Practice and Resilience

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by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi



Ho-shang Mi of Ching-chao sent a monastic to ask Yangshan: “Right in this very moment are you dependent on enlightenment?”

Yangshan said “There is no absence of enlightenment. Why fall into the secondary?”

Ho-shang Mi was a peer of Master Yangshan, a very important Chinese master in our lineage. Here he asks, right in this moment are you dependent upon enlightenment?

Enlightenment is to see into the real nature of things—the nature of the conditioned self, your unconditioned nature, time and circumstances, the whole universe—and to realize that all things have one essence, which we speak of as “emptiness.” In this original state, all of creation is present: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Those two phrases are the essence of Mahayana Buddhism.

We typically think of the path of enlightenment as a movement from dwelling within a realm of delusion, pain and suffering to a realm that is free: the enlightened realm. We may think of it as something we don’t yet have, but will obtain with realization. When the monastic sent by Ho-shang Mi asks—right in this moment are you dependent upon enlightenment—he is asking: Is enlightenment something apart from you, is it outside, what is it?

As practitioners we might see ourselves as depending upon the Buddhadharma, upon zazen, upon the sangha, upon the conditions necessary for practice. Let’s consider dependency from the point of view of the Two Truths. There is the relative realm, the world that we see and can talk about and meet every day. And there is the realm of the absolute, in which there is no time and place, no circumstance and characteristic. Within the relative world, we depend upon oxygen and food, water and warmth, sunshine and rain. We depend upon each other, upon a sufficient amount of trust and mutual respect to share in this life together and make it work. We depend upon awareness, upon a relative degree of physical health, mental health, emotional health. In practice we depend upon loving kindness and compassion, upon the faith that wisdom resides within each of us. The relative is the realm in which we practice and move through our day, relying and depending upon these things.

photo by Michel Schmid

photo by Michel Schmid

From the realm of the absolute, how do you rely upon something that has no form? How do you rely upon something that is timeless? How can you rely upon anything when there’s not a single thing that has permanence, that is solid and fixed? In realizing that there’s no past, present or future, how then do you understand evolving in realization within our lives as practitioners?

Here, all things arise at the same instant. There is mutual dependency. The moment light appears, there’s darkness, the moment there’s up, there’s down. In order for there to be subject there has to be an object, for there to be male there has to be female; enlightenment and delusion need each other. All dualities are mutually dependent, which is, in fact, not dependent at all. They arise together, simultaneously. To talk about “co-dependence” or “mutually dependent” is just another way of saying “not dependent.” So when Yangshan says “there is no absence of enlightenment” we can see that at every moment there is no absence of formlessness, of impermanence, of timelessness. Then he says “why fall into the secondary?” The secondary is the realm of duality, of samsara, of conflict, of two. In each moment, in every breath, in every encounter, in all circumstances: why fall into the secondary? There’s not a single thing that stands alone, nothing is absent. Nothing is self-existent. This is why we have to find a direct way, beyond all concepts, to realize the unity of the Two Truths. This is why in zazen we deliberately let go of the secondary—of the thinking mind that creates and constructs—and cultivate a deep faith in another realm of knowing, another kind of understanding. We turn towards the fundamental. And so “why fall into the secondary” is like asking “why seek peace and comfort in false illusions?” In false illusions there is no absence of enlightenment, there is just our inability to see, and that’s one of the most critical aspects of practice. The image is often used of a magician, skillful at turning our attention to what they want us to see. So delusion is a kind of “slight-of-mind,” a trickery that happens in our mind through imputing meaning.

Within this realm of ordinary delusion, everything is there. Nothing is ever hidden. Because of how our minds are, and our senses and consciousness, we only see certain aspects of things. That’s what we call delusion, which is just the sense of self: in each moment, in every experience, in things that appear before us and things that are happening within us. The sense of an autonomous self is the sense that something is happening to us, and that in each moment there is someone continuous at the center. And it’s this—placing ourselves at the center of each moment—that breeds isolation and estrangement. Yet all along, as Yangshan says, there is no absence, nothing is missing and nothing has arrived.

Realizing the true nature of self allows us to live our lives within that understanding. And because of this, because there is no absence of enlightenment, in all moments in all circumstances there is falling to the ground and there is using the ground to stand. There is meeting an impenetrable barrier and there’s leaping free of that barrier. There is studying the self and forgetting the self, there is holding on and there’s letting go. There’s giving up and there’s taking the next step. There is resilience.

photo by Ron Aldaman

Photo by Ronn Aldaman

Resilience is a powerful and essential part of Buddhist practice, which means it’s an essential part of human life. Within Zen we speak about the three essential virtues of practice: Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Perseverance. Resilience is related to perseverance which is also is critical for the spiritual path. Resilience is a manifestation of emptiness. Resilience is the act of rebounding, to jump or take a leap, to be flexible.

When we’re caught in our deluded stream of thoughts and emotions, reactivity and beliefs, tethered to our ingrained habits, there is very little resilience. These are states of apparent solidity, when we suffer from the confusing and conflicting demands of non-awareness—our distractedness. When we are not mindful, we’re in a state which is active and dynamic in ways that aren’t very helpful. And so from the very first moment of zazen, we’re developing mindfulness. To do this, we must cultivate resilience.

To shift the currents of karmic patterns—behavior, thought and emotion, belief and reactivity—and to leap free is very difficult. Even if we have a deep commitment to shift, we find that these patterns still have energy. So we practice to reclaim the truth of “there is no absence of enlightenment” as our own direct experience.

There’s a lot of teaching in Buddhism and Zen about cultivating pliancy within our mind, a softness, a suppleness, which has the capacity to bend and respond in accord with the moment. Rather than reacting in accord with our past experiences that we overlay on reality, we’re able to respond in accord with what’s actually happening.  We cultivate this capacity in zazen, developing the mind of equanimity, of stability; we begin to discover that there is space and time within which to see and move.

In reactivity there’s very little gap, if any, that we see between what happens and our response. You say something and someone gets angry and responds—and because there appears to be no gap, their perception is that “you did that to them” and made them angry. When we look more closely we see this isn’t so.

In a moment of defensiveness the sense of self experiences a threat, and instantly we can become upset and hardened, like building a fortress to defend ourselves from attack. Or, maybe we just become heavy and dull under that perceived attack; we go to sleep, a kind of inner collapse. This state of non-resilience, of reactivity, is different from responding. The ability to be responsive, and take responsibility, is pliancy; to be fully awake, mindful and moving from within the Dharma.

Photo by Mark Nye

Photo by Mark Nye

In Buddhism, the three doors of liberation are emptiness, signlessness and wishlessness. We could think of these as doors of resiliency—based in emptiness—that are signs of liberation.

Emptiness is a way of saying that nothing is fixed or solid; there is no enduring self. An emotion, no matter how strong, is not permanent or something apart. It’s not you. It’s not not you. Every situation, no matter how intractable it seems—a government, a culture, a community—is impermanent.

Signlessness is to be free of any inherent quality. Anger itself is free of any locatable essence—anger—that we experience. The emotion is the vessel by which we experience it, but that sensation is not fixed. If it was, then it would make sense that we should distance ourselves from whatever causes us problems, whether it be a person or circumstance or something internal. Of course, we do meet things that we need to move away from, like a dangerous situation or person. But the suffering of dukkha is what you take with you even as you’re moving away.

Wishlessness is to realize that all things move in accord with karma and conditions; that we’re not in utter control of things even as we are exerting influence. It is to be free of controlling and expectations as we’re being of benefit in this world. Dukkha is to assume the role of “manager” in all things, to try to make the world conform to what we think it needs to be so we can be at peace and happy. Wishlessness is not powerlessness or passivity, however, which are false views, based in different kinds of expectations.

One day Master Yangshan was washing his bowls and he saw two birds pulling on a frog. A student who was standing next to him said, “Why does it come down to this?” Is this just the nature of things? Is life, as Thomas Hobbes said, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”? Master Yangshan replied, “It’s only for your benefit.”

It’s easy to dwell in blaming, making excuses. We see plenty that isn’t working in our world, near and far. We see things every day in every direction and can think “if you just didn’t do that, things would be so much better.” If you weren’t so greedy and selfish, or so blind within your anger, or so attached to your views there would be so much less suffering. While this is true, it is so easy to fall into blaming, or to making excuses for ourselves or others, to project onto others. Master Yangshan is trying to start an inner revolution; “It’s only for your benefit.” The entire universe is present here and now. When we chant in our meal gatha, “Seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us,” this is also saying, “On the path of liberation, we should know how to receive.”

I came across an article in The New Yorker several years ago on resilience by a psychologist Maria Konnikova who wrote that “it’s only when we’re faced with obstacles, stress and other environmental threats that resilience or the lack of it emerges.” And then she says “do you succumb or do you surmount?” And I thought that was very interesting because this model is so pervasive: do you succeed or do you fail? Those are your choices. But is there another way of seeing it? When we’re experiencing dukkha, resilience is called forth. Obstacles and stress are happening every day, and there is another path free of “succumb or surmount.”

Some translators translate dukkha as stress, but usually it’s translated as suffering, disappointment, dissatisfaction. And that’s happening throughout the day for most of us. So perhaps rather than asking do you succeed or do you fail, we could ask: does this present moment create a sense of a separate self? Does it create suffering? Does it create disappointment? Does it further entrench a sense of solidity and fixedness? Does it bring forth non-virtues; anger, greed, fear, impatience, intolerance? Or does it bring you closer? Does it soften your heart? Does it illuminate your mind and reality? Does it bring forth those virtues of generosity and loving-kindness? That’s the great challenge of Buddhist practice in each and every moment.

Some moments are so challenging you may think, “This is not about practice; this is just a catastrophe. I’ll get back to practice later.” Those are the moments when practice is most important, when we think it’s not about Dharma, when it’s not an opening to liberation. In moments where we might be experiencing real threats—real obstacles from inside or outside that we don’t have any control over—we should bring forth the question “does this bring me closer or does it create more distance?” That’s why we chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows every day, to bring forth in our mind the possibility that exists in each moment.

The scientific studies Konnikova wrote about in this article found several elements that predicted resilience. A resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or some other mentor-like figure. These early experiences cultivate a sense of confidence, trust and faith within ourselves and with the world around us. We learn from good examples. I was thinking about this in terms of sangha, and how we practice together, seeing all the different ways that people live their lives, practice, and respond to circumstances. We have the sense of our own capacity expanded through seeing others develop themselves. This is training; to constantly be pressing into our own sense of limitations, of confinement and constriction, of the limits of what we believe is possible.

Is there another way of seeing it? When we’re experiencing dukkha, resilience is called forth. Obstacles and stress are happening every day, and there is another path free of “succumb or surmount.”

Another determinant of resilience had to do with how the children responded to their environment. “From a young age,” Konnikova wrote, “resilient children tended to meet the world on their own terms.” We’ve all been told who we are, in a hundred-thousand ways. But to not accept that, to not be content to be told what our life is about or how we are supposed to live it. It doesn’t mean we should disregard all of those things, because there’s a lot of truth and wisdom that comes to us through others. But to discover and see for oneself, which means we have to be willing to enter into the unknown. The Buddha said that to be free is to see all things as they are without projection, beliefs, attachments, to meet things, self, and other as it is.

photo by REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

People react as the 12 soccer players and their coach who were rescued from a flooded cave arrive for their news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Konnikova went on to say “these children were also autonomous and independent. They would seek out new experiences and had a positive social orientation.” And so here, to be ‘autonomous and independent’ I understand as being willing to walk a path which means at times you’re going to be alone, and you’re going to feel alone. Sometimes it means to be willing to be afraid, to be insecure, to not know how this is going to work out. To have doubt and not to be stopped by that. In other words, there is an inner sense of something that you trust and is guiding you.

In practice and training, to bow and serve, to let go of our preferences and just move with the sangha is a very, very powerful practice; an essential practice because we’re so tethered to our preferences and judgments. But at every step along the way, we need to do so from a place of finding-out-for-yourself. In a sense, we need to be walking alone at the very same moment that we’re practicing within the one body of the sangha. If we’re only going along with the sangha then we’re blind to this. And that’s a kind of blind obedience.

A “positive social orientation” I think of as basically having spirit, ki, joyful energy. It’s a sense of aliveness, of being interested in and deeply appreciating life! Sometimes that can be really hard. We may be met with a tragedy, a loss, an injury, an assault, and so there has to be resilience. At times we must face sustained difficulty, sustained challenge, like facing social bias based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or attending to a difficult time in our country, in our world, with the planet—challenges that may not pass quickly. And so how do you sustain a state of presence, awareness and engagement, and cultivate peace, joyfulness and serenity? We can’t base our liberation on solving every problem. Even if we solve this problem there’s another one, and even if this sentient being is alleviated of suffering there’s another one. That’s what the Four Vows are saying. Our liberation has to be from within this moment, be it a moment or a sustained effort. How do we find peace now?

And then the last interesting thing Konnikova said is “though not especially gifted these children used whatever skills they had effectively.” That’s so important. It’s so easy to dwell in how things would be different “if only…” If only I was smarter, braver, younger, more creative, less complicated, then I wouldn’t struggle so. In zazen, we meet each moment in acceptance and non-grasping. This helps us develop a clear and honest sense of our karmic self which leads to accepting ourselves for who we are without creating definitions and identities from our strengths and limitations.

When I was younger and pursued first mathematics and then music as career paths, I didn’t believe that I would be highly accomplished at either. Knowing myself and my abilities, I didn’t feel I had that kind of talent or gift. But what I did know was that I loved both subjects, wanted to go as deeply into them as I could, and that I like to work wholeheartedly. On that basis, I threw myself into my studies and work. I didn’t aspire to being highly accomplished, but wanted to live a life dedicated to something I loved and believed was essential, and within that, to accomplish all that I could in this lifetime. My life within the Dharma has been much the same.

We each decide where we put our energy, what path we pursue, what we concentrate on. This is why training is so powerful; we’re constantly meeting the need to be resilient. How many times have you been defeated? How many times have you said “I can’t?” How many times have you thought “this is just the way I am”?

Training offers us wisdom practices, teachings, and forms of training to walk the way of Buddhas and Ancestors. Within the Three Treasures, how can I be most skillful and effective to move towards liberation, to reclaim the realization that enlightenment has never been absent? This is our inheritance. To understand that in every moment this is for your benefit, this is for my benefit.

I’ll end with a poem:

How many times have I scaled this iron

The path fades into tangled brush

while storm clouds rumble.

I don’t know what lies ahead.

I don’t know what lies ahead—

I only trust this step

to the wind and rain,

to the way the sunlight reaches

even the lowest branches

and new shoots appear

from the slightest measure of earth.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi, is the Head of the Mountains and River Order and the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.

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