Lecture by Sojun Roshi
This lecture is reprinted from the June 2003 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.
On the Metta Sutra
Sojun: The Metta Sutra continues: "Let one not be submerged by the things of the world." Another translation says, "Contented, easily supported, with few duties, with senses calm, discrete, not imprudent." "Not greedily attached to families". This was obviously worded by a recluse. The translation we use says "Let one not be submerged by the things of the world." The world is full of suffering and it's also full of temptation and things that stimulate our desire. Being submerged could mean by the suffering of the world, or by the temptations of the world. It could mean by the illusions that we have about it. We can keep striving to get something that we think will bring us happiness.
Student: What about compassion towards people's suffering and not being submerged by it?
Sojun: How we suffer with people without being submerged by it is a very important point. The person who helps has to be standing in a place with a firm footing. If you reach down, to help someone up, you have to be careful that you don't get pulled down, and then you're both down there. But you have to be a very capable person to do that.
Student: How do you do that?
Sojun: How does the doctor operate on people without getting sick? How does a psychiatrist talk to people without losing sleep? There has to be a certain amount of detachment. This requires skillful means; to balance your sympathies in your work of helping people, with at the same time not getting submerged yourself. It's hard to help people if you can't be independent of their problems.
Student: Should you be more selfish.
Sojun: No. It's not being selfish. Only you can truly help yourself. But as a teacher, I can help you to help yourself. If I try to help you too much, then we both lose it. There's just so much I can do to help a person. And after that I have to know when to let go. If I didn't do that, I wouldn't get any sleep. I can be totally engaged with someone in the dokusan room, and when our meeting is over I turn to the next thing. It's not like I abandon that person at all. I simply help the student to see their direction and then let go and trust that the encouragement that I have offered is constant and that a level of trust is established, and that I will not abandon that person. I remember a teacher saying, "I'm responsible for all my students." But I don't feel that way because I am careful not to tell a student what to do. Each one of us is ultimately responsible for our self. Zen practice is to find our way, through our own effort, with the support of the teacher and the sangha. And what I try to do is help everyone to bring forth their own effort. If I don't allow that, it is a disservice. I don't have any particular method, but my attitude is to encourage everyone. I always encourage as much as I can.
Student: How do you detach and go on to the next thing, when you are getting something out of your compassion for their pain?
Sojun: It's complex, because the relationship between someone who helps, like that of a teacher with a student, has to go both ways. The teacher receives nourishment from that relationship. But if the teacher isn't freely giving, then there may arise the feeling of being depleted. Sometimes I hear someone say, "I don't have anything left to give." The teacher is a conduit for energy. When we are totally open and giving, energy is freely and limitlessly flowing. If we think that there is a limited amount of energy and it's being used up, then you feel tired and depleted. People sometimes ask me, "How can you do so many dokusans all day long?" It's because energy is freely flowing back and forth. When there is no ego obstructing the flow, there's just energy. I almost always feel energized after a day of dokusan. So, giving freely without expecting anything is the key. Just give and forget.
Student: It reminds me of something someone said about hospice work, where this becomes really obvious. You burn out within three months unless you figure out what's going on--how to stay close to someone in their suffering but not to pick up their suffering. And it also becomes very obvious in a one-to-one relationship. If you have a very close relationship with a lover, and they have a problem, the tendency is for you to pick up their problem, to solve their problem, or to carry their suffering. It doesn't work. They resent it, and it makes the whole mess worse. What I discovered is that it was very difficult for me to stay close to another person's suffering because I began to feel my own pain.
Sojun: Hospice work is very engaging. How to sit with someone who is dying, and what to do there? How do you just be there with them? You're simply sharing your life with them, and they are sharing this part of their life with you. And you are helping them to move into that space. Some people try to keep them on this side, which can create a problem, because you don't want to see them go, and you try to keep them here as much as possible. But if you can let go of that and help them move into letting go and settle into breathing samadhi and a calm mind, it allows the dying person to feel content to accept what's happening, and flow with it. And you can let them go. Often it is we who have the problem. The dying may have the problem of not too much time, but then it is those who are still here who are left with the problem of grief and loneliness.
Student: Is there such a thing as not grieving and being okay with that?
Sojun: Someone may say, "What's the matter with you? You're not grieving enough." Well, you can put on a little act. People used to hire professional mourners. In many countries the accepted way is to hire people to do the mourning. They wail for a week or two and that's their job, while you go about your business. Of course there is grief. You can be at peace and still have grief. Rather, that within your grief you have reached the place of peace within your suffering. It's impossible to live in this world without suffering. Nirvana is to be found within the world of suffering.
Student: I found myself not wanting to participate in the drama. This person was really caught up in it. I've been there. I could see this. Fine-"I love you, but, see you later. I just don't want to participate in this drama."
Sojun: People have various ways of dramatizing. We may have different feelings than thay do. On the other hand, you may have to examine whether or not you're just cutting off your feelings. What I'm saying is that you can help a person, and you can both be at peace because you have this place where you meet, which is wonderful and still, and you can experience the grief within that peace, that still place. It has a whole different meaning when it's encompassed within this peacefulness. You can still have the grief, and it's a wonderful way to accept the grief in a settled way, not frantic, not anxious, not guilty.
Student: You talk about controlling it and not feeling?
Sojun: You feel grief, but at the same time you can have some containment for composure.
Student: So is not crying controlling yourself?
Sojun: When you cry, just cry thoroughly and completely. I'm not telling you how to do this. But there is a point where we need to stop crying and go about the business of living.
Student: What about anger?
Sojun: If there is anger, you can ask for forgiveness. Usually when someone is dying you don't want to carry all this stuff. If you are angry at this person, you can ask them to forgive you and you can forgive them. Forgiveness is so important. It allows both parties to go their separate ways a little less burdened.
(The second of several Parts.)
Tassajara, Spring 1995
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