Based on a Dharma Talk given on 06/08/08 at Paririeyrth Zen Center Topeka, Kansas
Thank you all for your hard practice, it is good to be with you today.
As many of you know for the past four years I have been practicing with a woman who is imprisoned at Topeka Correctional Facility. We have slowly evolved from weekly meetings one on one, into a meditation class twice a month, alternating with a Kwan Um Buddhist Service twice a month. Both are open to any of the women incarcerated in minimum security at TCF. Twice a month I continue to meet with this lone Buddhist one on one, as her “Spiritual Advisor”, the prison’s designation for our relationship.
On one of these occasions recently, when I arrived I was told that we could not meet in one of our usual rooms: we would be meeting in the officer’s break room. No problem, we’ve had to meet there before. I went in to set up the altar, and this particular evening I was very, very tired. So instead of moving everything all around, I just moved two chairs and set up the altar on one of the tables where it was. While I was setting up, she was summoned to our meeting. When she arrived we greeted each other by bowing to each other, palmed joined, as we are not allowed to touch each other. We set down our cushions on the cold tile floor, and I opened the altar (she’s not allowed to touch the lighter, incense or the candles). I hit the moktak and we stood behind our cushions, and suddenly I notice we are smack in front of the Coca Cola machine. The bright loud Coca Cola machine. I cannot unplug it, this is a prison and I have no authority here what so ever. And so we begin, chanting Kwan Seum Bosal.
And I am immediately reminded, as is she it turns out, of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching about chanting practice “Even using Coca Cola as a mantra could help your life, if you practice correctly.” So there we are in the Prison Officer’s break room, facing this huge Coca Cola machine, chanting. And this teaching comes alive: “Kwan Seum Bosal, Coca Cola, Kwan Seum Bosal, Coca Cola ….”
Later, after we had completed our practice session that evening, we both talked about what a powerful experience that was to chant Kwan Seum Bosal, Evening Bell Chant, The Heart Sutra and the Great Darahni with that Coca Cola machine shining brightly before us, reminding us of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching.
Last weekend I was returning home after running some errands and as I was turning into our driveway, I saw a tiny baby bird at the edge of the driveway, almost in the gutter. So naturally I slowed the car and carefully turned to avoid it. I parked, got out of the car, and walked back down the drive and attempted to get the bird to move. It kept peeping cheeping at me, but I could not dissuade it from its reckless spot. Fearful that it would hop into the street and be killed, I finally scooped it up. It perched on my finger. Such a beautiful bird, a brown thrasher. It cheeped some more, “I’m hungry.” Well now what? Thrashers tend to hang out on the ground or in shrubs, but I was concerned that our outdoor cat Max would find this bird. So I wanted to save this little bird in my hand. And now one of its parents arrived looking for it, with a morsel in its mouth. It flew over me a few times demanding that I unhand the little bird. I spied a low branch in a locust tree and placed the bird there. I watched and listened awhile, then returned to the house. I went out to the yard again later, the baby Thrasher was gone from its perch. Inwardly I congratulated myself for saving it, and wondered where it had flown. Then to my utter delight, I saw three baby blue jays sitting on the ground in a cluster, beside our birdbath. Their parents were in the oak trees screaming at them. I imagine they were cajoling them to use their wings to fly and get out of range of Max the cat, who was napping on the front porch. So I joined in the chorus with the adult Blue Jays, “Fly you silly birds. The universe has wings and it can fly.” One of them made a short flight into the forsythia bushes, the other two just continued to sit there. I decided to let Max in the house for a while.
Oh! I was much delighted with all these fuzzy baby birds in the yard. When Christina arrived home later I told her about my encounters with the birds and commented, “I wish you’d have been here with your camera, they were so cute.”
An hour or so past. I went out to the car for something, and I saw a bird had been run over in the street. I went to look closer. It was a baby thrasher. I could see the stripes on its chest. I was so upset; I went into the house and cried. I regressed becoming like a little child, slumping against Christina. And I was asking myself, “what is this, what is this grief?’ Quickly I realized that this sense of loss was not about the bird at all, but about my perception of myself, the delusion that I had somehow saved this bird.
Finally, sometime later, I couldn't bear it that the bird's carcass was in the street. I walked down the driveway and into the road, peeling the flattened bird off the pavement and placed it in a flowerbed.
Yet the bird had something else to teach me. And I have been digesting this lesson all week.
A few days ago I was talking with Rebecca Otte on the phone and she asked me if I could give the Dharma talk today. “Oh sure, no problem.” Then last night I was complaining to Christina, “Why did I say I would give the talk? I don’t have anything to say, I don’t know anything.” I could only think to tell about the bird, but I hadn’t fully processed what had happened, let alone had a clue as to how to weave it into a Dharma Talk. So I went to bed and slept hoping for inspiration in a dream. Then this morning I woke up and just picked up the Compass of Zen and let it fall open. This Zen serendipity gave some direction on how to digest this incident and shape it into a talk. The page it fell open to was Zen Master Seung Sahns teaching on chanting: “The correct practice of meditation means attaining one pointed mind without wanting anything.” I wanted something: I wanted to save the bird from death. And also wanted the bird to remember me, for this is not the first time I have held a baby bird, believing I was saving it from danger.
Wanting a certain outcome, this is attachment, clinging - a link in the chain of dependent origination. Recognizing this I could trace it backwards – to desire, sensation, contact, the six senses --- all the way back to ignorance. I had picked up the bird to save it, deluding myself, “I am a great bodhisattva saving this bird from a death in the street.” This is Zen smugness. I thought I was becoming One with the Universe but instead I created life and death.
So another big mistake. Zen Master Seung Sahn taught use that our mistakes are not so important, it’s how you correct your mistake. Our mistakes can be great teaching. There was a Korean monk Sok Du – Rock Head – very very stupid monk, but he was very determined. One day he asked the Zen Master, What is Buddha? The Zen master replied, “Buddha is Mind.” But Sok Du misunderstood – they were speaking in Chinese, so he thought what the Zen Master said was “Buddha is grass shoes.” Sok Du didn’t question this, he just sat with this for many years, always everywhere, “Buddha is grass shoes, Buddha is grass shoes.” Until one day, we know the story, he was carrying a load of firewood down a hill, tripped in his grass shoes. Firewood went flying everywhere, the shoes flew in the air and landed and he saw they were all torn up. Sok Du mind opened he attained enlightenment; “Waaahh. Buddha is grass shoes.” He ran to the Zen master shouting, “Now I understand Buddha.” The Zen master asked him what he understood and Sok Du hit the Zen master over the head with the grass shoes. The Zen Master says, “Only that?” So Duk replies, “My grass shoes are all torn up.” And the Zen Master laughed, “Now you truly understand Buddha.”
So I came here this morning with these ideas for this Dharma talk but uncertain how to weave it together: Coca Cola, Grass Shoes, Road Kill. After we chanted and sat down for mediation I thought of Sok Du and his great determination and suddenly all these memories appeared and disappeared: our cat Sophia was killed in the road in front of our house. My sister was hit by a go cart right before my eyes, I was four and she was two. I thought she was dead lying there in the street in front of the house we lived in. My 16 year old nephew was killed in a car accident in 1985. All these memories juxtaposed with Sok Du's "Buddha is grass shoes" and then suddenly turned into “Buddha is road kill, Buddha is road kill.” BOOM. Something opened up inside. I held this new mantra while I meditated this morning with all of you.
More practice is necessary. "Buddha is road kill, Buddha is road kill...."
Tall Grass Zen