In the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, the Buddha said, “All illusory projections of sentient beings arise from the wondrous mind of the Buddha’s complete enlightenment, like flowers in the sky. When the illusory flower vanishes, the nature of the sky is not marred. Likewise, the illusory mind of sentient beings relies on illusory cultivation for its extinction. When all illusions are extinguished, the enlightened mind remains unmoved.” Speaking of enlightenment in contrast to illusion is itself illusion. To say that enlightenment exists is not yet having left delusion. But to say that it doesn’t exist is no different. “Extinction” implies too much activity. This is why we have to be diligent and meticulous. Ultimately, it really comes down to our deep, inner motivation, and how much we demand of ourselves.
In the beginning of formal training, we rely heavily upon the teachers, the staff, the training schedule and the various traditional forms of practice, to demand something of us. This is necessary and helpful, because we are not yet clear on what to ask of ourselves. But from the very beginning, the training that we rely upon and see as something outside of ourselves, is intended to bring us to our own complete maturity, so that along the way we increasingly understand what we need to ask of ourselves. All along the way, it’s inevitable—in different ways, at different times, at different stages—for the light to not penetrate freely. Not because there’s something wrong with the light, or you yourself. But just because it’s our deep tendency to see something tangible and self-existent in all that we experience. That’s why great perseverance is one of the essential virtues of Buddhist practice. To have deep, abiding trust in oneself and the dharma is essential. To have profound doubt—the questioning mind—and challenge our illusions and assumptions is critical. But without perseverance we cannot follow this path. We may take one step, but at various points along the way we will face what appears to be an impenetrable barrier, something we just can’t pass through. Can we take one more step here? I’ve met people over the years who have genuine spiritual doubt, but they can’t get out of bed. Or they have deep trust in themselves, but they can’t motivate themselves. That’s why the path is a road that must be traveled to be realized. It is one step after the next.
And isn’t it in those very first moments of zazen that we encounter perseverance? We try to stay with the breath, but we face the restless mind. Again and again we let go and return to the breath, and again and again the mind-patterns appear. One breath, one thought, one awareness, one letting go, one returning; is this not perseverance? There are many obstacles in genuine religious training. That’s nothing extraordinary; encountering difficulties is just a matter of course. But what do we do when we encounter the obstacle? To persevere is to meet, practice and move through and beyond that barrier. It’s like when you stand at a gate, and you see the road moving beyond deep into the mountains, and you want to go there. But there is a gate that closes off the path. The light doesn’t penetrate freely. There appears to be something there.
This is why the poem says, The dense web of myriad forms is so precipitous. We teeter on that precipice. And yet, as Wansong says in the footnote, “Let them be.” When on that precipice, when encountering those obstacles, “Let them be.” Don’t argue with or oppose them. Let them be as they are, profoundly. Then, in that very moment, we free ourselves of the sense of any barrier. Thus he says, “How can they hinder you?” In the moment when we feel hindered, look deeply and ask, “How am I being hindered? Where is the hindrance?” When we see the hindrance clearly, we see it is not our enemy. This is why, fundamentally, this is a path of practicing, realizing and embodying ultimate peace. The Great Way is without difficulty, without conflict; it has no enemies. Your mind is not your enemy. How can it hinder you? The fact that we experience hindering makes this a most poignant question.
Passing through beyond location blocks the eyes. Passing through the gate, realizing the barrier as empty, we think we’re free. Yunmen is talking about that very moment. Even at that moment when that gate becomes gateless, still, it seems like there is something there. It’s like the relief of passing through the gate, and looking back over our shoulder, saying, “Glad I got through that one.” But the gate is gateless. The footnote says, “Adding a flapper to a flail.” A whole lot of commotion—passing through, letting go, leaping beyond. We have to persevere. Because it cannot be grasped. Because at every step, that which moves us forward can become what holds us back.
Yunmen said, “When everything is not clear and there is something before you, this is one kind of sickness.” The commentary says, “He’s not telling you to get rid of illusory objects, to annihilate the illusory mind and to seek some other place of transcendence.” The Third Ancestor, Sengcan, said, “The six senses are not bad—instead they are the same as true enlightenment.” They’re the senses of an enlightened being. How is it that these masters can speak this way—that it’s not about getting rid of illusory objects or annihilating illusory mind? Commenting on this, Wansong says, “The one is many and the many are one; that is this, nothing else. Let them be high and precipitous, an enormous mass; one does not pull weeds in a wild field.” The world is the home of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and thoughts. Each fully expresses itself within a vast web of interdependence. The object is not the problem. Let each thing be completely itself, let yourself be completely you. Then, enter the wild field of weeds freely and help everyone you encounter.