This Life Which is Wonderful and Evanescent
"One of the Buddha's most
significant teachings is impermanence. But actually that is just how
things are—anything, anytime, anywhere. To live in harmony with this truth
brings great happiness."
If you think about it, it's awesomely,
amazingly wonderful just to be alive! It's a wonderful gift, and
especially on a beautiful spring day like today. But it took me several
years of meditation practice and a heart attack before I really got it
that just to be alive is awesome. As I was walking out of the hospital I
thought, "Wow! I could be dead. The rest of my life is just a
gift." And then I thought, "Well, it always has been a gift from
the very beginning and I never noticed it until it was almost gone."
I think it is true of many of us that we don't notice what a gift it is
just to be alive. How could we not notice? Well, we sort of take it for
granted. But this gift is not without its problems. One of these problems
is actually the very thing that made me realize how awesome life is, what
a gift it is and how much I appreciate it. That is the fact that life is
evanescent, impermanent. It is precious because we can't just take it for
granted. When we realize this, we may wonder, "Well, if my life is a
gift, how shall I use it, how shall I give it back, how shall I express my
appreciation for it, or completely live this life which is wonderful and
In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi tells the story of the four
horses. One of the horses starts to run just seeing the shadow of the
whip, before it even touches him. The next one starts to run just having
the whip touch the hair of its skin. The third horse starts to run when it
really feels the pain of the whip on its skin. And the fourth horse
doesn't really get going until it feels the whip in the marrow of its
What is this whip? This whip is just that evanescence of life, just that
teaching of impermanence. One of the Buddha's most significant teachings
is to hold up impermanence for us to see, but actually it is just how
things are—anything, anytime, anywhere. There is a Pali chant which
All things are impermanent
They arise and they pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings great happiness.
If you see how things are, "things
as-it-is" as Suzuki-roshi used to say, you see that they arise and
they pass away. The trick is to live in harmony with the way things
actually are; our suffering comes from wanting things to be different than
I don't know why those of you who came today for the first time came. Why
are you here at a Buddhist center? Why is anyone here? Why I'm here is
that I began to notice that all things are impermanent, including myself.
I came to practice the first time I almost died. The second time I almost
died, I really came to recognize what a joy it is to be alive.
Maybe that's like the fourth horse. I didn't get it until it really got to
the marrow. But maybe it's not so bad to be the fourth horse because when
it gets to the marrow, you've got it through and through. You don't think,
"Well, maybe just some things are impermanent, maybe, but not me.
Maybe I'll live forever, or maybe whatever I love will live for ever, or
maybe impermanence is not really the truth."
So we may try to bargain with impermanence or get into denial about it.
But somehow, if we're lucky, we do come to understand
"things-as-it-is" and that this is actually the life we are
living. Then the question of how we live it becomes really urgent for us.
It's not going to last forever; I just have a limited amount of time to
live in a way that feels satisfying to me, that feels right, that feels in
consonance with the way things are. "To live in harmony with this
truth brings great happiness," the Pali chant says.
When I first came to Zen Center I heard Suzuki-roshi say, "Just to be
alive is enough." That went right past me and it may be going right
past you. I just put it out there so you can take a look at it and decide
what it means to you. But I do think that we become curious about Zen
practice or any kind of religious discipline when we begin to run into
some of the difficulties of life and the question of how to live with
those difficulties becomes a direct issue for us. Or we may notice that
how we are living doesn't feel quite right. Or that the familiar fixed
ideas we have don't seem to hold up on closer examination.
The chant that we do at the beginning of lectures says:
An unsurpassed, penetrating and perfect
Is rarely met with even in a hundred thousand million kalpas.
Having it to see and listen to, to remember and accept,
I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagatha's words.
Notice that it doesn't say that an
unsurpassed, penetrating and perfect dharma is rare. That is just the
truth of things-as-it-is and it is always in front of you every moment of
your life. It is right here, nowhere else.
The chant ends, "I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagatha's
words." This is a vow to taste the truth of how things really are, a
vow to see directly. Taste is a very intimate sense—you get it right on
your tongue, right here in your body. That is what my heart attack did for
me; I got it right up close and personal. And each of us has some
experience in our own life where the way things are is tasted directly,
personally, right here. And that changes our life. We look at our life and
we say, "This life is not in harmony with the way things are. That's
why I'm always uncomfortable. So how do I bring myself into harmony with
the actuality of this life?"
The Zen teacher Kobun Chino once said in a sesshin talk that when you
realize how precious your life is, and that it is completely your
responsibility how you manifest it and how you live it, that is such a big
responsibility that "such a person sits down for a while"! He
continued, "It is not an intended action, it is a natural
Some of you came here today for meditation instruction, for zazen
instruction, for instruction in how to just sit. Now, why do you need
instruction in how to just sit?
There was a wonderful young Danish man who came to Tassajara in the early
days. He arrived at the gate and he said, "I want to come in and be a
Zen monk." The person he was speaking to asked him, "Have you
ever sat?" English was not his native language so he kind of took the
question in and considered it for a bit, looking perplexed. Finally he
drew himself up to his full height and he said, "All men have
So, why would you need to have instruction in just sitting? Well, just
sitting doesn't mean merely sitting. It means completely sitting; not
doing anything else, just sitting. You may have noticed that when you sit
down intending to just sit, there is a lot going on! We don't really
notice how active our mind is until we sit still with the intention of not
deliberately thinking. Even though we are not deliberately thinking, a lot
of thinking is going on! I had no idea how completely, incessantly busily
active my mind was until I sat down with the intention of just being still
and just being quiet and not grasping the thoughts that came along.
So one of the reasons we need instruction in how to just sit is that we
need to know what might support us in letting some of that busyness just
go along, without grabbing on to it. Something like paying attention to
posture and paying attention to breath. Paying attention to what's
happening right here and right now, which is this physical body, whatever
sensations there might be, and breathing.
Most of the stuff that is going on in our mind is not about what is
happening right here and right now. Check it out sometime and see: most of
the stuff that is going on in your mind is either chasing after the past
or chasing after the future. Or worrying about the future and regretting
or chewing over the past incessantly. And figuring out who to blame for
all our difficulties. It takes a long time to realize that there is no one
to blame and to be willing just to be here.
I was invited recently to participate in a spirituality discussion group.
My friend said the group was going to be giving attention to what we do in
situations where there has been some real loss, where things are never
going to be the same again. Someone you know and love has died; you have
had a serious illness or an accident. Something has occurred that feels
like a terrible loss that can't be recovered. How do you work with those
Some of the people there had experienced losses which they could relate to
the question, but the discussion was really about how our lives were going
now and about how to arrive at a sense of ease or a feeling of composure
in our lives. One person said, "Things are going pretty well for me
now, but I just noticed today that even though everything is fine I have
this kind of worried uneasiness, not about anything in particular, and it
seems strange when everything is going fine."
The teaching that there is suffering in the midst of joy was right there
in what he was saying—the worried uneasiness that although everything is
fine now, something might happen and it won't be fine. Have any of you
ever had that kind of experience? It is a very common human experience.
We have all kinds of ways of imagining the future that distract us from
actually living in the present. What just sitting, what zazen is really
about, is living in the present so that we can actually manifest this
precious life in a way that feels right, a way that is consonant with our
inner understanding of the dharma, of the truth. Shortly before he died,
William Butler Yeats said, "If I had to put it in a single phrase, I
would say that one can live the truth but one can really not know the
truth, and I must express the truth with the remainder of my life." I
can live the truth but cannot know it, and I must express it with the
remainder of my life.
Dogen Zenji, the Japanese founder of this particular stream of Zen, said
this about the precept "I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures
(Buddha, Dharma, Sangha)": "To expound the dharma with this body
is foremost. Its virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is
unfathomable. We just accept it with respect and gratitude." It is
unfathomable. We cannot know it. The inconceivable really is
inconceivable! But we still try to find a way to grab onto it.
In his lecture in the San Francisco Zen Center's "Buddhism at the
Millennium's Edge" series, Stephen Batchelor was talking about a
willingness to live in perplexity, a willingness to live in the realm of
not knowing. This is quite difficult. We can expound the dharma with this
body, we can live the truth; we just can't grasp it. We can feel in our
body when we are out of line with it. That is why Kobun Chino says it is
such a big responsibility that naturally a person sits down for a while.
We want to attune ourselves carefully to our body and mind so that we can
notice when we are out of line with our deepest intention. We want to
cultivate that intimate knowing without words and ideas—an intimacy with
ourself—so that we can tell if we are living our life the way we really
want to or whether it is just a little off.
We can do this by just tuning in with ourself, with our fundamental human
nature, which is sometimes in Buddhism called buddhanature. Suzuki-roshi
says a human being practicing true human nature is our zazen. Buddhanature
is not something mysterious or arcane. Buddha just means awake; one who is
awake. We find out how to be awake and to align ourselves with our true
intention, with our true being, with the wisdom and compassion that is
already inherent in each being, including ourself. No one is the one
single exception to the fact that all beings are Buddha. We are not that
Blanche Hartman is the former abbess of the San
Francisco Zen Center.