When you look from the outside, trapped there on the cushion, it’s heart-rending. It can get very emotional because you’re looking from the outside. Things can look monstrously large and insurmountable or pathetically small and meangingless. Why does this closeness seem like the enemy—something of which we are afraid? What is it that we actually fear? What we see when searching from the outside is not what we see when we turn toward ourselves. That is why it is so important to come close. We all seek intimacy—with others, with our lives, as something that is meaningful, with God, with the breath in zazen—and yet, this very intimacy is what frightens us most. Just look at how many ways we ingeniously avoid it. Students of our order are encouraged to take up body practice. Some take up traditional disciplines, such as Qigong, Taiji, or other forms of moving meditation. Some people dance, some people run. It’s not about building up the body. It is not, ultimately, even about being in good shape or taking care of our bodies, even though this is very important. It is about realizing the true body of the Buddha through the human form. Then we begin to realize that every action is a form of body practice: How we open a door, how we take off our clothing at night, how we pick up a cup of tea, how we handle the bodies in our lives—in other words, the “other” bodies—all practice is, in a sense, body practice. Shaking hands, hugging a friend, hammering a nail, washing vegetables, all of it reveals the depth of our ultimate familiarity or the lack of it. What we begin to see is that in our actions, in the way that we move, we are expressing, moment after moment, that depth or shallowness of our intimacy with this life.

During and after high school, I spent a number of years working in veterinary hospitals and on farms, and so I saw animals in many different states of health and illness. When animals lose some ability, they just deal with it. They just shift. It is like the trees in the city that you see growing out of concrete. You see how they mold around signs and wires and they just work with things as they are. But for us, Why does ultimate familiarity seem like enmity?

Hongzhi’s poem reads: Not entering the world, Not following conditions; In the emptiness of the pot of ages there is a family tradition. Our family tradition is realizing our true nature, that all things are empty of inherent existence. In birth, there is no entering the world; in death, there is no departing. In the midst of the myriad streams of life and causes and conditions, we can be free of those conditions. Neither ignoring nor following after and being defined by the ten thousand things: white duckweeds, breeze gentle—evening on an autumn river. In autumn, the vast array of living things begin to drop away, there is a deep stillness. As the footnote to that line says, “Pure, empty, cool, plain.” And within that cool stillness, white duckweeds bend gently in the evening’s breeze. There is no obstruction or conflict between the weeds and the breeze; each moves in perfect accord.

An ancient embankment, the boat returns—a single stretch of haze. To realize oneself is to go from the shore of delusion to the shore of enlightenment. When we reach the other shore we realize that we haven’t gone anywhere. This shore and that shore are the same place. We realize we actually haven’t taken a step, even though we have covered many, many miles. Having discovered that mountains are not mountains—we are not our bodies—we realize that, after all, mountains are mountains—our body is the body of the true human being. We realize that although there is poor health and good health, youth and old age, life and death, in birth there is no arrival and in death there is no departure. To realize this is to realize the body and mind of the Buddha

photo by Marcelo Gerpe


Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei is vice-abbot and resident teacher of Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple and head of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 1997.