“Medicine and sickness heal each other. The whole world is medicine.” — Blue Cliff Record, Case 87
In this week’s Dharma talk, I mentioned a parable that’s been on my mind lately. I don’t know its origin — I’ve heard different versions, some attributing it to the Zen or Taoist traditions, but I haven’t been able to find its source, and I don’t think it matters. Here’s the version I discussed:
Most Zen monks in the west only wear their robes for ceremonial purposes. But I've found that when I'm on my way to or from the zendo and wearing my robes, strangers in the street will approach me, wanting to talk. It's not usually that they're interested in Buddhism, it's that they're lonely and feel isolated and need someone to talk to, and the robes give them an invitation, or maybe just an excuse, an icebreaker.
My friend Sister Petra is a Christian nun who also practices Zen Buddhism with our sangha. A few months ago she told me, “During the pandemic, I’ve been praying for everybody who’s sick, in body, mind, or spirit.”
I was moved by this, and it has continued to resonate with me. As I’m not a Christian, my view of prayer is probably different from Sister Petra’s (or maybe not), but I realised this prayer could easily be adapted into one that could be recited by anyone, of any faith or no faith.
So, most days now, using my mala, I chant, 108 times, May all who are sick, in body, mind or spirit, be well.
At last Sunday’s meeting, I gave a Dharma talk about free will, which I think is a myth, and so it’s a mistake to make too much of our locus of control, though having an external one makes more sense than having an internal one. A couple days later, this article appeared in The Guardian. It brought to mind Shakespeare’s tragedies, in which the inescapable fate that dooms the protagonist is not something written in the stars by gods, but by everything that makes the person who they are.
If our faults are not in our stars, but in ourselves — or, more accurately, our selves — then praise and blame are irrelevant, and the only sane response to anyone, however admirable or heinous their behaviour, is compassion. This doesn’t mean not restraining someone from causing harm, but it means restraining them for everyone’s good, not as punishment.
According to Lacan, the I which speaks and the I which is spoken of are not the same. The one observes and describes the other.
Zen practice reveals to us that we are not the I, the self, the aggregate of traits we describe and identify as “I” or “me.”
As we study the self, we may find we do not like, or even have much in common with, that self, the same way we experience some other people. Or we may like and relate to that self we are studying, the same way we experience some other people. But we are none of those people we can analyse and describe, including the self.
One of the most common practices in Buddhist meditation, including Zen, is to simply pay attention to your breath. When you realise you have been distracted by a thought, you label it “Thinking,” then return your attention to the breath.
It is a useful practice, but I question the accuracy of the label. Using the word “thinking” suggests you are in control, doing something, producing the distracting thoughts. But, as practice goes on, you will find the thoughts are there whether you are actively thinking or not, and trying to stop thinking and quiet the mind is just one more activity to be distracted by.
What if you let the thoughts be, just allow them to make their noise, like the background noise in a public place, a chatter you hear but do not pay attention to? You will find that the correct label is not “Thinking,” but rather, “Thoughts.” The thoughts just happen, and they are not your concern, and so you notice they have distracted you, and you return to the breath.
This is Burns Night, and it should be noted that, though he likely never heard of Zen or Buddhism, he was one of the great Zen poets of the West:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.