The Stepping Stones of Zen

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

The purpose of Zen practice, or Zen training as it is sometimes called, is to wake up.

And because waking up is not a fixed “thing,” is not an idea or a concept, Zen, therefore, is not a philosophy or a religion or anything. It is—waking up. What of course we are waking up to is life. “Choose life,” says Yaweh. Wake up. And because life keeps moving on, there is no end to waking up. So one of the most important aspects of Zen training, and one of things we all struggle to realize, is that there is no “end product” in Zen.

This practice of waking up applies equally to those who are just at the beginning of Zen practice and long time practitioners because even if we have woken up, or begun to wake up, we must be diligent in not falling asleep once more. The maintenance of “awakeness” is difficult work—as difficult as the initial waking up.

So what is this waking up? Well it is, literally, the opening of our eyes to see what is right here under our nose. Just this, as it is, at this moment. Not as it was, not as it might be, not as it should be, not at it could be, as it is. Wake up. Now, when we are not awake (which is most of the time, let’s face it), we think we are with just this, we think we are looking at reality, but it’s actually a delusion, a dream, and a delusion and a dream cannot fulfill us, cannot make us free. And that’s why we keep looking for more and more and more—and we are never satisfied because delusions are never enough.

The practice of Zen is the confronting of these delusions which come from only one source, our mind. The way the computer chips, if you will, of our mind have been put together—what they are in our particular, unique life—will be our particular delusions. But no one can tell us how to do this because we are the only one who “is us.” So the awareness, first of all, of our particular computer chips, and then the challenge to their supremacy in our life, is what makes up the diligent, careful, difficult, sublime practice of Zen.

This is Zen. As Sensei Joko Beck, puts it: “A zendo is not a place for bliss and relaxation. It is a furnace room for the combustion of our delusions. What tools do we need to use? Only one. We’ve all heard of it, yet we use it very seldom. It is called ‘attention.’” Attention. Not bliss, not relaxation, not ideas, not concepts, ATTENTION – to “just this.” Just this breath, not that breath, this breath; just this step, not that step, this step. Each unique, each arising, each falling away for the next arising. Stay awake!

To further elucidate on this, I would like to share with you a koan that directly points to the reality of “just this.” It’s koan 52 in the Blue Cliff Record.
A monk said to Joshu, “The stone bridge of Joshu is widely renowned, but coming here, I find only a set of stepping stones.” Joshu said, “You see the stepping stones, you do not see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Joshu said, “It lets donkeys cross over and horses cross over.”

The stone bridge of Joshu (which was the name of the province where it was located as well as the name of the abbott of the local monastery) was one of three very famous stone bridges in China at that time. They were not the kind of bridges that we know today. They were made up of rocks placed in the river that acted as stepping stones. So the monk’s question, and our question, might be, “I have come all this way looking for the great renowned Master Joshu and all I see is an ordinary looking old man.” (Joshu died when he was 120 years old!) Or the question might be: “I have come looking for the exquisite way of Zen, and all I see is a bunch of monks sitting and walking and sweeping and eating.” Or the question might be, “I have come to this sesshin (or I have come to my daily sitting) looking for enlightenment, looking for freedom and insight, and all I get is frustration and pain and distraction and boredom. That is all I seem to get. Where is Zen?”

Can you see? Looking for answers, but only getting questions. The monk –we—come to Zen with an expectation, an idea created by those computer chips in our mind: This is what I expect the famous bridge of Joshu to be, this is what I expect the famous Master Joshu to be, this is what I expect Zen to be, this is what I expect the longed for freedom and insight to be. And it is not. And it is not because all these expectations are delusions, ideas, concepts, created by the mind. We see only the stepping stones. We do not see the stone bridge because we’re looking for a “stone bridge.” And as long as we’re looking for a “stone bridge,” as long as we’re looking for our idea of Zen, we’re going to miss the real thing. We’re going to miss this moment—and we’re going to miss our life.

And it is at this point that we have a choice. We can follow the delusion, trying to find the answer elsewhere, or we can try, try to be with “just this,” to stay with “just this,” to try to see reality, just as it is. We have a choice to continue sleeping or to wake up.

In a few moments we will be chanting the Relative and Absolute chant. At the end there is the line, “You do not see it, even as you walk on it.” The bridge is the stepping stones. Wake up. The teaching of the dharma is this insignificant old man. Wake up. The sublime freedom of the Way is this tiredness, this pain, this loneliness, this boredom, this confusion. Wake up! See it. Whatever “it” is. Elizabeth Barret Browning put it well, in a slightly different context, “Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.” There is nothing that is not “it.” There is no moment that is not “it.” But we must be awake to see this.

Now this monk still doesn’t get it. He says, “So what is the stone bridge, Master Joshu, what is it? Tell me, show me, I must know it, I must see it.” You can see the anguish there. “PLEASE—I’ve come all this way. I’ve got to get it . TELL ME!” And Joshu basically says, “I cannot. I cannot tell you, because “it” is unutterable, unthinkable, inexpressible. How can I, or anyone, possibly tell you? I can only point. It allows donkeys and horses to pass over.” The bridge is not a thing; the bridge is a way. Reality is a verb; it’s not a noun. The way of this stepping stone, and then this and then this. The way of this moment, then this moment, then this moment. Movement. Each “just this.”

So does it matter ultimately what the makeup of the “just this” is? Does it matter? Does it matter if it’s tired, or awake or this or that? Is not each stepping stone the bridge? Is not each moment of our life, no matter what it is, “it”? Is it not complete? The question is yours. Joshu cannot tell you. The Buddha cannot tell you. Abraham and Jesus cannot tell you. Because only you walk the stepping stones. Only you breathe this breath and walk this walk and eat this bread and live this moment and live this life.

And only you can choose to have confidence in it, only you can continue to wake up. And when you do, there will be no doubt that this stepping stone is the bridge. And you will no longer have to believe – because you will “know”. And then there will be no doubt that this moment, no matter how painful or difficult, is all right. And then you will be free. Because everything is always all right.

As Zen Master Ango wrote in the twelfth century:
“To those who are awake, the universe is not veiled. All its activities lie open. Whichever way they may go, they do not get stuck. With every move they make, they have the confidence to act with authority.”

So let us sit well, let us sit strong, and let us continue to wake up.