Elihu Genmyo Smith
Sitting is a very simple: being present, experiencing. It is simple, and seemingly any of us can do this. And yet for most of us it is far from easy. How come?
Because in sitting we do not do what we usually do.
What do we NOT do when sitting? We do not live as a ghost, do not cling to the world of ghosts we usually inhabit. Therefore, sitting, being this moment, may seem like taking a great risk.
Much of the time, we live as a ghost in a world of ghosts. What is a ghost? A dead thing that seems to be alive - dead stories of life, dead memories and bodily reactive habits of what was, and what could and should be, which we take as alive and real right now. In living as a ghost we only meet ghosts. Not because others are ghosts but because we see them as ghosts, and we see our self as a ghost.
Look closely! What dead ghost are you keeping around? I don’t mean look at some treasure chest of ghost stories, but this moment, in the midst of this ongoing body-mind-world change that we are, what dead ghost are you holding - holding bodily, holding mentally?
Nothing wrong with ghost stories, we entertain our self and others with them; they arise and pass. But if we fool our self, fail to see that they are ghosts and ghost stories, hold and believe them to be what is so and the basis for our life and actions, then unfortunately, this holding to a ghost makes this so for us and we end up with difficulties.
Our life, says Chan Master Zhaozhou, is “a ball thrown on rushing water.” Later, Master Tao Tse commented, “moment, moment without ceasing.” Moment, moment, non-stop flowing. For some reason (we don’t have to figure out a reason now), we would rather live as a ghost then live this moment, moment non-stop flowing; and we don’t know that we are choosing ghostliness! We think we are alive. We think others are alive, except when we get a glimmer of being alive. Then, we begin to sense the ghostly dreams we are clinging to and living, the sometimes very scary ghostly stories that we are creating, and the resulting suffering for our self and others.
My teacher Joko Beck talked about her first introduction to Zen: “I was out for an evening with a friend, a woman, the sort of hard-boiled business type. And we decided to hear a talk.” The talk was by a young monk Taizen Maezumi at a Unitarian church in San Diego. “And as we went in, he bowed to each person and looked right at us. It was absolutely direct contact. When we sat down, my friend said to me, ‘What was that?’ He wasn’t doing anything special, except for once, someone was paying attention.” For a moment, aliveness was touched, and even when we live as ghosts, some of us, some of the time, can sense aliveness. And it is a shock. It is a shock to a ghost to touch being alive. Ghosts are figments, and aliveness is different from ghostliness. Of course, there are not two things, aliveness and ghostliness. All the time this is our life - and this is what makes a ghost life so unsatisfactory. Sometimes we would rather hold to and live ghostly figments, which we could call self-centeredness and reactive habits, rather than be intimacy, experiencing. Intimacy is zazen; this is sitting, being alive, experiencing; letting go of a ghostly story, the ghostly habit, and being this moment as is.
To paraphrase Chan Master Mumon, if you don’t see this, don’t experience this, this true aliveness you are, you are going to live like a ghost amongst the weeds. This is what we do much of the time, we live among weeds - which are ghostly stories that we make up and then get upset about it. We are this moment non-stop flowing!
Sitting is being brave, not allowing ghostly stories to go unnoticed, body-mind releasing them and not punishing our self and others with them, not allowing suffering because of ghostly stories. Of course, when you are sitting, you can’t really punish others because of ghost stories (though we can punish our self); “in the rest” of life we can and often do “punish others.” Even with daily sitting practice, we may believe and act as if sitting can be separated from the rest of our life. But if we do that, we get to sense the punishment created by believing the ghost stories. We get to sense the stress and unsatisfactoriness.
Sitting is life, awareness, being as we are; nothing special or extra to do. There is nothing lacking - and we do zazen, sit – embodying and supporting this life. At times we may say there is this “little part” we call “sitting”, and there is the “rest of life”, wherein we continue sitting practice in the other modes of functioning. Because sitting is being who we are, experiencing, it is not something extra, except that it may seem extra when we insist on living in a ghostly world, insist that the ghosts are the truth – and miss this truth right here. Our ghost blinders blind us to this moment as is.
At times we notice the ghost-holding bodily, at times mentally, but that is just how we notice it and how it can be skillful to release holding. Body-mind are not two, holding is just holding. Ghostly clinging, bodily holding, holding to thoughts and reactive habits, all may be what we do in order to be safe - because we want the imagined safety that comes from the ghost story, that comes from holding onto the self-centered habits of ghostly life. Reactive habits are all ghosts, they are all “dead stories” that arise according to conditions and circumstances. And the reactive habits don’t “work”. Work to do what? Keep us “safe”; instead they keep us asleep and in a dream, avoiding and missing life as is, and causing all sorts of difficulties.
A Sangha member said, “I know I need to do sesshin when everyone is wrong. When everyone is wrong in my life, I know it is time to do sesshin.” “Everyone is wrong” is living a ghostly life, ghost existence. Each of us has our own ghost practice. We sometimes tell stories about the ghosts of others, believe them and even try to convince others their ghost story is wrong and our ghost story is right. And we can even fight about whose ghost story is accurate.
We know the ghostly life doesn’t work. Sometimes, we use the expression, “giving our self away” or “dying into the moment.” I would say, “being alive this moment”. Being alive means not holding to being sure of what will be. Giving up the imagined safety, imagined certainty, and being not-knowing, embracing this moment as is.
Joko uses the expression, “resting on the icy couch”. Despite the cold of ice, despite not wanting iciness, when resting on “icy” you experience this – it is real – and this is our life opportunity and necessity. You could say, “icy couch”, “hot couch” or even “hard couch”. We have the expression, “hot seat”. Hot seat includes the implication that this is hard to tolerate, you do not want it, AND you can’t avoid it. This icy couch is ongoing change present moment - which is unavoidable - unless we blind our self and avoid this; then we manage to miss the unavoidable. “Resting” is releasing body-mind holding – this is experiencing, zazen. Experiencing allows holding to go; experiencing is ongoing change. And yet, we may want to pull away from this moment and instead, live dead ghostly attitudes, habits.
Practice is the opportunity, the encouragement, to be this ongoing change, this moment. Ongoing change is Buddha-nature. Experiencing doesn’t stay any particular way. And that is great, because we don’t stay any particular way, we are not a ghost. We are ongoing change - except if we hold onto being a ghost. Then we seem to be a ghost. And we meet ghosts - except when we meet something or someone alive - meet our self alive. In sitting, in practice, we are this – “alive,” “awake.” Then we don’t keep fooling our self with ghost stories, don’t keep scaring our self with ghost stories in order to remain a ghost.
Being this moment, even on the icy couch of this moment, enables walking this step of our life. We say this moment, life-death. This is the opportunity, experiencing this moment ongoing change, this unborn-undying we are.
This is our practice all the time. It is simple and immediate, not something fancy. Sitting, walking, eating, chewing, listening to someone speaking, and going through any arising ghost figment - being alive and responding, letting go of arising ghost stories and ghost masks that we put on our self or others, and seeing who we and they are right now. Doing this enables others to sense their aliveness as well; to go beyond their ghost mask, if I say it in that way. That is what Joko was talking about, if I interpret “What was that?” Because the greatest gift we can give someone else, the greatest gift we can give life, is to be aware, experiencing and responding. This liberates beings - since we are the one who keeps ghosts going, therefor we are the one who releases ghosts, ghostly stories and ghostly attachments.
Please be alive this moment.
© 2013 Elihu Genmyo Smith