The dharma teaches that things are not as they appear; everything is originally and persistently at peace within itself. Meanwhile, we have our own experience of ourselves, the world, and the conflict we find everywhere. These two truths seem diametrically opposed, impossible to reconcile, and this is why we need deep faith and trust. We already trust our own experience of separateness implicitly, so we have to cultivate a sense of trust in something deeper and then practice as though it is true.

I just received a phone call yesterday from a student who is dealing with a huge conflict at his workplace—the usual issues of personalities, political agendas, power. But what struck me was that after he told me some background, he said, “I’m not calling you to figure out what I am supposed to do with this guy. What I want to know is, how do I turn towards my zazen and understand myself?” When we no longer want to go down the old path, this is the beginning, the real beginning. When we renounce our ongoing obsession with pleasure, with feeling good as the main determinant of what life is about and renounce our “right” to rail against life for not cooperating, then we encounter the true potential of the Way.

Another student who is fairly new to practice, and is practicing well, but experiencing a lot of struggle on and off the cushion, said, “I just want to take a step forward.” I said, “This is what stepping forward looks like. Can you trust that?” Things are not as they appear. In our zazen, the first thing we should learn is that our posture, the breath, our awareness, and our thoughts are not objects. They are not lost, and they are not deceiving. So we can’t always rely upon our normal ways of measuring the health of our practice. Better to stop measuring altogether.

But if we’re not upside-down and we’re not lost, then how is it that we suffer within the body? How is it that we struggle to breathe easily, or find ourselves fighting against our mind and thoughts? Suffering, struggling, fighting, resisting—that’s how. It’s not in the body. It’s not in the breath. It’s not in the thought. The student asking Zhaozhou here says, “Master, please don’t use an object to teach.” The student knows that if you want to see the real you have to point to the real. And so he says please don’t use something from the phenomenal world—don’t use samsara to teach nirvana. And Zhaozhou said, “I’m not using the phenomenal world; I’m not showing you an object.” The student said, “Good. So what is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?” And Zhaozhou says, “Cypress tree in the garden.”

Daido Roshi says, “Zhaozhou’s Zen cuts off the myriad streams and stuns the mind. There’s just no place to take hold of it.” This is the function of the teachings—they’re not here to comfort, to corroborate our attachments and views. They’re not even intended to startle us; they just do. They sober us up from our drunkenness, from our upside-down state.