A dragon howls in a dark cave; the whole universe quiets. A tiger roars at the edge of a cliff; the cold valley becomes warm. Kaa!”
This is what you have been hearing all along, even if you don’t realize it. You hear it when the wind blows through the trees or when you set a spoon down on the table. But to hear it right, you have to become a dragon or a tiger.
How do you do that? How do you become a dragon or a tiger? It’s all well and good to answer, “Let go!” or “Sit!” or “Practice zazen!” But if you sit in zazen that is just the cave; if you let go, that is just the edge of a cliff. Where is the dragon, where the tiger? How do you hear the howl at the center of the universe, the roar beyond life and death?
Sometimes, as I take a step when walking in kinhin, I disappear. But the stepping is still there. Seated in zazen, the cushion is all by itself, but breathing still happens. If you want to penetrate into this, you will have to be alone. I do not mean that you need to be solitary. To be alone means to apprise yourself of your immaculate nature. To apprise yourself of your immaculate nature, leave off dragons and tigers entirely. Do not make something up about sun-warmed valleys or the quiet of interstellar space.
Just go on toward it and, without howling or roaring, tell me: what is the sound of your whole life?
I think of painting as a matter of placing pigments of various kinds on paper or fabric. Depending on the nature of the pigment, it reflects more or less light. To paint a picture of the moon with black ink, you could paint a disk, but your picture would not look like the full moon; it would look like the new moon or the eclipsed moon, reflecting very little light. So painting the moon with ink is really a matter of not painting it at all. You paint the whole sky instead, except for one, small disk-shaped or crescent-shaped space. To give over so much space to ink, is actually what makes the moon appear with such clarity to the viewer. It is the moon, and not the sky, that becomes the object of attention.
Painting the moon with ink can be thought of as a metaphor for the core practice of zazen. Whether sitting with koans or sitting shikantaza, your job is to seclude the mind from distracting, self-centered thoughts. But just as you can’t reveal the moon without ink, you can’t reveal the secluded mind of realization without using the monkey-mind of samsara. You could say that meditation is therefore an act of accepting your screeching, swinging monkey-mind in the same way that an artist accepts masses of black ink in order to reveal the bright, pure light of the moon.
In zazen, therefore, just notice, with perfect equipoise, the places where you stick—your wishful thinking, your regrets, your worries about the future, and so on. If, as they arise, you give them all the space they want, then, even if they want the whole sky, your mind will no longer feel crowded—and all the demands that those thoughts have been making for your attention will disappear at once. At the same time, the most beautiful and precious jewel of Mind will shine forth, and this light, like the real moon in the night sky, will guide you.
If you penetrate deeply into this, then you should be able to answer this question: With the ink of your life and the brush of Zen, how do you paint the moon on black paper?
Like the moon in its many phases, human beings, trees, mountains, asteroids, and amoebas are all subject to moment-by-moment creation and destruction.
Most people who understand the law of impermanence understand the appearance of things created and destroyed. But only Buddhas recognize the creation of the created and the creation of the destroyed. Creation and destruction are entirely an appearance. This coming and going of things in our lives can make us either miserable or delighted. When we lose something we want or have to deal with something we dislike, we recognize our suffering right away. When things are OK, or even better than OK, we recognize a sense of gratifying pleasure. And although nothing has been lost or gained, and the situation itself has not caused our reaction, those who do not know how to look will derive only suffering from their self-clinging. It is often thought that Zen meditation (zazen) will help one evade, or block out, the reality of change, or somehow cacoon impermanence in a silent numbness, but that is not the case. We can’t avoid change any more than the moon can avoid going through its phases.
But the moon reveals more than just a series of phases. If you’ve ever studied the moon, you know that, even though it continuously waxes and wanes, it is always the same side of the moon that faces Earth. It is like this in meditation too. We take a step back and look with a keen, non-reactive awareness at the reality we are living. We directly and honestly face the world as squarely as we can, carefully and objectively observing the reality of change, and the unreality of our desires that would oppose it. As the haze of unreality clears, we gradually discern a constancy that lies behind it all. That constancy is beyond all knowing; it is beyond all desires.
In practicing zazen, therefore, you can discover the side of you that is always facing the world. Then, even as you and the world turn and change, you will be ready for anything that comes.
Now I will tell you that, at the moment when the great master Nagyaharajuna transmitted the Dharma to Kanadaiba, he is said to have appeared as the full moon. How do you understand this? Is this full moon a “phase,” or is it the true “face” of Nagyaharajuna? If you say “phase,” you have closed your eyes; if you say “face,” you are blind. And if you know how to answer in an instant, how does that help you in your daily life?
Each of us strives to live a perfect life, just as Shakyamuni Buddha once did. Unlike the Buddha, however, most of think of a perfect life as one that includes the things we like and excludes the things we don’t like. It’s like trying to walk with just one foot, breathe by inhaling only, or wishing that the moon did not have a dark side. But none of these things is possible as all things and times and beings are ceaselessly changing.
Twice a year, when the hours of darkness and daylight are equal (the vernal and autumnal equinoxes), we renew our investigation of the Six Perfections. It’s interesting that “perfection” is linked to the balance of light and dark. This may remind us of the equanimity that characterizes the Buddha’s awakening. When we reflect on perfect generosity, for example, we should not imagine that it is merely of matter of giving things away with abandon. Generosity is inherently the perfection of morality–the precepts that help us relinquish our deluded views of the self. When we see generosity this way, it is no longer about sacrificing what we own as much as it is a matter of seeing that we do not own it at all.
Likewise, the perfection of patience isn’t merely a forced passivity. Real patience is inherently the perfection of effort–the energy we put forth to cultivate wholesomeness. Seen in this way, perfect patience is not a matter of being a doormat, but of persistence in our spiritual purpose.
And the perfection of meditation is not merely a matter of mastering the arts of mental discipline. Meditation is inherently the perfection of wisdom–that vision of the true nature of reality which is empty. Seen in this way, meditation is no longer merely a means to an end, but a manifestation of our true nature.
You can reflect upon each of the perfections in this way, seeing each one as co-arising in relation to the others.
Our practice, therefore, is not to attempt a state of perfection in which we conceive of a whole, perfect moon as nothing other than the full moon. It is, rather, to be a half moon. A half moon is also a whole moon, but it’s wholeness does not deny one part of its reality in favor of another. Each part is conditioned by the other, just as, when we are walking, one foot is before and one foot is behind. Just as, when breathing, each inhalation is followed by an exhalation.
To realize the conditioned nature of life is to stand on the moon, straddling the line between light and dark, realizing that the actual line cannot be found. This is not a failure but is the fundamental recognition that one may perfect one’s life without changing anything at all. Indeed, nothing can be changed except one’s view. In perfecting life without changing anything, we are suddenly greatly relieved of our suffering. And that perfection extends endlessly throughout space and time. We are indeed very fortunate.
We know that the moon’s light is actually the reflected light of the sun. For billions of years, the moon has reflected this light and we can imagine that the continued practice of this reflection has changed the nature of the moon. The moon’s practice is to let the sun’s light bounce off of it, not hindering it in any way. Our practice should be like this, actively reflecting everything in our lives. When a friend is sad, we are sad; when our friend is happy, we are happy.
But this is not something that we cause to happen. If we try to make this reflection happen, we end up acting phony and instead of finding liberation within this life as it is, we end up wearing a very uncomfortable mask, a face on our face. It would be like the moon trying to be the moon so that it can shine more like the moon. But when has the moon not been perfect in its shining? It cannot shine in any other way than perfectly because it does not cling to the light when it comes. When light comes, the moon just lets the light be itself. Thus the moon is liberated as the light is liberated. Also, when darkness falls, the new moon lets the darkness be the darkness, and in liberating darkness, the moon nevertheless is reflecting pure light.
So the moon shines because that is its nature. It does not need another nature. We also do not need–and can never have–another nature. We are already radiantly shining, but because we cling to shining, we cannot see the light that is all around us. It is like the moon shining brightly behind heavy clouds. And there’s the rub: clouds comes without cessation. Desires are inexhaustible. How can you liberate the moon without wanting things to be different?
Clouds fill the vast sky,
Covering the brilliant moon.
Pure, bright light illuminates the world.
A sliver of moon is brighter than the full moon. Do you understand what I mean by that?
Most people go out of their way to gaze at the full moon and think it’s the most beautiful. But the full moon doesn’t last long, and, most of the time, if you look very carefully, you’ll see that it’s not perfectly round. It’s always a little lop-sided, a little bit off.
If you’re clever, and you quit looking for the full moon, if you really let go of that futile search for purity and perfection, then you will realize that the moon is really only balanced when it is the new moon. It is a very wonderful and freeing feeling. Master Wanshi called this “the thousand-year darkness of the new moon.” He meant it is an easy place to get stuck for a long time, failing to see the moon as it really is.
Just before he died, master Rakuho sought an heir. On his deathbed, he used the moon as a hook and clouds for bait. The head monk tried to bite, but he just bit on a reflection in the pool. The attendant Genju was better: he licked the bait, and Rakuho thought he might pull in a trophy fish with golden scales. But Genju was afraid to be himself in his master’s presence. It’s like that sometimes because we don’t want to bring disappointment to ourselves or to those we love with our failings. Though he had licked the bait, he couldn’t swallow hook. In the vast darkness, he did not know where to swim.
How does one seek the perfect understanding? Biting the hook is certain death; not biting is a thousand years of going hungry in the dark. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying that, like a goldfish in a bowl, one must grow to fill the ocean of moonlight.
PS: Let me see what you think of this. Leave a comment below!
Bodhisattvas, we should not say we are too busy to come to practice. Nor should we say we are too tired, too sick, or too far away. In our culture, we have mutually convinced ourselves that we are always too busy. “Too busy” is just distracted, disordered mind.
In ancient China there was an outdoor altar known as the moon altar. Our life should be like this moon altar, lit by the light of the ever-changing phases of the moon. The crescent moon does not fret about when it will get around to being full, nor does it fret about waning and going dark. The moon just shines completely, no matter whether it is full, new, or a quarter moon. Because the moon is not distracted by thoughts of another moon, it is always full, and its light extends throughout the entire universe. The meaning of light extending throughout the universe is that the moon altar can be realized by anyone at any time. To realize the moon altar, just practice single-mindedly. Do not allow your mind to become fragmented into this and that phase, even as conditions change.
I wanted to let you know that this summer I will be starting to write occasional posts at our website (greatwave.org). The posts will be short–something you can read–or perhaps listen to, if I’m feeling ambitious–in a minute or less, and are aimed at keeping our practice present and visible in this busy-as-can-be life. Who doesn’t have one minute to spare for practice? I’m calling this series of posts “Small Talk.”
It’s my hope that you will help me create an ongoing conversation by registering at greatwave.org (if you haven’t done so already) and leaving comments on my posts. I’ll try to follow up when it seems appropriate. Also, please feel free to let me know if there is a topic you’d like me to address. I think that would be fun for all of us.