Everything is That Simple

A formal Dharma talk given on December 29, 1979

(Holds the Zen stick and very slowly traces a circle in the air with its tip, then strikes the Zen stick vertically on the table.)

Very very slow.

(Quickly traces a circle in the air with the Zen stick and strikes it on the table.)

Very very fast.

The Providence Zen Center has written a song for the end of our skit, and the main theme of the song is time. I think that is appropriate since the only reason we're here tonight is that people think there's time -- coming and going, old and new. I can't say what the song is because it would ruin the surprise, but it does have something to do with time: it is about the idea that some people's practice is faster than other people's practice. That's really a great dilemma for many of us who practice -- comparing ourselves to other Zen students, to our Zen Master, and to other Zen Masters -- and thinking, "In the realm of time, how well am I doing? How much longer will it take me to feel better and be strong, to go out and make this mind light shine to other people?" Sometimes, unfortunately, our mind light gets a little dim, so most of us keep staying here and trying to recharge our batteries enough so we can go out anytime and help anybody.

One thing that might make us all feel a little better is that once, long ago, there was a Zen Master named Jo Ju who took a very long time to understand himself. He became a monk when he was seventeen and didn't start studying the sutras until he was twenty. He studied the sutras for ten years and learned all about mind, all about Buddha, until he was thirty years old, and then he still didn't understand mind, didn't understand Buddha, even though he had read and read and read. Then he became a Zen monk and sat Zen for thirty years. He sat and sat and sat -- "What is Buddha? What is Mind?" -- very hard training, until he was 57 years old. Still he didn't understand. He hadn't gone out anywhere and he hadn't taught anything to anybody.

One day he said to his teacher, Zen Master Nam Cheon, "Please tell me: What is the True Way?" Nam Cheon said, "Everyday mind is the True Way." That wasn't enough. So he said, "Should I try to keep it, or not?" Nam Cheon said, "If you try to keep it, you're already mistaken." Jo Ju still didn't understand. So he said, "If I don't try to keep it, how can I understand the True Way?" Nam Cheon said, "The True Way is not dependent on understanding or not understanding. The True Way of no thinking is like space, clear and void. So why do you make right and wrong?"

As soon as he said "Why do you make right and wrong?" Jo Ju's mind exploded -- "KHHH!!" when he was 57 years old. For twenty more years Jo Ju walked around and around, having Dharma combat with all the Zen Masters he could find in China. Then finally, at the age of eighty, he settled down and went to stay in one monastery, and if people came, he'd give them teaching. So that's the time it took Jo Ju to start teaching. But he actually had no idea of time. He only went straight ahead, day by day, and did what he knew he had to do to become strong.

At a very young age, another famous man named Hui Neng heard just a very few lines from the Diamond Sutra and completely understood himself with no practice at all. But he had a lot of karma. People were trying to kill him because he got transmission from a very famous Zen Master, the Fifth Patriarch, and became the Sixth Patriarch with no training, no education. He had a lot of karma because all these people were trying to stick a knife in his back. So he had to go away in the forest for sixteen years and live with hunters and kill, living under trees with no roof over his head. Finally, after that length of time, he came out and took the Precepts and became a monk before he began teaching. So, as Soen Sa Nim has said many times, it's very easy to attain Enlightenment, but it's very hard to keep it. Jo Ju understood that and Hui Neng understood that.

About a year and a half after the Providence Zen Center first began, it was still a small temple on Doyle Avenue, and we'd been practicing with Soen Sa Nim as hard as we could. We had Yong Maeng Jong Jins every month, and two young men came to practice with us one weekend. Well, one of them sat. One of them was very handsome and strong and sat up very straight with the correct mudra, and he put us all to shame. After a year and a half we already had habits, very bad habits. I used to bake bread, and during sitting, I'd get up to punch it down. Put it in the oven, take it out from the oven -I'd get up and down any time I wanted to. We didn't have much form then, and I just slumped and fell asleep, but this guy didn't move -- very, very strong sitting. The other man never sat down; he always stood up. He had bad knees or something. He'd stand, and about two or three minutes after the chugpi was hit he'd really be moving. And he had all this energy! I used to look at him and wonder, "Where is this energy coming from? What's he doing?" I asked Soen Sa Nim. I thought he was out to lunch, but Soen Sa Nim said, "This man has very special energy; he's really hot!"

During the interviews, I heard Soen Sa Nim laughing, telling this guy how wonderful he was, and that he understood. I'd never heard him say that before, and I became very jealous, thinking, "What did he understand? How come he has never told me I understood anything?" We used to talk then during Yong Maeng Jong Jins, so Soen Sa Nim came out and said, "This man attained First Enlightenment." Now here we had been there for a year and a half and nobody had attained anything. Then, in one weekend, this guy is shining.

The other guy said, "Soen Sa Nim, I want to talk to you. It's got to be private." So they go out and sit in my car in the parking lot -- of all places, my car. And Soen Sa Nim came back beaming and said, "This man also understands!"

So I hated Soen Sa Nim. And I hated these two guys. I did a lot of thinking: "What have I been doing here in a year and a half? And why didn't I get that attention?" The next day, I took them downtown to the bus station. They were both going to take a bus somewhere, so I went down the street with both of them, feeling like I didn't want to talk with them. They were talking with each other, and they started comparing their emptiness experiences which I knew right away was a mistake. I'd learned that much with Soen Sa Nim. And after about two or three minutes they were arguing with each other about who had had the deepest emptiness experience. So, once again, Enlightenment is very easy to attain but very hard to keep. Already I saw that their minds were moving; they were having a problem. Part of me really wanted them to come back, because I knew they both had very good minds. And part of me didn't want them to come back, because I knew that they would make me feel bad, feel jealous. They only came back a couple of times, but after just a few more visits neither one of them ever came back again, and I don't know what they're up to.

Through the years I've had a lot of thought about Jo Ju, about Hui Neng, and about these two young men that came to the Zen Center one day, and thought, "What am I doing? How am I using my time?" This New Year comes and it really makes you wonder what you are going to do, how you are going to improve yourself. Something interesting happened this week at the Zen Center. We were trying to decide whether we should make coffee public or private. Some of us thought it should be private, and some of us thought it should be public. It was a real problem, for me anyway -- I thought about it a lot. So finally one of us asked Soen Sa Nim what he thought, and he said very simply that it should be private, because it doesn't help your practice. That's the only reason. It gives you energy that isn't your own, and you can get dependent on it, and it can become a bad habit. So it shouldn't be public in a Zen Center.

Everything is that simple. I know I was worried about giving this Dharma Speech and I heard Mu Bul Su Nim quote me as saying, "Everything is just like this, so only breathe deeply and relax, and then it's a bargain!" And everything is that simple; everything is a bargain. It's very simple that coffee should be private; it's very simple that we try to do as much as we can to make ourselves strong so that we can go out and help other people. And the truth of the matter is that it took Jo Ju sixty years to completely understand that; it took Hui Neng many, many years to become a teacher. And I hope that all of us realize that we are Jo Ju, we are Hui Neng, we are these two young men that came to the Zen Center, that we all have that same clear mind. Some day we will all have to pick up the stick and do something with it to give people correct teaching.

Before, this stick went up in the air. One time, very slowly, it completed the circle, and one time very quickly completed the circle.

Which one do you want?


Welcome to the New Year's celebration.