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Shuso Hosen Talk: Everyone Has Their Own Light by Kennyo Dunn

The Shuso is a monastic training position at Great Vow Zen Monastery that is usually held for the duration of the calendar year. Shuso means chief junior, at the monastery, the Shuso serves three important roles exemplifying self-less service, a mark of the ordination vows. First that of the practice leader demonstrating through their embodiment of the Dharma, the sincerity of whole-hearted practice for the community. Secondly the shuso handles all of the various details organizing daily practice, ceremonies and retreats. And lastly the shuso embodies deep concern for the Sangha, caring for each being as if his own child. This training position is challenging at times and asks that whoever is serving the role be able to turn on a dime. 

If you come for a visit, a retreat or a residential stay it is the Shuso who ensures that you have a place to sit in the meditation hall and are clued into the rhythems and rituals of the monastic schedule. At the end of their term the Shuso is asked to give a talk, and answer questions in a dynamic way called Dharma Combat. Kennyo gave a beautiful talk on the popular koan, Everyone has their Own Light from the Blue Cliff Record. May his reflections be an inspiration, and if a question comes up - please bring it up to him. Help him, clarify his understanding. This is the function of the Shuso Hosen, ceremony.

After serving as Shuso and Bookkeeper for the year, Kennyo will resume being the Librarian and return to the Garden, as Head Gardner.

Blue Cliff Record, Case 86.  “Everybody has their own light” (also called “The Kitchen Pantry and the Main Gate”)
Master Ummon said to the assembly: “Everyone has their own light. If you try to see it, all is dark. What is that light?”      He answered for them, “The kitchen pantry and the main gate.”  Then he said, “A good thing is not as good as nothing.”

Setcho’s Verse:
Absolutely bright
It’s an open secret.
Flowers fall; the tree has no shadow
Who doesn’t see, if they look?
Seeing is not-seeing; not-seeing is seeing
Riding the ox backwards
Enter the Buddha hall

One way to think about a koan is as a kind of spiritual technology, a Reality Chip that gets implanted and unlocks certain gates of practice. Imagine your body as a vast spacious orb, a pure, dark sphere of infinite depth. Imagine this body arrayed with channels, valves, and vent holes, in various measures obstructed. Then imagine the koan landing on this body like an enlightened space capsule, getting in there and clearing out the vent holes, opening up space.
The koan works on us. It clears us out in a way that is transrational. We need a powerful technology to clear us out, because the security systems we’ve built up are so extreme. Koan manifests as practice. You don’t just plug it in and let it run automatically. It opens up a matrix of practice. It’s interactive.
I want to share with you some of what has been unlocked as I’ve been working on this koan, in the hope that you will find it helpful, in a very practical way. The experience I describe might seem to unfold in a stage-like pattern, or it may have no particular order. In any case, the koan has many dimensions. I don’t pretend to understand it.

First, the setup. You might think of it as a kind of bait. The Light. Everybody has their own light. When you hear a Zen master talking like this, it’s not theology. You know you’re in for something.

So right away Ummon is pointing. To what?

This image of Light is perennial in the world’s mystical traditions. The Soto Zen tradition speaks of the Great Treasury of Luminosity (Komyozo Zanmai). In Tibetan Dzogchen, the Circle of Total Illumination (tigle kunsel); “The Divine Light”; the Clear Light; Buddha of Infinite Light (Amita Buddha); Eternal Light (Ein Sof); Light that is the Unborn Source of all Manifestation; the Radiance of Being; the Undying Lamp; Nür in the Islamic tradition; and so forth. One of our service dedications sums it up: “Absolute light, luminous throughout the whole universe.” Komyozo Zanmai: “From the highest heaven to the deepest hell, all realms are illuminated perfectly. This is wondrous and inconceivably subtle luminosity.”

What are we talking about here? Clearly it’s not just physical light, but perhaps it includes physical light. Maybe we think it’s the Light of “The Mind.” What is that? Now we’re really in it. We start looking for something, looking for a divine light. This looking is itself the beginning of practice.

Setcho’s accompanying verse says: Self-illuminating/Absolutely bright. Again, the Komyozo Zanmai: “Luminosity is its own open brilliance. It does not depend on your mind.” It does not depend on anyone’s mind. And yet our situation, viewed from one side anyway, seems to be one of practice (Practice of the Great Treasury of Luminosity). Everyone has their own light. Each of us is responsible. Each of us has to keep the lamp burning. How do we do this?

In the Zen teachings, there are various things we’re told to do with the Light. “Just throw body and mind into the Great Treasury of Luminosity and don’t look back”; “Turn the light to shine within, then just return”; or “Learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your Original Face will manifest.” But in any case, what is it? We look. This is the level of curiosity. Looking directly into our experience. We are called by the pointing to look. This is essential.

Try to see it, and all is dark. On the one hand, the Light is unfindable. We look, and we can’t identify it. We find only darkness, nothing. On the other hand, it’s completely obvious. It’s not at all hidden. “Who doesn’t see, if they look?” There’s no one who doesn’t see the Light. Everyone can see it. Everyone does see it. Yet it’s not a matter of seeing, because it’s not something separate to be observed. Everyone is it. You don’t have to look. You can’t look, because it’s always already right there, prior to the looking. Any looking would itself be it. There’s nowhere the Light is absent, so there’s nothing to find.

Yet we forget, so it’s kind of Ummon to offer us this reminder. We need a reminder. And yet we try to see it, and we just get the opposite of what we’re looking for. We’re looking for one thing, and we get no thing. This not finding isn’t a conclusion. We sit with the paradox. We know the Light; we know it beyond knowing. And yet there’s nothing we can identify as it. So we don’t find anything, but Ummon gives us a clue: “The kitchen pantry and the main gate.” Or the intersecting hallways and the registrar’s desk. We can think of this clue as like giving us directions to a place. We’re trying to find the Light. Which way do we go. He could have just said “You can’t miss it.” But he gives us something very concrete, ordinary, specific, vivid. It’s the place we pass through every day and don’t even notice. It’s the main gate, the place everyone is always passing through and not noticing. Ummon is not only telling us to notice. He is saying that the kitchen pantry is the Buddha of Infinite Light. He is telling us to appreciate our life. He’s also telling us the Divine Light everyone has is not such a big deal.

Can we really accept this? Can we be satisfied with our life? Can we really accept that this is it? This is all the Light is, this bathroom floor, this situation, this emotion, this person looking me in the face? Am I willing to give this moment my full attention? Do I really want to know the truth, or am I holding out for something spectacular, something extraordinary? Is my aspiration genuine, or is it just an ego-fantasy of becoming Pure and Enlightened?

Even an ordinary thing or state of mind can become something to cling to, something to attach to. We start hanging out in kitchen pantry, soaking in the sacred glow. The Komyozo Zanmai says “Luminosity has no location.” So Ummon gives us a clue, and then he takes it away.

“A good thing is not as good as nothing.”

We really do have to appreciate our life, to get into it, experience it intimately. We have to pay attention, treat everything as sacred. And yet there is also the dimension of impermanence. All things are constantly passing away. Nothing can be held onto. The verse says: “Flowers fall/The tree has no shadow” Holding these two images together, we see that it is the infinite Light itself that is impermanent. The constant flux and passing away is the liveliness of the Light, the liveliness of this moment. Reality is both infinite, boundless and also impermanent, fleeting. In a way it is nothing at all.

A “good thing” is extra. It’s an evaluation added on to reality. The light is reality itself. We don’t need to do anything to make it real. We don’t need to get it right. When we’re trying to do a “good thing” with our practice, we create obstacles for ourselves. When we’re looking for a “good” experience in meditation, we’re endlessly dissatisfied. This line of Ummon’s can help us move beyond a state-based approach to practicing. It brings us to a point where we’re no longer looking for a good experience. Our biological conditioning leads us to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but in practice we have to go beyond this conditioning.

As far as the Light is concerned, there is nothing to do. The Light, everything, is perfect as it is. Nothing is lacking, and so there is no need for improvement, no need to make it good.

A good thing is not reliable. “With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on Prajnaparamita, and thus the mind is without hindrance.”
Where does this leave us? If we’re doing nothing, then what comes of our practice? Where we find ourselves is in the practice of faith. Riding backwards on the ox/Enter the Buddha hall. Riding backwards means not seeing where we’re going, not looking at the destination. It means total trust in the Ox, trust in our deeper nature, trust in the intrinsically pure mind that knows the way. And there it is, entering the Buddha hall. From the outside, this might look crazy, or wrong, because it reverses the normal way of doing things, the normal way of seeing things. But please try it, and find out for yourself.