Paint and Pain and Process

Senior's Dharma Talk upon the occasion of Taiko-tokudo

by Ven. Saigyo ino

Dainen-ji, February 19, 2010

With the last stroke of the paint brush I step back and admire the now perfectly white wall, basking in the glow of a job well done...and it was well done because the time was taken to prepare the walls properly, the right materials were purchased and they were used well. Ah. so nice.

A couple of weeks later the grey palm print shows up clearly. If I look closely I can almost make out the fingerprints. Look what they did to "my fresh paint". If I dust the zafu perhaps I can match them up and find out who it was. The walls in a monastery are used as a tool of our practice so for the shissui, the monastic caretaking leader, the details of walls stand out. Walking through practice rooms in kinhin, walking through hallways, my eye has been trained to notice every ding, every flaw, every smudge, everything that is not smooth...and white.

A student, unsteady on their feet at the end of a sitting round stands up and... PUTS THEIR HAND on the wall. Nooooooooo!

I know there are eight other hand prints already there to match this one. And they won't just wash off. Hands have oils on them that penetrate paint and leave an indelible stain. Paint. How much paint do we have left? When am I going to have time to paint that wall? And so it goes.

The wood I am carrying to the attic is just a bit longer than I had judged and it clips the door trim and a large chunk of recently applied semi-gloss comes away. Ach. In the view of self-image what was fixed as something permanent clearly is not and there is a flaring of reactivity. That wasn't meant to happen. There is a leak under the Common Room sink that only a few weeks ago had a brand new tap installed in it. The Mountain Gate is broken...again. There is always work to be done and no job is ever really finished. And with all of these tasks there can be carried along various stances we can have about them...some we like to do, some we dislike, most we are simply indifferent towards.

Sometimes knees hurt from kneeling under a sink while repairing a pipe; sometimes eyes sting from clouds of drywall dust; sometimes a wrong step leads to a fall in a cold pond. Sometimes reactivity will flare when paint is chipped and sometimes the last thing I want to do is fetch a bottle of milk for someone. When it's like that, all I want is for all difficulty to go away. Just go away!

Sometimes, as Joshu Dainen roshi says in "Water Burns the Stone",

"Effort, effort, effort. Your shoulders are stiff, your foreheads are tight, your knuckles are white and your underpants smell. What's wrong with you? We are only three days into this sesshin. Where do you think you're going?

So, how do I practise with all of this?

Can I allow all of the complexity that I tend bring to the tasks I do, all of the stances and opinions and feelings I have about what I do, to be released into the simplicity of just doing what I am doing? Can I practice releasing reactivity, resentments and recoil when it is seen. Yes. Yes, I can. Of course I can. And so can you.

To do this we need to learn how to stay with the details of what is actually going on right here and now and we learn this by facing the wall in zazen.

Anzan Hoshin roshi speaks about this in a jishu or informal talk from 1986, " Active Recognition: On work" He says:

"We tend to ignore the fine details that compose everything that we do and only recognise coarse lumps and chunks of them. For example, when we have a task to do, we start the task by thinking about how it will be when it is finished, and what we're going to be doing after that. In Zen, we begin a task by noticing the details that we're working on at this moment. In the next moment, we're working on another detail, and in the next moment another detail; and at some point the task is finished. That means simply that we go on to other details, other moments of seeing, hearing, touching, colours and sounds. The task was never really finished because it was never really there, but it was done completely because each detail was done completely".

To learn to stay with the details of present experience requires that we see all of the ways in which we tend not to do this. If we can see the ways in which attention drifts or narrows and fixates, glazes and sinks, or burrows into memories or projections about a future, then in the noticing of that we can do something about it. We use use that moment of noticing to practise opening attention, coming back to these sensations, these colours and forms and sounds and fragrances, the details of what is being experienced right here and now.

What is needed is steady follow-through, a willingness to work with and release reactivity when it is seen and patience learnt from sitting.

Joshu roshi says in "Water Burns the Stone":

"One moment of just sitting is one moment of enlightenment." These are the words of the Buddhas and Dharma Ancestors. These are words of a dead bald man, Dogen Kigen zenji. One instant of true practice is one instant of enlightenment. True practice is true effort. True effort is true non-effort. True non-effort is without mind so it is Mu-shin (no-mind). Mu-shin is right this moment now. This is instantaneous enlightenment: enlightenment occurs in each instant. Without past, without future, without even "now", seeing clearly is practice. Anzan sensei has a phrase which I like: "It does not matter what is seen, it is the seeing that matters."

Sitting facing the wall for moment everything is clear and bright. Letting go of whatever it was we seemed to be holding onto there is the wall, the colours, sounds and sensations of the body... free of struggle and effortless for a moment, just sitting. Yet the tendency to become lazy and stop making the effort to open, to step back from this openness into a sense of a self perched behind the eyes and then bask in a 'job well done' will come up here too. Self-image wants to hold on to, to recreate and solidify the experience and attempt to create some kind of permanence. The sense of self wishes to claim it, as if it was something "I" did and with the logic goes that if it was 'done' by a self, then it can be recreated by a self.

But mindfulness is not something we can re-create. We cannot hold onto mindfulness. It is not a technique we use to see the world in a certain way, as if we need to look through a pair of "mindfulness glasses" at a world transformed. It is seeing the world, it is hearing the world, it is feeling the world just as it is. The fact of impermanence requires we let go of our attempts to hold on.

Now that moment of openness was, so to speak, 'a job well done'. A moment of actually practising open attention is powerful and tangible and important. It was through the efforts made to follow through with what is being taught that there was some recognition, some clarity and this is good. But what about in the next moment? If we take that moment and try to claim it then this is a kind of greed, of wanting instant gratification. Rather like a kid who not only eats a chocolate but then stuff as much into their mouth a possible and more, stuffing pockets with it, putting it in their shoes. Maybe there will never be a chance to get chocolate again. This is poverty mind. This also comes up of course with projects. Rushing through a project so that one can get to the "glowing" bit at the end is a kind of greed that needs to be noticed and released. I know this one very well indeed. Enthusiastically flinging oneself into a task only to burn out soon after due to apparent obstructions is much the same as someone flinging themselves at Zen, hoping they'll be transformed after a couple of sittings.

It's all just moments. Whether sitting one round or eight, one day of retreat or seven, doing a small task or what seems to be a huge task, it's all just moments, just details coming and going, rising and falling moment-to-moment. And it's so easy to forget that, to let that understanding be covered over by an attitude.

From "Water Burns the Stone" again:

"True effort is like water. It flows and fills the hollows, it goes where it needs to. Subtle. Subt-le. You can't hold water back with your bare hands and can't push it forward. It moves freely, clearly. Slowly, water will burn away the rocks of your delusions. Always water is fresh. Quickly, water flows. Okay! Enough. If you remember any of this, remember that water burns the stone."

Aside from the continuous repairs a building the size and age of Dainen-ji requires, there are also the improvements we have made to the building and the grounds. For instance, we started with a plan for a small water feature at east side of the property. This became a low waterfall into a small pond but then the small pond expanded into two big ponds with a pair of streams...and a stone bridge. Then a larger waterfall. Then an extra pond eliminating one of the streams that was poorly constructed the first time. And as this project expanded, so did my understanding of what was needed to help it all function properly. Three small fish who were early residents of the pond have now grown into very large koi who cannot winter in the shallow pond, so it was also necessary to learn to build a large indoor tank on the third floor of the monastery. And all of those moments of learning and digging and laying liners and learning about water plants, and pond pump capacities and how to build a large wooden fish tank - those moments are all gone. But the koi are healthy and well-cared for. I see them every day and their eyes are bright and interested. And I am glad that in the spring they will have a good time in the large ponds. All of the efforts that I and others made to make this possible are just part of the coming and going of things, just moments along the way.

Which of these moments can be stopped in freeze-frame and held up to be the glowing culmination of something 'finished'? It's never finished. Have you seen the size of Barry, one of the koi in the 3rd floor indoor tank?... he's outgrowing it fast.

It's all in process. Just as practice is a process, so is all of life and everything we do.

There is a story the Roshi told me about his teacher, Joshu Dainen roshi. At Hakukaze-ji in the 1970s, Joshu roshi said that he wanted a rock and sand garden to be built, although as they had no money and no sand or gravel it would be a rock and raked soil garden. A rough plan was drawn up and Joshu roshi had Anzan Hoshin roshi pick up and move the stones around and into place. These were big stones and the summer sun was blazing and it was exhausting work. Joshu roshi would have a stone moved back and forth five times, then another one eight times, then the first one another three times and on nd on. Then Joshu roshi started laughing. Anzan roshi asked him why. Joshu roshi said, That's it. Finished". Anzan roshi questioned this saying that the rocks were not set, it looks terrible, and this one is still in my hands, or something like that. Joshu roshi replied that this work was not about that. He had never intended to build a garden. He hated them anyway. It was not about a finished product. Anzan roshi told me that it also was not about a student taking orders from their Teacher and just doing what ever they are told to do. This was about simply doing what you are doing. Anzan roshi commented that it no doubt was also about how silly he looked panting and gasping and red-faced with scratches all along his arms and chest. He said they both laughed pretty long and hard. Picture them there, Anzan roshi still very young and tall, towering above Joshu roshi who was under five feet, laughing.

There is always much to do in order to maintain and improve the environment of Dainen-ji. But what immeasurably important work this is...providing the best environment possible for this practice of realization of the Buddhas and Awakened Ancestors, for ourselves, the Sangha that is here now, and for those who will come after us. With care, this monastery can last for many generations of Teachers and students.

So amongst all of the numerous activities of the White Wind Zen Community the shissui and Caretaking Council and students do just this...keep the environment as conducive to practice as we can... painting walls, repairing chipped trim, mending leaks, filling ponds....

The samu that is done is an embodiment of the Samu Chant which we recite before each period of work:

"Before the Buddhas and Awakened Ancestors,
standing in the midst of all beings,
We vow to dedicate this caretaking practice to the liberation of all beings.

May all beings be happy, may they be peaceful, may they be free.
May all beings be happy, may they be peaceful, may they be free.
May all beings be happy, may they be peaceful, may they be free."

As the Roshi said to me once, This is just what we do here.