An Incomplete Owner’s Manual

An Incomplete Owner’s Manual (Rohatsu 2019)

I think we’ve been through this enough times now to realize that every insight becomes a trap. Every good moment leads to shit. And every time you think you can’t handle it, you’re lying. Mostly to yourselves, but also to me and to the world. 

But as long as you’re taking your poison pill, your infuriating koan, every morning, death is guaranteed at some point. What does it taste like? What is it like to keep poisoning yourself like this?

It would be easier to say something like, “Sesshin means to gather the mind. We have come here to come into contact with our essential nature. Let go of all worries. Let go of worldly concerns. And focus singlemindedly on the absolute truth of who you are.”

Except that you can’t even be in your own damn bodies. Maybe some things have to happen first before we can talk about all this Enlightenment stuff. Buddha nature, nonduality, compassion. Before we can talk about being of service, before we can talk about living the awakened life, we have to get over ourselves. And the secret to getting over yourself is as long as you’re trying to get over yourself in this misguided way, with all your preconceived judgments, all your stories about how you ended up being the precious suffering gem that you are, you’re just perpetuating the thing that you claim you want to overcome. And it takes all kinds of guises. So we may successfully crack you open in one way, but there is always something else to compensate for it. You’ve got all kinds of patterns and subroutines that you don’t know you’re running right now. So it would be simple if you had three basic life-games that you played. If we sat long enough together, you could exhaust all the possible games that you carry around with you and then you just saw the truth, well, that would be easy, because all we’d have to really do is make sure you’re not playing any more games, that you’ve exhausted them, and now you’re ready to just sit back and let yourselves be. 

The issue is that you come with an owner’s manual, of sorts. There’s only so many possibilities. There’s only so many things a human can do. And let’s say that the full manual is about a thousand pages. But nine hundred and fifty of those pages are buried in your unconscious. So you think your owner’s manual is fifty pages long. And so you come on retreat, and you know you have fifty pages. And you pretend you only have five. And so you show up and you say, well, here are my five pages, this is me, this is my situation, please help me. 

And I say, “But this page here, this section just kind of ends mid-paragraph.”. 

“Oh, that’s a typo. Oh, maybe there’s another page. Let me check.” And you come up a day later: “I found the sixth page. You were right. It’s six pages. How embarrassing. I’m usually so good with these things. No, no, no. Ask anyone. I’m usually quite responsible. I’m very good at these things. But you’re right. There is a missing page, and I’m so grateful to you for pointing it out. My life will never be the same now that I’ve got an extra page of games I play.”

“But maybe there’s an extra page,” I say.

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I checked pretty carefully.”. 

“No, no. Go back and check.” 

“OK, but… I’m starting to be annoyed. I know myself. I’m trying to get you to help me.”

“No, it’s just that, you know, by default, I think most people come with a thousand page manual. That’s just been my experience.”. 

“Yeah. Not me. My wife. Yes. My dad. Yeah. But me, I’m a simple person, really.”

OK, so eventually it turns out that you have fifty pages with you at all times and you just go around pretending you have five pages. OK. Six pages. And once we get to fifty pages, you think, oh, wow, I am infinitely more complicated than I was willing to admit to myself. I can’t believe it. And you know what? God dammit. I knew some of this, too. I knew there were fifty pages. And while you’re doing that little dance, you’re quietly sliding the remaining nine hundred and fifty pages farther back behind you, you’re doing a little song and dance to make sure I don’t notice you trying to sneakily look over your shoulder to see where the fireplace is so you can leave dokusan and immediately throw the nine-hundred and fifty pages into the fire. The damnedest thing is you don’t even know you’re doing that. 

So what does your full owner’s manual look like? 

What’s there? “Your life.” But it’s not as easy as saying your life because that could just be one of the subroutines. “Oh, that’s life. Yeah, that’s my life.” Here’s the problem with being in denial about how complicated you really are. If you pretend there’s only fifty pages to yourself and you pretend to other people that there’s only five pages then your whole game becomes about only letting the people you really trust see pages seven, eight, maybe nine. And the secret that you’re carrying is that you are so much more complex and vulnerable and, you know, sophisticated. But nobody would understand those later pages. So you go around being lonely because you can’t share those fifty pages with everybody. In fact, you can’t share them with almost anyone. And so you’ve got this idea that if somebody really got to know you all fifty pages of you, they’d leave you. They’d hate you. 

Well, that’s true, but only because the more you find out about yourself, the more you realize you’re not a toaster. You’re a nuclear weapon. And there is no way out of this game because you cannot ever get to the hundredth page or the nine-hundredth page without, at the same time, forgetting what you read before to get to that point. It’s not a linear manual, where you go chapter by chapter by chapter and if you could  get to the end of it, then you’d finally know the whole thing. This isn’t a linear game. This isn’t something that you just have to find out more and more and more and more and more, more and more information about how you work, more and more information on how you got here, more information or how you were put together by other people before you were born. And the whole life story. It’s not like that. An owner’s manual is a map to help you navigate the territory of the actual machine that you’re operating. It’s not the machine. 

It’s no good trying to hide the map because we’re in the territory. If we made a map of Poland right now and excluded Warsaw, people would still end up seeing Warsaw. And there’s nothing you can do about it. And likewise, just because you think you can control what other people think or see when it comes to you, it doesn’t matter. They’ll still see what’s actually there much more clearly than you think, they’ll see more than you want them to see. That’s the point. You’re not in charge of what other people see. You can’t even control what you see. 

In the poem by Hakuin that we’ve been reading, about that the two priests, he mentions the Diamond Cage. What is the Diamond Cage? It’s a cage that’s so impenetrable that no one can go in to rescue you and you certainly don’t know how to get your way out of there. It’s made of diamond. You can’t get out. You can’t get out. And yet the whole purpose here is to somehow find a way out. Sometimes we say things like the only way out is in. What does that mean? I don’t know. Depends. Depends on the person. Depends on the problem. There was a cage until there is no cage and it’s all or nothing. We can talk about a gradual path. But it’s only gradual because you can’t handle your own freedom. You’ve got to take baby steps. 

Many of you have had significant insights. And also felt horrible emotions. And then states of bliss or elation as well. Some of you have seen things that you never would have seen if you hadn’t come here and just put up with it. But that’s still fifty pages in. That’s still the beginning of the manual. If your goal is to understand all one thousand pages of the manual, the very first thing you’ve got to do is admit that you don’t even know where to find the other nine-hundred and fifty pages. If you did, you would know that there were nine-hundred and fifty other pages, and you’ll be able to point to them. 

Right now, there’s just just kind of a concept. This is a vague idea that some kind of crucial information is missing, that you haven’t quite got the whole picture. And there is a way to find it. But where? This constant feeling that you’re being driven to something that will be better. A state of peace, something. You know how birds have homing instincts? Migrating birds just kind of know, right in their bodies, how to go south for the winter, for example, no one teaches them that; they just have this homing instinct. And I suggest to you that human beings have a kind of soteriological homing instinct. Soteriology, that the study of salvific systems. The study of systems that have to do with liberation. We have this kind of inbuilt homing instinct toward liberation. There’s something in us that calls us to become free. It’s just in us. We know this isn’t the whole thing. 

Unfortunately, our homing instinct points outward. Like the birds, we want to go south for the winter because it’s too cold now. But that outwardness is misguided. A change in the circumstances will provide temporary relief, but that’s not what we’re after. Things don’t get better the minute Sam rings the bell and you can get up. Things don’t get better the minute you’ve had a kensho and you’ve figured it all out. What does improve over time is your relationship to immediacy of experience. 

In the Hsin-Hsin Ming, we’ve all read this line out loud: Do not reject the sense domain. For as it is, whole and complete, this sense world is enlightenment. We’re so caught up with the stories and the gimmicks and the rackets and the narratives and the interpretations — the one thing that is always unbearable is sensory experience itself. Unless, of course, it’s a bliss state or an orgasm.

The sensory world itself is where our confusions are most impactful. We have an inability to just experience this stupid, aimless flux of sensations. 

There’s no need for that. It’s pathetic. But still we want to be heroes. What kind of hero can’t even handle basic sensory impressions? Your body is a site of struggle. And I don’t care what you say about your body. You don’t like it. There’s a kind of raw discomfort built into us. And we’ll go out of our way to avoid feeling that basic primitive annoying discomfort. Whether it’s just changing your position, or changing countries, changing partners, changing jobs… At bottom, it boils down to a moment by moment unwillingness to experience the discomfort of not quite being okay in ourselves. There’s a billion techniques to make life easier. You can turn your body to bliss, you can you can develop the clear life body. You can develop the rainbow body. You can you can liberate your consciousness or expand your awareness so that includes the whole universe. You can collapse your sense of time. You can destroy the sense of a separate self. You can generate infinite compassion and come in contact with angels and deities. You can get special teachings, special messages. You can discover new teachings that no one has ever heard before. 

But in the end it all has to do with an unwillingness to take experience seriously. And it’s quite a sneaky game that spiritual practitioners play, when it comes to the seriousness of their practice. Because as long as you look serious about emancipation, freedom, awakening — conceptually, as long as you look determined, then you can skip the part where you have to admit that all that seriousness is still a way to dodge raw contact, to fight sensory experience in your own body, your emotions, to deny the fact that deep down it’s not that you care about justice, about fairness, about getting along with people. No, that’s not it, what you really care about is raw discomfort, animal discomfort. The physiological impropriety of simply existing. What’s worse, you come to a Buddhist retreat and I tell you, Fuck you. Forget the Dharma. There’s no way out. Every single fantasy you have about enlightenment, you’re wrong. Good night! 

Look, there is a rearranging that can go on behind the scenes. Something can shift. Now, that shift can be permanent; to the extent that anything can be permanent, there is a permanent shift possible. But you have to be clear about how not to arrive at that point. You must be made aware of what will not work. And what will not work is everything that you’ve done. Your whole life is a way of dealing with sensory discomfort. So in other words, you’ve wasted your whole life. Now you can go. Ha ha!

But notice something. It feels good to hear that. Some part of you is relieved. You know why? Because that line of information is in your manual. On page seven hundred. It’s built into you to know that this is a fraudulent way of seeking liberation. You know this. And you see, the secret of a good dharma talk, at least by my definition, is that a good dharma talk is one that reads to you, out loud, a part of your secret owner’s manual. And something about it is familiar, but you don’t know why. Well, because it’s part of your programming. Sometimes all you need to do is hear the truth and you recognize it. Recognition involves having already been acquainted with something so you can recognize it. Classic spiritual trope.

It’s like having an extremely powerful computer and not knowing just what it can do. Because you only have the first fifty pages of the manual, so you open up Microsoft Word and you type out your story. You’ve taught your grandma how to email people, so you send it to your grandma so she gets an email from you and it’s just a barrage of poor little me. But at least grandma got an email. She’s happy, and she replies, and now you use your mega computer for emailing and bitching about your life. Then you discover porn. Now you’re satisfied. Yeah. But but the computer can do so much more. 

But you need to close Microsoft Word and you need to stop typing out your life story. You really need to stop doing that. You can’t figure this out by trying to articulate it in a coherent paragraph, then another coherent paragraph, and then editing it so that, you know, it reads better. Look, I’m an editor by profession. I know what writers go through when they want to make their book perfect. 

The first draft is terrible. The second draft is even worse. And they come to you and they say, how can I make my book better? And so you tell them, and they hate you and they love you because you’ve just acknowledged their book was imperfect. Well, same with your life story: you’re editing it all the time, leaving out details. Always leaving out details. Always trying to fiddle with the structure of it. Maybe this happened before that, but it makes more narrative sense if we change it around. Or maybe this character didn’t really need to die on page seventeen, but the thing is, you don’t know how to make that character interesting so you kill them off. Then you pretend that was the intention all along. 

Beware. The sufferer is you plus anti-you. The sufferer is everything you are plus everything that you refuse to be. You have to be honest. Every koan ends up being about your sense of integrity. Every single one. So quit lying — to yourselves, primarily. Give up your ideas of what it means to be free. And discover what it actually means to be free. If you knew how to be free, you wouldn’t be here. 

Stop trying to tell your experience how you need it to be in order for you to be free. It won’t work. It’s never worked. And remember, we will all grow old and die. And there is no guarantee whatsoever that any of us will really see for ourselves that the whole thing was being played wrong. 

The statistical likelihood of you failing to understand that you don’t need to suffer like this is very high, unless you do something about it. So please make a decision. Make a decision. I don’t care how bad it is or how tough it is or how vulnerable this makes you. You can do it. 

On page six hundred of your manual, it says: In case of emergency, pretend you can’t do it. 

And on the last page, it says: Batteries are not replaceable.