Issue 12: Winter

Dharma Talk

Where Are All the Buddhas Born?

A Dharma Talk given by Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi on Tuesday December 7 2010, at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
Transcribed by Chris Brown and edited by Devin Ashwood.

We have humbly arrived at the occasion of our great benefactor, Shakyamuni Buddha, resolving to sit still under the Bo Tree, until realising the way.

Tomorrow we may perform a ceremony to celebrate the occasion of Shakyamuni realising the buddha way. We also often do a ceremony in April (sometimes in May), where we celebrate the birth of the being who became the Buddha, or the being who evolved to become the Buddha. We call it Buddha’s Birthday. But it just occurred to me in the last few days that it is actually the birthday of the great bodhisattva, Gautama, prince Siddhartha. The Buddha was actually born on the occasion of attaining the way. So this is an opportunity to celebrate the attaining of the way and also the birth of a buddha.

Zen monasteries are sometimes called buddha-making, or buddha-birthing places. When the Shuso was talking about geology a few days ago, about mountains and water, I thought of another part of the scripture that she recited where the ancient teacher Yun Mun asked the assembly, “Where are all the buddhas born?” As usual, he answered the question for them, “Eastern mountains travel over the water. This is where and how buddhas are born”. Dogen Zenji helps us out by commenting that it is the foot of the mountains that actually walks over the water. And he even gets more precise to point out that it’s the toes of the mountain that touch the water; and where they touch the water, it splashes up. The mountain toes and the water waves are dancing together, and at that place, buddhas are born. Buddhas are born at the toes of the mountain meeting the water. Buddhas are born at mountains being mountains from their peak to their toes. Buddhas are born at the culmination of mountains being mountains. As you know, when mountains are truly mountains, mountains are not mountains. When mountains are truly mountains, they start moving over the water; they start dancing on the water, when they are truly mountains. When mountains are completely, thoroughly, intimate with being mountains, they meet the water, and buddhas are born.

We have the great good fortune of living at the toes of mountains that meet the water, right here in this valley. Also our Shuso pointed out in her talk that there’s a block called the Nacimiento block, which means the “to-be-born” block, which is next to the ocean. It’s the place where mountains are born. It’s the place where the mountains and the water come together and mountains are born – the birthing process. This teaching is for people and other sentient beings to tell us that buddhas are born in sentient beings’ intimacy with themselves. Buddhas are born where and when we are thoroughly intimate with ourselves.

This morning I heard the Shuso read the admonitions for sesshin and I thought I heard her say something like, “Harmonise with the schedule.” I thought, that was unusual. Sometimes it says “Follow the schedule completely.” But maybe it’s, “Follow the schedule completely in order to harmonise with the schedule, and thus drop off body and mind.” Becoming intimate with the schedule might involve following it or running away from it - which would involve meeting it and not meeting it. But in the end, the intimacy between ourselves and schedule is where the buddhas are born. In the buddha-making house they sometimes have a schedule. And when the sentient beings become intimate with themselves, by becoming intimate with the form of the schedule, buddhas are born, at the toes of the mountains of harmonising with the schedule.

You have heard it said many times that when we express the buddha mudra, the buddha seal – the mudra is a ring, but our sitting posture is also a mudra – when you are sitting you thoroughly exhaust the qualities of the sitting posture, and you are intimate with your sitting posture. To sit upright in correct bodily posture meets to sit upright and harmonise with that upright sitting, to be intimate with that upright sitting, to wholehearted about the bodily posture you have in the moment. In the wholeheartedness of this posture, in this moment, at the toes of the mountains of this posture – and you could also add at the fingertips (like mountain don’t have) since we put our hands down in the same neighbourhood as our toes – we exhaust our posture to the toes and the fingers, and a buddha is born. It’s also said that when we express the buddha’s mudra in the three actions of body, speech and thought – in the three kinds of karmic consciousness – all day long, before, during and after this sesshin, we will always be involved in three kinds of karmic consciousness: mental, postural and vocal. There seems to be an encouragement for us to express the buddha’s seal in our thinking, postures and vocalisations. Now everybody’s sitting here so in this physical posture, express the buddhas seal by being thorough in this sitting in this moment. When you’re walking during this sesshin and during the rest of your life, walk as the performance of the buddha mudra. When you are standing and speaking, express the buddha mudra in your postural and vocal karma. When you are thinking, make your thinking the performance of the buddha mudra.

I heard also an announcement here about going to the restroom, and a further encouragement to wash one’s hands after going to the restroom, and then wiping ones hands with paper towels. It seems that this is partly to promote public health in the practice place, but it’s also another opportunity to be thorough in going to the restroom. There may other ways to be thorough, but some people, like maybe me, might want to go to the restroom and not wash my hands because I’ve got other things to do; especially if the water’s cold. Should I use soap? Would that be more thorough and wholehearted? What is it like to go to the restroom and do so wholeheartedly? When we express our posture that way, by doing that kind of act, can we express the buddha mudra at the same time? The ancestor says that when we do express the buddha mudra of our karmic of posture of body, speech and thought, the whole phenomenal world turns in to enlightenment.

As I also like to remind myself and you, karmic consciousness is giddy. It’s giddy because it is so excited so the point of being disorienting. It disorients us from making this consciousness the performance of the buddha way. It’s so giddy, it is difficult for us to be oriented to be aware of our karmic consciousness to see if we wish this moment of action to be offered as the performance of the buddha way. When we are disoriented we may have trouble remembering that the ancestors teach that the buddha way is simple to perform: your current action is the Buddha way. Of course, that means to perform the current action intimately, thoroughly, wholeheartedly.

For example, in my case, 26 years ago at Green Gulch, we had a seven-day sesshin. The topic of the talks was the mountain and waters scripture, where it says the mountains and waters of the immediate present are the actualisation of the path of the ancient buddhas. Not the mountains and waters that we’re thinking about, but the mountains and waters of the immediate present. Not our thinking that we’re thinking about, but our thinking of the immediate present, which is wholehearted thinking, wholehearted for the sake of the buddha way. We give up half-hearted thinking for the Buddha way – this is the same as the mountains and rivers of the immediate present. Our karmic consciousness of the immediate present is the actualisation of the path of the ancient buddhas. Abiding together in their phenomenal expression in this way, they thoroughly culminate the qualities of exhaustiveness; ‘they’ being the mountains, and the karmic consciousnesses. It’s so simple, but it’s hard because karmic consciousness is disorienting us, is shaking us up, so it’s hard for us to be present with something that’s so giddy, that’s so silly; so dynamic, so afflicted, so obscured. Mountains are like this too. Then the quote from Yun Men is given by Dogen: “Where are the buddha’s born? Eastern mountains” - which means all of us, all living beings and non-living beings, are moving over the water – in their total exertion they are dancing with their selflessness - that’s where buddhas are born.

Anyway, I enjoyed the sesshin, I enjoyed being inspired by this teaching - to be wholehearted for the sake of the Buddha way. I didn’t feel like I was resisting that teaching or the practice during the sesshin that much; except for one time, when I was feeling a bit disoriented. It started before the sesshin when my spouse told me that her car needed to be repaired, and it would cost $1100. 26 years ago that was more money then now. We had $1100 dollars so I said ok. I was pretty wholehearted about it: “Yeah, go ahead, I will give you all of my hard-earned money that I’ve saved up over all my years of Zen practice, you can use it to fix your car.” Then, during sesshin, she gave me another message, which was that it would cost $1900. But we don’t have $1900 so, I decided to borrow the rest from my father. At this point, my karmic consciousness got a bit giddy. I got a little disoriented from, “What am I supposed to be doing here? Oh yeah, be wholehearted about this karmic consciousness which is, ‘that’s more money than we expected’. But I’m going to be totally wholehearted and thorough with ‘that’s more money that we expected’ – that’s my job. That’s not a complaint, that’s a mountain to walk to the bottom of”. But I only went halfway down the mountain I think, like: “Could we have another mountain, please? Slightly different?” After the sesshin was over, I got another message, which was, “actually it’s going to cost $3400”. By the way, the car was worth about $2000. At that point, karmic consciousness was very giddy, very disorienting. And in that disorientation, I didn’t think “How can I be wholehearted about this dynamic situation where it’s much more expensive than we thought, plus the car isn’t worth that much” and so on. In that kind of disorienting situation, how can I be wholehearted? I forgot about me being totally intimate with this situation so that the mountains could move over the water. Instead I wanted to try to have a different situation. I wanted to find somebody to blame for the situation. Maybe that would make things less giddy and disorienting. There was a moment when I thought of blaming someone quite close to me, and then I thought “No, no, no, it’s not her fault!” Then I thought of blaming someone even closer to me and then I thought “Oh no, it’s not his fault!”. Then I thought of blaming the mechanic, and I thought, “Well, that’s a better option!” Then I thought “Well let’s blame cars! Blame the Universe! Blame Germany!” (It was an old BMW). My mind was trying to put the responsibility for this situation someplace other than right here, in the immediate present. The teaching hadn’t gone in sufficiently to my body and bones so that these karmic consciousnesses weren’t disorienting me.

During that same sesshin, I had a niece born, and she had a problem with one of the arteries coming from the heart. Upon birth, it’s supposed to close up, and it didn’t. It just so happened that in San Francisco, at UC Medical Center, they had just a few years before developed a method to fix that problem when it occurs in newborns. So she got the operation and didn’t die. My spouse and I went to see the baby. As I remember there was no-one else in the room; she was lying there with heat lamps and a long incision in her chest, because she had open-heart surgery, and she was still sedated. She was trying to cry, but she couldn’t really because she was medicated. But as best she could, she was still trying to express her pain. And she did really a good job of crying in that drugged state. I thought: “Eastern mountains move over the water”. She was not trying to be someplace else – well, maybe a little bit, but she couldn’t. Anyway, she reminded me to be there completely with her. When we left, walking down Parnassus I was no longer trying to blame anybody for this world, for the problems of this world; for illness, for financial problems, for unpredictable changes. I stopped trying to blame somebody for it and tried to just be here and suffer.

We’ve got the suffering; all we’ve got to do now, is be totally here. Not just for the sake of suffering, but for the buddha way; because the buddha way requires us to go to the toes of the mountain of our suffering. We have many practices to help us with that, like generosity, precepts, and patience; relaxation and gentleness. Compassion in this way will help us not blame somebody else for the problems we have. Then, we may be able to wholeheartedly sit, and express the buddha mudra in our sitting, walking and thinking, in chanting and in silence. We may be able to be quiet and make that silence a thorough, wholehearted, generous, tender, silence; moment by moment. We have a chance to be intimate with ourselves, perhaps with confidence that this is the performance of the buddha way. If I forget and I notice, then I confess and feel repentance, and I re-enlist in the buddha way.

Back to front page