“We Zen Buddhists have a saying that with a blade of grass, we create a golden Buddha that is sixteen feet tall. That is our spirit, so we need to practice respect for things.”
– Zenkei Blanche Hartman
On the subject of materialism, Alan Watts once said, “Americans have the undeserved reputation of being authors of the most materialistic civilization that ever existed. The undeserved reputation, because never was there a culture so completely un-materialistic.” Here he was talking about regard and respect for the material and physical world in a society swamped by such an excess of things. Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman takes up a similar theme in this extract from her book, Seeds for a Boundless Life, in which she discusses respect for the physical world, which starts with respect for ourselves, grounded in an understanding of our interconnectedness with everything and everybody around us.
In our zazen practice, we stop our thinking and we are free from our emotional activity. We don’t say there is no emotional activity, but we are free from it. We don’t say that we have no thinking, but our life activity is not limited by our thinking mind. In short, we can say that we trust ourselves completely, without thinking, without feeling, without discriminating between good and bad, right and wrong. Because we respect ourselves, because we put faith in our life, we sit. That is our practice. When our life is based on respect and complete trust, it will be completely peaceful. Our relationship with nature should also be like that. We should respect everything and everyone.
All of us need to begin by respecting ourselves and see how we can spread that respect around to include everyone we encounter, everyone we practice with, everyone we see on the street. To understand their suffering when they’re suffering, knowing that they have feelings just as we do. To be kind to them and to be kind to ourselves. To take care of their suffering as we take care of our own suffering. To see how intimately we are woven together with each being and to embrace ourselves as we are and to embrace everyone as she or he is. And if someone needs some improvement, work with the person. I could use a little improvement. Help me. If you could use a little improvement, ask for help. Recognize that buddha is inherent in each one of us.
“If you can develop a warmhearted feeling for taking care of yourself, that’s not selfish, because then you will be able to expand that warmhearted feeling to those around you and continue expanding it to more and more people.”
The awakened mind of buddha is available to each one of us. But we have to take down the walls. We have to clear out any ill will that we can notice. We have to find out what’s feeding it and how we can disconnect it from our lives and put it down. To see what’s separating us from all of those around us. To recognize greed, anger, and delusion when we first see a tiny, tiny bit growing out of the ground. To say, “Oh, that’s one that I think I need to take care of. I don’t have such a warmhearted feeling there.”
If you can develop a warmhearted feeling for taking care of yourself, that’s not selfish, because then you will be able to expand that warmhearted feeling to those around you and continue expanding it to more and more people. If we don’t have this compassion, as the Dalai Lama says, it’s necessary for human survival that we cultivate it. And in the whole climate-change problem, I think we see that we’re talking about its literally being necessary for survival. And when I can have that warmhearted feeling, it’s a lot more fun, and it’s a lot easier to share it with others. So find it in yourself. Cultivate it in yourself. And offer it to the world. That’s what the bodhisattva vow is about. Vow to benefit all beings. This is our intention, our effort, our focus. How can we benefit others? Please work on that. Please help others to work on it.
“I don’t mean that we should accumulate many leaves or grasses to make a big statue. But until we can see a big Buddha in a small leaf, we need to make much more effort.”
If you think it is easy to practice because you have a beautiful building in which to do it, that is a mistake. Actually, it may be quite difficult to practice with a strong spirit in that kind of setting, where you may have a handsome Buddha and offer beautiful flowers to decorate the Buddha hall. We Zen Buddhists have a saying that with a blade of grass, we create a golden Buddha that is sixteen feet tall. That is our spirit, so we need to practice respect for things. I don’t mean that we should accumulate many leaves or grasses to make a big statue. But until we can see a big Buddha in a small leaf, we need to make much more effort. How much effort, I don’t know. Some people may find it quite easy, but for some people, like me, great effort is needed. Although seeing a large golden Buddha in a large golden Buddha is easier, when you see a large golden Buddha in a blade of grass, your joy will be something special. So we need to practice respect for things with great effort.
One morning when we were bowing in the zendo, we heard a big noise overhead, because upstairs in the dining room, people were pushing chairs across the floor without picking them up. This is not the way to treat chairs-not only because it may disturb the people who are bowing in the zendo underneath, but also because, fundamentally, this is not a respectful way to treat things. To push the chairs across the floor is very convenient, but it will give us a lazy feeling. This kind of laziness is part of our culture and eventually causes us to fight with each other. Instead of respecting things, we want to have them for ourselves, and if it is difficult to use them, we want to conquer them.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman (1926-2016)
From – Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart