The Fish, the Bird, the Spider and the Centipede

Shuso Hossen Dharma Talk by Ven. Endai shuso

Presented at Dainen-ji, December 14, 2019

Gratitude and thanks

Feeling the breath at the diaphragm and the tanden. Feeling the feet, the backs of the knees, the backside on the zafu. Feeling arms, the hands in the mudra, the back of the elbows. Letting seeing relax, opening to peripheral vision. Sensing the smells in the room; the tastes in the mouth. In each moment, experience is detailed, expansive and bright. It is our Teachers who have taught us to do this practice of mindfulness and insight. It is they who point us toward the richness of our lives. I am very grateful to all my Teachers for what I have learned through practice.

Thank you to the Venerable Jinmyo Renge osho, my root Teacher since I became a probationary formal student in 2009, and to the Venerable Anzan Hoshin roshi, who oversees the instruction of each and every person who is accepted as a student of the White Wind Zen Community. Thank you to the Venerable Shikai Zuiko sensei, whose sense of humour and creativity, grounded in this practice, have taught me a tremendous amount.

Almost everyday, the Teachers and practice advisors, the Venerable Chunen angya, the Venerable Mishin godo and the Venerable Saigyo ino, meet with students in person or remotely to provide them instruction in the practice of Zen. When I think about the dedication and skill that is required to carry out the role of a practice advisor, I feel both awe and gratitude toward them.

Thank you to all of my Teachers and the senior monks from whom I have learned and continue to learn so much.

How Teachers live their lives

In this talk, I would like to explore the question of who the Teacher is and what she is teaching.

The Teacher has eyes and a nose just like you. She may even wear glasses just like you. But beyond these superficial similarities, there are also tremendous differences in the way that she has chosen to live her life and the way that most students, let alone most people, do so.

The Teachers in this Lineage are in the monastery teaching students twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Teachers live this way because they take their vows seriously. We all chant the “Four Great Vows” at the end of each formal and general sitting, but how many of us live our lives in accordance with what we chant? A Teacher is someone who takes seriously the vow “All beings without number I vow to liberate.”

I do not teach students; I am still a student. So I have a good idea of what students get into, and therefore some idea of what Teachers face when they vow to teach us. As students, we are somewhat like centipedes; and I know centipedes quite well because my room is in the basement, and so they are my neighbours.

Many people find house centipedes somewhat frightening due to their many legs, their long antennae, their sudden bursts of speed, and their amazing ability to be still for long periods of time. However, if you observe them closely, you discover that they come in an array of beautiful shades of yellow, grey, brown, black and red. And centipedes serve a very useful function in a building by controlling the insect and spider population.

Now how are centipedes like students? Very frequently, I find that a centipede has fallen into the pan of the shower from which it cannot escape due to the high slippery sides, and so before I take my morning shower, I have to save it by extending a paper hand towel into the pan to give it some traction to climb out to safety. I sometimes imagine how it got in the shower in the first place. According to an entomologist at Iowa State University, contrary to popular belief, centipedes don’t climb out of drains: they fall into sinks, tubs and showers from the top.

So picture the centipede: it climbs up the edge of the shower pan and peers in. It smells like there might be good hunting: there is a lot of dead organic matter at the bottom of even a clean shower. The centipede begins to lean over the edge of the pan. Its two front legs start to slide along the smooth side of the shower pan. It thinks to itself: “No problem, I have ninety-eight other legs to hold on with”. Tempted by the smells, and perhaps curiosity, it leans further in. Four legs go over the edge, six legs, eight legs, ten legs. “No problem”, it thinks to itself, “just a little bit further . . . just a little bit further . . . .” until suddenly there is the sound of one hundred desperately scrabbling legs and a very low scream, the centipede equivalent of “Oh nooooooooooooo” as it falls into the shower.

As students, we often follow our states, feeling tones and thoughts just like a centipede leaning over the edge of the shower pan. Now, our Teachers have taught us to feel the breath, to feel the feet, hands and backside on the zafu. Every time we notice a state or thought, this is a reminder and an opportunity to practice. But states and thoughts, habitual storylines, are just like the slippery sides of the shower pan, and we relate to them like the centipede. We lean over the edge and peer at the various storylines. We realize we are slowly slipping into them, but we think: “I’m just going to lean into this a bit more. I won’t fall in completely. But I just want a little more. . . .” Until, like the centipede, flailing uselessly, we give in to our habitual patterns completely.

Teachers have vowed to extend us a metaphorical paper hand towel, only it looks like a zafu: a tried and tested means for helping us to pull ourselves out of the shower pan of discursiveness, storylines and feeling tones into which we have fallen.

And they do this again and again. Because just like centipedes, who seem to keep falling into the shower, we choose to follow our habitual patterns rather than choosing to practice. Each moment gives us a choice to practice. Teachers remind us of this fact and show us how to make a real choice: perhaps the only real choice that we can make.

And just as it is a bit sad to see yet another centipede has fallen into the shower, it must be heart-breaking for Teachers to see their students fall again and again into the shower pan of their habitual patterns. But with patience, skill and perseverance, they keep extending to us a way of helping ourselves. This is a small part of what it must be like to be a Teacher.

What Teachers are pointing to

Now what are Teachers teaching us? As students, we tend to separate the practice our Teachers teach us and what the practice points to.

But Teachers are not just teaching us a practice. They are pointing to something basic about the nature of reality. As students, we align with the Teacher because doing so helps us to see more clearly what they are pointing to. But what is this? What is the Teacher teaching us to align with?

In “Hotsu Mujoshin” (“Giving Rise to the Unsurpassable Mind”), a text in the “Shobogenzo”, Dogen zenji explains the intimate relationship between practice and what practice points to. He writes,

Practising zazen and learning the Way are raising the mind that seeks the Way. Arousing the mind which seeks the Way is not the same as zazen nor different from it, and zazen is neither the same as raising the mind which seeks the Way nor different from it; nor are they two or three things, nor are they different. You should study everything in this way.

In her Dharma Talk, “Braising the Mind of the Way”, Ven. Jinmyo Renge osho explained what Dogen zenji meant when he wrote this passage:

The Dharma of luminous Awareness is not "out there" somehow separate from us, something that we need to attain. It is right here, right under our nose, all of the time. The practice of zazen is sometimes called "the practice of recognition" and what it is that we come to recognize is that each and every moment is Dharma; each moment of experiencing is Dharma. We have never, can never be separate from the Dharma. And yet it can appear that way to us.

The Teacher is not just just teaching us the practice of zazen. She is at the same time teaching us what zazen points to, something that is right under our noses in every moment. 

The practice and what it points to are not identical, but they are not separate. As Dogen zenji says, “the mind which seeks the Way is not the same as zazen nor different from it”. We do not practise zazen to obtain something that is somehow separate from practising it. Rather, in practising zazen, we practise our inherent capacity to recognize something true about reality: the “mind that seeks the Way”, to use Dogen zenji’s words. This is what the Teacher is encouraging us to look into in every moment. In practising zazen, we are practising our capacity to understand who we are and what is really going on.

Let me use another denizen of the basement to illustrate this point: the spider. Like sitting zazen, the spinning of the web is an activity. Its goal is not to make something or to gain something that is separate from the doing of it. When you observe a spider spinning and using its web, you are observing it doing something that is aligned with its own nature and the environment around it. Spinning the web, sitting in it, patiently waiting, springing suddenly into action, killing and eating -- the life of the spider is nothing other than doing these things. 

The practice our Teachers teach us bears a similar relationship to our lives as the spider’s web does to its life: doing the practice is not separate from “the mind which seeks the Way”, to use Dogen zenji’s term, or “the practice of recognition”, as Jinmyo osho said. The making of the spider’s web is the activity of the spider in the world; and at the same time, it is an unfolding of the world as the spider’s activity. Without the web, the activity of insects, the air currents in the basement, the spider would die. The practice our Teachers teach us is an activity that allows us to see clearly the unfolding of the world as our lives.

We have a tendency to think that when we are sitting zazen and doing the practice our Teachers have taught us, there is a “we”, an “I”, who is dutifully doing the practice. And we think that if we keep going, someday this “I” will have some insight into the nature of the world “out there” separate from us.  But we do not realize that it is we who are creating this division, this separation, between ourselves and the world. The Teacher teaches us a practice that clearly points this out to us: through practising zazen, we can directly experience the intimacy that is the actual nature of reality and also experience the ways in which we disrupt it.

Dogen zenji explains the intimate relationship between reality and our lives in a text we chant several times a week at formal sittings called the “Zazenshin”, which is also part of the Shobogenzo. In that text, Dogen zenji says, 

The water is clear right through to the earth:
the fish swims like a fish.
The sky’s vastness penetrates the heavens:
the bird flies like a bird.

What is teaching the fish to swim like a fish? It is not the fish, dutifully learning to swim -- to mimic its idea of how a fish swims. What is teaching the fish is the fact that the fish is swimming in water that is clear right through to the earth, always, in every moment. What is teaching the bird to fly? It is not the bird following the instruction book of flight. What is teaching the bird is the context in which it finds itself: the vast sky, penetrating every corner of the heavens including the bird itself. And in each case, the fish and the bird have a choice to make: they can open to what the whole context of reality is teaching. 

And if they don’t do so, look out! As Dogen zenji explains in the “Genjokoan”, without the water, the fish would die. Without the sky, the bird would die. He writes,

No matter how far a fish swims, it doesn't come to the end of the ocean. No matter how far a bird flies, it doesn't come to the end of the sky. Since the beginning, fish and birds have always been one with their elements. When there is a great need, a great use appears. When there is a small need, a small use appears. Thus the full use of things is always as it is. Wherever something is, it covers its own ground. If a bird cut itself off from the sky it would die. If a fish cut itself off from water it would die. Also, the life of the sky is the bird itself, the life of the water is the fish. The bird is life, the fish is life. You can expand on these examples if you'd like. Practice, enlightenment, long and short life are examples.

In every moment, reality is teaching us all that we need to know. As Dogen zenji says, “since the beginning, fish and birds have always been one with their elements.” Likewise, the spider and the web are not separate: a moment of separation, and the spider misses its meal. The living of the bird, of the fish, of the spider, each moment of experiencing, is the Dharma, right before our eyes and under our noses. 

This is what a true Teacher is pointing to in each moment of her living, breathing, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, feeling . . . and teaching. 

If we follow the instructions we are given, we eventually realize that we can meet the Teacher in every moment of our lives: the whole of reality is teaching us everything we need to know. Meet each moment with practice: open eyes, ears, nose, taste, touch and thought.

Thank you.