On Faith and Mountains

Notes for a talk at Stone Creek Zen Center today:

Two things I always wonder after I give a Zen talk are: was it too personal and therefore too narrow, and did I answer the question? To get the personal part over with, the life context for this talk is having moved house seven times in two months, fleeing a highly toxic mold known as Stachybotrys chartarum, which colonized our apartment after a flood.

We Airbnb-hopped for awhile, meeting with several ant invasions, one flea infestation, and a broken gas main. We finally sublet a house for three months, and are trying to find a longer-term home. We’re still struggling to clean our belongings of spores, and I’m still getting sick from the mold.

These experiences are far from the worst that could happen to people, but they’ve been trying. In one of many emails exchanged, our landlady wrote, “I believe everything happens for a reason.” Whenever people say this, I want to ask them what the reason is. At the same time, I envied her this conviction and felt like a bad priest because I can’t share it. I believe part of our undertaking as spiritual practitioners is the cultivation of some kind of faith or trust. And I’d love to subscribe to the idea of a priest as a person of faith, if only I could manage to be such a person.

The day after my landlady’s email we moved again, and on the shelf of the new Airbnb was a book titled Everything Happens for a Reason. I sent a picture of it to a friend, who texted back, “See, the universe is listening!” I thought, “You mean like the NSA? I don’t find that reassuring.”

Of course all events have causes, so things do have their reasons for happening. But I can’t find any evidence of design or any consolation in this fact. Although Zen is the only religion I can imagine myself practicing, I’ve often thought it falls short on the consolation scale compared with other religions, and even other kinds of Buddhism, such as Pure Land for example, which promises rebirth in a Buddhist paradise.

Not knowing may be most intimate, but we have a need to believe something about the future. Carl Jung advised that in a situation where the truth can neither be known nor proven, we should choose whatever belief is most helpful.

Many of us suffer from various kinds of karmic spells which insistently whisper to us of doom. Faith could be a useful antidote to such fears and negative expectations, which are certainly far from helpful. Commenting on a fascicle by Eihei Dogen, Shohaku Okumura explained that faith was considered a kind of jewel that monks carried. It was called sei sui, which translates, “clear water.” This jewel, when dipped into the muddy waters of our minds, settles and clarifies them.

Recently a Zen friend encouraged me to “Trust life,” and I read those kind words as if they were written in hieroglyphics. It has never occurred to me to trust life. Look at what it does to people. Then a few weeks later there was a question on an application: please write about why you deserve a scholarship. Deserve? Since when does life operate on that basis? And what does it mean to deserve a scholarship? I can explain why I need one; that’s easy. But deserve?

Everything that happens to you is your life, but it is not you. So maybe it’s better to say, everything that happens is life. I don’t believe life is a malevolent force, but I can’t believe it’s a benevolent one either. So where does that leave faith? Faith in what?

The Buddha is reputed to have said: “Do not believe in any traditions just because they have been valid for long years in many countries. Do not believe in something just because many people constantly repeat it. Accept nothing just because…it is based on the authority of a wise person, or because it is written in the holy writings.

Do not believe anything just because it seems probable…. Believe nothing just because the authority of a teacher or priest stands behind it. Believe in that which you have perceived to be right through a lengthy examination of your own, believe in that which lets itself be reconciled with your own good and the good of others.”

But what about when life is hard, the waters are muddied, and we can’t find the good for ourselves or others?

Question: A monk asked, Do mountains and rivers have the nature of obstacles or not?

Answer: Mountains and rivers do not have obstacle-nature, but if you cannot cross them, they are obstacles.

In the widest sense, from an aerial view, mountains and rivers are free of obstacle nature, just as all things are free of a separate, permanent nature.

Obstacle is a word that names our relationship to something, rather than the thing itself. Many words are like this. They describe the relationship between one form (us) and another. In Sanskrit this is called nama rupa, name and form. In the first talk I heard by Shohaku Okumura, he held up a pen and said, “We call this a marker because we use it to mark things. But when it dries out, we call it trash.” What the world means to us depends on us, on what we allow it to mean. On its own, it’s neutral; it doesn’t mean any one thing. It’s just the world, being itself.

Poet Charles Wright declared, “I want to know the names for things, their real names. Not what we call them, but what they call themselves.” What does a mountain call itself? Surely not an obstacle.

Yet “if you cannot cross them, they are obstacles.” What does crossing mean? I always assumed it meant getting over or past something, putting it behind me. Going beyond. But does crossing only mean traversing a mountain, or could it also mean altering our relationship to it? Crossing over to another view of the mountain, a perspective in which it isn’t an obstacle to us, but simply its mountainous self.

Early in my days at Tassajara, I found a card printed with a black-and-white photograph of a mountain and a poem by Dogen. I’ve never forgotten this poem, or found it again.

Nothing in my life has left a trace of the path.
Lost between the true and the false.
Long days the snow has covered the mountain.
This winter the snow is the mountain.

Since then, I’ve read many other poems by Dogen, and this one stands as a rare example of Dogen expressing regret, doubt, and delusion. “Nothing in my life has left a trace of the path” might be a boast about having lived so fully as to leave no trace, or merely a traceless trace, except it sounds regretful; it sounds as if he feels he’s failed.

Because if there was one thing Dogen wanted to leave a trace of, it was the path, the Way. And in the next line he confesses himself “lost between the true and the false.” This is not the confident, almost arrogant-sounding Dogen we’re familiar with from Shobogenzo, where he salts his commentaries with references to the beliefs of “stupid” or “common” people.

Here, he sounds forlorn when he says, “Long days the snow has covered the mountain.” What he yearns to see is hidden, obscured. There’s an obstacle, a veil of snow, between him and realization.

But then there’s the final line, where everything changes. “This winter the snow is the mountain.” This winter I accept what’s in front of me as the full reality, the only reality. Not an obstacle, or something obstructing my view of what I long for. This winter there’s no distinction between snow and mountain, surface and depth, true and false – they’re one. The meaning of things doesn’t lie underneath or behind them; it is them.

La Cascade (Waterfall), Rene Magritte, 1961

I wonder whether the yearning for some essence to believe in drives us further from it? We know that certain kinds of effort, especially gaining ideas, can backfire on us this way: the harder we pursue them, the more they elude us. In fact, aspiration could be construed as the opposite of faith. I’m thinking now of a Pure Land priest from England who spoke once at Tassajara, drawing a distinction between Soto Zen and Pure Land practice.

He said in Soto we strive to do what the Buddha did, so that maybe one day we will become who the Buddha was. According to him, ours is an aspirational practice. Whereas Pure Land’s foundation is devotional: what we need has already happened. The Buddha came. Now we have only to express our gratitude for the gift already given. Kosho Uchiyama blends these two. He explains that zazen, “just sitting,” is our devotional practice, which realizes the Pure Land within samsara and actualizes the Buddha within us, here and now.

There’s a similar feeling to Case 41 in Francis Cook’s translation of Keizan’s Denkoroku: The Record of Transmitting the Light (many thanks to Korin Pokorny for calling my attention to this case). “The 40th patriarch was Zen Master Tongan Daopi. Once, Yunju said, ‘If you want to acquire such a thing, you must become such a person. Since you are such a person, why be anxious about such a thing?’” All you need do to become a person of faith is stop worrying about it, which is a fair definition of faith.

Here are the Circumstances of the case: “The primary thing is, do not cling. If you cling, what you find will be different.” This reminds me of Alan Watts’ saying that belief is holding on; faith is letting go. As a materialistic society, we favor the attitude, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But psychologically and spiritually, we’re aware that some things can only be perceived if you already believe in them, at least in their possibility. Practically speaking, it’s not so much that we believe what we see, but more that we see what we believe. We choose our beliefs, and then we go through life gathering evidence for them. Therefore, depending what we cling to, what we find will be different.

The Circumstances continue: “The thoroughly accomplished person is one whose mind is like a fan in winter and mold grows on her lips. This is not an effort on her part; it is natural. If you want to acquire such a thing, you must become such a person. Since you are such a person, why be anxious about such a thing?”

There’s a striking elision here. If you want to acquire such a thing, you must become such a person. There’s the aspiration. But the very next sentence is, “Since you are such a person….” There’s no gap in space or time – you must become such a person, and you already are such a person. What you love is what you are.

The Teisho for this case reads: “Although there is neither superiority nor inferiority in stories of Zen practice, you should study this story carefully. The reason is, if you want to acquire such a thing, you must become such a person. Even though you mistakenly look for your own head, this [looking itself] is your head. As the founder Eihei Dogen said, ‘Who am I? I am the one who asks who.’”

I love this apparent paradox, so typical of Zen: although no stories are better or worse than others, you should study this one carefully. This is important. Why? Because the seeking is the finding. The question is the answer. “I am the one who asks who.”

This chapter of the Denkoroku erases the distinction between searcher and sought: “The winds of discrimination cannot enter this place of knowing. Thus, people, when you penetrate it thoroughly and fully, [you will realize that] you have possessed it since time immemorial and that it has not been absent for a second. Even though you seek it through thought, that itself is the Self and nothing else.”

The wholehearted quest for a thing is the thing itself. According to scholar of religion Karen Armstrong, the word translated as faith in the Old Testament derives from a Greek word meaning “trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.” In the New Testament the word became credo, which literally means “I give my heart.”

There’s another word, from the French for heart, our word courage. In his novel All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy offers a beautiful meditation on this quality: “Those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart, but it is just that misfortune which is their gift and which is their strength, and they must make their way back into the common enterprise of [humanity], for [otherwise] it cannot go forward and they themselves will wither in bitterness.…

If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what. Long before morning I knew that what I was seeking to discover was a thing I’d always known. That all courage was a form of constancy…. I knew that courage came with less struggle for some than for others but I believed that anyone who desired it could have it. That the desire was the thing itself. The thing itself.”

What does this mean to us in daily life? The desire for a new car is not a new car. Yet the wholehearted aspiration to be “such a person” transforms us while we aren’t even looking. I’ll give you an example. I supported myself for several years helping international students with their English speaking and writing.

After a discouraging lesson in which I felt I’d failed to reach a student, I was sitting in my car trying to figure out what had gone wrong. First I thought, “Maybe I’m not a very good teacher.” This demoralized me, which prompted the thought: “Maybe I’m not confident enough.” Finally I realized that wondering whether I was an effective teacher after 10 years of more or less successful teaching wasn’t a lack of confidence; it was what made me an ever better teacher. The question was the answer. The desire was the thing itself.

The capping verse of Case 41 is: “Seeking it oneself with empty hands, you return with empty hands; in that place where fundamentally nothing is acquired, you truly acquire it.”

Maybe faith isn’t a thing to acquire, but more a practice, something we do: we are faithful, which includes seeking, questioning, even doubting and despairing. It includes “nothing in my life has left a trace of the path,” encompasses “lost between the true and the false,” embraces “the snow is the mountain.” Perhaps faith is not a belief about the future, but is simply doing one thing every day, no matter what happens. Being faithful to the vows we’ve made, the way of life we’ve chosen and choose again each moment.

In his book Living by Vow, Shohaku Okumura writes, “We vow to do things that are impossible. This is important because it means our practice is endless. Our practice and study are like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, one spoonful at a time. It is a stupid way of life, certainly not a clever one.

A clever person cannot be a bodhisattva. We are aiming at something eternal, infinite, and absolute. No matter how hard we practice, study, and help other people, there is no end. When we compare our achievement with something infinite, absolute, and eternal, it’s the same as zero.

Even though we feel it’s impossible, we cannot help but say, ‘Yes, I will.’ That is vow. Vow should not be made by our intellect. Vow comes from the deepest part of ourselves. Intellectually it seems impossible. But from the deepest part of our life force, we can’t help but say, ‘Yes, I will.’

A vow is not a special promise we make to Buddha. Rather it is a manifestation of the foundation of our being. This is the most fundamental meaning of making a vow. The expression ‘living by vow’ describes a life animated or inspired by vow, not one that is watched, scolded, or consoled by vow.”

There it is. Vows are not a consolation. Faith is not a consolation. It’s striving toward the impossible, on the one hand accepting that we’ll never get there, and on the other, knowing that we already are there. Practice is enlightenment. The snow is the mountain. You already are such a person. Dogen says, “From the beginning there has been neither surplus nor lack.” So how can we can find just enough in each day? Just enough to love, just enough to keep going?

A friend said to me awhile back: Even if you know things won’t get better, that doesn’t mean there won’t be moments of beauty along the way. That describes our lives pretty well, I think.

Maybe through inquiry, through devoted observation and listening, we manifest faith, regardless of what we think. Questioning is an act of faith, of engagement with the world, as is paying attention. Paying attention requires an open mind. We bear witness to what is, giving our hearts and minds to it, and we ask how to make it better.

In the words of the Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon, “This is the pure and simple color of true practice, of the true mind of faith, of the true body of faith.”