The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
I initially understood these words from the Hsin hsin ming in an absolute manner. No preferences period. Not surprising since just generally, something I’ve struggled with as both a child and an adult is the image of being one who has strong opinions. Not generally a good image, right? It’s tricky to be sure, to learn how to communicate our views in a way that is respectful, in which we might actually have some influence or at least be heard, and it’s a lifetime practice to learn how to be most skillful in sharing them. So what does it mean, further along in the poem, that nothing is excluded?
It may be the personality trait that I have least liked about myself. In fact, I remember saying to my family before I went off on a one-way ticket to Yangon for retreat that I wasn’t planning to come back until I’d softened those edges, until maybe I was no longer “opinionated”. I went thinking if I could just rehabilitate long enough, maybe I could get rid of any preferences. It’s sad that this wrong view was part of what motivated me to do intensive practice. But, hey, whatever it takes–and generally it’s suffering of some sort or another. Often (if not always) self-inflicted as a result of believing one’s thoughts. Of course, after spending a long time investigating those opinions and the workings of the mind and heart that inform them–most importantly the causal relationships therein, I regard them much more gently. And, by no stretch of the imagination have they disappeared, nor would I want them to.
An example of how clearly being attached to ones preferences can bring suffering to light–something as small as being served ice cream (a gift) and suddenly rejecting the one that’s being handed me, as I eye the flavor I really want–all non-verbally. And then the sting of guilt over having a preference and utter remorse for expressing it. Perhaps more important is recognizing things as they are, not resisting. In the first moment it meant durian ice cream but the next included preference for taro, and the one after that guilt and so on. When does the cycle end? Where do we unhook from our suffering?
As perfectly socially acceptable and expected as it may be, it occurs to me that I still very much believe that it’s somehow unseemly to express opinions in a public way. For this reason, I’ve often stuck to more personal topics in this forum. Now this is not the way to get tons of subscribers, clearly. And given that, I never anticipated collecting the dedicated readers that I have over the years. Even with the pressures of social graph indicators like Klout, and the rush to become Google+ famous, over the past month of reflecting on my writing it’s clear that I ultimately write for myself and will continue to do so. In fact, must. It’s impossible to please everyone, particularly because my audience is rather diverse. I haven’t felt terribly inspired, but what I have felt passionate to write about recently are in areas where I hold strong opinions. Emotional topics. These are the ones where the one part of my brain says “scream and yell to the stars!” and the other part of my brain says “DANGER…abort mission!” before I can possibly publish the words and so, they just sit in the draft folder forever. I am deeply conditioned to not want to express opinions. To not want to be contentious. To only want to share ideas with friendly and compatible people. And this is a disadvantage. The only way through is in. I have to ask and explore exactly what are my fears, what are the things that make me bristle, where are my boundaries? I want very much to learn how to speak different languages, different cultural vernaculars, different religious frameworks. I want to bridge seeming divides, not create stronger fortresses. Meanwhile, attachment to nonattachment is still attachment.
So, in the interest of that strongest of intentions: open dialogue, I am going to allow myself to publish on some topics (which are wholly not new as I have addressed them before, so what’s the big deal?) that make me a little uneasy. To those of my readers who would prefer not to read opinions, please stay tuned. As of September 9, I will have begun a yearlong training in contemplative caregiving with Zen Care. I am very excited and know that it will generate a lot of food for thought as I will be approaching my hospice and other caregiving in new and challenging ways. I suspect there will be much to share.
To all, should you choose–first and foremost acknowledging our preferences lovingly–please accept the opinions with the poems and the practice notes and reflections as part of this moving and shifting body-mind as it is now. I appreciate so much your participation in this unfolding.
The Mind of Absolute Trust by Seng-ts’an (Stephen Mitchell translation)
The great way isn’t difficult
for those who are unattached to their preferences.
Let go of longing and aversion,
and everything will be perfectly clear.
When you cling to a hairbreadth of distinction,
heaven and earth are set apart.
If you want to realize the truth,
don’t be for or against.
The struggle between good and evil
is the primal disease of the mind.
Not grasping the deeper meaning,
you just trouble your mind’s serenity.
As vast as infinite space,
it is perfect and lacks nothing.
But because you select and reject,
you can’t perceive its true nature.
Don’t get entangled in the world;
don’t lose yourself in emptiness.
Be at peace in the oneness of things,
and all errors will disappear by themselves.
If you don’t live the Tao,
you fall into assertion or denial.
Asserting that the world is real,
you are blind to its deeper reality;
denying that the world is real,
you are blind to the selflessness of all things.
The more you think about these matters,
the farther you are from the truth.
Step aside from all thinking,
and there is nowhere you can’t go.
Returning to the root, you find the meaning;
chasing appearances, you lose their source.
At the moment of profound insight,
you transcend both appearance and emptiness.
Don’t keep searching for the truth;
just let go of your opinions.
For the mind in harmony with the Tao,
all selfishness disappears.
With not even a trace of self-doubt,
you can trust the universe completely.
All at once you are free,
with nothing left to hold on to.
All is empty, brilliant,
perfect in its own being.
In the world of things as they are,
there is no self, no non self.
If you want to describe its essence,
the best you can say is “Not-two.”
In this “Not-two” nothing is separate,
and nothing in the world is excluded.
The enlightened of all times and places
have entered into this truth.
In it there is no gain or loss;
one instant is ten thousand years.
There is no here, no there;
infinity is right before your eyes.
The tiny is as large as the vast
when objective boundaries have vanished;
the vast is as small as the tiny
when you don’t have external limits.
Being is an aspect of non-being;
non-being is no different from being.
Until you understand this truth,
you won’t see anything clearly.
One is all; all
are one. When you realize this,
what reason for holiness or wisdom?
The mind of absolute trust
is beyond all thought, all striving,
is perfectly at peace, for in it
there is no yesterday, no today, no tomorrow.
Koan Practice: The Great Way is Not Difficult If You Just Don’t Pick and Choose by John Tarrant (Shambhala Sun, Nov 2004, originally published in the book “Bring Me the Rhinoceros”)
Avoiding Disaster, a dharma talk by Koshin Paley Ellison