Posted in Dharma

The 4 Immeasurables, or Brahmaviharas, by Sylvia Boorstein


By Sylvia Boorstein

Heaven is nowhere else but right here on this earth, when we live with friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. In Buddhism, these benevolent states of mind are called the divine abodes, and in this excerpt from her new book, Happiness Is an Inside Job, Sylvia Boorstein tells us some surprising stories about how they can be practiced.

Brahmaviharas is the Buddhist name for the set of four emotional states that includes equanimity and its direct derivatives—impartial goodwill, spontaneous compassion, and genuine appreciation. A vihara, in Pali, the language in which the oldest Buddhist scriptures are written, is a dwelling place. Brahma is the word associated with divinity. Classic texts translate the term brahmaviharas as “divine abodes,” and name the four basic ones: metta (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathic joy), and upekka (equanimity). I love the term “divine abodes,” and I think of these four states as wonderful conditions of human consciousness in which the mind can rest, feeling at ease, as if at home.

Equanimity, it seems to me, is the ground out of which the other three flavors of benevolent mind arise. Everything depends on it. Equanimity is the capacity of the mind to hold a clear view of whatever is happening, both externally and internally, as well as the ability of the mind to accommodate passion without losing its balance. It’s the mind that sees clearly, that meets experience with cordial intent. Because it remains steady, and thus unconfused, it is able to correctly assess the situations it meets.

This correct assessment brings with it what the texts call “clear comprehension of purpose,” the sure knowledge of what response is required and what is possible. Clear comprehension creates a response, sometimes in action, sometimes just in thought. And because we are humans and have empathy built into our brain structure, when we are touched by what we encounter—and when our minds are balanced—we respond with benevolence. With friendliness or compassion or appreciation. It’s a beautiful truth about the potential of human beings. “A little lower than the angels…” is the phrase that comes to my mind. Or maybe not lower. Perhaps divine.

Here is how it works. I’ll explain it using traditional Buddhist psychology, and I’ll include examples of how this works in my life. As you read, see if these centuries-old postulates about the natural responses of the mind are true for you as well.

There are three possible valances of emotional response to every experience: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. (Here you might think for a moment about how many times in a day, or even in an hour, you think, “Oh good!” or, “Oh phooey!” or even, “Boring day. Not much happening.”) The Buddha taught that these different flavors of experience are normal, just the facts of life, and that they aren’t, by themselves, problematic. They do, however, have the potential to create unhappiness. If they are not recognized, and acknowledged, they create thoughts that carry an imperative for change. “I need more of this.” “I must get rid of this!” “I can’t stand this.” The imperative agitates the mind into confusion.

If, on the other hand, there is enough equanimity in the mind to fend off confusion, wisdom can prevail. Then the mind can respond to ordinary (neutral) situations with goodwill, to frightening (unpleasant) situations with compassion, and to beguiling (pleasant) situations with relaxed, nontroubled appreciation.

Here are three examples that come from my living in France several months each year and traveling back and forth between San Francisco and Paris frequently. The first is about ordinary goodwill, friendliness, which is what the Pali word metta means. Perhaps I understate it by calling it ordinary friendliness. It is closer to intentional, omnipresent, devout friendliness based on the awareness that everyone, including oneself—because life is complicated and bodies and minds are often uncomfortable—needs to be working hard all the time just to keep things okay. Here’s an example:

The overnight flight from San Francisco to Paris takes more than ten hours, and in the time between midnight and morning, the hours seem longer and the space between the seats in the coach section seems shorter. When I get up to stretch, and perhaps walk down an aisle, I see men and women, old and young, large and small, all unknown to me, some traveling with young children, all trying to figure out how to be comfortable. I see them wrapped up in airplane blankets, scrunched up into whatever position of repose they can organize for themselves, leaning on each other if they are traveling together or trying not to lean on each other if they aren’t. Often a man or a woman is patrolling the aisle across from me, holding an infant against his or her chest and moving in the rocking gait that often soothes a baby’s distress. I feel a pleasant intimacy with them. I too am trying to stay comfortable. I’m not frightened for them, or for me, because I’m relaxed about flying and I assume we will land successfully, but I wish them well. I enjoy the feeling of my own good-heartedness. In fact, in that moment of mental handholding, all those people look a bit more familiar than ordinary strangers. That moment of easy, impartial, benevolent connection—metta—buoys up my mind. I feel better as I sit back down in my seat.

Compassion is a variation of metta. It’s different from relaxed friendliness because it’s hard for the mind to stay relaxed and friendly when it encounters a painful, unpleasant situation. In fact, it’s normal, and often helpful, for human beings to startle at the awareness of distress. The startle is an instinctive response, a signal to the mind: “Uh-oh. Something is wrong, and you might need to do something.” Sometimes, when the startle is strong enough to frighten the mind into confusion, there is a period of unease as the mind tries to cope, either by accommodating the experience or distracting itself if it can’t. In contrast, when the mind is able to stay steady, it moves immediately to act, in thought or in deed, in consolation. Traditional Buddhist texts say, “The heart quivers in response.”

A man died, suddenly, in the middle of a flight I was on from Paris to San Francisco. I didn’t see it happen, but I knew something was wrong because the plane icon on the TV map on the screen in back of the seat in front of mine reversed direction. Soon after that, while the people all around me were showing one another the map and discussing what might be happening, the pilot announced that there had been a medical emergency and requested that any medical personnel come forward to assist. My husband Seymour responded, as he had on previous flights when there was a call for a physician, and was gone for an hour.

The flight continued as if nothing were awry. Flight attendants served lunch. People watched movies. The icon on the TV turned westward again, and I assumed (correctly, I later learned) that the person had died and that landing for emergency medical care wasn’t necessary. I wondered who the person had been, whether he or she had been traveling alone, how his or her family would learn the news. I thought about how my family would feel if it were I, or Seymour, who had died. I thought, “I hope I don’t die in a plane,” but then I realized that at the center of my startled mind was the awareness that I can’t choose when or where I’ll die. No one can. Seymour told me later that as the flight personnel carried the dead man’s body down the length of the plane to the front galley, where they made the requisite CPR attempts, people turned themselves in their seats and averted their eyes to avoid seeing what was happening. I’m imagining many of those people were thinking, as I was, “That could be me.”

I knew that I was too unnerved to read or watch a movie, and I did not want lunch. I sat quietly, and after some few minutes, I heard my mind, on its own, beginning to recite wishes of consolation. “May the dead person’s consciousness, wherever it is now, be at ease. May that person’s family, on this plane or wherever they are, be strengthened in their loss. May the memory of this person be a blessing to them. May all the people on this plane who have been frightened feel at ease. May I feel at ease. May we land safely.” There are traditional Buddhist karuna phrases, but I didn’t say them. I rarely do because they don’t feel natural to me. I make up my own. But the traditional ones and the ones I make up mean the same thing: I am aware of painful feelings in me as a result of what is happening to you (or to me), and even though I know that everything passes, now is a suffering time. I hope we all have the strength to endure what is happening without creating extra turmoil. I don’t say all that as a prayer! Much too unwieldy. I say, “May I be at ease,” or “May you be at ease,” or “May you [I, we, all beings] come to the end of suffering.” I say words that are regular speech, like something I might actually say to a person. Saying prayers of consolation always makes me feel better. And it settles my mind. I thought, “This plane is like a small city. Three hundred people. Lots of new babies. Lots of old people. All ages of people in between. People eating, people sleeping, people working, people dreaming. And one person who just died. It’s like regular life.” I felt sad for the family of the dead person, but I felt okay.

Seymour came back to his seat. He’d spent some time talking with the wife and daughter of the man who died. His death hadn’t been a surprise to them. He’d been very ill. Still, it was a shock, happening all of a sudden, in mid-flight, and among strangers. They seemed to appreciate, he told me, having someone to talk to. We noticed that members of the flight crew took turns sitting with them for the rest of the flight, talking. It might be part of standard airline training, but I think it is, anyway, the instinctive response of human beings to pain. We console. (The heart quivers in response.)

And here’s the third story, an example of how the mind (surprisingly) needs equanimity when it meets pleasant situations. It seems as if pleasant situations should leave the mind unruffled. Not true. If an experience inspires yearning, when a moment before, yearning did not exist…

On the last day of a winter month spent in France, Seymour and I drove to Les Angles, a ski resort two hours from where we live. We had enjoyed seeing the snow on the peaks of the Pyrenees from our deck, but this was the first time up close. The resort was full of Christmas holiday skiers, and we stood at the bottom of the easiest beginner lift and watched people learning to ski. I was feeling particularly glamorous in my new high-heeled fake-fur-lined boots and purple tweed cap and scarf that my friend Toni had knitted for me. I thought about all the years Seymour and I had skied and all the trails we’d raced each other down before we’d stopped skiing, ten years previously.

“We could ski again,” I said. “This is an easy hill. Next year, let’s ski.”

“No we can’t. It’s not worth the risk. We’re old. We could break something.”

“Look, though. This is so easy. It would be such fun to put on skis again. We’d choose a sunny day, like today.”

“Forget it. It would be ridiculous. Your back isn’t so good. You have bursitis in your shoulder. Last year you pinched a nerve in your neck. Let’s go have lunch on the deck. We’ll watch the skiing from there.”

I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a window as we walked to the restaurant. I looked shorter and plumper, definitely less glamorous, than I had imagined. We ordered lunch. I felt my mind, mired in nostalgia, dragging itself along, seeming to arrive at the table after I did. I thought momentarily of sulking, pretending to be peeved at what I had perceived as a peremptory dismissal. I realized, though, that what I was peeved about was being old. Then I noticed two women sitting at the table adjacent to ours, not unlike me in size and age, carefully made up, coiffed, wearing brightly colored, warm (nonski) jackets and big, beautiful earrings. They were eating hearty lunches, talking and laughing as they ate. I thought they looked marvelous. I looked down at my boots and was glad about the high heels. Later on, before we left, I took some great photos of what I guessed was a three-year-old girl in a pink snowsuit, balanced on her skis with their tips crossed, trying to get her pole straps over her wrists. She looked marvelous, too.

The mind wobbles when it discovers it can’t have something it wants, and then, when it catches itself, it appreciates. This wobble was a small one, easily overcome. Other yearnings are much more painful. The cycles, though, of “Oh, a pleasant thing,” “I want it,” “I lament not being able to have it, I feel sad,” and “This is the way it is. It can’t be other, now,” are the same regardless of whether the yearning is trivial or tremendous.

In the end, relief comes in two stages. The first is the moment that the mind stops struggling and says, “I wanted something different, but this is what I have.” The second is the ability to rejoice with other people, delighting in their pleasure. “May you two beautiful women enjoy this lunch and many others.” “May you, lovely little girl in pink who reminds me of my own children and grandchildren, grow up to enjoy skiing and also your whole life.” (The Pali word for the capacity to fully appreciate and bless is mudita.)

And here is one final piece of Buddhist theory that I can add, now that I’ve told these three stories of what seem to me to be the natural goodwill responses of the mind balanced by wisdom. The responses of friendliness, compassion, and appreciation that I felt in these three situations—all situational permutations of basic goodwill—depended on my mind’s being relaxed and alert enough to notice both what was happening around me and what was happening as my internal response. In each case, even though the situation included challenge, my mind had enough equanimity in it to allow me to stay connected with affection. My refuge was my own good nature, available for expression.

And it might have been otherwise. If my mind, in the long overnight flight, had been preoccupied with stories of my life, past or anticipated, or had it been agitated by fears about flying, or even if I had simply been too tired to pay attention to the scene around me, I would have missed it. I would not have been able to recognize the fundamental truth about human beings—that we do our best to keep ourselves comfortable, in orderly ways so as not to disturb others, in whatever situations we find ourselves—and I would have missed the opportunity to be touched by human courage. Instead of feeling warmly connected to the other people on my flight, I would have been indifferent. On the outside, I would have looked the same. On the inside, I would not have felt nearly as good.

And I really don’t know if my mind could have stayed balanced enough to rest in consolation if someone had taken ill, or died, in the row next to mine. I might have felt frightened about not having the skills to help. I’ve been with friends as they died, but I wanted to be there and I wasn’t surprised. Perhaps, on a plane and caught off guard, I’d be wishing that it weren’t happening, or that I were somewhere else. I don’t know. If my mind was overwhelmed by resentment or fear, the wisdom that reminds me that these things happen—people take ill, and die, according to conditions beyond their control, just as I will someday—would not have been available to comfort me. I might have forgotten to pray.

And perhaps if I had been less happy than I was on the day at Les Angles, I would have fallen prey to envy or jealousy, and to avoid recognizing those feelings, I might have started a quarrel about being spoken to peremptorily. As it turned out, I had enough wisdom available to me to think, “Things change. That was then. Now is now. There are other pleasures I can enjoy. Everyone takes turns being able to do this or that in life. We can for a while, and then we can’t. May everyone, including me, enjoy this moment.”

Indifference, pity, envy, and jealousy are what the Buddha called the “near enemies of the brahmaviharas.” Indifference, for example, might masquerade as equanimity, looking very balanced and even, but representing, in fact, the very opposite of emotional connection. (Think of the expression “I couldn’t care less,” which I’ve always heard as having a sad ring to it.) Pity looks a little like compassion, because it acknowledges suffering, but it is still an arm’s-length awareness of the pain and carries some aversion in it. “It’s too bad this is happening to you,” the mind thinks, without remembering, “This, or some other painful thing, will sometime happen to me or my kin. May all beings always be comforted in their suffering.” And without balancing awareness in the mind, delight and affection morph into envy and jealousy when other people’s joys are joys we covet or when we require something in return for our friendship. All of the near enemies are unhappy, tense states. The brahmaviharas all establish connections that nourish and enliven the moment. The near enemies create distance and isolation.

What keeps me connected to the world outside myself, as well as to my own natural goodness, is wishing others well in moments of both bad and good fortune, and acting with ordinary benevolence toward people as they go about their regular business of life—of appreciation, consolation, and friendliness.

Both those perspectives act for me as safety nets. Staying alertly connected to the world outside myself keeps me from falling into the limitations of self-absorption from which no reality check into wisdom is possible. And the reconnection with my own benevolent nature, each time it happens, protects me from the despair of feeling that nothing I (or anyone else) could do can make a difference. Safely connected to my life, and reassured of my essential goodness, I feel at ease, at home, really in the most sublime of homes.

And here’s one more detail from the traditional accounts of the Buddha’s enlightenment experience that—because the Buddha sounds so human in it—is particularly inspiring to me. He is reported to have hesitated before starting out to teach, thinking of the enormity of the task before him. Some legends say that heavenly messengers appeared to him urging him on, reminding him of what benefit his news about ending suffering would be to those people who heard it. The Buddha’s decision to teach was, presumably, the result of hearing those heavenly messengers.

I know that in situations where I am hesitating about doing something—something I know will be helpful—my own kindness pushes me to do it. I anticipate how bad I’ll feel if I don’t act. I think it was the same for the Buddha. “Heavenly messengers,” I think, are our impulses of natural kindness.

Posted in Dharma, Writing

On Writing, by Natalie Goldberg

Meeting the Chinese in St. Paul: Rhino Hits the Midwest

By Natalie Goldberg

A season devoted to the koans of the ancient Chinese Masters gave Natalie Goldberg a taste for the stripped-down, naked truth of things. As she searched Minnesota for an elusive rhinoceros, a simple truth revealed itself: I’m broken and I’m free.

As a Soto Zen student I had successfully steered clear of koans for almost my full twenty-five years of practice. They were considered more a part of the fierce Rinzai Zen training and seemed enigmatic and scary. How would I know what the sound of one hand clapping was, as one famous koan asked. Koans were meant to be illogical and stump the student, to kick her into another way of thinking—or not thinking—so that she could have insight into the nature of the universe.

My old Soto teacher said, “Soto is more like the not-so-bright, kindly elder uncle.” He admired Rinzai and indicated it was for sharper types.

Despite my reservations, in 1998 I moved up to St. Paul, Minnesota, for two months to dive into koans. I would study of The Book of Serenity, an ancient Chinese Zen text of one hundred koans (or cases) depicting situations and dialogues between teacher and student, teacher and teacher, student and student.

Driving in the car through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, crossing one state border after another, I repeated to myself, “Yes, I can do it.”

My old friend Phil Willkie and I were going to trade homes for this mid-October through mid-December period. We didn’t know who was getting the better deal. I would live in his three-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up flat on MacKuben in St. Paul, and he would inhabit my solar beer-can-and-tire house on the mesa six miles outside of Taos.

Phil’s apartment was replete with photos of his family, including one of his grandfather, Wendell Willkie, the 1940 contender for the presidency against F.D.R., and another of an aunt sitting in the backseat of a convertible with Dwight Eisenhower. Best of all, a former boyfriend of Phil’s lived in the back bedroom. He too was studying Zen at the time. At night we’d often share a simple dinner of steamed broccoli and rice. He was a modest fellow, saving all the plastic yogurt containers and calling them his fine Tupperware collection. We had known each other years before, when he and Phil visited me in the Southwest.

During the day, I had little to do but wrestle with these Chinese ancestors who embodied the koans. I wanted to understand what was meant by their interchanges.

Luoshan runs into Yantou and asks: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”

A perfectly good question, if you were thinking about the nature of the universe. We often ask, “What should I do with my life?” Usually it’s asked in despair: I’m lost. Help me. We want a concrete answer: Become a dentist and everything will be all right. But there is a deeper cry in the question. How should I live knowing the world is a confusing place?

First, Luoshan asked Shishuang his question: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”

Shishuang replied: “You must be cold ashes, a dead tree, one thought for ten thousand years, box and lid joining, pure and spotlessly clear.”

Luoshan didn’t get it. Too complicated an answer. He only became more confused trying to figure it out. He went seeking Yantou and asked his question again: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?”

Yantou shouted and said, “Whose arising and vanishing is it?”

Maybe the shout would have been enough. Imagine that you’re an earnest student going from teacher to teacher, saying, “Please clarify this,” and one of the renowned, respected ones screams in your face. Maybe then you’d step back and see yourself. But Yantou offers more than his shout. He asks, exactly who are you that is experiencing this coming and going? This time Luoshan is enfolded into his own question. Engulfed in radical non-separation, he wakes up.

I understood what was happening to Luoshan. But my understanding wasn’t good enough. The koan wouldn’t come alive until I demonstrated that understanding. There is an old adage in writing: don’t tell, but show. I could tell you what happened in the koan, but to show it, I had to become Luoshan and exhibit his—and my—insight. That’s how I would pay true homage to the lineage of old Chinese practitioners I’d come to love, by making their work and effort alive and vital in me right now. To stay Natalie Goldberg from Brooklyn, with her usual collection of needs and desires, pains and complaints, wouldn’t work. Becoming some idea of Chinese—or Japanese—wouldn’t work either. These koans might have come through a particular culture but what they are aiming at is the core of human nature. Who are we really? What is this life about? I had to learn to become a fool, a barbarian, the moon, a lamppost, a fallen leaf—any angle necessary to answer the questions posed by these ancient fellows. But I couldn’t get stuck, not even as a single, perfect plum blossom. My mind had to become greased in its skull, a pearl rolling in a silver bowl. No settling; no abiding; no fixed residence. The koan mind does not dwell; instead it is alive—and empty—like a dust mote in a ray of sun. In other words, I had to let go and to see fresh, like a blind donkey. Tell me, how can something sightless see?

I paced St. Paul’s streets, past Scott Fitzgerald’s old home on Summit, the vast houses on Crocus Hill, the River Gallery, and the Harvest Bread Bakery. I crossed the bridge on the mighty Mississippi; reveling in the long, slow display of burnt leaves that marked the coming of the dark season. I wanted to know who these Chinese brothers—and the occasional Chinese sister, such as Iron-Grinder Lui, the woman of Taishan, and the teacake seller—were. I was used to studying Western literature, full of elaborate stories, subplots, metaphor, and flashbacks. These Chinese tales were so digested that only a few lines were enough.

Leaning over our supper plates one evening, Phil’s old boyfriend from the backroom beseeched me, “So Aunt Natalie, tell me a bedtime koan before we drop off.” It was his second year of practice, and his early enthusiasm met my old determination.

I lunged into the koan about Luoshan. I described the rough road, the jagged mountain where I imagined the interchange had taken place. I fleshed out the two men’s ragged dress, their recent meal—“For sure, it was not hot dogs on a bun.” I wanted to plant a deep impression in my faux nephew’s mind so he would never forget these crazy, wild ancestors. I made faces, with lips turned out, eyes raised to the ceiling; I howled, groaned, drooled, clawed at Yantou. I demanded a response to rising and vanishing. We both went to bed tired and giddy that night to wake at 4:30 a.m. and drive the mile and a half to the zendo.

Later that morning I unfolded on my bedroom floor a glossy map of the whole Zen lineage from 532 C.E. to 1260 C.E. and knelt over it, running my finger from Matsu to Pai-Chang to Kuei-shan. These were all characters in the Book of Serenity. I relished the link between teacher and student and how the student of the next generation became the teacher in the next. Below all the dates and Chinese names was a drawing of an immense fork-tongued dragon sprouting out of the clouds. He was a feral force in the orderly map of connections.

The original Book of Serenity was lost after it was first compiled by Wansong in northern China, but it was reconstructed by Wansong at the urging of one of his disciples, Yelu Chucai, who was a statesman. He was one of a group of Chinese desperate to save their provinces from destruction by the ravaging army of Genghis Khan, and they wanted to study the text as a way to illuminate their minds and come up with a fresh solution. Through their work they eventually softened the harshness of the Mongol ruler.

Studying these cases brings one more fully and deeply into the structures that underlie conventional life. The cases were not created to help people disappear into a mist high on a mountain. The terrible truth, which is rarely mentioned, is that meditation doesn’t directly lead us to some vaporous, glazed-eyed peace. It drops us right into the personal meat of human suffering. No distant, abstract idea of distress; instead we get to taste the bitter pain between our own twin eyes. With practice we settle right down into the barbed-wire nest, and this changes us. Working with koans creates a bigger heart, a tender, closer existence, a deeper seeing.

Near the end of November, I turned to page one hundred and eight, case number twenty-five. “Rhinoceros Fan” was the title. My mind froze. That’s my usual tactic: when anything new comes along, I brake, clutch, and stop dead. What do I know about a rhinoceros? Aren’t they African? I later found out that China did have rhinos, and that their horns were carved into fans.

What stumped me more was the juxtaposition of these two words: “rhinoceros,” that huge, forceful animal, probably as close to a dinosaur as we are going to find now on earth, placed beside the word “fan,” something light, used to create a breeze, a stirring of wind to refresh court ladies or Southern belles.

I moved on from the title to the actual case:

One day Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me back the rhinoceros!”
The attendant had no reply.
Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word “rhino” inside it.

Yanguan was an illustrious disciple of Matsu. After his teacher’s death, he had wandered until he became the abbot of Fayao Temple. This was a monastery situation. The attendant was not paid staff but was Yanguan’s student. As an attendant, the student had the great opportunity of extra time with his teacher. In this particular story the student is anonymous. All the better; he could be any of us—John or Sue or Sally, you or me.

I was not sure who Zifu was who appears at the end. I would look him up later. But for now I’d stay with the teacher-and-student interaction.

More than likely, their interchange takes place in a quiet moment when Yanguan has a little time to put his attention on this monk. He’s going to test him, poke him: Are you there? Yanguan and the attendant are in kinship. They had both probably lived in the monastery for many years, but Yanguan couldn’t turn around to the attendant and say something simple like, “Do you love me?” or “Are you happy here?” Instead, there is decorum. One person is made the attendant, the other the Zen Master. Of course, one has been practicing longer than the other. Out of time we create hierarchy, levels, positions. In the large space of this true book, we eventually let go of these criteria, but we also play along.

So Yanguan asks for a fan. The fan is the excuse for an exchange, though it could also have been one of those unbearable hot summer days. Bring me some relief. Where’s the fan?

The attendant replies that the fan is broken.

He can’t find another one? I’m thinking. What was going on here?

That evening after I read this case I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned.

The night became a deep and endless thing. My mind wandered over much terrain: a particular apple orchard, a young boy who died. I remembered an old friendship I once had. This line ran through my head: the relationship is broken.

Broken! I sat up in bed. That is the word the attendant used. I jumped up, ran to the shelf, and opened the book. I took a leap: the attendant was saying he himself was broken, even if he referred to a fan. He was the fan.

But that doesn’t stop Yanguan, his teacher. Hell, if the fan—the product—was shattered, then bring back the whole rhinoceros. What a stunning concept! If the paper is torn, bring the enormous tree into the living room.

Yanguan was asking this of his student (and of us): Take a tremendous step—not forwards but backwards—into your essential nature. Manifest your original face. Don’t get stuck on something broken—a heart, a wish. Become the rhinoceros—reveal your full self, go to the source, nothing hidden.

And this is what I loved the most: “The attendant had no reply.” What do we do when a rhino is charging us, when a bear of a teacher is storming us? We run for our lives. In no other case that I had studied so far was there such an abrupt stop. No action, nothing. The attendant had already given his all when he said the fan was broken, when he revealed he was not whole.

It’s a naked thing to show we are fractured, that we do not have it all together. Broken all the way through to the bottom. What freedom that is, to be what we are in the moment, even if it’s unacceptable. Then we are already the rhinoceros.

Think about it: We are always doing a dance—I’m good, I’m bad, I’m this, I’m that. Rather than the truth: I don’t know who I am. Instead, we scurry to figure it out. We write another book, buy another blouse, exhaust ourselves. Imagine the freedom to let it be, this not knowing. How vulnerable. This is why I love the attendant. He said who he was—a broken man, a shattered fan derived from the concentrated point of a fierce beast. When his teacher asked for more, the monk didn’t do a jig to win him over. There was no more. Usually we will do anything to cover up a reality so naked.

I know the relief, and ensuing shame or terror, of making that kind of simple statement. When I was in the middle of a divorce, I visited my parents in Florida. My father was on the first day of a new diet. He was looking forward to dinner. We were going out to a steakhouse for the early bird special. My father made fun of my huarache sandals when I stepped out of the bedroom, ready to go.

“What are those, horse hooves?”

I was touchy and tired of his putdowns. I twirled around and marched back into the bedroom. “I’m leaving,” I screamed. I threw clothes into a suitcase and charged out the front door and onto the nearby turnpike. I was walking on the divider line, headed for the airport fifteen miles away. A car pulled up beside me and drove the speed of my walking pace. I looked straight ahead.

“Nat,” my father pulled down his window.

I burst out crying.

“Wait, stay here. I’ll go get your mother. Do you promise not to move?”

I nodded, leaning against the rail guard.

Moments later my parents pulled up together. My mother ran out of the car. “Natli, what’s the matter?”

I uttered three words: “I am lost.” I had no energy for a cover-up. Those words came from my core.

Everything halted. My mother stood with her hands at her sides. My father looked straight ahead, his face frozen, his arm hanging over the door of the car.

Nothing was to be done. It was a huge, unbearable opening between us. My parents became embarrassed. So did I. We’d never been so naked with each other.

After a long, excruciating time my father’s head turned. “Now can we go eat? I’m starving.”

The monk did not have this distraction. No restaurant for him. My experience was that the monk stood his ground for all time. He did not reply after he showed his naked face. But like the rabbis making commentary on the Torah, later Zen teachers responded to koans, and in this case disagreed over the monk’s state of mind. Maybe the attendant in his silence had emptied his depths, so that the rhinoceros, the source, stood there radiantly, painfully alive in his no reply. Or maybe he was just dumbfounded and petrified, thinking, what should I do now in front of my teacher?

In the next sentence, in steps Zifu. He draws a circle and writes the word “rhino” inside it. I imagine that he picked up a nearby stick and drew the circle in the dirt or in the air and then wrote the Chinese character boldly in the center.

I found out that Zifu was a Zen master who lived at least a hundred years after the interchange between Yanguan and the monk. These stories, passed on generation to generation, were kept splendidly alive. Sitting in his monastery, Zifu hears the situation and plunges in. Zifu’s dust circle is a stamp of approval. His response radiates back through a century and screams forward to us now.
Attendant I see you, Zifu calls out.

Yes, Zifu is saying, this exchange between student and teacher is complete. Nothing is left out. Even if the attendant was immobilized rather than inexpressively present, Zifu catches the whole thing and brings it to completion, enlightening the attendant, the rhino, the teacher, folding us all into the great circle.

I spent the autumn of my fiftieth year roaming through these Chinese minds. I began to see everything as a koan. The news announced that bread burned in someone’s kitchen in Blue Earth and the house went down in flames. Everything now was related. The house, the bread, the town in southern Minnesota presented a koan. How could I step into those flames and burn too? Life became a revolving story. No matter from what age or country, it met me where I was.

I watched my friend Wendy, an old practitioner and the gardener for twenty years at Green Gulch, a Zen farm outside of San Francisco, answer questions after a reading from her forthcoming book, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate.

“How big is your garden?” one of my students queried.

Wendy was struck silent for a full minute. The audience fidgeted in their seats. I realized what was happening.

“Wendy,” I leaned over, “this is not a koan—she’s not challenging your whole being. She just wants to know in feet the area you garden.”

Wendy snapped back. “Many feet are cultivated.” Then she went on to speak of once putting a dead deer in the compost heap and a month later nothing was left but hooves and bones.
In the Book of Serenity, Guishan asks Yangshan where he comes from, and Yangshan replies, the fields. There are many fields to come from—playing fields, plowing fields, the upper or lower field, or the dharma field spread out before us.

Soon after I returned home to Taos, I had a week of teaching with my good friend Rob Wilder. He is sharp and has a generous heart. Little goes by him. We sat together at dinner the second night of the workshop. I was eager to share where I had been. I told him about koans, then I told him about the last one I worked on. I laid out the case, how I entered it, what I understood. He was listening intently, the way only a writer can from years of developing an attunement to story and sound. He nodded often. I felt encouraged.

I went to bed that night happy. I had been afraid, coming home from St. Paul, that no one would understand where I had been.

The next morning was a silent breakfast. Almost everyone had already cleared out of the dining room when Rob sidled up next to me. “Nat,” he said in a low voice, “I was thinking how amazing it is. We can know each other so well. We can be such good friends, and I had no idea what you were talking about last night.”

My head snapped back. What’s going on here? The fan of our communication was fractured? A student walked in and we shut up.

I gulped down some water to swallow the ball of cornflakes that sat in my mouth. I felt almost lonely, walked to the brink of isolation. Rob was on one side of the old adobe dining room and I on another. Suddenly something in front of my eyes shattered. The rhino emerged glistening. I abruptly started to laugh, big eruptions through my entire body. This was one whole world. Rob Wilder was my relation. We had plunged right into the lineage together. No one left out. The water glass, the spoon, the flowers in the vase, all glimmered and shook. Who was laughing? Hours melted in my hand. The walls of the building dissolved. Everyone and no one lifted the spoon to take the next bite of cereal.

Natalie Goldberg’s newest book is book Old Friend from Far Away: How to Write Memoir. With filmmaker Mary Feidt, she recently completed the documentary Tangled Up in Bob, about Bob Dylan’s childhood on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. She has been a Zen practitioner for over thirty years and teaches workshops and retreats on writing as a Zen practice.

Posted in Dharma

Peacocks and Poison

Bodhisattva – Like a Peacock Thriving on Poisons

Peacock thrive on poison like bodhisattva thrives on negativies. Peacocks live in forest with poisonous plants, they eat the poisonous plants that no other animals can eat, and instead of being poisoned, peacocks transformed the poisons thay eat into beautiful, colorful and vibrant plumage and thrive. Similarly, a Bodhisattva while dwelling amidst the all the negativities and sufferings of samsara, does not get affected at all or being pulled down and drift along the samsaric current, instead, a Bodhisattva dwell in samsara but thrives in it. Not only that he is not being inflicted by the negativities, he can help others who are in samsara to get rid of their negativities. Such is the unusual qualitiy of a Bodhisattva, just like a peacock.

Bodhisattvas can be around any beings and not be affected by them, be it harmless beings or harmful beings. For example, animals are attracted to Nagarjuna and they like to stay near him, including predators. Realized beings like Nagarjuna who are filled with spontaneous love and compassion for all beings are able to affect the beings surrounding them. They will feel the positive energy of loving kindness and become peaceful, just the the animals around Nagarjuna. Another example is when we met realized practitioners like Geshe Wangchen of Drepung Monastery, we can feel his positive energy tremendously and be affected by it.

There are different levels to our mind. When a person see another being who has higher level of mind than himself, whatever that is at the same level and below to himself he will see it as good, but when it comes to levels that are above his, he will only see those as negativities. Qualities such as compassion which are achieved by high level beings are not able to be perceived by people of lower level, therefore they will see those qualities as negative instead.

People who always think they are right and that everyone else is wrong, and see negativities on others and criticise others, they have no refuge, and will not have attainments, because they do not believe that others can have higher mental capacity, therefore it is the same as not believeing in the existence of a Buddha. Since they do not believe in the existence of a Buddha, they do not have refuge. Same for people who are miserly, angersome, lazy, bitter, egoistic. These type of people, as long as the hold on to their negativities and delusions and try to justify them, they will have no attainments, simple because by justifying their types of mind or actions indirectly they also deny the existence of a higher level of mind which is free from all the delusions, which is a Buddha. Since they deny the existence of a Buddha, they do not believe that a mind can be developed and become better until enlightenment, therefore, these type of people also do not take refuge in Buddha.

On the other hand, people who are humble and genuinely believe that there are people better than them, both in worldly and spiritual aspects, they will gain attainments because although they cannot see the Buddha, but by inferential logic, they can come to a conclusion that a being of higher mental capacity for example a Buddha can exists, and that they can become one too. Therefore they geniunely believe in the existence of a Buddha and will take refuge and practise sincerely and eventually they will gain attainments.

Short summary on Dharma Talk given by Tsem Tulku Rinpoche on 23 May 2006, recorded by Loh Seng Piow

Posted in Dharma, Meditation

A Fantastic Resource for Learning Meditation (from Thailand)

Here in Phuket we are in the midst of an incredible retreat by luminary meditation teacher, scholar, Tibetan translator Alan Wallace. He graciously offers his teachings for free, so if you’d like to join us via podcast, go here and subscribe.

Use TP PHuket

May all beings benefit!

Posted in Dharma, Meditation, Musings, Pilgrim's journey

A View As Vast As Space

sand dunes

“Although my view is as vast as space, when comes to the nature of actions and their consequences, I am extremely precise, like little particles of flour.” (Or sand.)

~Guru Rinpoche

Posted in Asia, Dharma, Meditation, Pilgrim's journey

A visit with the 17th Karmapa

In March of this year, I went to Sarnath, India, where Shakyamuni Buddha gave teachings for the very first time. While I was there I had the incredible good fortune to have a private meeting with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. _MG_2528 My meeting was limited to 3 minutes, so I had time for one question and one photo. In answer to my question, he essentially reminded me that the best way to  use this precious human birth is to practice taming the mind through meditation, and to use that training to develop compassion for all sentient beings.