Everything is Medicine

dukkhaEverything is Medicinesuffering


I would like to dedicate tonight’s talk to the families who have lost their loved ones in the Connecticut shooting. Guns are terrifying. At my son’s school you’re not allowed to play with guns, so when they get home all they want to do is make guns out of Lego and shoot the lights out of everything. How can I explain to him about what happened? Twenty kids and six adults shot dead in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. How could I get him to put the cap gun away without making him feel like he’s done something wrong?

**Flower Garland Sutra**

Tonight I wanted to talk about medicine. In the *Avata?saka S?tra* (The Flower Garland Sutra), a long and important Mahayana text which is even more psychedelic than The Lotus Sutra, towards the end a student named Sudana goes to the bodhisattva Manjusri. Sudana says, “I want to resolve suffering. Manjusri says you should go talk to 53 people. Sudana sets out and visits a merchant, a ship captain, beggar, doctor, laymen and women, a prostitute. He asks: how do you get free? He can’t figure it out. So he goes back to Manjusri. “I’m still suffering and I want out. How do I get out?” Manjusri says, “Show me something that isn’t medicine.” Sudana leaves again (for an hour? three years?) and when he comes back he says he’s looked everywhere, he’s gone back to all 53 people, and he can’t find anything that’s not medicine. Manjusri says, “Show me. Show me medicine.” Sudana leans down and picks up a blade of grass. Manjusri says, “That blade can kill someone or bring someone to life.” In Korea this story became the basis for a famous koan:

Medicine and disease cure each other
Everything is medicine
So what’s the self?

Manjusri makes him see 53 people – a good internship. You see people in their lives in 53 ways. What’s not medicine? I think we need to be reminded of this a lot. So often we are given a great challenge and we can’t see it as medicine.


Dukkha is a word that is often translated as suffering. David Loy translates it as lack or inadequacy. Kaz Tanahashi translates it as “challenge.” Oscar Wilde might have said that there are two kinds of dukkha: not getting what you want, and getting it.

Our life is medicine. Wouldn’t it be nice to see your life as medicine? It’s easy to think about. But how to look closely at places of challenge and see it as medicine.
When we’re wounded we don’t like seeing other people with the same wounds. When you start opening to your particular stuckness, pains, challenges, healing, recoveries, then when you see the same pain in others you know how to connect to them. In silence we can connect to wider versions of ourselves. Perhaps we say this each week when we come here, in different ways. Perhaps that’s all we’re really saying, over and over.


The new word for this season is empathy. Last year it was mindfulness. If you write a paper with empathy and mindfulness in the title, it’s going to carry heat. So what is empathy? Sometimes we use the word interchangeably with compassion. But empathy is when you resonate with another’s experience. In neuropsychology: the capacity to mirror someone else’s pain. Compassion is the desire to relieve someone of their stress. How does empathy/compassion look from the perspective of the bodhisattva who sees everything as interdependent? They are dedicated to service, to helping others. But they don’t help others because others are in pain, or because of their own pain, but simply because there is pain in the web. And it’s not personal, we just go to work.


*Shikantanza means “just sitting.” At the Centre of Gravity we have three main practices. The first is concentration practice or shamata. The second is insight or vipassana – once you get concentrated you look closely at what you’re noticing. And the third is Shikantanza. It means just sitting.* In other words, being open to what’s going on, being yourself in non-dual awareness. How do you sit and just sit? Without adding anything? Alert, alive, centred, quiet. If you can stay with something then loving action arises. The way you take action is to stay with something long enough and bear witness. This is a Quaker phrase that Bernie Glassman uses a lot. I asked him about it and he said it was the best way to translate shikantanza. This is what we’re doing in our practice – not helping others or ourselves, but opening, letting go of everything to be right here. Manjusri says “Don’t just tell me, show me.” In other words: let everything go.


There’s a great Korean story about this concerning a guy named Rockhead. He received this name because he was so dense. Do you notice this about people who are really dense? They’re so much more easily here, right here, with beginner’s mind. He tried to do meditation practice but couldn’t make it work. They tried to teach him vipassana but no go. So they made him head gardener, for eight years his practice was to tend the garden. One day the head monk came to see him and said, “Rockhead, one of the ways I teach is that students come to see me for interviews, and you never come. Why don’t you come and ask me a question and that will get us started?” Rockhead spent a year in the garden wondering about what kind of question he should pose. Then he noticed that everyone bowed to Buddha. It made him wonder: what’s Buddha? Such a good question. So he went to see his teacher and asked, “What’s Buddha?” The teacher answered, “Mind is Buddha.” In Korean sentences sound different depending on the emphasis placed on certain words, tone of voice, etc. So what Rockhead heard was, “Buddha is grass slippers.” What an amazing teaching! He ran back to the garden. In Korea, there are slippers for working in the garden that are made out of grass. When he was back in the garden Rockhead chanted again and again, “Buddha is grass slippers.” Many years passed. Then his teacher came by again and said, “When you come for an interview and ask a question, then you should work with it, and then show me.”

One day Rockhead was walking with a big stack of firewood. He slipped on a wet patch and landed on his back. His slippers fell off, the firewood scattered everywhere. And he got it! He had to drop everything. He rushed to the teacher, “I got it!” “Show me,” the teacher said. So Rockhead hit him on the head with a slipper. They both laughed. Rockhead had the experience of everything falling away and becoming medicine.