We waste our lives chasing temporary, superficial things, and our disappointment leads to grief. Here’s a practice that loosens greed’s grip on our minds, and frees us to appreciate this moment. Video of a talk I gave at the Village Zendo’s summer retreat.
Dharma Talk by JiryuPosted by Village Zendo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019
So it’s our fifth whole day of sitting. Are you still thinking about work?
I know that I’m thinking about my job at home. Not like I was on my first day but still, it’s coming up. Every few zazen periods, something will occur to me, like a meeting that I need to schedule next week, or a problem that I’m trying to solve, or a skill that I need to learn.
Because I’m a human being and this is what human beings do. We strategize, we optimize, we try to forecast the future. We look for ways to maximize our gain and minimize our loss.
Sort of like the stock market. It’s like we’re buying and selling every experience, looking for an angle.
I didn’t pay much attention to the actual stock market until pretty recently. I’m a computer programmer, and I joined a startup about seven years ago. The way most software startups work is that they pay you a salary but it’s a little less than you would get at an established company, and then you also get stock. But it’s completely theoretical. There’s no way to know when or if this stock will ever be worth anything, or how much.
Year after year I worked for this company. I enjoyed the work, I was satisfied with the salary. And I put all of this hypothetical stock out of mind.
Then one day, about a year and a half ago, the board decided that the moment was ripe, and we listed our company on the NASDAQ. And this hypothetical stock that I’d been ignoring was very real. I knew how much it was worth, and it was worth a lot. Way more than I ever would have expected to have in one place. On the one hand, I am so grateful. Because there is no reason for me to be this lucky. It’s changed what’s possible for me in the future. But I also know that it’s very precarious. This wealth I have is tied up in the stock of one young company. Anything could happen tomorrow. It could all be wiped out.
So, as an experiment, I installed the widget on my phone that lets me check the stock price whenever I want to. I wanted to see if I would be obsessed or not.
Especially at first, I checked it at least every day when the stock market was open. And when the stock price goes up, I saw that I felt happier. And when it goes down, it made me sad. The funny thing is that even if it goes up two dollars today, that makes me feel secure and satisfied. Then if it goes down one dollar tomorrow, that’ll make me feel vulnerable and impoverished—even though I’m still a dollar up from yesterday.
It’s what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill, this way that human beings always want more. We want to add and add, and we want to keep each thing we acquire. We are so averse to losing.
Even though the price and going up or down affects my mood, the thing is: I’m still free. Years of zen practice are not good for nothing. I can open up my phone, look at the price. If it’s a green arrow that points up, I observe my reaction to that. If it’s a red arrow that points down, I observe that. Then I move on. It’s not dragging me around by the nose. It is possible to liberate ourselves this way. And the reason that I’m liberated is that I know that it’s temporary, and I know that it’s superficial. Even though we really are talking about money, it’s empty and I know that, so I don’t get attached.
Now, with other aspects of my job it’s not so easy. I recently joined a new team, and it is such a scramble for me to catch up with everything that I need to learn to work with these people. First of all, the code that this team works with is more than half a million lines. I don’t know where the functions are, how they fit together, how things work. I’m struggling to be productive.
Even harder than that, this team uses a style of mathematics called the Temporal Logic of Actions. It was invented at the end of the ‘90s, and it’s so new and so mind-bending, it’s sort of like algebra but what it’s manipulating is the cause and effect of actions over time. So you can say that if this thing is never true, then that thing is eventually true. If this thing is true forever, then…. It’s sort of existential, and I am really struggling to wrap my mind around it. I’m kind of feeling like an old dog trying to learn something new. I know that in zendo years I’m young, but I’m 40 and in software years that is a senior citizen. Everybody else on my team is 15 years younger than me, but they are years ahead of me on the specific skills that we need on this team. I am anxious to prove myself, prove that I can make this pivot—and also eager to do so.
When these thoughts of loss or gain come up for me, when I’m thinking about work during zazen, I can feel it all through my body. My head is jutting forward, and my neck is tense, and my thumbs are pressed together. It’s such a powerful emotion.
I’m convinced that when we think about gaining or losing our social standing in the group hierarchy that this is very threatening for us, because human beings evolved in small bands of hunter-gatherers, where being rejected by the tribe could mean that you starve to death. No way of knowing if this is a true theory, but it’s a great myth, it’s very useful. And I feel it in my body. When I’m thinking about something as abstract as making a mistake and embarrassing myself in front of my team, my body reacts like it’s a matter of life or death.
As you may be aware, Buddha talked about gain and loss. In The Four Noble Truths he said that to be alive is to be dissatisfied. Experiencing “dukkha.” Dukkha can be translated as “suffering” or “stuckness.” The Sanskrit root may have something to do with a wagon wheel where the axle is off-center so it never really gains momentum. And the cause of this dukkha is craving—“trishna.” Wanting more of what we want and wanting less of what we don’t want.
Buddha described the causes of dukkha like this in the Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra:
Union with what is displeasing is dukkha.
Separation from what is pleasing is dukkha.
Not to get what one wants is dukkha.
Clinging is dukkha. Craving is dukkha.
He diagnosed the cause of craving, also. Craving is caused by the three poisons, which are greed, aversion and ignorance.
In our liturgy we say greed, anger and ignorance are the three poisons. That middle one, anger, is “dvesha.” And it’s not just anger. I think of anger as something that you feel towards a person. But dvesha covers all the things that we reject. Every time we say “I don’t want this,” that’s dvesha. So careful translations are more like something akin to aversion. Or maybe hatred.
So the three poisons are greed, aversion and ignorance. What are we ignorant of? What we’re ignorant of is the temporary, empty quality—all the things that we’re trying to grab, all the things that we’re trying to protect ourselves from. It’s like water droplets in the shower. You try to grab one, it’s pointless. It exists for a moment and then it merges and disappears down the drain. But, because we’re ignorant of this, we cling to this and we hate that, and that’s why we suffer.
How can we be liberated from this experience?
We look to our ancestors for examples of liberated people that we can emulate and look up to. And it’s tough because their loves were so different from ours.
Consider Shakyamuni Buddha’s strategy. First thing he does is runs away from the palace. He leaves his wealth, his wife, his newborn son and he lives as a homeless wanderer in the woods for a decade. This works. It’s total renunciation. It didn’t get him the insight that he wanted, but it’s a great start—to start by throwing everything away.
The closest that I’ve ever come to this experience was when I was on street retreats. It’s a practice that Bernie Glassman developed, where a small group of us will be homeless in the city for about four days. Without wallets or phones—just surviving off what people give to us or what we can find. And, yeah, the moment I walked out of my apartment without a wallet, samadhi happened. It’s an incredible start.
I want to tell you two stories about street retreat.
On my first retreat it was just four people: me, and it was led by Genre Roshi, and then there were two other people. We had tried to find a place to sleep the night before and we’d found a semi trailer in a commercial parking lot. It was empty and the back was open, so we tried to sleep there, but as soon as we were starting to fall asleep, we felt this rumble. Somebody had started up the cab and we needed to jump out the back before we were whisked off to Maspeth, or caught or something.
So we hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before and we were cold and we were hungry and we walked up to 47th Street early in the morning to go to a mission and wait for them to open their doors and serve us breakfast. The four of us were just sitting on the stoop at six in the morning.
The first thing that happened is this teenage boy came bopping down the street. He’s dressed all in black and he had his headphones on. He was grooving along to what he was listening to and as he passed us, without breaking his stride, he gave each of us a dollar bill: bop, bop, bop, bop.
The second thing that happened was a man came walking down the street wearing khakis, and it’s that thing in New York where he’s talking but you don’t know if he’s talking on his earpiece or to the voices in his head. He passes us by, talking, and once I can see around the back of him, I see that he’s got a huge African grey parrot sitting on his other shoulder. He’s talking to the parrot.
So, why did this happen? It’s because I was jut sitting there without any thoughts of gain or loss. Normally I shove myself down the street trying to get somewhere but on this morning, there was nothing to do. In general, on street retreat, there’s nothing to accomplish. We’ve also go nothing to lose. Reality just manifests itself with more creativity and beauty than you could possibly anticipate.
So, I understand Shakyamuni Buddha’s choice. Just throw away everything and go be homeless. It’s an amazing start.
We can also look to Dogen, the founder of our school in Japan, who left his aristocratic merchant family as a boy to exchange that life for the hard life of a temple monk.
We’re living sort of like temple nuns and monks this week, right? We don’t have any gain or loss here. We don’t have any jobs or any mistakes we can make, or any great things we can accomplish. We’re safe here. We can trust each other. This stock market this week is closed.
We don’t even have to read our email except if I see something that seems relevant to my work leader job, I do have to check my email for that. But I’m not reading my work email and I suggest the same for you. We’ve got three full days left. If you are reading your email, please stop. Now is the time to settle in. You’ll be glad you did.
Consider what Dogen instructed us for zazen:
Cast aside all involvements and cease all worldly affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views.
In other words, while we’re doing zazen, there’s no trading. There’s no profit or loss. That’s true when we’re going our daily zazen at home, and it’s true all week while we’re here. While we’re here, we’re practicing like Dogen. We just leave everything behind.
But it doesn’t last, right? None of us are temple nuns or monks. We all go home. Trading resumes.
And we have to strive. We have to protect ourselves from people we don’t know we can trust. We have to gain or lose. That’s how life is.
So how do we avoid spiraling down into greed, aversion and ignorance, then?
Welcome to the stage, the hero you were expecting: Vimalakirti! The layman. The businessman. How does he live in this market without being caught up in it?
The sutra is so frustrating on this point. We know something about the life of Shakyamuni. We know something about the life of Dogen. We know what they struggled with. Vimalakirti arrives fully formed. It says that he has transcended all fear, he has penetrated all dharmas, he has supernatural powers. Must be nice. The sutra says that although he lives in the world of gain and loss, he makes a profit but he does not delight in profit. For him, the world of gain and loss is the world of liberation. Mr. V says that “when the mind is pure the Buddha land is pure.” In other words we’ve already arrived, but because of our self-obsessed striving we don’t see it.
Right now, this week, when the stock market is closed—this is the perfect time to see this Buddha land. And then when we go home we’ll remember how we practiced.
This is what I’m going to try out. This is what I’ve been doing this week. I’m noticing everything that I want and everything that I don’t want from one moment to the next.
For example, I liked the veggie sausages that we had the other day for breakfast. Stock market went up.
I was only permitted one and a half veggie sausages. Stock market went down.
Yesterday morning I had a really good, clear, quiet sit. Stock market went up.
Yesterday afternoon I was so tired that I was falling asleep in the dokusan line. Stock market goes down.
All this is driven by my greed for more of what I want and my aversion to what I don’t want. And underlying that, this forgetting about how temporary and empty and provisional each moment is.
I’m kind of riffing here on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness from the Satipatthana Sutra.
Buddha in that sutra says that when we clearly see our aversion and our greed we arrive at a clear comprehension of them. And for him, clear comprehension is the view of emptiness, the insight that everything that we want is temporary. Everything that we don’t want is temporary. Just drops in the shower. No reason to be attached to any of this. That’s what the Heart Sutra is saying, when Avalokiteshvara realizes that the five skandhas, the five aggregates, are empty. Avalokiteshvara is realizing that things, our sensations of things, our thoughts, intentions and consciousness, they are ever-changing, vague, sloshing energy dynamics. How could you possibly want to grab one for yourself?
Having clear comprehension like this, it lets the world manifest beautifully, it lets the Buddha land appear to us. A man walks down the street talking to a parrot. And that’s how I intend to practice. I don’t want to waste my life on grabbing after things. This Buddha land is here and I want to spend more of my time actually seeing it.
It’s inevitable that my life is not going to give me the things that I prefer. Sickness and old age and death are coming for all of us. My mother will get old and sick and die. Roshi will get old and sick and die. My partner will. I will. Ignorance is not going to cut it very well then.
I’m almost done talking, which means we’re going to have service soon. What do you want or not want out of service? We’re going to chant the Identity of Relative and Absolute; maybe you think that’s fun. And then we’re going to chant the Patriarchs’ Lineage; maybe you think that’s boring. Notice that. And then let’s just chant both of them beautifully.
If you’re on the liturgy team, maybe you want to hit the bell at the right place and then you don’t want to make a mistake and hit the bell at the wrong place. Notice that. And let’s just perform the service together.
And then we’re going to lunch. I really play the stock market around mealtimes. First thing I do when I go out the door is that I’m sort of looking around at the posters on the wall, maybe I’ll see something interesting that will give me a moment of entertainment. Let’s not do that. Let’s keep our focus internal and just walk down the hall.
Usually when I get into the dining room I’m on full alert. I want to know what we’re eating. So I’m smelling the air and I’m peeking into the bowls because I want to know: Which things should I take more or less of? I want to strategize. I want to plan my attack. Let’s not do that. Let’s just walk to our seats and stand there patiently together. We’ll find out what we’re going to eat when we need to know.
Vimalakirti—Mr. V—said that when the mind is pure, the Buddha land is pure.
When I practice like this, meticulously watching each moment of greed and of aversion, it kind of clears some space around me that allows the world to manifest freely as it really is. This is those jeweled canopies and magnificent oceans full of lotus blossoms. This is the Buddha land.
When I was pulling weeds from the raspberry patch the other day, I met a tiny brown spider who was carrying, attached to her abdomen, a white sac full of her countless children.