Just let your mind wander along in the drift of things. Trust yourself to what is beyond you–let it be the nurturing center. Then you’ve made it. In the midst of all this, is there really any response? Nothing can compare to simply living out the inevitable unfurling of your life. And there’s nothing more difficult.
We’re cast into this human form, and it’s such happiness. This human form knows change, but the ten thousand things are utterly boundless. Who could calculate the joys they promise?
And so the sage wanders where nothing is hidden and everything is preserved. The sage calls dying young a blessing and living long a blessing. We might make such person our teacher, but there’s something the ten thousand things belong to, something all change depends upon–imagine making that your teacher!
“If you follow the realized mind you’ve happened into, making it your teacher, how could you be without a teacher? You don’t need to understand the realm of change: when mind turns to itself, you’ve found your teacher. Even a numbskull has mind for a teacher. Not to realize yourself in mind, and to insist on yesthis and no that—it’s like leaving for Yueh when you’ve already arrived there. It’s like believing that what isn’t is. What isn’t is—even that great sage-emperor Yu couldn’t understand such things, so how could someone like me?”
At Manifold-Devotion Post-Station, a Second Farewell to the Governor
Ending our distant farewell, separation
begins here, green mountains emptiness
felt. We'll never again wander together
sipping wine beneath last night's moon.
The whole country sings praises of you,
radiant through three reigns. Me, I'll go
home to my river village, nurture what
life remains in isolate depths of silence.
Translated by David HintoninSelected Poems of Tu Fu
Religious practice in America is essentially, I’d argue primarily,a social endeavor.Contemplative practices in contrast is a solitary practice. Even when you are siting shoulder to shoulder in the zendo, you are sitting alone.This tension between an essentially solitary practice and the American social club model pervades Zen centers.This emphasis on the group is so pervasive that it is common to encounter those that can only sit in the zendo, who are not able (or willing) to sit on their own. Considering that the essential practices are inherently solitary that orientation severely compromises ones practice.
Beyond though simply turning inward in our practice, being solitary, there is the practice of Solitude. This is an absolute core practice in my view and one well worth pursuing. In this talk we will contemplate this practice and it’s pursuit.
Throughout Chinese history, there have always been people who preferred to spend theirlives in the mountains, getting by on less, sleeping under thatch, wearing old clothes, working the higher slopes, not talking much, writing even less—maybe a few poems,a recipe or two. Out of touch with the times but not with the seasons, they cultivatedroots of the spirit, trading flatland dust for mountain mist. Distant and insignificant,they were the most respected men and women in the world’s oldest society.
No explanation has ever been offered or demanded for the admiration the Chinese have had for hermits. Hermits were simply there: beyond city walls, in the mountains, lone columns of smoke after a snowfall. As far back as records go, there were always hermits in China. – Bill ‘Red Pine’ Porter , Road to Heaven, p. 12
In Road to Heaven Red Pine encounters more Taoists than Ch’an monks and while their approach and orientation is different they come from the same place. They are rooted in the cosmology that has informed Chinese religious practice for thousands of years. Before Buddhism before Taosim this view of reality led some to look inward, to commit completely to understanding. to isolate themselves in mountains
This cosmology as dwelling-place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China. Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China. This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and the elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness. It can also be seen, for instance, in the way Chinese intellectuals would sip wine as a way of clarifying awareness of the ten thousand things by dissolving the separation between subject and object, or tea as a way of heightening that awareness, practices that ideally took place outdoors or in an architectural space that was a kind of eye-space, its open walls creating an emptiness that contained the world around it. There is a host of other examples, such as the ideal of living as a recluse among the mountains, or the widespread practice of traveling in areas of particular natural beauty, which generated an extensive travel literature. And as we shall see, meditation was widely practiced as perhaps the most fundamental form of belonging to China’s wilderness cosmology.
Sitting on ones own, individual sitting is an essential practice, one that all followers of the way to cultivate. Ultimately we are always sitting on our own.But solitude is a practice of letting go, of abandoning the outside world and turning inward to our Original Nature. Consider this passage from Krishnamurti:
J. Krishnamurti On Loneliness – the issue of escape.
“Have you ever tried to be alone? When you do try, you will feel how extraordinarily difficult it is and how extraordinarily intelligent we must be to be alone, because the mind will not let us be alone. The mind becomes restless, it busies itself with escapes, so what are we doing? We are trying to fill this extraordinary void with the known. We discover how to be active, how to be social; we know how to study, how to turn on the radio. We are filling that thing which we do not know with the things we know. We try to fill that emptiness with various kinds of knowledge, relationship or things. Is that not so? That is our process, that is our existence. Now when you realize what you are doing, do you still think you can fill that void? You have tried every means of filling this void of loneliness. Have you succeeded in filling it? You have tried cinemas and you did not succeed and therefore you go after your gurus and your books or you become very active socially. Have you succeeded in filling it or have you merely covered it up? If you “have merely covered it up, it is still there; therefore it will come back. If you are able to escape altogether then you are locked up in an asylum or you become very, very dull. That is what is happening in the world.
Can this emptiness, this void, be filled? If not, can we run away from it, escape from it? If we have experienced and found one escape to be of no value, are not all other escapes therefore of no value? It does not matter whether you fill the emptiness with this or with that. So-called meditation is also an escape. It does not matter much that you change your way of escape.
How then will you find what to do about this loneliness? You can only find what to do when you have stopped escaping. Is that not so? When you are willing to face what is – which means you must not turn on the radio, which means you must turn your back to civilization – then that loneliness comes to an end, because it is completely transformed. It is no longer loneliness. If you understand what is then what is is the real. Because the “mind is continuously avoiding, escaping, refusing to see what is it creates its own hindrances. Because we have so many hindrances that are preventing us from seeing, we do not understand what is and therefore we are getting away from reality; all these hindrances have been created by the mind in order not to see what is. To see what is not only requires a great deal of capacity and awareness of action but it also means turning your back on everything that you have built up, your bank account, your name and everything that we call civilization. When you see what is, you will find how loneliness is transformed. ”
-Excerpt From On Loneliness by J. Krishnamurti in First and Last Freedom.
It is this perspective that is the practice of solitude. You aren’t lonely in true solitude, because there is no self to be lonely there is only what is. The issue of escape here is also worth noting. In Krishnamurti’s view all activities that we undertake are undertaken by the self and thus are self-defeating. Ch’an of course acknowledges this, notes that all of our practice, even mediation, is upaya, a skillful use of the self to get past the self.Krishnamurti is far more radical, simply telling us to see what is.
This shows us the way to the practice of solitude: letting go of our distractions, our escapes. Turning our back on civilization.
The Practice of Solitude
How then do we practice this? In general there is no guidebook, no practice program..In general there are more warnings, than guidelines.There are concerns of escape, issues of arrogance, of not coming down from the mountain, of eschewing our great vow. In essence the practice is simply a letting go of everything. It doesn’t have to be forever, it can be for one day every so often. Spend the day in solitude.Spend a week in solitude. Spend a lifetime in solitude.
So we turn to examples, which is so often what the practice has to offer. The Buddhas and the patriarchs are examples of those far along the path. The icon of the buddha reminds us that this is possible.The Chinese hermit-monks are exemplary in showing, not telling us this path.The great documentary Amongst White Clouds, is an apt demonstration.
“They turn their backs on comforts and conveniences and entertainment. To return to something more basic. A calm and peace they trust lays at the true heart of human nature.” – narrator
“The key to this is sitting meditation. After sitting then go to bed. Wake in the morning and sit some more. Most of the hermits already understand the practice methods and they don’t make mistakes. If you have this foundation then you can live in the mountains. But you must understand the practice. If you don’t understand, in the mountains, you’l go astray and that’s nothing but torture. Just torture.”
The filmmaker and narrator of this documentary is a practitioner himself who came to the practice through very romantic ideals common in the young. He had genuine questions and was serious as well as being a talented filmmaker. He could see the orientation of these recluses even if his understanding of what drew them there was limited.
This is followed by an excerpt from a talk that the narrators teacher gives on mountain practice. He talks of having had a heated bed when he first came to the mountains but that it is unnecessary. In the quoted text he notes that there is preparation one has to have to undertake this practice. It is arduous and demanding and is not a romantic jaunt into the mountains. It isn’t “glamping”.
“What wisdom is there in solitude? What changes in a person living so close to birth and death in nature? Do I feel myself in this?Are we somehow different from this old tree? Dying to be reborn? This life, this struggle, but something in this nature, something in us all. A calm and clarity in the face of change and uncertainty.”
“’Ten thousand things, all in this breath…’ why are people in this world so busy? just for this one breath. They say, “busy, busy, mine mine…”, busy a whole lifetime for “Me”. When this breath is cut off you let go of the whole universe. Why not let go from the start?”
The second quote here has always struck me from when I first watched this documentary over a decade ago. This really is the essence of the practice in a few sentences. The documentary is filled with wisdom from this recluses and is well worth spending time with.
Attachment to solitude
Since like some many Ch’an practices, there isn’t so much a detailed description, or a set of guidelines for the practice of solitude, what we mostly find is an orientation and then a discussion of the pitfalls that one can encounter. In the previous section, quote from Amongst White Clouds, the recluses noted the issues of coming to this practice before one is ready. In the biography of the Japanese monk Bassui we see this underscored.
There was a monk from Bassiu’s hometown by the name of Tokukei Jisha who had cut himself off from the world, retiring to the mountains, practicing religious austerities for many years. Hearing of this monk, Bassui decided to pay him a visit.”
Tokukei became a mentor, friend and teacher of Bassui and is a classic example of the hermit tradition in Japan. When he first visits him he asks Bassui why his head is shaved (indicating he is a monk) but he doesn’t wear robes. Bassui at this point really eschewed formal practice and all its trappings. Tokukei could see his immaturity and while they practiced together he said he needed to resolve the great matter and to have it sealed by an awakened master.
Bassui went to see Fukuan Sōki, of Hōunji Temple in Hitachi province, a noted Zen master who had studied in China. Fukuan had a following that numbered about two thousand. Bassui, unimpressed with Fukuan, returned to his hometown and went to see his friend Tokukei. He told Tokukei that he had not got on well with Fukuan and was planning to practice by himself in some isolated mountain retreat. Tokukei, having spent over twenty years practicing austerities in seclusion, had developed a great deal of pride in his practice. This pride became the cause of much of his pain and suffering. He warned Bassui of the dangers of this kind of seclusion before fully understanding “the great matter” or receiving the transmission from a true teacher. Though Bassui had received verification from Kōzan, he gave up the idea of secluding himself in the mountains in accord with his friend’s advice and instead spent that year in a summer and winter training sesshin with Tokukei.
Here we can see Tokukei outline these pitfalls of these practices. Just like the recluse from Amongst White Clouds who said that being in the mountains before one is ready is “torture,” Tokukei is warning that if one does make it as a recluse this can lead to pride and arrogance. This he said leads to pain and suffering. Solitude as a practice can be explored and be very fruitful in short stints but to undertake it long term, you need to be prepared.
It was around this time that Bassui built his first hermitage in Nanasawa in his home province, Sagami. Tokukei came to visit him there, and this time he seemed pleased with Bassui’s decision to retire to a hermitage to continue his practice. He seemed to be telling Bassui that since he now had met both requirements—having clarified the Way and having received verification from a true teacher—he was ready to undertake this kind of practice.
Bassui now is ready for this practice and it is appropriate to do so. In fact one often feels drawn to seclusion, to focusing purely on deepening ones insight after one has awakened. Hakuin talks of this and of course it comes up in the Chinese hermit tradition. This is not a romantic notion of seclusion at this point, but the next logical step in ones practice.
To bring it back to where we began, the orientation of this retreat was to engage with a body of practices for solitary practice. These practices, the practice of Silent Illumination and the Empty Awareness practices are practices that one can engage in fruitfully on ones own. In fact these are practices born of solitude, hermetic practices.There is a straightforward path in these practices that build upon technique and experience. There are clear markers to bring oneself back to the path,for self-assessment and most importantly there is no bounding to them. These are practices for a lifetime.
Last February here at Tahoma I was in Dokusesshin, which is a solitary sesshin where you live in a primitive hermitage in the woods on the edge of the campus. You only engage with the teacher once per day, otherwise it is a self-structure and hermetic practice. During this time I every day engaged in the Empty Awareness practices, walking for an hour around the lake and through the woods.I would walk, stop and absorb what was in front of me, until I was emptiness walking. Then I would sit on the deck of the hermitage for long stretches of zazen.Sitting in Open Awareness, landscape samadhi throughout the day.
This time where we are in our domiciles, perhaps allowed to go out and walk, is an enforced hermitic situation for us all.Taking full advantaged of what is an unfortunate circumstance we are able to engaged in the two activities of this practice: zazen and taking absence walks.Most aren’t drawn toward the hermits life, but when circumstances put us there we can use it.
All of our practice deepens our ability to respond to the moment, to handle whatever life throws at us. In this time of increased suffering, these practices serve to root us in the essential, to be able to respond in the most appropriate way.As an illustration of this I am going to read from this Poetic/Spiritual Biography of the great Chinese poet Tu Fu.A Ch’an practitioner, whose poems are infused with Ch’an and Taoist elements, he lived the life of one who moves from their original nature. In The Awakened Cosmos,David Hinton ties together all of the concepts we have gone through in the terms of a masterful Poet living from absence in times of great suffering. Both a continuation of the teachings of this week, this also is a pointer for living in these challenging times.
I read almost the entirety of Chapter 7 Emptiness Dragon from David Hinton’s Awakened Cosmos (specifically p. 51-56). As I note above this chapter really captures what we are trying to get at in this practice and I recommend reading the whole thing.
Sheng Yen – Continuing practice outside of retreat.
BY NOW YOU ALL KNOW how to relax and practice just sitting. But do you know how to apply Silent Illumination to daily life? If you do not, perhaps the effectiveness of this method has not taken hold and coming to retreat has been of little use. So I want to talk about practice in daily life. It was common in ancient India for yogis to remove themselves from society to practice in solitude in the forests. There they would beg for alms and offerings from ordinary people who respected them. In China there was no such tradition. Someone who went around asking for alms was simply a beggar. Practitioners had to work to survive and sustain their practice. For this reason Chan has traditionally placed great emphasis on applying practice to daily work.
Sheng Yen goes on with a thumbnail sketch of the canonical (if somewhat a-historic) account of the development of Chan and its emphasis on work practice. Ch’an Master Baizhang’s admonition, ‘a day without work is a day without eating’ sums this orientation up. Sheng Yen’s point here is that the work that lay practitioners undertake can be view and utilized as samu, work practice. This is explicitly laid out as he continues with his discourse.
I have a disciple who was an accountant before she became a nun. When we made her the Center’s accountant, she complained: “Shifu [Teacher], I left home and became a nun to do serious practice. And here I am counting money again.” I told her, “This is very different. Before you did it for yourself and your family; now you are doing it for the sangha, the Buddhist community. And because there is no self-interest, no profit, no benefit, and no harm in your doing this job, that is genuine practice. Your mental attitude is also very different now. Before you came to the Dharma, your mind was chaotic, wandering here and there during work. Now you can attune and refine your own mind in the midst of business. You are offering your abilities to the sangha. If that is not practice, what do you call it?”
The same is true for all of you. Before you encountered the Dharma, you had no practice and your daily lives were filled with stirred-up emotions and wandering thoughts. After coming across the Dharma and learning Silent Illumination, you will be different when you go back. Work will become your practice no matter what task you are engaged in. Wherever you are, you will be able to regulate, attune, and refine your mind. On the one hand, you are practicing, and on the other, you are interacting with others while maintaining a stable mind. Wherever you are, that will become your practice.
Our practice leads toward being able to operate in this world naturally, not pushed around by our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The practice is a deliberate changing of our a brains a change that we can facilitate by practicing in every situation and practicing this naturalness. At work, in the home, out in the world practice flowing through the world, practice single-tasking, practice silent illumination.
SILENT ILLUMINATION AT WORK
When we eat we should just eat; when we sleep we should just sleep; when we sit we should just sit; and when we work we should just work. Saying this is one thing, doing it another. So I ask you, where is your mind when doing these things? Let’s consider how this applies to working. To practice Silent Illumination means putting body and mind to the task at hand. This also means applying the best method appropriate for the task. If you do it single-mindedly and with your best effort, you will complete the work with a very stable and relaxed mind. You should approach the task with a plan that takes into account the past and the future, but once you start the task, focus on the present. You should carry out the task with a very even and ordinary mind, without feelings of like or dislike, good or bad, or engaging in discursive thoughts. When you complete the task, reflect on whether changes are needed, whether the job was done well, and how you can do better in the future. This is how to practice Silent Illumination while working, but the principles are the same no matter what you are doing. Silence manifests when you do not generate vexations, attachments, and discriminations while carrying out the activity. Illumination manifests when you clearly understand the activity, focusing on carrying it to completion.
Sheng Yen clearly expresses this way of living in the world, of not being beholden to our small minds. As we practice this and as we engage in rigourous ch’an practice slowly this will become our way of life. At some point we can have that all-at-once insight into the reality of things and are able to then just continue with our practice in a natural and unaffected way.
As practitioners we should clearly understand our own abilities and limitations. We should understand our roles in society, what we are capable of, and what is beyond our ability to do. Since everyone is born with certain aptitudes and limitations, knowing our own boundaries is also practice. Some people may be very skillful with their hands while others are less dexterous; some people are good at very detailed work while others are more suited to manual labor. We should learn to be content with our own limitations while working to the best of our ability. This is recognizing clearly where you are and what role you should play. Not knowing this can create vexations for yourself and for others.
Knowing where you should put yourself is silence; very clearly knowing this while engaged in work is illumination. Consider the ox in the fields. Although powerful and dynamic, the ox does its job without trampling on the crops. It responds according to our circumstances. Being like this ox will bring you happiness and joy wherever you are, at work or with friends. If there is peace and harmony where you are, this is practicing Silent Illumination. So please be an ox in your lives.
Practice is not limited to sitting meditation. It should not happen that as soon as you get off the cushion, life becomes stressful. Be very clear about your body’s presence and its sensations. When meaningless sensations arise, do not respond to them. That is silence. Always maintain this clear awareness of the total bodymind. That is illumination. Be very clear about the environment, without being influenced by it. That is totality. The sum of all the above is Silent Illumination. Now please practice Silent Illumination wholeheartedly.
This final section here from Sheng Yen is worth reading over and over again. The absolute root of our practice is commitment; commitment to constantly return our attention to the practice; commitment to bringing our practice into the world; commitment to not increasing the suffering in the world; commitment to responding as the moment requires. Engage in the practice in every activity, wherever your are, twenty-four hours a day. There are no ‘breaks’ from the practice, can you take a break from living your life?