Issue 14: Summer

Dharma Talk Paul Haller Roshi

Things I Didn't Know I Loved - July 25, 2009, at City Center

By Abbot Paul Haller Roshi

Transcribed by Chris Brown

Each person’s life, each person’s journey, is amazing. I would like to talk about how amazing it is to be on life’s journey, and how that can be a deep support for us. It’s so easy for us to be caught up in the impact of the details of our life. But to hold it in a bigger frame of reference – how do we do that?

This started me thinking about Norman Fischer’s book on The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus. Here’s what I find charming about the book. Odysseus goes through all these misadventures, and all these human characteristics get exposed… with disastrous consequence: stupidity, greed, laziness, hypocrisy, thirst for power. As he goes through each one, Norman sets the scene and then talks about it. So you think, about hypocrisy; surely he’s going to say, “That’s a terrible thing, you shouldn’t be hypocritical, you should be authentic.” Yet, time after time, Norman says, “This isn’t so bad! We’re all hypocrites!” “Thirst for power; that’s not so bad! We all do that in one way or another.” “Lying: yeah, we all deceive ourselves.” “Greed: yeah…” Somehow, he just takes one human trait after another, and forgives it. Not only does he forgive it, but he finds something noble about the human character. From this place of ennobling the human character, then he says, be careful, this really can be a problem. There’s something noble about this, but how it’s related to has real consequences. Your life is not an abstract event. It’s a very particular event that is influenced by how it’s engaged. How do we wake up so that we can ennoble the human character and dispositions, and engage them skilfully? This is very much one of the over-arching flavours and challenges of Zen practice: “This very mind is Buddha, our original nature.” In Zen, that’s talking about this noble quality of our being.

Several months ago I was at a discussion between Paul Ekman, a psychologist, and Pico Iyer, a journalist and writer. They were talking about their experiences of meeting the Dalai Lama. Neither of them consider themselves ‘Buddhists’ in that card-carrying, robe-wearing way. Although, I think the Dalai Lama has enchanted them, in such a way that I think they are quite taken by the proposition he makes. Paul Ekman is a specialist in emotion, and by this point had had several substantial discussions with the Dalai Lama in a setting including a number of scientists and psychologists. On one occasion, Paul Ekman had brought his daughter, 16 or 17 years old, to a preliminary informal gathering before one of these discussions. The Dalai Lama came over to talk to the two of them. Mostly he addressed the daughter, who he’d never met before. But while he was talking to the daughter, he took Paul Ekman by the hand – he was holding his hand. Paul described it as this extraordinary, yet nothing special, experience of casual friendship. Here’s someone who is just being my friend, he felt, like we were two kids at kindergarten holding hands, just because it’s nice to do. It’s kind of reassuring when you’re four or five years old, and all these big people are around you, to have someone hold your hand. So, as he stood there, and the Dalai Lama was talking to his daughter and asking questions about who she is and her life, Paul Ekman was feeling, through the physicality of touch, this unspoken intimacy, acceptance and connection – causal friendliness. He said that in its own simple way, it was quite a profound experience. It made him more sensitive to his own reactivity, his own way of holding back, or holding onto that kind of sorrow or bitterness we can have in our life; resentment, suspicion. He said that he marvelled at it, that this profundity, this deeply moving experience, was initiated by something very simple.

To my mind, this tells us something about practice. Maybe in our more thoughtful, complex and studious way of being, we search for some intricate, well-defined, truth to unlock the complexities of our being. But, sometimes it’s helpful to look almost in the opposite direction, to something simple. Something we’ve known all our lives, since we were four, and held our best friend’s hand. Something that murmurs through our lives, searching for expression. So I think of Norman’s book as saying: yes, there is this enormous array of human characteristics, and when they come out in a certain way, they are indeed unsavoury. The whole of Odysseus’ adventure: it’s a drama story. He keeps getting into impossibly difficult situations. For example, he’s travelling down a narrow gorge in a boat. If he goes this way, he’ll be devoured by this monster. If he goes that way, he’ll be devoured by this enormous whirlpool. Which way are you going to go? How impossibly complex life can be, when engaged in a certain way… when the goal of life is framed in a certain way.

So let me offer you a certain way of framing our life. When we go to sleep, which we do regularly, and appreciate, when we sleep soundly, waking up refreshed, it heels our body, quite literally, and often it softens our emotional difficulties… not always, but when we sleep soundly. It refreshes our mind. There’s something innate in our being that knows how to reorganise, how to heal itself, how to rediscover its basic harmony. It’s not something we learned in a book; we came with this capacity. Then, there’s another human capacity: we eat, we breathe, to nourish our life, to give us energy, vitality. There’s something about engagement that’s life-affirming, life-supporting. It creates within us an optimism, an enthusiasm, a zest for life. So these are two very basic qualities that we have. To put the harshest terms on them, the first one, holding still and drawing in to re-create peacefulness and inner harmony in the service of healing and restoration, could be a kind of pushing away the world, a kind of aversion. From this perspective, at its heart, it’s hatred. Let’s start a war with them, because they are disrupting our inner harmony. We get angry to ward off that which is potentially dangerous. So this innate quality can take on harsh, destructive characteristics. And then the second quality of engagement, which is a necessary part of our vitality, can become desire, greed, compulsive grasping and addiction. So part of the challenge is how not to forget the nobility of our core disposition, and how to learn how to be skilful with it, to see that it’s a powerful force. It’s asking us to learn how to handle it. As it comes forth, of course it references the circumstances that we live in. The practice of mindful awareness is about waking up and seeing what’s going on in getting caught by it, and discovering through that education what is an appropriate response. How do we do that?

Let’s meditate for a while. I hesitate to do this, because it’s not so easy to have your mind do what you tell it. Anybody who’s meditated knows this! But usually it’s not totally out of our control either. So, find yourself in a settled, upright, spacious place. Grounded: touching that place of restoration; but also upright: opening to that enlivening engagement. Just contemplate: everyone here, everyone on this planet, has come from the womb. They’ve been a newborn baby; they’ve crawled; they’ve learnt how to walk; they’ve learnt how to talk. They’ve been a toddler, a four-year-old; they’ve been through the developmental phases of being a child; going through puberty, being a teenager. This is our common heritage – we have all gone through this, and it’s been a challenging journey, as challenging as the journey Odysseus took - fraught with difficulties. Just for a moment, offer it yourself, and everyone else around you, and anyone you care to offer it to: wish for their well-being. Wish for your own well-being. “May I thrive on this human journey. May I remember the nobility, and not be overcome by inappropriate response. May I be well, may you be well.” Contemplate that on this journey, none of us are perfect. We’re not omnipotent, we’re not omniscient. We have made mistakes, we will make mistakes. We’ve suffered as a consequence, and we’ve caused suffering as a consequence. Offer compassion to yourself, to others: “May they have the fortitude to hold their suffering. May they feel supported. May they not be overcome by it.” Offering this to others, and to yourself. Then contemplate: we do indeed have a noble spirit, and at times it has shone through. There have been times of success, times of accomplishment, reasons for celebration, acknowledgement, and congratulations. So let’s offer your good wishes, your congratulations, for the successes and joys that others have experienced; and acknowledge your own successes, joys and appreciations. Contemplate that every human life holds these sadnesses and joys, these failures and successes, these sufferings and delights. This is the nature of the human journey from birth to death. So be it. So it is. Yes indeed: you will be pushed and pulled by desire and aversion. Hold them both, as the waves and waves that come upon us in our journey, with a willingness, an acceptance, a settledness, and an equanimity.

As we engage in a practice of waking up, indeed we will touch our suffering, touch the residue of our difficult experiences. We also touch how they have formulated into a definition of who we are and what the world is, and how to engage the world. These formulations have become ingrained as habits, become part of our psychology as defence mechanisms. But also we can hold something to acknowledge: We’re here today, because in living the life we’re living we have witnessed experiences of wisdom. We’ve seen behaviours that have taught us something, whether we realised it or not. We’ve seen that the path of waking up is a worthy one; we’ve had that gift given to us, and something within us heard it, and said: “So it is. This is worthy of putting my energy into and committing my time to.” There is something in when we pause and hold life in a bigger picture, when we know we’re all in this together, and each of us goes from birth to death, and that none of us are perfect. We know that forgiveness plays a role in a human lives; that an honest acceptance of who we are, rather than trying to ignore it and deny it, is an appropriate response. We know that there is something about the benevolence of causal friendliness, a steady constancy like on the breath, that is also a deep support. This is so close to equanimity: it doesn’t leave us lost in a state of distress. Of course we will be pushed and pulled, we’re going to lose our balance, but this equanimity has resilience to it: we fall down on our face, but then we get up. If you move too much into desire, accomplishment, performance, control, and gaining, back off a little bit. Ok, you/re not getting what your want and that hurts – yes that does. Or, if you’re leaning into security, safety… “I’m not doing that, it’s too difficult, too uncertain. I’ll just remain within what I know”… in a web of concern, maybe even fear and resentment. Look at that, but from a place of deeper knowing, not being fooled by it; not living a statement that says, “This is how to live life, from a place of fear and resentment.” From a balance, not caught by fear and aversion. This requires a certain candidness about the human condition. But we’re always moving into it and out of it. As Norman Fischer says, “Well, that’s not so bad.” I’m not sure what the rationale for hypocrisy was, but he managed! If nothing else the book is a marvel of Normans’ ingenuity.

In my journey I have found an appreciation of poetry, because within it I’ve found an equanimity, a big picture. The human journey is just plain old amazing. I would challenge that if you’d told almost any one of us a decade ago what we are doing today, you would have been more or less incredulous: “I don’t think so!” And yet, here we are. And maybe there’s another decade ahead. That kind of larger appreciation. So, I’m going to quote the end of quite a long poem called “Things I didn’t know I loved” by Nazim Hikmet. As he goes through the poem he quotes something quite simple, then gives an associated thought. Sometimes it has a charm and a sweetness, but sometimes it has a poignancy. For example, at one point he says, “I didn’t know that I loved the blue sky.” He was in prison for quite a while, and he says “I remember being in prison in the yard, looking up at the blue sky, and that was the same yard where they’d beat us.” So, a kind of sweetness and sourness mixed together.

“Things I didn’t know I loved”, by Nazim Hikmet

I didn't know I liked rain,
whether it falls like a fine net
or splatters against the glass.
My heart leaves me tangled up
in a net, or trapped inside a drop,
and takes off for uncharted countries.

I didn't know I loved rain
but why did I suddenly discover all these passions
sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train?
Is it because I lit my sixth cigarette?
One alone could kill me.
Is it because I'm half dead,
from thinking about someone back in Moscow,
her hair straw-blond, eyelashes blue?

The train plunges on through the pitch-black night -
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black.
Sparks fly from the engine -
I didn't know I loved sparks

I didn't know I loved so many things,
and I had to wait until sixty to find it out,
sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train,
watching the world disappear
as if on a journey of no return.

In the heritage of Soto Zen, the prime mover, the catalyst, the primary agent for practicing, experiencing, realising, is this type of deep appreciation, this deep connection, to the nobility of the human spirit and condition; this re-awakening of a capacity for insight and skilfulness with the human life. The foundation for this is just sitting, and savouring each arising, even when we’re in the process of being pushed and pulled, even when we’re under the influence of what attracts us and pulls it into us, even when we’re under the influence of our response to push away, to tighten our body, to tighten out mind, to try to control our experience. Let some engagement in our fundamental being be a gyroscope, so that as we go off balance, we come back to balance. Then, the very process of going off balance becomes a teacher. The very process of going off balance and coming back to balance teaches us about things we didn’t know we loved. The very life that we’re living, which in one frame of mind can seem like a web of restrictions, limitations, and entanglements, can be re-framed from a different disposition. Re-framed so that in some strange and beautiful way, we find it appropriate to appreciate to write a poem about called “Things I didn’t know I loved”.

Here’s another poem I want to read that maybe leans too much towards… something. Maybe.

“It’s this way.” By Nazim Hikmet.

I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful.

My eyes can't get enough of the trees -
they're so hopeful, so green.

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I'm at the window of the prison infirmary.

I can't smell the medicines -
carnations must be blooming nearby.

It's this way:
being imprisoned is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.

Thank you.

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