Everybody Hates Surprise Birthday Parties (Rohatsu 2019)
It’s freezing in here. Why do we keep this room so cold? You know, people are all wrapped up in blankets, shivering. What’s that? To keep us awake. Keep us alert. Yes, but it’s something else. What do you do at home when it’s too cold? You put the heat on. Well, now. Who the fuck are you to control the environment? Ha ha. Everyone’s got an opinion on the perfect temperature. And most of the time, something’s up, we don’t like it, we scream at the world. You guys are wrong and I’m right. It’s too cold. Why is it so cold? Why is it so loud? There’s so many people. Why is my family so much more fucked up than me? Why am I the only sane person in my family? Yeah, right.
But that is the natural tendency. The natural tendency is to say: Something’s up, you guys need to change. So least for a week, we get to practice being uncomfortable and not getting a say about it. Which, by the way, is always the case anyway. See, this discomfort, this sitting without being able to manipulate the environment to your liking is what’s always happening. But usually you have the benefit of the fireworks of ordinary life to keep you distracted. So you have opinions about how to run a retreat like this more efficiently, for example, maybe there’s too much sitting, maybe there’s not enough sitting. At another zendo, they do twenty five minutes sits, over and over. Why can’t we do that? Or maybe you’ve heard that the only way to really break through is to do a two hour sit every minute. Maybe the style of koan practice that you prefer is different.
Unfortunately, if you just walk up to someone on the street and say, “I believe you to be the type of person who tries to control everything and everyone, and I bet you’re in denial about it,” all they would say is, “Don’t talk to me like that. You don’t know me. Get out of here. Get out of my face. I’m busy.” Thereby proving your point.
We don’t like to be told who we are. And then we look around everywhere to find out who we are. Right now, we’re going through a kind of craze where the new version of Don’t Tell Me Who I Am is, don’t tell me what gender I am. Which is a perfectly valid form of rebellion. Because why should anybody tell you what your gender is? The people who tell you what your gender is were told what their gender was. And then they believed it. And now they’re trying to police you. Of course, maybe you’re so enlightened now that you know that gender is arbitrary. So now you try to police people who don’t see that. Well, thank God for you. So it’s something we’re willing to die for. Except that something we’re willing to die for has to be disguised as something else that we’re willing to die for. So we’re willing to die for the sake of being right. But that’s not socially palatable so we call being right being concerned about justice. I actually have no problem with social justice warriors, as they are called. Because they’re just a more visible form of what everyone’s up to. Anyone with half a heart will be able to admit that. And I have no problem with the conservative, reactionary types who are trying to keep things the way they think things have always been. Because anyone with half a heart would understand why they’re doing that. The thing is that half a heart is not enough.
But you’re likelier to find places where half a heart is considered to be a whole heart than places where true understanding and compassion are demanded of you. Not of the collective, of you. Not “we are a compassionate group of people” but “if you want to be here you’ve got to own up to the fact that you’re as confused as the rest of us.” Well, that’s not going to happen because there’s too much at stake. You put two people together and one has to be wrong. And it’s always the other one. Put three people together and you’ve got politics.
So we can’t confront the problem directly because if you confront the problem directly people will react using all of their gimmicks and all of their games to try to stop you from addressing that problem directly. So we’ve got to be sneaky about it. We’ve got to find a skillful way to get people to believe that they’re fighting one war, only to discover that they’ve been fighting another war. And that’s called koan practice.
I tell you to put your whole heart into the koan and you say, yes, sir. And then you put half your heart into it. Also known as halfhearted practice. Following along. Doing your best to look like you’re doing your best. Perfectly normal. But as I said, it’s like taking a poison pill every morning. At some point, you start to feel the poison. Someone tells you, take this pill. You say, no. Take the pill. No, take the pill. All right, fine. I’ll take it. And the first day you take the pill in your hand, you pretend to put in your mouth. And then when we’re not looking, you flush it down the toilet. Next day, all right, maybe I’ll take it. He wouldn’t really poison me. I’ll play along. You take it. Nothing really happens. But now you’re in the habit of taking it, so the next day it’s easier, I just tell you to take the pill, you take it. At some point, you start throwing up. Uh oh. Wait a minute. This is working. And that’s what most of you are seeing now. Some of you saw that yesterday. See, you are the one who is poisoning yourself. And you’re blaming the koan. There is nothing about what you’re going through that was not there before the koan. Not one inch of suffering can be attributed to the words of some Japanese or Chinese guy from centuries ago. Imagine someone five hundred years from now blaming you for what you said here, something you said, during some conversation that someone else found interesting, five hundred years from now, someone will be sitting saying, I fucking hate you Joanna. I fucking hate you, Tom.
No, this is all you. And the metaphor that I like to use, at least for myself, is that you’re planning a surprise party for somebody. Get together with, say, fifteen people. And it’s a surprise celebration for somebody. But you got to distract them because you need everybody to be in the house so that when that person walks in and everyone goes, surprise! The problem is that person hates surprises, so you fuck it up. But at least you could show that you cared about that person. So one person gets appointed as the distractor. So let’s say it’s your birthday. And that person, the appointed distractor, suddenly really needs your help. So they tell you to meet them in this random place, maybe the mall. And they won’t tell you why. So, yeah. OK, fine, you go meet them. What is this about? The person says, well, this is really embarrassing, but could you help me pick out some new shoes? I don’t know whether whether to get these high heels or these sneakers…. And you say: That’s why you got me to come all the way over here. Really? I’m busy. But while your outraged at the time that’s being wasted and the demands being put upon you, something bigger is happening. And you’re falling right into the trap, right into it. You in all your superiority, you with your busy schedule, you’re not so smart after all. Because the fact is, someone called you saying, meet me at this place for no reason and you showed up. And then you get to be indignant about having your time wasted. Well, finally, you help them pick out the shoes and they say, hey, you mind if come home with you? You think: What’s this now? But OK, fine. You go home and suddenly everyone goes, Surprise! And you see all these faces, all these people in your own home that you didn’t know were there. You weren’t expecting to find them there when you retreated into your little cave. And you know what? Even though they’re happy to see you, you’re not happy to see them. Get out of my fucking house. You guys moved my stuff.
Well, that’s you. You’re the people in the house, you’re the people who are distracting you and you’re the person who’s distracted. So whatever you thought the koan was about, it turns out it wasn’t that. So what was that moment of conviction all about when you first thought you cracked the koan? “Oh, this is easy.” What was that about? You were wrong. Have you admitted that yourselves? Have you taken a moment to say, wait a minute. I was sure. And I was wrong.
That’s the normal way of doing things. You’re wrong. But, you know, you had good intentions. You tried your best. You weren’t prepared. My instructions weren’t good enough. As I said before, a koan is a little story that brings out the big story.
It’s like going fishing. For a very long time, nothing seems to be biting and then suddenly there’s a tug. You say, Oh! OK, OK, OK. You start reeling it in. But the moment you start reeling it in, you start making evaluations again. Oh, this is pulling really hard. Must be a tuna. Must be a shark. Must be a whale. It’s pulling so hard. I should probably let go. And yet you keep pulling. Oh ow. It’s the biggest whale in the world. Wow. One koan and I’ll be enlightened. I’ll be ahead of everybody. And then finally, it’s just a sardine. And you realize, it wasn’t a strong fish, you’re just a weak person. But again, you were so sure. And the damnedest thing is you don’t like sardines. And you don’t hang sardines on the wall to impress other people.
So what do you do? You look at it and you throw back in the water and you try again. And unfortunately, the next time it’s the same sardine. What do you do? You eat it. You caught the fucking thing. You don’t get to kill a sardine and then throw it back into the water. This is your fish.
Leaving aside the fish metaphor, let’s return to a more traditional metaphor. It’s like swallowing a hot iron ball. It’s stuck in your throat. You could try to push it all the way down to your belly, but then, you know, you would die. On the other hand, you could try to cough it up. But that would tear a hole in your throat and then you’d die. So you’ve got this thing that’s lodged inside. Like a kidney stone.
Well, what can you do? The literature is full of metaphors for this, and they all point to the same basic thing. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. You know, you could just walk away. You could get in your car and leave. Except then you’d be stuck with a feeling of failure and inauthenticity. And when you get home, you’ll realize the sardine is in your suitcase.
So that’s not gonna work. On the other hand, if you stay, then you’ve got like, what, three, four more days of this. I used a phrase in one of the dokusan today that I was actually quite proud of. The Tibetans have Tibetan dream yoga. Zen has Japanese nightmare yoga. We go through hell first. Some of you are starting to have your koan appear in your dreams. That’s kind of cool, right? You go to sleep and there it is. Now remember. These are your dreams, not someone else’s.
We need to reconsider the value of trying to solve the problem by treating it as a problem to be solved. That won’t do it. If you keep trying the same old thing, you’ll get the same old result. That’s how things go. It sounds simple, but it’s a very difficult thing to actually believe when you’ve got this kind of desperation. Some of you have made huge discoveries about yourselves. In three days. Some of you are on the verge of making a discovery. And you don’t see it.
Rohatsu is hard. Koan work in general is hard. It’s hard for me. It’s hard for me now. Because I don’t get to sit, you know. Sitting is the easy part for me because I feel good, the longer I sit. I’ve earned my way to a place where the longer I sit, the better. You see? So for me, it’s an intrusion. So that’s my practice. I ignored my doctor’s orders. I lied to everyone about it. He said, don’t do anything. Don’t push, don’t do anything for two months. And I told everybody, he said not to push for one month. Why? Because I want to be here. So now I find myself weakening again and getting sick again. And I’m sort of thinking, oh, God, oh, God, the symptoms are coming back. So then I start thinking, well, maybe I could just offer two dokusan today. And so my practice is saying, fuck that, Phil. What are you talking about? This is not hard, this is just you resisting. You see, so wherever you’re at, you’ll have your own little games and you’ll keep playing them. And that’s how I’m playing mine. Exhausted, vomiting, all the usual stuff.
But there is a feeling of aliveness that becomes evident in everyone when you start to really break through the habitual stuff, the barriers. And it makes it really exciting. And you know what? The minute someone walks into the dokusan room and I’m feeling exhausted and terrible, I feel great. How does that work? Just as for many of you, the minute you walk out of the dokusan room, it’s like a new day. For about two minutes. At least, you get two minutes.
But we must not fool ourselves into thinking that koan practice has to proceed in a particular way. You may have got that impression, if all you’ve done is something like Mondo Zen where the answer is part of the program. Because then you can wrestle with it for a bit, but then you get the right answer because you’re being taken somewhere and you feel like, Well, as long as I trust this person I will probably end up somewhere good. And so you do this whole process, and you can tell that every question, you know, has its own logic. And the answer kind of makes sense. And it builds on top of everything else that’s come before it.
By the end of it, you say, “Wow,” you know, so there’s a promise of a kind of concrete result. And here, instead, everything gets knocked down. You build something, it just falls apart and it’s not me knocking you down. You’re just no longer convinced by the answers that come up. You’ve gone through the process too many times, of thinking, oh, OK, here’s an insight. And then realizing that that insight doesn’t quite cut it because you’re not at peace. And when that begins to happen, when you start realizing that no answer is satisfying the desire you have for safety and freedom, that’s when we start talking about doubt. The process of doubt. Not just any old doubt. It’s a kind of murmuring existential restlessness: I must figure this out. I must. Because I can no longer deny how important this is for me. And it’s quite a tricky pattern because the more desperate you are to really figure this out and sort of come to a new understanding, the more dissatisfied you’ll be. Inevitably, whatever you come up with, it does the opposite of what you thought it would do. It enforces a certain strictness, a certain rigidity in you.
How does doubt become the great doubt? Well, like this. At some point, the minute the answer pops up, it’s already invalidated by your deeper wisdom. The restlessness is way up. The physical discomfort is more intense, but also kind of more manageable because it’s somehow less important than the emotional discomfort. And instead of having an insight and then waiting for dokusan to see whether that gets you a cookie or not, you automatically tell yourself, no, that’s not it. Failed once again. Until every single thought as it arises fails to do the trick. There’s no more one-question-one-answer safety. You know that you don’t know. The process takes over completely.
That’s when you realize that the people in your house throwing you a party, they hired a deejay. And they’re gonna be there a while, so you might as well start drinking. I know you guys know what I mean. And it’s only been three days. Not even. The bad news is there’s more to come. The good news is at this rate, boy, are you gonna burn up wrong ideas and assumptions and old stories.
But you’ve got to trust the process and how can you trust something that is deliberately designed to cut off any hope? Well, actually, you know how. The fact that you just show up, sit down and try not to move, the fact that you wake up in the morning and do this and then you go to bed at night and, you know, you’re not going to get enough sleep and you just keep doing it. Some part of you is absolutely fiercely in charge and it’s way smarter than you, way smarter than the rest of you. Some part of you is actively taking care of you. You know that you can do this. If you actually thought you couldn’t do this, you would have left.
So you have to take the consequences of living freely. You are here freely. You may think you’re not. You may have felt pressured into it or compelled by some demonic force. But no, you got the plane tickets and you got here. And then you put on your black uniform. So you must admit that something in you is absolutely determined to be free. And that it is way bigger, way stronger, way freer than you dare to admit.
Why? Because if you could admit how free you know you are, you would rule the world. Literally. If you could admit just how free you are — not a metaphor — the world would belong to you. And you would be president of the planet. And so we have various degrees of protective smallness in the world, the prophylactic Poor Little Me. Some people try to tap into that will to power by becoming politicians, etc. But you know exactly what I’m talking about. Here you have an opportunity to let go of your attachment to the old shit, all the little stories, and embrace something infinitely more empowering, amusing, compassionate. Enlightened.
How to do so? Well, focus on the body now. Focus on your body. Reciting the koan “triggers” you and you get a somatic response. Let go of the koan and focus on the somatic component of your experience. Because everyone’s always trying to run away from their body. Don’t do that. Your body contains the answer. It’s your body that’s suffering, it’s your body that’s contracting, it’s your body that’s doing all the sitting. It’s the body that’s getting up. It’s the body that’s sleeping. It’s the body that will die. So put all your attention on the body. All of it. Go right into the discomfort. Have the courage to direct your full attention toward the spot in your body that is most contracted. Maybe your biceps are relaxed, but your triceps are not. Maybe your belly is loose, but your chest is not. Wherever you feel the doubt, this block of doubt, build it up, reinforce it. Make it as hard as possible so that when it cracks, it’ll crack into more and more little pieces. The saying is: small doubt, small liberation, great doubt, great liberation, no doubt, no liberation.
It’s up to you. The koan is literally you, so stop whining.