What does it mean to cultivate true solitude? Not the safety of isolation that distances us from others, but solitude where we expose ourselves completely to everything. If we seek solitude in the right spirit, we will feel the suffering of the world all the more acutely. Chih Men wrote a poem:

I have always lived in a forest hut.
In the spiritual light of the one path
myriad objects are at rest.
Don’t use right and wrong to judge me—
fleeting life and its rationalizations
have nothing to do with me.

We’re incredibly sophisticated in our rationalizations and justifications. We have created an amazing structure where the reflection of our self-importance is available to us no matter where we look. How much of what we rationalize, judge and measure is really just another way of bringing some aspect of ourselves into the picture? On an individual level, each one of us is playing that game. And we do it as a species, too, with our uncanny sense of self-importance; somehow it is hard for us to see ourselves as what we are—a stepping stone, part of a flow, an expression of conditions that came before, not even as dramatic as the dinosaurs and guaranteed, whether with a bang or a whimper, to disappear. We will shift; something will change. The question is simply how? What will it be? How intentional and committed are we to offering clarity to that process? To tackling the monk’s question and investigating the place that Chih Men points to?

We’re clever. We’re quick. I was going to say we’re sophisticated, but the fact is that we’re kind of pseudo-sophisticated. Our intellect, our emotionality and our psychological understanding of ourselves seem to be growing more sophisticated—but are they really? Are we more attuned to our actual experience of ourselves as it manifests in our bodies? To what degree are we able to remain open, just open, to this reality? Not blankly open, but with every aspect of our being available—as the pointer says, “purified and naked, free and unbound, hair dishevelled and ears alert”—all of our senses absolutely wired to this reality. What kind of sophistication is that?

We have to be willing to sustain the posture of the oyster at the surface of the water, to hover, suspended like that. How does it do that? How can we sustain that degree of openness? Because to the degree to which we don’t, to the degree to which we step away, in that instant we’re in the realm of mediocrity, the realm of banality. What does it mean to remain in the tension of Hsueh Tou’s question, to remain in the reality before a single thought moves, in the place that cannot be judged by right or wrong, to live without rationalizations or justifications?

What is the morality of a world that is “one piece of empty solidity”? In the poem Hsueh Tou says it is within that “empty solidity, beyond saying and feeling,” that humans and gods see Subhuti. Subhuti, one of the Buddha’s students, was sitting quietly on a cliff in the mountains and suddenly flowers started falling all over him. He jumped up and said, “What’s going on? Who is showering me with flowers?” The god Brahma said, “It’s me, Brahma.” And Subhuti responded, “Why are you offering praise?” Brahma said, “I honor you for your goodness and expounding the transcendence of wisdom.” And Subhuti protested, “I have never spoken a single word about wisdom. Why offer praise?” And Brahma said, “You didn’t speak, and I didn’t hear. No speaking and no hearing is true wisdom.” And flowers fell down again.

There is something fascinating about the human mind. Buddhists speak about the unique opportunity of our human birth, of finding oneself grappling with these challenges. It’s a gift. It’s a gift to have these questions, and it’s a continuous problem to fall into the security of having answers. In a sense, when the answers appear we’re not in the human realm anymore. One of the traps of the animal realm is that temptation of security; it’s usually the very dull security of having enough food, enough sex and enough sleep. But it’s not very far from this to the security of having answers in your mind—that’s just a more sophisticated version of the instinct to satisfy our hunger. To put it differently, it is a gift to be born human, but that gift slips through our fingers all too often. It takes tremendous care to remain human. And strangely enough, remaining truly human has to do with recognizing how easy it is—within our language, within our responses—to drift away.

Dogen brought forth the universal recommendation for zazen and said, “You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not use your time in vain. You are maintaining the essential working of the Buddha Way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flint stone, given the illumination of the moon? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like the dart of lighting—emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.” Dogen was committed to the universality of zazen both in the sense that it was good for everybody, and in the sense that it was available for everybody everywhere. The zazen he was pointing to is the continuous thread running in front of our eyes.

In Dogen’s mind he saw a world where everyone was sitting, where everybody had the opportunity to take the posture, to rest in the moonlight, to trust the perfection within themselves. Yet humankind was and is not ready for that level of honesty, that level of giving up the judgments of right and wrong. So, given that people were not ready to hear about the directness and simplicity of zazen, and his teachings were not enthusiastically embraced by the people he taught, Dogen decided to retreat from his grand universal vision and recede farther into the mountains, to sit more zazen with a few students who were ready for such commitment. Later in his life, he received a call for help and had to visit the regent—there was the danger of many lives being lost. Dogen made a point of turning the monastery over to his successors and said, “Given what is being requested, it’s likely that I’ll never come back. Maintain this place as it is.” And so he engaged the world—engaged it the way Chih Men did when he put on the purple robe as an offering to those who were watching him, who needed guidance, who were asking the question of what it’s like before a single thought appears.

It would be very easy for this monastery, for this zendo, to heed the apparent imperative and head out that door to help the world. It’s not that we don’t do that, but we need to understand that without stillness, without that commitment to look at yourself persistently and honestly for the rest of your life, there’s no chance in hell that you’re actually going to offer the deep wisdom that this world so desperately needs. You’ll do some good, to be sure. And with the good, there will be bad. There will be right and there will be wrong. But this activity will not touch what was transmitted, what is being transmitted still—it will not touch the unique gift that these ancient masters committed themselves to. They cared deeply for this world. As a matter of fact, they cared about the world as deeply as people can. And they sat down. 

The Blue Cliff Record, or Hekiganroku is a collection of one hundred koans originally compiled in China by Zen Master Hsueh Tou during the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) and later commented on by Zen Master Yuan Wu.