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“The Great Vow of Wholeheartedness and Taking Care of Our Stories”

Green Gulch Farm Sunday Dharma Talk and Q&A
October 21, 2007


Transcribed by Paula Wegeforth
Edited by Catherine Gammon


About forty years ago I began to formally practice Zen meditation. I was motivated to do so because I saw it as part of a training program, a training program which comes to fruit, or which I thought came to fruit, in the form of being compassionate to all beings under all circumstances.
I heard and read stories of people who were able to be compassionate in very difficult circumstances, and I thought that I wanted to learn how to be that way. I heard that they went through a training program, and then I heard that the training program was available on this continent. So I came to San Francisco, and a place called Tassajara, to join a community of people who were in this training, in this meditative training course, and to practice under the guidance of a teacher. I had tried to practice in the middle of the continent by myself, because the training practice can be described as to sit upright, quietly and still. I had tried to practice that way, and I was very successful, but only with big spaces between the successes. I would sit for a while, and then it would be months before I would do it again. So I thought it might be good to be more regular, and I thought if I was with a group and with a teacher, I could be more regular, and could practice perhaps every day. When I came to Zen Center, the way I thought about the practice was as a practice that I did—with other people, but I thought I had come here because I wanted them to support me doing the practice. And most of my practice friends thought about it that way, too. Our teacher occasionally would give us some indication that this was not the right way to think about it, but generally speaking he was kind to us and let us think that we were practicing by ourselves, if that was what we thought. Now, at this time in my life, I’m more inspired by and devoted to giving attention to a practice that is not a practice I do by myself. Now I am more interested in a practice, or the practice, that we do together. And when I say “we,” I mean all the Zen students, and all the students of Islam, and all the students of Judaism, and all the students of Christianity, and all the students of atheism, and all the mice and owls and mountains and rivers. I mean the practice of all beings throughout the universe. That’s the practice that I’m interested in now. That’s the practice which I want to plunge into together with everyone. That’s the practice that I think is the practice that attracted me in the first place, when I saw these people who could be compassionate. I think these were people who had learned the practice of all beings. I’ve heard that a Buddha, or Buddhas, are the practice of Buddhas. Buddhas are the practice of Buddhas, and the practice of Buddhas is the practice of all beings. So in this hall we gather together frequently and sit quietly together, and it is lovely. As I said, when I first started to come into these Zen halls and sit, I was kind of concerned with what I was doing. I was kind of concerned with the story I had of me, sitting in meditation, sitting in meditation together with other people who were sitting in meditation. Such sitting in meditation is the sitting in meditation of a person who thinks he is sitting in meditation. This is a pretty wholesome thing to do, generally. It is. But that sitting meditation is not the sitting meditation of the Buddhas. The sitting meditation of the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas is the practice that is the same practice as the person sitting and all beings, and it is the same enlightenment as the person sitting and all beings. The practice that is the practice of all beings is also the enlightenment of all beings, and it includes all the people—all the Zen students, for example, who are sitting thinking that they are doing Zen meditation by themselves, or that they are trying but not being successful. Even though they are thinking in terms of their own activity, their practice is completely included in the practice of the Buddha. They are not the slightest bit disparaged or excluded. However, because they think of their practice in limited terms, they are relatively closed to the practice that includes them completely and that is a practice which they are welcome to enter. That is a practice that is already surrounding us and totally supporting us right now, but we may be relatively closed to it if we think of ourselves as practicing separately from anybody. Again, many Zen students sit next to other Zen students in Zen meditation halls and think of their practice as separate from the person sitting right next to them. So they think of their practice as practicing with a group of Zen students. Many of them think of it that way, just as most people go to the grocery store and think of themselves as shopping in the grocery store with the other shoppers. Do you know what I mean? Do you sometimes go to the marketplace and think, Okay, I’m shopping. I’m in the marketplace with the other shoppers. I’m practicing with a group of shoppers. That’s familiar, the practice of me shopping and all the other shoppers. People who think like that are completely included in the practice of all the shoppers. It’s not the practice with the group. It’s the practice of the group. So when you come into the meditation hall, you can practice with the other people or you can enter the practice of all the people. The practice of all of us is the practice of the Buddha. It completely includes the people who think I have my practice and you have your practice and we practice together but my practice is not your practice. And I am not saying that is not true. I am saying that that way of thinking is included in the practice that is the same practice for all of us. When you are sitting, or walking, or standing, or lying down, the practice is to be wholehearted. To be wholehearted is another way to say this. I cannot be wholehearted by myself. If I think I can do something by myself and I believe that way of thinking, then I am not really being wholehearted. If I think that way and open to that way of thinking and don’t lean into that way of thinking or lean away from that way of thinking, then I also start to open to the practice that is the practice of all beings. I might think I’m giving this talk by myself, for example. The practice of talking by itself is not the practice of all beings, but I might have the story that these words are coming from me, not from all of you. I could think that. Then if I relate to this activity, which is my activity, without leaning into believing that this story of it is really so, and without leaning away from it and rejecting it, and if I’m really gentle with it and honest about it and peaceful with it and open about it, then I also start to open to the practice that I’m doing that is the same practice as all of you. There is a way of opening to the practice of Buddha. The practice of Buddha is the practice right now, which is the same practice of all beings. Now, how can we open to it? One way to start is by being honest and saying: Okay, I don’t understand that. I think in terms of what I do separate from other beings. I’m honest about that and I’m open to that. I’m open to thinking of my life in terms of my action, which is not other people’s action. I’m open to that way of thinking and also a little bit open to what this teacher is talking about. I’m a little bit open to the idea that there is a practice that is the same practice and the same enlightenment for all beings. I’m kind of open to that, too. I’m not really leaning into that, though, and believing it, or seeing that it really is true. I’m just opening to it. There is a way in which this practice which is the practice of all beings and the enlightenment of all beings is similar to the story that I practice by myself with a little bit of support or no support from you. It’s similar in the way of relating to it. In both cases, I should be open to these two different versions of practice. If I wish to realize the practice of all beings and the enlightenment of all beings, then it is appropriate to treat that story the same way I treat the story of the practice of one being and the practice of other beings. Both stories should be related to in the same way if I wish to open to the Buddhist practice. In other words, I should not really lean into either one of them. Leaning into either one of them puts me, or puts the leaner, back into the story of practicing by herself. Disbelieving either one of them puts me back into the story of practicing by myself. Being rough and cruel to either one of them will put me back into the practice of being by myself. Being dishonest about either one of them or anything about myself puts me back into the limited practice of me by myself. On the other hand, treating both stories the same opens to both of them. An opening to the story of me practicing by myself, being really tender with the story of me practicing Zen by myself, being really peaceful with the story of me practicing by myself and being honest about it, opens onto the realization of the practice that we are all doing, together. Being honest that I think that actually my activity is separate from yours, if I do think that, that my life is separate from yours, if I honestly admit that and am tender with that and don’t believe that or reject that or avoid that and am peaceful with that, I will see—we will see, we will realize that we are not practicing separately. We will meet the Buddha. We will meet the Buddha, we will meet, we will see, face-to-face, the Buddha. And what is the Buddha? The Buddha is the practice of Buddha. We will meet the practice of all beings. We will see that we are practicing together with all Republicans and all Democrats. We will see that. If we care for the story that we are not practicing together with George Bush or that we are not practicing together with Hillary Clinton, or that we are practicing together with Hillary Clinton but not with George Bush, or we are practicing together with George Bush but not with whoever, we will see—by being gentle and honest about our story that we are not practicing with someone—we will see that we are practicing with that someone. We will realize that everyone, all beings, human and nonhuman, all beings, are our close friends. We are supporting them. They are like our dear children, and we are like their dear children. We will see this realm. This is the realm of Buddha’s enlightenment. In this realm, all beings are working together harmoniously. It is a realm of existence called the Buddha Way. But we need to be wholehearted with our limited view in which we do not see that everybody is our life. We need to be wholehearted with that. We need to be very tender with the view that not everyone is our close friend. In this realm, nobody really is our best friend. We don’t have best friends in the Buddha practice. We just have unlimited close friends. Each one is different, but all are part of the undifferentiated same practice and same enlightenment. We open to our strengths, and we also open to our weaknesses. We open to our helplessness. Through opening to my helplessness, I open to other people’s strengths. By closing to my helplessness, I close to other people’s strengths. By closing to my weakness and my helplessness, I close to Buddha’s strength, to the inconceivably wonderful strength of Buddha, even though it is extremely powerful, the strength of Buddha, which is the strength of the practice of all of us. It is not the strength of just one man who lived in India or some Zen masters who lived in China. It is not just their strength. Their strength is the strength of all of us practicing together. That is the tremendously powerful, curative force in this universe. If I close to my own strength, or to my own weakness, if I close to my helplessness, I close to this beneficence. If I’m closed to my weakness and I’m closed to my helplessness but I’m not closed to my strength, then I could work with not being closed to my strength. Not being closed to my strength does not mean holding on to my strength. If I see some strength in myself and I hold on to it, I’m not being tender with it. I’m not being upright with it. I’m leaning into it. I’m not being harmonious with it, and I’m not being honest about it. So then I would be looking at my strength and I would be closed to it. Closed to my own strength, I may also be closed to my own weakness. But if I open to my strength, that means I won’t grasp my strength. When I don’t grasp my strength and don’t lean into my strength and am tender with my strength, my strength can change and go away. Then my weakness can appear and I can practice openness with my weakness, and then if I’m open with my weakness, I can open again to my strength. If I can open to my strength and weakness, I can open to your strength and weakness. And if I open to your strength and my weakness, I open to how your weakness is supporting me and your strength is supporting me, and vice versa, and I start to open to the practice of the Buddha. This is called wholeheartedness. And I can’t be wholehearted without your assistance. With your assistance, I will be wholehearted. With your assistance, I am wholehearted. I am already wholehearted. You are already wholehearted. But if we don’t practice being wholehearted, then we don’t realize it. In wholeheartedness, I am not trying to get something for myself. I am not trying to gain something from practice. In wholeheartedness, I just want to give. But also in wholeheartedness, I just want to receive. So I am just giving and receiving. I am not gaining anything. I am not doing anything by myself in wholeheartedness, and I need to practice being wholehearted. I can’t practice by myself, so I need to invite you to help me, to please help me, to be wholehearted. You are helping me to be wholehearted already, but in order for me to realize that, I have to invite you. I have to practice with you to realize that I’m practicing with you. There needs to be the practice in order to realize practice. I heard a story about the prophet Mohammed. A woman came to him and said that her son was overindulging in figs. Maybe figs were expensive then, because he was bankrupting his family by eating so many figs. The woman said, “He’s eating so many figs, I’m practically starving. Would you please talk to him?” And the Prophet said, “Yes. I’ll talk to him in five weeks.” Five weeks later he invited the young man to come, and according to the story, he spoke to this young man very tenderly, and said, “You’re such a fine young man. I hope you know that your fig practice is really hard on your mother. It would be really good, I think, if you didn’t spend so much of your money on figs, so that your mother could have not such a hard time.” And I think the young man received these instructions from the Prophet happily and was transformed in a beneficial way through the interaction. Then after the boy left, some of the Prophet’s students said, “Teacher, how come you waited five weeks before you talked to him?” And he said, “Well, actually, I love figs, too. Before I talked to him, I had to look at myself, and my own weakness for figs. I had to get into my weakness for figs, and for five weeks I opened to my weakness to figs so that when I met him, when he came to another person who has a weakness for figs, I was one who knew my own weakness for figs. I was open to my own weakness for figs so I was open to his weakness for figs. I could ask myself, and him too, to cool it on the figs.” Through my weakness, if I am willing to accept my weakness, I can see how great you are. You actually eat fewer figs than I do. But if I don’t look at my own weakness, I think, boy, you’ve got lots of problems. You’ve got a lot of work to do on yourself. And I can tell you where to go. For example, there’s George Bush. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard that he had something to do with giving the Dalai Lama a Congressional Medal of Honor. Now, I don’t know. When I hear about George Bush giving the Dalai Lama a Congressional Medal of Honor, it helps me feel kind of tender, and in my tenderness, I can open to some good qualities in George Bush. In my tenderness, I can open to my own feeling of what a terrible person I could be if I were in the office. So it’s nice that that this happened. And when the Dalai Lama received the Medal of Honor, he said, “George Bush is my friend.” I heard that the Dalai Lama said that, which is not that surprising to me. What would be surprising to me is if some people I know would say that. But Buddha has no problem saying, “George Bush is my friend,” because Buddha would have no problem saying, “My practice is the same practice as George Bush’s practice. George Bush’s practice is not some practice separate from mine. I’m doing the same practice and the same enlightenment as George Bush, and he has a practice which is the same practice as me and you.” That’s the Buddha. So everyone is Buddha’s friend. Everyone is Buddha’s good friend. But the hard part is to meet everything wholeheartedly and actually to realize that. I said it’s hard, but it’s not really hard, because meeting everything wholeheartedly means meeting every person, every event, every feeling, every emotion, every thought, every experience—meeting every experience together with all beings, receiving all beings’ support to meet each being. It means: don’t meet anybody without all the Buddhas with you. And you don’t, actually, meet anybody without all the Buddhas with you. All the Buddhas are with you all day long. That’s the message from the Buddhas. They say, “We’re with you. And not only we are with you, but all the angels are with you, and all the saints.” All the Christian saints and the Buddhist saints and the Sufi saints and the Jewish saints, all the saints, all Hindu saints, all the saints, all the Bodhisattvas, all the Buddhas are with us every moment. That’s what I’ve heard from the saints, from the angels, from the Buddhas, from the Bodhisattvas. They say they’re all with us. They don’t say, “Get those Buddhists out of here.” The Sufis don’t say, Rumi doesn’t say, “Get the bodhisattvas out of here.” The bodhisattvas don’t say, “Get Rumi out of here. Get Saint Francis out of here.” They don’t say that. The saints are friends with each other, and the bodhisattvas are friends with the saints. Even within Buddhism, we have saints and Bodhisattvas, and they are friends, good friends, close friends. And they are gentle and they are upright. They are balanced. They practice being balanced and upright with everything. They did that long enough that they are open to seeing this realm where everybody is friends, where George Bush and the Dalai Lama are friends. And Hillary Clinton, too. I heard that Hillary Clinton laughed, and then people started to take pictures of her laughter and people started to attack her for laughing. They brought in laugh experts, and asked them, “What does her laugh mean?” And some of the laugh experts said, “Her laugh is the evil laugh. It’s a witch cackle.” A Republian leader was interviewed about it, and when they asked him about Hillary’s laugh, he said, “I find it very attractive.” So he got busted for that and he said, “No, I’d like to retract that statement.” So I don’t know. I really don’t. But it seems to me that it’s really good that Hillary Clinton laughs. I like it that she laughs like that. It isn’t somebody else’s idea of what a laugh is supposed to be. I would really like all of us to be able to laugh our own true laugh. That’s, in fact, really Zen—not sternness, but, you know, weird old guys rolling in the grass laughing. That is what attracted me. No matter what. Maybe they are being kicked in the ribs. Being free to laugh and have it not be a politically correct laugh. Laugh, you know, you’re a human being. But if you laugh, you may get attacked for laughing. That probably will happen. Not every time but most of the time. That’s part of the deal. So again, we have a practice for that. It’s called being open to being kicked in the ribs when you’re laughing. Open to it. Be upright with it. Don’t lean into believing the story “I’m being kicked in the ribs for laughing.” Don’t lean away from it: “I’m not being kicked in the ribs. This is not happening.” Don’t try to avoid it. Don’t try to control it. Give all that up. Be tender with whatever the story is, and then you’ll probably laugh some more, and another story will come. Be tender with it. Be honest with it: “That’s my story. People don’t like me to laugh, but even though they don’t like me to laugh, I’m kind of a weak person, so I probably won’t be able to stop myself from laughing more. I’ll probably laugh some more because I’m kind of out of control. I’m kind of helplessly laughing. I’m helplessly crying. I’m helplessly, you know, etc. But everybody’s helping me be open and thereby realize that everybody’s helping me and I am helping everybody. And this is the practice of the Buddhas.” All right. I also saw that Hillary was wearing some moccasin shoes. They were like shoes that are made in my home state of Minnesota. They’re made in Minnetonka, supposedly, like Indian slippers. People were taking pictures of her feet with the moccasins on and teasing her about that. They’re trying to help her become a Buddha. Okay, Hillary, can you open to this? “We’re going to tease you for your moccasins now. We’re rooting for you.” See if you can be gentle and upright, honest and peaceful with these people teasing you about your shoes. I think it would just be great if the President of the United States could go to Congress with Birkenstocks on, or barefoot. Did Jesus walk barefoot sometimes? Anyway, apparently he needed his feet washed, right? There was a foot washing practice with him. And the Buddha also, when he came back from begging, his feet got washed. So I think if it’s more comfortable that way, it would be nice if the President could go barefoot, if she wanted to, feeling the support of all of us to go barefoot and laugh in various ways. A Buddha’s practice, Bodhisattva’s practice, all beings’ practice—Buddha’s enlightenment, Bodhisattva’s enlightenment, all beings’ enlightenment—my body, other bodies, not two. Please allow yourself to be cared for by the whole universe. Please care for the whole universe. Plunge into the great vow of wholeheartedness together with all beings.