation at the PZC and the chugpi is hit, indicating that it is time to stand up. You try to stand up, fall back down and start to laugh. Then you start thinking, “don’t laugh, everyone is keeping silence at this time.” If that is all you thought, that is not checking. That is what is called “following your correct situation.” If you had continued to laugh, you would have disturbed the formal meditation, so you and Buddha are the same. Congratulations!

But let’s say you start having more thoughts about your sleeping foot situation: “I hope nobody saw me fall. If they did see me fall, they probably think I’m stupid, just a beginner, a clumsy slob. No, it’s not their fault, maybe I am a clumsy slob. I’m lazy and no good. Why are we doing this?’ Sitting cross-legged is not natural, this whole system of practicing is too strict. Oh, I wish I could be like Soen Sa Nim!”

So that’s checking. Instead of digesting each moment completely and understanding it intuitively, the mind turns, twists, and holds it. If we were not attached to our idea of I, my, me, we would not have to manipulate reality. But because we think we are separate from everything else, we have to defend our self-image and consequently expend tremendous amounts of energy doing so. We make up a complex world of Opposites, running from, or clinging to things in order to avoid feeling threatened or hurt.

Practicing with the question, “What is this?” will stop the habitual process of thinking in terms of opposites, and the mind then becomes one with each moment.

I hope your practice is strong now and you have others to practice with. The most important part of practicing is to just try consistently every day and “don’t check” your condition, situation, or opinion.

You asked me what inga is. Inga is when your teacher approves of your practice and of your answers to kong-ans and authorizes you to teach others.

Thanks again for your letter. I hope my answers help you. Please visit again soon.

Sincerely,

Bobby

Unfolding Seasons

Each of the seasons of nature come forth on their own whether we ask them to or not. They are beautiful teachers that are around us all the time. Each season, each situation, each moment generously offers us an opportunity to see the mind that sometimes has trouble trusting how things are unfolding.

A famous Zen saying is, “Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.” The grass just does it. Whether it’s a late spring or an early spring, the grass has no opinion. You can sit on the lawn in complete stillness, and you will not hear a complaint from one blade of grass about spring being late or early.

One spring morning I was sitting in the orchard at Providence Zen Center. There were two cardinals; one was over the beehives, and the other was near the pine tree about fifty yards away. They were speaking to each other. Their calls kept changing, and it seemed so beautiful. Then the cardinal by the beehives swept down into the brush and disappeared. The other bird kept calling out for a little while; then it stopped.

The practice of Zen is to just perceive and to see. But as humans we sometimes apply our ideas to animals. I had decided that the cardinal that had disappeared was a male, and the one left behind was a female. So I was thinking, “That’s too bad. The male left her; she’s still calling, and he disappeared and stopped answering her.

But did some sad thing happen? I don’t know. The cardinal stopped calling for a cardinal reason, not a human reason.

The seasons can show us not only our projections, but also our expectations. As summer approaches, my aversion to heat makes me distrust that season. I start wondering if it’s hot and muggy in June, what will it be like in August? I start worrying that it’s hot because pollution has ruined the ecological balance, and that my daughter won’t be able to grow up in a “normal” world because of our myopia and greed.

But if I sit with my questions, I can feel very grateful. Grateful for the beautiful spring that has passed, grateful for the summer heat, grateful for my happy, healthy daughter. I can also feel grateful for all my worries. Worries wake me up. I can look at the content of my worries and learn what it is I still don’t quite trust, and ask what it is that has aversions and attractions.

In the fall I’ve often taken my daughter to Temenos, a retreat center in northwestern Massachusetts. There’s a beautiful, tall white pine that I’ve climbed many times. When my daughter was eight, I let her climb it with me for the first time.

Three quarters of the way up, I looked down and asked myself, “What have I done?” Instead of feeling grounded and balanced in what I was doing, suddenly my center went up to my head. That’s not a good place for your center to be. I gulped and took a deep breath, and reminded myself of why I had wanted to climb this tree with her.

My daughter was really enjoying it, and she wasn’t feeling frightened. So I just kept going, and the branches started to get thicker; there were more needles, and you couldn’t see down as easily. There’s a spectacular view from the top, and my daughter got to see it.

But going down a tree is even harder than going up. When we finally got to the bottom, we both laid on our backs on the ground, and looked up at the tree and admired. it. I asked myself, “What is this?” Just to experience how we felt at that moment. We were both really glad we had climbed that beautiful tree; that was all.

On a warm morning during a Winter Kyol Che retreat, I was sitting quietly in the interview room, waiting to give interviews. The window was open, and I was listening to the melting snow on the monastery roof coming down, landing on the ground. It was really nice to simplify, to just listen to that dripping, that melting.

Then a student came in for an interview; she was upset to the point where she couldn’t even sit down. Just listening to that snow had made my mind so clear and simple that I could say to her, “Now the situation is to sit down.” Finally, enough trust formed that the student was able to sit.

I asked, “Do you have any questions?” There were lots of questions … complicated questions, painful questions, lost questions. I didn’t answer any of them directly. I just said, “Stop. What is this retreat? Let’s try to practice what this retreat is.”

I said, “Be quiet, then listen.” The student heard the melting snow. “Let’s just sit and listen to that for five minutes.” So we sat and listened to it … just the trickling water.

Then I said, “You know, that’s choicelessness.” It was warm enough that the snow became liquid, with no idea or discrimination about it. The snow was just following the situation. Not wanting to hold onto the white crispness, not wishing to stay that way, and not wanting to become water, either. Just melting and then falling onto the mud next to the monastery … slap, slap, slap.

The ground knew the ground’s job. Sometimes it thaws a little bit and takes in the water; sometimes it stays hard and the water runs down into the pond. It’s all just following the situation.

The student finally began to relax, following that natural process going on outside the window. I had a lot of faith in the sound of that melting snow dropping off the roof. I was really in tune with just that morning, just that melting, just that January thaw. Through that came teaching, came support for the student’s practice.

If the snow was thinking, it might be very frightening to melt, drop off the roof, and slap onto the ground. If we’re thinking, if we’re holding onto our own identity, what could be more scary than to lose it? “I’m crisp white snow. Oh no, I’m water!” Zap, like that.

With people, it’s more subtle and slower than snow melting. But if we’re holding onto what we think we are, the transformation becomes very frightening. If we’re able to let go and just be with the change, we will be able to recognize it as grace, as universal compassion. Rather than feeling fear, we will be able to feel grateful … grateful for the unfolding of this moment, grateful for the unfolding of the seasons.

Transmission Speech

Before Heaven and Earth separate
True nature completely bright.
Originally – nothing happening.
Spring comes, many flowers blooming.
              – Zen Master Seung Sahn

I have been appreciating the smell of grass in the tent all weekend, so Soeng Hyang (Nature Smell) is a good name for me. When the Buddha gave transmission to Mahakashyapa he said, “I have the utmost profound exquisite teaching, a special transmission outside the dharma that I give to you, Mahakashyapa.” I thought that that was wonderful until I started studying with Zen Master Seung Sahn. One day he said “You know, Buddha made a big mistake when he gave that kind of transmission.” So I ask you, if you are the Buddha and you are holding up a flower, a stick, or anything, and your wonderful student who has been practicing for many many years looks at you and smiles, how would you give that student transmission?

KATZ!

Only don’t know. I can’t give you the answer.

I also have a short story. When we first moved to Cumberland, many people were worried because they were afraid we were some kind of bad cult. They were afraid of us. The local newspaper interviewed a neighbor down the street and asked what the people were like who moved in. The neighbor said, “I think they are OK. I only know one man, and he stopped to help me fix a flat tire.” Then the neighbor observed, “They must leave their religion at home.” So I hope that you all find your home – your true self – and leave your religion there. Thank you.

A Thousand Eyes, a Thousand Hands

The Buddha taught that human beings’ original mistake is perceiving ourselves as separate entities. All of the infinite manifestations of human suffering originate from feeling separate.

The Sanskrit word “Buddha” means “the Awakened One.” Just as it is possible to be more and more awake, it is possible to go into a deeper and deeper sleep. As we awaken, we become more intimate with the sources of joy and pain.

How do we awaken from the illusion of separateness? Reading about waking up will not wake us up. Sincerely wishing to wake up, becoming more and more aware of our “stuck places” will not completely wake us up. What is the ultimate alarm clock? Is there an absolute, earthshaking, fool-proof method to shake us out of our sleepy habit force?

In Zen practice we ask “what is this?” To ask this is to inquire into each moment of our lives. To ask this is to let go of our ancient assumptions, opinions, and desires, and wake up to what is actually happening in this very moment.

In my work as a Hospice nurse, I have many opportunities to be with people as they are sick and dying. We have a large poster in our office which says, “Dying is no reason to stop living.” As ironic as it may seem, dying often awakens people to living. Tremendous healing can occur during the dying process, at death, and after death both for the dying person and for their family and friends.

A few years ago, my father died very suddenly. Unable to be with him at the time of his death, I felt a need to do some type of ceremony. I went up to the attic of my parents’ home, put a picture of my father on an altar, lit the candles and incense, and began to chant the “Thousand Eyes and Hands Sutra.”

The message of this sutra is that each of us is capable of great compassion and wisdom. Each one of us has the potential to open an infinite number of eyes, and to sprout an infinite number of hands. We can use all those eyes and hands to see and reach out to our fellow sentient beings throughout the universe, extending our wisdom and compassion.

As I chanted, I felt myself getting confused about why I was chanting, and who I was chanting to. I began wondering where my father was, and what I wanted the chanting to do for him (or, for that matter, for me.) I noticed that I was doing just what we do so often: I was separating myself from the chanting and from my father, and thinking about a goal or purpose for my actions.

At that point of confusion, I felt inadequate and very humble. I asked myself, “What is this? What does it mean to chant for someone after they die?” While questioning, I continued to chant.

For a few moments I tried to perceive my father’s karmic suffering, and direct my energy in some way that would be healthy and bring him increased clarity. Trying that felt contrived, pompous, and useless. Who was I to try to help direct my father’s flight into who knows where?

Again I asked, “what is this?” My head full of questions and doubt, I continued to chant. Thoughts of the confusing life my father and I had together flashed across my mind.

Then, finally, I was able to just chant, just try to hear my own sound, the sound of the sutra’s words being repeated over and over again. ‘Ibis is the medicine of chanting: filling our usually busy mind with simple syllables, repeating these sounds that have no intellectual messages, and just listening.

Again I thought of my father, and his passing, and gradually, like warm sand heating my body after a plunge in the cool ocean, I allowed myself to remember the love I had for him. The love I felt in those moments was strong and simple. Subject and object fell away, leaving just a daughter’s love for her father – just love.

In those moments, I felt awake and intimately connected to my father, dropping my habits of judging and controlling. Simply and genuinely, just loving him.

I have regrets about not having been able to feel that intimacy with my father while he was alive. But regrets can be a powerful fuel to move us towards a deeper commitment to heal, a deeper commitment to continually ask, “what is this?”

Whether we perceive our experiences as joyful or painful doesn’t matter. The more we awaken, the less we make distinctions. We gradually stop thinking in terms of opposites (good and bad, health and illness) and simply are with each moment in a clear and open relationship. Our healing, our growth, come from being open and awake. Our discomfort, our suffering, come from defending and protecting our delusional separate selves.

This is the healing process – awakening to the original wholeness of life. Open and present in this moment, the thought of healing disappears; healing is a human idea. There is only being in an intimate relationship with the conditions and situations in our lives.

Sincere & Consistent Effort

Letter to a student:

April 14, 1982

Dear Jerry,

Thank you for your letter and the information about EST training. You helped me understand more about the training, especially by the way you talked about your own experience with it. I do not feel compelled to do the training — not because I don’t think I have anything to learn from it, but because I think I can learn everything through the practice that I am doing now. Does that make sense? The analogy that just popped into my mind was this taking EST training would be like changing to a different size tennis racket in the middle of a match when the one I am using now feels fine. I know what I really need to do is grip the handle harder and keep playing as well as I can. I guess I feel that whatever practice or discipline we have simply needs to be followed up by sincere and consistent effort. We need to have a very clear picture about what sincere and consistent effort means in our life. Soen Sa Nim illustrated it by saying, “When you’re doing something, just do it. Put down your condition, situation, and opinion. Only go straight — don’t know:” The “don’t know” needs a lot of cultivation for most of us.

You said the EST training brochure mentioned instant transformation. I too believe that it is possible to transform our mind instantly and “get it.” But what I also know is that it is very hard to keep it.

So I guess that is where we started in our first letter exchange. Why live at a Zen Center? Living there serves as a constant reminder that when you are doing something, just try to do it. Maybe even more important is that the together action of the Zen Center takes your opinion, condition, and situation a few feet away from you at times, just painfully enough so that you can’t help but see your attachment to them. It’s usually very hard to see all the different tethers our mind is holding. The tethers have to be yanked before we can know them. The Zen Center is a great yanker, believe me.

You said that you have a hard time committing yourself to 10,000 years non-stop. I do have a suggestion. Try just fifty years to begin with. That’s a good start. Who knows where it will take you?

You asked about the Precepts. I’ll send you the literature we have about them. You said, “My sense is that the Precepts are like a fence along the path and sometimes you have to leave the path to take a piss.” The idea of a fence along a path leaves me with an image of the path being narrow and bound in by a solid, infinitely long barrier (the Precepts). I think of the Precepts as being a walking stick or fancy running shoes or, even better, a five-speed bicycle that you can use to move along at a steady pace. Sex, lying, killing, stealing, and heedlessness are all neither good nor bad by themselves. Why do you do them? That is what is most important. If it is to help people, then you are not breaking a Precept. If you are not sure, then often it helps to ride the bicycle and follow the path until the bicycle, the path, and you are merged into one thing. What is that one thing? I hope you can tell me soon.

Sincerely,

Bobby

The Samadhi of Coolness

Excerpt from a letter to a student in our school.

February 11, 1982

Dear Bruce,

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

The One Necessary Ingredient

November 13, 1981

Dear Bobby,

Hello, how are you? Do you remember me? How are Linc and the baby? Please say hello to Linc for me.

I have been practicing Zen for about two years now. All the while I had this nagging doubt about the extent of the usefulness of practicing clear mind. I could understand the necessity for clarity but could not see past that. Consequently, my practice (i.e. life) lacked direction and I was beginning to despair.

I have been very uptight lately and my mind has been like a live wire. But the other day, in a moment of clarity I really perceived the momentum of my mind. This momentum predetermines my (one’s) response in all situations. This being so, how can a person being dragged by their mind’s momentum really experience any situation? I have been “out of control.” This momentum is karma.

Now I know why keeping clear mind is so important. My practice now has direction, focus. My job is to break free of this karma.

I am very grateful for the teaching that Soen Sa Nim, you, and George make available. Thank you all very much. Take care of yourself.

Sincerely,

Peter


December 2, 1981

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your letter. I just got back from a trip to California, so I’m a little late answering you.

How are you? Of course I remember you. It’s wonderful that you despaired and got uptight. Without those two emotions you may never have perceived the momentum in your mind. This is not saying that Zen practice has a particular recipe that must always include being uptight and in despair, but those two are common ingredients. The one necessary ingredient is the desire to understand yourself. Your description of seeing the momentum of your mind and also of it as being “out of control” is wonderful. It seems ironic, but we have to really accept and perceive this uncontrolled momentum before we break free and understand our true selves.

Now that you understand why keeping a clear mind is important, how are you going to keep clear mind? Just seeing the uncontrolled quality of your thoughts is not enough. So I ask you, where do your thoughts come from? Where is their original source? Please send me an answer soon. If you don’t know, then completely don’t know. Only ask, “Where are these thoughts coming from?” Or, even more simply, “What am I?”

I hope you never lose this new-found focus and direction and you continue to cultivate them until your energy and compassion fill the entire universe. It’s possible, you know.

I hope to see you soon.

Sincerely,

Bobby

The Mustard Seed

or’s note: The author draws from the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic Christian text dating to the first few centuries A.D. Since their discovery in Egypt in 1945, the “Gnostic Gospels” have inspired a renewed exploration of Jesus’ person and message. Although not considered authoritative by Christian churches, these texts continue to gain in influence both within and beyond Christianity.


Adapted from a talk at a Christian-Buddhist conference at Providence Zen Center in October, 1990.

In Christianity and Buddhism, the heart of true meditation is to be intimate with your own experience. One of the inspiring things in the lives of Jesus and Buddha is their innocence, their questioning. They had examples and teachers, but ultimately each went off on his own.

There are some quotes from Jesus that I find particularly relevant. One is, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.” One of the first things Zen Master Seung Sahn taught me to do was to ask, “What am I?” Suppose you were sitting at Jesus’ knee two thousand years ago, and he said that about “bringing forth that which is within you.” And then he didn’t say any more, he just walked away. Those would be your instructions. Over time, maybe you would begin to ask, naturally, what it is within you that could save you? What is that?

In our school, we have three month retreats in the winter called Kyol Che, “tight dharma.” We repeat and repeat and repeat the same schedule every day, in silence. There are about ten hours of just gazing at the floor in silence. Every day there’s a work period, every day there’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The repetition is so that our mind can rest a little and ask, “What am l?,” or “What is within me that is going to save me? How can I find that?” There’s a tremendous gift in that repetition.

It doesn’t take too much life experience to realize that we could use a little saving; that there is discomfort, disease, sadness, selfishness. Religion gives us qualities to aspire to, such as generosity, patience, and forbearance.

There are mantras and phrases used in Buddhism, as with ejaculatory prayer in Christianity, that replace a discriminating mind — a mind that has preferences and aversions and attractions which are out of balance-with just that prayer, that repetition. Just as a child will touch something hot out of ignorance and burn her hand, so adults will touch hot subjects-or objects that we’re attached to — and get into trouble. If we repeat the phrase or prayer, we replace what hurts with a mind that is steady, clear, open, and present.

Jesus talked about the mustard seed, “the tiniest of all seeds. But when it falls on prepared soil, it grows into a large plant and shelters the birds of the sky.” The mustard seed has been used metaphorically in Buddhism, too. Our mind is the same. Sometimes our Buddha-nature, our God-nature, our ability to see clearly is very, very tiny. We have bad days. We have bad lives, some of us! So you start right now. You don’t think of yourself as being bad or good or proficient or clumsy. Simply regard yourself as having that seed.

Prepared soil is very important. With a casual lifestyle, it’s difficult to attain your true self completely. But it’s also said, “in sterile water, fish cannot live.” If the water is too clean, there will be nothing to eat. Each of us has to find the “middle way” for ourselves. We have to find the relationship with this world that will work for us. It can’t be too loose or too tight.

I lived at Providence Zen Center for seventeen years. Every morning, the wake-up bell would remind me, “It’s time to practice.” The Buddha taught that food, sex, sleep, fame, and wealth are especially sticky. They keep you in bed in the morning; you’re exhausted from not being in a balanced relationship with one or another of them. The bell helps you stay in balance. You’ve gotten up early, so you have that time to ask, “What is it within me that can save me, keep me out of that stickiness?”

Those five sticky things are inherently neither good nor bad; it’s our relationship to them that matters. Zen Master Seung Sahn says, “Why do that-for what and for whom?” That can be one of our ejaculatory prayers, one of our questions. If you wake up, then it’s, “For what and for whom? What am I doing just now?”

Prayer and contemplation don’t stop in the monastery or Zen center. If taught and practiced sincerely, they’re totally portable. As a visiting hospice nurse, I’m exposed to endless opportunities to wake up to life situations, to incorporate meditation into my nursing practice. Many of the patients I work with personify what goes on with all of us. We get despondent, we feel like giving up, we can be self-destructive.

Many of my patients have a history of severe drug abuse. Shoving heroin up your veins is overtly self-destructive. Sometimes it’s very challenging to be present and supportive with someone who has been eroding the field that the mustard seed needs to settle in.

But I realize that there are also more subtle forms of self-destruction that we all fall prey to. Perhaps sleeping — not being truly present-when praying or meditating is just a more subtle form of the heroin addict’s actions. We have this wonderful opportunity, we’ve set time aside in our lives, and we’re not staying awake to ask, “What is it within me that can save me?” It’s very interesting how we can get right to the edge of liberation and then not stay awake.

Two other quotes from Jesus are very striking considered together: “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered the body, and whoever has discovered the body is worth more than the world … Seek a place of rest for yourselves, that you may not become a carcass and be eaten.” The carcass represents attachment to food, sex, sleep, fame, and wealth-worldliness. So one who has become a carcass is one who has a perverted knowledge of the world. A Zen Master might say, “How long have you been carrying around that corpse?,” or, “You’re just a rice bag!” A rice bag is a heavy, hard-to-handle object-so calling someone a rice bag means they have no direction, no vocation.

Each of us needs to find our vocation so we don’t become a carcass and get eaten. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve watched die who felt like a carcass. Before they take their last breath they’ll say in a discouraged way, “What was this life all about?” It’s so sad. It’s possible to find good teachers and traditions that can help us to get in balance with our carcass, so that it becomes a vehicle for our vocation rather than the container of our greed, anxieties, and misconceptions.

But there’s no need to hold to that idea of “I am a carcass; I’m going to be eaten.” Jesus said that to wake us up. It’s a little warning: “Oh yeah, I know what it feels like to be stuck in my body, kowtowing to every desire that it has.” So just wake up.

Someone once asked Jesus, “When will the final rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?” People wanted to know that from the Buddha, too. They would ask, “What is Buddha? What is dharma? Show me the way!” We all think, this life is not so great, so when is it going to get better? Jesus answered, “What you look for has already come, but you do not know it.” The Buddha said it’s like a fish swimming in water and saying, “I’m thirsty.”

Sometimes it’s easier for someone else to see your Buddha-nature than it is for you. But the work begins with each of us. It’s in our center. We have to find our guts, our ability to be in balance with those five things: food, sex, sleep, fame, wealth. Dying without ever really knowing who we are can seem easier than finding out what we’re responsible for in this life.

Each of us has the ability to open to “what am I?,” whatever the situation. There are tremendous opportunities to learn, to get out of the safe zone and into the regions that are more difficult. What’s important is to be uncontrived, not to have an idea, but to open up each moment to what’s going on right now. We may need to prepare the soil, but we always have the mustard seed. Nobody is ever born without it.