The Koan of Staying Engaged and Letting Go
This article is based on a dharma talk I gave at Upaya Zen Center on December 24, 2014.
A number of years ago, I lived in Monterey, California, a beautiful city right along the central coast of California. The town next to Monterey is Pacific Grove, and one of my favorite places to go there was a grove of eucalyptus trees – this was the winter home of the monarch butterflies. When you walked into the grove and see towering eucalyptus trees, you’d think you were seeing their leaves draping down from the top of the tree to near the ground. Then the sun would come out and the entire ‘branch’ would come alive and start moving. That’s when you realized that these were the butterflies, flapping their wings as they dried off from the ocean fog.
The monarchs stayed in the grove for only a few weeks each year. I was curious so I learned more about them. I found out that their lifespan is actually quite short – just enough time to lay their eggs, and then migrate thousands of miles from Mexico up to Canada. By the time the butterfly completes this journey, it has come to the end of its life – a life that only lasts about 8 months, at most. But a new generation of monarch butterflies is born and through some great mystery, this new generation knows how to make this same journey, and it does, continuing the cycle of life.
When I asked a few people for what might serve as the topic for this talk, the question that I felt the most drawn to was this one: “How do we let go of our attachment to outcome, and yet stay engaged?” To be honest, I can’t remember if that’s the way it was worded or like this: “How do we stay engaged and yet learn to let go?”
Either way, the question feels like a koan to me. A koan doesn’t require an answer but rather invites us to live into it with an open heart and mind… and see where it takes us.
It seems to me the question is really about how we stay engaged in our own life and practice, in the face of challenges and in light of the fact that the story ends the same way for all of us. We are on a certain path to our own self-extinguishment, our own death.
How do we stay deeply engaged with our life and the life of the world, while at the same time not getting attached to an outcome? Or to look at the question from the other direction, how can we practice letting go and yet not become detached and disconnected?
This question feels close to my heart. It’s one I have held as I seek to practice socially engaged Buddhism, as I try to bring my practice to issues like economic and racial justice, which can seem so intractable. At a recent sangha conversation about racial justice, a number of folks pointed out how so little seems to have changed over all these years.
So how can we find it in our hearts to stay engaged in the face of such huge struggles?
I also think about my own life, patterns that I have struggled to shift and they continue to pop up, even after 53 years. Really, sometimes I want to throw in the towel and give up trying. Sometimes I try to practice letting go of attachment to outcome and then I’m in a place that feels lacking in passion, and that doesn’t feel right either.
Even the way we ask a question plants the seeds for how we may live into the answer. At my most desperate moments this question has taken the form, “Why bother?” But a more helpful way to ask it might be, “What is there for me to learn here?” There is always an invitation to lean into our life with curiosity and openness… and that, to me, is the heart of practice.
The Second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths tells us that the root of suffering is craving, a craving for things to be other than what they are. If something is in our lives that is causing us pain or unpleasantness or discomfort, we want that thing to be gone. Or if something in our lives brings us pleasure and happiness, we do not want it to disappear – we hang onto it with all our might. This is the essence of dukkha, the Pali word for suffering.
So a very essential ingredient of our practice is to learning how to see this craving, and then practicing so that it loosens its hold on us.
As dharma practitioners, we value Equanimity. In fact it’s one of the Four Bramaviharas, the heavenly abodes. Equanimity is what allows us to be at peace in the midst of stress, uncertainty, and difficulty. But the near-enemy of equanimity is passivity…. If we are not awake to it, our equanimity can slip into not-caring, or it can be a well-polished disguise that helps us hide the fact that we are avoiding something that really needs our attention – inside us, or in the world. It can be easy to do a spiritual bypass in the name of equanimity, and it’s something that we need to be especially on guard for. It’s the shadow side of our practice.
Coming back to our two-pronged koan:
- “How do we let go of our attachment to outcome, and yet stay engaged?”
- “How do we stay engaged and yet learn to let go?”
I believe that one key to working with this koan is a line that I love from the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi. This is a poem attributed to Dongshan, one that is chanted at Upaya and other Zen centers. This is the phrase:
“Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.”
When my teacher Vicki Austin reminded me of these words several years ago as I was facing a confounding situation in my life, the phrase offered me a way to practice more deeply with the situation – to not run away from it, but neither to be consumed by it. There is really no way to understand this phrase other than to keep practicing with it.
“Practice” means being in relationship with something. If our question is how to stay fully engaged and yet let go of our attachment to outcome, we may want to reflect on our relationship to some of the ingredients that go along with what we might think of as a ‘failed outcome.’ Here are some things to contemplate:
- What is my relationship to disappointment? Can I be at peace with disappointment, or do I take it as a mortal blow to my happiness?
- What is my relationship to loss? Can I relate to loss as a place of potential rather than a negative factor?
- What is my relationship to despair? Can I understand despair as an indicator of the deep love I have for something, whether that is myself, or another person, or our planet earth?
- What is my relationship to not getting my way? This is a very juicy one. If we notice that we are very invested in things going our way, it might be really helpful to explore how we’ve attached our identity to a certain outcome. It’s useful to consider what is the source of our actions.
That brings up another practice that is helpful as we seek the middle way between turning away and touching. Nourishment, on every level, is so important: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. The more we are able to cultivate nourishing elements in our life, on a moment-to-moment basis, the more we have the capacity to be in that middle way.
Our sitting practice also gives us a way to work with this koan. We sit with complete opennness, without any goal. And yet we are engaged in a vibrant way with our body, with our breath, with our mental and emotional process. Practice is not about zoning out, it is about tuning in – and that offers a template for our engagement with the world.
We can remember that the path itself is sacred, is the point. It’s less about where we end up and more about how we walk the path. Also from the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi: Communing with the source, travel the pathways, embrace the territory and treasure the road.
Sometimes in our practice we misconstrue things and think that a Zen approach means dwelling only in emptiness. But intention is radically important. I think of the questions Roshi Joan poses so often to many of us: “Who are you? Why are you really here?” This is true for both our personal lives, and for our shared life as a community. We need to anchor ourselves in a deep commitment to something greater than ourselves.
We can also clarify our vows and vision when it comes to our relationship with the larger world. What is the world that you want to imagine living in?
I want to bring something in here from the amazing young people who have been organizing the powerful nonviolent direct actions in Ferguson, Missouri, and all across the country. This is the vision they hold for our world:
“We are striving for a world where we deal with harm in our communities through healing, love, and kinship. This means an end to state-sponsored violence, including the excessive use of force by law enforcement. We are committed to an America that comes to terms with the trauma of its painful history and finds true reconciliation for it. Mass incarceration and the over-criminalization of black and brown people must forever end, leaving in its place a culture that embraces our histories and stories. This means an end to racial bias and white supremacy in all its forms.
Our dreams are directly linked with those resisting militarism, war, and state repression around the world. We will achieve this new beloved community hand in hand, step by step, in global solidarity with all people committed to lasting peace and full justice.”
This is a vast vision. We may wonder if it can ever be realized, and because of that we may back off from our engagement with it. I am reminded of a powerful quote from Rabbi Tarfon:
“It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task.
Yet, you are not free to desist from it.”
And finally, it will help us to have a ‘right’ understanding of death. I use “right” in the sense of the Pali word samma, that is, “whole,” “complete.” I think of what Roshi Joan wrote in her wonderful piece called “Radical Optimism:”
Death is inevitable. All beings, including you and me, are heading straight down the highway of death. So what is there to be optimistic about anyway? When I sit with a dying person or men in max in the local penitentiary, if one thought of outcome rears its head, I kill the truth of the moment.
A more complete understanding helps us to realize that death is not the end; that even though we may not see the seeds we plant bloom in our lifetime, it is the planting that is important. There is a wonderful saying: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
As we come to the end of this year, I’ve been looking back and remembering some people who deeply touched my life, all of whom have died in these past 12 months. They are a reminder to me that life continues far beyond what we call ‘death.’ In so many ways the light that came through each of their lives continues to inspire me and many others. Much like those monarch butterflies that I invoked at the beginning of this article, who radiate such beauty in a short span of life, the journey that each of these people walked illuminates the way for the rest of us:
- Myogen Steve Stucky … The Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, who died last December after being diagnosed with cancer… I remember all he did to support and stabilize the center that was my practice home for many years.
- Bhante Suhita Dharma … One of the first African-Americans to receive ordination as a monk in both Zen and Theravadin traditions… Bhante became a friend when we worked together at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and he was such a wonderful peacemaker.
- Angeles Arrien … Anthropologist and master storyteller… Angeles founded the program for social and cultural anthropology that I attended at the California Institute of Integral Studies… so many of her beautiful teachings have informed my life and inspired thousands of others.
- Nicole Sangsuree Barrett … A brilliant and vibrant young woman from Portland, Oregon, with ancestral roots in Thailand… Sangsuree was in the first cohort of the Buddhist Education for Social Transformation training program that I helped to support in northern Thailand these past two years. Her vision was to create an International Spiritual Ecology Center for Women… even after her death this summer, many of her friends continue to hold that vision and are working toward it.
So as we come together on this Christmas eve, when so many celebrate the birth of Jesus, another great human being who didn’t have very many years on this planet – let’s remember how essential it is to stay fully engaged, and for each of us to continue planting trees, even though we may not be around to sit under their shade.
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