Planting Flowers on a Rock
Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi True Dharma Eye, Case 232
Originally posted by my most beloved, T. Mujin _/\_
Keeping silent and refraining from discussing the Way is a truly extraordinary practice. This is hearing what is impossible to hear, encountering what is impossible to encounter. Yet, even if all contrivances are cut off, there is still the pit of liberation called “dharma attachment.” Even if we try to establish classes or stages, we should understand that fundamentally there are no boundaries or edges to be found. Yaoshan understands that the ineffable truth that Shitou is pointing to is not to be discerned by conscious cognition of sound and form, nor is it to be found by going beyond sound and form. This being the case, you tell me, where is it to be found? If you wish to understand these great adepts, you must first see into the place where “even a needle cannot enter” and then realize the place that’s “just like planting flowers on a rock.” Without relying on seeing and hearing, and without trying to know objects, we should observe and realize that which is underneath it all.
The Capping Verse
Cease from following after sound and form,
refrain from going beyond sound and form.
The spring breeze unknowingly rousts out the hibernating tree frogs—
cherry blossoms, wordlessly, open a path.
One day, Yaoshan was sitting on a rock when Shitou asked him, “What are you doing here?” and Yaoshan said, “I’m not doing a thing.” Shitou said, “Then you’re just sitting leisurely.” Yaoshan responded, “If I was sitting leisurely, I’d be doing something.” “You say you’re not doing anything, what is it that you’re not doing?” Shitou insisted. Yaoshan said, “A thousand sages don’t know.” Shitou then praised Yaoshan with a verse:
Long abiding together,
Not knowing its name.
Just going on practicing like this.
Since ancient times, the sages don’t know.
Will searching everywhere now make it known?
But that was not the end of the story, for out of this dialogue evolved the koan that we are dealing with here. Yaoshan was an eighth century Chinese master who succeeded Shitou, the author of the Identity of Relative and Absolute. In this dialogue, Shitou is testing Yaoshan by saying, “Words and actions have nothing to do with the truth.” The commentary picks up on this line with: “Keeping silent and refraining from discussing the Way is a truly extraordinary practice. This is hearing what is impossible to hear, encountering what is impossible to encounter.”
A few years ago, I was deeply struck by this practice of keeping silent and refraining from discussing the Way when I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trappist community where Thomas Merton lived and practiced. The vow of silence is very much present at Gethsemani. I went there as part of a group of fifty monastics from various traditions who were getting together as part of an interreligious encounter. And although we did not speak to the monks of the Abbey, I got a sense of the incredible power of their practice, simply as I passed them silently in the hall.
I must admit that I had gone to this conference prepared to be bored senseless, but instead what happened was that I had my heart ripped open by the participants: Buddhist, Christian, Theravadin, Chan Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant. It was clear to me that all of them had spent years in deep study and practice. It was evident in the way they spoke, the way they interacted with one another, and it was especially evident in the questions they asked of themselves and each other—questions that really needed to be asked. I was especially impressed by a Tibetan Buddhist nun who has launched a battle to start a women’s lineage. It doesn’t exist. It hasn’t existed for hundreds of years, but she is determined to make it happen. She also told me that twenty years earlier she’d made a vow when she put on her robes that she would never take them off to get a job, to support herself; that if the dharma didn’t take care of her, then she would just starve to death or rot wherever she was. And she’s kept that vow for all these years. She practices constantly.
Some of the hard questions we asked each other about spiritual practice in the 21st century were things like, What good is a monastery? What good is a monastic? What good is a practitioner? What do they do? What’s their role or responsibility in society? Indeed, the question we should ask ourselves is, What should Zen Mountain Monastery be doing in relationship to society? How should we address war, peace, the environment, poverty, media violence, personal and structural violence, suffering, alienation, greed, and consumerism?
One of the monks I met had been ordained for thirty years, but before that he’d gotten a degree in law. He said when he first arrived, the abbot of his monastery looked at his application, looked at him and said, “Now, what would a monk want with a law degree?” But as it turns out, they’ve used his skills numerous times. One of the things he did was defend our friend, Joan Chittister, who was called to an inquisition in Rome. I don’t know what the charges were, but evidently she’s very liberal and Rome nailed her, so this lawyer monk was called to defend her. They won.
Later, that very same lawyer spoke up during a discussion about the causes of structural violence and how institutions help to create it. He said, “It’s not about greed, it’s not about consumerism. It’s about patriarchy.” Suddenly, all these quiet nuns were up and talking. It was a very lively discussion. Later, I did worry that once this encounter got published as a book half of my friends were going to end up excommunicated. I’m not sure how they handled that.
So, on one hand, we have “keeping silent and refraining from discussing the Way is truly an extraordinary practice. This is hearing what is impossible to hear, encountering what’s impossible to encounter.” If our minds are filled with noise, how will we be able to hear what is impossible to hear? Obviously, we won’t. The definition of the term “mystical” says: “Having a spiritual meaning that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intellect. It is direct subjective communication with ultimate reality.” It’s the kind of communication that we can’t process intellectually. We can’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, or think it. It is very subtle and slippery, impossible to nail down or explain. Yet we’re somehow aware of its presence, and it has a real impact on us. And in order to perceive it, we need to make room for it. We need to be quiet, open, and receptive. That’s the only way we’ll ever access the mystery of this human life.
“Yet, if even all contrivances are cut off, there is still the pit of liberation called ‘dharma attachment.’” That’s the other extreme—complete renunciation, cutting ourselves off from the world, from communication, from any kind of activity. This is what Yunmen called one of the two sicknesses of our practice. Needless to say, in order to function in the world we have to get ourselves out of the pit of liberation. As I have said countless times, it’s not enough to get to the top of the mountain. You have to keep going down the other side and back into the marketplace, where your life takes place.
“Even if we try to establish classes or stages, we should understand that fundamentally there are no boundaries or edges to be found.” There’s the rub. We love to establish classes or stages, but the fact is that there are none. But then people ask, why do we have a hierarchy? Why do we have seniority and the different colored robes and the ten stages of practice and on and on? Call it upaya, skillful means. But ultimately, there is no distinction between buddhas and ordinary beings, between a rank beginner and the person who’s completed her training. In terms of the precepts, the tenth grave precept explicitly says that to even give rise to the thought that there’s a distinction between buddhas and ordinary beings violates the precept.
The commentary continues: “Yaoshan understands that the ineffable truth that Shitou is pointing to is not to be discerned by conscious cognition of sound and form, nor is it to be found by going beyond sound and form.” That’s what we try to do, we try to grasp the teachings with our minds. In the realm of the mystery, there is neither inside nor outside. There’s no way to approach the truth, to grasp it or understand it. It exists thus! But if it’s not discerned by conscious cognition of sound and form and it is not found by going beyond sound and form, then where is it to be found? How is it to be found?
Master Dogen says, “Seeing forms with the whole body and mind, hearing sounds with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately.” When we practice this wholehearted way of attending and experiencing as we move through our daily lives—when we make direct contact with reality—we go beyond an ordinary way of seeing, of being, and touch the sacred dimension of our lives. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Evelyn Underhill wrote in her book Mysticism:
Contemplation is the mystic’s medium. It is an extreme form of that withdrawal of attention from the external world and total dedication of the mind which also, in various degrees and ways, conditions the creative activity of musician, painter and poet: releasing the faculty by which he can apprehend the good and beautiful and enter into communion with the real.
“Entering into communion with the real” does not mean entering some kind of esoteric state of mind. It is your mind, right here, right now. To contemplate is to use your ability to see directly, intimately, and to express through the creative process and your life what you see—not what you think you see, but what actually is.