White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Every Breath You Take 89: Seeing Ascetics

Dharma Talk presented by Ven. Shikai Zuiko O-sensei

Dainen-ji, October 23rd, 2010

It's a brilliant October day
and you have hauled yourself away from whatever warm nest you might have been involved in.
You've cut through,
through seeing thoughts for what they really are,
a lot of recoil and reluctance,
and perhaps,
even if you were keen you may have noticed that that's a thought too.

So it's not the content, it's the fact of noticing

a dharma - a thought
a dharma - a moment of seeing something
a dharma - a moment of feeling the bodymind, the sensations of the bodymind,
the feet on the floor.

So anything that Knowing—
which is what you really are—
knows is a moment in which you can practise the whole bodymind with


You have to be alive to do this practice.
There are no corpses practising.
I know, I know, sometimes we may feel like that,
or sometimes we might even rather be...
But the reality is,
as long as you're breathing in and out,
as long as that heart's pumping,
you can notice,
you can notice those moments of clear seeing and practise,
and put an end to the nonsense patterns
that can literally tie up the bodymind
and make us feel all sorts of ways that work against our enjoyment of this moment.

Today's verse:

Seeing ascetics
"May all beings
By rigorous practices
Come to the Only Condition."

Well, as we chanted,

Awareness is the Only Condition.
All that is arises as the Display of Awareness.

Everything that arises shows us that Awareness is the Only Condition.

Because we're aware of it.
There's a Knowing of all of these dharma.

This is the Seamless Expanse of all that is.

Hey, that's how it is. Wow.

So that's what you're practising,
the Three Jewels says it all,
and if you need to be reminded,
feel free to go to the website
and to do an internal search for "the Three Jewels",
there is all sorts of information there.

The interesting thing about any sort of research
on any topic having to do with the Dharma
is that you'll find all sorts of points of view,
and that's really interesting because
when you have different points of view popping out,
you're seeing things from a larger perspective,
and you're not settling for a slogan,
you're not settling for a word as It,
you're not settling for The Word—
because that's murky, murky, murky.
Check your history.

Okay, so ascetics, ascetics, what pops to mind?
Well, we don't see it often in this part of the world and this time in history,
we don't see people going around naked,
covered in ash with their hair just growing wild,

we don't see people standing with a crutch under one arm
because they've vowed to stand only one leg for months or years,

we don't see people with one hand up in the air
because they've vowed to hold one hand up in the air for months or years,
we just don't see that kind of thing.

We don't see people being buried up to their neck in the ground...

One thing, unfortunately, that we really don't see enough of
is people keeping silent,
even in the face of verbal abuse. [O-sensei and students laugh]

Fasting, fasting, now that's another ascetic practice,
and the commitment to eating only certain foods in a certain way,
the avoidance of medicine or treatment in hospitals...

Well, that opens up all sorts of areas of exploration
which I really don't think we'll get into here,
but there are all sorts of practices,
things that people do that have fallen under
and come to be viewed as ascetic practices.

Now, the word ascetic comes from the Greek "askesis"
(and I have no idea how to say that)
and it means exercise or training
and it was originally associated with any act of discipline that was done in the training for a specific activity,
so this of course became associated with athletics,
which is what the Greeks were up to a lot,
and now it has evolved over the centuries into a word
that is viewed as someone denying themselves any sort of worldly pleasures
with the aim of pursuing religious or spiritual goals.
So in the popular imagination,
asceticism can be seen as excessive or masochistic.

That's the problem with words, isn't it?
But in the so called spiritual form,
asceticism was engaged in to bring about greater freedom,
freedom from compulsion and temptation,
peacefulness of mind,
to aid in an increase in clarity and power of thought.

In the early twentieth century,
the sociologists got into it and they came up with classifications,
of course, because we human beings love classifications.

Worldly asceticism:
those who live ascetically but don't withdraw from the world.

people who withdraw from the world in order to live an ascetic life.

...and this source said:
"monks who live communally in monasteries, hermits who live alone."

Of course obviously there are a lot of problems with this line of thinking
and the first one is,
and I've always had problems with this:
"withdrawing from the world":
how do you do that?
How do you withdraw from the world?

Here we are, sitting in the Hatto,
the second floor of Dainen-ji,
breathing air that has come from the outside in,
that has been breathed in and out by the trees,
by all the animals,
by all beings,
what can we do,
what magic little button can we push
that will make us withdraw from the world?

Now, okay, okay I'm prepared to cut people a little slack with this,
I know what they mean,
they mean that we're withdrawing from the hurly burly of usual social activity,
but that's just not the case, is it?

Now, Gautama Siddhartha, the Budda,
the one who did practise an ascetic lifestyle,
he himself did not write about this,
but tales were told after he'd woken up
and come into contact with people through his various wanderings around India.
The story is that he'd adopted an extremely ascetic lifestyle
after leaving life in a palace which,
compared to how the usual grunt got along,
was probably incredibly decadent,
what with food... [O-sensei and students laugh] ...water, stuff like that.

It's interesting too,
the things we do take for granted,
so you say food: decadent,
water: decadent.
Here we are sitting in the Hatto in Dainen-ji
when more than half the world is sitting or lying down
or in the process of dying
because of not having food and water and shelter,
these things that we take for granted every moment.

Anyway, Gautama Siddhartha, 2600 years ago,
left the palace wanting to find out who he was,
what this life was,
what was going on,
so he did as many of us have done:
he looked around,
he saw people doing things and decided well,
they're doing it,
they're seeking after the answer to what's going on,
so perhaps I'll stand on one leg and cover myself with ash for a while.

And that wasn't really it,
so he engaged in other practices of denial in his wanderings
until apparently he was existing on one grain of rice a day
and there are carvings,
showing an extremely emaciated person...

One day, rumour has it,
the story has it,
someone, apparently it was a milkmaid—
those milkmaids eh? [laughter]—
seduced him with some milk and rice and he took a grain of rice and said:
"That's it, I'm giving up this not eating business".
Then, having done whatever he thought he could do,
sat down on a bunch of grass and said:
"That's it, I'm not moving until I figure out what's going on".

And he realized that he's not his thoughts and feelings,
he's the Knowing of thoughts and feelings and bodily experience
the Knowing of the experiencing of the bodymind,
not contained within the bodymind
wrapped up securely in stories about who he is and what is going on.

So he dropped all of that,
stood up,
starting to walk around and have a good time,
and he was having such a good time,
people started coming up and saying:
"Hey, you look like you're having a good time!" [laughter]
"What do you know that I don't know?"
And so it all started.

Well, that's how people are, yes?

So, Gautama Siddhartha,
after having experienced the decadence of palace life,
and the futility of that type of asceticism,
chose a path which was basically meeting the needs of the body
without crossing over into luxury and indulgence,
and he taught the practice of sitting,
looking into experiencing moment to moment,
just as you're doing right now
as you sit there in this whole body activity,
which has also been described as
"riding the wild horse of mind".

Yahoo cowboy!
There you go! [laughter]
It's true, I did not just make that up.

So riding the wild horse of mind is a whole body activity,
it requires exertion and you find—
well, the metaphor is a metaphor, there's no horse there—
but there can be a lot of "up and down" as you're sitting.

You start to notice things about experiencing in the moment,
how your stories about how this is really, really, really,
incredibly rigorous and painful
maybe just don't hold up to scrutiny...
because in order for sensation to turn into pain
that you don't think you can bear for another moment,
it requires a lot of thoughts

So as you're sitting there, you're seeing that how the mind is is reflected in how the body is.
If the bodymind is falling forward,
if it is crunching down,
if it is straightened,
you start to notice that there's more available of the Reality of this moment
than whatever it is that self-image was using to amuse itself.

You've had a moment of clear seeing.
At that moment of clear seeing,
you practise the whole bodymind.
That's how the bodymind learns.
So you just keep doing it and doing it, that's the discipline,
the willingness to learn,
and in order to learn,
there are parameters that are set so that you can see how you are doing.
The forms we use at Dainen-ji in this practice are there to show you how you are,
to show you how you can feel into more and more of the bodymind. 

One way of looking at it,
and we could really, really get into them,
doing so many that we're on automatic
and we've cranked up so many endorphins that we're actually out of it.
Well that kind of thing is not encouraged because
that would be obsession,
that would be falling into a state.
So, when you are doing a great bow,
you are feeling how the bodymind is,
you are feeling how the bones are,
you are feeling how
when you raise the arms,
you can feel the sides and the back,
you're feeling when you breathe out and drop down to the floor,
you're feeling the creaks and the groans,
perhaps what you're doing is balancing a bit more carefully
rather than falling for your thought about, say,
going out of balance,
because what happens when you have that thought that says:

"Oh, I think I'm going to fall!"
well you just might...

We've all experienced that phenomena,
but when you start to notice those thoughts,

You notice you can feel more and more completely into the nuances of experiencing in this moment.

So, the verse again:

Seeing ascetics
"May all beings
By rigorous practices

So, be rigorous in your practice.

Recognize you're alive.

Practise that vitality.

Awareness is the Only Condition.

Thank you for listening.