The Unspoken Thing

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by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei
Originally published in Mountain Record journal: “Practicing the Edge” (2001)

In the space between desire and despair, between holding and letting go; between clinging and release, in this space is the unspoken thing. The thing that lives.

—Lives of the Monster Dogs

I’ve been working over the last few weeks with family members as they make a memorial visit to Ground Zero. The trips begin at the Family Assistance Center on Dock 94, where death certificates are being issued and other support services can be arranged. The Center is very big and very busy. From there we get on a ferry that goes down river to the World Trade Center site. On the water there are gunboats everywhere you look, and on board there is significant security. The wind blows brisk and the river incongruously glistens, and on the way the clergy and mental health workers make what connections they can with the families, offering support or space as needed.

When we arrive at the site, we walk up into the area, and basi­cally bear witness. It smells very bad there. The buildings that are still standing seem nor­mal until you look up and see how parts near the top or on a side have been ripped off. Their jagged edges seem to be gesturing as if caught in mute pain, like a woman raped, walking away trying to look ordinary but with her dress torn, bruises rising. The cler­gy’s work is to attend to the families, so I turn my attention from the site to them, and we spend fifteen or twenty minutes being there together, offering flowers at the temporary memorial alcove. When it is time for them to take the next step, the next breath, we take it together.

The metaphor of the site visit is so bare it strips words down to the most simple talk, the most primary matter. From the world of business at the dock, where everyone is involved in taking care of the paperwork and assembling the resources to survive, we make this raw journey down the river to the charnel grounds. Arriving, all business stands still. Conversation withers. Placing a hand on the small of a crying woman’s back, it feels like her bones dissolve for a moment, she leans in, slowly her bones reform. I remember the words of Master Hongzhi, “Only silence is the supreme speech. Only illumination is the universal response.” When someone is ready for talk, talk comes. Since there is so obviously nothing to do that is adequate to the pain, all that seems possible is love. We just are that, loving those whose bod­ies are buried here, each other, the moments when eyes meet, hands touch. Some construct a palpable, fragile crust of solitude around them­selves, and though we keep an eye out to make sure they are safe, there is a tacit agreement to let them be alone. (Actually, some of the clergy had to be reminded to let folks alone. At one morning meeting we were told, “Someone overheard one family member saying to another, ‘Whatever you do don’t cry, or the clergy will come… ‘ So those who don’t know when to back off, learn!”) The flowers and teddy bears left by mourners are piled high and thick, kid-scrawled notes on some, photos and poems on others.

As we leave, there’s a subtle shift in the energy, a change in how the grief is happening. During each return trip, the work of being clergy shifts to protecting the spiritual process of each person on board. Kirstin Bacchus, in her brilliant novel Lives of the Monster Dogs, talks about “the unspoken thing; the space between desire and despair.” In the work on this boat, like the work in the zendo, I find that there’s a chance to enter that space. As each of us in the sangha finds our way through practicing this grief and the other emotions that will emerge in some measure in the coming months, it can help to acknowledge and protect that space. I’m talk­ing about the space that doesn’t know, doesn’t know why, doesn’t know what’s next. It doesn’t know bad or good. It is that space relieved of needing something other than what is: relieved of desire. It is the moment that is relieved of the sad predictions: relieved of despair. It just is, and in that, is the only real refuge. Call it “the moment,” yet even that doesn’t clearly indicate its strength and spaciousness. Unspoken, unnamable. Without securing ourselves in any way, we are intimate. Being at zero, if you will. Walking from zero.

More than ever, in past weeks I’ve come to appreciate the basis of zazen, the only refuge among so many false or temporary refuges. Over the last weeks, we’ve had so many false refuges sold to us, and we sell them to one another. We take temporary refuge in probability: it is unlikely statistically that any individual one of us will be harmed or killed. We take temporary refuge in power: we have one of the best-funded, best-trained military in the world, and economic influence that is unparalleled in its capacity to put pressure where pressure is deemed needed. We take refuge in medicine: if we are exposed to a chemical or biological agent, it is likely that we will get treatment, and the survival rates are in our favor. But all these false refuges ultimately fail to reach the bottom of our anxiety, because they don’t sufficiently deal with the issue. The issue, in one sense, is that though we can do our best to secure an outcome, we can’t guarantee it. We can’t know that we will live, or that those we love will live. We can’t know whether we will be well, or whether others will be well. We can’t know: we can medicate ourselves with probabilities, but we can’t cure the dis­ease that way. The only real refuge, the only cure, is “the unspoken thing.” Being this moment. Just that. Zazen is the training to realize that, and Zen practice is the life that it creates. It is the ability to take the step that is here. The bell rings, we bow and practice.

But why go consciously, literally, to where death is? Why end each night of practice with the Evening Gatha? The clear and raw symbolic movement, the intrinsic liturgy of zazen should really be appreciated. The journey of it, to the ground of being, to the expression of being, is the visit to ground zero every moment we enter zazen utterly. The bell rings to signal kinhin, the boat comes into the dock and we unload at the pier. How will we step forward from ourselves? This is the loneliest and most important work of any of our lives, in that no one can really tell us anything but that it is possible. To do it is to live it, and to live it may require feeling things that we’d like to avoid. We can’t predict; we can only practice. Someone asked, “But when I don’t know who I am, where I’m going, what it means, how can I trust enough to breathe, to move one foot forward and begin?” This is so much the heart of any religious inquiry, any awakened human heart. It’s a delicate journey, and it’s difficult to do honestly and in a way that doesn’t add anything extra. In order to do this work, it is helpful to agree ahead of time to forgive ourselves and one another, and to be forgiven for the missteps that we’ll inevitably make. We’ll discern when our clarity fails, when we become in any way compulsively protective of that which can’t be protected. We’ll err, the word will go tin, the connection will go cloudy, and the only thing that saves that is the capacity to take the next breath together, to not let it break the process that we’re in the midst of.

It seems no one can skip grief. One of the problems religious institutions are prone to, according to grief studies, is that when they experience a loss within their congregation, they turn so quickly to the religious teachings of their tradition to secure themselves emotionally, that they may lose the wisdom and honesty of what they’ve experienced together. A pastoral care instructor told the story of a church where someone came in the back door during a service and shot the minister in the head, killing him. After burying the minister, the congregation ral­lied together and became very fervent in their prayer and song, committed to not being brought down in any way by this tragedy. By the time a replacement minister was assigned and began working with them, they had such repressed fear and anger that it took enormous work to open them up and let them really do what they needed to do: grieve. They were singing loud and steady, but they were fighting among themselves about all sorts of basically trivial things.

They needed to trust that their tears and their doubts, the anxiety and anger, could all be part of their prayer. That way it would be honest and real, and they could love each other and their tradition more fully. As Zen students individually and as a sangha, we have our own variations on this desire to skip the grief. We need to be careful not to judge each other’s practice, now particularly. We can respect the wholeness of our practice by letting the tears come when it is their time to come, and the fear, and the anger, and the love. Nothing breaks real practice, if we let everything be practiced.

Please take care of your own practice and this community’s by being honest, and respecting one another.

In “Lives of the Monster Dogs,” there’s a point at which the dogs, who have been through a journey full of horror and yet found a way to be honorable, are dying: 

“ …we are all burning, we are all murdered. Anyone who lives is consuming himself, rushing avidly toward the sword, the disease, the accident, toward the day on which his life will end. One is not murdered just at the moment when the blade pierces him and he knows he will die. For we always know that we’re going to die. It’s only a question of time. However long it will take, it is always a certainty. As certain as if we had already received the fatal wound. So we burn, but we must burn joyful­ly and give off light. Our little glowing hearts grow smaller every minute, and with them the length of time we have left on this earth.” 

These words are followed by a reflection on how the speaker has loved and been loved, and the ways in which that is ineffably shown: the contact of the hand on the arm, the eye meeting the eye. “These are the things that remain unsaid, the sparks that cannot exist on their own. They’re nothing in themselves. They only make up the spaces in between those things that can be perceived. You inside your nets of blood and nerves are always surrounded by these empty spaces. They are sparks of light. The earth is full of them.” Between perceptions… what is that? Of course, these words are not from some ancient Zen tome, and perhaps they are not trustworthy as teaching from your point of view. But don’t these “dog-words” reflect aptly the practice that is not knowing, that enables us to place our practice in the midst of suffering, freely, and to experience our burning as illumination, not despair?

Often I wake in the morning in intense pain. My body makes charley horses, and my nerves and muscles get inflamed easily. I work with what can be worked with, having studied healing and medicine for many years, and can often ease things through chi kung, stretching, diet, warm water, etc. Sometimes, though, nothing relieves the hurting, and there may be times when my coordination and other capacities are less available. Practicing just letting that be has been my greatest teacher. The desire to have it be otherwise can be strong if I let it get going, and creates more pain. The despair over what it means or indicates about my future can get fierce if I let it have much energy. To place my practice in the “space between” and live there saves my life. It is life. To walk from there is to just walk, even if sometimes that walk is a bit gimpy. The confidence I have about the truth of practice comes from having studied with this “teacher” for almost twenty years. Practice is the only refuge. All the rest is just aspirin, and aspirin fades after a couple hours, and never really reaches the pain anyway. 

Everyone I’ve met in practice has some natural “teacher” like this, whether it’s a crummy childhood, a physical illness, or emotional variability. Many have much more difficult teachers than I do, and some people ignore their teacher altogether for long years. But our teacher fuels our spiritual fire, burning away the illusions that separate us, warm­ing our heart up. There’s no way to guarantee safety, or good health, or world peace: there is, however, practice—which is refuge, and wholeness, and this great earth itself. That’s enough. Even when we’re hurting, that’s enough. And sometimes, it’s actually wonder­ful. The tight focus on and sense of the sig­nificance of our personal pain opens up a bit, and anything can happen.

Did any of you see the hundreds of stars that fell the other morn­ing? Hundreds. Brief, bright blazes in the black morning. You can call it a meteor shower, but that barely satisfies. From an old poem: “Up until that moment, I hadn’t real­ized I had lived my life for that moment.”

Eric Fischer

Hongzhi writes, “Responding without falling into achievement, speaking without listeners, the 10,000 forms majestically glis­ten and expound the dharma. But if illumina­tion neglects serenity, then aggressiveness appears.” When illumination neglects sereni­ty, we fail grief. We see the oneness of all experience, but not the distinctiveness of each experience. And so we want to skip the uncomfortable, the difficult. We rush grief into the ocean, and we fail to let our tears be realized as the ocean. “But if serenity
neg­lects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted dharma.” If we forget the ocean’s wideness, the vastness of each moment, we end up locking onto some experience, holding it, deifying it, making it the point. Then, we can’t move, we won’t move. This is that habit of letting sorrow become an identity. Our minds and hearts are murky; there’s no life, no spark. “When silent illumination is fulfilled, the lotus blossoms, the dreamer awakens, a hundred streams flow into the ocean, a thousand ranges face the highest peak.”

When he visited with us yesterday, Roshi spoke passionately about his devotion to practice, to not letting it become secularized, stripped of its wonder, mystery, power. That is our lineage, the zazen that is beyond characterization. It transforms lives of desire and despair into vital expressions of loving wisdom. Listening to his enthusiastic transmission to all of us, I felt incredibly lucky to be here, to be with this sangha, this teacher, to just be. And the sense of protecting “the space between” that I felt on the ferry to Ground Zero was invigorated as well. This practice is not easy, and it has dimensions and depth to it that we can spend lifetimes just beginning to appreciate. 

Hongzhi says, “Our school’s affair hits the mark straight and true. Transmit it to all directions without desiring to gain credit.” This is the temple that we’re ceaselessly creating. This is the dharma com­bat that we’re in the midst of, the zazen that we protect with tender, unconditional atten­tion. It is “the unspoken thing…the thing that lives.” Please take care of it well.

Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei is the founder and guiding teacher of Hermitage Heart Zen. A priest, Zen teacher and author, Myotai was the first successor in the Mountains and Rivers Order, Abbess of Fire Lotus Temple, and Vice-Abbess of Zen Mountain Monastery.

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