“Once there is right view, birth and death can no longer touch you. At that point, whether you stay or go, you do so as a free person…You should stop the mind that is always wandering around, running to the neighbor’s house to study Zen…[and] achieve the state of having nothing to do…”
–from the Linji Lu (The Record of Master Linji) Parts 3 and 11, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh in Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go.
The phrase “being free from birth and death” crops up in many Zen teachings. I first took “birth” and “death” as referring to the bookends of a human lifespan. I tended to associate “being free” from them with metaphysical doctrines that tell us that the cycle of being born and dying is a bad thing. Drawing from Hindu metaphysics, some interpretations of Buddhism tell us that the goal of spiritual practice is to extinguish such reincarnation.
That never felt right to me. Especially as a mother, who has given birth, thinking of human birth as something negative feels wrong. We each receive a precious life! But as I continued to explore how the phrase “birth and death” is used by various Zen teachers, it has come to resonate with me in a particular way. I’ve started to associate “birth and death” with continually recurring sources of dread and anxiety in my life, that can crop up in any moment. When they crop up, they make me feel worried, trapped, even desperate. I suffer.
The Boundless Way Zen sesshin (retreat) this last January focused on the writings of Master Linji, who I quote above. He says that with right view “birth and death can no longer touch you.” And he tells us to “stop the mind that is always wandering around.” As I sat in meditation in our peaceful zendo at that sesshin, an image came to mind of a person doing log-rolling. In the old days, lumberjacks would ride a floating log while using a long pole to guide other logs down a river. But they couldn’t just stand on the log. They had to run or walk, spinning the log under their feet, to stay upright. If you were to stand still on a log, the natural instability of the log would dump you off.
So, for a moment, let’s regard the log itself as representing our Buddha nature. Our original face. Thusness. The vast inconceivable source. The log is just this woman, sitting in her chair by a window, thoughts in her head, fingers moving on a keyboard. It is what it is.
And then let’s add to this picture a human figure, who I envision silhouetted in profile, running first forwards, and then backwards, keeping the log spinning. We’re “running to the neighbors house,” as Linji put it. We have lots to do! The log is still just a log—nothing has changed, there–but now we have something extra: the ego, the sense of an enduring self, the head we create on top of our head.
It was during my first day at that sesshin, when we first did this reading, that the metaphor of log-rolling came to me. I pictured the “stopping” Linji refers to as that human figure falling off the log. That figure is trying so hard to keep up a sense of self, to make an ongoing, solid self out of the things it does. It is spinning relentlessly, trying to keep this created sense of self from being compromised by losses. In many of the talks given by our teachers, and in our dharma dialog at retreats, references to “stopping” and “falling away” come up. The essence of our life, our Buddha nature, is just the log. Just this. We use words like “kensho” or “enlightenment” to refer to the realization of this. We refer to this as an “accident,” because it’s not something that we can make happen. We can’t just instruct ourselves to fall off the log—the habit energy that keeps us running is much too strong. At most, our Zen practice may make us more “accident prone” (as John Tarrant has put it.) Or perhaps dedicated practice helps us be more likely to notice and appreciate an opening when it happens.
Sometimes, perhaps for the briefest of moments, the circuit of energy that fuels the constant-motion human figure on the log is interrupted. That figure just falls away. We are left with a still log, floating peacefully in a quiet mountain lake, whose mirror surface reflects the stars just appearing at dusk. Or maybe there is no log. No lake. No sky. The log is just a metaphor, and not something to get stuck on.
And then there is the rest of our life, when that energy circuit is in full gear, and, like it or not, our mind is running. And then there are the times when our log is not in still water.
The evening of my second day at sesshin, my log was being carried off by a rushing, rain-swollen river, over the rapids, to a destination I-knew-not-where. I had arrived at the retreat the two days late, due to having become ill during a trip to China a few days earlier. I still wasn’t feeling 100%, but I felt mostly over it. But after two days at the retreat, I could feel a relapse coming on.
My practical, planning mind needed to come up with a strategy, and it settled on one quickly. First, I would take care of myself during the night at the retreat center. Then, in the morning, I would see how I felt and make plans from there. But as I lay in my bunk that night, my mind couldn’t stop with that. It had to imagine just about every possible thing that could happen, and put endless side branches on an elaborate decision tree. The retreat center was an hour from my house–what if I had to go home but I couldn’t drive? I’d cleared my calendar to be able to stay at the retreat for three weeks–if I had to go home, how soon could I make it back? What if this illness were really serious? And there was no way my mind was going to stop doing what it was doing. But being two days into sesshin did give me a little perspective on this spinning mind. I could sense how my spinning was extra, and how it wasn’t going to change the route of my log. In spite of all the spinning and worrying going on, I felt a sense of peace about my log ending up somewhere.
My life would still be my life, when I woke up in the morning–even if that life might be quite different from the life my spinning, planning, to-do list making, loss-avoiding mind had expected or hoped for. I could observe my log-rolling human figure whirring away, but in my mind I pictured it as slightly transparent and ghost-like. Because I didn’t totally believe it, and didn’t give it the energy that would make it solid, its not-quite-real footfalls didn’t quite connect with the log. My log was rushing downriver, but since my mental spinning didn’t have solidity, my log was saved from also having to spin chaotically as it plunged.
(End of Part 1 of 4. Part 2: When the responsibilities seem like too much…)