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Norman Fischer - Let Go of What You Know



Let go of what you know


by Zoketsu Norman Fischer


Mar de Jade, December 2006.



So I want to say hello again to everybody and welcome everybody to seshin. Thank you for coming. I know it is not too easy to make time to come. I hope everybody is comfortable and that you have everything you need and you are ready for a week of practice.


We are lucky to be able to practice here in Mar de Jade, where, during every period of zazen, Dharma talks and everything we do during the day, we hear the powerful sound of the ocean. This constantly reminds us that there are forces in life that are bigger than we are and which remind us that life is a lot bigger than we are and bigger than our problems. And that at every moment in our life there are forces at work that we cannot understand and cannot control. So, all day long we can practice and remember this when we hear the sound of the sea. And these forces beyond our understanding and beyond our control support our life and are not far away; they are present in every breath we take and every time we move our arm or take one step, all these forces are there.


This morning I will like to start from the beginning. Why are we all here? And what are we trying to do? We are all such intelligent people and we understand so much already.


So, this morning I was thinking of the people who are working in the kitchen to prepare our meals, can you say there names Laura? “Norma, Victor and Lilly, who was just here, and Mary who’s in the kitchen, now she is downstairs and now over there Gloria and Rosa. Excuse for not remembering your names, I remember your faces. So, I was thinking of you, and I was thinking on how much you must understand in order to prepare the meals. You have to know all of the different vegetables and fruits, you have to know the difference between a banana and tofu and you have to know which ones go well together and which ones don’t go well together, which ones to cook and which ones we could eat raw. You have to know what a knife is, what a pot is, what a spoon is and what a spatula is. And you have to use a pot like a pot, a knife like a knife; you can’t use a pot like a knife, it won’t work, or a knife like a pot, these things you have to know. And you have to understand about heat, and you have to understand a lot about time and timing and about measurement and quantities. And maybe there are many hundred of things in the kitchen, all the food items and all the utensils and so on… and you don’t have time to consult a list of where all this things are, you have to memorize where they all are so you can quickly find them and work. So actually there is a tremendous amount that you have to know just to cook one meal, and I think, if you where to write down all this so that someone from another planet who never cooked anything could see from your writing how to cook, you would spend the rest of your life just writing down how you cooked lunch today. And it might be ten thousand pages of writing to explain, and still the person from this other planet might not be able to understand how you do it.


And so we are all like this, we know a tremendous amount and we understand a tremendous amount. We all know how to walk without falling down, we know how to stand up and sit down, we know what a door is, we don’t look at something square in the wall and think what that is. Is it a picture, is it a drawing on the wall, is it a cabinet, what is it? We know it is a door and we know how to use a handle and walk trough the door. So we all know and understand many… many more things that we can ever remember or enumerate. And we can all speak and understand language, some of us amazingly can speak and understand more than one language which seems to some other of us to be something absolutely impossible, and yet, some of us can do this easily. How many thousands and thousands of words we all know and how to put them together into sentences that can be understood.


So we have an amazing capacity as human beings, we can’t even name all the things that we know, and yet, when the time comes for us to know them, spontaneously our understanding comes forward. So, really we are amazing creatures. The capacity of each one of us is outstanding, really. And we all exist together with many things; we exist together with the sea, with pots and pans, within our human body and with each other in a community of people. And it would absolutely be impossible for us to be who we are without all these other things that surround us. If there where no sky and sea, if there where no plants, animals and other people; it would be impossible to be me or you. We couldn’t possibly exist without all these other things that make us exist, all these things that support our very existents as human beings. So, we are never alone and if we are alive now, it means we are loved.


So, what’s our problem? I think our problem is that along all the other things we know and understand we have also learned who we are and what the world is. And these things where not taught to us explicitly, but somehow, in between all the other things that we know we’ve learned who we are and what the world is. And it seems that what we have learned about who we are and what the world is, is not correct. Or maybe, this is a better way of saying it, what we have learned about who we are and what the world is causes us a great deal of pain and distress and suffering. Most of the time, or a lot of the time, we are not happy with ourselves, we are not content with what is given to us in our life; we are not happy with the world that we live in, we have a lot of conflict with other people and this causes a lot of pain and we can’t seem to find a way out of this. We often feel humiliated or disrespected and we feel confused and we feel frustrated in our desires, in our biggest desire, to live and not to die. This certainly seems that it will be frustrated some day. But all these problems are only problems in that they depend on what we have learned about who we are and what the world is. If we could understand differently who we are and what the world is, all these problems that seem so much a part of our life would also be different. So much so, that if we understood our life and the world differently, we woudn´t really call these things problems and we wouldn’t any longer have suffering about these problems. If they weren’t problems any more we would just understand them as life, as the beauty and mystery of life. And we will no longer feel oppressed by them, and then we could live this life that we have with our amazing capacities in freedom and with joy.


So, as I was saying a minute ago, understanding is very deep in our life. We have so much of it, that we are not even aware of all of our understanding and this is why to understand differently is not a small matter, because here we are not trying to understand something, we are trying to illuminate the one who understands and this is not such an easy thing… It is actually very simple, in fact maddeningly simple. It is very simple but not easy. We all think of understanding as something that we can do, as something that we can accomplish. We understand with our mind, with our language, we are all smart people; we can learn things, we all went to school. But to illuminate the self is something different; this requires some kind of awakening, some kind of radical awakening to a new perspective. And this perspective is not just something we can describe with words and with intelligence; it’s also a turning of the heart and an understanding that is in the body. So, our usual way of understanding, our usual approach to learning is really not sufficient. And this is why we have such a regimented schedule and what might seem at first to be really complicated and detailed arrangements. For those of you who are new to these, I apologize because it all seems too complicated, maybe. And I am really sorry about that. I don’t enjoy creating such complicated things that might make some of you feel as a child, as if you don’t know what to do, that every way you stand or walk is always the wrong way, just like when you were a child and the grown ups were telling you all the time that everything you did was wrong. This is a very uncomfortable feeling and I apologize that we have all this. Or maybe for some of you it might remind you of when you where young and going to Church, and they told you all the time “be quiet, be quiet”, they said “here is what you should recite and hold your hands this way”, and they told you, “you should look holy and you should feel holy”; even if you didn’t feel very holy and you were not interested in looking holy, because you wanted to play and shout and it was disturbing that they wouldn’t let you do that. So, possibly all these different things that we do, will make you fell like that. But believe it or not, all these things are not at all complicated, they are actually much simpler than the things you do all the time, but because they are different than the things you automatically do they seem complicated. And I hope that in a few days of practicing them you’ll get used to them and you can come to enjoy them.


The point of it all is this: to practice in this way is to be relived of the burden of yourself. It’s quite tiring actually for each one of us, we don’t think of it this way, but actually each one of us is carrying on our back the heavy burden of being ourself. We pick it up as soon as we wake up in the morning, we carry it around all day long, and when we go to bed at night we think we put it down for a moment but as soon as we fall asleep and start to dream we are picking it up again, even in our dreams. We are so used to carry it around, that we don’t even know that we have it. So, the point of all these regimented and complicated things is to give you a chance to release the burden of carrying yourself. All these things allow you to simply join with everyone and everything in the great activity of the universe; all of this detail and ways of standing and walking will help you to understand you are not alone, that your real life flows together with the life of everyone, and not only all other people, but with the sea and the sky.


So, for us to learn more deeply and differently who we are and what the world is, we need a whole civilization to help us. We need to create a whole world that will facilitate this kind of understanding. And that’s what we do in our retreat, each one of us contributes his or her part to creating a whole world that facilitates the understanding of ourselves differently. I think that all of us understand that meditation practice is part of this civilization, and the effort that each one of us makes in meditation practice. And this civilization also includes a great deal of silence, this is very important. As we have discussed, it includes peculiar ways of walking and of standing, particular ways of eating meals and it also includes chanting and words and understanding and our own thoughts and reflections.


So, I ask you, please, if you find yourself thinking that all of these details are troublesome and useless, and if inside of yourself you are rebelling against them and you feel they restrict your individuality -sometimes they can even make you mad-, so if you feel any of these things I will only ask you, please think again. Don’t deny the things that you feel about them, observe what you feel, that is a very important part of all this. Think about it, and think twice, don’t necessarily believe your first thoughts. The point is not to impose some restriction from the outside on us, the point is to create a new vantage point from which we can feel inside of our lives, to come to understand that our lives are not what we have always thought they were. Most of the assumptions that we have made about our lives are not correct. Through our body and through our heart and our mind we must come to feel within our life differently, and that’s why there are all these things.


So, please try your best and be very honest with yourself, with what you feel and so on. It is very important that you honor and understand all that you feel, there is nothing that you feel that is not part of our practice; there is nothing that you feel that is wrong or that is not allowed. So, it is very important to give full space to everything that is coming inside of you and to let the form of the retreat to be a container of all that, so that you´ll be able to understand them and feel them in a different way.


Now, another part of our schedule is everyday work. And all of us work every day, so, we might be tempted to look at the work period in the retreat as a kind of chore that we have to do, but actually these work periods are not a time for doing chores, they are an important part of the practice and an important time for transforming ourself. This is very difficult because we all have some deeply ingrained attitudes about work and we may have attitudes about this particular kind of work that we are doing. So, we need to feel these things differently.


Here there is an old Zen story about work:


“One day Lin-ji went to work empty handed, he didn’t have any tools. And Huang-po said to him -where is your shovel? - And Lin-ji said -someone took it away-. So, Hunag-po said -come here I want to talk this over with you-. So, Lin-ji came near by and Hunag-po, who was holding a shovel, held the shovel up and he said -no one on earth can lift this shovel up- So, Lin-ji grabbed the shovel away from Hunag-po and he held it up and said -how is it that I can hold it up? - and Hunag-po said -today there is some one who is really working-”.


So, this shows how lively the old Zen masters were. How can we practice with this story in our retreat? When you are working, whatever it is that you are doing, don’t think you know what you are doing. If you are swiping, tell yourself: this is not swiping; if you are washing the dishes, tell your self: this is not washing the dishes, pick up every dish as if it was a precious treasure, each and every dish, a precious treasure that was given to you and you will never receive another one, and give your complete attention to each dish. If you find this hard to do, and your mind wanders a little bit, as soon as you notice that it is wandering bring it back. So, train your mind this way to see every dish as a precious treasure and not as a dish. Let go of time and space and especially let go of yourself and disappear into the dish, disappear into the dishwater; disappear into the vegetables you are cutting; disappear into the fact that you are standing there where you are. And when you come into the zendo and you cross the threshold, don’t think you are coming into the zendo, you don’t know what this room is. And when you walk please walk this way, don’t just make a line for your seat, don’t think “I am going to my seat”, you might never make it that far, you really don’t know. So, take one step carefully and if this works out, well, take the next step, so, just take one step each time. And if it should happen that you arrive at your seat, let this be an amazing surprise and with gratitude bow to your cushion and turn around and bow to the entire universe of sea and things; sit down on your seat and take one complete, full, decisive breath. Breathing in, lighting up the entire universe and breathing out, bringing the whole body and mind and all things to rest. One breath, and if that went well, take the next one. Let the whole ocean and the whole sky be part of each breath. This is the way Lin-ji and Hunag-po practiced.


Also practice this way when you are waking to your room, careful with each step and not knowing where you are going, not assuming anything, observe the silence. And we will observe the silence together. To observe silence doesn’t mean we ignore one another and pretend that no one is around, that is not what silence is, to observe the silence together is to include one another in a deeper, fuller way then usual. Instead of what you do when you see some one, and you say: “oh, it’s only Andres; oh, its John, I know all about him; oh, its Martha, I know Martha, I know all three of them; its Antoinetta, I know her”. No, you don’t know who they are; you have no idea, any more than you know who you are. So, in silence we include one another in a bigger way and passing one another on the path we could stop and bow to one another, this may feel possibly unnatural to you at first, but it’s a beautiful custom when we bow to one another. It is a way of saying “I understand that I don’t know the largeness of what you are but I honor it”.


And during our long afternoon “break” please learn how to enjoy the immensity of your life. I use the word break with quotation marks around it, because there are no breaks. Think about it! If you think there’s a break that means that the rest of the time is not a break. And since breaks are always so short compared to the rest of the time, we are always suffering and overworked because we don’t have too many breaks. So if there are no breaks, that means there is no work either, everything is a break, there is nothing but breaks, our life is one long break. You can’t take a break from your life! How can you do that? “I am taking a break from life. I am going to be dead for a little while now”, you can’t do that, there are no breaks. Later you’ll have a pretty long break. So, our practice includes enjoyment of our resting, so when it comes the time for the “brake”, in quotation marks, this is a really important time for practice.


See if it is possible for you not to fall back into your usual way of being who you are. Of course you will and when you do remind yourself, “oh!”, and try to bring yourself back to the present, and you can say to yourself just as Lin-ji and Hunag-po said, no one in the world can seat here where I am seating, no one in the world can be walking in this path now, no one in the world could be near the beach in Mar de Jade, and yet, I am here, how is this? So, please try your best to practice in this way. And this is a slow and painstaking work, it would be easy to give up before you even start, so you have to have a lot of patience you have to really all the time bring yourself to where you are. And you’ll forget this thousand and thousand of times, because your habit of thinking that you are someone that you are not and thinking that the world is something that it is not, is really strong. So, little by little we have to bring ourselves awake. So, when you forget, don’t be impatient. You could always begin your practice now. Even if five days of our retreat go by and you realize “my God, I’ve been asleep for five days, I’ve forgotten to begin the retreat, five days have gone by and I forgot to begin”. This doesn’t matter, begin now, it only takes one second to practice, one second is enough. So, be very careful and persistently go on. And all day long there are many, many opportunities and your true self will be calling you in this retreat every moment, so try to listen.


So, another practice that we do in our retreat is Dokusan. That means you come to visit me, and I am sure I will have the chance to see each and every one of you during this week. And this practice of coming to see the teacher and bringing the depth of your spiritual process into the Dokusan room is a very important part of our practice. So, Sergio is going to be the assistant Jisha, and no matter what language you speak, Sergio knows it.


We will just start somewhere in the room, I don’t know where, and will go in order from one person to the next person. So, I hope that when your turn is up you’ll be in the mood to come, or not, and of course if for some reason you really don’t want to come, it’s not a hundred percent necessary. It is possible to skip you and come back later, but of course it will be best if we just go in order because we can get confused, maybe. “Oh, who did I skip” and this makes it harder for Sergio. Besides, as you will soon see, the time when it comes to be your turn, it will turn out to be exactly the right time. Even if you feel resistant to it at that time, you’ll realize “I feel resistance but this is exactly the right time”. So, when your time comes up just think, “What is the most important thing right now, as I understand right now in my spiritual process?” And that’s what we will talk about. So, I will probably begin Dokusan this afternoon, after the afternoon “break” with quotation marks.


So, I want to thank Enrique and Laura for setting up everything and getting all the arrangements together. Thank you very much and thank you all again for coming. Every long retreat is an important occasion, in everyone’s life who attends it. Your life will be changed for ever as a consequence of this retreat and no one here can say whether we will ever do this again, so please make good use of your time, every minute of your life is precious, much has gone into making it, so please, use your time well.


Thank you.


Transcripción: Mikael Lomelín Benchetrit, Xalapa, Veracruz.