On Limits
Monday, July 1, 2019 at 11:31AM
Elena Taurke in Community, Crip People, Disability, Feminism, LGBTQ, PsychoZen Meets Life, Queer People, Zen

Dharma Talk June 30On Super Gay Pride Day, June 30th, the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, I gave a talk on limits. I've decided to post the whole transcript as well as the link to the talk, just in case you want to hear my personal story and the story of several female Buddhist ancestors, two of them disabled. 

I'm posting the transcript, in its talky format, to save myself time editing. Why? Time limits.

For those of you who don't want to read, I begin by asking, What is a limit? and talk about what we are not able or not allowed to do, how that starts a process of adaptation that can be mutual. We can adapt to the culture and the culture can adapt to us. I use examples to show the complexity of navigation. How do we know whether to sit through pain or change positions? And I conclude with a sweeping generalization: Limit is the answer to limit. We limit our reactions to release us from limited thinking. Our practice of sitting zazen, subtle and mysterious, is a radical act, especially now in the face of weaponized distraction and scapegoating.

Here is the talk:

Good morning on this blazing sunny morning of this super Gay Pride day. My name is Yuuka, I’m a senior student here. It’s good to see you [welcome to the fresh new people and to the old timers who are even fresher] The 50th anniversary of Stonewall was Friday and today we are having 2 parades: One, the big one, has possibly been coopted, or embraced or infiltrated, depending on your point of view, by corporations. And another march, Queer Liberation, would like to limit the participation of cops and corporations, some of whom support candidates who want to limit LGBTQ rights. So today, fittingly I think, I’m going to talk about limits.

Tokuyu once said to me that we give the dharma talk that we need to hear. Limits are an area of great confusion for me personally, and I think our teachings are exceedingly relevant.

To begin, what is a limit anyway? I feel it as “I can’t,” either because I am not able or I am not allowed; I can’t open the jar or slow down time, and I am not allowed to murder people. I see it as  the interplay of the physical body as it is, what the culture wants for us, and how we make the adaptation. So a body has some chromosomes, some genitalia and specific sexual attractions. The culture might diagnosis homosexuality as a mental illness or arrest people for gender expression at Stonewall. So we might hide, try to fit in, feel ashamed, or we might try to achieve, set our own standards, dominate others. The corporate culture can adapt to the queer culture and vise versa. I don’t think any adaptation is perfect and I think we are constantly adapting.

As for me, I had physical limits imposed by the biology of rheumatoid arthritis from a very early age. I couldn’t walk for several years and then my hands became deformed. Growing up, I couldn’t play with others on their terms, so I developed other strengths and constructing an alternative ideology, a kind of pride in independence that still hangs me up. Like I can only feel good about myself if I’m overcoming obstacles. I think I was attracted to Zen because of its warrior culture.

If you’ve read Three Pillars of Zen or studied some of the old stories, you may have picked up the idea that we should sit through everything, no matter what. Sit in the icy cold morning or in the blazing heat. Sit till pain drops its hold on you. Cut off your arm so Boddhidharma takes you seriously. Sit till everything falls away and you are free forever.

And I think just about everyone who has been around for a while has a story about a breakdown that was followed by what felt like a breakthrough. I remember a summer Sesshin when a comment triggered my shame about disability and I went into a long long bout of weeping. I wept through several periods of sitting, wept through an interview with Joshin, wept into the evening meal, and no one said, “hey, if this is too much for you, take it easy, go home.” No, the intensity got poured right back into the practice and yah, it felt enlightening, especially with the realization that I could bring even the most intense emotional pain into the community instead of licking my wounds in the private shame of my own corner.

On the other hand I’ve ignored searing pain in my hip until I couldn’t walk and I had to get a hip replacement. And as a mother of a young child I put my needs last until I got depressed and couldn’t meet anyone’s needs. And on the other hand, as a mother, sometimes I said to myself “I can’t do this, there’s nothing left of me” but then I did it and yes, there is nothing left. How freeing.

I just got back from California, visiting family, which always stirs up things I think I’m free of. And even though it was a very good visit in many ways, I came home exhausted, sleep phase out of wack, attention scattered and spun, and I had jury duty on top of all my usual stuff, and also Fusatsu was coming up. I had missed the last one, felt guilt about that, wanted to show my strength. What was the right thing to do? Shinryu reached out saying we were short-handed, then when I agreed, whining a little, he sensed something and offered to let me off the hook. So of course I showed up. Was that the right thing to do? How do we know what is good for us?

Ordinarily this is the point in the dharma talk where we look to one of our traditional koans to open things up. But right now at the Zendo we’re reviewing our list of female ancestors that we chant during some services, and so I’m going to talk about a couple of my favorites that I hope we will include.

Punnika, featured in Sally Tisdale’s Women of the Way, was born a slave and she didn’t like it at all. Supposedly this was because she had a bit of a problem with pride in a past life. Though she was an adept, and apparently calm and obedient, inwardly she refused to ask for help, to surrender, to let go of herself. So in this life, Punnika hated her job of carrying water from the river for the reason that she had to carry it. I get that, and even those of us who are not slaves can be enslaved by a todo list. Stuff we put on there, that we agreed to do, torments us, becomes a burden. Anyway she hated carrying the water and she hated being treated as worthless so she kept shoring up her inner sense of worth, holding her head up high.

One day she had filled her buckets and was procrastinating going back, the way we do, and saw a crowd listening to Siddhartha Buddha. His words penetrated like a Lion’s roar and she saw her true imprisonment, saw through the assumption that people are either superior or inferior and she was spiritually freed. She was still a slave, still had to carry water, but she was no longer involved in the question of what gives worth. One day at the river she encountered a Brahman doing some ritual bathing and challenged him on why he was doing it. He’s, like, “because I’m supposed to do this to wash away evil.” She was, like, “it doesn’t work that way, if it did, wouldn’t you wash away all your merit too?” And he got it. Later she was recognized and ordained but continued to be free of the idea that there was any difference between Buddha and a slave. Form is exactly formlessness. Disability is exactly ability.

Now I doubt that if she hadn’t had pride to begin with, this could have happened. So here is one of those paradoxical developments that some people short circuit. Like if you are queer or black or whatever, and people hate you, just be free of their ideas. no. it doesn’t work that way. Something has to challenge the culture. Punnika was a former high status adept now born as a slave, not simply a slave who accepted her fate, so when she became enlightened her ‘pride’ in herself transformed into a kind of confidence that allowed her to challenge a VIP.

Gessho, as she was researching sources, came across an effort by members of the Tree Leaf Zendo to generate a list of disabled ancestors. On this list was another slave, Khujjuttara, who was named by the Buddha as his most learned female lay disciple. Khujjuttara was in the service of [a queen] Queen Samavati, and she had such a facility for memorization that she would go listen to Buddha’s lectures and then come back and teach 500 ladies who thereafter all achieved enlightenment.

Cruising online to find out more about how she was disabled, there are only traces of a mention that she had a hunchback. Again, there is a morality tale. In a previous life she had mocked a holy man who had a hunchback, made him into an other, and so now she was born a hunchback. (I’m not going to dispute the just world hypothesis here—another dharma talk for that, but certainly in my own life, I seem to get afflicted by those things that I once looked down on. I was very moral about smoking and I got hooked. I was arrogant about my intelligence and then I got old and doddery.)

So anyway, it’s presented as a kind of punishment, but I wonder how it was for her to have a hunchback. It probably right away excluded her from the possibility of marriage, and maybe from the friendship of more beautiful women. So no wonder she developed her academic faculties. Limits generate abilities. What was the condition that gave her a hunchback? Did she ever long to be more normal? to fit in with the ladies in waiting? Did she feel shame, or anger? Did she ever doubt her worth? Was she in pain? How was it to sit zazen?

If your spine is curved, it can make it considerably more painful to sit for a long time. same with joint pain or illness, or extreme fatigue, which can be a kind of illness. same with distraction, which can be like an illness, or a confusion about consensual reality, which can be like a mental illness. All these things make it harder to sit, more painful than it is for most people, and yet all these things make it more necessary to sit, because we need to be free of the suffering.

The problem with these zen stories is that they end at the happy ending, as if it’s over once you’ve had an opening. But actually life goes on, triggers happen, your body might get worse, you might lose your memory or your attention or your speed. You might get stuck on the subway, might have insomnia, might have a big fight with your offspring, your phone might run out of battery. Are we still free if we are pissed off, desperate, or distracted?

We can’t hear Khujjuttara’s voice but we can hear Darlene Cohen, a contemporary zen master with Rheumatoid Arthritis who died in 2011.

People sometimes ask me where my own healing energy comes from. How in the midst of this pain, this implacable slow crippling, can I encourage myself and other people? My answer is that my healing comes from my bitterness itself, my despair, my terror. It comes from the shadow. I dip down into that muck again and again and then am flooded with its healing energy.

Cohen doesn’t just talk about emotional transformation, she also gets into the full nitty gritty about how to adapt sitting for the body in pain. We’ll be working with some of her methods in an exciting program in the fall, a workshop on adaptation of zazen and a series of talks on what gets in the way of sitting.

Because actually, limit is the answer to limit. We limit our reactions to release us from limited thinking. Our practice of sitting zazen, subtle and mysterious, is a radical act, especially now in the face of weaponized distraction and scapegoating. We can keep coming back to this fertile place where things are ever-changing.

I’ll leave you with a few encouraging words from Darlene Cohen, perhaps speaking for other ancestors whose voices have been forgotten.

Since we have nowhere to stand, nowhere to go, then let us go on to discover what is our individual role, our unique work for the good of ourselves and other beings, the world. What is our own way moment after moment?

Article originally appeared on PsychoZen (http://www.psychozen.org/).
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