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.
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.