Speak Softly, Speak Softly

Taigen Leighton
Green Gulch Zen Center - July 20, 2003

Note: Dogen's Dharma Hall Discourse quoted in the following is from the Extensive Record of Eihei Dogen, translated by Taigen Leighton
and Shohaku Okumura, forthcoming from Wisdom Publications, 2004.

I would like to talk about what in Zen is sometimes called the Mind of the Way, or sometimes the Mind that seeks the Way. This is a very important idea in Buddhism. In Sanskrit it is Bodhicitta, literally, awakening mind. It refers to the arousing of our direction toward awakening, our first thought of spiritual practice, the arousing of caring and concern, and direction toward spiritual practice.

Many of you are here at Green Gulch for the first time, and have come to meditation instruction for the first time. In our tradition of Suzuki Roshi's lineage we celebrate beginner's mind. We all aspire toward remembering that first impulse toward taking care of something as strange as sitting facing the wall, quietly, upright. So this is Bodhicitta, the mind of the way.

Today I want to talk about this aspiration toward awakening, this deep concern and caring for all beings, this mind of the way, in terms of a traditional Zen koan. Koans are teaching stories. Many of them are dialogues between students and teachers, and the classical koans are from nearly twelve hundred years ago. Still, we continue to study them because they have something to do with our life right now, today. If it were just about something that happened twelve hundred years ago, we wouldn't bother. The story I want to talk about today was discussed in a short dharma talk given by Eihei Dogen, the Japanese founder of Soto Zen who lived in the 1200s. One of the things about these stories is that often they refer to other stories, and that is very much the case with this story. So I will be telling a bunch of stories this morning.

Dogen himself has a long introduction to this story, and then he has his own comments. And I have my own introduction to his introduction. The basic story is very short, actually. It's about a Rinzai Zen teacher in China who lived in the 900s named Shoushan. A monk came to him once and asked Shoushan, "All the buddhas come from this sutra. What is this sutra?"
Shoushan responded, "Speak softly, speak softly."
Could you all hear me in the back? It's speak softly, but it's also speak up.
So the monk got it. And he asked, "How should we receive and maintain it?"
And Shoushan said, "It can never be defiled."

That is the basic story I want to talk about today. We will come back to it after a while. But first I want to talk about an introduction to this story. This is a modern story, and this is from a novel that some of you may have read, because it's on the best-seller list, called Life of Pi. It's about a fifteen-year-old Indian boy who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with a huge Bengal tiger, and how he survives that. It's a very interesting book. But the part that I want to talk about this morning as an introduction to this old Zen story, and to Dogen's introduction to it, happens before he ever gets to the ocean. This young fourteen or fifteen-year-old Indian boy nicknamed Pi comes from a very secular background. His parents are not concerned with religion. His father is owner and manager of a zoo, which is how the tiger ends up in the story.

But when he's fourteen, a relative takes this young boy to a Hindu temple, and he's dazzled and amazed and very happy with all the colorful gods and goddesses and stories of the Indian tradition. And Pi becomes a devout Hindu, without his parents knowing about it. He's very involved in the practice and devotions in the local Indian temple. Then Pi happens to stumble upon a Catholic church and is startled, and ends up talking with the priest. At first he is appalled that this religion has merely one god, and that the image of the god is of suffering up on the cross. He can't understand it. None of the Indian gods would be depicted in such a cruel setting. And finally Pi understands from the priest that this is about love. So, as well as a Hindu, he becomes a very devoted Christian and goes and studies the Bible and prays at the church. And then Pi happens upon a humble baker who turns out to be a Sufi master. He sees this man praying to Allah, doing his daily prayers, and the boy becomes interested, and ends up also becoming a devout Muslim. Since we have a problem with Islam in this country, I thought I'd read a little bit about what he says about it. Pi says, "I loved my prayer rug. Ordinary in quality thought it was, it glowed with beauty in my eyes. I'm sorry I lost it. Wherever I laid it I felt special affection for the patch of ground beneath it, and the immediate surroundings, which to me is a clear indication that it was a good prayer rug, because it helped me remember that the earth is the creation of God, and sacred the same all over." I feel like that myself about wherever I sit when I sit zazen. Anyway, this young boy from this secular background becomes very involved and committed with all three of these traditions.

And one day, Pi is out with his family, and lo and behold all three of his teachers see him at once, and they come over to meet him and meet his family. Of course the family has no idea that he's involved with anything religious. And the three teachers come up to him and are appalled to see each other. Each of them says how wonderful Pi is, and they get into this big argument criticizing each other's tradition. Finally the Hindu teacher says that Pi cannot be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim, it's impossible, he must choose. And the father, who is bewildered, says, I don't think it's a crime, but I suppose you're right. So they finally turn to the boy after criticizing each other's religions, and the boy says, Mahatma Gandhi says that all religions are true. And then Pi blurts out, "I just want to love God."

I think this is a story about Bodhicitta, this thought of awakening. And I was reminded of when I was about that age, fourteen or fifteen. I could not have said, "I just want to love God," because I had decided that I was an atheist. And yet I was searching for something, reading Dostoyevski, Kafka, Sartre. I wanted to find some meaning. How do I live? What do I do with my life? So this search for meaning, for spiritual integrity, has something to do with this Bodhicitta, the arousing of the thought of awakening. In my generation existentialism was one way that people found this basic question. Of course then there was no Buddhist practice available as far as I knew. Anyway, that is my introduction to this story by Dogen talking about this koan.

I will read Dogen's introduction, which is much longer than the story itself, and then talk about it a little bit. Dogen starts, "In studying the way the mind of the way is primary." He was giving this talk at his monastery Eiheiji that he had founded not so long before up in the remote mountains, still one of the headquarter temples of Soto Zen in Japan. "In studying the way the mind of the way is primary. This temple in the remote mountains and deep valleys is not easy to reach. And people arrive only after sailing over oceans and climbing mountains. Without treading with the mind of the way it is difficult to arrive at this field. To refine the rice, first the bran must be removed. This is a good place in which to engage the way. And yet, I'm sorry that the master does not readily attend to others by disposition. However, by day or night, the voice of the valley stream happens to be conducive for carrying water. Also, in spring and fall, the colors of the mountain manage to be conducive for gathering firewood. I hope that cloud and water monks will keep the way in mind."

He was giving this talk way up in the mountains, and monks and lay people had come from a great distance to hear him and to practice with him. And yet I think it is still relevant to our situation, coming to Buddhist practice, here in the Bay Area, in America, in the world today. He says, "In studying the way the mind of the way is primary." The first point is just the mind of the way, this direction toward awakening and caring for all beings. He says, "This temple in the remote mountains and deep valleys is not easy to reach, and people arrive only after sailing over oceans and climbing mountains. Without treading with the mind of the way it's difficult to arrive at this field." So that was certainly true for a place like Eiheiji, or for our own monastery, Tassajara, down in the deep mountains in Monterey County. But even in coming to Green Gulch, some of you who live at Green Gulch have come a long way, from distant countries. But it is also the case even for those who have come for a Sunday morning Dharma talk at Green Gulch, even if you just drove over the hill from Mill Valley perhaps just out of curiosity, wondering, what is it they're doing over there down by Muir Beach? Even then I would say that you have arrived only after sailing over many waters and climbing at least over the foothills of Mount Tam. All of you, just to get here, even if it's for the first time, have gone through many things. And all of you have partaken of this mind of the way, at least to some little extent, or else you would not have even thought to come here.

"To refine the rice, first the bran must be removed." This is an image of the practice that we do once we recognize our mind of the way: Sitting, watching ourselves, facing the wall, trying to be upright in the middle of all of our confusion and desires and frustrations and the difficulties of this world and our lives. Dogen says, "This is a good place in which to engage the way." And it is. Whenever you get here, this is a good place. Whenever you decide to sit and actually face your life, this is a good place; whether it is at Green Gulch or in some other tradition, I would say it doesn't matter. And then he says this very sweet thing, "I am sorry that the master (and presumably Dogen is referring to himself) does not readily tend to others by disposition." I don't know, maybe Dogen was kind of a shy guy. Maybe he was not very good at "people skills"; he thought he wasn't very good at engaging with his monks. But maybe, always, the teacher doesn't readily attend to others by disposition. Because nobody can do this for you. You have aroused the mind of the way in some small measure at least. Now how will you engage the way? "I'm sorry. The master does not readily attend to others by disposition. However, by day or night, the voice of the valley stream happens to be conducive for carrying water. Also in spring and fall the colors of the mountain manage to be conducive for gathering firewood."

Even if you don't live in the deep valleys there is some voice in the world around you that happens to be conducive for your taking care of your life, and living with concern for those around you. Even if you don't live amidst the colors of the mountain, there are colors and shapes and forms in the world around you that can support you in your own practice of gathering firewood, of trying to take care of this life. So Dogen says, "I hope that cloud and water monks will keep the way in mind." Clouds and waters is the word for monks in Chinese and Japanese. It means, roaming free like clouds and waters. So for us I would say I hope that householder practitioners also will keep the way in mind. Even living in this world, what choice do we have when we recognize the suffering of the world around us, when we recognize our own confusion, when we recognize our own desire to live in some meaningful way, when we wonder how can I live this life, what is a proper livelihood in this place and time, in this society? How can I raise my children, how can I be friendly with my friends? Please, as you negotiate that way, keep the Way in mind.

So that is Dogen's introduction. Then he recites this story. "I remember a monk asked Shoushan, 'All the buddhas come from this sutra. What is this sutra?'
"Shoushan responded, 'Speak Softly, speak softly.'
"The monk asked, 'How should we receive and maintain it?'
"Shoushan said, 'It can never be defiled.'"

Often in these stories it just says, "A monk asked the teacher." Sometimes it says the name of the monk, and that means the monk later became a famous teacher himself, or herself. This time it doesn't give the name of the monk. But I love this monk. It's a wonderful question. He asks, "All the buddhas come from this sutra. What is this sutra?" There is a joke in this question. A sutra is a Buddhist scripture. It is the words of a Buddha. A sutra can only be spoken by a Buddha. And yet the monk asks, "All the buddhas come from this sutra. What is this sutra?" How can buddhas come from a sutra, if there are not buddhas there already to speak the sutra? And yet, there are the sutras that you can find in the library at Green Gulch, but there are also the sutras of the birds and the trees and the sound of the waves on Muir Beach. But what is this sutra that all the buddhas come from? This is this fundamental question of the mind of the way. It's an important question. What does our own awakening arise from? Where is it? What is it? How do I find it?

The Indian boy Pi had found three different collections of sutras. But still, where did they come from? Where did this impulse come from? What is it that inspires a Buddha to appear; what is it that inspires our own awakening? All the buddhas come from this sutra; what is this sutra? The Lotus Sutra says that the single great cause for buddhas appearing in the world is simply to demonstrate the way, and help direct people toward finding it. So the single great cause is the recognition of the suffering of beings and the need to find our way. Still, this monk focuses in on this question. And Shoushan's answer was, "Speak softly, speak softly." Maybe speak softly means to speak gently. Maybe this refers to kind speech. But I think speak softly also means speak up; speak the truth. Speak your truth, but speak softly, speak softly. This statement by Shoushan is worthy of your further consideration.

Then the monk asked, "How should we receive and maintain it?" To me that question demonstrates that he got it. I don't know how softly the monk asked that question, but how should we receive and maintain it? In one of the chants we do, "The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi" it says, "The teaching of suchness is intimately communicated by buddhas and ancestors. Now you have it, please keep it well." Now that you have heard the first two lines of that chant, now you have it, please keep it well. Our whole practice of refining the rice, of refining our life, is about how we receive and maintain it. This was a very good monk.

Shoushan said, "It can never be defiled." This answer is a reference to another long story, which I will now tell you. This is a story about Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor in China. We might say he was one of the real founders of Zen in China. One time a monk came to see him at his temple, and we know this monk's name was Nanyue, because later he became a great teacher. Huineng asked Nanyue, "Where are you from?"
And Nanyue said, "I came from the place of the National Teacher.
And then the Sixth Ancestor looked at him and said, "What is this that thus comes?" Kind of a funny way of asking--who are you? What is this that thus comes? Nanyue didn't know what to say. And the story goes that he went and sat in the meditation hall for eight years considering this question.

Sometimes in these Zen stories it looks like these teachers and students are talking back and forth very fast. But sometimes there is a little space. Sometimes somebody goes and thinks about it for a little bit and then comes back. That may happen. Usually it doesn't say so. Sometimes there are also other people around listening and it doesn't mention them. But at any rate, in this case it says that Nanyue went and meditated on this question for eight years.

After eight years Nanyue came back to the Sixth Ancestor and said, "I can now understand the question, 'What is this that thus comes?' that you received me with upon my first arriving to see you."
And Huineng said, "Oh, how do you understand it?"
And Nanyue said, "To explain or demonstrate anything would completely miss the mark."

So it took Nanyue eight years to come up with that. But then he proved that he had not wasted his eight years. The Sixth Ancestor asked him, "Well, then, do you suppose that there is practice realization or not?"
And Nanyue said, "It is not that there is no practice realization, but only that it cannot be defiled."
And the Sixth Ancestor said, "This non-defilement is exactly what all the buddhas and ancestors protect and care for. I am thus, you are thus, and the ancestors in India also are thus."
And I'm happy to say that Nanyue stayed with Huineng for another eight years thereafter, just to make sure it sank in.

So this practice realization, this practice of enlightenment, this enlightened practice, can never be defiled. That is what this student of the Sixth Ancestor said. It may be very easy for us to imagine all the ways in which we could defile our own mind of the way. It might be very easy for us to imagine all of the terrible things we might do or say. And yet, no matter how much we fail to take care of this mind of the way, it can never be defiled. There is something that can never be defiled. Again, the monk asked Shoushan, "All the buddhas come from this sutra; what is this sutra?" Where does this truth come from; where do we find our life? And Shoushan said, "Speak softly, speak softly." The monk asked, "How do we receive and maintain it?" And Shoushan said, "It can never be defiled."

So this speak softly, speak softly, this sutra from which all the buddhas come, is beyond our ideas about it. As Nanyue said, no matter what he said it would miss the mark. All of our thinking, all of our talking, whether it is soft or loud, cannot get to the core of this mind of the way. It's a great mystery. What makes an Indian boy suddenly want to love God? What makes someone suddenly decide, I'm going to take on a spiritual practice. We cannot say where this comes from. But please, speak softly.

When the birds are singing outside, we might think that they are singing sweetly, or harshly, softly or loudly, and yet, can we hear how the birds sing softly, sing softly, just as they are? Can we listen to our own hearts as they speak softly, sometimes covered up by all of the enticements of entertainment, and all of the wonderful things to consume that our society presents to us.

After presenting this story, Dogen then comments, "Suppose someone asked me, 'What is this sutra?' I would say to him: if you call it this sutra, your eyebrows will fall out." In East Asia they had this idea that if you lie, or if you don't tell the truth, your eyebrows will fall out, like Pinocchio's nose growing for us. So Dogen says, if you call it this sutra your eyebrows will fall out. Whatever you call it misses the mark. If you call it Buddhism, if you call it Hinduism, if you call it Christianity, if you call it Islam, whatever you call it misses the mark. And yet here we are, somehow concerned about this mind of the way, wondering how can we find our way.

And Dogen says, "As to how should we receive and maintain it, I would say, reaching back for your pillow in the middle of the night." This is a reference to yet another story, which I will tell you. This is a story from the teacher of the founder of Soto Zen in China. He and his brother, who was also a monk, were talking one day about the bodhisattva, or awakening being, of compassion. One of the main forms of the bodhisattva of compassion in Buddhism has a thousand arms, with a thousand hands, and each hand has an eye in it. Many of the hands have tools: teaching sticks, or watches, or sometimes a cup of tea. The name of this bodhisattva of compassion is Kanzeon in Japanese. Some of you may know it as the Tibetan Chenrezig, or the Chinese Kuanyin, or Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit. The name of this bodhisattva of compassion means, the one who hears the sounds of the world. So we could say that compassion in Buddhism is just about listening. When the truth is speaking softly, we have to listen closely. Just to listen, and just to be heard, is compassion. But then there is also this response with whatever is at hand. So this story is about how this response works.

One of these two monks asked the other, "Why does the bodhisattva of compassion have so many hands and eyes?" He was referring to these images with a thousand hands, each hand with an eye in it. And the other one replied, "It's like reaching back for your pillow in the middle of the night." This is a wonderful image for this response of compassion in Buddhism. It is not something we plan, not something we can figure, but a hand reaching out. We respond to the problem in front of us, even if it's that we can't sleep and we want our pillow. In the middle of the night, in the middle of the darkness, in the middle of uncertainty, in the middle of not being able to see anything, just reach back.

This is Dogen's answer to how we may receive and maintain it; just reaching back for your pillow in the middle of the night. With whatever is at hand, we do our best to respond to what we see and hear in front of us. This compassion is essential to the mind of the way. The mind of the way has to do with our caring about the suffering of the world, which of course includes the suffering of ourselves, the suffering of our friends, the suffering of beings throughout the world. When we reach back for our pillow in the middle of the night, we don't know what to do. We do not know how to bring peace in the world. Sometimes we don't know how to take care of our own confusion, frustration, desires, or anger. Still, reaching back for our pillow in the middle of the night, how can we respond from this place of "speak softly, speak softly" without calling it anything, or getting stuck on any particular definition.

So that is Dogen's commentary on this story about the monk asking, "All the buddhas come from this sutra. What is this sutra?" I like Shoushan's answers very much: "Speak softly, speak softly"; and "It can never be defiled." And I also like Dogen's answers very much. But yet, here I am sitting up here, so I need to say something myself. So I will.

Suppose someone was to ask me, Taigen, "All the buddhas come from this sutra. What is this sutra?" I would say: Don't look outside. Deeply trust yourself. Or maybe, deeply trust the ground you sit on.
There are many wonderful teaching traditions. And these old Zen stories that we like to play with can be very helpful, and of course coming together, and sitting with other people is very helpful. And of course, meeting with a teacher, meeting with someone with a little more experience in looking for the way, can be very helpful. But again I would say, don't look outside. Deeply trust the ground you are sitting on right now. This is not something we find someplace else. Whatever it was that brought you here, listen, it's speaking softly; trust yourself.

Suppose someone was then to ask me, "How should we receive and maintain it?" I would say: Keep returning to the question, how does it feel? Right now, as you sit upright, in this life, with this body and mind, how does it feel? Dogen and Shoushan borrowed from other stories, so I don't mind borrowing from my favorite American Dharma poet who likes to borrow from others too. "How does it feeel, to be on your own, a complete unknown?" How does it feel, right now, with this breath, with this bird song, with this voice that we hear, how does it feel? No direction home; or maybe, all directions home. In Asia people who found the mind of the way left home and went off together into the deep mountains. I think maybe for us we have to find our way back home. We've been wandering for many generations in this country. We don't know our homes. So maybe all directions are home. But still, how does it feel? So listen closely, deeply trust yourself, but then: how does it feel? What is this that thus comes? And then again, what is this? And anything you say is going to miss the mark, so it's not a matter of getting an answer to this question, it's a matter of just returning again and again. I've been lately recommending this as a mantra, or a koan to use in zazen: How does it feel? How does it feel in your heart, and your body, and your mind? In your elbows, your shoulders, your knees?

So in studying the way, the mind of the way is primary. We must take care of it. We must appreciate it. We must first of all hear that we have all heard it, speaking softly. These principles of hearing and speaking and receiving and maintaining the mind of the way, they apply to your own search for the way on your cushion, on your chair, in your heart, within your own life. And I think they also apply to how we take care of our relationships, how we try to speak softly, and see how does it feel? And what do we do when we make mistakes? Because we do, as human beings, make mistakes. How does it feel?

And I believe that it also applies to our society and the world around us. We are living in difficult times. I don't want to say so much about this today. It's a fearful time. Terrible things are happening. There is tremendous corruption in our federal government. We have wars and maybe more wars, and failing education systems and economy and environment. How does it feel? Speak softly, but speak up. I don't feel that I have to say so much about this today because it turns out that even some of the politicians are starting to speak softly and speak up, as well as our soldiers stuck in Iraq, and even the intelligent people in our intelligence agencies. Please do not be afraid to speak softly, but speak up.
Today is a beautiful day, the birds are singing; the sun is out. So please enjoy your mind of the way, and speak softly.