Select Page

Taigen Leighton
Mt. Source Sangha, Bolinas – January 11, 2003

In the Soto tradition, and in the style of the Suzuki Roshi lineage, our meditation is pretty gentle, settling-in meditation, just sitting. We try to find a way of sitting and practice that is sustainable. We find what is not exactly “comfortable,” but at least a restful and compassionate space in which to sit, and which we can sustain. In our sitting we emphasize some sense of connecting with this space of zazen every day. So I don’t go around and hit people with a stick if you are sleeping. There are some branches of Zen where zazen is “on the edge of your seat” sitting, and that is sometimes very good for some people.

But our sitting here is just gentle upright sitting. I do not believe that zazen should be an athletic, competitive event, as if whoever could sit in the most difficult position for the longest without moving was the most enlightened. But at the same time, our gentle, steady sitting should not be dull and listless. Even though we emphasize not acquiring anything from it, this is not just idly passing time.

So what I want to talk about today is zazen as question, as inquiry. Even though we are sitting quietly, gently, at the core of our sitting is a question. Or maybe it is not a question, but just the activity of questioning.

What are we doing here? All of you here have some question that somewhere back there was behind your wanting to do this Buddhist meditation, coming and facing the wall and looking into, what is this? So Dogen in many of his teachings says things like, “Do you completely understand this? Please study this completely. Please thoroughly penetrate this question.” There is a question that we each have to look into.

The point of this practice of questioning, however, is not to get an answer. We sit upright, centered, if not comfortable, at least in some space of ease and restfulness. And yet there is some problem, some question, something we are looking into. How do we practice with question? It is not that there is only one way to do that, because we each have our own version of this question. But we must recognize that there is a question. How do we live this life? How do we take care of this world, face the problems that we each have in our life, or the problems that we share together? There are various questions. Part of this practice of sitting is facing the question, and learning about questioning, and deepening our question, and allowing questions to arise. But it is not about getting some answer.

I want to give a few expressions of this. I’ve mentioned before Bob Dylan’s line, “A question in your nerves is lit, yet you know there is no answer fit, to satisfy, insure you not to quit, to keep it in your mind and not forget, that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.” [from “It’s Alright Ma. I’m Only Bleeding.”] The first part, “A question in your nerves is lit,” is just the fact that you are here, willing to engage in facing yourself in upright sitting. There is a question beyond the questions that you may be conscious of. There’s a question that’s in your nerves, that’s in your bones, that’s in your marrow. And it doesn’t mean that we have to be agitated and upset about getting the answer to that question. The point is just how to stay present with such questioning.
So Dylan says, “You know there is no answer fit.” The answer may not be so important. This is about being willing to be upright, and present, in this body and mind, just as yourself, not trying to become somebody else. Just be in this world and this life, with all its problems, willing to face that question. We do not necessarily get answers, although in sitting of course powerful insights may arise at times. We do have insights, and that’s part of the questioning process. But it’s not that you get some answer that you can write down and put on the wall and that’s it. But we learn to connect with this place of facing the questions, in our nerves. It’s lit. It’s on fire. It’s not going to satisfy you, but you can keep it in your mind, and not forget. Practice is a way of relating and dancing around this questioning.

One expression of this questioning in the Zen tradition is koan study. In Zen this is the formal practice of working with a particular traditional story or saying. Sometimes I have offered some of you these traditional stories to practice with, or I have talked about them here. How do you stay present with these questions? With these traditional stories or Zen dialogues in which we sometimes sit, Dogen will comment, “Please thoroughly penetrate this, or completely study this.”

But there are also the questions that arise in our own hearts, in our own body and mind in the world around us, that come up with family, and relations, and the people around us. The questions that come up out of our own struggle to find our own center, and our own problems with being this person in this body and mind, we call Genjo Koan, the koan as it manifests in our life. What is this appearing in front of me? As we sit, thoughts, feelings, our whole world appears before us, not just the wall or the floor or the chairs. But in being present, uprightly aware, gently, in a way that you can stay with, in a posture that you can settle into, then we can look at, “What is this that thus comes?” How is it that this, just this, is here in front of me? What is it? How do I deal with it? What do I do with it? Again, it’s not about fixing it or getting a solution, it’s not about getting some answer, but just being totally present in relationship to that question, or to the further questions that come up from questions.
Our way of then responding, and actually working and dancing with these questions is not an answer. Yet something may arise, and not based on our limited human consciousness. This arises from a deeper place that we are connected with when we are sitting upright, when we are willing to settle into this space, and find our own way of sustaining this space every day. Again, I emphasize doing this sitting practice every day. Even for only ten or fifteen minutes, connect to this space, where you are willing to be there with the question. Out of that comes a way of facing our life that is deeper than our ideas about who we are, and our limited human consciousness about what the world is.

One traditional Buddhist teaching about this, in the Tendai school, is that in each moment there are three thousand worlds. Or sometimes they say that in each thought are three thousand worlds. I think that’s part of this approach to question that is our zazen, three thousand worlds in one thought. So every thought we have, if we thought about that thought, if we tried to track that thought, it’s connected to so many things in our life, and so many things that we do not even know are in our life, that actually, it’s true, if you think about it, in each moment, in each thought, there are three thousand worlds. Of course, three thousand means three hundred thousand, or three hundred million.

So speaking about zazen as question, or inquiry, in each moment or each thought are three thousand worlds. And each of those worlds is a question. How can we face and include those three thousand worlds? One teaching about questions that was given to me yesterday is a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Questions are Remarks.” I’ll read it all the way through, then talk about a couple parts of it.

In the weed of summer, comes this green sprout why.
The sun aches and ails and then returns halloo
Upon the horizon amid adult enfintillages.

Its fire fails to pierce the vision that beholds it,
Fails to destroy the antique acceptances,
Except that the grandson sees it as it is,

Peter the voyant who says, “Mother what is that”?
The object that rises with so much rhetoric,
But not for him. His question is complete.

It is the question of what he is capable
It is the extreme, the expert aetat. 2. [This means expert at being about age two]
He will never ride the red horse she describes.

His question is complete because it contains
His utmost statement. It is his own array,
His own pageant and procession and display,

As far as nothingness permits . . . Hear him.
He does not say, “Mother, my mother, who are you,”
The way the drowsy, infant, old men do.
[Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, pp. 462-463]

So questions are remarks. In the weed of summer, in the middle of our life, comes this green sprout, Why? Questions arise, moment by moment. The sun aches and ails and then returns. Its fire fails to pierce the vision that beholds it, fails to destroy the antique acceptances, except that the grandson sees it as it is. So there’s this spirit of questioning, the questioning that is our zazen, that is like the questioning of a two-year-old, or a four-year-old, or a six-year-old sometimes. It is an elemental questioning that comes from a place deeper than our ideas of who we are. It is just “this green sprout, why?” So as we sit moment after moment, such questioning is at the core of our sitting. And we don’t necessarily have to think those questions. There are spaces in the middle of our sitting when there may not be so many thoughts. When there is just this calm, this settling. And that’s fine. We need that to sustain our questioning. But even in the middle of the absence of questioning there’s this question in our nerves that’s lit.

Sometimes the world brings the questioning to us very intently. Someone gets sick. You lose a loved one. Our house burns down. War is declared, or breaks out undeclared. And yet, there is this basic question, even before the sun arises, just this green sprout, why?

So Wallace Stevens says about his grandson, who sees the sun, and says, “Mother what is that?” The object that rises with so much rhetoric, but not for him. His question is complete.

You don’t need to get an answer to your question. To be present in the middle of question is complete. I think what brings me back to zazen, myself, every day, is this possibility, this sense, this taste of wholeness. It is actually alright for things to be the way they are. And yet that sense of completeness, of wholeness, of it’s alright to be this person, it’s alright to be in this world, has to do with this question, this complete question, this green sprout, why?

Wallace Stevens goes on, “It is the question of what he is capable. It is the extreme the expert, at age two. He will never ride the red horse she describes.” The grandson may not buy into a vision of the sun as Apollo’s chariot traversing the heavens.

There’s a passage by William Blake about the sun, where he talks about whether the sun is just a golden disk in the sky, a plain golden coin, or is the radiant sun instead rather a wondrous event, complete with hosannas of angels crying with exaltation? All of life comes from the sun. And on this cloudy day we may wish for some sun. So Blake calls forth the visionary, exalted sun, miraculous. But if you try and stand on the sun, it would burn you up.
Stevens says, “It is the question of what he is capable.” His question is complete because it contains his utmost statement. In Zen koan work often a statement is a question, and a question can be a statement. The phrases that we study in these old Zen stories, are sometimes utterances or expressions of this complete questioning. This completeness may be a question that is an utmost statement.
Then there’s this wonderful line and a half Wallace Stevens says about his grandson, “it is his own array, his own pageant and procession and display.” I’ve talked sometimes about zazen as expression, as a performance art. That too is a questioning. How do we express our question, the question in our life, the question in our world, through our zazen. Of course that doesn’t mean just when you’re here, sitting, waiting for the bell to ring, finding your balance. When we have this space of upright questioning, it does permeate and reach into the rest of our life. It performs in such a way. “It is his own array, his own pageant and procession and display, as far as nothingness permits . . . Hear him.”

For zazen as question and inquiry, part of the settling in is to find the space where we are willing to be present for this question. Of course, each question is three thousand questions. And a good question will give you more questions. So you need not worry about the answers. Answers come sometimes, too, but they bring more questions as well.

Can we live in the middle of impermanence? Can we live in the middle of uncertainty? Can we live in the middle of a life that is a question? As much as we build up our life, and try to stabilize things, and take care of things, we do our best to make it all work, and that’s our job as human beings. But still, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything could disappear in a flash. It’s a question. The question is complete. It is his own array. And it’s alright to live in a life of impermanence. In fact, it better be, because that’s where we are.

I did want to say a little more about zazen, from an old story about two old Chinese monks, Mazu, the “Horse Ancestor” his name means, and Nanyue. Mazu was a great Zen teacher. He had 139 enlightened disciples later on, according to some accounts. But this story happened when he was just a young monk. He was sitting zazen and his teacher Nanyue said, “What are you doing sitting there?” I will talk about just one little piece of Dogen’s commentary, but I’ll tell you the whole story first. [This is from the Shobogenzo essay by Dogen, Zazenshin, the Acupuncture Needle of Zazen].

Nanyue, the teacher, asked Mazu who was sitting zazen, “What are you trying to do sitting in meditation?” And Mazu said, “I’m trying to make a Buddha.” Or we could say, “I am aiming at becoming Buddha.” So his teacher Nanyue hearing that picked up a tile and sat and started polishing it. Finally Mazu noticed this and asked, “Teacher, what are you doing?” And Nanyue said, “I’m polishing this tile to make it into a mirror.” Mazu said, “How could you make a mirror from polishing a tile?” And Nanyue said, “How can you make a Buddha from sitting zazen?”

Alan Watts used to tell this story as an excuse for not needing to sit zazen. But Dogen has a different spin on it. He says, yes, you should polish a tile to make a mirror, and yes, you should sit zazen aiming to become Buddha. Sometimes we have chanted the Fukanzazengi, Dogen’s early writing, “Universal Recommendations for Zazen,” where he says, “Have no designs on becoming Buddha.”
I’ve been talking about the three thousand questions in each question, the three thousand worlds in each thought, in each moment. But Dogen here talks a little bit about this basic question, “What is Buddha?” This maybe just means, how do I live this life? How can I be awake? How can I be wise and compassionate and kind? How can I get beyond all of my human pettiness and greed, anger, and delusion? So in there is this question, somewhere in the bottle of all the three thousand questions.

I want to read a little bit of Dogen’s commentary just to the beginning of this story, because it has to do with our question in zazen. The teacher, Nanyue, said to Mazu, what is it you are aiming at or figuring to do in zazen? In response, Dogen says, “We should quietly ponder and penetrate this question.” You should know what you’re about when you’re sitting upright. What is it you’re up to? Is there an aim that might be superior to zazen? Is there a way you should aim at beyond the framework of zazen that has not yet been accomplished? Or should you not aim at anything at all? That’s another possibility. That might be the way to be Buddha. So these are real questions, each one of them. He has a whole series of them. And he says, “Just in the moment of sitting zazen, what kind of aim, what kind of design or intention, is being actualized? We should diligently inquire, in detail.” So again, this sitting is questioning, closely looking. Part of that might be thinking about, and questioning in our usual way of trying to figure something out. But it is deeper than that. It’s this question that is within your nerves, that is not about mere answers.
He says, “Do not get stuck in loving a carved dragon. We should go forward and love the real dragon.” There’s a story about a man in China who loved carvings and paintings of dragons, and his whole house was filled with these images of dragons. Then one time a dragon was flying overhead, and he heard about this guy who really liked dragons. He thought, “I’ll go and visit him, he’ll be very happy.” So the dragon flew down and stuck his head in the window. And the man screamed in terror! So Dogen says, “Don’t get stuck in loving carved dragons. Go forward and love the real dragon.” So when you sit in the middle of question, you never know what’s going to come up. You never know who’s going to stick their head in your window. This is another way of talking about this Buddha that Dogen recommends we aim at.

He says, “You should study that both the carved dragon and the real dragon have the power of forming clouds and rain.” So the carved dragon has great power too. You may think that your zazen is not real zazen, it’s just a picture of zazen: You may have those kinds of thoughts. I’ve heard people who actually imagine that their practice is not very good. This happens. But even that carved dragon has tremendous power. Dogen says, “Neither value the remote nor disparage what is remote. Be accustomed and intimate with the remote. Neither disparage what is close, nor value the close. Be accustomed and intimate with the close.” So whether we are far away or close, whatever our idea of buddha is, look at it. Be intimate with its closeness, and with its remoteness. This is this way of questioning, of looking, of seeing, this way of inquiry that is our sitting. Dogen says, “Do not take the eyes lightly nor attach too much weight to the eyes. Do not put too much weight to the ear nor take the ears too lightly. . . . . the ears and eyes sharp and clear.” So we sit with eyes open. We look at the wall or the floor or the chairs. We sit with ears open. We’re willing to hear the sounds of the suffering of the world and of the people wandering by on the street in Bolinas and of our own questioning and uncertainty.
Then Mazu said, “I’m aiming at becoming Buddha.” This was his answer when his teacher asked, “What are you aiming at when you sit zazen?” Dogen says about that statement, “We should clarify and penetrate these words. What does becoming Buddha mean? Does becoming Buddha mean that we are enabled to become Buddha by Buddha? Does becoming Buddha mean that we make Buddha into a Buddha? Does becoming Buddha mean the manifestation of one face or two faces of Buddha? Is aiming at becoming Buddha dropping off body and mind? Or is it aiming at becoming Buddha dropped off?” Each of these questions you could spend a lifetime on. All three thousand of these questions are there in your sitting, are somewhere in the question you have about your own life.

Dogen says, “Aiming at becoming buddha, does he mean that even though there are ten thousand methods (or dharma gates) to becoming Buddha, becoming Buddha continues to be entangled with this aiming?” Even though there are ten thousand ways in which each of us is this green sprout, “why?” this green sprout, Buddha, it continues to be entangled with our aiming and designing. So where are we going to sit in relationship to the question? How are we going to be present in the middle of just looking at, “what is this?” What is the situation? How do I live with this? How am I going to respond to this particular problem? In each thought and each question there are three thousand questions, three thousand worlds. When we are willing to be here, completely, we sit in wholeness and wonder, “What is it that I’m up to?” We cannot avoid those three thousand worlds. We cannot avoid this green sprout, why? And yet, going back to Wallace Stevens, The question is complete because it contains our utmost statement. It is our own array, our own pageant, and procession, and display.

So this is a very gentle questioning. It’s the kind of questioning that the Colorado River asks the Grand Canyon over centuries and centuries. It is gentle, but persistent. Can we stop a war on Iraq? That’s one question, but there are so many other questions behind that. How do we live together, with peace and justice? How do we take care of just the world of our own family and relations and workplace and all of that, as well as our nation, with peace and justice? How do we sit zazen with peace and justice for our own body and mind? All of those questions are present in each of them. It is not that there is even one right answer for each one of us. It’s not even about getting answers, but it is about how do we express the question. My way of expressing it and yours and yours are all going to be different, and they are going to change tomorrow. But if we are present in the middle of this question, then we can proceed. And if we are afraid, that’s alright; that’s another question.

I want to hear your questions and your inquiries and your processions and displays and arrays.

Question: You spoke about the river asking the question of the Grand Canyon. To what does the green growth address its question.

Taigen: To what does the green growth address its question? Yes, I agree. Good question; Completely displayed; Wonderful.
The question always comes down to questioning. The way you said it there’s no need for answer. It’s always open. Even when you have the display there’s still that openness. Emptiness is just the way form is. So question is the way answer is.

Question: This reminds me of a book called The Faith to Doubt, by Stephen Batchelor. When you’re talking about question, the element of faith arises. It made me think of one definition of faith that I heard years ago, “Letting go of our resistance to receiving.” Somehow hearing that put me in touch with not only facing the question, but also facing my own resistance to that question.

Taigen: But beyond that our practice is not necessarily only the removal of the resistance, but first is just recognizing resistance. Yes, questioning is faith. There is no faith without questioning. Faith that is allergic to questioning is just dogma. But faith-questioning is how we sit upright. And it’s not necessarily about removing the reluctance or resistance, it’s about being right there in the middle of the reluctance, too. So that’s the question. Our reluctance is this question about whether I can be here, in this question. Can I be willing to be the question I am? Can I really let that green sprout come forth.

So faith to doubt, faith to question, means being willing to be a question. Sometimes the people who are most weird, or odd, or who are walking questions, may be the most inspiring. Because those people in our lives allow us the opportunity to see our own reluctance to question, they can inspire faith. Facing our reluctance is the practice of upright questioning.

Question: The Christian religion offers Christ as comforter, friend, companion, big brother. I guess that comfort can extend to God, too. Can you comment on that?

Taigen: I’ll just say what Buddhism offers in the face of that is perhaps not essentially different, but it is buddhas and bodhisattvas and the possibility of kindness, the possibility of caring and listening, the possibility of clearly observing, of seeing clearly. It is this practice of being upright, sitting on our cushion, being present, being willing to face question. Sometimes it is important that we find consolation. It is not easy to be a question. But there are ways that we can find our seats, ways we can find how to be the person we are, in the middle of the questions we are. Then we may express that clearly, right in the middle of confusion. I don’t know if that works as well as Jesus and God, but anyway, that’s what we’ve got.
It’s not inside or outside. It’s from under your cushion. It’s from the sound of the birds. It’s from the waves on the beach.

Thank you all for being the question you are.