Caterpillars and Butterflies

by Jyoshin Clay

Editor’s Note: This talk was given August 20, 2017. The recording failed for it, so Jyoshin graciously shared her notes.

“Hide and Reveal,” by Ken Arnold

What you cannot see,
What sunlight hides in the artful
Tangle of spring,
Draws you in.

Notice how the moss on this stone
Layers down its face
In scallop shells,
Thumbnailed in shadow.

Stone lanterns mark what you’ve
Left behind, no fire in their fireboxes.
The stones themselves illumine
The complexities of moss,

Complexities of mind.
Each twist of the rough stone way
Reveals what you desire
And buries what you cannot bear.

I have a deep appreciation for poets. I have a deep appreciation for artists, those who create with words and images. Evoking something rather than explaining, leading their audience to some insight or realization, allowing for discovery and delight.

My teacher had a gift for narrative. He would teach through story. I would come to him with a question or present my understanding of a concept, and inevitably I would be met with a story from his training at Shasta Abbey, or Parcival’s tale from the Arthurian legends or, much to my dismay, a scene from a Star Trek episode, artfully told to illustrate some dharmic point. Rarely did he explain anything forthright in those conversations, leaving me to elucidate meaning and assemble my own understanding from the tales he told.

Kyogen’s gift for narrative manifested in several ways: he knew the stories in his collection inside and out. He knew the beginnings, the middles, the ends. He knew the morals of the stories and which ones were appropriate for which situations. He could throw in pauses for emphasis, laugh in anticipation before he told the funny parts as well as after, and he would often indicate teaching points with a stern look over his glasses. “Are you paying attention?”

We all have a story to tell; a story that is unique to us; a story that is us.

There is a famous, frequently-quoted phrase from Dogen’s Genjokoan that reads: “To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

Another translation puts it this way: “To learn the Buddha’s truth is to learn ourselves. To learn ourselves is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own body-and-mind, and the body-and-mind of the external world, fall away. There is a state in which the traces of realization are forgotten; and it manifests the traces of forgotten realization for a long, long time.”

This relationship to self is what I want to talk about today. Not necessarily parsing out what Dogen is saying exactly, but to use his directions to point towards a greater intimacy with our sense of self that is flavored by a sense of curiosity and investigation.

When I first encountered that quote from Dogen in a Buddhist context (I think I had encountered it earlier as a quote on a coffee cup or some such thing), I didn’t really understand it. There was a sense of wanting to lean into it and see where it would take me. In talking to others, though, I learned that some approach this idea of forgetting the self or dropping the self with a bit of anxiety.

Who am I if I drop the self? Am I still me? Will I be someone else? If so, who? Will my friends still recognize me?

Transformation

At the heart of Buddhist practice is transformation. Whether it’s progression on a gradual path, removing afflictions and obscurations; or whether it’s a sudden realization of emptiness or a kensho experience; some sort of transformation occurs. The details of how this happens is unique to each of us. We all have our own karma to face and our own blind spots to see. And I would make the case that transformation doesn’t just occur once, and then you’re done; but rather realizations, insights, and ah-ha moments occur and add up over time. Each moment of understanding makes a subtle shift in perspective that provides a seed for the next.

Caterpillars and Butterflies

If you’ve ever spent much time watching insects, especially flying ones, you know they go through several developmental cycles. There is development that occurs while encapsulated in an egg, there are several stages of larval growth, crawling, eating, and continuing to develop, then there is a time of pre-metamorphosis – the larva stops eating, becomes still, and a thick cuticle forms on the outside. As this point it becomes a pupa. And from this pupa, after metamorphosis, the adult insect emerges.

The adult forms look strikingly different from the larval stages. Physiologically, it is another creature entirely. How does this happen? During the pupal stage, a radical transformation occurs. Nerves withdraw from where they synapse onto muscles, muscles and internal organs liquefy, digestive processes come to a halt and the organism relies on stored energy to complete its process of change. The insect basically turns into a bag of goo with a rudimentary brain and a genetic imprint on what to do next. And what happens next is that a whole new creature is assembled out of the bag of goo. Muscles redevelop along new lines, nerves reattach in new patterns, organs of flight that never existed in the larval stages come into existence. Limbs are assembled. Compound eyes appear. Mouthparts are completely redesigned.

It’s an amazing thing to watch from beginning to end. And, if you’re wondering if I’m comparing the process of transformation in a Buddhist practice-sense to becoming a ball of goo… yes, yes I am. It can certainly feel like that.

Philosophy/Teachings

There are many different teachings in Buddhism that point out the myriad ways in which we misperceive reality. Through ignorance, we assume something to be real that is not real. Whether this happens by projecting our perspective on our environment, or by mistaking illusion for reality, depends on which description of how the mind works you are subscribing to at the time. What those teachings basically come down to is that the world we see, with which we interact, is highly subjective, flavored by our perspective, shaped by our preferences and judgments. In essence, due to ignorance (and this is ignorance as in the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance – or greed, hatred, and delusion), what we perceive as reality is really just our story. Our take on things.

In the translator’s introduction to the Book of Serenity, Thomas Cleary writes, “The doctrine of consciousness [this is Yogacara as presented in the Lankavatara Sutra, for those of you in the seminary class] represents a quite pervasive thread in buddhism that is not limited to any one school and very often used in Zen teaching. This doctrine presents the view that phenomena as we conceive and cognize them are not objective realities in themselves, but rather mental constructions made of selected data filtered from an inconceivable universe of pure sense.”

A little bit later he goes on to say, “The realistic approach according to this teaching, therefore, would be to recognize the functional value of structures at tools and vehicles, but to also recognize their temporary nature and refrain from attachment to them even while using them. This permits contact with wider reality and freedom to adapt to changing conditions without the impediment of clinging to the familiar or habitual for its own sake.”

If you ask three people who witness an accident what happened, you will get three different answers. Three different perspectives. All of which are true from the perspective of the person recounting what they witnessed. Each version is unique and each has elements in common with the others.

When we first come to practice, we are asked to share a little bit about who we are, even if it’s just a check-in at an introductory workshop. What brought you here? Which is pretty much shorthand for, “Hi, how are you? Who are you? What are you interested in?” I am endlessly fascinated by people that come to practice, knowing full well that my own transformative process is not completed and recognizing in them that thirst for the dharma. Sometimes I can recognize myself in what people say brought them to practice, there is an element that resonates, and sometimes I can’t.

For those who stick around, as practice deepens, there are more opportunities to share their stories, whether through informal chatting with other sangha members over coffee on a Sunday morning or through one of the more structured programs offered here.

“How much do I share?” is a question that arises. Getting to know people; letting ourselves be seen; this can feel like risky business. Spiritual practice can bring up feelings of vulnerability and communicating that may at times feel like the most challenging task we’ve ever undertaken.

The path of practice is hard. We encounter situations in which we see ourselves in a way we hadn’t in the past. As Dogen says, “Turn the light and shine it inward.” Our blind spots and coping mechanisms get exposed. Our unskillfulness gets revealed. We begin to see how much of our daily life is simply habit pattern and reactivity.

But…. this isn’t all doom and gloom. Becoming aware of our unskillfulness is what allows for transformation, for change. Samsara is the cause of nirvana, as my teacher used to quote. It is precisely that we begin to see our story more completely that begins to prepare the ground for transformation. When we begin to share who we are with others, intimacy with our own life develops. The cast of characters becomes more vivid; those old vignettes of pain or regret are reexamined; past hopes and dreams are either discarded or given new energy. Habitual patterns of how we interact with others and the world at large become blindingly apparent.

This is Dogen’s “to study Buddhism is to study the self.” This study can feel quite challenging, especially when self-judgment is strong. Sometimes, there is a sense of feeling “undone,” that we’re on shaky ground. Uncertain. The support of sangha can be helpful here. Witnessing and providing a container as practice is undertaken and internal shifts begin to occur.

Joseph Campbell says: “One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”

The next bit comes when we relax our hold on our story, when my sense of who I am becomes flexible. We gain the ability to change our relationship to our story, to our past. It becomes easier to check our reactivity and respond to events with focus and intention. That question Who am I? becomes relative, relational, dependent on environment and situation. As we increase our capacity to hold this question and look deeply into it, that basis of the self stabilizes. Who I am is fluid and responsive to conditions; and yet, there is a firm ground upon which I base my responses. Not doctrinal or concrete, but coming from establishment in Precepts and Paramitas. A framework of impermanence that allows for impermanence in relating to self and others. There is space for my story to shift and change; and there is space for your story to shift and change as well. This is important. We have to allow others to grow and transform just as we grow and transform. It’s not an easy thing to do.

And somewhere in here, over time, larval zen students undergo metamorphosis and turn into senior zen students. How this happens is as mysterious for zen students as it is for caterpillars and butterflies. Our transformations are not as physiologically striking, but there *are* changes that can be recognized by others. Relaxation, acceptance, a reengagement with humor and laughter after a dour spell of despair. The ability to laugh at ourselves and not take things so personally. Chastisement from a senior may still be informative without being devastating. Respect and dedication deepen, even as we hold things a little more lightly.

Methodology / Opportunities

For those who wish to take on this practice of sharing your story in a structured environment, there are many opportunities to do so this fall. I want to mention a couple of them. The first of these is the Term Student program. This is a set of three one-day-long retreats focused on building sangha-relationships. The first retreat focuses on sharing our stories with each other. The second is about dharma-expression, and the third is a wrap-up involving crayons and markers.

Next to sesshin, Term Student has been one of the most powerful experiences that I’ve encountered. Looking at this question of who I am, taking the risk of sharing my story and being seen, listening to the stories of others, discovering the common themes of this human existence while delighting in what makes each of us individual. It’s an amazing practice.

It’s through the term student program that I did much of the work on coming to recognize my story and how I work with my internal narrative. Participating in the program year after year, I noticed that where I located myself in my story changed. From focusing on a troubled time in my youth, my narrative changed from one who was a helpless child, to one who was trying to make the best out of a confusing situation. In the process, I was able to see how I was judging harshly the child-I-was for not knowing what the adult-I-am knows. As my story of my past changed; my past itself changed. The story I tell of my childhood is now a different story. Not completely, but there is much more compassion in it than there had been previously.

The Heart of Work retreat is a multi-day retreat where the temple walls become more permeable. Formal sitting happens in the morning and evenings, but the bulk of the day is spent at work, whatever your work happens to be, and bringing dharma practice to your work-life. We then bring what we learn through practice at work back to the retreat and that becomes fodder for continued practice. The separation of who I am at the temple and who I am at work attenuates. The lines begin to blur. As a self-described workaholic, I’m curious to see what I discover during the Heart of Work retreat.

Invitation to Bring Life into the Temple

So what I would like to do now is to invite you to bring your whole self to the temple, your whole story. There is nothing so sacred here that excludes any part of you. All of you is welcome here, in this place.

Conclusion

I want to close by revisiting Ken Arnold’s poem, “Hide and Reveal.”

What you cannot see,
What sunlight hides in the artful
Tangle of spring,
Draws you in.

Notice how the moss on this stone
Layers down its face
In scallop shells,
Thumbnailed in shadow.

Stone lanterns mark what you’ve
Left behind, no fire in their fireboxes.
The stones themselves illumine
The complexities of moss,

Complexities of mind.
Each twist of the rough stone way
Reveals what you desire
And buries what you cannot bear.

There is a note at the bottom of the poem from Ken that reads: “In Japanese garden design, the hide-and-reveal technique lures visitors deeper into the garden.”

I would like to invite you to play with this concept of hide and reveal, “What you cannot see/…/ draws you in.” Who are you in this moment?