Work With Your Situation

Dear Bobby,

I'm in a quandary. About a month and a half ago I sat down to sit, and the phrase, "Breath In, Breath Out" popped up as a kong-an answer. But I have absolutely no faith that this is the answer. I didn't have then. Soon after that, the energy and resolve that I had had after being at P.Z.C. began to slip away. I found myself meditating half an hour a day instead of an hour. Saying my refuge vows seems a chore. As feared, the free-floating anxiety of school slowly clouds the simplicity of situations, and I find myself doing a great deal of confused and superfluous thinking.

I guess what I wrote for was advice as to how to hold the kong-an. Since I've been doing this breathing-mindfulness for a year and a half now and have had little noticeable success (I know, "Don't check"), I wonder if holding the kongan in mind rather than waiting for it to pop up with its answer might be appropriate.

Hope all is well and that the Dharma room opening was successful. I'm not going to be able to make it out this summer; my mother demanded that I conserve money by living at home and babysit my brother when she's away. But I may be up for a visit.



May 22, 1980

Dear Jay,

First of all I want to tell you how sorry I am for taking so long to answer your letter. I've been working nights and going to Yong Maeng Jong Jins and taking care of Annie. Busy! Busy! But although at times I feel very tired and fuzzy, mostly I'm finding my schedule very challenging. I'm missing all Dharma talks and doing very little together action or formal practice.

Which brings us to your "quandary." You and I have the same practicing situation -- not too much group support, not much formal practice time, and a very busy schedule. This is very dangerous!

The part of our mind that wants to drop our attachments and opinions is very fragile, so we have to give it a great deal of support. Soen Sa Nim calls this support our foundation. It reminds me of the story about the three little pigs. If our practice is like straw, it will soon be demolished by the Big Bad Wolf (our desires and opinions, which have been a part of us for a long time). When we practice with a straw-house mind in a Zen Center it's not so bad, because if our intentions are sincere we become very uncomfortable with our fragile "house," knowing that the sight of an ice cream cone, the sight of a warm comfortable bed, or the lure of the ocean breezes will bring it tumbling down.

I have found that beginning students living at the Zen Center are very aware of their uncontrolled thinking, so they come to most of the practice, listen very hard to Dharma Talks and ask lots of questions, and so they become stronger. You were a beginning student when you came here, and I found that you were benefiting a great deal from the practice. You had to leave to go back to school, and now you are having a hard time. You have to keep your beginner's mind, be aware of its fragility without, as you said, checking or judging it. This is difficult. I'll finish my story about the three little pigs before I say something about kong-ans.

The pig who built his house with wood was in some way worse off than the first pig. Sometimes after we've been practicing for a while we start to "feel" better. That better feeling is the result of correct practicing and is wonderful. For the first time we begin to believe that correct practice will give us a-peace and strength that will surmount all of the previous methods we had of trying to make ourselves feel better (the ice cream cones, etc.). But the wolf is still with us. What is so dangerous about the wood house is that we sometimes forget about the wolf. Soen Sa Nim calls this the mind that says, "I'm O.K." The "I'm O.K." mind relaxes its practice and SWWOOOCH! -- the house comes tumbling down. Our strong attachments attack us. So Soen Sa Nim says we must try and try and try. With strong trying there is no room left for checking ourselves or for resting and allowing old cravings to overtake us.

So Jay, we have to gather some bricks. That sounds "heavy," but the wonderful thing is that if we just use our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body correctly, everything is as strong as a brick, there are no wolves, and there is nothing to be attacked.

So we practice, and practice, and practice. You write to me, I answer. This is our practice.

You asked me about kong-ans. Everything is a kong-an. A kong-an is only clear mind. What is clear mind?

Long ago Buddha held up a flower on Vulture Peak. Twelve hundred people had gathered there to hear him speak of the Dharma, and he said nothing. He only held up a flower. This was one of the Buddha's strongest and most profound teachings. Only one of those twelve hundred people understood. Mahakasyapa looked at the flower and smiled.

Jay, why did he smile? Just now, if you don't know, keep this mind. That is your brick house. You asked me if it would be better if you held the kong-an in mind rather than waiting for it to pop up. Don't make mind, don't make holding, don't make popping. What is mind? Where is your mind? Only question and pay attention. You've already heard the speech. You have to try to pay attention moment to moment. That is the greatest kong-an. What are you doing just now?

I hope you will be able to spend more time at the Zen Center in the near future. I think that will help you very much. For now your school and your family are your teachers. Only pay attention and, as you said, don't check.

It took me four hours to write this letter because Annie wanted to write it with me. Sometimes our lives are like that. We think we are going to be able to accomplish some things and it doesn't turn out the way we thought. So this afternoon I have a choice -- either accept my situation and try as hard as I can, or get frustrated and check my situation.

Jay, I hope you keep asking questions and keep trying; then everything is your teacher!

We all miss you. Have a good summer.