Inka Speech

Inka Speech given on April 6, 2014  

(Raises stick, hits table) A good answer is a bad answer; a bad answer is a good answer. That’s a mistake.

(Raises stick, hits table) No good answer; no bad answer. That’s a mistake.

(Raises stick, hits table) A good answer is a good answer; a bad answer is a bad answer. Another mistake.

So, how can you not make a mistake?


Today is Sunday, April 6, 2014. The candles on the altar burn brightly.

Thank you for being here today. It dawned on me recently that, with just a few exceptions, most of you here didn’t know who the inka candidate was going to be. I think that is great, because it emphasizes not the individual, but the role of teacher; or perhaps even more, the teaching itself: this timeless Dharma taught by the Buddha, down through the generations to Zen Master Seung Sahn and the Kwan Um School of Zen. Moment by moment, we are all responsible to continue that teaching just as we are all responsible to be lifelong students. Identifying some as formal teachers is just one skillful way to help us all do that.

I am eternally grateful for this life giving teaching, as I am for Zen Master Seung Sahn, Zen Master Soeng Hyang, my guiding teacher who nominated me for this role, the teachers on my inka committee, and for all our school’s teachers and sangha members whose wisdom has guided me over all these years.

Much of Zen teaching is in the form of stories or short sayings. Lately, I’ve been remembering some of my favorite ones. There are so many, but I’ve chosen four to share today that have been especially life giving for me and which continue to inspire me in my practice still. What they share in common is this point: there is never any end to our practice or to our realizing ever more clearly Don’t Know.

The first one is a saying I heard when I first started practicing, so over thirty-four years ago. It’s just a simple saying: Goats are just goats; people are goats trying to be goats.

I love that saying; it has stayed with me over all these years and has helped me so much. There are all kinds of goats: black ones and white ones and multi-colored ones; strong ones and weak ones; smart ones and stupid ones; skittish ones and lay-back ones. And, they are all just goats, each one just doing its own goat thing in its own goat way.

But, human beings aren’t like that. We are so self-conscious, what we sometimes call “checking mind.” We’re goats trying to be goats. We don’t believe in ourselves. We’re always wondering, “Am I … enough.” Am I tall enough, pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough, wealthy enough, clever enough? Did I get the right answer often enough? Other times, we’re busy checking other people: Why is she like that, that’s not right? Why can’t he do it the correct way? On and on and on. Goats are just goats; people are goats trying to be goats. Buddha taught that everything is perfect, just as it is; but none of us believe that. And so, we suffer, and we create all kinds of suffering for everyone and everything around us.

I’ve been doing a lot of checking in the past few days: “What are they thinking, making me a JDPSN? They must be crazy; they’re making a big mistake! I’m way too introverted, much too anxious, certainly not charismatic enough…” On and on. Truth be told, thirty-four years ago when I first started practicing Zen, I really, really wanted to believe that if I could just get enlightened, of course then I’d be calm in the face of any adversity; I’d be confident and decisive in all my decisions. I certainly wouldn’t be standing here today feeling anxious. Well, guess what? It doesn’t work that way. And that’s ok; it doesn’t have to. Anxious goats are just anxious goats—perfect, just as they are.

Our good fortune is to have our practice: Who am I? Don’t Know!! Who is anxious? Don’t Know. And through that Don’t Know, to awaken to the truth that, as one Zen master put it: it’s all perfect just as it is, and, you could stand a bit of improvement. We can see both sides of the coin, and use our karma to help bring compassion to this moment.

One of the things that has helped me so much in our school is that there are many teachers, and we’re encouraged to practice and have interviews with as many as we can. It makes it so clear that there is not one way of being a Zen student, or a Zen teacher. Bobby is Bobby; Mark is Mark; Judy is Judy, and so on. Each of them is very much who they are; each of them perfect, just as they are. And so are you, and so am I.

My next story is from my first contact with the Kwan Um School, which was a retreat I attended here at PZC led by Mu Deung Sunim, JDPS, who later became Zen Master Su Bong. This was probably in 1986 or so. During a talk he gave, he referenced the kong-an, Hyang Eom’s Up A Tree. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, it goes like this: “It is like a person high up in a tree, clenching a branch between their teeth. Their arms and legs are bound; they can’t grasp a branch or touch the tree. On the ground, someone approaches and asks, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” If the person answers, they fall to their death; if they don’t answer, they fail in their duty as a Bodhisattva and will be killed. If you were up in the tree, how could you stay alive?”

What Mu Deung then said touched me to the core: “In our school, most everyone passes this kong-an. But, do any of us every truly attain this kong-an? Fully realize it?” And I thought, “This is a Zen school I can find my home in.” As it was, I had already “passed” that kong-an, but I knew I had not come close to “passing” it in the only way that even mattered: being able to embody it in each and every moment. I still haven’t. To be part of a school that doesn’t make passing kong-ans anything special, but emphasizes “Try, try, try, for ten-thousand years non-stop” was just the teaching I needed to hear.

This next story has been important to me because it connects my Zen practice with the religion I was raised in, Catholic Christianity. Though by choice I haven’t practiced that religion for many, many years, the fact is that the Christian contemplative tradition became the doorway through which I found Zen. There’s actually a short story within the story here: after finishing at Yale Divinity School in 1981, I thought I might have a vocation as a Trappist monk, so lived at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, OR, for a time. There, two of the most important teachers in my life, the Abbot, Bernard, and novice director, Peter, were diligently trying to reclaim and deepen the western contemplative spiritual tradition being practiced by their monks. Recognizing the importance of a skilled teacher, they were open-minded enough to have forged a relationship with first Robert Aitken and then Willigis Jager, teachers in the Sanbo Kyoden Zen tradition. My first Zen retreats were sesshin led by these teachers and, when I left the Abbey to return to Maine for good, they said, “You should check out Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Providence Zen Center. We hear good things about him.” I did (the retreat with Mu Deung that I just referenced) and I’ve been coming here ever since.

Anyway, I digressed. The story is of a fellow called Bird’s Nest Zen Master, from T’ang period China. He gets his name because he did his meditation high up in a tree. One day, the governor of that province, who was himself one of China’s great poets known for his expressions of Zen Buddhism, came to consult Bird’s Nest. Calling up to him, probably expecting some profound or esoteric teaching, he asked, “Tell me, what is it that all the Buddha’s taught?” But in reply, Bird’s Nest, quoting from the Dhammapada, simply said: “Always do good; never do evil; keep your mind pure—thus all the Buddhas taught.” The governor, who perhaps had travelled some distance and made significant effort to reach Bird’s Nest, was not happy, and replied with anger and impatience, “Always do good, never do evil, keep your mind pure: I knew that when I was three years old.” To which Bird’s Nest responded, “Yes, any three year old child may know it, but even an eighty year old cannot put it into practice.”

When I first heard that story, I immediately thought of this passage from the Christian scriptures: “And someone came to Jesus and asked, Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?” And Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.”

If we’re not attached to any idea about God, or person, or salvation, these two stories are the same story. It really is so simple: love each other, love everything! In each in every moment, ask, “What is this, right now” and then, “How can I help this situation?” “What does compassion look like at this very moment?” In our teaching words, how do I keep correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function, right now?

Bird’s Nest’s insight—even an 80 year old cannot put it into practice-- certainly rings true for me. My beloved wife and son, Linda and Sam, or my brothers and close friends here today, can attest to that. Unfortunately, it’s usually those closest to us that see us at our worst—hopefully they see us at our best as well—but, either way, these stories remind us that unless enlightenment means enlightened behavior, it’s not worth very much.

And finally, perhaps my favorite teaching phrase of all because it really brings all these others together in such a practical way, is Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching, “Make mistake—just make correct.” I can’t tell you how important that teaching has been for me. I don’t know about you but, for me, so many of the Zen stories seem to end with, “Then the person got enlightenment, all the kong-ans were clear, and they finished this great work of life and death.” Or, some version of that. Well, that certainly hasn’t been my story to date. So many kong-ans—both in the interview room and, much more importantly, those real-life kong-ans in our marriages, our families, our sanghas, and our communities or places of work—don’t resolve quickly and easily. We do our best to see the moment clearly, we respond with what seems correct function…and the next moment reveals that whatever we did didn’t seem to work. Perhaps the person is still angry or the suffering hasn’t been eased or the problem is still there. Are we willing to stick with it, “to stand in the fire and not shrink back,” to return to the situation, over and over again, for as long as it takes, until it feels like “it’s correct.” That has been one of the great values of kong-an study for me: teaching me to stay with the situation, mistake after mistake after mistake, until it becomes clear—and to then just put it down, because the next moment, a new situation, is right there. Equally important, am I able to put down my preconceived notions of what “correct” and “incorrect” might even be.

Then: (Raises stick) Do you see this? (Hits table) Do you hear this? This stick, this sound, and your mind, are they the same or different? If you say they are the same, that’s a mistake, and the stick will hit you; if you say they are different, that’s also a mistake, and the stick will hit you; if you say they are both the same and different, that’s an even worse mistake and the stick will hit you even harder. So what can you say? How can you not make a mistake?


Outside, bright sun; in this room, many bright faces. When I make a mistake, please help me make it correct. That’s sangha.