“What is the Dharma body of emptiness?” asked a disciple.
Shoushan replied, “Your old teacher is underneath your feet.”
Elihu Genmyo Smith
Our life practice is responding as this moment universe, being responsible. This is beginner’s mind.
Being present this moment - without holding to or being blinded by emotion-thought of what we “know”, “don’t know”, are “good” at, are “not good” at, “should” do, or “shouldn’t” do - nurtures responding. Responding is not dependent upon specific skills or experiences. When we walk by something and hold to the belief “that’s not mine to do”, “oh, that shouldn’t require my efforts”, “someone else needs to do that”, right there, in believing attachments and reacting out of body-mind habits, the reactiveness misses this present moment, this endless dimension universe – and unfortunately often results in stress and harm.
Response-able is not holding to the fixed habits that arise; it is not that habits, attachments and reactions don’t arise but that despite the reactions like “oh, I don’t know how to cook,” when it is our opportunity and the circumstances call for it, we cook. “I’m not good at…”are thoughts and beliefs, reactive habits. It doesn’t matter which of many beliefs arise, how self-centeredness appears – I am or am not good at gardening, at computer work or…. Holding to these without seeing and being what is so right now is living in daydreams, in habits -and misses this moment, this universe. All we have is this moment; not this moment me and the world but this moment the whole universe that is our life of encounter. Do you see this?
This is the beginner’s mind that Suzuki Roshi clarifies in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Despite our resistance to it, despite our holding to “expert body-mind”, to self-daydream of what so-and-so is like and what such-and-such should be, the ability to respond is what we are, what this life is. A simple response is inhaling after we breathe out, after exhaling. All of us exhale, and at a certain point you respond (to the need for oxygen, for air) by breathing in. Very natural - responding as this moment. This is the universe breathing.
When arising habits, tendencies, beliefs and reactions, “run” our life then this hinders this life, this present moment. If we allow them to be the basis of actions, responses, then stress, dissatisfaction and suffering result. And this is also so if we allow them to be the basis of what we do to others, what we expect of others, react to how “others” are or are not, and “get into” their business. If we don’t notice these arising, do not see the reacting out of them, the not-noticing and the reacting-out-of is how much we are not responding as this moment. While the arising is neither good nor bad, it is simply cause-effect, at the same time there are consequences in our life, the life of those around us, the life of the universe.
Able to respond is being present, is able to sense, see and hear the universe, this moment – to not only hear and sense the self-reactive habits, attachments and beliefs that arise. Able to respond is able to feel this life here; it doesn’t mean we have to do any particular thing, doesn’t mean we have to respond in any particular way or even have any special skill. Our ability to respond grows out of being present. Our capacity is only hindered by holding to emotion-thought such as “oh, I don’t do that,” or other beliefs/attachments such as I shouldn’t, I can’t; especially holding to beliefs of self and other, to dualism and self-centeredness. Responding isn’t anything fancy. As I said, it is breathing, inhaling after exhaling. This is responding, being responsible - all of us know what happens if we exhale and don’t respond. You know it very well. This is natural awareness, being awake. Responding - and being willing to respond - is this beginner’s life that we are. Responding is whole being-ness, intimacy. We have opportunities from morning to night, from when we open our eyes, when we wake up. Every encounter is this moment. Breathing in, breathing out, is encountering, is responding; being listening is responding, being responsible, being able to respond – it is not limited to doing any particular thing. Greeting someone we meet with a bow, a smile or “hello” is responding; “please”, “thank you” and “you are welcome” are responding, silence is responding. Does not matter if we are strong or weak, old or young, healthy or sickly, responding is as we are – as we are is the perfect universe manifesting.
Responding is also to see what is ours to respond to and what is not ours to respond to. We can create all sorts of difficulties if we mix these up, if we attempt to respond to what is not ours, interfere with others in what is theirs to respond to, attempting to make them be or act as we believe, creating body-mind stress, harm and suffering over mixing into what is the universe of not-ours to respond to. A simple example of this is believing and acting out of judgments of others.
Only our inability or unwillingness to be what is so, to see what is so, hinders us. Only holding to preconceived ideas, beliefs about so-called me or so-called others, hinders our functioning. And it is our willingness to see those when they arise, to allow those to be, to be in the midst of experiencing, of being this open life that we are, this not-knowing beginner’s mind, that is our practice opportunity. Our unwillingness, our wishful thinking, doesn’t change reality, it doesn’t change what is so - and yet it hinders this life that we are. The dialogues and encounters of various ancient masters or modern masters clarify this. Since I brought up Master Shoushan Xingnian (10th century China - Shuzan in Sino-Japanese) in an earlier piece, I will mention a few of his dialogues.
A monk asked “What is Shoushan?” Shoushan is the name of the mountain where his temple was, as well as the name of the temple. The custom in China and Japan, and even in the United States, is for a head of a temple or monastery to take the name of the temple. Shoushan literally means chief or head mountain. Shoushan responds, “east mountain is high, west mountain is low,” expressing this life directly and simply – following along the question and expressing the truth of life – these are never two!
The disciple doesn’t see Shoushan’s response; instead he seems to hold some ideas that the answer is about the height of mountains and not his “fundamental” question. From the disciple’s response we may assume he wanted to ask a “Zen” question and to get a “Zen” answer. So the disciple again asks, “Oh, what about the person inside the mountain?” He is saying, “I’m not interested that mountain’s high, that mountain’s low, that is just some externals, I want to get some important truths. I want to get some Dharmic fundamental points about the True person in Shoushan.” Is there a person inside the “mountain”, a separate person “inside” Shoushan? The master responds, “Fortunately for you, my staff isn’t in my hand.” Do you see Shoushan’s response, the kindness and at the same time directness to further manifest this point, to attend to and sweep away what blinds and catches the questioner?
Asked about mountains, the response is in terms of the question, allowing the questioner to let go of what he believes he knows about internal/external, mountains, people and Dharma; the response is life right here now. Don’t live in a daydream, in beliefs and dualism - which is what we do when we don’t respond out of this moment. There are all sorts of daydreams that we may live in. Our practice is responding, or noticing what daydream we are caught and blinded by - which is responding; otherwise the daydreams result in missing this moment life encounter, this moment breath, short breath, long breath.
Appropriate for today’s early winter, another questioner asked Shoushan, “What is the eye that does not deceive others?” If I explain, which is already off, he is trying to ask a question about genuine awakening but in conceptual, theoretical terms. Shoushan responds directly, being response-able. “Look, look, winter is approaching.” Being in windy late fall - “what eye doesn’t deceive others?” “Oh, all the leaves have fallen and the wind is blowing strong. Look, winter is approaching.” But the questioner wasn’t satisfied with the immediate response, the response-able response. So he said, “But what about the ultimate meaning of it all;” The questioner could be saying –“I mean seeing the ultimate meaning, what is really important. Not what is going on now, winter weather approaching, that doesn’t matter, I am asking about what is really important, the dharma eye that does not deceive.” And the master said, “And after that, we will have gentle spring breeze.” Not buying into the questioners daydream, he shows the questioner what is appropriate.
If we live up in our daydreams then we walk through a life of daydream; we don’t live this moment, don’t see the piece of paper that needs to be picked up from the floor. “Oh, that’s not mine, I’m thinking important things.”
Asked, “What is the Dharma body of emptiness?” Shoashan replied, “Your old teacher is underneath your feet.” “Oh, why reverend sir, are you under the feet of your pupil?” “Oh, this poor, blind fellow who is living in a daydream.”
Life is always this moment, practice always this moment - not some ideas about it. Our opportunity is being this moment, being responding. We don’t need to figure out anything else. Not because there isn’t a time or place to do that if you want to; but if we carry that around in all sorts of places then we miss, literally miss, our life. Then we have “an expert’s mind” that knows all sorts of things and knows what they should or shouldn’t do, knows who should or shouldn’t be in front of them. Then we miss the food that we put in our mouth because we don’t taste it; we don’t feel the bowl when we are holding it, we don’t feel the floor as we’re walking. And we don’t see the person who is speaking to us. Instead, we are “they shouldn’t say that to me, should know better, should …” – being so leads to difficulties in our life and the life of others.
Reactive tendencies and habits are “normal”, the result of all sorts of cause-effect - biological, psychological, sociological, genetic, etc. There are many ways of explaining them. Nevertheless, our practice is always now. Right now, what is called for? What is skillful and appropriate, compassionate? This is the simplicity and immediacy of our practice, in the midst of individual skills and abilities, of capacities of all sorts - as a musician, a programmer, a doctor, a waiter, all sorts of abilities that we develop. Always the capacity of being beginner’s functioning, this able-to-respond, being open, loving - this is awakened state - in sesshin, after sesshin, with friends, family, strangers, at work, the grocery store, and everywhere else. And we know very well the trouble we can get into when attaching to reactive beliefs.
At times we use the words “you are responsible” in terms of blame or judgment, or in ways that hinders us from seeing how wonderful our ability to respond is. Like the tree response-able to the changing seasons with the leaves turning color and then the tree dropping leaves – simply tree being response-able.
From morning to night response-able is the universe responding. Our opportunity is to be this universe that we are - respond. Respond to the conditions as they appear in many realms, so-called inside, so-called outside. If we attach to judgments, daydreams, we may get in trouble and cause trouble. Be the joy of our encounters, responding as the circumstances and conditions of this life.
© 2014 Elihu Genmyo Smith