Master Setsuo told his students that the Buddha did not utter a single word during 49 years of teaching dharma. But old buddha Daikaku (Tao Long) declared that one single word contained all of the sutras. What is that one great word?
I am not great with koans. As with Master Dogen’s words, they often confuse and obfuscate more than they enlighten for me. However, the above case seemed to me to have an obvious answer (although I would certainly never declare it to be the correct one!).
Suffering occurs because we want life to be different than it is. The second noble truth tells us that craving for more that is good and less that is bad is the cause of suffering. We separate our self from things that we don’t want to have to go through, and instead look for the next pleasant experience. A former teacher of mine was asked by a student how she could get over the grief she was experiencing and he said there was only one way – she had to go through it to get to the other side.
This going through it is something I experience myself. My illness comes with plenty of unpleasant experiences. In fact, some days seems to be one long unpleasant experience (although even in the worst days there is normally something to be grateful for!). The temptation to turn on the tv, eat cake, surf the internet and buy stuff I don’t need is considerable, and distraction from pain isn’t inherently a bad thing. However, when the tv is turned off, and the cake all gone, the pain remains, and even shiny new stuff only puts a slight gloss on things for a short time.
Really experiencing life can be hard. Most of us are happy to have the good bits – good meals, beautiful sunsets, warm fires, a nice cup of tea – but other parts are less welcome. Unfortunately, life does not come with a fancy menu, and the dish of the day is all that is on offer. Life is the meal and the meal is life and we are going to have to eat it at some point even if we hold our nose and try to think of something else.
However, I have been noticing that eating my greens is easier if I don’t push them to the side of the plate but instead welcome them as part of the meal. I bow to my pain and it becomes part of me rather than an unwanted visitor. I am not yet sure I want to make tea for my pain or offer it a scone but at least we are able to share the same room. This is less of a struggle than trying to bolt the door and keep the windows shut. Maybe still not pleasant but at least not an exhausting battle to exclude what is already there.
In a recent dharma talk at Treeleaf by Irish Zen priest Myozan Kodo, my teacher Jundo asked him about the relationship between the writing of Dogen and James Joyce. Myozan pointed to the last chapter of Ulysees as an example of the similarities. The unpunctuated soliloquy of Molly Bloom is the final movement of the piece and ends with the words “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
This is both an exclamation of sexual ecstasy and the affirmation of life and all it entails. ‘Yes’ is, for me, the one great word that ends suffering. Yes does not exclude any part of life, it is not partial and has no preferences. Yes is total and complete in and of itself. Saying yes means that life is swallowed whole with nothing left out. Molly Bloom knew that and so, I think, did Daikuku.