Winter Solstice
Knowing Why You Do What You Do
Listen to this talk:
Knowing Why You Do What You Do (25 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing and Shelly Niebuhr
June 13, 2010 - Dallas, Texas

In my earlier years of leading talks and teachings, it was a very important practice for me to type out my entire message and read it verbatim. A couple years after that, it was only necessary to type out the basic idea for each section of my talk, and then later on, I also practiced with just simply meditating and seeing if a theme was coming up and just letting that kind of be reflected within the whole week before I had to talk, even if I didn't write anything down. And then later on, after that, just seeing what comes out just after sitting meditation.

And so, today, I didn't really have any specific topic, and so I just trusted in the practice of walking and sitting to allow whatever message to come forth. But in saying that, I'm not saying that is the way everyone who speaks should be doing it. It took me many years to get to that point. It is very important to know that typing everything out is also beautiful and important. Writing an outline, preparing your talks, going to your notes. This is the way that Shelley did it last week, which is very beautiful, and I think that is something that many of us should try sometime in preparing a talk to give to our community. But at this stage in my particular practice, my personal practice, I rarely have time with all of the different responsibilities I have now to take that many hours and type out speeches. And at this point in my practice, most everything I have to say is pretty much the same thing anyway. Just, it is a practice of reminding ourselves what is most essential.

So, what came up for me was to talk about—and by the way, during the meditation, I'm not like trying to think about what I'm going to say. That's not what I am encouraging you to do. I'm just allowing if something comes up in my heart, and I usually just spent most of the first 25 minutes of the meditation just sitting and being. And I noticed that in this meditation, I noticed there were a few people shuffling, getting up, moving their chair, moving their legs, coughing. At first, my Virgo sensibility was a little bit irritated, but I knew that as I keep practicing with just letting go, letting be, allowing, eventually I did get a peaceful place of acceptance and equanimity around the 20 minute mark, and something wondrous happened after that.

About the 21 minute mark—I know that, because the timer is right here—I had this sense of, ah, that is Buddha coughing. That is Buddha shuffling. That is Buddha walking in. That is Buddha getting up. And it was so beautiful. If it is Buddha, it does not matter. There is no need to be irritated at Buddha. Just let Buddha be Buddha. And many of us are at this stage—probably all of us, including me, are just at the stage of baby Buddhas or maybe the terrible toddler Buddhas, and that is okay. That is beautiful, you know? That is exactly where we are meant to be right now, with all of our monkey mind, all of our irritations, all of our frustrations or whatever. It is perfect, just like a 2-year-old is perfect when they are just being a 2-year-old. Would you punish the 2-year-old for just being like a 2-year-old? No. You just accept, and you work with it. And so we accept just the way we are as baby toddler Buddhas, with all of our crying and screaming and tantrums, whatever is going on. We accept it. We take care of it, because we are not just the toddler having a tantrum. We are also infinite, vast spaciousness. We are enlightenment itself expressing through human bodies and minds, and that aspect of who we really are can hold that baby. So let the Buddha breathe. Let the Buddha sit. Let the Buddha take care of what is happening right here and now.

That is not my topic, but that is just what came to me through meditation, and then right after that in the last 3 minutes, the topic came to share with you, and that is simply to share why we do the things we do—or also, another way of entitling it, knowing why you do what you do.

There is a Zen story of a Zen teacher who was a very respected Zen master in meditation. He had many, many disciples, and they would do chanting and sitting and walking and working meditation and eating meditation and offering incense and bowing—all the different things they do in the Chinese Zen temple. Well, one day, when he was doing sitting meditation, an animal came by. I think it was a cat. And so it started to meow and try to lick the master and come into the temple, so the master just mindfully took the cat and put it over outside by the post and put a little leash on it and tied it to the post and then went back to his meditation. So he liked the cat, so he fed the cat, and all the monks liked the cat. So every day during meditation, he would leash the cat to the outside post.

While many years later when the Zen master died, many of his older students had gone away to the teachers elsewhere, and he had many new students when he died. They remembered that the Zen master always tied a cat during meditation, and so when the Zen master died, they kept doing that. And so generations later, they kept doing that, and they did not know why. They thought it was part of some mystical Zen ritual to tie a cat at this particular post, at this particular time, you know. And so, know why you do what you do.

Now of course, it is okay if you do not always know exactly everything, as long as someone in the room knows what they're doing. For instance, why do we do the bells the way we do the bells? It is not necessary for you to understand exactly why, but as long as somebody knows, it is okay, and as long as someone in the world knows, it is okay. But let me encourage you if there is a ritual or a chant or a custom that is being done in your community or your religion and not a single soul on the planet knows why, then let it go. You don't need it. You don't need it. You don't need to do things just because it has always been done that way. What we need is to know why we are doing something, because that is another meaning of mindfulness.

Mindfulness has three deep meanings, one of which is awareness of what is going on. Also another meaning is to remember what you're doing and why you're doing it. I forget what the third one is, but anyway. Those are two deep meanings. So I want to encourage all of you with a particular practice that I would like to reinstitute in our community starting next week when we celebrate the summer solstice, the celebration of life, and I have already begun doing it a little bit. We did it during a few ceremonies last year and then just recently at Buddha's birthday, where everyone wore white. So I've asked that those who are facilitating or greeting or leading the childcare wear white.

Now, why wear white? First of all, this is a custom that is in many of the Theravadan Buddhist countries, they still do this. In the original days of the Buddha, all of the monks and nuns wore saffron color. Now saffron, depending on how you use the dye, can be anywhere from a red and orange to yellow color. And the Buddha did not mind which shade of it you used, just so long as it was saffron. And then the laypeople who became his disciples, like you and me, poor white their entire life—no other color—to symbolize that they were disciples of the Buddha. And now of course, over the years and over the centuries in different countries, the color changed. For instance, in Zen circles these days, black or brown is the main color. But I would like to return to the original custom of the Buddha's day. That doesn't mean we have to wear it our entire lives, but just when we come together in sangha, maybe just to honor our spiritual ancestors, the original disciples of the Buddha, and to remind ourselves we are part of that same stream of community that started 2,600 years ago.

So, wear white. Now you can wear a white shirt or wear a white blouse or wear a white scarf or just a white little something, a little white flower. Whatever you would like. But it is a nice practice for you. I think if you try it, you will see that it has a beautiful quality to it. Everyone I have ever asked to do it usually says it is a very beautiful thing, I would like to encourage you to try it out. And of course, if someone doesn't have anything white, fine. But just something to help us be mindful of what we are wearing and why.

Also, as I meditated on the colors of saffron and why, I wondered why. And I asked many of my dharma teachers, and I researched books, and no one could tell me why. So I meditated and asked my inner Buddha why, and what came up for me was that the saffron color is like the color of the sun, you know, maybe dark yellow or kind of orangish, reddish at sunset. It is the sun, and the white is the color of the moon. It is the masculine and feminine in balance with each other. Monastics and the laypeople are both important together. It is interesting that as the color changed—for instance, in Vietnam, they wore brown and then the sky blue gray robe as their main colors, and the same principle applies. The brown is the feminine quality of the earth. This sky-blue gray robe is the color of the sky, the masculine energy of air. Isn't that interesting?

So, ever since the Buddha began this beautiful spiritual movement of the dharma, there has always been a solidarity with nature, with the earth, with the heavens, with the sun, and the moon. The original community met every two weeks on the new moon and the full moon to be in the rhythm of nature.

And every year in that particular country, there is this thing called the rainy season, and so all of the monastics would just stay in one place during the whole rainy season to be in harmony with the nature of their particular area. Their particular reason for it was when it rains during the rainy season for those three months or four months not particular part of India, lots of worms come out, and since they do walking meditation all the time, they would be squishing many, many worms. So they waited for the worms to go back into the ground after the rainy season, and then they would go about doing walking to different cities and spreading the dharma out of just compassion for the worms, in solidarity with nature once again.

And remember that the Buddha became enlightened when he sat under a tree in solidarity with the trees, and the moment of his enlightenment occurred when he saw the planet Venus rising on the horizon at dawn, the morning star, and that was the moment of his enlightenment, because of the beautiful body of the universe, Venus, the morning star, in solidarity with the universe.

And even though bells were not used in the original community of Buddhism, they were developed later, for instance, in China and Korea and Vietnam and Japan, because in the Zen temples, they wanted to emphasize that it is not all about words, that it is about a wisdom deeper than words. And so many times, they wanted to practice without having to say anything throughout the whole day. So the bells were signals. Three bells meant something, two bells meant something, a small bell meant something else, etc. In our community, we've simplified it so that three bells is the beginning of the meditation or the beginning of something. Two bells is at the end of something, usually the meditation, and the small bell usually means an action, to bow, to stand, to walk—an action—whereas the big bell usually means stop and breathe and be.

I remember one time thing Deer Park Monastery in California, and there were only about two or three laypeople there and eight or nine monks in the men's part of the monastery, and then in the morning, they do chanting and sitting meditation, and then we do a ritual chanting. This particular morning, they did it in Vietnamese, which I don't understand that language. But as they chanted, it was so beautiful. As they chanted, I closed my eyes and suddenly a vision came to me in my mind, just a mental image of this mountaintop with all these monks and the lay people all around in white, and monks and nuns in saffron, and the Buddha sitting at the very top with their palms together as the sun is rising. And everyone is smiling, this radiant, confident, hopeful joy, and I imagined that this light has been spread across as they were chanting all around the world, and it was such a hopeful feeling, as if this chant was meaning something like all beings are already enlightened. No one will ever be excluded. Every single person eventually will become a fully enlightened Buddha. No exceptions.

And when I had that feeling, I instantly knew in my heart this must be the Heart Sutra, which is many, many different meanings, but one of them I will share with you in a second. In that moment of thinking, this must be the Heart Sutra—and by the way, there on the floor is the Heart Sutra in Chinese—right then and there, as I had that thought, suddenly they went from Vietnamese to Sanskrit because the last line of the Heart Sutra is a Sanskrit mantra, Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha. And I just welled up with joy because I realized I knew it was the Heart Sutra without knowing Vietnamese because I let my heart listen to the chant and not just my rational, analytical head. And I was right. It was the Heart Sutra they were chanting, because Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha as many deep meanings, but one of which, the literal is, gone, gone. Gone all the way. Everyone gone all the way, enlightenment, Wahoo. It is in the past tense, as if it is already done. It is a done deal. Celebrate the reality that all of us already are what we are trying to become. We are already Buddhas. We are just simply trying to become from baby Buddhas to fully mature kudos, but we are Buddhas nonetheless. That is the deep meaning of Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.

So you know with your heart what the mind does not understand. That is one of the points of our practice, and to do that it means that we also practice with being in solidarity with nature comment being in harmony with the ways of the universe. And this is an insight that is especially taught in the Taoist tradition, which is very beautiful also. Being in flow with the way of the universe. The Buddha always was in harmony with nature, and in your walking and in your sitting, you can't help but see the miracle of this earth, every blade of grass, every tree, every flower as you walk mindfully on the earth, and as you breathe, you realize the miracle of this breathing body, gift of the ancestors, gift of the earth and the sky, the sun and the rain, and the food that you eat, gift of the whole universe. That is Buddha barking.

And so, why do we do walking before sitting here? It doesn't have to be done that way, but we like to do it that way because—there's a reason. Many of us are running around during our daily life, and we're just driving in traffic, getting here. Before sitting into stillness, it might be helpful to sort of transition into the stillness by walking mindfully, slowly, and then sitting. It makes the sitting a little bit more settled for you usually. In some of our sanghas, we do sitting, then walking, then sitting. Why do we do that? It is because the first sitting is basically practicing Samatha meditation, calming concentration. And you're just settling. You don't expect it to be the most peaceful. The walking happens after that because maybe you can't sit the whole time, so break it up into two sittings. So then you walk, still in mindfulness, because you also have to learn how to not just touch peace by being still, but also be that piece in our daily life as we are working and doing and going about business, not just when we are sitting. We have to learn how to be mindful even in motion, and then when we do the second sitting, that is practicing Vipassana meditation, because now that you're settled and calm and concentrated, now you can look deeply in the lower wisdom to arise naturally, intuitively, so that spiritual insight and breakthrough can be allowed to occur.

Every time I've ever practiced yoga with Susan Rainey here or at a retreat, like yesterday morning, I find myself much deeper during the meditation and also my dharma talks, so why do we have yoga here? Because it really helps a lot. I would really like to encourage everyone to try to come at 4 o'clock if you can for yoga before our 5 o'clock sitting meditation. Susan is one of the best yoga teachers I have ever encountered. It is not the kind where you're going to get all sweaty and tired and achy muscles. It is the kind that helps you to smooth out your energy body, smooth out the frenetic frantic energy of your body, and come back to your heart. It is a wonderful practice. So that is just a little bit from my heart to your heart, and one last thing I just want to say. Why have we created this physical place? I think you already know the answer.


Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

▲ Return to Top