About seven years ago, my wife and I visited the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos, New Mexico. We hadn’t gone to Taos intending to visit the museum. We had gone there to see the famed Taos Pueblo, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site— but when we saw the museum in town, we thought we would drop by. At that point, Kit Carson was just a name to me like Bat Masterson, Davy Crocket, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp—one of the legends of the wild west one might read about in a dime novels or see in old black-and-white Saturday matinee movies. His story, however, is a bit more complicated.
While at the museum I bought a copy of Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder—a biography of Carson. What I learned is that Carson was one of those astonishing 19th Century American figures who were larger than life. You get the same feeling when you read the biographies of Ulysses Simpson Grant, or Theodore Roosevelt, or Frederick Douglass—how could people such as these have really walked the earth? It seems we have no one quite like them today. At any rate, Carson’s courage, endurance, competence, and steadfastness could have qualified him, like Achilles, to be the hero of his own Homeric epic.
There was, alas, also an ironic aspect to his life. As a frontiersman, fur trapper, mountain man, and scout, he loved the wilderness, and was more at home with the ways of the Native American peoples than he was with the white settlers who brought the corruption of their civilization along with them. His first wife was an Arapaho woman named Singing Grass who died in childbirth. His second wife was a Cheyenne woman named Making Out Road who divorced him the Cheyenne way by dumping his belongings outside their tent. Despite his sympathy for Native American life, however, he was a military man who believed in following orders, and he became the general who brutally defeated the Navajo and Apache nations, herding them off their ancestral lands to an area no white man could possibly want at Bosque Redondo Reservation. Unlike the vainglorious General George Custer, Kit Carson was humble and competent. If you gave him a job to do, he did it. Many Navajo starved during his brutal roundup at Canyon de Chelly, or died on the long walk to Bosco Redondo, or sickened and starved after arriving at the barren reservation. Carson was put in charge of managing Bosque Redondo, but eventually quit in disgust. He did not approve of the way the United States government was handling its responsibilities to these defeated peoples.
History’s judgment of Carson has been mixed. He is both a hero and a villain—perhaps a bit of both. Carson himself seemed cannily aware of how history might judge him. On the wall of the museum is a sign with a saying of his—he couldn’t have written it because he couldn’t read or write—a saying which best summarizes his life. The sign reads, ”I don’t know if I did right or wrong, but I always did my best.”
I’ve thought of that sign often over the past seven years. There is something very Zen about it. We never know all the long term and broader consequences of our actions in advance. We might succeed in helping someone, but in the process inadvertently end up hurting someone else. We might do something that helps in the short run, but ends up hurting in the long run. Every solution to a problem ends up creating new problems. Look how the Internet, which was supposed to bring us all together has ended up dividing us worse than ever. We can’t ultimately know whether things will, everything considered, turn out right or wrong. We can only do our best. It’s a real accomplishment if we can say that, no matter what, we always did our best as we understood it at the time.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said something similar about Zen. He said, ”Zen is making your best effort on each moment, forever.” Anyone else might have said ”in the moment,” but Suzuki Roshi’s Japanese-inflected English made it ”on the moment”— the way a singer lands ”on a note,” neither flat nor sharp. Being ”on the moment” seems different from being ”in the moment,” a phrase that suggests something improvisatory and on the fly. ”On the moment,” is more like Aristotle’s ”hitting the mark,” that is, doing the right thing in the right way at the right time.
So, what does it mean to make our best effort on each moment during sesshin?
Should we sit as if our hair was on fire—or is zazen ”the Dharma gate of bliss and repose?”
Dogen Zenji said both.
That reminds me of an old joke about a rabbi who listens to the complaints of a squabbling marital couple. He listens first to the husband’s side and says, ”You’re right.” He listens next to the wife, and says ”you’re right.” The rabbi’s student, who has been sitting in the corner listening to all this, turns to the rabbi and says, ”but Rabbi, they both can’t be right.” The rabbi replies, ”You know what? You’re right too!”
So, do we practice with our hair on fire, or do we enjoy the Dharma gate of bliss and repose? It seems to me, there are moments during every sesshin when one or the other seem to be appropriate. But how do we know on any given moment whether we ought to be striving harder, or relaxing into way things are?
The sayings of the great teachers can illuminate certain moments, but we can’t allow ourselves to be limited by them. They can only take us so far. We must always be the ones who decide for ourselves what practice is for us on each moment. Suzuki Roshi said, ”You cannot say Buddhism was completed by Dogen Zenji. If you think it was, the Shobogenzo becomes like a coffee shop on the freeway. Dogen will be very angry if you stay there.”
Toni Packer’s The Light of Discovery contains an illuminating conversation with Joan Tollifson. Joan, as you may know, is a non-dual teacher who is not affiliated with any tradition. She spent several years residing at Toni Packer’s Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry. Toni, as you may know, was a Dharma heir to Phillip Kapleau Roshi, who, inspired by Krishnamurti, eventually dropped the designation ”Zen Buddhist teacher,” to become just a ”Zen teacher,” and then later dropped both the ”Zen” and the ”teacher” to become just ”Toni.” I had the good fortune to be on a number of retreats with Toni, and consider her one of my most important teachers.
Anyway, in that illuminating conversation, Joan asks Toni, ”If I want to see through these ideas that I’m creating and arrive at this more open and spacious place, what should I do?”
And Toni replies, ”Can we start where we are and not attempt to get someplace? That is another idea, the idea of ”an open space.” What is going on right now? Does wanting to be in an open place arise because one has heard about an open place and is feeling closed up inside? Can there be an immediate listening to where we are now—wanting open spaces—and also hear the birds singing at the same time, the breathing that is going on? We get caught up with the idea of where we want to be and are oblivious to what is actually going on right now.”
What we should be doing in sesshin is just that.
Being aware of what is actually happening right now.
On any moment, we are doing one of two things—thinking or being aware. Thinking includes every project you think you are doing here. Becoming concentrated, becoming enlightened, becoming peaceful. These are all just thoughts. These are all ego-centered plans. Is it possible to just see them? This doesn’t mean the ego-centered plans disappear. It means that when they appear, we see them as ”thought,” and see them occurring in a larger space. And if that larger space isn’t here, we see the yearning for that larger space that isn’t present.
Let me say a word about that larger space. A few weeks ago I heard Jon Kabat-Zinn suggest that we envision thinking as the waves on top of the ocean, but the ocean itself is vast, deep, and still and undisturbed by the waves. Our motives to be someplace other than where we are now are like tiny trails of bubbles appearing and disappearing in the ocean’s depths. They aren’t a problem. They are just there, along with everything else.
Jon’s ocean metaphor is like Dogen’s idea of enlightenment occurring together with delusion—delusion isn’t excluded from enlightenment—enlightenment contains both enlightenment and non-enlightenment—they are not two. Jon’s ocean metaphor is a lovely metaphor for the kind of vast openness we may at times experience. But don’t be fooled into thinking that’s where you should try to be, or where you should be. We are always just where we are. The hardest part of sesshin is being just where you are, even if you wish it otherwise.
We are invited to stay here with what is, whatever appears.
Sometimes this is openness, spaciousness, and clarity. Sometimes it is lifelessness and boredom. Sometimes it is agony and despair.
We endlessly abandon all of our plans and projects and open to what life is for us right now.
But, there is one plan and project we do not abandon. We give ourselves over completely to the form of sesshin. Just do it, just follow it. Or we fight the form every inch of the way. Whatever we do, we are giving ourselves over to the form or fighting the form. Everything is grist for the mill. We each get through sesshin however we can. As Dogen said in his Extensive Record, ”There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another.” So we do our zazen wrong. Is there any other way to do it?
The most fundamental element of sesshin is trust. Trust in the process. Trust that you don’t do zazen, zazen does you. Trust that if you give yourself over fully to the form, there will be benefit. Trust that, paraphrasing the Rolling Stones, you may not be able to get the sesshin you want, you will get the sesshin you need.
Every sesshin I have been on has been different. Some have been filled with moments of blissful illumination, some have not. Some have been relentless struggle. I know what it is like to be greedy for blissful moments, but being greedy for them only shows you your own greed. Blissful moments either come, or they don’t. That’s all we can say.
But I think it’s fair to say that the sesshins that have proved most valuable have not necessarily been the ones marked by great openings, but one’s in which I have more clearly seen my own crap. Because, that’s much of what goes on, isn’t it? My wants, my fantasies, my plans, my strivings, my hopes, my greed, my anger, my doubts, my anxieties, my pain, my deficiencies, my ignorance, my monkey mind? The whole melodrama of me-ness. We want so much to get to that other shore—the place of attainment, enlightenment, bliss, wisdom, and compassion. We think that shore is some other place, and not this place right here. We think that when we finally arrive there, we will no longer have any stink about us.
And here and there, there are moments that come—or they don’t. One’s in which we intuit a wholeness that includes everything we have been trying so hard to rid ourselves of but never quite can. A place of great openness, acceptance, equanimity, and love.
And then its gone. But it’s never really gone. That experience has already changed you. You are already different for having experienced it. Not greatly different. Not entirely different. But different still. And how can something be gone when it’s always right here?
So, I don’t know If you are doing your practice right or wrong, but I encourage you, like Kit Carson, to do your best, however you understand the word ”best,” on each moment, knowing also that the meaning of ”best” changes from moment to moment.
I will leave you with a story about a former patient of mine from a long time ago when I was teaching meditation to patients in a psychiatric hospital. The patient was in hospital because she was struggling with many significant problems we needn’t go into here. She came regularly to my weekly meditation group. The meditation group was open to inpatients, partial hospital patients, and intensive outpatients, so people could potentially attend over a long periods of time—and this was especially true for patients like her who cycled through several inpatient admissions interspersed with partial hospitalizations and intensive outpatient treatment. At any rate, while the patient was hospitalized, the patient’s adult daughter was murdered. The patient asked, at the beginning of the meditation group, whether she ought to focus on her breath to keep the pain of the loss of her daughter at bay, or whether she should she open to the pain and just be present with it. She already knew from past meditation experience that ”just being present with it” did not mean ruminating about it and making it worse.
I asked her, ”If you could imagine you had an inner wise friend, what would that wise friend advise you to do?” She replied, ”focus on my breath,” and did so for the next few meditation sessions. After a few weeks she said, ”now I am ready to be with my pain,” and she was able to do so in a way that turned out productive for her.
Each of us has this same capacity to be our own wise friend. Maybe that is what we mean by saying we each have Buddha-nature. It is the mental capacity psychologist Marsha Linehan calls, ”wise mind.”
Whenever you are unsure of how you ought to be doing zazen, consult your wise friend. You won’t necessarily make the right or the wrong choice, but you will be doing your best.
My wise friend usually asks a question rather than providing me with an answer. It asks, ”what does being fully present’ mean for you right now?”
Please do your best!