In this podcast episode, I will discuss the Zen Koan titled “The Real Miracle”. I will also share the story/teaching of Milarepa and the Demons he resisted in his cave and how that story can help us with our own demons. I also share a new Zen koan at the end of the episode for you to work with this week.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 111. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about resisting our demons. As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use this to learn to be a better whatever you already are.
In the last podcast episode, I shared the Zen kōan called The Real Miracle, and I’ll repeat it here. “When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshū priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate him. Bankei was in the midst of the talk when the priest appeared, but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise. ‘The founder of our sect,’ boasted the priest, ‘had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?’ Bankei replied lightly, ‘Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I am hungry, I eat, and when I am thirsty, I drink.'”
I really enjoy this Zen kōan. That is very typical of Zen, to take something kind of a big deal and bring it back to where it’s not a big deal. That is a teaching that I have taken away from Buddhism in general. When people approach this idea of miracles, and, “Oh, this miracle is this big great thing,” Buddhism seems to always return things to, “Well, that’s not a miracle. The miracle’s the thing that you wouldn’t think is a miracle and being able to eat when you’re hungry and being able to drink when you’re thirsty.” I love that way of thinking.
Again, the point of the kōan is to make you scratch your head and say, “Well, wait a second. Why or how is that a miracle?” In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh elaborates on this a little bit. He says, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle, but I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day, we are engaged in a miracle, which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black curious eyes of a child, our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
I love that way of thinking. When you think about this, go back to the Zen kōan, at the edge of a river, one person was able to lift up a paint brush and paint something on the other side of the river, contrasted with someone who’s not even paying attention to that. They’re looking up at the blue sky saying, “That cloud is a miracle. The blueness of the sky, that is a miracle. The flow of the river, that is the miracle. The fact that I’m here experiencing and seeing these things, that is the miracle,” and finds the simplicity of all of it, a miracle is found there.
I really like that. In my own personal approach with practicing and studying Buddhism, I used to be impressed with people who knew a lot, people who seemed to have it all figured out, people who were successful in their careers or who had achieved something very notable like money, fame, or power. I’m not dissing on any of those things. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, but over time, now I’ve come to admire people who have just mastered the art of living with uncertainty, people who are comfortable with discomfort, people who have befriended their full range of thoughts and emotions, people who have essentially befriended their demons, people who are aware and present to things that others don’t seem to notice.
If I saw someone doing some trick like that, painting with a brush on one edge of the river, and someone on the other side holding up the paper that’s being painted on, and meanwhile in the middle of all that, someone noticing the sky, I would be more impressed with the person who’s noticing the sky, I think. People who eat when they’re hungry or who drink when they’re thirsty, to me, these are like people who are capable of just allowing themselves to be angry when they’re angry, allowing themselves to laugh when they’re happy, people who allow themselves to cry when they’re sad, people who know that they’re just a collection of stories, and yet they’re no longer attached to those stories, people who no longer take themselves so seriously, people who are genuine and authentic and raw, people who are no longer investing ridiculous amounts of time and energy into feeding and protecting the story that they’ve had about themselves or the story they have about others.
To me, these are all the miracle workers, the superheroes that really impress me. You know what? There are a lot of them out there. If you start paying attention and looking, you’ll see them. I think it’s unfortunate that our society has been unskillfully looking up to the wrong people. We’ve been taught to value the wrong things, money, fame, and power. Well, while being convenient, nice things, they’re not as valuable as we thought when we perhaps we should have been wiser to recognize that freedom from conditioning is a far more peaceful state of life than being rich or powerful or famous. We should aspire to be free, to be liberated from the views and the ideas and the beliefs that have been preventing us from seeing the miracle we are experiencing, the miracle of the blue sky, of the white clouds, the miracle of being alive.
This reminds me of a quote that I’ve enjoyed for quite some time now. This is by Richard Dawkins in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow. He says, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here, we privileged few who won the lottery of birth against all odds. How dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
I love that quote because it reminds me, again, it’s you and I here in our ordinariness, or standing here at the edge of a river noticing the fluffiness of a white cloud, that is the miracle. We are the lucky ones. I think that’s a really neat way of seeing life. To me that’s the essence of this Zen kōan, the real miracle. Those are my thoughts on the kōan of The Real Miracle, but what I want to talk about now is the topic of the podcast, which is resisting our demons. I think it kind of goes hand in hand with this Zen kōan that we’ve been thinking about since the last episode.
I want to share with you teaching that comes from the book, The Pocket Pema Chödrön. I’ve shared a bunch of these in the past year. There was a phase where I was sharing these quite regularly on Facebook, but I want to share this one with you. This is about Milarepa. I’m quoting from her book. It’s a little pocket book.
Open quote, “Milarepa, who lived in the 11th century, is one of the heroes of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the brave ones. He was also a rather unusual fellow. He was a loner who lived in caves by himself and meditated wholeheartedly for years. He was extremely stubborn and determined. If he couldn’t find anything to eat for a couple of years, he just ate nettles and turned green, but he would never stop practicing. The story goes that one evening, Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint. He knew about the teaching of the non-duality of self and other, but he still didn’t quite know how to get these guys out of his cave. Even though he had the sense that they were just a projection of his own mind, all the unwanted parts of himself, he didn’t know how to get rid of them.
“First he taught them the dharma. He sat on this seat that was higher than they were, and he said things to them about how we are all one. He talked about compassion and emptiness and other key Buddhist teachings, and nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got very angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor saying, ‘I’m not going away, and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.’ At that point, all of them left except the one. Milarepa said, ‘This one is particularly vicious.’ We all know that one. Sometimes we have lots of them like that. Sometimes we feel that’s all we’ve got. He didn’t know what to do, so he surrendered himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, ‘Just eat me up if you want to.’ Then the demon left too. The moral of the story is when the resistance has gone, so are the demons,” close quote.
That, to me, is a really powerful teaching on the idea or the concept of acceptance, and as I’ve clarified before, Buddhism is full of parables and stories, and I love this one about Milarepa, but I want to clarify that this teaching does not endorse settling or resigning to things in our lives. This is not an invitation to stick our heads in the mouth of a difficult situation or a difficult set of circumstances that may be going on in our lives. All these things are always pointed inward. It’s about our thoughts and feelings and emotions, even the ones that we don’t like, Pema says the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, the ones that we would consider demons. It’s about the relationship we have with these inner parts of ourselves. I wanted to clarify that.
It’s said that whatever we resist persists, and when it comes to negative emotions, that seems particularly true. We get angry, and then we get angry that we’re angry because somewhere we were taught that we shouldn’t be angry. We feel sad, and then we feel sad that we’re sad because somewhere, we’ve been taught to believe that it’s not right to be sad or there’s something wrong with feeling sad. Often, these layers go really deep. What happens when we stop resisting the initial emotion or the initial thought or feeling, what happens when we no longer fight it, like Milarepa, who settled and said, “Well, it looks like you’re here to stay, so let’s all get comfortable.”
Then those particularly hard ones, take it a step further and say, “Okay, well, I’m going to go put my head in your mouth, and do what you got to do,” and suddenly, when the resistance is truly gone, those demons are gone. What if we allow that first feeling to remain as an old friend at our dinner table, welcome to come and go as needed.
To me, that’s the lesson that Pema is sharing in this teaching. I’ve used this analogy before that we’re sitting at a table, and we have all these thoughts and feelings and emotions that kind of come and go, and we’ve been spending a lot of time and a lot of energy and resources to influence who gets to come and go at the table, who sits where, who has priority, who’s on that welcome list. It’s like we have a bouncer outside the door that’s like saying, “You’re welcome. No, not you. You’re not on this list of approved thoughts, feelings, and emotions,” and then that makes those stronger, and then there’s this fight going on. Eventually, they find their way in anyway.
That’s what this teaching to me is alluding. What happens when we take down all the defenses, when we learn to stop resisting our demons, and we say, “You know what? This is just a big table, and it’s a round table, and all of you are welcome. Let’s see why you’re here, what brought you here.” That is a very powerful shift in the relationship that we have with our thoughts and feelings and emotions. For me, that’s been one of the most powerful parts of practicing Buddhism, being able to do this in my own life with my own thoughts and feelings and emotions and memories and to be able to welcome everything to the table and to have a more skillful relationship.
These things are going to arise whether we want them to or not. Things will happen in life, and certain emotions will come up. What is the relationship that you have with those emotions, and what happens when that relationship tends to change? You befriend these things rather than fighting them. I think this is a good point to mention. A misconception that I see quite often about Buddhism is that these practices or these ideas or these concepts pertain to taking certain actions. I don’t think it’s really about what actions we take. All of this is more about understanding how we take actions. In Buddhism, do you do this, or do you not do that? It’s less about that. To me, all of these teachings are meant to be tools in your tool belt, so to speak, for living a more skillful life where you are minimizing or reducing the suffering that you experience for yourself and for others.
When it comes to that, this is why I’m such a fan of Buddhist teachings and ideas in terms of parenting. Using parenting as an example, I don’t want to teach my kids what to think. I want them to understand how they think and to use that understanding to help them as they learn to identify what they think all throughout their lives. That’s what I’m doing for myself. What I think has changed from time to time, different stages of life, what I think changes. It has in the past. I’m sure it will continue to do so in the future.
For me, the real miracle has come in the form of learning the how and the why about what I think. For one, this has changed the relationship I have with what I think. For example, just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true. The flip is also accurate. Just because I think something isn’t true doesn’t mean it is true. But for me, that change, that shift in the relationship I have with my thoughts and with my feelings and with my emotions, that’s where the real power is. To me, that’s what the essence of a lot of these Buddhist teachings and concepts and ideas, that’s what they’re trying to do, help us to have a more skillful understanding of how we think or why we think the way that we think and not necessarily focusing on what you should think or what you should do or what you shouldn’t do. It’s more of empowering you to understand, “Oh, this is why I keep doing this.”
I hope you can see the difference. It’s one thing to come to you and say, “Hey, this is what you’re doing. Stop doing that,” and it’s another thing to be able to say, “Hey, this is what you’re doing. Let’s explore this,” and with that exploration, with that open curiosity comes the understanding of, “Oh, this is why I keep doing this.” With that understanding, the relationship with the feeling or whatever gave rise in the first place to cause the action, that shifts, and then the action also shifts because we understand the causes behind the action. To me, that is a much more beneficial practice or thing to do.
That’s the idea of resisting our demons. I hope you can hear this and that you can spend some time identifying what would I think, what are the demons that are in my cave, what are the demons, that I’m resisting that I’m fighting hard to get rid of, and sometimes I think I did, and they come back stronger, like what are those things? Only you can identify the demons that continually visit your home, which is your mind.
What would happen if the resistance went away to the point, just like Milarepa, “Hey, you’re here. I’m here. I guess we’re going to be here a while together, so let’s figure out how to get along,” and the fighting has gone. I’m not resisting this demon anymore. Then the ones… a lot of them would go away at that point, but the particularly difficult ones that don’t seem to want to go, and you can only identify these for yourself, what happens with those when you say, “Okay, it looks like you’re here to stay. I’m here to stay. You’re not making this easy. I’m going to go put my head in your mouth and go ahead and eat me up.” At that point, what happens? That’s the invitation in this teaching.
I want to leave that with you along with another Zen kōan for you to think about between now and the next podcast episode. The Zen kōan for this week for this podcast episode is titled Nothing Exists. “Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku. Desiring to show his attainment, he said, ‘The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving, and nothing to be received.’ Dokuon, who was smoking quietly said nothing. Suddenly, he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry. ‘If nothing exists,’ inquired Dokuon, ‘where does this anger come from?'” That is the kōan for the week, Nothing Exists.
That’s all I have for the podcast episode this week, but thank you for listening. Thank you for being a part of this journey with me. If you enjoyed the podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, and if you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Have a good week. Until next time.