Dharma talk at the Village Zendo, December 10, 2017.
Good morning. I was glad that we heard some beeping this morning from the construction vehicles. Keishin and I share an apartment on 14th Street and we’ve had these three massive construction projects all going on simultaneously. Primarily, the preparation for shutting down the L train subway tunnel. Every weekday morning at 7 a.m. sharp, the vehicles start beeping and that’s what we do our zazen with. And then the beeping becomes the zazen and the zazen is the beeping. There is no escape. The beeping is coming from inside. Hakuin asked the monk, ‘What is the sound of one hand?’ ‘Beep. Beep. Beep,’ went the monk. When we get to Garrison I don’t know what I’m going to do. I hope that there’s some sort of construction project going on there, otherwise I’ll have no idea how to sit zazen anymore.
Last month, I ran a half marathon in Brooklyn around Prospect Park. I’ve run a half marathon once or twice a year for the last few years, but this half marathon just scared me. The whole time that I was training for it, ever since I signed up for it, I was dreading it. There’s a couple of reasons why I was dreading it. One is just that I’m older, I’m thicker, I’m slower than I have been in previous years. I knew it was just going to take longer to run and it was going to hurt more, and that was frightening me. And then the other thing that I was not looking forward to was the route. I’ve run lots of different kinds of routes. You know, run out six and a half miles then back or run 13 miles from Point A, all the way to Point B, then stop. This one we were going to run around Prospect Park four times. And I thought, ‘Without any sense of progress, how am I going to mentally get through this? Am I going to go crazy by the time an hour and 45 minutes is over?’
So, the race starts and it was kind of this shabby little affair. I’m used to races where it’s thousands of runners and there’s a big-deal opening ceremony and you line up according to your pace. Some local celebrity sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the P.A. system. The official says, ‘Runners on your marks, get ready, start,’ fires a pistol and we’re off. But in Brooklyn, it was only about 300 of us crowded around the starting line. Somebody walks up with a megaphone and says, ‘Okay, start running.’
It was kind of a cold morning. I was wearing this old green jacket that I intended to throw away. So, the guy says ‘start running’ and I take off my jacket and hang it on the railing by the side of the road and start running. The way the race is set up, it’s about three and a third miles a lap and in order to make it exactly 13.1 miles, they set the finish line about a hundred yards behind the starting line. So, you run around one lap, you pass the finish line. You’re not supposed to go over it, you’re supposed to go to one side. And then you see your green jacket hanging on the railing and you see the starting line, and that’s one lap. And you start the whole race all over again, for the next three and a third miles or so. And you’re supposed to keep track of the laps as you go. On the fourth lap, you are allowed to run, not past but over the finish line and you’re done.
The first lap was the hardest. It always is. I felt very stiff and slow and old, and I thought, ‘If my foot feels this way the whole way, if I feel this slow and bored the whole way, I’m not going to make it through this, doing the same thing over and over.’ But I started thinking about the guys at Sing Sing and what they endure. And I wondered if it was anything like running a long race for them, to endure years, decades, maybe a lifetime. And I bet it is kind of like a long race. There’s probably good days and bad days. Probably every day is distinct. And I think that they might get through it with such dignity by not considering a day to be one of a thousand or ten thousand days, but its own day.
The other thing I was thinking of was that Keishin and I had been talking before—she was doing this race, too—and she said that she had learned to just stop worrying and love the duration. Just run and not be impatient to get to the end, and not worry how long it was going to take or what her time was going to be, but just do it. And I resolved to run the race that way.
Running in circles for an hour and 45 minutes is really weird. Pretty quickly, I lost any sense of progress or covering ground. It was as if I was standing still and the race washed back and forth around me. Like I was a leaf of seaweed beneath the ocean. I’m a little faster than average going downhill and a little slower going up, so on the downhill side of the park, I would pass by about a dozen runners. Then on the uphill side, the same dozen runners would pass me. And 25 minutes later, we’d do the whole thing over again. It was an extremely slow, washing back and forth of the race around me while I was just still, jogging in place.
There’s an essay about time that Dogen, the monk, wrote in the year 1240 in Japan. It’s called Uji, which is Japanese for ‘The Time-Being.’ I don’t know Japanese but from what I’ve read, I think ‘The Time Being’ is a remarkably good translation of this title in the sense that uji is used the way we use ‘for the time being,’ meaning temporarily, at the moment. But then it also does have these same two components of time and being. And Dogen’s point is that these are not two. Dogen wrote:
Each moment is all being. Each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment. Time itself is being. You are time. Mountains are time. Oceans are time. People only see times coming and going, and do not thoroughly understand that the time-being abides in each moment.
When I think of myself as a separate thing that moves forward steadily over the surface of time, as if time is a road and I’m moving along it—that’s separation. And it’s not really true. Time and me, we’re crashing over and through each other, so that we whirl around and nobody can say which is which. Dogen says that this is overwhelming, the way a wave overwhelms a swimmer. But is it time that overwhelms me? How can we say what is overwhelming what, if time and me are one? Dogen expresses this by saying:
Overwhelming overwhelms overwhelming, and sees overwhelming. Overwhelming is nothing but overwhelming. This is time. As overwhelming is caused by you, there is no overwhelming that is separate from you.
Keishin and I started the race around the same time, but I’m faster, so we don’t run side by side. After about an hour, I lapped her. I kind of touched her on the shoulder, and then I didn’t see her again. And she admitted that she didn’t finish the whole race. After about twelve miles of running in circles, she saw a corner of the park that was near the subway entrance that she wanted. She just took the corner and ran right out of the park and down the subway stairs and went home. (Laughs) That’s fine, you know. But I was really determined to finish the race.
Something kind of interesting happened. Laps two and three, I was really in the groove. I was fine with the passage of time. Then when I passed my green jacket on the railing and the starting line for the third time, and I knew I was on the final lap, everything comes rushing back. I’m aware of the pain, I’m worried about my pace, I’m counting every turn and every mile and I just cannot wait for the thing to be over. But that’s okay, too, right? Even a worried, self-judging, bored, impatient mind, that’s the time-being, too. That’s what the moment is.
Over the course of those four laps, over an hour and 45 minutes, it sort of seems like my state of mind changes from worried to happy to bored to peaceful. Flowing from one way of being to the next. But each of those states of mind is completely distinct and self-contained. How can my state of mind in one moment flow into the next state, if this moment has all of it? How can there be another moment to flow into? This is it, right? It’s just us here now. There’s nowhere else to step to.
Here’s another way to think about this. It is said that to be alive is to suffer from a sense of dissatisfaction from what we’ve got, who we are, what this is. But suffering can only occur over a span of time. If I experience a moment of pain, that’s just a moment of pain. There’s no time to be unsatisfied with what this moment is. Whereas over the course of an hour and 45 minutes, I had all the time I needed to worry and judge and wish that something else were happening instead.
But what if instead I thought this was my last moment on Earth. That I was going to die an instant later. Would I be dissatisfied with this, or not? And it’s actually true, right? I am about to die. Who I am in this moment does not flow into the next. This is it for me. Somebody else will exist a second later. Seen from that perspective, it’s impossible not to appreciate what I am and what I have now. Because this is it; there’s nothing to compare it to. So, realizing that is nice. It’s very peaceful and joyful, not necessarily happy, but a joyful way to be in the world. To be about to die like this.
But mostly it’s not how I am in the world. Mostly getting and spending, worrying about the future, judging and comparing. I ignore this momentary flickering-ness. And that’s okay, too, because I’m still free, right? I’m still free to appreciate this moment as the time-being. Whenever I return to it, it’s always available. I can choose to appreciate this moment now. Or, if I’m ignoring it, that’s okay, too. It’s still true that this moment is the entire time-being.
This so-called Path of Zen that we’re on, what kind of route is it? Is it out and back, six miles each way? Or are we going straight from A to B and then reaching our destination? I have bad news. I think that the Path of Zen is running in circles. (Laughs) There is no destination. We do the same thing, over and over, right? Sit down, face the wall, get up, walk in a circle. Sit down, face the wall, again and again. That’s why there’s no sense of progress, mostly, especially once you’ve been doing it for a few years. That’s why my dharma talks are always the same.
So, without a sense of progress, what’s going to sustain us in our practice? In my kind of deluded, ordinary way of viewing my life, I’m sustained by a sense that I’m getting somewhere. That I’m building up, I’m advancing. But in my awakened perspective, there is no delusion of progress. The delusion of progress is a delusion. If you cut it away, what sustains you? For me, what sustains me is faith. And that’s new for me, and I don’t know how to explain it yet. It’s not faith in anything. It’s not faith that anything in particular is going to happen.
Zen requires faith, but it doesn’t help us very much. We don’t have God, we don’t have Amitabha Buddha. We absolutely must have faith and we have nothing to hang it on. So, I’m trying to cultivate faith in the big shebang. Buddha Mind, uji. It’s there but I don’t know how to name it.
That said, the day to day life of Buddha Mind is just day to day life. Not necessarily much externally visible difference between me deluded, functioning in the world and me awakened, functioning in the world. I flicker back and forth but I basically do the same thing either way.
When I reached the finish line for the fourth time, I was finally allowed to run over the finish line and I was fine. I felt good. I kept running for another minute and reached my green jacket that was still hanging over the railing, slowed to a walk and grabbed it, put it on and went home.
I’m going through a period where a lot of my life increasingly feels like running in circles. Increasingly feels like the progress I once experienced, the satisfaction I once experienced is not here anymore. I’m not certain why and I don’t know what happens next, how long this state of mind lasts, what next state of mind it’s going to flow into. And it’s not easy. So, I’m trying as much as I can to return to the absolute presence of this moment. Its totality; its completeness. And I’m trying to maintain faith. I don’t know in what, but to be sustained by it anyway.