keeping it simple

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This is the third talk given by Nona Strong Roshi at the June 2022 zen sesshin at Mercy Center Burlingame.

So, we have the essential world (emptiness), and we have the phenomenal world (form). They may not seem so, but they are co-equal. In fact, according to the Heart Sutra, they are co-incident.

It’s easier to dwell in the essential world than the phenomenal world. The essential world is like the womb must have been: safe, beautiful, full of rapture, ecstasy; it’s free of disputes and challenges; everything is as we might want it to be.

But life is not just that cozy essence: we pass our days with our feet planted more or less firmly in the phenomenal, and we cannot forget that realm, that perceived dimension of everything, of “It.” So, to parse and handle all those pesky phenomena, we can boil everything down to its simplest form – to the least common denominator, as it were.

For example, here’s a gem of a paragraph from editor John Daido Loori’s book, Sitting with Koans (p. 271). It’s a quote from Yasutani Roshi’s commentary on the Mu! koan. (“A monk asked Joshu in all earnestness, does a dog have Buddha nature? Joshu replied, Mu!”) Yasutani Roshi comments on the verse presented for Mu! Here’s the complete verse:

Dog—Buddha nature!

The perfect manifestation, the absolute command.

A little “has” or “has not,”

And body is lost! Life is lost!

Some people translate that final line as, “You’re as good as dead!” Less poetic, maybe, but simple, for sure. Let’s go on with what Yasutani Roshi says on p. 271:

The first line of Mumon’s verse reads:

A dog, Buddha-nature—there is no need for “nature.”

A dog is Buddha—“is” is superfluous.

A dog, Buddha—still redundant.

“Dog!”—that’s enough! Or just “Buddha!”

You have said too much when you say, “A dog is Buddha.”

“Dog!”—that is all. It is completely Buddha.

So, Yasutani Roshi boils just this first line down to its simplest form. Dog! Or Buddha! He leaves us just the fact of the thing. But is that always enough? For example, say you have a gathering of 50 people running raucously through the streets. Is it a party, or is it a riot? I don’t know the answer. Maybe it depends on what they’re doing, how they’re behaving. Maybe common sense has to prevail here. But whatever is the answer to this question or any other apparent qualifier, here’s what we end up with:

Dog. Party. Riot. Just the fact. Common sense. Nothing esoteric. Just this! That’s the Zen of the thing.

Keep it simple. Back in the days when I was an I.T. technical writer, we had a sort of rule for expressing stuff: “Use the old K.I.S.S. method,” we’d say. And of course, K.I.S.S. stood for “Keep it simple, stupid!” The best way to convey the meaning lay in keeping it simple. Speaking of which…

Here’s a caution from Philip Kapleau Roshi, about understanding and conveying the meaning of things Buddhist or things Zen. And I think this goes right to the point we’re talking about right now, right here. On p. 311 of Sitting with Koans, we have this from Kapleau Roshi:

And don’t attach yourself to names and forms. “Original-self,” “Buddha-nature,” “Mind”—these are but tentative designations for what cannot be named or measured, for what is formless yet informs everything.

“… for what is formless yet informs everything.”

He goes on:

“There is nowhere to hide your True-self.” It stands revealed every-where [sic], right under your nose—no, it is your nose. To hide, your True-self would have to stand outside every conceivable universe, would it not?

“… stand outside every conceivable universe.”

I put it to you now, how would that ever be possible?