White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 62: Seeing Thorn Trees

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, November 28th, 2009


every breath lets you know you're alive.

So, you still have a chance to practise
and to wake up to the reality of this moment.

No, not that one,
it's already gone,
this one right now.

It's already gone even as you speak of it. 

Wow, what to do?
Can we catch up to it?
'cause it's not really "this moment",
those are words used to describe something that can only be experienced.

That's important to remember about words. 

WOOOOOORDS [O-sensei draws out the sounding of the word]
words! words! words! words! words! [O-sensei chirps the words] 

Seeing high mountains,

"May all beings'

Roots of virtue stand forth,

Their summits above all grasping." 

They're sounds made by the bodymind
that a collective puts meaning upon
but they are never never never the experience.

So "The Practice of Purity" uses words, verses, and today's verse is: 

Seeing thorn trees,

"May all beings

Quickly cut through

The thorns of passion, aggression, and stupidity." 

Yeah! Yeah, sounds like a good idea!
Passion, aggression, and stupidity.
Now you may have noticed for example, the word "passion",
we may be coming to the end of the little phase
when if a teacher or practice advisor uses the word "passion",
the assemblage of disparate cells sitting in front of them will go: 

"Yeah, but, aren't we supposed to be passionate about the things that we do?" 


I think we're actually,
as I said,
as a collective,
running out of the understanding that somehow or other,
this thing "passionate" meant something good.

Well, it doesn't mean good or bad in the case of what's being described here,
the klesas of passion, aggression and stupidity.
What is being talked about with these words
is the tendency we have for the energy of attention
to rush into a knot of contraction,
or a congealing of the energies of attention into a sense of a self
that has a storyline.

So, passion, aggression:
directed to the other,
or stupidity:
just ignoring what is going on. 

We see that these three words basically describe
the different states produced by this contraction into a self
with stories about how it is and how the world is
and "other" which is everything else,
we're describing the congealing,
the building up of energy
which would be inwardly focussed, outwardly focussed,
or just disposed to putting a covering over anything that might be noticed. 

Now, none of these things are useful
because they drain the capacities of the bodymind
and they catch us up just as thorns do,
thorns on bushes.
We, none of us sitting here will most likely ever see thorn trees,
or thorn bushes that are as big as they are today in certain parts of North Africa
around the Golden Triangle or the Fertile Crescent
and in South Asia
because there, there has been and are thorn trees
with thorns on them that are big enough
to puncture the tires on those huge construction equipment machines.

Imagine that, huh?
You wouldn't want that near your foot.

So, these "thorns"
that are being used to describe passion, aggression and stupidity,
and the ability of these unopened tendencies to grab, distort,
tear reality,
these thorns of passion, aggression and stupidity
can be cut through
and they can be cut through time after time after time
as they are seen in this moment. 

Now thorn trees, as I say, we'll never see big ones like that,
which is not to say that big ones that are growing in hotter climates will never grow here,
they may grow here as the climate changes.
These primal plants will grow bigger and bigger,
but we're not going to see them.

Things change.
Everything changes.
This moment is nothing solid.
You can't hang your hat on this moment,
you can't hang anything on this moment
because it is the rising and falling of moments of experience
which always changes. 

The instruction is when you notice ANYTHING—and that means...
you've noticed a portion of reality:

Feel the whole bodymind in the whole moment
and allow any tendency for contraction to grow
and to snag the fabric of reality and rip and tear it,
allow that to open through simply "makusa".

Doing nothing,
just seeing,
being the Knowing that you really are,
recognizing that any moments are knowns.

Any thing that is known is a known
and points to the fact of knowing. 

Now, students often get a little... impatient...
because we have patterns that tell us things that we've come to believe about ourselves:
that we're pretty smart,
this should not take us very long,
after all...

Well, recognize that as a pattern.
None of us know anything and really...
There is nothing to know.
There is just this moment presenting itself,
it's not as if there's a whole pile of knowns hanging from those thorn tree branches
and we have to find a way to get to them.
No, not at all.
There's just this moment.
We see the ways that we get snagged. 

Speaking of not knowing nothin'... I started to look into thorns thinking,
because of course the first thing that came to mind,
the first image that came to mind was guess what flower? 

Say it out loud. [students:] "Rose!" 



Those are not thorns. 

[O-sensei and students laugh loudly]

Those are prickles. [more laughter]

That comes direct from the Bureau of Sharp Proturberences That Grow On... [more laughter] 

So then we read a little bit further into it and the thorn is defined as a "sharp, modified stem".

Now, opinions vary.
Some say that the sickle shape of the thorn is for clinging and climbing.
Well, roses, which have prickles,
so you could say the crescent shaped prickle is for climbing and clinging.

Makes sense because there are lots of climbing roses.
So I think okay, I can see that,
all these plants climbing,
growing up over things,
and when the things that they grow up over disappeared over time,
they were left to grow into menacing branches
with great, sharp, pointy thorns and then someone said:
"Yeah, well, they have those things to protect themselves."

Is that true? No, that's an interpretation as well. That's a story. 

[O-sensei speaks in a high, "teacherly" voice]
"No, wait a minute,
they must have them so that they can grab onto animals passing by
and thus drop pollen
and what is needed for reproduction
and the spread of the species.
They can carry it to distant places." 

Yeah, that's a good one, Blanche, we'll buy that. [students laugh]

So before you know it,
we have all these different stories and they're taken very very seriously.

The thorn tree, if you choose to look it up and follow it,
the thorn tree plays a major role in certain cults.

I'll say no more.
If you're interested, there are stories. 

But, what you can remember,
whether you're looking at a prickle,
or a thorn, or if you've caught
or been caught by a piece of thistle,
which has little prickles or thorns on it,
you can remember that just as you can free yourself
or your garment from that little thorn or prickle,
so you can by practising,
cut through the thorns of passion, aggression, and stupidity
so that you no longer get snagged on them,
and so that the fabric of reality is as it is

which is open, free, and bright. 

So, the verse: 

Seeing thorn trees,

"May all beings

Quickly cut through

The thorns of passion, aggression, and stupidity." 

Thank you for listening.

[O-sensei jumps as though she had just been pricked, students giggle]