To Whom Do We Bow?

Reprinted with permission from the Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter,
March 2002.

In the Mumonkan, Case #45, Master Wu-tsu said, "Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another, tell me who is that other?" Master Mumon comments. He says, "If you can see this other and distinguish him clearly, then it is like encountering your grandfather at the crossroads: you will not need to ask someone whether or not you are right. In this verse, Mumon continues, "Don't draw another's bow, don't ride another's horse, don't discuss another's faults, don't explore another's affairs." It's a very short koan. Wu-tsu said, "Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Tell me, who is that other?" Shakyamuni of course is the past Buddha, and Maitreya is the Buddha who will appear in the future and in between is, who?" ["Us," says a student.]

The written character for the word "another" literally means "that one." So the koan could also be read as, "Even Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of that one." This has a slightly ambiguous meaning. "Another" is a more generic term, and "that one" points to someone in particular. So to whom does Buddha bow? To whom does Buddha make obeisance? Even Shakyamuni and Maitreya make obeisance or bow to that one — that "other."

We just finished the Bodhisattva Ceremony where we acknowledge all of our past karma and renew our intention to practice. During the ceremony, we bow many times to the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Who are these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? When we bow to Buddha to whom are we bowing? This is a question that always comes up when we give instruction to beginners. Someone will say, "Well, who are we bowing to?" And even after ten years of practice someone will ask the same thing. A very good question. You are bowing to yourself. How do you bow to yourself?You can't see your own eyes, you can't see your own nose, we don't see our own face. It's pretty hard to bow in this direction [toward ourselves], we're always bowing in that direction [away from ourselves]. If you bow in that direction, you meet yourself. So who is this self? That question begs the other. If I bow to myself, then who is this "myself" that I'm bowing to?

Therein is the fundamental koan, who is myself, and how do I bow to myself? The Buddha figure on the altar, is a kind of focal point. We make a beautiful Buddha figure in order to express our feeling about Buddha, but strictly speaking, Buddha is just an idea, a concept that we have. But behind Buddha is our true nature, so when we talk about Buddha, we shouldn't get it mixed up with some particular person or even some person from the past, who was born 2500 years ago. When we talk about Buddha we are referring to our own fundamental nature.

So, to whom does Shakyamuni Buddha bow? In our lineage we say that when you have true understanding, you are the teacher of Shakyamuni Buddha. You are the teacher of Maitreya Buddha. As a matter-of-fact you are Shakyamuni Buddha. Who is Maitreya Buddha? Maitreya Buddha is like the messiah, comparable to the messiah in the West. When will this messiah appear? People are always waiting for somebody to do something. I was talking to somebody the other day who was dissatisfied with the state of Buddhism in America and in Japan and in Tibet. He said that we just keep going until some real leader appears. That's wonderful. But how will this religious leader appear? Who is your religious leader? There was a book about ten years ago, which was kind of cute. The title was What To Do Till The Messiah Comes. One reason why we offer incense is to invite the spirit of prajna to come forth in our practice. When we have service, we offer incense to invite the spirit of prajna to arise. We ask Buddha to join our practice. We ask them to come and visit us, but nothing comes from outside to visit. It is just a way of evoking that spirit from within, because the spirit is no place else but here. Maitreya Buddha is nowhere else but here. Shakyamuni Buddha is no place else but here. There is no Buddha out there. No Tushita Heaven where Maitreya Buddha is waiting to come down. Maitreya Buddha is right here. Who is going to save us? Don't look around.

Very often, when I talk to people about practice, they seem very discouraged. They say something like, "At first I had a lot of enthusiasm for practice, but now I wonder why am I doing this. I don't feel like I'm getting anything, and then I become kind of discouraged." That's right. If you have an attitude of wanting to get something, you'll be very discouraged because nothing will appear. This is the law of practice. If you want something, you will be disappointed. The second law of practice is... (I'm making this up [laughter]). The second law is: in order to make practice come alive, you have to give. You have to present yourself as an offering. You have to offer yourself completely to what you're doing. Then, unexpectedly, something may appear. But you can't ask for it, and you can't expect it. You can't shake the tree and make the apple come down. Actually there's only giving. There's also receiving, the counterpart of giving. So when you give yourself to the practice you stimulate generosity and then you receive something. You stimulate the nature of generosity. This is sometimes hard for people to understand when we simply want something. We want enlightenment, or we want to feel better. We want to improve ourselves, or we want to be calm or peaceful. These are good things to want. We want to be strong and imperturbable. These are all good qualities. Practice is not like going into the supermarket. "I'll take some of these and some of those." You can't select the things you want. You can't just select the "good things" and put them in your bag, then leave the store. It doesn't work that way.

Practice is like making a vow. I hesitate to say, "vow." So instead I usually say "intention." "Vow" is good but I would not say to any of you that you should make a vow. If you want to practice you should have a strong intention to practice. Whatever your intention is, you should honor that intention. If you want a practice, then you should decide, for example, "I'll sit zazen three times a week. Monday, Wednesday, Friday," or whatever. And then you put that on your calendar, and when the time comes, that's what you do. If you don't honor your intentions, then it's hard to maintain a steady practice. There are so many competing activities being displayed before us, enticing us to pick them up, that if we don't maintain a strong way-seeking mind, we can't sustain the practice.

If you think about all the things that you promised yourself you would do and didn't do, and look back on that, you'd be amazed at all the intentions you had that you didn't honor. Sometimes this holds us back. So that's why we have such a thing as the Bodhisattva Ceremony. We avow all of our ancient karma and unrealized intentions, and renew and honor our intention to continue. This is one of the most important factors of practice, that you have an intention, and honor it. Everything else flows from there. Enlightenment, peace, it's all there in our intention. We also fall off, but when we fall off we come back.

As a matter-of-fact, we're always getting side-tracked. That's the nature of our life: to have this intention, get sidetracked, and come back. One of the obstacles is, "Now that I've fallen off, I can't come back." Or, "I've been bad." So the nature of practice is to make the effort, that no matter what happens, to keep renewing or returning to our intention.

Often one of the problems we have, is that we get caught up in our feelings. We always have to honor our feelings, but feelings are very fleeting. They're not reliable. They can be just like foam on the ocean. We can have a strong feeling, and then in the next moment it's a weak feeling. We can have a good feeling, and in the next moment it's a bad feeling. We can have a feeling about somebody that's very sweet, and we can have a feeling about that same person in the next moment and it's very angry. These are just small examples. To be guided by feelings is very unreliable. What is reliable is our intention. When we rely on our intention, feelings will come and go. We have good feelings, bad feelings and undesirable feelings, but they don't carry us off of our path because our path is guided by our intentions. That's what makes practice difficult because we want to go with our feelings. People say, "When I'm happy I like to go to the zendo." Or, "When I'm feeling awful I like to go to the zendo because it makes me feel better." Practice is, no matter how I'm feeling, when it's time to go to the zendo and sit zazen, I go to the zendo and sit. Whether I'm feeling good or bad, laughing or crying — having a good time or having a bad time — when it's time to sit zazen, let go of everything and at midnight you turn into a pumpkin. You just do what your intention is. And then we begin to see into the nature of feelings. We begin to be able to examine the true nature of feelings. We see how feelings come and go and are influenced by our ego. What makes us most unhappy, is trying to get happy.

When we try to get happy, we become really unhappy, because even if we get happy for a little while, we get unhappy again. Then we try to get happy again. This continual effort to get happy makes us very unhappy.

When people ask me, "How can I renew my practice, how can I sustain my practice, how can I feel encouraged in my practice?" I say, just renew your intention. Just follow your intention. Don't get pulled off by "I'm sleepy, or I'm lazy, or I found something really interesting to take up my time." These are difficult things to deal with in practice. We're going in the direction of practice and one day we wake up and realize that we are going in some other direction. We were going this way and suddenly, we're going that way. "How did I get here?" We got here through either our intentions, or through our feelings, or through our delusions, because we create our life. We create our own life, in cooperation with the world around us, moment after moment. When we are off course though, it's possible to correct ourselves, it's possible to come back on course.

But what is the course? What am I supposed to be doing? The best way to know what we are supposed to be doing is to head for the zero point. When you reach the zero point, then you can see all the way around, you have a good standpoint from which to view your life. But as long as we are standing on five, six, or seven, then everywhere we look, we only have a partial view. So it's really hard to get a broad perspective or to start from a new place. In practice we're always starting from zero. It has no special shape or form. Our lives have no fixed shape or form, but when we step out and do something, we take on a shape and a form, and we give shape and form to our life. So practice, and our intention to practice, is to continually keep coming back to the zero point. This is the "no special" viewpoint, the viewpoint of impartiality. If we follow our intention, we can avoid falling into partiality. Partiality is influenced by, "I want, I don't want; I like, I don't like." As soon as I fall into, "I want, I don't want; I like, I don't like," I fall into partiality and can't see completely. This is a cause for suffering.

Master Mumon comments, "If you can see this "other," and distinguish him or her clearly, then it is like encountering your grandfather at the crossroads. You will not need to ask somebody whether or not you are right." "Encountering your grandfather at the crossroads," does not necessarily mean meeting your granddaddy, but meeting your true essence, your true face. In his verse, Mumon then instructs, "Don't draw another's bow, don't ride another's horse, don't discuss another's faults, don't explore another's affairs." In other words, rely on yourself. How do you rely on yourself? "Don't draw another's bow" means "do draw your own bow, do ride your own horse, do look at your own faults, and be careful about your own affairs." Mumon means that you should be very careful about your own affairs. So what doess "drawing your own bow" mean? Drawing your bow is setting up your intention. What is your true course, and what will you follow?Decide, then once you decide, stay with it.

Sometimes people say, "I can't make a decision, I don't know which way to go." But we have to make decisions, we have to go some way. Sometimes even making the wrong decision can be better than making no decision. Even if you make a wrong decision, you have a way to go. And then you have the opportunity to study your life from the perspective of that wrong decision and correct it. You have an opportunity to reach reality through your wrong decision. But we may think, "Reality is not what I'm looking for, what I'm looking for is happiness." If you're looking for happiness, then you probably can't make up your mind. If you're looking for reality, it's okay to make a wrong decision. It's no problem, because you will fall into reality. Reality will hit you over the head. Better, of course, to make a good decision. But sometimes the wrong decision is the right decision. When you really have a good understanding of what is practice, then wherever you are, whatever you are doing, is the place of practice. If you have this understanding, whether you make a right decision or wrong decision, you have a way to go. "Don't ride another's horse." Yes. Ride your own horse. How do you ride your own horse? What's your effort? The horse is like the vehicle, an animal that makes it work. Hop on your own horse. Don't wait for someone and don't rely on someone else. Carry your own load. Make your own rhythm in life, but always in harmonious relation to your surroundings.

In order to practice, we have to have some limitation, because the more we do and the more we have, the more watered down and superficial or shallow our life can become. When we have less to rely on, we're forced to go deeper into our life. When we come to practice we have to put some limitation on our life. It's like a bowl of water. If you put water into a flat dish it doesn't have much depth but if you have a nice deep bowl, it will hold a lot of water. It has form and some shape to it. Practice has to have some form and shape.

It can hold some deep water, and when there are turbulent waves, there is a ballast of calm deep water. This is one of the things that people struggle with in our society because there's so much opportunity. The curse of our society is that there is the overabundance of opportunity, and it keeps us strung out. The things that only a king would have had in the past, every one of us can have today. It's amazing. The kings were some of the most distraught people because they had so much and had to protect it. It's hard to put limitations on our self, but it's necessary. If we want to practice we have to put some limitation on our life. And this can be a big relief because then we don't have to run after everything we see. We don't have to own everything that's advertised. One TV set might be enough.

In the verse, Master Mumon says, "Don't discuss another's faults." That's right. Just look to yourself, examine your own life. Don't blame others for what's happening to you. "You made me angry." No. "You did something and I got angry." "You walked by and made me fall in love with you." No. "You walked by, and I fell in love." In other words, take responsibility for your own feelings, take responsibility for your own thoughts and your own actions. Don't blame. If you can refrain from blaming, then you can examine yourself in a very clear way, no matter what, even if someone else is in the wrong. This is a very important point.

Even if someone else appears to be at fault, don't fall into fault-finding. See if you can do that. See what that brings up for you. Don't explore another's affairs, just take care of your own life. Don't gossip, don't pick into someone else's life. Just make sure that you're doing the right thing. Make sure you're following your own intentions. As the saying goes, if you want the tiger's cub, you have to go into the tiger's cave. If you really want something, you have to put yourself on the line. But better to just do it, without looking for something.

This is one secret of practice. The koan "mu" is one of the fundamental koans, maybe the first koan many Zen students receive. If you understand "mu," you'll have kensho. But if you recite "mu" all day long with the idea of having kensho, it won't work. If you think that by sitting zazen you'll become enlightened, you will be waiting a long time. Just sit.

Dogen Zenji has a saying from the Genjokoan, "To study the Buddha Way, is to study the self. To study the self, is to forget the self." If you want to study yourself, you have to forget your self. This is genjokoan. How do I study the self by forgetting the self? Another way of saying this is: to attain the Buddhadharma is to attain the self, and to attain the self, is to forget the self. According to Buddhadharma, there is no self. This self is not exactly a self. It's a dynamic flowing of elements. A dynamic flowing of Buddha nature. There is nothing you can grasp. So to forget the self is to realize. It is to forget our idea of self, to forget our idea of who we are. It's to turn toward our true self. The only way to do that is to not hanker after anything. Then we can see clearly who we are. And when we bow, we bow in gratitude. When we have some insight, we bow in gratitude. That is all. We bow to our true self. Instead of trying to get something from practice, or from the Dharma, it's better to serve the Dharma.

Buddha and Maitreya are servants of the Dharma. What is the example of Buddha? To serve the Dharma, to serve truth, that's all there is. When you serve, you're fed. There is the old story of the long chopsticks. What is the difference between heaven and hell? In hell, there are people seated at a long table, and they have a wonderful meal piled up on the table, but they have these long chopsticks. The chopsticks are so long that when they pick up the food they can't get it to their mouths. Heaven is exactly the same place, same people, same food, and same chopsticks. But when they pick up the food with the chopsticks they put it into the mouths of the people on the other side of the table.

I'll end with Dogen's story. He says, "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self and to study the self is to forget the self. Just to forget the self is to be confirmed by the 10,000 things. When actualized by myriad things, your body-mind as well as the body-mind of others drops away. No trace of realization remains, and this no trace continues endlessly."

© 2002 Sojun Mel Weitsman