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.

Early morning reflections


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.


See Also

Hsin hsin ming translation by Zen Master Hae Kwang

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

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  1. I have been struggling with the same exact thing. Which is why I have been paying less and less attention to the political machine as I get hooked in so quick. It is why I have been trying to steer away from anything having to do with race/racism … as my knee jerk responses ignite my anger and I’m easily inflammable. This also goes for hip-hop. I realized one day, “my opinion doesn’t matter” … but, more importantly, although this is a work in progress, I realized that my opinion is heavy weighted and stressful, and when I’m not “being opinionated” I have so much more peace of mind. Fire needs fuel … in this sense … silence is water.

    • We’re learning to strike a balance B. It ain’t easy. And it seems to me that lots of buttons have to get pushed in the meantime. How are we going to react when they do get triggered? That’s an area to spend some time with. Contemplating, engaging. Acting, retreating. It takes both, learning where and when seems to be pretty key. I have to do it every day in my house. There are so many times when I just slip into old habits of being, of criticizing, or wanting something to be a certain way. Seeing that for what it is, and the discomfort of it, learning not to judge on top of that.

  2. Such an interesting post and comment and very topical with my own thinking and practice (I’m not really a Buddhist but I have a strong sense of kinship).
    I like the example of the ice cream flavor. From such small instances is where I began my efforts to curb my personal agenda. Another example: I stopped trying to finagle which movie or restaurant to go to and let someone else make those decisions. What a huge difference it made in my life. I have always been so very controlling, and I felt a lot of that falling off of me.
    Driving in traffic was also a good place to exercise releasing my personal agenda.
    A recent insight while learning to curb my judgmentalism: I caught myself as usual thinking so harshly about a person who I saw walking down the street who littered. And it hit me: there is nothing you can do about that. I couldn’t stop my car and go upbraid him, I drove by too fast. I had a strong sense that while I would never do that it wasn’t necessary or even up to me to judge this person. It was up to me to be a nonjudgmental witness.

    • Thank you for your kind comment phx, and for subscribing, etc. I hope you find enough here of value to stick around :) I’m not really a Buddhist either so you’re in good company. Yes, the controlling tendencies can be strong in us depending on the dynamics in our families and all sorts of conditioning. You give some important everyday examples of this in your life to which I relate a lot. I remember in particular one evening, years ago, an out-of-town friend came to visit and amassed a group of heretofore unacquainted friends of his. He’s not one to make decisions so I was all ready to be the one to choose where we’d eat, etc. When another member of the party decided she would in fact be the one to do that, and then where we would go after dinner, etc., I found myself fuming the whole night and very much disliking this interloper! It’s humorous in retrospect but ruining my evenings because I found myself butting heads with other people’s preferences used to be a fairly common occurrence. Learning to be with what’s in front of us, to allow in a way that is not harmful to us or others, is a wonderful practice in and of itself. Observation is certainly key. How does it feel? What’s it feel like when I’m not aware of what’s happening and I just get into that rut of conditioned behavior? Not good, probably. Thanks again.

  3. I’m always happy to express my opinions.

    And never happy to entertain the opinions of others.

    Which creates some problems . . .

  4. The Hsin Hsin Ming is one of my favorite texts…and yet I have the hardest time imagining ever being without preferences, opinions, judgments, etc. As always, I look forward to seeing where you’ll go. And congratulations again on the Zen Care program. I’d wondered if you’d started yet.

    • Thanks for your comment and well wishes Kurt. I’m sure we’re all curious where this life is headed. Hmm.

  5. aly

     /  September 4, 2011

    Thank you for this post! I love this line: “Meanwhile, attachment to nonattachment is still attachment.” :)


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