Teisho: In the Silence of the Mountain a Bird Sings, Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure

Some of us may be drawn to silence, contemplation, or even inactivity and laziness. Others are more drawn to activity, expression, and movement. Behind both of these behaviors – whatever one might think – there is a deliberate choice to go either toward silence, emptiness, and tranquility, or else to lose oneself in activism, movement, thoughts and reflections.

Buddha tells us that another point of view exists in which total tranquility and deep peace co-exist with vigorous activity. Zen masters are often very active but, at the same time, they are deeply calm and nothing can budge them.

Let us make no mistake about our practice. In Buddha's eyes the normal condition is that co-existence between movement and stillness, between silence and sound, activity and inactivity. One Zen master said that our practice is to minutely consider the phenomenal world and, at the same time, to feel its non-existence. There is always co-existence between contradictory aspects.

We often think that we need a bit of activity and a bit of inactivity, a bit of expression and a bit on non-expression, and that we are thus carrying out Buddha's vow. That's a mistake of course. In Buddha's world silence is total, activity is total, and they are concomitant.

In the Sandokai, Master Sekito tells us that the world of distinctions and light, and the world of unity and non-differentiation are one and the same world. One exists throught and because of the other.

I would like to recall what Zen masters call thought. Master Bankei talks about cerebral agitation due to the fear of lacking which causes us to elaborate strategies to deal with that. Some thoughts have their root in the fear of difficulty, of our inability to deal with difficulty. There again, we elaborate strategies.

For Bankei, Thought is born when there is an encounter with reality, with the universe. For example, frogs croak in the pond, a worm wriggles across the pavement, flowers quiver under raindrops – it's raining. As a human being, I retain the thought “it's raining” because I have to go out and I need to take an umbrella. The thought – “its raining” - is an abridged version of reality. I'm not taking the total scene into account but rather one essential aspect of it that concerns my life.

If I am constantly in unity with reality then reality resonates in me in the form of thought. Thought that is appropriate to the situation has nothing to do with the ideas of not enough or too much.

The thought – “it's raining” - comes from the fact that I am in unity with the situation. Along with thought, there is always non-thought that corresponds to the raw experience of reality. It's because I am totally in the situation – feeling the falling drops, hearing the frogs croak – that I come to think, “it's raining. I'd better take an umbrella”.

In the Sandokai, master Sekito says that these two aspects – the one that comes from my consciousness and which I express by saying “it's raining”, and the fact that I am immersed, plunged, in the scene – that they feed one another and that one does not exist independently of the other. That is Buddha's correct functioning. It is a succession of non-thoughts in which one experiences intimacy with reality, followed by a formulation that we call a thought and which returns to non-thought. Forever new and forever fresh thought that corresponds to reality and which allows us to face reality.

So the secret of zazen is hishiryo or thought beyond ordinary thought. Hi means “beyond” - beyond calculations, beyond notions of not enough or too much. In the end, most of our thoughts are but developments of our lack of faith.

The movement of consciousness that we call thought, and the absence of movement that we call non-thought, alternate when we are in unity, in resonance, with the outside. Our practice is to maintain that unity with the outside. What is not right is when we develop one thought from another thought and then yet another thought from that thought and so on and so forth. When I do that I am in a world that has nothing to do with reality. It's a sort of mental dieseling by which I go from thought to thought to thought.

Some people get tired of thinking too much and they opt for non-thinking, emptiness, dwelling in solitude, and they think that's Zen. In the Sandokai, Sekito tells us that there exists a world of points of view, a world of light in which we have knowledge about things. Tthere also exists a state in which we merge with reality, in which we are not in a dualistic position, and Sekito calls this sate darkness. Very often he tells us, “Light is not real light. At the heart of light there is darkness and at the heart of darkness there is real light”.

So what does that mean from a pragmatic point of view? It means that we have to be careful not to slip either – by privileging one over the other according to our natural inclination – into the world of darkness or into the world of light. We need to understand that light is true when it comes from darkness. The wave exists when it comes from the ocean. In the wave there is water and the water is the ocean's. You cannot separate the world of light from the world of darkness. They are in total unity. You cannot separate the world of silence from the world of sound, the world of form from the world of non-form, the world of thought from the world of non-thought.

It's extremely hard to carry that out. When we think too much we tend to turn abruptly toward non-thought, and when we aren't thinking then we consciously decide to turn toward thought. I'm talking about something else. It's seeing water at the heart of the wave – and the water is limitless. It's the water of the ocean. It's seeing that the ocean is turning into a wave. Maintaining that double aspect is eminently dynamic.

Staying in non-thought – stagnating in an obsession, always turning around the same points of view – is static. What I'm talking about is deeply dynamic. It's Buddha's reality. It's when my mind is one with reality and, at the same time, it expresses something

There is a poem that translates that:

In the silent, still mountain a bird sings.

The mountain symbolizes eternity. The Buddhas of ancient times are called mountains. They are mineral, eternal. When the mountain is deeply silent, when there is no rock falling, no volcanic eruption, in that moment when everything seems to be fixed in eternity, then a bird sings.

That expression comes from our union with the universe. At every instant we must manifest the expression that comes from what is deepest in us. In the end, we might say that the bird is the expression of the mountain.

Some people want more existence and some people want less. Those two impulses of desire are inherent in human beings. They are not to be criticized or killed off – nor should one be developed to the detriment of the other. Both proceed from resonance with totality.

What I'm saying here ought to illuminate our zazen and show us how to practice. We mustn't fall into kontin, the world of silence in which the eyes close, the body slumps, and we fall asleep. No more than I should seize the thought that appears and develop it, include it in my theories, fantasies, and strategies. I just let it appear and disappear. And all around that thought I must see non-thought.

In the same way, I can make out the shape of a cloud only because it stands out against the infinite blue sky. I can see a thought distinctly only because it stands out against a background of non-thought. Thought and non-thought nourish each other completely. If I can't see the infinite sky then I can't see the cloud. They cannot exist one without the other.

We can understand that very well in zazen. But we also need to understand what that means in our lives, and particularly in our encounter with others. If we are always in this double seeing – seeing the wave and the ocean, the bird singing and the silent mountain, me and the rest of the universe – then we can understand the limited, impermanent, and relative aspect of me standing out against reality.

Then, when I'm talking with someone, I can understand the relative side of my point of view. If I relativize my point of view – if I don't attach so much importance to it abd if I understand that another point of view might appear – then the other takes on much more importance. So, in my relationship with the universe I need to understand the non-existence of illusions, the non-existence of the phenomenal world. But I also need to study that world exactly, to see its ties with totality, to see that it proceeds from totality. That gives something very light to my relationship with others. I am constantly able to open my mind to others. And I understand that the anxiety that grips me is but temporary and that I don't need to feed it, hammer it out and forge it.

That's how we ought to practice in life. At the deep heart of our zazen, in the silent, still and eternal mountain, a bird sings. Not controlling the bird, neither stopping it from singing nor forcing it to sing, is our practice. If the silence is absolute and total then, by itself, the bird sings. It's not something you can grasp and hold. Understand that trying to use Buddha, trying to give him a shape, is not possible. That's why I talked about something dynamic. You can't give a static form to Buddha. In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha says, “He who sees my form and hears my voice is not my disciple.

It's something else. It's when the mountain sings, when the ocean takes on the form of a wave, when I am myself that reality, then that's Buddha. It's beyond my decision, beyond what I want or don't want. That's our practice.


Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure

January 24th 2009