Delivered at the Village Zendo, November 15, 2018.
Most of my life I’ve had this little black mole right under my eye. And early this year it started bleeding and cracking and falling off and then it would grow again and then the cycle would repeat, so I thought, “That’s weird.” I went to a doctor and about a week later I got the test results back and it’s cancer. It’s just basal cell carcinoma. Most people get this somewhere on their skin at some point in their lives. The doctor wasn’t even particularly surprised that somebody my age had it. In recent years, people younger than forty are increasingly likely to get basal cell carcinoma. Nobody knows the reason, but I’m sure we can all guess roughly why.
I was never scared. It’s harmless, you’ve just got to cut it off. But it definitely had an effect on me, to hear a doctor tell me I have cancer. It told me that middle age is arriving, and mortality is following behind, if I’m lucky. Moments like this have a big effect and they can be opportunities, if we’re open to them to bring some insight, if we’re brave enough to face them.
Lots of people in our sangha are facing chronic illness now, have had very dangerous cancers. Some of them have survived, some of them have not. But in every case, they have faced them with tremendous bravery. So far, life has let me get off with just a few scrapes here and there. But even so, those little scrapes are opportunities to learn something.
In February I went in for surgery. The surgery they use for basal cell is really interesting, it’s called Mohs surgery, where the surgeon will cut off just a few millimeters of skin and then send you back to the waiting room with just a Band-Aid over it, while they test that little bit that they cut off in a lab, in the building. And then after half an hour, an hour, they come back and they say, “Well, what we scraped off has more cancer, so we need to we need to cut off some more.’ Or, “What we cut off does not have cancer, so we’re done.” Then they sew you up and send you home.
There’s a rhythm to it. You don’t know how long you’re going to be there for, and the day that I did it, I was in a cycle with a man who was maybe ninety years old, at least. He had something coming off the side of his head, that’s where the Band-Aid was when he was in the waiting room. He was being taken care of by a woman who was maybe his granddaughter. And there was me, and there was a woman maybe just a little bit older than me with her friend for support. When she was in the waiting room, she had a big bandage on her nose, so that’s where they were taking something off of. I was alone, because that’s my style. I asked Keishin not to come with me.
The waiting room pumped us in and out. The old man would go into the operating room, then he would come back. Then I would go into the room, then I’d come back out to the waiting room. Then the woman would, then she would come out. She would tell her friend what the doctor had just told her about how they were doing, how much more he thought they would have to cut off. Then the man, me, the woman…. On and on. After a couple of these cycles, the man was done and he was gone, so it was just the woman and me alternating, every half hour or so.
On one of these trips to the O.R. she was in there for a while, and then she came out and she told her friend what had happened. She was so upset. It sounded like they had had to take off a lot of her nose. She said, “I’m just so sad.” It was such a mess: they couldn’t even sew her up that day, they had to send her to a plastic surgeon to even start the process of sewing her up and fixing her face. But it was too late that day so she’d have to go home like that and try to get an appointment in the morning. Once they got all that sorted out, she looked at her friend and she said, “Well, where do you want to eat?”
I think that’s sort of how it always is. Something major happens, and then you gotta go eat. If we’ve got the bravery to face both the great blow, the wisdom of that great blow, and also have the bravery to face the ordinariness that comes after, that’s Zen. She had it, and I really admire her. I hope things turned out okay.
It reminds me of Yunmen, a monk who lived in China. He was born around 860 A.D. and he lived ninety years. His enlightenment story is a classic:
One day, Yunmen went to visit Mujo. When Mujo heard Yunmen coming, he closed the door to his room. Yunmen knocked on the door. Mujo said, “Who is it?”
Yunmen said, “It’s me.”
Mujo said, “What do you want?”
Yunmen said, “I’m not clear about my life. I’d like the master to give me some instruction.”
Mujo then opened the door, took one look at Yunmen and closed it again.
Yunmen knocked on the door like this for three days in a row. On the third day, when Mujo opened the door, Yunmen stuck his foot in the door. Mujo grabbed Yunmen and yelled, “Speak! Speak!” When Yunmen began to speak, Mujo gave him a shove and said, “Too late.” Mujo slammed the door. Yunmen’s foot was still there, and the slamming door broke Yunmen’s foot. And at that moment, Yunmen was greatly enlightened.
It sounds pretty good, actually. “Suddenly enlightened.” But Yunmen was marked indelibly. He limped for the rest of his life. He paid a cost for that blow, the wisdom of that blow. So it’s interesting to see what Yunmen thought about all of this for the rest of his life. Decades and decades later when he was the abbot of a richly appointed monastery, hundreds of monks, Yunmen gave a dharma talk. Of course, being an ancient Chinese monk, he speaks with poetic images, so in Chinese poetry the full moon indicates wisdom. And in the lunar calendar of ancient China, the fifteenth day of the month is always the night of the full moon. So, Yunmen addresses the assembly and he says:
“I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day. Try to make a statement about after the fifteenth day.”
Yunmen answered himself and he said:
“Every day is a good day.”
What’s he asking about here? And what is his answer? He says, “Don’t tell me about what happens before.” And as for what comes after, that mind-blowing experience, the broken foot, the full moon, the wisdom of the great blow, he just says, every day is a good day.
Yunmen’s setting a trap. And it’s a trap that somebody like me can very easily fall into. I read these old stories about monks who get enlightened and I feel like, for me, it’s before the fifteenth day. For me, it’s the time when I’m foolish and fearful and greedy and my childish behavior hurts people. And I’m jealous of these monks who seem to be living after the fifteenth day. Their lives are austere and beautiful and they really seem well lived. I want that for myself.
It’s good for us to be skeptical, I think, of these stories of monks who are suddenly enlightened. With Yunmen’s foot in particular, the idea that he paid the price for wisdom by limping for the rest of his life has a lot of mythological resonance. It’s the same as Jacob who wrestled with the angel and wrenched his hip. He saw the face of God but he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Odin, the Norse god who plucks his eye out and drops it in the well. He is forever one-eyed but in exchange he gets to drink from the well of wisdom. And so on. So, it seems just as likely that the facts of the matter are that this did not happen to Yunmen.
The other thing to keep in mind is where these stories come from, and why they’re told in this style. These stories that end with, “So-And-So was suddenly enlightened,” they almost all come from records of the transmission of the lamp. These are stories that show that one Zen master of the past was definitely enlightened, and he was definitely taught by his predecessor. And then he taught his successor and that guy was enlightened, too. So, there’s an unbroken chain of master-student from Shakyamuni to Mujo to Yunmen to Dogen to Enkyo to Bokushu. Like the chain of ownership of a title deed to enlightenment.
We can think for a minute, what sort of stories would we have heard if this legal or political purpose had not been in play? What if they were only here to express their wisdom? There might be stories about people who had lots of little insights. Like in Hakuin’s autobiography, he does not have this agenda, he talks about getting enlightenment experiences big and small throughout his life. There’s no one great “A-ha” for him. Or we might hear about Zen monks who just grew very slowly, which is how I feel my practice is going, to the extent that I grow. Or we might have heard about some women who were enlightened, whose names might have been recorded, but they don’t show up because their enlightenment experiences don’t prove anything that these Zen lineages care about. So, they just get called “tea ladies” and made into little anecdotes. That’s why we had to write a new women’s lineage for ourselves recently.
So, take it all with a grain of salt, these stories. The idea that there is before and after enlightenment serves a purpose. It may not be the purpose that we’re seeking when we read these stories. Steal the wisdom out of them and then jump out the window before the cops come.
Yunmen, I think that he questions this idea of before and after the great moment of enlightenment, because he asks the assembly, “What about after the fifteenth day?” And then he answers himself, “Every day is a good day.”
He cuts it off. And when he cuts it off, all that wind outside stops blowing. The traffic is silent. Every snowflake is hanging in the air. We are listening for the slightest indication in between breaths, in between heartbeats.
How do we actually practice that, “Every day is a good day”? It’s not waiting until the fifteenth day before we express this wisdom. When we’re awake, the full moon is up, everything is bathed in that glow. We’re living beautifully and bravely. We’re fully facing all of this crap. We’re atoning for it with every action. We are owning up to all of our childishness. It seems like a good day if we can do that.
And mostly, I don’t; I know. I also know that there’s inauthenticity that I don’t even know the beginning of. I know that fact by deduction, I have so skillfully hidden it from myself that I can only infer how big it is. All my greed, anger, and ignorance has recently become very clear to me. How much I withhold in my closest relationships, with my partner, with my mother, just how much I hold back, how little I’m willing to promise.
Shinryu Sensei, you said a few months ago that there are no good or bad dharma talks. “A dharma talk is when you get up in front of the sangha and expose yourself as authentically as possible.” I am not going to forget that you said that and I’m trying. And I know that I’m still putting on a show, but I’m trying to go deeper. I have faith that I’m being guided on this path.
So, that woman who needed plastic surgery on her nose, she’s never going to be the same as she was the day before that day. She’s marked indelibly, but she still needs to eat every day. And she has the bravery to face both. I think that she has Yunmen’s eyes and she’s a hero for me.
After that day that I got the call from the doctor’s office that I have cancer, I’m not the same now. I’m marked indelibly. I’ve got a tiny little scar under my eye and I’ve also got a new understanding. This dry Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is way more real for me now. So, I’ll never be the same as I was before. Our lives are just tumbling forward. We never go back to the same spot.
The day that I learned that I got that test result, it reminds me of a day that I learned that the Village Zendo is not permanent. We’ve been going up to the Grail Retreat Center every summer for decade after decade, since before I was a member. I’ve been going every summer since my early twenties. And then last summer, all of a sudden it was our last and they sold the place. We’re going somewhere else now. I read that we’re going to go to Wisdom House this summer instead, it’s in Connecticut. And I read the schedule; it’s different, it’s compressed. At first I really didn’t like it, but that’s the point: To practice this summer ango, this summer, when it is happening, in the way that it happens.
And if our summer ango is changeable and impermanent in this way, the whole Village Zendo is impermanent in this way, too. It’s a very delicate thing, and it takes a lot of effort to keep it going. It requires showing up and sitting. It requires money. If I can be so bold, it requires us to invite our friends and colleagues to come here on Monday nights to learn to meditate, so that some become members and form the next generation. If we don’t do these things, the Zendo’s gone in a year.
But even if we do these things, it will dissolve eventually. Because everything that’s been created dissolves. History tumbles forward and never goes back to the same spot. But even after that, even after it’s gone, what we do has an effect. Sitting and staring at the wall and liberating our minds, liberating all beings, changing the course of history all around us. We leave an indelible mark. All we have to do is practice total attention to this moment. I have faith that that is enough and when we do that together, I think that’s a good day.
Image: Self-portrait by Hokusai.