DT-Vastness and Peanut Butter

The title for today’s dharma talk, “Vastness and Peanut Butter” comes from a chapter in Joko Beck’s book, Ordinary Wonder. First, let’s reflect upon vastness. In a renowned poem, the third Zen Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengean, wrote, “Emptiness here, emptiness there, but the infinite universe stands before your eyes.”

To better understand the meaning of emptiness, we can recall that everything is interconnected and empty of an independent, separate nature. With that understanding, nothing can restrict our freedom, and no one is omitted from the potential for liberation. The Dalai Lama reported that when Chinese invaders imprisoned them, devout Tibetan monks and nuns continued to pray for the wellbeing of their oppressors even while being tortured. Regardless of their external circumstances, the monastics maintained their sense of inner freedom.

In any moment, each of us has our unique way of perceiving how the universe is manifesting. Right now, in my apparent universe, I’m trying to speak clearly to help you understand what I’m saying. According to your apparent universes, each of you is looking at me from different angles and degrees of focus, while listening to me with differing levels of concentration and interest.

In Joko’s words, “The seer and the seeing are part of the same [momentary experience of] seeing.” She continues, “The idea that there is a universe that existed five minutes ago or that will exist in five minutes is just that: an idea in your head. There is only arising, just arising, that’s all. Arising has no time, no space, but here it is” (right here and now).

Dedicated meditation practice frees us from conceptual thoughts so that the mind is clear and fresh to receive each moment as it arises. As we learn to be awake, we realize how impermanent and precious every moment is. Then, as meditation teacher Ben Connelly says, we’re motivated to give our whole heart and attention to this very moment—not to waste any moment—because we may not be here afterwards. 

Ben refers to a poem by Xinggang (pron. Shin-gan), an 18th century Chinese nun:

          A single meditation cushion, and one is completely protected.

          Earth may crumble, heaven collapse, but here one is at peace.

          Sacred titles and worldly fame: both fade away in sitting.

          And the universe assembles on the tip of a feather.

According to Joko, life and death, receiving and giving, and succeeding and failing are all words and concepts that we project onto something that is beyond thought. With our thinking, we interrupt the unified flow of what is arising momentarily. I’m reminded of a poem that monk Kozan Ichikyo wrote in the 14th century:

Empty-handed I enter the world,

Barefoot I leave it.

My coming, my going—

Two simple happenings

That got entangled.

Joko points out that if the universe is arising with no space and time, everything that is arising is of equal importance, whether we like what is arising or not. Usually, we try to grasp what arises, to judge it as good or bad, and to make solid what is fluidly passing by. We tend to favor one person or situation over another. Habitually, instead of embracing the wholeness of our lives, we accept some pieces of our experience and reject other pieces.

Joko asks us to consider, “What or who was it today that you didn’t think of as equal to yourself?” Was it a cockroach who invaded your home? Or the email message you got rather than the one you wanted? How often do we pause to question ourselves, “What is going on with me psychologically now?” or “What am I neglecting?” or “What drama or story line am I attached to in this moment?

Right now, how would it be to notice all things equally—the pain in your neck, the comfort of being with trusted friends, and the effort of paying attention? As Zen master Dogen observed, “whole being” is arising—not bits and pieces.

When I’m annoyed with someone, I tend to judge that person as less than equal to myself. Recently, I presented an autobiographical personal history to a zoom group of boarding school friends whom I’ve known for 55 years. With them, I felt safe expressing vulnerable aspects of my life story. During a follow-up discussion, most of the women took turns contributing thoughtful, empathic reflections about my narrative. However, one woman, who’s an accomplished author, interrupted various times to relate parts of my story to events that she’s described in her own published memoirs. At one point, I asked her to let us hear from someone who had not yet spoken in the group.

Although the overall experience of sharing my personal history was very positive, I awoke the next morning feeling irritated about what I judged to be the author’s egocentric comments. Instead of flowing with new, fresh experiences, I was holding on to the past and viewing my former classmate as an impediment. After I sent a copy of my brief autobiography to each participant in the zoom group,

I was pleasantly surprised to receive a warmly supportive note from the author. Her kind comments motivated me to examine my rigid way of reacting during our previous interaction. As I released fixed notions about my friend, my attention returned to what was arising in that moment.

When we don’t pay attention, Joko notes, we behave thoughtlessly in ways that hurt ourselves and others. In her words, “Any form of unkindness is also a lack of attention. If I’m truly looking at you, if you have my full attention, it’s … hard to be unkind. I can only be unkind to you if I don’t really see you …. [and] I’m too focused on [my] sense of self to see you. All unkindness is inattention, a lack of understanding. There’s just the moment, this arising…. That’s all there is. There isn’t the fact that it arose five minutes ago. That’s nonexistent. It’s included in your thought, but as a fact, it doesn’t exist.”

Similarly, fear stems from lack of attention. It’s easy for us to become consumed with worries about events that we cannot control. My Nicaraguan godchild, Virginia, has been suffering from various neurological symptoms that her doctors don’t fully comprehend even after multiple medical examinations, tests, and changes in medication. Although her father has promised to send me updates about her condition, my mind can fill with fearful thoughts about Virginia’s prognosis and about how far away I am while she is struggling to heal.

In this situation, I find it helpful to follow Joko’s advice to pay close attention to my own life. Over and over, I wake up in the middle of whatever I’m doing to connect with momentary tastes, sights, smells and sounds—such as a bite of roasted sweet potato that I haven’t been tasting or the insistent stare of my dog who is communicating her desire to go outside for a walk. When I’m spacing out, reminders like the touch of a door knob or the sounds of a bell or a bird song help me to return to awareness.

Sitting in meditation, when I focus on my thoughts and label them, and when I really feel my body sensations, I recognize that Joko is right: “Fear is just thoughts plus physical body sensations. Fear is getting caught, particularly in the thoughts …. If you are stuck in fear, you can’t pay attention, and paying attention is the best thing you can bring to a situation.”

I do not serve Virginia by wearing myself out with recycled anxious thoughts about her wellbeing. What she needs from me is a calm, steady presence

while I send her heartfelt prayers for healing. As I pray, I sense that on an energetic level there is no distance between us—and no separate “me” or “her.” 

To experience the whole, Joko asserts, requires paying attention to our beliefs, strategies, sensory experiences, and whatever we have been neglecting. It does no good for us to believe intellectually in emptiness. She tells a story about being at a Zen center for a long period of practice. During several days of strict sesshin sessions, she tried hard to be a good meditator. One cold, foggy morning, as she ate breakfast outside with the sangha, she felt tired and groggy. Suddenly the teacher roared at her, “How can you even think of enlightenment when you don’t see that your neighbor wants the peanut butter?” Jolted awake, Joko recognized that it doesn’t matter if people have seen the vastness if they can’t pass the peanut butter.

Ben Connelly states that broad attention can co-exist with narrow attention—that awareness and consciousness are malleable. Simultaneously, we can notice what’s happening immediately internally and what is unfolding around us. He jokes that we need to hear repeated Dharma talks on the same themes because we forget to apply them in our daily lives. Although we may be inspired by wise, wholesome teachings, it takes regular practice to avoid reverting to conditioned patterns of thought, speech, and action.  

Our mindfulness practice requires both perseverance and a good sense of humor. Ben defines mindfulness as “noticing what is helpful to notice in a way that is kindly and patient.” He suggests that instead of complaining, “I’m not practicing well enough,” each of us can let go of this “me story” and remember, “I’m learning.”

When we’re kind to ourselves, we are moved to give to others. We realize that what we do matters and has an impact on the world around us. That realization motivates us to practice speaking wholeheartedly and listening attentively and nonjudgmentally. We can relate compassionately with our community, passing the peanut butter to those who need it, while sensing our connection to the mysterious vastness of the interconnected web of life.