Monthly Archives: March 2013

Your Personal Messengers

It is said that Shakyamuni Buddha received four messengers: a sick person, an old person, a corpse and a monastic. Seeing the suffering of the first three, he was moved to pursue the life of the fourth, transforming his body and mind to discover a new way of experiencing the way things are. It is that way for each one of us as well. We encounter people or events that reveal some vitally important information, and it is up to us to receive and actualize those messages. In my case, one such messenger was a little fish.

It was New Year’s Day at Tassajara, the monastery in the mountains just inland from Carmel, California. I was walking alone toward the western edge of the land on which the monastery sits. There the creek is fairly shallow and narrow. It was a bright day but I didn’t have a lot of time, so I had chosen a short walk. Arriving at the stream, I stood there for a moment, taking in the warm sunshine. Then, a small fish seemed to jump right out of the stream – hop, hop, hop – landing right at my feet. baby salmonIt was grey with dark stripes and pink spots all lined up on its side. I looked at it for a second before realizing that it was lying there dying, gasping for air.

I recognized the need to do something to help the fish. So I knelt down and tried to pick it up, but the fish struggled with all its might and wouldn’t let me get a hold of it. I tried again and again, but the fish wouldn’t allow it. What to do?! Suddenly, I had the idea that I’d try to scoop the fish back into the water, helping just enough to let it swim away on its own. So I cupped my hands together and, gathering a bit of water and a bit of fish, I pushed it away. It worked! The fish landed in a bit more water and, with a swish or two of its tail, was hurtling itself down the stream. I cheered and wished the fish well.

In the next moment it seemed to me that this was just a small detail, and I looked around for other fish in the creek. After several minutes I still hadn’t seen even one more, though the water was clear to the bottom. There was only the one little fish. Then the message was instantly clear to me, and I laughed out loud and started yelling again, “Yes, yes, I will! Yes!” I grinned from ear to ear, and couldn’t contain the feeling of joy in my heart, because for me the message was so clear. The message I heard was that it is my job to help free all beings, just as in the first of the Four Bodhisattva vows. In each and every moment I have the intention and the opportunity and the responsibility to carry out that vow. And in each and every moment I am in exactly the right place to fulfill the vow, if only I am awake enough to see it and to be of service without interfering. Wow! This tiny, fierce fish was my personal messenger and I had received the message, loud and clear. I couldn’t prevent the fish’s suffering, but I could help it to perform its natural function, and thereby ease its own suffering.

So I invite you to consider the messengers in your life, and the messages that they are offering. May you all discover your oneness with the stream.

On “The Wake Up Sermon,” Bodhidharma’s teaching on freedom from appearances

bodhidharma scowl

Text: To give up your self without regret is the greatest charity. Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awakening.

Commentary: How does one give up one’s self? And without regret? Consider whether there is a self who is completely one with all things in the moment. No separation between self and other, no hard feelings. The phone rings and you answer it. Just like the monk in the koan who turns his head when called. The eyeball does not see itself.

In Dogen’s Genjokoan we see the echos of the second and third sentences. “Carrying the self forward” is “using the mind to look.” “Myriad things come forward” is “not using the mind to look.” Causes and conditions simply perform their natural functions, yet the mind tends to draw a circle around some of them and call it a self. What a pity!

On “The Heart Sutra Commentary,” Sekkei Harada’s Words on the function of Dharma


“It is not possible for the ego to intervene in the Dharma. This means that it is enough to become the Dharma. In order to become the Dharma, you must forget the ego. In order to forget the ego, you must sit. That is all there is to it.”

Commentary: Becoming that which you are already are, is like turning from old woman to young. The salty water pervades skin, flesh bones and marrow. Don’t think that forgetting is passivity; don’t think that forgetting is activity. Is there anyplace where this sitting cannot take place?