Crisis: A Spiritual Turning Point

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Spiritual life exists in crisis, which can be used as a turning point. To the extent that we recognize that where we sit right now is a turning point, we are able to understand the possibility of freedom in this moment. The Chinese character for "crisis" consists of two radicals: danger and opportunity. A common danger is the crisis of faith that emerges when the conversation or stories about "truths" are stopped. Zen stories are about crises and turning points, where people in face-to-face meetings turn from bondage to freedom, and from ignorance to enlightenment. They are stories that demonstrate that opening to the dangers that surround us is also opening to the opportunities, and closing to those dangers closes us to those opportunities.

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I think the last three times I spoke here, I suggested that Zen or spiritual work or freedom work lives in crisis. That crisis is the place where spiritual life lives. Another way to say it would be that Zen lives at turning points or at the turning point. Right now each of us is sitting here, I guess, on this planet and to the extent that we can see that


where we sit right now is a turning point that helps us understand the possibilities of freedom at this moment. Crisis means turning point. I've also been mentioning that the Chinese word, the Chinese expression, one of the Chinese expressions for crisis is made of two other words. And those two words are, or two characters are, danger and opportunity. So, right now there's an opportunity for freedom, but there's also a danger right here. There's a danger of not being free. And there's a danger of reacting to not being free in unskillful


ways. Lots of danger around us. But lots of opportunity, too. Lots of opportunities for freedom. And I also have been saying over and over that if we open to the dangers that surround us, that opening also, at the same time, is an opening to the opportunities around us. And if we close to the dangers around us, we close to the opportunities. The opportunities are still there and the dangers are still there, it's just that we close to them. And


when I say open to danger, I don't mean necessarily that you become afraid of the dangers, although some of the time, if we open to danger and we haven't seen it before, or even if we have seen it before, when we open to danger, sometimes we become afraid. So, for example, everybody in this room is, in some sense, possibly holds some danger for each of us. So, if you came up here and sat or stood in front of me and started speaking to this group, you might have some opening to some danger. Many people feel somewhat afraid to come up and speak in front of a group of people, a large group of people. Because when they do, when they


notice, when they open to, boy, there's a lot of people here, they also open to, well, some of them might not think I'm good looking. Or some of them, if I say anything, some of them might think, might not approve of me. Or someone might think some other thing about me that they don't like. So it's dangerous to speak in front of a large group of people, and I would say, yes it is. I'm in danger to you, and you're in danger to me. But it's possible to open to the danger and not be afraid. But if there is fear, we have to then open to the dangers of fear. But there's also opportunities in fear. When you're in fear, it can be a place, a crisis point, too. If you can see the dangers of the fear, you can


see the opportunities of the fear. You can become free in the middle of fear. Some part of us, though, has to be able to look clearly at the danger, clearly and calmly be present with the danger. Then we can be clear and calm with the presence of the opportunity. If we're shaky with the fear or shaky with the danger, then we'll have trouble getting on the horse of freedom. But if we can face the horse of danger and go up and get on, we may notice also that this is a freedom horse. I'd like to bring up the turning point


or the crisis of faith, or if there's some faith in your life, or if you interact with people who have faith, some kind of faith, I'd like to point out the crisis aspect of faith. So again, faith, like anything else, if it's happening, doubt also. Let's start with faith. There's dangers surrounding faith, and there's opportunities surrounding faith. Some of you may know lots of dangers around faith. I just point out a couple, and you


can bring up more later if you'd like. One of the dangers of faith, particularly religious faith, is that people may think or they may feel that they really don't have a reason for their faith. They just believe in certain things, or they just trust certain things. They just trust, not so much things, but they may trust certain religious practices. In the tradition of the Buddha, there's a teaching to not really trust things like mountains and rivers and planets, because they, what do you call it, the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, but our love is here to stay. So we don't really even trust the mountains


because they're impermanent. What do we trust? We might trust being present with the mountains when they crumble. I'm proposing to you in a way that you consider trusting living in the crisis of the mountains, that when you're in the mountains you know, especially in California, these mountains can move, they can crack, they can crumble, and we can be hurt. But if you can face the danger of the mountains, I'm proposing you can find the opportunity of freedom in the mountains. So I trust, actually, living at the turning point and opening to danger and opportunity and the freedom opportunity in the dangerous situations we live in. I trust that. I tell you about it, you might trust it too. But the danger


there is that you might think, well, I don't really have a reason for trusting this. You might not have a reason. You might say, it just sounds like a good idea. You don't have to prove that it's a good idea, you just might give it a try. Try living in crisis since it's where you are already, according to me. But again, the danger, if you can't justify it or prove that it's good, one of the dangers is that you will slip into thinking, well, I get it on authority, I receive it on good authority, so it's true. It couldn't be wrong, and therefore there's no conversation about it. Either you agree with me or you don't, and if you don't, you're wrong and we have nothing to say to each other. And I think


again that when the conversation stops between us, between people who have faith and also between people who don't have faith and people who do have faith, when the conversation stops, the turning stops or is hindered. So another, and then a big social danger of faith is theocracies, states where some religious truth or some faith is held to be infallible, unquestionable, truth. And anybody who questions it actually can be in danger of a kind of spiritual or


religious inquisition process. And this can happen in Iran or Afghanistan or the United States or Stalin's Russia. Like a lot of people were afraid to question the invasion of Iraq because there was this kind of feeling like if you question it, you're not being patriotic. And once the invasion occurs, if you question it, you might not be patriotic. And patriotism is good and there's no question about it, no questioning, no conversation that it's good. It's a good thing, but there's no conversation about it. There's a story that it's a good


thing, but there's no way to question the story. A Czech writer named Milan Kundera said, I invent stories and then I use them to confront each other. By this means, I ask questions. He makes a story and then he takes another story and confronts it and the stories start turning. In this way, he turns his stories into a way of questioning. He says, the stupidity of humans comes from having answers for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having


questions for everything. So he writes a story and then after he finishes his story he says, that's not what happened. And he tells another version of it. This is what happened. He says, that's not really what happened either. This is what happened. What's happening? It's turning. What's happening is turning. So the opportunity, the danger of faith is that we'll take it literally. Well, actually, you have to take it literally, but then you don't have to keep taking it literally. You can take it literally and then let it turn, or take it literally and bring up another story so the two literal stories can start turning each other. To take it literally and hold it literally and say it's true and there's no conversation, that's


the danger that can lead to war among people. So you have all these different faiths in the world now, and Zen is one of them in a way. But Zen is a faith which says, our faith is a story. It's a storytelling faith. It's a fictional faith. It's a faith about fiction. It's using fictions to keep the conversation going. So we have a lot of stories in Zen about crises, about turning points. And these stories about turning points, about where


people turn from bondage to freedom, from ignorance to enlightenment, these stories are stories. They're not what happened. They're stories about what happened, but they're not what happened. Because they're just stories. So when you say a story about some Zen people getting enlightened or some stories about some Zen people interacting really compassionately, that's a story about what they were actually doing or what was actually happening. It isn't what happened. And because it's a story, you can say that. When you hear about some Zen teaching, you say, that didn't happen. And the person who tells you might say, you're right. And you say, what did you tell me for? So you could say that. Now you tell me what


really happened. And then you can say, that didn't happen. And you say, that's right. I just did it because you told me to. We're having a conversation. Zen stories are not what really happened. Zen stories are just stories about what happened. And by the way, ultimately, these are stories to help us understand that nothing happens. Actually, nothing's really happening. And that's another story. And you can say, yes, things are happening. But basically, everything's fundamentally at peace. And nothing's actually happening. That's an illusion. So in Zen, we have stories about what's happening that aren't what's


happening. The stories never really did happen, but they're stories about what happened. They're fictions. They're creations. They're inventions to help us question everything so we can turn, so we can dare to face the dangers of the world and open to the opportunities. Usually we want to have a story which is actually what's happening. A story that's true. But if we hold to the story that's true, it's hard for us to face the dangers that the story's actually false. True stories are in danger of being false. But if they're so true that they have no danger of being false, then we close to the danger of our true stories. So we close to the dangers of being free of our true stories. So some people are walking around with true stories, and they're totally enslaved by them and miserable with their


true stories, which cannot move, which cannot turn. And also, misery loves company, so they want everybody else to hold on to this true story with them and then get everybody who's not believing the story to believe it. So everybody's got answers for everything. And then we have war. These people got answers for everything. These people got answers for everything. And they have different answers for everything. And so stupidity arises among wonderful people. But wisdom arises when these people start asking questions like, do you think possibly our truth could be in danger of not being true? Shut up! Bring the inquisitor in on this person. They're asking questions of our truth. Could I have a conversation


about our truth? Could I have a conversation about the truth of the Buddha way? What? Is it possible that what we're saying here is true is not true? Is it possible what I'm saying here is not true? So I say this. Here's another story. Zen doesn't give you the truth. Zen is meeting each other face to face. It's not like Zen's got the truth. Here's Zen. Here's the truth. No, it's like Zen is when you meet each other face to face. In that


meeting the turning starts happening. And in that meeting there's danger. Every meeting there's danger. There's danger that you'll get hurt and that you'll hurt someone. There's danger that you will be afraid and hold on to your truth and hurt somebody with your attention and clinging and disrespect for everybody that disagrees with your unassailable truth. There's that danger. But there's also in that meeting an opportunity, an opportunity to say, I've got a truth, you've got a truth, everybody's got a truth. And I now endanger my truth to you. Please be kind to my truth, but still if you want to ask any questions about it, go ahead. But please be gentle. I don't want to be gentle, I'm going to be


rough with your truth. Yeah, that's a possibility. And I open to it. And now there's freedom for a moment. Because I endangered my truth to you in the meeting. There's the Zen. There's the turning. There's the freedom in that meeting, in that face to face meeting, in the meeting that transmits the liberating truth. Or you can say, Zen is a conversation. And it can be a verbal conversation or a physical conversation. Like dancing together. Or, yeah, walking together. Or, touching elbows. Or, passing a pencil. Or, in many stories, raising a whisk.


And also Zen is a transmission. But it's not a transmission from Zen to you, or from you to Zen. It's a transmission that happens in the midst of the whole universe, everywhere. It's the way the truth is being transmitted all over the place between everything. And in particular, it's the way it happens between two people. Two enlightened people. Two people who are enlightened by the transmission that's happening between them. Or, two people who are awakened to the transmission that's happening between them. We are actually in a process of transmission, of mutual transmission all day long. And then there's stories about people


waking up to this transmission. And these are stories. They're not the actual waking up to the transmission. They're stories about the waking up to the transmission of freedom between people. And the transmission of freedom through the meeting. So we have this expression in Zen from quite a long time ago that it's a special transmission outside the scriptures. So many religious traditions, many faith traditions have scriptures. And Zen, in a sense, lives in a world where there's many faiths. Just like you live in a world where there's many faiths. You're like Zen. You live in the same place Zen does. In a world of many faiths. A world of many scriptures. Zen is a special transmission in the ocean


of scriptures. Which is outside the scriptures. But outside the scriptures means using the scriptures and not using scriptures. Using the scriptures, not using scriptures, and won't it be fine? So we have an ocean of scriptures, an ocean of beings. Do you see the ocean of beings? Do you see the ocean of scriptures? Do you see the ocean of faiths? That's where we live. You may not have faith yourself, but you're surrounded by people who do have faith. Right now, you may not have any faith, but there's millions of people in churches right now. All around you. Particularly over to the east. Actually maybe the whales are in church too, I don't know. We're surrounded by religious people. In the sense that people


who have faith as part of their life. And some of those religious people, or some of those people hold their faith, as I mentioned. They hold their faith. They're not going to have a conversation about their faith. Their faith is a bat, not a whisk. This is my faith. Some people are like that, and some Zen people are like that too. They're called Zen because they have a badge, a Zen badge. And they have a membership card, and they have a Zen bat. And they're real Zen people, and they're not going to have a conversation about that. So watch out for them. But if you can meet those people, those people who don't want to have a conversation. If you can meet them, and those are dangerous people, those people


who think they're Zen, and they don't want to have a conversation about it. You can go up to them and say, could I have a conversation? They say, no! I don't want to have a conversation about Zen. You believe what Zen is, or shut up. So that, you know, again and again I think of this scene I saw in a Woody Allen movie I've told you before. It's a story where he's a bank robber, and he winds up in prison in the southern part of the United States. It's kind of like a chain gang style prison. And he's coming in with the new recruits, or the new inductees, the new prisoners, and they have a very fierce and violent head guard with all kinds of weapons he's holding in his hands, and lots of big tough guys behind him. And he's saying, let me tell you a little bit about the way we do things here. And then


he tells them, he says, and if you don't want to go along with these policies we have here, it will be very, very horrible for you. You will be very, very sorry if you do not go along with our rules. We will hurt you. We will harm you. And it's like that kind of talk, kind of cruel way of talking to these poor people who are now in prison, rather than saying, oh you poor guys, you committed these crimes and now you're in prison, I'm really sorry for you. He more says, no, you're in prison now and you've got to follow these rules or we're going to punish you. And he says, any questions? And Woody Allen says, yes, I have a question. And I would put in parentheses, I'd like to have a conversation. He says, do you think it's all right to pet on a first date? And


actually the guard, this fierce, cruel guard is disarmed. He doesn't know what to do with it. So a lot of these Zen people or other religions who have these faiths that they hold up and they're ready to smash you with if you don't believe them. And you think, well, they don't want to have a conversation about this faith. They want me to submit or shut up or both. Maybe he said, could I ask a question? Do you think it's all right to pet on a first date? I read this novel recently about Afghanistan during the, I think it was during the Taliban era or right afterwards and this guy was watching TV and these, I guess they were imams, Islamic teachers, they were having a discussion about whether when young men, because young men are starting to wear their pants down below their, real


low like the United States, you know what I mean? They wear the pants so the underpants show. When I was a kid they wore pants low like that too, but no underpants. You see the crack. But now underpants are part of the presentation, right? Someone thought it's the boys version of the girls exposing their belly buttons. But anyway, so these boys in Afghanistan are going around wearing their pants real low, showing their underpants. So the imams were discussing whether or not these boys would go to hell for wearing their pants down low. They went back and forth like this for about an hour and a half and at the end they decided yes, they will go to hell for wearing their pants low. But at least there was a conversation. Of course there were no women in on the conversation and no Zen people were allowed to ask about dates, but at least they were having a conversation.


It wasn't like settled beforehand, yes definitely, no question about it, they will go to hell. There was a little bit of room there, a little bit of room for freedom. In fact, even though they did decide yes they will go to hell, after the discussion it was kind of funny. A little bit of humor, yes they will, it's kind of funny. Because of the play beforehand, even though they came up with this kind of unfortunate conclusion for these boys, there's a little freedom in that. What attracted me to Zen was their stories about people having great awakenings. That isn't what attracted me. What attracted me to Zen was stories of people having conversations. People who got together and had conversations and you could see, I could see, I felt in the conversation this freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from


being stuck. Freedom from not being free. So I've told you these stories over and over. These stories of people interacting, having conversations. Like the Zen monk who lived in a fishing village and a girl got pregnant and she told her parents that he was the father. So the parents went and had a conversation with him. And the conversation was, you're a really rotten priest. You're a disgrace to the Buddha Dharma. And when the kid comes, you take care of it, you monster. And he says, is that so? And the baby is born, they bring him the baby. He takes care of the baby for two years with the assistance of a wet nurse. And the girl tells the parents that actually he's not the father, somebody else is. And they go to the priest and they say, they have another conversation. They say, you're a great


priest. We're so sorry we accused you falsely. You didn't argue with us. You didn't defend yourself and you took care of our grandchild. We thank you so much. We're honored to know you and you're the reason why we practice the Buddha way, people like you. And he said, is that so? And I thought, that's a nice conversation. I'd like to have a conversation like that, those two types, where people are coming to me and criticizing me falsely. And I said, hmm, this is what's happening, huh? And then they come and praise me falsely. And I go, hmm, this is what's happening. They come and tell me stories about myself. People come and tell me stories about myself. People come and tell you stories about yourself. They say, oh, you're this or you're that. You appear to be this or you appear to be that. Or they


tell you stories about themselves. I hate you. I want to tell you a story about myself. I think you're a jerk. End of story. They tell us stories, but we feel like, oh, this is like the beginning of a conversation. This sounds like a conversation opportunity here. So, this special transmission outside the scripture means we don't use the scriptures. We don't use the teachings to get the truth. We use the meeting and the conversing to get the truth. I don't get the truth. You don't get the truth. Our conversation gets the truth. When we're talking, it's not like we get the truth. The truth takes us over through our conversation. Then that special transmission occurs in that way. So, again, we can use


the scriptures, but we use the scriptures. Or we cannot use the scriptures, but we can use the scriptures, but we use the scriptures to have a conversation so we become free of the scriptures. We use our faith to become free of our faith in this tradition. We use our faith as a point of departure beyond our teachings. Again, as I said, using the scriptures, not using the scriptures, and won't it be fine. So, I've got a lot of stories about people conversing.


There are lots of stories about people conversing. But it's getting late already, and I know you have a date with a muffin. Are there muffins? You have a date with no muffin. I'm kind of sorry for us. I don't get a muffin either, right? Don't even I get a muffin? You think that's funny, don't you? Okay, so maybe it's time for a few stories. There's a story right there. There's a great teacher. His name is Jarjo, I think. His attendant comes to him


and says, Teacher, a monk has come and he wants to know what's the living meaning of the Buddha Way. Jarjo says to his attendant, Go tell him to drink some tea and leave. So he goes and tells the guy, and he comes back and says, Teacher, I told him. By the way, teacher, what is the meaning of the Buddha Way? And Jarjo says, Drink some tea and leave. Jarjo's grandfather was named Master Ma. Ma means horse. He was the horse ancestor,


the great spiritual horse of the Zen tradition, Master Ma. And a monk came to him one time and said, Beyond the four propositions and beyond the 100 negations, what is the living meaning of the Buddha Way? So here he's saying, These are these teachings, the four propositions and the 100 negations. These are teachings in the tradition to help people actually, I would say, become free. They're teachings to help you find the turning point where the Where's the living meaning? Where's the special transmission outside these teachings? He's


heard these teachings, but he's not asking about the teachings. He's asking, What's like, where's the transmission beyond these teachings, teacher? He's asking the great I can't explain it to you. Go ask my student, Shittong. So then he goes and asks Shittong, same question, What's the living meaning of the Buddha Way? And Shittong says, Why don't you ask the teacher? Why don't you ask Master Ma? And he said, Master Ma told me to ask you. He said, Oh, well, I got a headache. I can't explain to you. Go ask Master, go ask Brother or Master Waihai. So he goes and asks Waihai, another great Zen master. These


are two great Zen masters who are students of the super great Zen master. So they go ask Bajong Waihai, and he says, Why don't you ask the teacher? So he goes through the same thing again, and Waihai says, Well, after all this, I don't know. I don't understand. After all this, I don't understand what's this living Buddhism beyond these teachings. So he goes back and tells Matsu what happened with these two great students. And Matsu says, Shittong's hair is white, and Bajong's hair is black. That's just the story of a conversation. Did you get it? Did they tell you what the living meaning of the Buddha way beyond all


these wonderful teachings was? Did they tell you? Well, they sort of did. But it wasn't something you could hold on to and say, Well, we're not going to have a conversation about this. As a matter of fact, it seems like you might want to have quite a few conversations about that conversation. Like, What was that about? Who was that masked man? What was that? Who was that? What are they talking about? I'm changing religions. Or you can find out something and hold on to it and not have to have all these conversations and questions. So it's getting late. Sorry, it's quarter to four or whatever. I've got to be going.


But do you want me to set up one more for the road? Is this enough for you guys? It's enough? Okay. How many people is it enough for? Raise your hand. It's only three. Five, six, seven. How many people want another one more? Okay, well, the people who it's enough for, I would suggest you stand on your head. Or stand on one foot. Why don't you stand up and jump around a little bit, get some exercise. You see, most people want one more story. Go ahead, stand up. There you go. You can have a hip conversation. Maybe that's the meaning of hip. Have a conversation with your hips. Unfortunately, this is really a long story. So once upon a time, there was a Chinese monk who lived in China. And he


was an expert on the scriptures. It seemed like he had these scriptures and it seemed like he had some idea about what they meant. And then he heard, well actually, he had some idea about what they meant. I'm not going to make this as long as it really is. Anyway, he had some idea about what these scriptures meant. And then he heard about the Zen school of teaching. About how you could