Transformation at the Heart Level

· Teachings · ,

by Konrad Ryushin Marchaj, Sensei

Transmission of the Light, Case 6

Main Case
The fifth ancestor, Dhritaka, said, “Because one who makes his home departure is a selfless Self, is selfless and possesses nothing, and because the Mind neither arises nor ceases, this is the eternal Way. All Buddhas are also eternal. The mind has no form and its essence is the same.” Upagupta said,“You must become thoroughly awakened and realize it with your own mind.” Dhritaka was greatly awakened.

By acquiring the marrow,
you will know the clarity of what you found,
Lunbian still possesses subtleties
he does not pass on.

Upagupta echoes the teaching of all the ancients: Dhritaka and each one of us must become thoroughly intimate with the reality of the eternal way. Understanding alone will not transform our lives. We need to realize the wholeness of who we are, and within that wholeness, we will discover a universe. To realize an individual is impossible—there is no separation between ourselves and the great collective of beings on this planet.


In “Now I Know You,” The documentary about Maezumi Roshi, Chozen Roshi reflects on a teaching Maezumi Roshi offered her again and again: “Be patient.” This as a response to her achievement-oriented spirit, her concern with her progress in training and in her career as a physician—really, he is addressing the mind-set, common to our Western experience, of gaining ground. When Chozen Roshi speaks about this in the film, she imitates Maezumi Roshi’s slow, deliberate speech. Even in her imitation, something is transmitted. You can feel the sense of spaciousness he embodied. There is no rush or hurry. “Beee paatient, Chozen. Bee paatient.”

The basic approach that most of us take to training and practice, particularly in sesshin, is to summon great effort and singularity of mind—this is what the teachings exhort us to do, after all. But can we recognize the power available to us when we see how our enlightenment is not our own doing? Who is enlightened, after all? Dhiritaka calls it the “selfless Self”—this original nature that is trying to find it’s way through. So there is an apparent tension between appreciating practice and enlightenment as an individual endeavor and seeing it as a collective process in which all of us emerge into clarity.

Photo by Dallas Krentzel

Photo by Dallas Krentzel

In the end, to speak of a single being coming into realization transgresses the heart of this practice. Remember the Buddha’s statement that immediately followed his enlightenment? It can be taken as a disclaimer of any individual achievement: “I, all sentient beings, and this great earth have at once entered the Way.” His experience that night was not about him gaining enlightenment. That would be impossible. But then, what are the implications of this? If all beings were enlightened in that single moment, what does this say about every other subsequent moment of practice? I, all sentient beings, and this great earth are practicing this breath. I, all sentient beings, and this great earth are inquiring into Mu. This points directly to what Dhiritaka needs to realize for himself.


We Step Onto The Path With a spirit of self-determination, and often the undertaking is marked by a certain aggression. If we really attend to how we practice, how we train, we may find there is more aggression within us than we thought. The deluded self is essentially an aggressive creation. Even right now, my giving this talk could be seen as an act of aggression on several levels. At its most basic, I am imposing my individuality on yours. These words are a presentation of my view, and depending on how you hear them, they instantaneously and subtly solidify reality. There is the possibility of this teaching becoming dogmatic, and dogma is always aggressive. In a more subtle way, these words can be seen as aggressive in the sense that they are gouging the healthy flesh of this reality.

It is in that softening, in that giving up of resentment, that we finally understand how to relate to this world.

But this same talk can also be appreciated as a co-creative act, a view that dissolves the aggressive stance of the separate self. To say that I am individually imposing my view on you would not be true because, in fact, these words are emerging from the sum of you and me here, together, at this particular moment. You could say this talk is nothing but the emergence of our collective mind. Thich Nhat Hanh says any particular moment is both an individual and collective expression of mind. If we really take this in, it will effect how we practice. For starters, the idea of somebody “getting ahead” of somebody else is crazy. The idea of an individual accomplishing him or herself needs to disappear. We need to simultaneously consider the presence of the wave and the ocean, the single snowflake as well as the snowstorm. Your practice is an individual effort as well as an effort of our collective body. When you are aware of both of these realities—the individual and the collective—how does your relationship to your zazen shift?


Again, I Think Of Maezumi Roshi’s teaching, “Beee paa-tient, Chozen. Beee paatient.” Our aggression on the path, our desire to attain something, actually undermines our spiritual quest. Anger, hatred, discrimination, desire— they’re all in the mix. In a sense every thought that emerges from our mind can be seen as an act of aggression, a distortion of reality that fits the needs of our “self.” This is how we perpetuate the ignorance and suffering of this world. But there is an antidote. Patience pro- vides freedom from aggression. Patience is the antidote to dealing with someone else’s aggression toward you, and to dealing with your own aggression toward yourself. Patience is mature. It is evolved. It is the activity of the “selfless Self.” How can we speak of “advancing” at the expense of something else when the matter at hand is selflessness?

Aggression ultimately leads to impotence. I’m reminded of a humorous example of this. When my in-laws were living in Florida, we used to visit a local farm stand where they put out free samples of food and wine at lunchtime. If you happened to arrive during that time, things became a bit dangerous. The aisles would be packed with octogenarians in wheelchairs or walkers, pushing oxygen tanks or little carts—and they would all be converging on the pineapple samples just put out at the center of the store. At a certain point, things would reach a point of total gridlock, everyone merging into a pulsating mass of mild, impotent aggression. The owners would have to intervene and literally pull people away from each other until there was enough freedom to allow movement. This is where we’re heading in our struggle to get somewhere.


How Do You Shift From An intellectual understanding of the enlightened mind to embodied actualization? Frequently, we begin the path with a sense of deep commitment to our individual improvement. Then, ever so gently, the path shifts. Little by little we move beyond thinking to a place of direct contact with reality, to an intimacy that becomes an expression of our whole body and mind. Actualizing in this way makes it impossible to identify a limit to practice. It’s not somebody’s personal business. Any genuine expression of this journey is an expression of the selfless Self.

So what is the reality that advances and insists that we become thoroughly intimate? Or is the wording of such a question already problematic? Is it really the world that advances? In Genjokoan, Dogen says that when the self advances to realize the universe, this is delusion—I will add that it is also aggression. He follows this by saying that when the ten thousand things advance to realize the self, this is enlightenment. What is the nature of a dharma advancing? Is reality aggressive toward you? The name “Dhritaka” means intimate with the limit of reality. That’s a challenging name to work with. What is the limit of reality? Is intimacy the limit of reality? Is ceasing to advance the limit of reality?


Patience Paramita Is The third of the Paramitas, and in this case, the order of the sequence is significant. Many aspects of the teachings are delivered in a particular sequence—the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Refuges—and the order matters. Although the dharma is one interconnected whole, as we practice, train and study, the sequence of the teachings gives us both a point of entry and a foundation on which to develop.

The Six Paramitas begin with generosity (dana), which is followed by discipline (sila) and then moves to patience (kshanti). Patience anticipates the fourth paramita, effort (virya), which in turns leads to meditation (samadhi) and ends with the realization of the selfless Self (prajna). The sequence begins with generosity because generosity moves us to give everything away, to let go, to strip ourself down to the rawness of our unbuffered, lonely being. The challenge is to be unafraid of this giving away. Dhritaka needs to let go of his understanding, his idea of the dharma, so that he can face himself in his selflessness. Our thinking is usually the first weapon we draw to protect ourselves from the world; thoughts can be both protective and aggressive.

As we encounter our loneliness, we are offered sila paramita and the precepts appear. We are guided to be disciplined with our thoughts, speech and action, sustaining the position of our loneliness. We turn towards life and are assaulted by life, not because anybody is attacking us, but because we are shedding the protective layers. When that is taken care of, patience paramita arrives—a state of non-doing that embraces reality. There is no need to hold on to resentment. It’s okay. It’s okay to give all of this away. It’s okay for the world to arrive on the doorstep of your mind, of your body, to allow such intimacy. There is nobody to blame anymore. And within this patience, there is a profound softening of your heart, your body, your mind. That’s essential, because without that softening, our practice of patience can easily turn into suppression or posturing. It can veer into other states that mimic patience in their quality, but are much more active, self-centered states, like tolerance or endurance, like waiting or hoping.


We need to become seasoned in patience before we turn toward the paramita of effort, because without patience, effort can become aggression. Touching patience can be taking that single breath before the words come out of your mouth, or before you act. The point is that there is no expansion of territory on your part. When we touch the paramita of patience we actually touch the heart of what it means to be on the bodhisattva path. It is in that softening, in that release of resentment, that we finally understand how to relate to this world.


Patience Is Not Apathy, and it’s not neutral. Real patience has a tremendous quality of emotional richness. Sometimes patience is accompanied by a sense of sorrow, sorrow that naturally arises as we support each other through our living and dying. Patience is being undisturbed by samsaric conditions. It is that large, like the ocean, into which anything and everything can empty, can be held, can be accepted. Absorbing all input from all directions. Unmoved yet continuously transformed. However brilliant our intellect is, it cannot do that. Our heart can. Patience paramita happens at the heart level and radiates through the body.

We can work with patience in our practice by inviting selflessness into the different aspects of our life. I was speaking to someone about establishing an altar in their home. I encouraged them not to rush that, but to allow themselves to invite that sacred space to manifest through their deep appreciation for reality. So it is with every dimension of our practice. How can patience inform our creative process? Our relationship with our teacher? Our relationship with our body? With the world? Can we appreciate that we are a conduit for this world and its realization through our practice?

In the end, it doesn’t make a difference who becomes enlightened. Are you okay with the person sitting next to you getting this done? If they did, at the moment of enlightenment they would say, “I, all sentient beings, and you, too, attain the Way.” And yet we still need to acknowledge the individuality of each one of us, of every being of the past, present, and future.

By acquiring the marrow
you will know the clarity of what you found,
Lunbian still possesses subtleties
he does not pass on.

Lunbian was a master wheelwright who taught his art to others, but there was always a subtlety he could not communicate. So it is with the dharma. In the beginning the teachings can seem so logical, so complete in their explanation, and we feel we understand. But acquiring the marrow means going to the center of our being. The dharma becomes available to us when we rest in patience. In this space, there is awareness without any reference point, free of any bias. It is the realm that exists before objects arise. It is patience that holds us here together. Within this patience you can, as the Diamond Sutra says, “Abide nowhere and manifest your mind.”

Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei was the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery from 2010-2015.

The Transmission of the Light or Denkoroku traces the transmission of the dharma from the time of the Buddha down to the 13th century and was compiled by Keizan Jokin, a seminal figure in Soto Zen.

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