Respect and Attention
Dharma Talk offered by Deirdre Eisho Peterson
This past spring I had an opportunity for a really wonderful outdoor day with the Verde Valley Birding Festival. One of the birding trips involved a small group of us going out with a guide on the Verde River, in kayaks. A day on a river is always a treat, especially a lush river corridor in the high desert. Over the course of the day we saw a lot of birds, and learned a lot about birds, but in fact we learned even more about the whole environment of the river, the whole ecosystem. It’s hard to look at birds and their lives without also bringing in everything around them … the habitat, the weather, insects, and other animals.
One of the things I learned was that birds that are common and abundant – like sparrows, or robins, or red-winged blackbirds – are very tolerant species in that they can live and thrive in a wide range of habitats. But other birds are rare, because they have certain precise requirements to survive and reproduce. A unique set of conditions has to be in place for them. Those conditions are a kind of net of Indra, a complex web of life, in which all parts touch and impact each other. For example, I learned about a kind of aquatic plant that grows in the shallows only on the shady side of the river – this plant, though seemingly insignificant, is essential for certain insects and young fish, and thus impacts the lives of birds and the whole river system.
Being on a field trip like this you really come away with a sense of wonder and also a deep respect for all the constituents of this whole. How they have evolved and adapted to live in a challenging terrain, and what they do to survive and reproduce and continue. It was an important reminder that even the smallest things matter, that the most humble or lowly things have their rightful and important place in the order of things and are worthy of our attention and respect.
This of course resonates deeply with our Zen practice. A lot of what we learn through practice is about respect and about attention. What are we respecting? Actually we’re learning to respect each moment, whatever we are meeting in that moment. We respect it by paying attention, by being sensitive to what is actually there. That moment might be a mind state we encounter during zazen – perhaps some anxiety or sadness or boredom. It might be a physical state we encounter, like fatigue or knee pain. The practice challenges us — could we come to see each moment, any moment, as completely worthy of our attention?
So Attention is something we hear a lot about in Zen. It’s a fundamental to practice. So why am I talking about it today? Because if we look closely at our life, we’ll see that this is actually quite difficult to for us. There are certain conditions that trigger us to go on automatic pilot, or to fall into habitual patterns of reactivity, or to just spin off into our stories and mental fabrications. We tend to do this around routine tasks; or conditions that don’t appear interesting to us; or conditions that we don’t like or that produce fear. You can explore this for yourself. Because a useful place to learn something about the mind is to start to notice where we tune out, where we’re not present, or where our buttons get pushed and we fall into habitual reactivity. It’s an important step in practice when we really see that.
Joko Beck talked a lot to her students about the power of Attention. She says:
“A zendo is not a place for bliss or relaxation, but a furnace room for the combustion of our egoistic delusions. What tools do we need to use? Only one. We’ve all heard of it, yet we use it very seldom. It is called Attention. “ ~
Emotional states may also be places where we tune out or lose our ability to be present, lost in the stories the egoic mind likes to tell itself. Being present to the moment, respecting the moment, means being present to ourselves, not hiding or denying what is there. I recently ran into a work acquaintance who mentioned he was in the midst of a divorce. He was very tense around it, and kept saying, “Well can’t look back, have to move on.” It was clear that there was a lot of pain he just couldn’t acknowledge, even to himself. We too can sometimes experience an unwillingness to actually name what is there, to be with it. If we deny that we’re sad or hurt or fearful, we may think that then we can perhaps be the person we like to present ourselves as. We unconsciously armor ourselves so we don’t have to see what is there. There is nothing intimate about this because we’ve separated from ourselves, from our experience.
Practice helps us to see that all these moments, from the most mundane to the most difficult or challenging, are worthy of attention and clear seeing, for one simple reason – they are what is happening. They are what is here. ~
At the beginning of my talk I mentioned the river trip I had been on. Not too long after that, I had a conversation with a Native American potter from the Hopi Indian tribe who was displaying some of her pottery at a gallery. Hopi pottery is very distinctive and refined, and her work was stunning. When I spoke to her, she told me a little about how she creates her pottery and what it involves. With that a whole other aspect opened up to me, not just the beauty of the finished work. She described how she makes pottery in the very traditional ways, with traditional patterns, that have many handed down for many generations. The vegetable dyes can only come from certain plants, and they are only harvested in certain months and at certain cycles of the moon. The clay is taken from only certain places, and must be handled in a carefully prescribed way. The rocks used for firing the pottery must come from certain rivers and again are handled in careful ways before and after firing. All the steps along the way matter and are valued. In Zen this attention and care would be called giving life to life.
Most of us are not involved in artisanal craftsmanship. We live in a consumer culture in which we buy things ready-made from stores, and we bring a utilitarian or practical view to a lot of what we do. Our culture values speed, efficiency and convenience. Even though we live in this world and not the world of a Hopi potter, there is something to be seen here for each one of us in how we move through our day, how we do the work that needs to be done. There is a sensibility that comes from being present to what is right here, to being intimate with the ingredients of our lives. Our Zen practice gives us a vehicle to tap into the sense of wholeness and integrity that this way of being implies. We too can give our full attention to whatever tools we are using, to how we bring things together, to how we serve the task. The most ordinary tasks can be done in this same spirit.
I saw this recently right here at the zendo. In the New York zendo, I have been meeting with the students who will be taking jukai this summer, and we have started working on rakusus. One of the points I mentioned to the group was that we describe our scheduled meetings as sewing sessions. But in fact, a lot of what we do is ironing, measuring, drawing lines on the fabric with chalk, and cutting.
For me the sewing of a rakusu became a vivid example of how our concepts and ideas about what we are doing can get in the way of our ability to fully be present to what is there. The first time I sewed a rakusu, many years ago, I remember feeling that all this measuring and pinning was a pain-in-the-neck, a lot of tedious prep work before we got to the main event, the real Zen event, which was the sewing. This was a lot of deluded thinking. Instead of giving life to life, you could say that this was killing life. Because when it comes to making a rakusu, drawing lines and pinning and folding aren’t the preliminaries, they’re it! This is how easily we miss the moment, not respect the moment, because our concepts around what’s important get in the way.
So it’s useful to ask ourselves, what concepts do we have about what we’re doing, or who we are, that get in the way of actually experiencing life, of fully appreciating our life? All of it, whatever is happening, is the unfolding of our life. Yuan Wu, the 12th century Chan monk who gave the commentaries in the Blue Cliff Record, said that “There are no mundane things outside of Buddhism, and there is no Buddhism outside of mundane things. “ Our practice is always right here.
Dogen Zenji of course wrote extensively about this. Do you remember what he says in his Instructions to the Cook? In that text, Dogen is giving some specific instructions to the tenzo or cook at a zen monastery. Of course his instructions are really for all of us. Dogen tells us not to fragment our attention but to see what each moment calls for. He tells us to handle even a single leaf of a green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha, and that this in turn allows Buddha to manifest through the leaf.
He writes that if we have only wild grasses with which to make a broth, not to disdain them. If we have ingredients for a cream soup, not to be delighted. To work with everything with the same sincerity, and to handle it respectfully, as if it were for the emperor.
We could paraphrase Dogen with the wild grasses, and say that if the ingredients that we as cooks have are disappointment or illness or difficulty in any form …. our practice is not to push those away or say that we’ll make a better soup some day in the future when we have better materials to work with. Nor do we let ourselves become careless or inattentive because of our opinions about the worthiness of the ingredients. The Zen Peacemakers remind us to use all the ingredients of our life. That whatever our experience is, even the experiences that we would not have chosen, that are not to our liking, — that those can be a dharma gate. It can be something to practice with, to see its nature, to see how it is not solid but changing, to see that it is not self. We see the wild grasses clearly and handle them respectfully, attentively, to make the broth. As Bernie Glassman puts it, the zen cook knows that every aspect is an ingredient of the supreme meal, which is our life. ~
In his Instructions to the Cook, Dogen also talks about something that is important for us to nurture. He is talking about, in the Japanese, our shin, our heart/mind. He’s talking about our spirit in how we relate to what we do and what we encounter. Dogen recommends that a bodhisattva, an awakening being working towards the benefit of others, should try to maintain three mental attitudes: Dai Shin, which is translated as Vast Mind or Magnanimous Mind; RoShin or Parental Mind; and KiShin or Joyful mind.
Here is Uchiyama Roshi talking about Dogen’s Magnanimous Mind: “like an ocean or a mountain, calm and steady, yet accepting and nourishing countless beings and situations without differentiation. The ocean is serene because it accepts the many rivers without resisting.” I especially appreciate that last phrase: The ocean accepts the many rivers without resisting. This is a spacious mind, a receptive mind, a mind that is clear and stable enough to see what is happening and spacious enough to receive it. It is a respectful mind in that nothing is left out. This is a mind that experiences the self connected to all things, and looks on everything equally as my life, this One Life.
Then Dogen talks about RoShin, or Parental Mind. Uchiyama Roshi uses the term Nurturing Mind. This term “RoShin” is akin to “RoShi”. In a literal sense it means Old Mind, the way RoShi means senior teacher or old teacher. This is said to be related to the attitude of a kindly, caring grandparent. In the commentaries on some of the koans we often hear a teacher described as having grandmotherly kindness in their teaching, meaning that no matter how deluded the student or monk is, the teacher offers words to guide them. This RoShin or Parental Mind would also be in evidence here at the zendo. We have various service positions where literally we serve the sangha by keeping time for zazen or leading chanting, by preparing the food or being a server at the midday meal – all situations where this Parental Mind, this mind of caring, can manifest. It is the heart of the bodhisattva, the awakening being. We take care of the world, of all that we encounter, as our life. This is a deep respect for the moment and what it holds.
And the third area that Dogen speaks to is KiShin, or Joyful Mind. Is Dogen saying we should be happy and joyful all the time? I don’t think that’s it. Uchiyama Roshi describes this as the joy that comes from deep in our hearts even the midst of difficulty. He says that this arises from the insight of zazen, that we live together with all beings and are not separate. The Buddha also spoke about this joyful mind. He said that the Dharma itself is the most subtle joy but also the greatest joy. It has nothing to do with getting happy through material means. It’s the joy of practicing the Buddha Way. The joy of the opportunity to practice the teachings and bring them to life through your own life. So this has the feeling of a quiet glow, a groundedness, of non-separation, of intimacy that stabilizes and brightens the mind.
So we cultivate these Joyful, Magnanimous and Nurturing spirits or attitudes. Gratitude naturally arises, and with that gratitude comes care for all beings, and respect for whatever our life bring us, moment by moment.