Intimate Meeting Dharma Talk

By Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

Oct 2017 at Village Zendo in New York City

What I wanted to talk about this morning is something that was prompted by a statement that I came across recently from the Jewish philosopher and religious thinker Martin Buber:  All Real Living is Meeting.  All Real Living is Meeting. This seemingly simple statement has much depth to it, when we consider it closely.  So much of our Zen practice is about that place of meeting our experience, about our relationship with the ever-flowing, ever-changing stream of experience.

Some of you may be familiar with Martin Buber’s writings, published in the 1920s, looking at what he called “It And Thou.”   Buber invites us to look at how often we unconsciously relate to what we encounter, whatever phenomena, as an “it”.  This word “it” implies otherness and separation.  In contrast, we have this word “thou.”   “Thou” is an archaic word that is perhaps best known from the King James version of the Bible, used to address another in a way that implies familiarity and intimacy.  Buber was interested in how we unconsciously relate to phenomena as an “it” and what a shift in consciousness it would be for us to experience that “it” as a “thou.”  The “thou” as something intimate and close to us, versus when we encounter the world and phenomena as an “it”, as something to be analyzed, exploited or discarded. Or perhaps as something to be hated, and feared.

Following somewhat in the steps of the Buddha, Buber was attempting to diagnose the root of suffering in the world, more specifically the disease of modern civilization, which he felt came from the fact that modern society had forgotten the Thou.  That we only seem to know how to encounter things as an It.  This is why he focused on how we meet what we encounter, on what the quality of that meeting is.  His statement that “all real living is meeting” can only happen in a mind which is capable of experiencing intimacy, the Thou.

Buber is putting forward this philosophical explanation.  Zen of course is something quite different, as a path and a practice of awakening.  It includes all the elements of Zen training that help us develop the capacity to not just intellectually see the point that Buber is making, but to actually experience it, to be able to live from such a place, this place of Thou.

That’s a bit of a long introduction to what I wanted to explore a little this morning …. Meeting.  Encountering.  Relationship.  And intimacy.

In the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi mentions a story about Zen Master Dogen and a bridge.  He writes this:

“If you go to Japan and visit Eiheiji monastery, just before you enter you will see a small bridge called Hanshaku-kyo, which means Half-Dipper Bridge.  Whenever Master Dogen dipped water from the river, he used only half a dipperful, returning the rest to the river again, without throwing it away.  That is why we call the bridge “Half Dipper Bridge.”  At Eiheiji when we wash our face, we fill the basin to just 70 percent of its capacity.  And after we wash, we empty the water towards, rather than away from, our body.  This expresses respect for the water.  This kind of practice is not based on any idea of being economical.  It may be difficult to understand why Dogen returned half of the water he dipped to the river.  This kind of practice is beyond our thinking.  When we feel the beauty of the river, when we are one with the water, we intuitively do it in Dogen’s way.  It is our true nature to do so.  But if your true nature is covered by ideas of economy or efficiency, Dogen’s way makes no sense.”

So one way that we can understand this practice of Dogen, or his way of being, is that it is about relationship. It is about being in a Thou relationship with the water, not about an It relationship with the water.  It is about appreciation and gratitude.

Now today when we use the word relationship it has come to be synonymous with a spouse or significant other.  But we need to look more broadly than that, to look at our relationship with all that we encounter, what we encounter in the external world and within ourselves.  How am I relating to what is happening in my own mind?  We might be grasping onto it, wanting more …. or pushing it away with aversion.  Even with restless thoughts in zazen, traffic sirens, knee pain  …. how am I relating to it, how am I meeting it?  ~~

So since I began spending time in the Southwest about 15 years ago, I have been very interested in Southwestern Native American culture, art and ways of expression, ways of relationship.  Again here, there is a kinship with some of the teachings of Zen, and with Buber’s perspective.  I want to share a little of this with you this morning, because it is a framework that has inspired my practice and might inspire you a bit as well …. about how we hold and frame our experience, hold and frame whatever arises.

Indigenous culture is grounded in relationship. Many indigenous cultures have been based on what we might call reciprocal relationships with the natural world.  Reciprocal.  Not just what I can take from the earth. But, for example, how does the land sustain me, and how do I sustain the land?  What we offer plants, and what they offer us. There can be a feeling of kinship, a reciprocity that brings us into the Thou. The Hopi, for example, speak of  their plant allies.They see a landscape that for them is filled with plant allies, offering food and medicine.  One Hopi Elder speaks of how harvesting various plants allows people to walk among other members of the community. So there is this unmistakable feeling of kinship that speaks to a sense of wholeness, a wholeness in which we are not separate from the world.

Now we are here in an urban environment, and not many of us are harvesting plants.  But in NYC we are so fortunate to have this mix of both the natural world — our rivers and trees and gardens — and the built world.  When I lived on West 73rd Street the ginko tree outside the building often felt like a member of our community on the block.  Trees and plants, neighbors, the Hudson River, all are part.  So this relationship, this reciprocity can be found right here in various ways if we are open to it.

I recently came across some further reflections on this from a scientist named Robin Wall Kimmerer.  She is unusual in that she is a Native American who grew up in traditional ways, yet she also has a PhD in Botany and teaches at the university level.  She describes herself as a traveler between scientific and indigenous ways of knowing.  Again I find there’s a sensibility that speaks to some important quality of our Zen practice and I’d like to share with you a few of her observations and reflections:

Robin Kimmerer says this:   “My primary relationship with plants is one of apprenticeship.   I’m learning from plants, not only learning about them.  I remember being with an elderly Navajo woman who told the biographies of each plant in her valley:  its gifts, responsibilities, history and relationships.  As an aspiring botany major I was pressured to accept the scientific world view;  to conceive of these living beings as mere objects.  But as far back as I can remember, I had this notion of plants as companions and teachers, neighbors and friends.  As a scientist I learned only about plants’ physical attributes.  Her stories reminded me of how I had encountered plants as a young person, and helped me to stop seeing plants and speaking of plants as objects.”

Perhaps you remember the koan of Joshu and the Oak Tree, one of the most famous koans in Zen dealing with the natural world.  A monk asks Master Joshu,

“What is the meaning of the Ancestor coming from the West?”  And Joshu says, “The oak tree in the garden.”  The monk says, “Teacher, you shouldn’t use objects to guide people.”  Joshu replies, “I’m not using an object.”  The monk asks again, “So what is the meaning of the Ancestor coming from the West?”  And again Joshu says, “The oak tree in the garden.”  To the monk who has separated himself, who is caught in the me that is here and a world of objects that is over there, Joshu offers this great teaching, this great healing.  Just this!  Just this tree, when we can truly and simply perceive it, open ourselves to it.  ~

Coming back to Robin Kimmerer …. here she is talking about mosses.  “Mosses take very little from the world yet they flourish everywhere.  They give much more to the community than they take.  One gram of moss from the forest floor can be home to hundreds of microscopic creatures.  Yet mosses use so few resources.  They are a lesson in generosity.  Also, there is almost no barrier between mosses and their environment, because their leaf is just a single cell thick.  When the world is dry, they are dry.  When the world is wet, they are wet.  That sort of intimate contract with the  world is something to aspire to — if not literally, then metaphorically.  What if your body was so permeable that the world just rushed inside of you, filling you up?”

Could that be a description of  our zazen?  Moss Zazen?  Both on and off the cushion.  Moment to moment, letting our body be so permeable that the world just rushes in, filling us up?

And here’s a final point that Kimmerer makes:  She says, “Traditional knowledge looks at the idea of responsibility.  All bees, for example, have a responsibility to pollinate.  The indigenous observer asks the bee, how are you living out your responsibility?  And what about you, flower — how are you living out your responsibility? ”

And we could ask ourselves this same question:  How am I living out my responsibility?  In all the many roles I have in my life, how am I living them out?  In my relationships with family, in my relationships with this Zen center, in my relationships with my work and community — how am I living out my responsibilities?  How am I supporting the zendo, and how is the zendo supporting me?  This reciprocity , the giving and receiving as one, is no other than the Net of Indra, revealing our place in an interconnected universe, everything touching and being touched by everything else, every part with its unique and vital role to play.

So for us, to connect with the Thou and this intimate way of meeting everything we encounter, our zazen practice is fundamental.  As we sit, body and mind become more integrated.  We’re not just experiencing life in the form of compulsive thinking, which is always the world of separation.  Rather, we sit in stillness and gradually, little by little, we taste and realize what it is like to just be

one with the sounds of traffic, the sound of the bell, the sensations in our knee, the clear taste of tea. We come to naturally want to care for the zendo, this center that sustains us, and the lines between giving and receiving fade until they no longer seem like two, but are one.

So this morning I have been talking a lot about the natural world, but I am well aware that we are in an urban setting with more concrete than grass and trees.  But let’s look at this city.  It is full of noise and crowds, and also full of the vibrancy and creativity and energy of the city.  Our world here in New York is full of injustice and racism and poverty, and also full of progressive initiatives and amazing progress and committed activists who make change happen.  Our world here is full of our grief and despair over our angry, alienated and violent country, and full of our sudden happiness at a bright red maple tree, or a pang of sadness at the long angle of autumn light as evening falls.  Could we meet all of it as a Thou, from a place of intimate connection?    This is our life.  All of it is our life.  Like the moss, to let it all in, and to meet it with an open compassionate heart.

You know, in these difficult and tumultuous and uncertain times that we find ourselves living in, it’s so important for us to develop the capacity to hold all of our experience with a compassionate attention.  Like Kanzeon, hearing the cries of the world, including our own cries, and responding with compassionate attention.  To truly Practice with our experience.  So we are not, as Thich Naht H has put it, drowned in forgetfulness.  So caught up in our emotions, our anger, our rightness, our narratives, that we are drowned in forgetfulness and forget that our practice is the clear seeing, the knowing of our experience, but not the owning of it.  As it has been said, we want to be the knower, not the owner, of what the mind experiences.

One of the things that I personally take comfort and inspiration in, that helps give me perspective on the times we live in, is remembering that Zen practitioners have been living in difficult troubled times since the beginning, and that it is times like these that our Zen practice most supports us and also most challenges us.  I also try to keep a perspective with regard to karma …. that in addition to our own personal karma, that there is a kind of national karma continually unfolding.  What is happening in our country right now did not emerge from nowhere …. causes and conditions have been coming together from a beginningless place.  Even now they are unfolding to create conditions for a future we can’t yet see, but which we each contribute to.

I also think of beloved spiritual teachers like Thich Naht Hanh, and remember that as a young monk in Vietnam he was bearing witness to the brutality, the devastation, the vast suffering of the Vietnam War.  Or the Dalai Lama watching the destruction of Tibet and the ancient monasteries.  They could not individually change the national karma that was unfolding — and still, they inspire and remind me that we act where we can act, and that to keep our heart open, to be able to hold all the suffering, our own and others, how important it is to meet what arises with compassion, from the place of Thou, from that place of intimacy.  Each day we make our vow to save all sentient beings, and it begins with this place of connection and healing in our own heart.