(I found the following note in my handwriting tucked into a copy of Red Pine’s translation of The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, which I opened this morning for the first time in close to ten years. I laughed when I read what I had written, because I have no recollection of writing it, and, looking through the book, I can’t tell which part I wrote it in response to.)
The end of suffering actually turns out to be the end of separation from suffering.
Suffering does not disappear from our life - it disappears into our life. We no longer experience it as something that intrudes into our life, something that we can keep out of our life if we can only put up the right barricades.
We stop suffering when we stop separating and stop comparing, when we realize that suffering is not caused by our circumstances, but by the stories we tell ourselves about our circumstances.
The craving for suffering to end is exactly what keeps us in samsara, in suffering, in dissatisfaction, in dukkha.
Nansen found monks of the Eastern and Western halls arguing about a cat. He told them, “Say a word of Zen, or I will kill the cat.” No one could say anything to save the cat, and so Nansen cut it in two.
That evening, Joshu returned from an excursion and Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu took off a sandal, put it on his head, and walked out.
Nansen said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”
- The Gateless Gate, Case 14
One Zen student to whom I gave this koan said, “There’s blood on the floor and a knife in the hand, but there’s no cat.”
Possibly useful questions:
What is the cat?
What is Nansen asking?
Where do you find the cat in your life right now? What is the question right now?
How do you save the cat right now? What do you save it from? Who saves you?
Any sharp knife can cut something in two. How do you sharpen the knife so that it can cut two things into one?
For some time, I’ve been rethinking and experimenting with the way I teach Zen. One change is that most of our liturgy is now chanted in English rather than Sino-Japanese. The best English translation of The Heart Sutra is by Red Pine, but I’ve been able to find no English translation of The Kannon Sutra that’s both accurate and easy to chant, so I’ve been working on such a translation.
I think it might be ready, and I hope people will find it useful. Here is the Romaji, then the English:
ENMEI JUKKU KANNON GYO
KAN ZE ON
NA MU BUTSU
YO BUTSU U IN
YO BUTSU U EN
BUP PO SO EN
JO RAKU GA JO
CHO NEN KAN ZE ON
BO NEN KAN ZE ON
NEN NEN JU SHIN KI
NEN NEN FU RI SHIN
THE TEN-LINE LIFE-GIVING KANNON SUTRA
(Note: A discussion yesterday with a Zen student who’s dealing with clinical depression prompted me to post this chapter of my book Kill Your Self: Life After Ego.)
Sometimes people ask me if Zen practice can cure depression. I tell them it can no more cure a mental illness than a physical illness, and I encourage them to look into counseling and medication. I also encourage them to read the book The Zen Path Through Depression by Philip Martin.
Zen probably won’t solve a single one of our problems. What it might do is help us relate differently to what we consider problems.
While depression is obviously agonizing, it doesn’t have to be a problem. The problem isn’t the depression, it’s how we react to it. We think people kill themselves because they’re depressed, but they don’t; they kill themselves because they believe a story that arises from the depression. Zen practice, or any other contemplative practice, won’t diminish the depression - but what if we no longer believe the despairing, frightening thoughts that come up?
Let me emphasize that I’m not saying the destructive thoughts can be stopped. I’m saying we can stop believing them, and also stop trying to replace them with other believed thoughts.
When people ask me why I practice, I sometimes quote John Cage: “It had to be psychotherapy or Zen Buddhism, and I don’t believe in psychotherapy.”
There is a tendency among some people who turn towards meditative practice to see it as a cure for every human problem. I think this is just another of the ego’s attempts to cop out and find an easy answer.
A friend of mine, who had been told by some “Buddhists” that his late brother’s severe schizophrenia could have been cured or helped by meditation, asked me if I thought that was true. I told him I couldn’t see how it would be possible for a person in such a state - hallucinating, unable to comprehend objective reality - to meditate at all, let alone to be helped by it.
I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I am sure that the practice of Zen has not only helped me, but has actually saved my life. But, there have been times in my life when such medications as Lexapro and Prozac have also helped immensely. While meditation helped me deal with the symptoms of PTSD, medication made it easier to meditate.
Render unto meditation the things that are meditation’s, and unto medication the things that are medication’s.
Image: Vince Larue
Master Tozan was sick. A monk said, “Is there anyone who does not get sick?”
Tozan said, “There is.”
The monk said, “Does the one who does not get sick take care of you?”
Tozan said, “I take care of him.”
The monk said, “What happens when you take care of him?”
Tozan said, “Then no one is sick.”
- The Book of Equanimity, Case 94
Who is the one who does not get sick? And how do you, who get sick, take care of him or her? More importantly, when you are not sick, how do those who are sick take care of you? How is the nurse healed by the patient, and what happens to the sickness?