January 8, 2017

2017 New Year Dharma Talk

Today in Madison we chanted Ryogonshu, the long dharani from the Surangama Sutra, after which I gave this short New Year dharma talk (slightly edited here for wordiness):

It has been the tradition with some teachers in our Zen lineage to give a New Year's message, and to comment on the kiai [the energetic quality or patterns] that may affect us in the coming year. The lunar new year is shortly coming, and in the Chinese zodiac this will be the year of the Rooster. So looking at things from the standpoint of that traditional zodiac and elemental theory, we might be able to say “this year may be something like this”, or “in this year, it might be best to approach things such-and-such way.”

I don't want to make that kind of prediction today, though. There are two reasons for this. One is that, honestly, I don't have that kind of ability. Someone like the late Tanouye Roshi perhaps did; he had sufficient kan [the intuitive clear seeing arising from deep realization] to say what the coming year might hold. I do not, so it's better for me not to put on airs and try that kind of thing.

But another reason is that, as Zen practitioners, we should not worry too much about the kiai of the year. We talk a lot about kiai, we use that word a lot. We sometimes say, for example, that a place has a certain kiai that is positive or negative; if it is negative, some people will say they don't feel comfortable going there, and will avoid that place. Or we might say that such-and-such person has a kind of kiai which is very bright and powerful, and we want to be around them, or conversely that their kiai is a little off, which means we feel uncomfortable. In this vein we also talk a lot in Zen about “according with the conditions,” meaning that we should clearly see the circumstances of our existence and harmonize with them.

However, there are some problems with all this if we're not careful. It is easy to get hung up on concepts of kiai, or of according with conditions, such that we forget something really important: as Zen practitioners, we should be able to transform the kiai of a place or person. We should be able to arrange the conditions through the power of our awakening. If we are truly Zen practitioners and come to embody a deep awakening, then these things follow us...we do not follow them. Of course that's just a dualistic way of talking, for convenience; the meaning, though, is that we are already not separate from the conditions, not separate from the kiai of a place or person. That being so, what is there to fear?

Nothing is fixed, and if we have power arising from our own realization, we can transform not only ourselves but also people, places and things through a word, through an action, through practice, or even through our simple presence. This is the attitude a practitioner should take, not obsessively worrying about the kiai of anything. I recall that the late Chan [Chinese Zen] teacher Sheng-yen talked once at a retreat about fortune-tellers in Taiwan. He said that the traditional fortune tellers there don't like to make predictions for Buddhist practitioners, because too much can transform; there is no way to predict. That is a good thing to understand!

If we worry a lot about kiai, it is actually just because ours is not strong. If we worry about conditions excessively, it means we have not yet seen through them, and realized self and conditions as illusory.

All of you have taken the Bodhisattva vows. At least, if you chant with us you have, even if you did not know it! The first vow is to save the boundless beings. What does it mean that beings are boundless? There is a deep teaching there, about how nothing binds us at all. You also vowed to cut off your own delusion and obstructions, and to practice all the Dharma gates which are infinite – meaning all the practices, including sitting, chanting, walking, mantra and dharani like the Ryogonshu we chanted today, everything. And you vowed to attain the way of awakening, the Buddha-Way, Butsu-do.

I am sorry if we didn't tell you what you were chanting! But the point is that from the moment you direct your life according to these vows, you have completely changed your existence. You are no longer a common, worldly person...you are a Bodhisattva. Now, it is your job to ceaselessly practice and refine yourself, to help others, to be of use to them. Even with just your presence – your ba, that is, the field emanating from your existence – you can help others if your practice is strong enough. This is the kiai that arises from your body and mind being one, from your embodied realization of the truth that “the entire universe is the True Human Body.” We can be one of those people around whom others feel their burdens lifted, their sadness dissolved – like Toyama Ryusuke, who Omori Roshi wrote about. Ryusuke had tuberculosis, so many people came to see him. But although he could not speak, those visitors felt afterward that a weight had been lifted from their lives. This was solely due to his vibration, the kiai he manifested – the quality of his existence.

People like that may seem unusual, but we can be like that. We should practice to become that...not waste our time worrying about the kiai and conditions which we imagine, in a self-referential way, surround us.

So that is the message I would like to give for the New Year. It is true that the world seems increasingly disordered and chaotic, and I am sure that feeling will increase not only in this Rooster year but in others to come. Actually, humans are not so different from 500 or 1000 years ago: same problems, same delusions. True, things move faster now, and the effects are much greater. It is natural that we are apprehensive about the future.

But for us as practitioners, the question is this: “How should we enter into such a world?” It is not with fear, or with the feeling of being a victim of the conditions around us. As Zen practitioners, we should be able to transform our conditions. Embodying our intrinsic wisdom and compassion, manifesting our intrinsic clarity, we just set about the business of helping others, of being useful to them. We move through the world as Bodhisattvas, even if in some situations there is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, and nothing we can control. Even if all we have to give comfort to others is our presence.

So, wishing all of you a happy New Year, and we will continue to practice together.

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