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Let It Be

Updated: May 7

Let It Be was released on May 8, 1970. That’s crazy, 54 years ago. It still sounds so fresh.





-- Paul McCartney


Funny, Zen says “Let it go.” It’s part of our basic zazen instruction. Sitting on our cushions, thoughts arise. Don’t fuss with them. Each time a thought arises, let it go. When I teach zazen to beginners, I almost always share Roshi Daido Loori’s image. Daido was an avid scuba diver. He described sitting on the bottom and watching his breath bubble towards the surface. That was Daido’s image for zazen, just sitting, watching each thought bubble off.


“Let it go.”


The opposite of “Let it be”? I would say, “the complement.” Without first, “let it be,” there can be no “let it go.” You have to learn to let it be, before you can learn to let it go. So many Zennies forget that and fall into the trap, a form, of Buji Zen, the Soto term for the arrogant self-confidence of some practitioners. 


It shows up often. It may be easiest to see among Zennies first confronting the Non-Anger precept. Maybe it’s a particularly common malady among people who come to Zen for some help with anger management. Maybe that’s most of us.


There are easy-to-remember formulas: Anger causes suffering; stop getting angry; let it go; let go of your anger.


Sometimes, it looks like it works. You’ve put a lid on it. Your wife, your boss, your kids, your co-workers may all be happy that you’re not losing your temper all the time, but where did your anger go? Could be anywhere. In your gut. In your back. “Let it go” looks like a short-cut. Just let it go; stop being angry.


That kind of letting go leads to what my friend, Brent Shigeoka, used to call “white knuckle Zen.” You’re sitting there without exploding because you are holding on so tight. I love the image. It’s me on a Ferris wheel. It’s me on so many Disney rides, strapped in, hanging on for dear life. 


It’s worth it, I think. As frightened as I am, I enjoy the ride. It feels very grown-up to control my temper, not a trivial accomplishment, but it certainly doesn’t get me all the way to inner peace. A step has been skipped, a crucial step. Before you let it go, you need to let it be.


“Become the anger,” Jishu said, which doesn’t mean, “Get angry.” It means “feel the anger.” Feel the anger with your whole body. Befriend your anger. I was an angry person when I got to precept study, and I was no youngster. Probably everyone I knew, everyone I loved, everyone I worked with, was wishing that I would just put a lid on it.


I remember exactly where Dee and I were living — in a two-story, semi-detached house on Bayard — exactly what I was doing in a moment as I worked my month on the non-anger precept, although I have no idea what I was enraged about. I was stomping back and forth in the hallway of the second floor. I may have been alone in the house at the time. Back and forth. Back and forth. And quite out of nowhere, I was muttering to myself, and then out loud, “Angry Buddha, Angry Buddha.”


I couldn’t help smiling. The rage bubbled off without a trace, no memory even of what I was angry about, just smiling, angry Buddha.


You have to let it be before you can let it go. You can’t skip that step. McCartney was onto something. “Let it go” doesn’t mean bury it, doesn’t mean throw it away. Bernie was always very clear about that. Zen practice is not about getting rid of the parts of our self that we don’t like, that we find shameful or embarrassing. Jishu said, “Embrace your demons.” Let them be. Don’t kill them. Stop with the amputation. Don’t cut off the offending finger. 


So many people don’t want to do the hard work. Putting a lid on your anger is not the hard work. The hard work is making peace with your anger, feeling the hurt, likely buried long ago, triggered in the moment. The hard work is to sit still and to allow those buried demons voice. We all have our own versions of post-traumatic stress, our own demons. We don’t heal by keeping a lid on them. We heal by embracing them. Bernie was relentless in reminding us that they were all part of “the one body.” 


For me at least, this is a practice that goes on and on. There are always buried demons clamoring to be heard. For me, the most difficult and painful discovery is that it is the people I love the most who trigger the deepest demons. I wish it wasn’t that way. The practice goes on and on.


Early in my Zen practice, while I was still sitting at the Soho Zendo, I realized — maybe it was just a feeling —that I could sit through anything that arose in my life, not in one sitting period, not in two, perhaps not even in a week-long sesshin. Perhaps I would have to go to the Zen Mountain Monastery or Upaya to sit for a year or more, but eventually I would come out the other side. I imagined myself going into and through a very dark woods, but I knew I had to go through the woods. I couldn’t go around them.


Let it be. Here’s a surprise: when you let it be, the letting go will takes care of itself. Angry Buddha, smiling, can’t remember what he was enraged about.  Jishu used to tell us, “Try to stay angry. Become the anger completely. Forget the stories. Just be the anger, your whole body, and try to stay angry. You won’t be able to do it. Feelings don’t last. They are constantly changing.”


Sir Paul was onto something, and he was never my favorite Beatle.


“Let it be.”


Stop trying to get rid of the painful parts of yourself and you will stop exploding at the people who remind you of who you are. Allow yourself to heal. And healing, Bernie always said, -- I think he was recalling the literal meaning of the Hebrew, -- is to become whole. Let it be. Let yourself be. That is, Zennies, after all, the fundamental Buddhist teaching, that we are all perfect just as we are. We just don’t know it.


Let it be.

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Great teaching! 54 years old, the song I like so much! Thank you, dear Ken!

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