(L to R) Shunko Jamvold, Del Carlson, Angelique Farrow, Steve Allen, Issan Dorsey
A Dharma talk by Issan Dorsey-roshi
This transcript appeared in the newsletter of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship in January of 1995, four years and five months after his death from AIDS.
Someone said to me the other day, “Aren’t you always working on something?” Yes, we are always working on something, but hopefully it’s not up here in our heads, filled with words to obscure it. I was talking with a friend recently about the phrase, “coming to reside in your breath-mind,” and working with the phrase, and how useful it is to me. I thought it was interesting that I’d never really heard it before, and was just now beginning to work with it. I realized that I actually just heard it deeply.
This has been with me since I first started practicing. It’s a whole way of working with your mind--and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. I hope you won’t have to wait for 20 years before you you begin to to hear how to work with this thing called mind in [your] zazen meditation.
Now, people who come to practice, immediately sit much easier that they did when I first began to to sit at Sokoji Temple years ago. I remember everyone sitting with their legs legs bent up. They’d sit for five minutes, then they’d lie down and moan. But now people come and it’s like we already did that part for them. It’s as if we have a shared body that has already gone through that preliminary stuff, and people are already able to experience some aspect of zazen practice and how we practice together.
We have to be willing to explore and experiment. First we have to have a sense of humor and a willingness to explore and experiment with our lives and our uncomfortableness. We know that sometimes we can sit for a few minutes, or even a few days, and at some point it gets pretty uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable for us not to invite our thoughts to tea, and reside in our breath-mind.
“Don’t invite your thoughts to tea” is an expression of Suzuki-roshi’s which I’ve always found useful. You know these are just words, and we have to remember that every human concept is just delusion. Still, we use words and provisionally talk about our experience. Lately I have been exploring this way of thinking with a friend who has AIDS dementia; the virus is living in his brain. I’m thinking and working on it and talking with him about it because the virus that is attacking so many of us now ends up being in the brain. So is there some way for us to experience that? I don’t know yet. My question is: how to be with people who have dementia and how to experience the dementia that we all have anyway? It’s called delusion. Mind is always creating confusion, joy and pain, like and don’t like, and depression. But there is also a “background mind.” That is what my friend and I have been discussing.
Sometimes when I’m talking about uncomfortableness, I talk about the five fears. One of the five fears is the fear of unusual states of mind. How can we come to have appreciation and respect for this fear and not just some resistance, so that we can enter our fear, allowing these new areas of uncomfortableness? When we can enter each of these new spaces, we can begin to look at truthfulness.
Why do we have to sit? Really there’s no reason to sit. If we’re completely sincere, then there’s no reason to sit. I’m not completely sincere so I have to keep sitting to check. Even if we’re involved with unskillful actions, the one quality we should strive for is truthfulness. Truthfulness takes a total commitment to see all aspects of ourselves and our unskillfulness. If we can embrace the totality of ourselves, we can embrace the totality of others and of the world. Our tendency is to think about things before we do them. Even when we see a beautiful flower, we say, “Oh what a beautiful flower.” “Beautiful flower” is extra. Just look at the flower with no trace.
Suzuki-roshi wrote, “When we practice zazen, our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrating on what are doing.” This is because when we act, we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The traces and notions make our mind very complicated. When we do something with a simple, clear mind, we have no shadows and our activity is strong and straightforward.
So, even with zazen practice, it gets so complicated. We’re dissecting every aspect of what’s going on, reviewing and comparing. How do we keep it simple and straightforward? How do we come to know this basic truth of practice and Buddhism? The teaching and the rules can and should change according to the situation and the people we’re practicing with, but the secret of practice cannot be changed. It’s always truth.
We teach ourselves and encourage ourselves by creating this space, the meditation hall, so we can begin looking at our mind. “Don’t invite your thoughts to tea.” “Where is your breath-mind?” I used to say, allow this kind of mind to arise. But now I’m saying create background mind.
This practice is simple: watch your breaths and don’t invite your thoughts to tea. But not inviting your thoughts to tea doesn’t mean to get rid of thinking. That is discrimination. So, there’s no reason to get rid of thoughts, but rather to have some blank, non-interfering relationship with them. Don’t make your mind blank, but rather have some blank relationship with the thoughts. Begin to see the space behind and around the thoughts, and shift the seat of your identity out of your thoughts and come to reside in your breath-mind. We develop our intention to reside in our breath-mind by first bringing our intention to to “breath as mind,” and then by shifting the the seat of our identity from our thoughts to our breath.
This all ties in with how we use this space, this laboratory. We should have a willingness to explore with our lives, and this is our laboratory right here--how we use the meditation hall and how we use what happens outside of it. Mindfulness is not a part time job.
To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.