New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk 2010, Dai Bosatsu Zendo

Teisho by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Forty-six years ago this evening, Eido Roshi arrived in New York City. He had five dollars in his pocket and no prospects. All he had was his faith in the Dharma, his enthusiasm for bringing Rinzai Zen to America, and his willingness to work extremely hard, no matter what. Now— here we sit in this amazing monastery, by the shore of Beecher Lake, on Dai Bosatsu Mountain.

It’s been quite a year, 2010— not one any of us will soon forget. There have been many upheavals in our personal lives and in our Sangha and in the world. Several of us have lost parents and other relatives and friends this year. We’ve experienced great waves of emotion and community commotion. As old karmic conditions come to fruition, we’ve seen how easily we can get caught up in fear, suspicion, anger, resentment, frustration, grief, and a general sense of insecurity as we are thrust into the unknown. I had no idea, a year ago, that I would be sitting here this evening, and certainly no idea that I would be installed as abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo tomorrow. But I, too, have great trust in what we have come to call the Dai Bosatsu Mandala, and I, too, am willing to work extremely hard, and with your help, we will continue the vibrant practice begun here by Eido Roshi.

We know that life is fleeting and uncertain. Time speeds along, and we go with it, and although we see 2010 coming to a close, we cannot be sure of seeing the end of 2011. Within unpredictability, loss, and radical change, the treasure of our practice is always at hand. When we sit down and shut up, the uncertainties and insecurities, the adversarial voices and the confusion, tumult, and turmoil they engender in our hearts gradually quiet down and fade away, and then we can see what really needs attention. Almost always, we find that what needs our attention isn’t out there, but in here. Both harmony and disharmony are created by the mind. Yes, there are circumstances that require our wise intervention, but all too often we get caught in a downward spiral of reactivity, and are anything but wise; our intervention turns out to be intrusive meddling and muddying.

As the Dhammapada reminds us, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. We are formed and molded by our thoughts. . . . ‘He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me’: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace. . . . There are those who forget that death will come to all. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.”

Someone once asked the Buddha, “What have you gained through meditation?” Perhaps you have had some skeptic ask you a similar question. Perhaps your father or mother has said, “You’ve spent so much time and money on your education, and now what are you doing with it, sitting around all day doing nothing!” Or perhaps a friend has asked you, “Why are you going to that place so often, you never have time for a real vacation! What’s the point of all that meditation?” Or maybe you have asked yourself during a period of what seems like a spiritual desert, feeling as though your practice is shallow at best, just going through the motions, “Why am I doing this?” and of course the subtext is, “What am I getting out of this?” The real problem is that we think we should be getting something. Getting, instead of giving; something, instead of nothing.

The question is asked on a deeper level, a probing level, in the koan: “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” This, of course, was asked from the vantage point of someone in China: in the early sixth century, Bodhidharma took the arduous three-year journey by boat from West to East, from India to China. In our time, the circle is complete: Buddhism has come from East to West. Asked why Bodhidharma came from the West, Joshu said, “Cyprus tree in the garden!” Rinzai, when asked “What was the intention of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West,” responded, “If there was any intention, he couldn’t even have saved himself!”

When the Buddha was asked, “What have you gained,” he replied, “Nothing at all.” His questioner then asked, “Then, Blessed One, what good is it?” The Buddha answered, “Let me tell you what I lost through meditation: sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death. That is the good of meditation.”

Everyone would like to lose their painful circumstances and negative emotions, but first, they want reassurances; If I do this, are the results guaranteed? No. Because to enter into meditation the way Shakyamuni did, the way all the great teachers have done, requires complete surrender. It requires hurling away that most precious edifice, the ego-entity, the myth of a separate self. Most people want to know what they’ll gain, not what they’ll lose. They want it all spelled out in legal documents, they want to know the lay of the land, how they’ll be supported, where they’ll live. In recent weeks, many people have asked me, “What will it be like, once you’re abbot? Do you know what you’re getting into?” And I tell them, I have no idea. No idea at all about what tomorrow will bring. Obaku told Rinzai to go pay a visit to the abbot at Mount Kin, and then Obaku asked Rinzai, “What are you going to do when you get there?” Rinzai replied, “When I get there, I’ll know what to do.”

So again, great faith is required. Some who encounter Zen may be filled with doubt and suspicion; they may decide that the practice isn’t right for them—it’s too steep a path, too severe, too demanding, too austere. But what are the alternatives? A Zen spa? A trip to a nice sandy island off Honduras? Sounds great. And afterward—right back where you started from, complaining about this, yearning for that. Maybe it’s down the road apiece —that great new age, and age-old, Samsara Spa. The price you’ll pay is much steeper than this path.

When he was in middle school in Japan, Nyogen Senzaki read a translation of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Senzaki wrote, “Following his method of character improvement, I began reviewing and recording my deeds at the end of each day, marking my negative actions with a black dot. Observing these numerous black marks every day was disturbing.” How many of us do this kind of reflection? We want gold stars—we don’t want to admit to the reasons for black dots. Yet such introspection is absolutely essential. It keeps us grounded in humility; it keeps us from ignoring our own faults and blaming others; it keeps us from deluding ourselves to justify acts that are grabby, greedy, self-absorbed, and harmful.

After becoming a monk and coming to the United States, Nyogen Senzaki taught what he called “a radical culture of awakening,” to which he devoted his life. No matter what difficulties and hardships he faced— and they were many —he remained true to the root, the root meaning of radical. The radical truth is not dependent upon our likes and dislikes; it has nothing to do with preferences; it offers no insurance policy. When surrounded by anti-Japanese prejudice, treated with contempt and attacked, thrown into Heart Mountain Internment Camp, Senzaki united with the spirit of the Bodhisattva Never-Despise from the Lotus Sutra, and in his mind he would tell his aggressors, “You too will one day become a Buddha.”

New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time to take stock, to do sincere introspection, and make resolutions to change. It’s a time to see how many black dots have accumulated— to notice how the things that have upset us have been exacerbated by our own insecurities, our own greed, anger and folly, and how the ripple effects of this negativity have affected others. With the power of collective introspection, we really can resolve— this word resolve is at the heart of the word resolution —we can resolve to uphold our vow to liberate all beings from suffering, to uphold the Buddhist precepts.

To me, the most important precept, the one that is essential for keeping all the other precepts, is to avoid deception—especially self-deception. Self-deception and its partner, justification, are ultimately responsible for leading a life of willful ignorance, in which we can harm others and simply choose not to notice. Even as a young boy, Nyogen Senzaki knew this; that is why he followed Benjamin Franklin’s method of noting each instance of heedlessness, arrogance, laziness, evasiveness, derision, selfishness and many other such things. The more we take note, the more we can free ourselves. If we don’t ignore our own ignorance, if we really see negative emotions for what they are and immediately cut them off at the pass—before they become harmful actions—this can change our lives, and this has far-reaching consequences for the year that begins in less than two hours.

Soon we’ll climb up to the daisho, the great gong on the mountainside, and each of us will make our New Year’s Vow, striking the gong and chanting 108 times Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo— the ten-phrase sutra of endless dimension universal life, invoking Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Kannon in Japanese, chanted as Kanzeon, the one who hears all the sounds of the world. In invoking Kanzeon, we call forth the spirit of compassion— from our own hearts, hearing and responding to the cries of all beings.

I’d like to share with you a tradition from our New Year’s Eve ceremonies at Hoen-ji. We write down on a scrap of paper all the unhelpful behavior patterns and old karmic hindrances that we feel we’re more than ready to cut-kill, and then, chanting the verse of purification, we cast them into the fire. There will be a small fire near the daisho, so we can do so here too. You can use your own paper in your room, or use the scrap paper and pens that are prepared in baskets on the table outside the dining room; take your paper with you when you change into outdoor clothing, and throw it into the fire before striking the gong. Of course, some may need more than one piece of paper—and others may feel that they don’t have anything to write down, in which case, write that down! Now let’s recite together the Verse of Purification:

All the evil karma ever committed by me since of old
On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and folly
Born of my body, mouth, and thought
I now confess and purify them all.

So-- practicing together, developing compassion, wisdom, and imperturbability, ready for whatever comes, with the courage to be with it as it is, let us awaken to the radical truth of this moment.