The Fire of Zen: Polishing the Gem of Inner Peace

Three Main Points of the Discussion

  1. Integration of Ethics and Meditation: Zen practice is not solely about meditation but also involves personal refinement, ethics, and right behavior. True Zen practice is about harmonizing these aspects to achieve a union with the sublime.
  2. Role of Pain and Negative Experiences: Pain and negative experiences are essential elements of spiritual growth. They are seen as wake-up calls from the divine, guiding practitioners back to their path and deepening their enlightenment.
  3. Radical Honesty and Self-Awareness:The importance of radical honesty cannot be overstated for understanding one’s true state. Acknowledging both the divine essence and the flawed human aspects is crucial for genuine spiritual progress.


So, at this point, I usually like to say a few words, about 10 minutes or so, to kind of kick off our Dharma discussion. And, uh, I have absolutely no idea what’s going to come out of my mouth today. So, that’s exciting.

I think what’s relevant, or what’s most salient for me, is that our practice can be quite confusing, in a certain way, when it’s poorly understood. And, a lot of weird things can happen, as people try to embody the values that are held at the pinnacle of our faith, without recognizing the process that’s required to embody them.

And so, in Zen, particularly, we have a tradition, where, well, in America over the last 60 years, 70 years, Zen came in with a fairly anti-intellectual stance. Zen came in kind of divorced from its larger, Buddhistic contexts. And so, a lot of Americans started a Zen practice without any understanding of Buddhism. And, this is not the way that Zen worked.

The people who came to Zen, when Zen was really taking off, and was really profound and strong, were typically people who had been studying Buddhism and living a Buddhist life for decades, and realizing that following the rites and the rituals and the regulations, and reading the sutras and the shastras, and being able to philosophically debate the points of the Dharma, were not liberating them from their suffering.

And so, they switched. They changed the emphasis of their practice from study to meditation, so that they could directly understand, directly taste, what gave birth to the philosophy that they’d been studying. Why do we have the rules that we have? Why do we say what we say? Why do the sutras mean this? How did this come about? Well, it came about through a direct experience of the divine.

And, some will say that Buddha was an atheist, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And, I just don’t buy that. I think that Buddha was reforming a tradition by saying that it doesn’t matter what rules and regulations you follow. What matters is whether or not you have a direct experience of why those rituals are important. And so, he didn’t talk metaphysics. He didn’t talk about the divine. He didn’t talk about the sublime, because about was the problem. He was pointing to people to go from, be from pure awareness, be from union with the sublime.

And so, this is Zen. Zen is a training structure to finish that process. It’s the polisher of the gem that we’ve been mining. So, our Buddha practice, our ethics, our precepts, our ritual, our mindfulness, our setting the world in order bit by bit, piece by piece, are all parts of how we refine our ego structure to be strong enough and healthy enough to come into union with the sublime.

And so, what happens if we get lazy and we don’t do that part? We don’t do the hard work of polishing or of mining the gem. What happens? Well, then we add the wet fire of our deep meditation practice, and fire enhances whatever it touches. So, if our gem is still fundamentally flawed and corrupt, all it does is enhance, enhances that thoughtful nature, and it makes it that much harder to purify it later. Enlightenment can actually solidify neurosis.

And so, our Zen practice has to start with an understanding that our Dhyana practice, our Chan practice, our meditation practice, is pushing us towards union with the sublime through a direct experience. And we must know that what we bring onto the cushion is going to get enhanced by the fire of that practice. And if we are not careful, we will solidify neurosis. Because we will convince ourselves that we understand God, and through that belief structure, we will forget that we are also human or not yet divine.

And so, our entire practice structure marries these two together in a really beautiful and profound way. But we cannot think that Zen meditation practice is devoid from personal refinement, ethics, right living, right behavior. It is the final steps of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path starts with right thought, right action, right effort, right livelihood. I’m missing one, but then we also have, at the end, right mindfulness, right concentration. Okay, whoa, whoa.

And so, we come and we sit, and we do this practice, and we love the peace of meditation. As we get good at meditation, we can really actually find peace every time we sit, no matter how crazy our life is. And so, we are ending up in a position where we are capable of looking away. We’re capable of looking away from how we don’t show up in the world. We’re capable of looking away from the pain we’re causing in the world because we can find okayness with it. We’re capable of looking away from how much further we have to go as human beings to become the divine that we are.

In pure being, we are already divine. Our essence is already exactly the sublime. We are perfect in our core without equivocation. This is absolutely true. But the layers of shit between that core and what comes out of our mouth or our behavior in the world are deep. And just because we get really good at drilling a hole in them when we sit on a cushion and experiencing that pure essence does not mean that we are abdicated of the responsibility of mugging ourselves.

And so, Zen is the whole thing. Zen is the whole thing. And our ritual practice doesn’t give much space to recognize that the whole thing is happening. And so, it’s important when we get the opportunity to have talks and to be in discussion with each other that we remind ourselves that Zen is more than a pleasant morning under the bird song with those whom we love. Zen is more than an elegant qigong practice that refines our bodies, deepens our self-intimacy. It’s more than that.

It’s about being fully capable of setting the entire world in order piece by piece. It’s about knowing that this is exactly perfect just the way it is. And if we turn it one degree, then it’s in order. And it’s being willing to say that. It’s being willing to say, yes, you are perfect and pure and I love you. And you’re fucking up. Right? Both are true.

Both are true because we have a dual nature within this non-dual awareness. And if we want to actually realize Zen, which is the marriage of our relative ego self with our sublime nature, the marriage of wisdom and compassion, which is the purpose of Zen, we want to do this, then we cannot abdicate the responsibility to show up. And that’s hard. And it sucks. And it puts us in conflict. And it makes us question whether or not we really know what compassion is. And it makes us wonder whether or not we’ll ever be good people. Because if we’re being honest, we’re not. We’re being honest, there are parts of us that are dirty and solidly yucky that we just don’t like and they need to change.

And so we don’t want to look at that. Right? But it’s not about the 90% of you that’s good. It’s about the 10% that’s keeping you away from God, keeping you away from the divine. This is the fire of our practice, to reach that final, complete unification of these natures, to actually realize non-duality. And to embody it, you must be visceral, you must feel it in your bones. This can’t be a psychological exercise. It can’t be divorced from the way you actually feel. And that’s why we must say, if you’re sad, be sad. If you’re angry, be angry. It’s true. These are feelings you are having. Your visceral sensation cannot lie. It can be wrong. It can be misplaced due to cognitive structures that misalign with truth. But what’s happening in your body is your truth.

So if you do not feel full of light and love and desire and passion and curiosity and craving, then you’re not. And that’s okay. Honor that, love that, be with that, learn how to deal with it skillfully. And that’s enlightenment. And that’s hard. And it should be. Because anything that I’ve ever done that I look back on and say, yeah, that was worth doing, was something that kicked my ass up and down the floor the entire time I was trying to do it. The things that I just did, and they just came out and they were great. That’s like, oh, yeah, whatever. Like, yeah, you know, who cares?

So it’s with this striving, with this effort, that we find the true power of inner peace. Because you can’t have peace until after the conflict is resolved. If you jump to peace before you resolve your conflicts, then you have a false truth that some part of you will break. And then you’ll pretend to be surprised. Enough for me. Thank you all for listening and for being here this morning.

That leaves us about 15 minutes for open dialogue and discussion before we do our closing. The floor is yours. How do you combine these energies or practices to work on these parts that separate us from what we’re trying to accomplish? How do we work with these, lack of better term, negative energies or demons that keep interrupting our path? And how do you stay enlightened in wisdom when you are a human and you walk out in the world and it’s all around you? How do you spring yourself back into the right path? Yeah, so that’s a great question.

Now I’m going to say two things about it. One is in the framing that we put around the context of so-called negative energy and honesty. And so I’m going to start with truthfulness. Truthfulness is probably the primary value of every spiritual tradition that’s ever existed. Radical honesty is what allows us to really know where we are. And so anytime that we aren’t willing to be radically honest with ourselves, no matter how much we put in the way of our truth as we speak to other people, we have to learn to be radically honest with ourselves.

So there’s a fundamental truthfulness that we have to cultivate so that we can really know where we are, what we’re dealing with, what the situation is, how it’s simultaneously true that we have a perfectly pure essence and we have a very not-so-innocent human. Because both are true. Just because you got fully identified with the not-so-innocent human doesn’t mean that your essence has changed at all. Right? And so you’re not really going back to anything. It’s just that you momentarily had tunnel vision on one aspect and forgot about the other.

And so truth starts by just reminding ourselves, like, well, that’s not actually how it works. And believing that and having faith in that. And the other is that I like to use a slightly different tradition to talk about this part because I think it’s really profound. There’s, in Jewish mysticism, there’s meanings to the letters Aleph and Lamed. And together they make the name of God. Aleph is like the ox. Lamed is like the ox goat. And the teaching in this is that our ox, which is our consciousness, which is our human that’s craving green pastures, will wander aimlessly and get nowhere without pride.

Lamed, the ox goat, that pokes the ox. The ox starts to wander off the path. It’s like, no, that way. And it’s not out of spite or malice. It’s not a demon trying to cause the ox harm. It’s the divine itself pointing the ox in the direction it needs to go. So when we face negative experiences, when we face demons from our past, when we face pain, suffering, grief, sadness, loss, jealousy, these are all feelings that are built into our system to call us back to the truth, to point us back to where we need to do our work.

They’re wake-up calls. And as humans, what we do is we go, oh, that hurt. I don’t like that. And then we ignore the message. So we keep wandering. So the divine pokes us harder. You’re like, no, I don’t like pain. And we do that over and over and over again. And sometimes eventually the divine is like, all right, well, if you really want to walk that way, walk that way. You’ll fall off the cliff eventually. We’ll get to start over in your next reincarnation. We’ll be fine.

So Zen is a process of waking up to that and recognizing that each moment of pain is an invitation to deepen our enlightenment. It is not negative. It is not an opposition. It is the practice. We don’t need to practice everything that’s already good. We don’t need to pay attention to how we feel great and blessed out and sublime most of the time. That’s not where our practice is. Our practice is in the mud. No mud, no mud.

And so when we’re radically honest with ourselves so that we truly know exactly where we are, including, I’m not ready to look at that right now. I’m just not going to. And be fully aware of the consequence that that means it’s going to keep happening. And then you go, oh, well, maybe I do want to look at it. And sometimes you still go, nope, not touching that one. But at least you know where you are and you’re being up.

And then the next part is just remembering, reframing, that all of these challenges in our lives are actually the universe waking us up, giving us a profound gift to see where we are separating ourselves from love, from connection, from bliss. It’s asking us, please look, see, be whole. And pain then becomes our friend. Thank you. It’s not a friend that we like very much, but it’s still our friend. That’s the thing we get to love but not like.

Love-hate relationship, yeah. So thank you. Yeah, you’re welcome. Good question. It’s very enlightening. Thank you. Anything up for anyone else? I’m not sure what’s going to come out of my mouth either, other than thank you. Yeah, just thank you. Mita, are you talking? Oh, yeah. Am I not muted? Oh, you are. And I can’t hear you. Let me check to see if those are speakers or if you’re talking. If it helps, I can hear you, Mita. Yay, thank you. Can you hear us? Yeah, I can. Okay.

Earlier, my deep apologies for not having caught that. Oh, no worries. Yeah, I said I don’t have a question. I just wanted to thank you and thank you for that question because the response, just exactly what I needed to remind myself of what that I already know. And I’m forever, well, this way, no, not that way. So thank you. That’s it. You’re welcome.

For me, it was a reminder of something that has been coming to me for the last week or so that it’s almost starting the book, reading the book over again. Going back to the basics, it’s like anything that I’ve ever read later again. I see it differently, see a slight perspective shift, suddenly get some things that I didn’t get before and just been feeling this need to kind of go back to the basics. So that came up kind of strongly towards the end of your talk. Thank you. Amen. Thank you.

Did I miss either of you asking questions during Qigong? No? Okay. I was experiencing significant moral shame. Anything else today? I’m feeling full and complete. Yes. Thank you.

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