short hand from this weekend’s teaching, and a way to practice the mantra going forward. If you like this work, join the art of self care online in January or spend some face time with me in an intensive.
All healing is a listening. A zen teacher asked, does listening stop when the bell falls silent?
When you listen, really listen, to anything at all you’ll hear its wisdom. The bird’s wing, a snowflake as it dances to pavement, the rustle of pages, the sound of breath. When you listen, really listen, any given thing can either draw you back down the same old dark pathways of your life or break open the way forward.
Greed, anger, and stupidity are morality, compassion, and wisdom. It’s a matter of how you use them.
Thus: all listening is -or possibly could be- a listening for one’s own heart.
As the poet has it:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. -Derek Walcott
Listen to the body and you’ll find old, twisted patterns of loss or insecurity, deep belief structures, and strange, silent places that are potent as unopened doors.
A long, long time ago a student asked his teacher how to practice. That is, the student already knew, but he was still unsure. He’d been given the teachings, the techniques, the definitions. He’d already been practicing for a very long time. But he still didn’t really understand what to do with himself. He was very much like us, this student.
This story is told in the Diamond sutra, which is composed of 32 chapters. The book itself is a diamond in its many facets, its brilliance, its ability to cut through our illusions. But the book is also a question about bodies, and a description of the teacher’s body, and a reflection on emptiness and how to transform ordinary days into esoteric ones. It’s a treatise on how to turn our own bodies into the teacher’s body. How to be a great being.
Its said that after many lifetimes - and we’ve all lived so many, many lifetimes - the buddha eventually discovered this. This thisness. His body was marked with this knowing in 32 different ways. And so, the teaching is the teacher’s body. But it’s also our own body. Its an empty body, and no mind. Being no mind, a space arises out of it for compassion.
The story begins ‘thus’, but thus can mean so many things. Does it mean ‘like this’ (and go on to the details of the story, the lineage, the history) or does it mean ‘just so’, as a musician can strike a note with a particular nuance, as a painter leans back from her work after just one stroke, as the body of the beloved tilts her neck or our own necks veers toward the lover, just so. Just: the snow fell all the time we were practicing. So: there was no outside, and we were separate from everything out there. Change Wei-nung says: “when people believe something, they say, ‘it is thus’. When they don’t believe something, they say, ‘it is not thus’. Belief, faith, marks the beginning of all practice. It is the first gate on the path.” That we show up is everything. And: from the very beginning, we have everything we could possibly need.
The whole body of the diamond sutra is a reiteration of what happens in the first chapter. It is a description of the buddha. A portrait of his body. It starts with a bowl (charity), a robe (morality), going into the world (shanti/peace/forebearance), and a meal (energy, virya). It leads to contemplation (dharana).
Are you done eating?, a zen master asked. yes, said the student. Then wash your bowl, the zen teacher said. Do everything completely, perfectly. Do just one thing at a time, I told my students. Three years later, a student came back to me and said it’s so hard.
In the second chapter of the diamond text, one of the oldest students asks the buddha a question. How are we supposed to be? I mean, how are we supposed to live? What should we say? Where should we dwell (oh we have such dwelling, ruminating, possessive hearts). What should we rely on? and what should we do about our problems?
This isn’t in the text, but was something I’ve learned about the book:
The buddha’s dear friend Ananda asked the buddha as he died, “Tathagata, how shall we carry on the teaching?” The buddha said “Thus” (see above, for thus ambiguity).
Ananda asked, “but we’ve been living with you all these last decades. Where should we live when you are gone?” The buddha answered, “live in the teachings”.
Ananda asked again, “but what shall we practice without you to teach us?” The buddha said: “Walk like the wind, stand like a pine, sit like a bell, lie like a bow.”
“But teacher, dear one, friend of my heart”, Ananda said, “what shall we do about the monks who misbehave?” Which is really not about other monks, or other people generally. Our questions never are. Not really. Ananda was really asking, “what shall we do about our problems?” “Oh that.” the Buddha said. “Ignore them. They’ll go away.”
When the book was originally written, it was said to be thousands and thousands of lines long. Then they wrote a shorter one. And a shorter one still. Eventually, they wrote a version of just three hundred lines. Hearing one line of it in passing, the fitth patriarch achieved enlightenment. While translating to Chinese, an abbot noticed that the peach tree blossomed six times in one year. And all the flower spirits, all the tree and animal spirits, blessed the monastery.
There is a 100 syllable version, taught as a chant. It first calls on the diamond being, which is a manifestation of our own innate purity, which is to say the first line is a cry expressing the way we lose sight of our own true nature.
The second line asks that the diamond being be seen. That he arrive. Which is really a way of saying may we show up for ourselves.
Then the lines get progressively intimate: bhavagan is called on to support and be firm with us, then to nourish us as a spiritual friend rather than a teacher, and finally to love us passionately.
Later lines ask that we accomplish, thusly, all that we do. It asks for effective actions, rather than useless life. It asks that our minds be pure in all that we do.
Then the chant laughs as we realize wisdom.
Then the lines call on the heart of all the buddhas - because when ever any one, in any age, has a moment of insight the diamond being will answer back. With a knowing. It would be nice, of course, if that knowing arrived in a text message: relentlessly cultivate generosity, compassion, and wisdom (emoji) eliminate greed, anger, and stupidity (emoji), Whenever we cry out from the heart we are seen by the ancestors. Being seen is important. For very young children, not being seen is equivalent to not being loved. All psychological issues are relationship issues. We heal in connection, communion, and intimacy.
Be the diamond that cuts through illusion. Preserve (says the chant) the great bond of being which asserts the perfection of our character will show up when we begin to work on our character.
Fearless bodhisattvas, be of radical character.