We Are The Boss

no masters only you the master is you
wonderful no?

—Ikkyū (trans by Stephen Berg)

The past two weeks we’ve been learning life lessons from Zen poet and monk Ikkyū. Two weeks ago we learned we are happy. Last week we learned we are the truth. This week Ikkyū let’s us know we are the boss. We are the boss of us. No one else is.

Today’s poem is simple. Ikkyū first tells us there are no masters, only us. Last week we were told to put aside the books of the masters because we are the truth — not them, nor their books. Today we see that there are in actuality no masters. Let me repeat that. There are no masters. Only me. Only you.

There is no authority. There’s only me. Only you. There’s no teacher. Only me. Only you.

As Zen master Tetto Giko put it:

The truth is never taken from another.
One carries it always by oneself.
Katsu!

There is no truth outside of us. Katsu! (The traditional cry when one achieves enlightenment.) That’s why there are no masters, because in truth there’s nothing to teach. There are people who think they are masters. But they can’t teach you or me anything, because the truth is already inside us. You and I are the masters. No one made us masters. We’ve always been masters. We just never realized we were. And that’s why we let others be the masters.

We aren’t free because we are always looking for some authority to tell us something, or give us permission. We aren’t free because we don’t realize we are the authority we’re looking for. We’re the master we’re searching for.  We are the one to tell us something, to give us permission. We are our own authorities.

Rainer Maria Rilke told the young poet in his first letter to him that we must look deep inside ourselves for the answer. If I want to know if I’m a poet, or a writer, I must find the answer within. No one outside of myself can tell me if I am or not. And that goes with anything, not just writing.

Any authority figure only has authority because we give it to him or her. And it doesn’t matter who that authority figure is. Granted, it may be expedient for me to grant someone temporary authority. But if I grant someone full and complete authority over me, I’ve just made myself a slave.

Ikkyū is telling us we’re the master. Not the slave. We are free. We don’t have to be anyone’s slave: mentally or physically. We don’t have to be in bondage to priests, or ministers, or gurus. We don’t have to be in bondage to governments, or employers. We don’t have to be in bondage to parents, or spouses. We are free. We are the masters.

But with freedom, with being a master, also comes responsibility. And it may be expedient to not always exercise our freedom, to be the master.

Advent is the celebration of God coming to his people to be in them in the New Covenant. In effect, the New Testament writers are saying the same thing as Ikkyū. There are no masters, because I am the master.

If God is for us, who can be against us? And since God is in us, then we ourselves are surely the masters. Truth is in us. Authority is in us. Power is in us.

And that’s why Ikkyū tells us “wonderful no?” Of course it’s wonderful. I’m free from the masters. You’re free from the masters. Because there are no masters. You and I are the masters of ourselves.

May this holiday season be a time of enlightenment for you.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, remember — you’re the boss!

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We’re A Razor

forget what the masters wrote truth’s a razor
each instant sitting here you and I being here

—Ikkyū (trans by Stephen Berg)

Last week Ikkyū told us we are already happy. We don’t experience that happiness because our minds are focused on a whole lot of crap. Stop focusing on the crap—that which has no value in our lives—and we’ll be happy.

This week, with a little help from our Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, we’re taking a look at truth.

Ikkyū detested the conventional. He thrived in an environment that was free, stripped of authority. That was probably why he left the monastery and frequented the tavern and brothel. Life was more honest there.

Forget the Masters! Their dry, dusty tomes contain no truth— for truth’s a razor.

What does Ikkyū mean “truth’s a razor”? Let’s start with, first of all, the razor. Ikkyū is talking about a good old-fashioned straight razor. Basically a knife. A razor is very, very sharp. Razor-sharp is as sharp as it gets. Truth cuts.

Those dusty old tomes of the Masters cut nothing. They make good doorstops or paperweights. They’re dull and thick and perfunctory. The razor cuts. It can cut those old books into scrap paper.

But the razor’s edge can also divide. And it does so with an exceedingly fine line. Truth separates. It forms two camps. However, in Ikkyū’s mind these are not equally valid camps. And this can be seen when the razor is put to work shaving. It cuts away the facial hair. Truth is discerning. It cuts off that which is false. In a sense, that which is not me.

Which brings us to the second line. What are we to make of what Ikkyū is saying here? I think the best way to understand Berg’s rendition is to understand he’s using enjambment.

Let’s re-cast the poem this way:

forget what the masters wrote:
truth’s a razor, each instant sitting here—
you and I being here

In other words, we are the razor. We are the truth. You and I, together, cut off the dead crap of the authority figures. They are not the truth. We are. Which makes us the real masters.

Advent celebrates Immanuel—God with us. But that’s only half the story. Because the whole point of the New Covenant that Immanuel brought with him, was that the law would no longer be an external master—it would be written on our hearts.

That’s something to think about. Forget the masters. Forget the rule makers. You and I being here, we are the razor. We are the truth.

That’s why Ikkyū left the monastery after nine days of being abbot. It was all crap. He told the monks if they wanted to find him, he’d be in the tavern and the brothel. Where the real people were. Where the razors were. Where the truth was. And still is.

Comments are always welcome, and, until the next time, do some truth cutting!

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You’re Happy

self other right wrong wasting your life arguing
you’re happy really you are happy

—Ikkyū (trans. by Stephen Berg)

Ikkyū (1394-1481) was an eccentric Japanese Buddhist monk. He’s one of my favorite poets. His poems are direct, poignant, and laden with wisdom. He was very much an individualist and legends about him abound.

Today, I’m going to do a brief meditation on the above poem. I think it appropriate for Advent season, which began this past Sunday. After all, it’s difficult to have peace on earth if there’s conflict — especially conflict within us.

Let’s begin by looking at the second line of Berg’s rendering, which has a bit of ambiguity to it. The line could read:

You’re happy. Really. You are happy.

or

You’re happy, really. You are happy.

or

You’re happy. Really, you are happy.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter how we read the line — because Ikkyū’s point is that we are already happy. Happiness is our natural state.

If that’s the case, then why are so many of us not happy? The answer is found in the first line.

Self-Other. Us-Them. The old tribal mentality of “we are right and everyone else is wrong”. Why is everyone else wrong? Because they are not one of us. They are “them”. And “them” is bad. “Them” challenge us. The others are a threat because they think they are right and we are wrong. Of course, we know they are wrong. Because we must be right. If we aren’t, what is our reason to be?

Ikkyū moves from the self-other dichotomy to the right-wrong dichotomy, which is the natural outcome of self-other thinking, which I noted above.

When we feel we must always cast things into the right or wrong mold, it is then that we have problems. And the biggest problem is conflict. Conflict without and conflict within.

In the third part of the line, Ikkyū bluntly tells us that we are wasting our lives in arguing.

Why is this happening to us? Because we’ve set up these dichotomies, these artificial constructs that lead to arguing and fighting and no happiness. How many friendships end over a fight about something that is actually not important? How many marriages break up because the spouses are constantly arguing over who is right and who is wrong? Too many.

We can look at Ikkyū’s poem this way:

Unhappiness = self other right wrong arguing

Happiness = You

In other words, we, in and of ourselves, are happy. Happiness is our natural state. Happiness, though, disappears when we set up us-them dynamics, because they lead to arguing and arguing leads to unhappiness.

This is why we are advised to cultivate an attitude of inclusiveness. “And the second commandment is like unto it: treat your neighbor as yourself.”

When we treat others as we ourselves want to be treated, the self-other distinction breaks down. Right and wrong breakdown. We cease wasting our lives in arguing — and we come back to our natural state: happiness.

One day, when I was still working, I tried an experiment. I went to the office and smiled at everyone, wished them good morning, and was exceptionally pleasant. I listen to their complaints, told them things could be much worse, and pointed out the sun was still shining. I treated everyone that morning and successive mornings as I wanted them to treat me.

Sure, I got a few looks. But I also noticed I was much happier throughout the day and that I continued to treat others in a very positive manner. Positiveness flowed from the initial act of being positive. And for a little while at least I even saw some of my sour-faced coworkers smile.

If we set aside that which causes conflict, the ego (self) and the other (them), then we eliminate the cause of arguing and are free to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. And when we do that, then we might see a little bit of peace on earth.

We can only control ourselves. But if we actually do that, control ourselves, we’ll find life to be pretty doggone wonderful.

Comments are always welcome, and, until next time, be a rivulet of peace.

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