Monday, May 17, 2021

Steps Four and Five, Give up recollection!

 More than twice as long as my usual posts, this koan and stories have a lot to say, showing how my Zen and 12-Step practice complement each other.


Step 4:  Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  

Step 5:  Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.


Koan: Give up recollection!

What limit is there to the pure wind circling the earth?   

(Hseuh tou, 980-1052)

Once you give up recollecting, what will become of the affairs you busy yourselves with? Here and now the pure wind is circling the earth. Throughout heaven and earth, what is there that is limited? She picks up the numberless concerns of all ages and throws them down before you. This is not confined to this time. What limit is there? All of you—what limit is there on your part?   (Yuanwu, 1063-1135) 

Rachel Mansfield-Howlett, Roshi, gave us this koan passage to sit with in late March. It flew off into my mind as Steps 4 and 5.

 These two Steps are critical to recovery. At the same time, frought with the agony of our past and overwhelming fear from what others may think of us, we often balk at these Steps. This is where our sponsor steps in – to guide us through the process and convince us there is relief and hope in our future. 

Nearing the end of my drinking career, the not liking who I had become was gnawing on me and I was gnawing back. If only I hadn’t flunked out of college after my freshman year, I might have graduated in 1967 or 68. If only I hadn’t crashed the car; if only I hadn’t been more responsible with the money Grandma gave us for our wedding; if only I hadn’t crossed that line to alcoholism; if only I had spent more time with our boys…these are the things I would think about, over and over, recollecting, in a dark room, drinking until such thoughts were blurred away by booze -- every night.

And now my sponsor wants me to write down all the ways I’ve hurt and wronged others, then share these details with him? The short answer is yes, this is how it works if I want to stay sober. 

A wonderful man who has since passed away, Bob G., frequently reminded us, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” Just the thought of what these Steps are asking of us causes some people to return to the drink - - they can’t be completely honest with their sponsor nor themselves.

When thinking about my drinking past, yes, I am recollecting my wrongdoings; but not with the hamster wheel of despair. Now there’s a purpose. When I could see them written out on paper, they no longer had the emotional pull as before, no more gnawing on them. I was discovering who I became as a result of drinking – now I learn about the new, recovering Bill K., or as they say in meetings, “What God had intended me to be.” 

“Once you give up recollecting, what will become of the affairs you busy yourself with?” If we’ve done a thorough job of putting all our wrong doings on paper, we don’t have to think about them in the ways we used to. The endless loop of self-criticism is broken when we take ownership of our actions and continue on with the Steps with a sponsor.

 Now to bring Hsiang-yen (d.898) and Yuanwu into our conversation; both no slackers when it came to recollection, they both had vast knowledge about Zen. One would think this would be helpful, but instead it became a liability.

Hsian-yen was an intellectual. First he studied under Pai-chang (720-814). After Paichang died, he studied under Kuei-shan (771-853). Kuei-shan told him that all his knowledge is not much use, you don’t understand the meaning of Zen. Then his teacher said, “I really have nothing to teach you. Whatever understanding I have is my own and will never be yours.” 

Hsian-yen left upset and disallusioned.  Hearing that the tomb of Nan-yang had been neglected, he became the caretaker. He gave up on his focus on recollecting vast knowledge, and began attending to the garden, with simple tasks, like sweeping the pathways. Sweeping practice. 

One day while sweeping as he had done a thousand times before, his broom picked up a pebble and flung it across the path where it collided with a thick bamboo stem. “Tock,”  Upon hearing this “tock”, he became awaked to all things.  

Excitedly, he rushed back to Kuei-shan to tell him of his experience, in the form of a poem. Kuei-shan was pleased, but his senior disciple, Yang-shan (807-883), was not. Hsian-yen wrote another poem. Again they were not convinced of his insight, so he wrote a third poem. Yang-shan approved this poem.

Hsiang-yen returned to monastery life, but as an independent teacher. His teachings were clear:

A monk asked Hsian-yen, “What is Hsian-yen’s mind?”      

         Hsian-yen said, “Plants and trees are not abundant."

 Yuanwu wan an intellectual, too. . As a youngster they say Yuanwu could memorize 1000 characters a day! He also became frustrated that all his knowledge didn’t bring about awakening. [We see this in the rooms of AA, don’t we, where really smart people often have a difficult time grasping our simple concepts.] Wuzu Fayan, his teacher, told him, “You are full of knowledge, but lack understanding.” 

Yuanwu left in anger. Eventually he returned, and over years of training and practice (setting his knowledge and recollecting aside) became Fayan’s heir. From around 1112 onward, he began lecturing about the countryside on the 100 cases (koans) that Hseuh tou had collected five generations before.

 It was Yuanwu who eventually put all of these koans into a book, along with his commentaries. The koan I’ve used here comes from the Blue Cliff Record, the earliest book of koans, along with Yuanwu’s commentary (Page 8). Some say it’s perhaps the most important koan book written; and we still study it today, thanks to Yuanwu ‘s great knowledge and his awakened experience. 

I see a parallel with our process of working Steps 4 and 5, and continuing Steps 6-12, relying on our Higher Power and making amends. It’s here that we are awakened to see ways using our past experiences to change ourselves and benefit others.


“What limit is there to the pure wind circling the earth,” asked Hseuh Tou?


·      Hsian-yen, having let go of his vast Zen knowledge, while sweeping in the garden he had his great awakening that eventually led him to become an effective Zen teacher. - - Alcoholics, when we gather, acknowledge, and admit our wrong doings to another, Steps 4 and 5 and beyond, our experiences set us on the path to freedom, and a means to help others. We become teachers to others in the fellowship.

·      Yuanwu thought his vast recollection of Zen knowledge would bring him an awakening. It didn’t. It was only after his lengthy training/practice and awakening under Wuzu Fayan that he understood Zen - - As Alcoholics in our disease, we had countless recollections of our past that brought us great suffering (“Being sick and tired of being sick and tired”). We’ll never graduate from AA.  Still, we have numerous reasons for staying that require our service.  

·      Yuanwu’s years of teaching and writing commentaries about these koans resulted in his creation of the Blue Cliff Record, that’s been helping koan practitioners for over a 1000 years.- - Alcoholics understand Step 12, beginning with. “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps…” We realize that all of our past experiences (good and bad) help us to relate to the alcoholics who are still suffering. Without Steps 4 and 5, we cannot get to Step 12 and “practice these principles in all our affairs.”

“What limit is there on your own part?” 

Just as Hsian-yen and Yuanwu were able to set aside their great storehouse of knowledge for awakening to appear, they then became teachers, profoundly influencing the practice of Zen for others. With Steps 4 and 5, we’re not turning away; but instead coming into relationship with our hindrances. These Steps are the doorway we must pass through to let go of the way we used to view our past deeds, and to discover, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, our experience can benefit others.” P. 84  

A sponsee asked her sponsor, “What is sponsor’s mind?’

Her sponsor replied, “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.” Pages 83-84. 

With Steps 4 we’re re-collecting in order to give up recollection. Tock!

“Here and now the pure wind is circling the earth.”

 Upon completing Step 5, “We feel we are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.” P.75


Bill K.