Intelligence or Lack of It is Not an Issue

KyogenRohatsuKyogen Carlson
(This Dharma talk, transcribed by Jill Bukkai Washburn, was given in March, 1999.)

Homage to the Buddha, Homage to the Dharma, Homage to the Sangha.

As some of you know, at least those of you who are familiar with my talks, I can’t go too long without using either an animal story or a sports metaphor. This week it’s an animal story, about our cat Eppie, the sweet little monster.

About a month ago, as the weather began to warm up, she started getting really interested in being outside.  So it was in and out, in and out, in and out.  Not too long before this we replaced the screen door on the back.  The new door is different in that it is hinged on the opposite side from the old one. So when Eppie wanted to go out one day, I followed her out onto the back porch as she moved underfoot, right in front of me. I started to reach for the handle of the screen door – or to where the handle used to be, on the left.  But I stopped before I got there, in mid-action, and moved my hand over to the right side.  As I did this, keeping an eye on the cat underfoot, I noticed that she followed exactly the same pattern underneath me. First she headed for the wrong side of the door jamb, but then she corrected herself in mid-action, a couple feet before getting to the door, at precisely the same moment I corrected my action. I opened the door and out she went.


Now back when this door was first installed, I would go all the way to the door, reach out, then look at it and think: “Oops, wrong side.” But Eppie would press her nose to the wrong side of the door until it opened.  Once it was wide open, out she’d go. As a human being, I have vast intellectual superiority over that cat, so that I can see which is the hinge side, which is the latch side, and understand that this determines the way the door opens.  But this recognition doesn’t change the pattern, the habit energy of behavior. My small epiphany at that moment was that the cat and I were changing the habit energy regarding the door at almost exactly the same rate. Sure enough, just a week or so later I didn’t hesitate anymore and neither did she. Just yesterday, however, I let her into the house through that same door, and I noticed that when we’re outdoors we both still have the old pattern of coming at the door from the wrong side. What’s really interesting about this is that the habit energy is not in the slightest way dependent upon rational understanding. Also, it is state specific.  In other words, changing the pattern on one side of the door didn’t affect the pattern on the other side. Not for me, with my vast cranial capacity, nor for Eppie, who may be sweet, but isn’t noted for her mental horsepower. Even though we both overcame the pattern and changed the habit when on one side of the door, when on the other side we’re both following the old pattern, and to nearly the same degree.

In the  Fukanzazengi, which we recite on Wednesday evenings, Dogen says:

“This must represent conduct beyond seeing and hearing. Is it not a standard prior to knowledge and views? This being so, intelligence or lack of it is not an issue. Make no distinction between the dull and the sharp-witted. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the Way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward is, after all, an everyway affair.”

Think about this. The habit energy of opening a door is a very simple matter, but what is this “conduct” he’s talking about? What is going forward? What is beyond seeing and hearing? What is beyond knowledge and views?

Again, I can use my vast powers of reason to understand the door. I can look at it and know the correct way to approach it, consciously direct my attention to the side of the door where the handle now sits, overcome my old pattern, and for that moment the behavior is changed. But the habit energy of reaching for the wrong side first will remain. It is practice, through simple repetition, that actually changes the habit energy, not the reasoning power that only helps me understand that I do, indeed, need to change it.

Our zen practice is as simple as this.  We practice with the zazen posture, and follow many other forms, but this practice, while simple, is actually very far-reaching.  Through Precept study and other means we can recognize patterns of action and the habit energy behind them. This takes a certain amount of conscious brain power. But stepping out of it, acting differently, and cultivating a different body memory, a new body habit, is not a matter of intelligence or lack of it. It really isn’t. It comes from doggedly repeating a new behavior. Going forward like this is an everyday affair.

Speaking of dogs, there is another principle that applies here. When I was at the monastery we had a lot of dogs; hounds, to be precise, which can be difficult creatures. We had and used a dog training book by a fellow named Kohler.  He takes a fairly physical and stern approach but there were a few things he said that were very interesting. One is to never correct more than one behavior at a time because the dog will be confused by this. The correction given to change a behavior becomes disassociated from the behavior that you want to correct if you try to address more than one thing at a time. Another thing he said was that after a difficult training session, leave the dog alone. Give him a lot of space. In a way, this method respects the individual dog’s process and lets him or her sort it out and even to be in a ripe snit if they want to. It recognizes that each dog has its own set of priorities, and gives the dog space to honor that.

dog-trainingI came to understand that these simple principles also apply to human beings. Parents take note.  When trying to correct a behavior, stick to one thing at a time because while the conscious mind might be able, at some level, to understand all the issues you’re trying to address, the behavior itself lies at a more primitive level of the brain. Impulse is very primitive compared to the conscious, reasoning mind. So, given some time, the person could reason out that everything you’re telling them makes sense, but at the time you address it, if you address more than one issue, what the other feels is just being hassled.

I found that when I’m working at training chant leaders, or when we’re dealing with people just getting familiar with the rules for residency, the same thing is true. No matter how capable they are of understanding all the issues at hand, when you come up against it, one thing at a time is what can be handled. Whenever there is something difficult to deal with, we need to give people a lot of space to work it out on their own and trust their own process. Again, this is because intelligence, the mental ability to understand the issues, is actually fairly shallow. By shallow I mean not very deep in the human being. Reason lies up on the surface, while the impulse to behavior lies very deep in the body, and in the primitive brain.

Now, as for the will. Our practice of zazen, on one hand, is to drop into that open, vast, spacious, unconditioned mind. It is also to notice where the mind goes when it’s wandering around. Part of our practice is simply to notice it and pay attention to it. A lot of times during sitting I’ll say: “Here! Notice. Where is your mind? Is it in the past, the future, in planning, or in fantasy? Wherever it goes, just notice it and let it go.” The noticing is important.  Learning to identify where the mind goes when it is distracted helps develop the body memory of knowing the difference between being distracted and being in the present. It’s not that we’re supposed to cut off or get rid of distractions, but rather to become familiar with how our own minds work. Being aware quickly that we are distracted aids learning to come back to being present.

A few weeks ago I did a Dharma Talk on the Jim Carrey movie, “Liar, Liar” which is a very silly movie to a great degree, but which I found interesting. He has a spell put on him under which he cannot tell a lie. So he goes through three phases. In the first part of it, whatever is on the surface of his mind just comes blurting out. This is like beginning zazen. What happens when you first try to pay attention is that you become aware of all the crap in your head. There’s a lot of it sometimes. Up until then we’ve been able to disregard how much garbage spins around in the mind, and how much time we spend spinning it. Zazen is like the spell on Jim Carrey, and suddenly we have no choice but to see everything going on in the mind. Sometimes that’s a terrible revelation.

Liar-liarWhat happens next is that he cannot hide his deeper habit energies and he has to admit to them. It comes out of his mouth. So he condemns himself: “I’m a bad father.” The moment he says that there is deep recognition. Another part of our zen practice is to see what we’re doing, what the habit energy is, and what it means. When he can’t deny it anymore he’s ready to change.

Finally, what happens is that he says to himself, “I love my son,” and finds that this truth stuff isn’t so bad. What’s important here is that after becoming aware of his own mind, he learns to change where he directs his mind. Because he can’t avoid paying attention, he finds out what really matters to him. So, where do you direct your mind? One step in zazen is simply learning what our habit energy of mind is. The next is learning to direct it to what really matters. We do that in our zazen practice on the cushion, but also in daily life.

This habit energy of body, speech, and mind can be tricky and very sticky. In zazen we develop a new habit energy of body and mind which is to drop beneath all the nonsense and to find spaciousness, but catching the self is a little trickier in our daily life. That’s why we do the practice of reading the Kyojukaimon in the morning, and reflecting on the events of the day in the evening, noticing what comes up and whenever little contractions arise. We just notice it.  Reflecting on the day we can see clearly the moment when someone pushes a button, and we can see what do we do with it. As soon as that button’s pushed, there’s a habit energy of reaction. You can learn to see the match being struck, recognize the the feeling of inflammation, then just let it burn for awhile and go out. Doing that in reflection, we develop a pattern we can eventually apply during the day, during the events themselves. If you can drop beneath the reactivity and let it go, you’ve changed your habit energy to that degree. This can be profound.

It’s not easy. It’s kind of like me and the cat and the door. Habit energy is to repeat old patterns, learned patterns of body and mind, which is like automatically reaching for the wrong side of the door. Our practice is to notice it as it arises. Where is your mind? Where does your mind go? Note it. Drop it. When you can do that, you can then turn your attention to the right side of the door where the latch is now located. Every time you do that you change your habit energy, just a little bit, of how you react and respond to things in the world. That’s where you really change things.  That’s how profound transformation can occur.

In daily life, in the hurly-burly of events, we first catch the self after the event. “Oh God, I got caught in that again.” Eventually we catch it after we’ve started it but we’re already in it. Then we start to catch it just as it arises but we can’t stop it. This is where zazen is so important. Finally we’re able to catch it as it arises and have the body memory of coming back to the breath, back to being centered, and the new habit energy of letting things arise and fall. When we can drop the impulse, we really change. This is very different from layering an artificial behavior on top of an impulse. It’s actually changing the impulse, and this is the basis of profound transformation. Thinking about responding from that space, I want to read a couple of the passages we recited this morning.

“Natural and wondrous, it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment.” It’s not how we perceive things, but a matter of responding from a place of deep centeredness.

“Just a hair’s breadth deviation and you are out of tune.” It’s so easy to lose the habit energy of being centered and mindful of the breath.

“Arrows meeting head on; how could it be a matter of skill?”  It’s the same thing.  Arrows meeting head on is being right on the target, right on your own center moment by moment by moment.

“It is not reached by feelings or consciousness. How could it involve deliberation?” Feelings arise because of karma and habit energy, while consciousness and the thinking mind are on the surface.

Trying to change our patterns with the conscious mind can work in the short term, but habit energy will prevail in the long run. Practice requires patience and repetition. Through this we can cultivate the habit energy of being centered, and this makes all the difference. This is what is most important. Cultivate a body memory of practice. Not just on the cushion but in daily life as well. The cushion is vitally important, but you have to take it out there and make it real moment by moment. We think of habit energy as our nemesis but it’s not. It can be our greatest ally when we learn to direct it to that which will really serve us. Practice is a body memory – it too is habit energy.

A story I’ve told before involves a summer work situation after my first year in the monastery. I found myself dealing with someone who was being absurdly difficult, ridiculously difficult, actually. Nothing I could say was going to change this behavior. This was the wife of an officer on a military base. I was working for a moving company, moving the family’s belongings. This woman had gotten burned in a move before, and she decided she was going to have it her way, insisting that we do things that the military contract guidelines forbade and would not pay for. I knew there was no way this was going to fly!

But no matter how I explained the facts, she insisted that it would have to be done her way. Then, all at once, my reasonableness and patience completely left me. Poof! Gone!  I started to get really frustrated, turned around and my fists came up, but then my hands unclenched and went into gassho. This was unconscious and even surprising. As soon as I did that, all the responses in my body changed, centeredness and acceptance returned, and the ability to act appropriately appeared.

Where did that come from? I didn’t think about it; I didn’t choose it. My body remembered the habit of practice, and put me back in the space of practice. It is the body memory of practice that we can rely upon.

When I watched my mother die, I became deeply aware that the only thing left was her habit energy. That’s all that was there. Her mind had deteriorated from some form of dementia and it was going all over the place. She’d be agitated and anxious and all the things she would obsess about in her life were there just spinning and spinning and spinning. We cannot rely even on our own brains. But if you take this practice deeply and seriously, ingraining it in your own body and down into the primitive part of the mind, this you can rely on. I believe it. It’s important to start now. Habit energy is not something you can generate in a snap of the fingers.  We talk about sudden enlightenment. Sudden enlightenment is simply the realization that there’s nowhere to go. To be in tune with that deeply and consistently is something you have to cultivate.

There’s a sign on a church over on 39th Avenue I saw and laughed at recently. It said:  “Good habits you have to cultivate. Bad habits are like weeds, they grow by themselves.” There’s truth in that. Practice requires cultivating the body memory of being centered and knowing where your mind is, and what your breath is like. Knowing where your own center is takes that cultivation.