(Based on a talk given by angel Kyodo williams, January 2006, Center for Urban Peace, Oakland, CA)
Tao Te Ching,
If you want to become whole, Let yourself be partial. If you want to become straight, Let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full, Let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, Let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything, Give everything up.
The master, by residing in the Tao, Sets an example for all beings.
Because she doesn’t display herself People can see her light. Because she has nothing to prove People can trust her words. Because she doesn’t know who she is, People recognize themselves in her. Because she has no goal in mind, Everything she does succeeds.
When the ancient masters said, “If you want to be given everything, Give everything up.” They weren’t using empty phrases. Only in living by the way Can you truly be yourself.
~translated by Stephen Mitchell
So, for those that don’t know, the reason that I often read from the
Tao Te Ching
is because it so influences the Zen sensibility. We’re not doing Zen in the Zen-way here, whatever way that is. But the essence of Zen is absolutely present here:The paradoxical nature of it; the two arrows meeting in mid-air of it; the, if you want to know the great way, just don’t pick and choose. It’s not really that difficult.
All of those expressions, which you don’t hear in the rest of Buddhist philosophy, that paradoxical sense of things running into each other…one thing coming this way, one thing coming this way and POW! You have to learn something new because of that moment when things are colliding. That’s really where our life happens. Right in that moment of collision where we can no longer comprehend what the information is that we’re given.
And we try and we try and we work and we work, and it simply doesn’t happen and we fail. We fall apart and something new is born. So that really is the essence of the Zen sensibility and the teachings—forget the traditions and how they show up. That’s just form, it’s just the outside, but that essence is so incredibly important. So whether one approaches it as a religion or a philosophy or any of these things, what’s most important is to understand that essence and be able to recognize it in all things. And the Taoist influence is supremely important.
So, I was at this Hindu-based retreat center in Watsonville this week, the Mount Madonna Center. And as far as I could tell the tradition is based on one of the most dualistic and oldest forms of one of the six Hindu philosophical schools. I was there strolling along, and I found this little piece of paper was looking up at me. I took it with me because in it were some interesting things to share.
I’ll tell you in advance that the information is interesting, because as I said it’s considered a very empirically dualistic school. Light and dark are really clear in this school. There is consciousness and there is the material world. Zen, on the other hand, is incredibly non-dualistic and has everything collide:
What light and dark? What straight and crooked? What life? What death? All one. Nothing!
So, just speaking to the way in which the many paths lead to the one source— this is why I picked the paper up. In it is text from the Mahabharata, an epic poem that’s considered one of the greatest pieces of literature in the entire world.
It tells the great story of King Bharata, who all Indian people are considered the progeny of. And India’s name was originally Bharatavarsha. The Bhagavadgita, which many people have heard of, is actually a chapter of the Mahabharata. So this is a big story.
I caught this little bit, which is basically Chapter Three and is about karma yoga. I’m not familiar with it enough to know for sure, but what I got out of the beginning was that Arjuna, who’s the hero of the Mahabharata, is questioning. He’s got a little doubt, and in a very healthy fashion, Arjuna is questioning the Lord, questioning Lord Krishna. He says:
“If you have said already that knowledge is superior to action, then why do you engage me in this terrible action? Why do I have to do karma yoga? Why do I have to engage in action, if you have already said to me that knowledge is superior to action?”
–And there’s this phrase, “keshava,” which is something akin to “Fuck you!”
“By saying those mixed up teachings, my mind is getting confused, therefore tell me the one path for certain by which I may obtain the highest.”
–Anybody ever feel like that? Like don’t mix me up; just tell me the thing. Tell me where to go and don’t give me this confusing information: knowledge, action and knowledge, action and knowledge…just give me the one thing.
“So the Lord answers Arjuna’s question. The Lord says, “Arjuna, in this world there is a two-fold path as described by me in the past. The path of knowledge and the path of the followers of karma yoga. The path of knowledge of the followers of samkhya–which is a philosophy that is very dualistic– That’s one path, and then there’s the path of karma yoga, of action.
“Renouncing action or performing action doesn’t bring perfection. Renouncing action or performing action doesn’t bring perfection. A person doesn’t obtain “actionlessness” by non-performance of action nor by mere renunciation does one obtain perfection.
Total renunciation of action is impossible. Verily no one can ever remain inactive even for a moment. For everyone is helplessly made to perform action by nature born qualities. Merely the external suspension of function of the senses is not renunciation of action. One who restrains the organ of senses and actions, but sits mentally dwelling on the objects of senses with deluded understanding is called a hypocrite.”
So basically, Lord Krishna is saying, if you’re sitting on your cushion in your glorious stillness—just sitting there—you are not achieving any kind of perfection. You are not. Simply withdrawing your senses is not enough. Simply taking your seat and that’s it—that’s not enough.
“Non-attachment in performing actions is right action. So one who, by controlling the senses, oh Arjuna, engages the organs of action in karma yoga or in being in the world serving without attachment, excels.”
So not just by being here [taps cushion]. Not just by the practice of our sacred stillness and meditation do we achieve perfection. In fact, if we do that, and nothing but that we’re hypocrites. But if you are controlling the senses of the mind—if you are engaging in a practice and also in the organs of action—so your being is also brought to action. To be of service, to show up in the world, to make yourself available to what actually is present without attachment—the most important phrase possible—that’s who excels.
So I didn’t read any of this; this is what I ran into as I walked by:
“Therefore do you perform your obligatory duty for action is superior to inaction. Even the maintenance of the body would not be possible for you by inaction.”
–He goes on to tell how to perform action:
The world is bound by action except when it is performed for the sake of the sacrifice. Therefore perform your duty free from attachment for the sake of sacrifice only.”
What Lord Krishna is saying is do what you’re doing, but not because you’re trying to sacrifice yourself. Not for something imagined, which is what’s hidden in the altruistic intention of, I’m just going to be a karma yogi; I’m just going to be of service. I’m just going to give my whole life just for the sake of sacrificing.
Lord Krishna’s saying, don’t do that.
“The spirit of self-dedicated activity or sacrifice is this: The Creator, having in the beginning created mankind together with sacrifice said, “You shall prosper by this. Let this be the milch cow of your desires.”
–I haven’t figured out what the milch cow is, but I have a sense that means let this quench your thirst.
“The Creator, having created mankind together with sacrifice said, “You shall prosper by self-dedicated activity, but don’t do it just for the sake of sacrifice.”
So this is very Taoist. “You shall prosper by service, by self-dedicated activity, but not because you do only that for the sake of that.”
That’s probably just about all that Mahabharata has to say to us this evening. There are a few things in there. First of all, we have, at least in language, two very extreme perspectives coming from the same place.
Buddhism was born in India, and this is classic Hindu ancient Indian text. And Buddhism is considered very non-dualistic. These teachings, of this particular school, are considered—there are non-dualistic or advaita schools—very dualistic. And yet, we hear the exact same teachings presented to us. We should just hold that and what that might mean. And hold what the teachings are getting to, even at a time when retreating into your stillness was completely esteemed.
Folks didn’t have major jobs, especially the folks that were allowed to hear these texts. So let’s just get down to business with that. Not everybody could even hear these texts. I don’t mean read them; I mean, they weren’t even allowed to hear them. So it was really held in esteem for one to be in a place of stillness. And one of the major aspects of yoga is the withdrawal of the senses. It’s called pratyahara. Withdrawal of the senses is practice leading to quieting the mind is highly esteemed.
Here today we still have folks that are creating significant indentations in their cushions and thinking that’s enough. Though they think of themselves as practicing within the stream of Buddhism that always talks about action and compassion going hand-in-hand. Or they may be yogis thinking that only on their mat is any kind of evolved consciousness going on. And yet, we have embedded in all these texts over and over and over again, you must be of service. You must put yourself out there. You must show up in the world. You must have self-dedicated activity—not other dedicated activity. Anybody notice that, self-dedicated activity. Why? Because only by being your true self can you truly find the way. Only by being your true self can you truly find the way.
So self-dedicated activity doesn’t say, go out and find any old thing to do just for the sake of doing it, which is what we often think of as sacrifice, especially in our Judeo-Christian framework. We’re just like, how can I cut myself deeper and bleed more? That will make me a good person! That text, this text are saying, “Be yourself! And show up in the world. Be deeply yourself in the world. Bring everything that is true, truly you. Discover it. Get still. Withdraw your senses, and then be that in the world. One hundred percent.” Your sacrifice is not slitting your wrists; it’s not sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake. It’s taking your full being as an artist, as a healer, as a professor, as an educator, as a student and taking that out in the world and making that available one hundred percent.
We’re not here to find out how we can become more like meditators; we’re here to figure out how we can become more like ourselves and liberate all ideas of anything else. Liberate being meditators. My favorite mind training exercise, which eventually I’ll get to sometime this year, is self-liberate even the antidote. Self-liberate even the antidote. And I’ve been having fun saying that the best teachers work themselves out of a job.
Work yourself Out of this practice. Meditate your way Free of the cushion.
That’s what we’re here for. Can we do it instantly? Maybe not.
It does take work. We have to come to a place of clarity just to recognize where we’re even sitting. Because often, and I think truly, most times we walk through that door—and whatever that door represents—everywhere in our lives, having no idea where we sit. Much less where we stand. So we take the time and the effort to withdraw our senses, to retreat into stillness—not for the sake of stillness—so that we can be in the world. So that we can come to clarity about our complete, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, inter-being: The utter truth of our singular, individual unique manifestation of absolutely everything there is. Get that? Singular, unique individual expression of absolutely everything there is. So we are that.
That! That’s just that! And if you let your mind not hold onto this, you’ll know what that is from a place of useful knowing. If we let ourselves be a little freer of trying to figure out what we’re not and who we’re not, we might stumble across who we is.
I think we have time for maybe one or two questions.
Speaker One: It’s easier to be who we are when we focus on the good things. But what about when you have things that are burning down in our society. How do we be who we are then?
aKw: You know I have often said that I wouldn’t be here [being a spiritual teacher], if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe that we are essentially good. And yes, there are people that are working through their confusion. And if they’re burning things down for the space for things to be grown—is that bad? You won’t hear that from me. If they’re manifesting some of the negative energy, the flow of energy that exists within our cosmos that exists within all of us—it’s something that has to work itself through like everything else. And to not be in full appreciation of the truth of that in an individual—they’re simply an embodiment of something that’s in us.
We need to appreciate it; we need to appreciate it like, Whoa! It’s great that that’s showing up there because it’s a reminder that it’s in here. And I can appreciate it. I can appreciate what I am able to work through with my life, with my practice, and with my relationships. So I’m not being the particular individual expression of that, but I also have to fully appreciate that it’s there.
Because otherwise we’re just in some kind of like fantasy utopia that we’re all good. And it’s not realistic. We need the entire cycle, the entire spectrum. Life is full, so we are essentially good and we have to go through our cycles. All of us. Some of us to much greater degrees than others, and socially we call that bad. Socially, right? So we should both recognize the truth of that as this and appreciate that that is manifesting out there because it’s still in here.
Speaker One: It’s in here first.
aKw: There is no first. It is just all. It’s not even a first, right. It’s simultaneous. It’s co-existing. There’s not a first and then that’s happening. That’s there, it’s here—wooooo hoooo. Thank you. Thaaank you!
You know, you have to give thanks. You have to give thanks to seeing it. You have to give thanks to even being able to recognize it. The fact that you can recognize it has everything to do with the truth of joy and the truth of beauty. We don’t have bad without good. and we don’t have good without bad. These are all concepts in our mind. So only when we work through all of it can we receive all of it—it’s just energy. It’s just energy.
Oh, this is your manifestation today. Hello! Or, this is your manifestation in this lifetime. Hi there! Full appreciation. Full appreciation of the whole thing.
If you’re trying to work yourself into a place of being good, you’re going to have a lot of trouble. Because all of those funky, edgy, stinky, smelly parts…you know the underbelly, the rough things, the…you know, the stuff! You’re going to try to jam those parts down into some little corner somewhere until they jump out and bite you in the ass. In my life maybe it’s a small scale, and maybe I’ll affect this many people. In other people’s lives it’s a large scale and it affects this many people, and then thousands of people die. Tens of thousands of people die. Let’s not imagine ourselves from being any different.
We’re all working in our scale of being. It’s no different. My harm—the harm that I create—is no different from the harm that a George Bush creates. Truly. We’re just operating at different scales. I have to recognize that; it’s just a different scale. If Georgie were sitting down here [in front of the sangha], he wouldn’t be causing so much woe.
Why do you think they’re always inviting people to just be simple? To get out of this complexity? Because it enlarges us beyond the truth of the expression that we really should have on the earth, and we’re affecting too much of the system at once. It isn’t natural. We have lost our place; we don’t understand our relationship to the earth and our relationship to the environment. We’ve allowed ourselves to be magnified much larger, in terms of impact on the earth, than we should have ever been entitled to do.
And so we get, tsunamis and hurricanes—she’s [the earth is] working it out. She’s slowly saying, “We gotta take care of this. You all done got a little too out there.” And I’m not saying there was any choice in terms of who was affected. We all know that there were black peoples and brown peoples in the tsunamis and hurricanes predominantly…if you think the universe is choiceful you’re kidding yourself. The “they” that we like to think of as tearing the planet apart—they’re no different from us. Really truly, they’re no different from us.
When we can no longer recognize the harm that’s being done outside—when we can’t even see it—that’s when we’ll have truly eliminated the harm that’s inside us. Let me know when you find that place. I’ll be looking forward to it.