Based on a Dharma Talk by Mike Gyoshi Kaplan – Feb 23, 2014
The title of this talk is from the sub-title of a 1972 book called The Peoples’ Guide to Mexico. This book was unique among travel guides in pointing to being fully present and receptive to where you are. A subtitle to the talk might be Shunryu Suzuki’s advice, “Nothing Extra.” It was prompted by my experiences during three months of travel last fall in Nepal and Thailand. These travels marked the beginning of transition into a new life-phase for me – retirement.
Though I didn’t consciously plan it this way, the travels took on a very strong practice flavor. Way-seeking mind (or, the way it often feels to me, the heart that longs to open) was strong at this time. Being done with work commitments and having time available for travel, the setting felt spacious and safe enough for me to notice and follow that thread of way-seeking mind. The disjoint of being in foreign conditions and away from the normal things I habitually react to opened me up to some new perspectives on myself and my practice.
I’ll talk this morning about four main themes that arose during my travels that remain central to my practice now that I’m back. These themes are related, and have to do loosening up on some of the ways I maintain separateness. Put another way, these themes all come down to bringing the mind of meditation into interaction with the world. Our Morning Service scripture, “Harmony of Difference and Sameness,” speaks beautifully of this.
Just as with the Ten Great Precepts, I give these themes a positive and negative, a “do” and “don’t” side, because they became like precepts during my travels. They were reminders to observe how I was interacting with the world. The themes are:
1) Expect Nothing. Allow Everything.
2) Don’t Define Yourself. Know Yourself Now.
3) I Don’t Understand What’s Going On. Allow Don’t-Know Mind.
4) Clarify Your Life Goals. Don’t Waste Time with This and That.
First a caveat: Each of these themes has an “on the other hand” to it. Working with them involves finding harmony in the opposites, with the “one” and the “many.” Travel, as I experienced it on this trip, often turned me towards the “one.” Life here in the Western world, though, typically draws my attention towards the “many.”
It’s easy to come up with Western values opposite to each of these themes. For example, compare the first theme, “Expect Nothing,” to this statement from The Economist, “In every way that people, firms, or governments act and plan, they are making implicit forecasts about the future. That is a fundamental fact. Our decisions rest on expectations of what the future will look like and how those decisions will play out in it.” How different that sounds from “Expect Nothing”! But however we integrate these opposites, I think it’s worth asking the questions these themes raise in order to notice and let go of whatever is extra. What do we hold onto and do that’s beyond what’s needed to function well in the world?
First Theme: Expect Nothing. Allow Everything.
Early in my travels I was reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. This book describes a rugged expedition he went on to a remote area of Nepal in 1973. It also describes his inner practice during this expedition. Matthiessen had long been a Zen practitioner, and his teacher told him before he left, “Expect nothing.” Matthiessen went on to write, “Walking along, I remind myself of that advice; I must go lightly on my way, with no thought of attainment.”
This resonated with me, and I ended up using it a lot as my own practice reminder. When I noticed myself in a state of expectation, I was fairly quick to remember “Expect Nothing.”
Very little in my travels, especially in Nepal, played out as I expected. Many physical things simply didn’t work: hot showers, toilets, internet access, lights, door locks. Roads washed out; buses broke down; schedules fell apart. So over time, and with help of this reminder, I relaxed from the tightness and inherent disappointment of missed expectation. I got used to stepping into various activities, situations, and encounters with people as they arose, and with little or no expectation of what they would be.
An example: I had arranged to begin my travels with three weeks of teaching English in a small mountain village about ten miles south of the Tibetan border. However, on my third day of teaching one of the other teachers told me that the biggest national and school holiday of the year, Dasain, started at the end of that first week, and that school would be closed for the next month. Several thoughts went through my mind on hearing this — not all of them fully enlightened. But, the “Expect Nothing” reminder kicked in so that I could meet this with an attitude of some humor. Of course! What else could possibly have happened! Then I could look for “what’s next” with a pretty open mind. I went trekking, came back, and was told that four Tibetan monks wanted me to teach them English. Well, that didn’t happen either. I went down to the head lama’s house to teach and found the monks chanting the Dasain scriptures. So my next week consisted of sitting in meditation in the smoky home of the head lama for several days as the monks chanted. And it was wonderful.
This theme also came up for me often on a physical level during two treks into the mountains. Aversion to the tiredness I was feeling or some fear that I wasn’t up to “what’s next,” prompted looking ahead, hoping there would be a downhill around the next bend instead of simply being tired. With the help of “expect nothing,” I learned to turn away from the imagined next and towards acceptance and curious observation of the simple sensation – tiredness, soreness, fear, boredom, joy, whatever.
What is the dharma around this? One way to understand how we perceive the world is through the three nens. First Nen is bare awareness; Second Nen is identifying the object of awareness, naming it; Third Nen is intellectualizing – evaluating it, adding concepts and explanations, judging it, adding desire or aversion. “Expect nothing” treats experience mostly as First Nen. Expectation is one way of managing the discomfort that may come with uncertainty. First Nen doesn’t give a damn about uncertainty. Expectation easily becomes attachment to an imagined result, and plays into the workings of the First and Second Noble Truths. Letting go of expectation allows so much more to happen. Our expectations filter, constrain, and stain events with our desires, fears, and habits. There’s a feeling of freshness that comes with letting go of expectation; of openness to what is right in front of us.
But as we try to practice with this we hit a snag: most of us have a life-time of habit energy built up around expectation. Even it if were possible (and it’s not – but more on that later), it’s not even desirable to stop this cold turkey. So when I did fall into expectation, I’d first try to simply notice it. Then I was usually able to stop short of adding an expectation of pleasure or displeasure. When I could do that, I found that it short-circuited the rapid jump to desire or aversion. And if I did add an expectation of pleasure or displeasure, at least I’d usually remember to notice what my mind was doing.
Sometimes, though, it seems that desire or aversion comes first, and generates the expectation. But again, I’d try to direct bare attention to the first thing I managed to notice – whether the desire or the expectation – and stay with that till it evaporated. I think this is how changing habit energy generally works. You start by simply noticing the arising of a habit; bare attention. This develops over time into more openness to, and welcoming of, not only what happens next, but also to what our reaction will be.
If this theme, Expect Nothing, resonates with you, I suggest you experiment with it. Maybe take it on a walk with you. When you have the space and time and feel open to working with this, notice if you’re holding some expectation, hope, or fear. Look at what else is part of this expectation. Is there an emotion, or a physical tightness, or aversion/desire that goes with it? If so, what is it? Where do you feel it? How strong is it? How long does it last if you’re simply looking at it? What do you experience when it passes? You might also ask whether this expectation is helpful in some way. What does your world look like if you let it go?
Now, obviously expectations have a place in daily interactive life. Examples might include a group project at work, the complex tasks of parenting, scheduling appointments, managing our finances. The quote from The Economist about the importance of accurate expectations in our daily decisions applies here. By the way, it’s worth pointing out that the Economist article is actually very much in accord with the teaching, “Nothing Extra.” It goes on to say that it is essential for the accuracy of forecasts that they not be clouded by the western equivalent of Buddhism’s three poisons: greed, hate, and delusion.
So, the point here is to observe and question our expectations and to hold them very lightly. Coming back to the teaching of “Nothing Extra” we ask, “Is this expectation useful?” Is it skillful means? Is it serving or harming myself and others? How much have I added my hopes, desires, and fears to it? If we see that it serves no constructive purpose, we can allow ourselves to let it go.
Second Theme: Don’t Define Your Self. Know Yourself Now.
This theme is a natural extension of “Expect nothing.” Defining ourselves is an important way we harden around expectation. We define ourselves by age, job, partner, role, abilities, accomplishments, failures, and so forth. Leading up to my travels I had a lot of doubt about whether my body would be up to the rigors of trekking, and how I would handle such a long trip. I had fears about my age, strength, endurance, foot problems, and solitude. I thought myself into being old. I often hear myself and others in my age group define ourselves into some level of incompetency as a natural result of our age. I hear myself doing this to excuse anticipated shortcomings, or to make successes seem grander relative to what might be expected for my age.
The fluidity of travel and passing acquaintances in place of ongoing relationships helped me to relax around this self-defining. Over time I was better able to just pay attention to what was actually happening and who I really was in each moment. On the treks, I practiced observing what my body was doing and how it felt each moment: Just feeling; First Nen. Through this I found a natural rhythm of hiking uphill and downhill at just the right sustainable pace, every step of the way. Trekking became adventurous kinhin. I felt in wordless synch with my body. No definition was needed. It was a lovely, light feeling. As time went on I was surprised to encounter no significant physical problems, though I’d spent lots of time worrying about them in the months leading up to the trip.
So how might we practice with this? The main thing is to hold lightly any concept we may have of who we are, not limiting or freezing ourselves in an image, positive or negative; or at least noticing when we are tightening around such an image or concept. This works for the benefit of self and other. We harm ourselves when we believe we are our limited self-concept or fear or mistake; and we harm ourselves when we believe we are our inflated self-image or our reputation or our accomplishments. These beliefs also harm the people we interact with. I suggest that we invite our curiosity – “Who am I now?” When we come to a personal edge or get a glimpse of something beyond what we thought was our edge, we can ask, “Am I willing to change?” Curiosity is light and open. Welcome those little surprises that remind us that we’re not entirely who we think we are.
Third Theme: I Don’t Understand What’s Going On.
Allow Don’t-Know Mind.
The language barrier in both Nepal and Thailand put me often in a “huh?” state of mind. My explanatory and judgmental mind habits were short-circuited, and I became much quicker than usual in noticing when I was stuck in the Third Nen world of concepts, stories, and judgments. It was clear to me that things were much more complex than the concepts I formed. This encouraged relaxation into “don’t-know mind” and some serious questioning of any judgments that did come up for me.
My first hint that I didn’t understand what was going on came when I first got to the village where I would stay in northern Nepal. I stayed with several families there. I’d be sitting with someone in their home, trying to make some connection. Neighbors or other villagers would walk into the home and act as though it was their family, their home. They’d sit down and start talking, helping themselves to food or drink, instructing the children who were running around.
I found this chaotic and a little annoying. My self-talk was, “Hey, I’m the special guest here.” But after 2 weeks in the village, I started to see that community there was very different from what I’m used to. I slowly understood that the whole village was essentially one extended family, with everyone looking after everyone else. This broadening of perception gave me a better appreciation of the inherent generosity of village community life.
I’d find myself starting the habit of judgmental mind only to have it interrupted by some unexpected clue that what was happening was totally different from the concept that fueled my judging. One example of this: I was enjoying a very quiet laid-back day in the village. Just before dark a group of 15 French people showed up at the guesthouse. They brought instant noise and chaos, and the noise seemed to me to increase as the night went on. (Of course that’s how it would seem to me.) Noise is a big trigger for me, so I stewed over it and built up judgment of them as arrogant, inconsiderate, and too timid to go it alone. I had a very precise mental picture of what was going on. Then in a fit of annoyance, I went outside, perhaps to say something to them, and saw that they were rather patiently though talkatively waiting for a cultural show that was delayed by the villagers – who were late in finishing their chores. Woops! My judgment energy took a big hit. The next day at breakfast I started talking with some of the group and learned that they were a group of volunteers in an NGO that was providing medical help to the village. I also started to sense that the individuals were friendly, curious, kind, and even interested in what I was doing there. Woops again! So much for my infallible judgment. From this experience and some similar ones I learned to recognize my angry response to noise as my own very predictable habit energy. This didn’t put an end to it entirely, but it did free me somewhat from spinning out the story very far. Oscar Wilde once commented on the cliché, “The pure and simple truth,” saying “The truth is rarely pure, and it’s never simple.”
So how can we practice with this? When we look, we can see that the truth of any situation is always more complex and changing than our fixed conceptual understanding of it. Holding some doubt about the accuracy of our understanding and judgments gets closer to the truth as well as being much kinder to those we judge or think we “understand.” It can also open us up to curiosity about what things really are, and who the people we meet really are. There’s a lot of baggage we can drop here. How often is it important that we feel certain that we fully understand what’s going on? Allowing what is to be, without conceptualizing it, judging it, or attempting to change it, can be the basis of wise action. This is about “don’t know mind,” “I may be wrong” mind.
The first three themes all arose for me in Nepal and are connected by cultivating First Nen and lightening up on Second and Third Nen perception; meeting the moment, letting go of excess baggage. The fourth and final theme came to my awareness when I was practicing at a Vippasana forest monastery in the mountainous NW corner of Thailand. This theme has more to do with how we create the super-structure of our lives. But it too relates strongly to “Nothing Extra.”
Fourth Theme: Clarify Your Goals.
Don’t Waste Time with This and That.
At the monastery most choices were made for us; schedule, food, work, clothing. This felt similar to being in sesshin. Moving on to the outside world of preference and choice felt threatening to me, so I mentioned this to the teacher during group sanzen a few days before leaving. I asked for advice on how to practice with the choosing, craving, and judging that seems to come with re-entering the world. His answer surprised me: He suggested that I clarify my life goals.
He advised me to ask myself “what are my most important goals,” and then make choices based on that. This surprised me because it seemed at odds with the Zen phrase, “the goal of goalessness,” and with our practice of being in the moment. So what does this mean? Why is it important? Choices include not only what we do, but – at a more basic level – what we think; how we spend our mind-time; what we focus on; what we pay attention to; even what we notice, and what we shut out. How we spend our mind-time is a strong force in creating and dissolving our habit energy. Working with this is practice at the micro-moment level.
If we spend our mind-time on spinning stories about people we don’t like, we develop habit energy around that and the judgment, hatred, anger, delusion it generates. That becomes our consciousness. In an important sense, it becomes who we are. If we spend our mind-time on encouraging craving, looking for things to crave, we develop habit energy around greed and grasping. And, in a more positive direction, if we spend our mind-time on looking inward, then that develops habit energy around continuous practice.
As I started to look at my goals I noticed several things. At first I drew a blank. I subconsciously value functioning mostly in the present and see not doing that as micro-managing my life. But the teacher’s advice struck a chord. I knew there was something there and I resolved to investigate it. At this point in my life, investigating life goals isn’t primarily an intellectual process. My way in seems to be getting in touch with the basic forces that move me, my own mind-body gravity. I use the term gravity because that’s how I experience this process of clarifying my goals – as feeling a physical/psychological force on my being. Kyogen sometimes uses the metaphor of a seed to describe our way-seeking mind. Seeds innately “know” which way is up and down; the stem always grows up (towards the light) and the roots always grow down. This is true even though they’re covered with dirt and manure. I think this is similar to the mind-body gravity that I’m trying to express.
Your process for investigating goals may differ: if you’re in a phase of life that carries roles, responsibilities, and obligations, then investigating the specifics of that will probably play a big role in clarifying your life goals. This will likely require some Third Nen processing. That’s okay. Use it when it’s useful. An obvious instance of this is if you’re raising young children. What’s important to you about that? The details matter.
There must be some fluidity to this investigation. Life goals will almost certainly change over time. So when I investigated my life goals, I felt the strong pull of my heart that longs to open, my way-seeking mind. Acting from this awareness results in lightness, energy, and often joy. Not acting from it results in disappointment, depression, aversion. This tells me that, yes, this is a life goal. So far in this new phase of my life, it seems to be my strongest motivating goal. But it’s not my only one.
When I’m aware of my children or others who are close to me having difficulties, this mind-body gravity is again clear to me. It’s important to me to support them as best I can. This seems to be another life goal of mine – to help lessen the suffering of those close to me. It plays out in more mundane ways too. If I don’t get regular exercise, I get physically tired, mentally lazy, depressed, and generally aversive. So yet another life goal of mine is to do what I need to do to stay fit and healthy. Knowing these goals focuses my mind and actions.
You see how this works? So if this theme resonates with you, my suggestions for practicing with this are, first chew on these questions for a while. Can you come up with a quick statement of life goals, or, like me, does this leave you at a bit of a loss? If you hold the question of goals, what presents itself as a way to find answers: Thinking; feeling; heart; belief; guilt; self-identity? Which of those processes can you trust for answers and which can’t you trust? Most importantly, whatever your goals, consciously make choices based on them, and notice what happens.
My four travel themes all come down to bringing the mind of meditation into interaction with the world. Daily life is not a problem. Our practice encourages us to engage wholeheartedly with the world. Zen Master Hongzhi (born about 100 years before Dogen) said, “Contact phenomena with total sincerity, not a single atom of dust outside yourself.” And Dogen famously said, “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.” Daily life is our practice. It’s not a problem. We can observe gently and without judgment how we relate to the world, and observe our thought patterns. We can simply notice what we add that’s clearly beyond what’s needed; then letting go happens naturally. And finally, we can consider what’s most important to us and let that wisdom be the energy behind the choices we make.
It’s now been about six months since I returned from my travels. I’ve experienced some let-down during this time. I’m less stimulated and more isolated than I was when traveling. As we’re taught in our practice, I’m investigating this let-down. My current sense of it is that it’s related to how I’m meeting daily life. Hongzhi’s and Dogen’s words a few paragraphs back speak loudly to me about this. “Contact phenomena with total sincerity” and “actualized by myriad things” are stirring my curiosity. What do these mean? What do they ask of me? In what ways am I not allowing that?
That’s the edge of my practice right now.