Living in an Uncertain World

Dharma Talk given at
Still Mind Zendo, New York City
by Sensei Janet Jiryu Abels

We would have to be living in a very deep fog if we were not aware how world events were pushing our individual lives into deeper and deeper levels of uncertainty—with no end in sight.  It is the fact of where we are, whether we admit it or not, whether we choose to worry about it or ignore it.  Our life, always fragile, is more fragile than ever.

Not only the threat of war in the Middle East;  not only the threat of nuclear devastation in Asia;  not only the threat of terrorist attacks in our city and country;  not only the economic downturn;  not only the overheating of the planet and the erosion of the very earth and water we depend on; but ALL of the above.  Not to mention our individual life uncertainties:  moving, getting a new job, struggles with our finances, changes in relationship  And then just the small uncertainties of life:  Is it going to snow?  Will I start my car?   It’s endless!   It’s enough to make you want to go on retreat and forget about it all!

And so you come on retreat and you get the schedule and you look at the quote on the top  and you read the following:

“Not in the sky, not in the sea, not in the clefts of the mountains is there a known spot in the whole world where one might live free from being overcome by death.”

Oh, my!   How depressing.  It boxes you right in, doesn’t it?   Nowhere to turn.  Nowhere to turn.

I must admit that I debated whether it was too difficult a quote to use as our theme.  But the very intensity of the uncertainties around us really left no option. I could not not use it.

We do not come to sesshin to retreat but to advance.  To move forward. Move into.  Move into—what?  Move into the uncertainty as a choice.  Not as something forced upon us by our world or by our life circumstances, but as a choice.

So what is uncertainty?

Well, it’s not any of the following:  fixed, settled, dependable, reliable, inevitable, incapable of failing, destined.  All of these are dictionary definitions of certainty.  So when our life, our society, our world is not fixed, settled, dependable, reliable, inevitable, incapable of failing, destined,  we are thrown into disarray, are we not?  Into uncertainty.  There seems to be no fixed point, no coherent direction. There is a helplessness, there is fear, there is a sense of death.  Because when there is no fixed point, when there is nothing to depend on, the self that each of us calls “I” faces the uncertainty of that “I” continuing .

In other words, faces death.  Death of the fixed, the settled, the inevitable, the destined “self.”

And that is why, at the very heart of the matter, we fear uncertainty so much.

Uncertainty is a loss of the comfortable, the familiar, the known.  And the self that we call “I” is comprised solely  of “knowns”, of fixed points of certainty.  That is why we continually try to prop the self up – “I’m okay;  tell me I’m okay.”  “I’m right; tell me I am right.”  “You’re wrong, so I can be right.”  Clinging to identities, to titles, talents, to possessions, to people, to religions, to ideals.  All propping up the “I,” the “me,” propping up the fixed, the settled, the known, the dependable.

But the Dhammapada, the compilation of the Buddha’s teaching that was put together several hundred years after his death, says, “There is nowhere one might live free from being overcome by death.”  Nowhere, in other words, where one might live free from, sooner or later, being overcome by the “not known.”

Sesshin, at the deepest level, is an advance, by choice, into that “not known.” A movement, by choice, into the experience of uncertainty; the experience of “no road ahead,” no fixed point, no dependable map, no destined end.  No result.  The practice of sesshin is the constant choice of  returning to this experience of the “not known,” the “not fixed,” instead of running away from it into the familiar.

And the experience of the “not known,”  the “not fixed,”  is the experience of “not mind,” “not thought.”  It is an experience of “NOT”—held through the focus on the breath.

The breath, like uncertainty, is always moving, is not fixed,  is always rising and falling, always changing.  The breath is not anything, and yet it is our one constant—the first thing we do when we are born,  the last thing we do when we die, and our one constant in between.

The breath can only be breathed one moment at a time.  We cannot breath two breaths at one time.  The breath is simple.

The breath can only be breathed now.

The breath can only be breathed here and never “there.” (This reminds me of that well-known quote of Gertrude Stein: “When you get there there isn’t any there there.”)

The “now” and the breath are not fixed.  They move, they move all the time. And yet they are constant and … they are dependable.  We can depend on always getting the next breath ( providing the system is working!)    We do not have to think, “Oh, I have to get the next breath.”  It’s there.

And we can always depend on being in the “now,” because there is only “now,” there is only “here.”  It reminds me of that quote from Suzuki Roshi when the woman at sesshin came to him and said, “I want to leave; it’s just too difficult, and I want to leave.”  And Suzuki Roshi said, “Well, you can leave but there’s nowhere to go.”  Indeed,  there is nowhere to go.

So, as we sum up the courage and stamina and discipline and perseverance to stay with and trust, above all trust, the breath and the “now” (all of which is the scary and difficult practice of Zen), we begin to see that uncertainty is movement, uncertainty is change, uncertainty is the opening of new vistas, whether global vistas, or personal life vistas.  Uncertainty is necessary.

Uncertainty is the movement of life.  And the movement of life is certain and constant and dependable.  The movement of life; not life, but the movement of life.  There really is no such thing as life; there is only the movement of life.

This movement of life is the “now” and the “now” is certain.  It is the fixed point.  And if we trust the movement, if we stop clinging to the illusion of certainty and trust the movement, trust the now, the movement will lead us.  The “now” will lead us, will reveal the next “now,” and the next “now,” and the next “now,” and the next “now,” and the next “now,” and so forth.

And this living in the certainty of the uncertain “now,” this living in the certainty of uncertain change is called freedom. Unlimited freedom.  It is also called Nirvana.

It is our true, our essential, our complete self.  And until we realize it, really realize it, in the depths of our being, we will suffer.  As the Buddha said, “The world (and we could say us) whose very nature is to change, is constantly determined to become something else.  It (we) is at the mercy of change, only happy when caught up in the process of change.  But this love of change contains a great measure of fear. And this fear itself is called dukkha …suffering.”

So we must take risks; embrace the uncertainties of our individual lives, of our world.  Not allowing the uncertainties to shake us, to distract us, to paralyze us, to intimidate us, to fill us with fear.  But rather, we must advance, ride the fear, ride the uncertainties, whether they be about our next job or about our death.  Ride the uncertainties, confident in the certainty of the “now”… which “just is.”

“Not born, not destroyed,” says the Heart Sutra.  “Life is impermanence,” said the Buddha.  For impermanence to happen there must be death.  And that is why “not in the sky, not in the sea, not in the clefts of the mountains is there a known spot in the whole world where one might live free from being overcome by death.”  How wonderful!  Thus, and only thus, can life  fully move.

Each time we choose to follow the certainties of the known, we find limitations. Each time we choose to follow the uncertainties of the “not known,” we find open movement, we find essential self, we find life.  “Choose life,” says Yahweh.  Choose life, no matter how risky.

Brenda Ueland, a twentieth-century writer and teacher of writing, wrote an amazing little book in 1938 called, “If You Want to Write.”  It is a book about writing, but it is so much more than that.  In it she counsels:

The only way to find your true self is by recklessness and freedom.  True self is never a fixed thing.  True self is always in motion, like music.  A river of life.  Changing, moving, failing, suffering, learning, shining.  That is why you must freely and recklessly make new mistakes.  Make new mistakes and not fret about them.

Yes, indeed.  Because “not in the sky, not in the sea, not in the clefts of the mountains is there a known spot in the whole world where one might live free from being overcome by (new mistakes), from being overcome by death.”

When we can fully accept this fact, there is nothing to fear.

This is Nirvana.