Berkeley Zen Center

Criticism in the Realm of the Absolute and Relative

Lecture by Sojun Roshi June 28, 1992

This lecture is reprinted from the February 2002 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

During sesshin little things happen that create emotional reactions in us. Someone does something, something causes us to start laughing. Laughter in that way sometimes becomes uncontrollable. It's a way of letting off the pressure. There are lots of ways of letting off pressure. How do we keep ourselves contained and watchful, aware of the feelings that we have that sometimes catch us? We often take these feelings seriously when actually they're just like the thoughts that are continually bubbling up into consciousness. They have no real root. They pop up like weeds. We can easily create a fantasy around some thought or feeling that we take a dislike to, or when it looks like people are doing something wrong. If we go to another zendo for sesshin we often think that people are doing things wrong, because every place does something differently. When I am in Berkeley, we do things in our own way and when I go to San Francisco it's different, when I go to Tassajara it's a little different, and when I go to Green Gulch it's a little different. I have to remember everything in four different ways, and I'm really bad at remembering things anyway. [laughter] I'm continually having to make this adjustment.

When we go to another practice place, sometimes we think, "What are they doing? They are doing service all wrong." Critical comments come up and we get caught in small mind. Small mind is continually creating this kind of critical attitude and we fall for it. And then when we fall for it we lose our sense of humor and our flexibility. The other side is that it's easy for us to feel that we are doing something wrong. When we do something that's "off" someone may correct us. But we turn that into a judgment called "wrong." It's not necessarily that someone is telling us we did something wrong. But if we're doing something and someone says, "No, that's not the way to do it," then we feel criticized. During sesshin if someone corrects us, because of the pressure and focus we can feel crushed. So these are the two sides, one of them being crushed, and the other crushing. We create the problem of right and wrong. There is a way to do things wherever we are but when we start forcing the way to do things then we fall into right and wrong.

When we're sitting zazen this is the unconditioned realm, the realm of big mind, where there is no attachment to right and wrong, good and bad, where there is no judgment. Yet when we proceed to do something, there is a way to do something correctly and a way to do something incorrectly. So we're operating in these two realms. The absolute realm of big mind where there's no leaning on right or wrong, and the relative realm where there's a right way and a wrong way. This is the existential problem. In our daily life we're mostly operating in the world of differentiation, the realm of comparative values. We rarely step back and let everything be just as it is, which is resting in suchness or absolute equality. In the realm of right and wrong, either a thing is correct or it is incorrect. But in suchness, everything is just as it is, not right, not wrong, not good, not bad, simply as it is. When we sit sesshin, we're sitting in the palm of suchness even though within that suchness there is a right way and a wrong way. Both exist at the same time. But if you stick to the side of "everything is OK," the side of the absolute, then you can't do things correctly. If you stick to the side of "the thing is either right or wrong," then you lose your base, you just get caught up in right and wrong.

Just in between is where our complete activity takes place. We have to be very careful. This is reflected in the Genjokoan. Right here, right in this place is where our practice of Genjokoan arises, moment after moment. In each moment we have to deal with the fact that everything is just as it is, and at the same time, there is a right way and a wrong way, a good way and a bad way. We have to see all this without getting stuck. So what do we do? This is our koan of continuous practice, moment after moment. Sometimes it's better to let go of our idea and let it be just as it is, to suspend judgment, so to speak. Sometimes we have to catch something and make sure that it's done right. There is a way to do things and a way to not do things. In this space I am aware of what people are doing.

I'm usually aware when we are doing something right or not. I used to be more critical, even though you may think that is not the case. Whenever I come into the zendo, I adjust the incense bowls and all the things on the altar, which can be construed as a kind of perfectionism. My intent is not to be perfect, but to create a harmonious relationship between things. When I offer incense I like the incense bowls to line up right in front of the Buddha, and when I bow, I like to have the mat right in front of the altar. I have a feeling for alignment so I adjust it that way. Secondly, I feel that this is the way I'm teaching, without saying anything. Someone may feel criticized by my doing this. Maybe I should just leave it alone. That might actually be more magnanimous, in a sense, so sometimes I just leave it alone, and adjust myself to the way it is.

Most of the time, I don't say a lot. I don't necessarily react to what I see not being done. If I reacted to everything I saw that wasn't done "correctly," I'd be constantly correcting people. So more and more, I just let things go. Even though I see something is not happening, I just don't say anything. It may not be right to let it go, but on the other hand, sometimes the feeling is better if I let it go. So sometimes I opt in favor of the feeling, rather than in favor of making it right. I don't know which is right. Sometimes one is right and sometimes the other is right. There is no formula for how to act. I have to consider every situation, and decide which way to go with it. These two exist together, and you can't forget the one or the other. You can't say which is compassionate and which is strict, because sometimes being very strict is compassionate, and sometimes letting things go is strictness.

More and more, I trust that letting go provides an opportunity for things to take care of themselves. Letting go is a kind of trust. When we hold on tightly to things, it's often because we don't trust that things will be taken care of. So we take a very tight rein, which we must do at times. But the more that we can trust a situation, the more we can let go of it. Even if things aren't going right in the small sense, in the big sense they will most likely come around or fall into place. Things have a way of cycling or circling around. Somehow when they come around again they balance themselves out, or correct themselves. More and more, I trust the big picture. There is not so much need to worry about things. And not so much need to always have so much control of them. This is the spirit of great patience, and teaching by example.

Last revised February 5, 2002. Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center.
Comments about this site to