On Beginning a Zen practice
Why are you here today? By this, I mean, what reasons do any of us have for showing up and joining the Sangha for this particular meeting? Is it because we self-identify as Buddhists? Is it because we are curious about what Zen is or what it can do to enrich our lives?
Really, we’re all here because of dissatisfaction with what’s going on in our lives. We all have suffering that arises from our greed and from our inability to see life beyond the stories we tell ourselves about how our lives should be. We feel as if something is missing; we feel as if there is a sense of loss; we feel empty.
Maybe, like me, you have reached a point where you feel out-of-step with the real world. That imaginary world you’ve created has caused such a disjunction between you and real life that you cannot resolve the two any longer.
Or, maybe you think that Zen is cool. Maybe you’ve read a book about Buddhism and said to your self, “Now that’s a great way to live.” Or, maybe the media has made Buddhism seem appealing to you because of its portrayal on television, the movies, or in books and magazines.
Regardless of why you’re here, the important thing is that you have made it to this point. But, what is this point? Where are we at?
We’re all living in a state of duality. As I said before, we create a story about how we think the world should be and attempt to resolve it with how the world really is. Our life as we see it doesn’t meet up with the expectations we have of it. And, as a result, we feel dissatisfaction.
Our life, right now as it is, is perfection itself. The problem is, we’ve set up the duality of our lives as being separated from us. There’s “me” and then, there’s “my life”. We are unable to resolve these two disparate objects we’ve created, and, that’s were our loss, our dissatisfaction comes from.
We don’t see that our lives, exactly at this moment, hold the truth of reality. So, coming to this point, our object, our goal, if there is one, is to close this gap between reality and the objectified life our minds create.
We miss the point that our lives are already perfect, that we ourselves are already perfect, because we’re trapped in the discursive mind. Linear thinking is great for discerning the brake pedal from the gas pedal when we’re driving or from telling salt from sugar when we’re cooking, but it’s not adequate in interpreting the real world. Discursive thinking does not give us the ability to see the subtleties of life as they happen.
What does subtle mean?
If we say that something is subtle, does that also mean that it is hidden? No. Something is subtle not because it is hidden, nor because it is elusive, but because it is right here. We don’t see it precisely because it is right in front of us. In fact, we are living it at every moment (Appreciate Your Life, Mazeumi).
When we think about it, at that very moment, we set up the duality of me here seeing it, and it over there or out there to be seen, that’s where we miss it. When we live our lives without setting ourselves apart and separating ourselves from life, the duality goes away. There’s no longer me and it. We are one.
So, how does the dualistic mind keep us from seeing and realizing our lives as perfection? We’re too familiar with it; our minds are so set in discursive thought that we have to break down these barriers before we can realize life as it truly goes on around us. These walls in our mind which serve to block us and perpetuate our storytelling also serve to help us walk through life on auto-pilot. Just think of all the things we do as second nature that require no true input from us at all. Perhaps second nature isn’t natural? Our first nature, our Buddha nature, is what ultimately tells us life is perfection and removes our own storylines from reality.
How do we realize our Buddha nature? What helps us to begin to see life clearly? How do we develop the awareness to see our life as it is here and now?
Do we practice to attain this realization? NO.
According to Dogen, we do not practice for anything. But why not? Everything is already here! Our life is wisdom. Our practice is this realization each moment as we sit on the cushion. We should live this realization and break the notion that there is something to attain or something is missing in our lives.
There is no division between this life and nirvana. Have faith in this, have faith that our lives already are so, Mazeumi tells us.
Realize that there is no where to get to, nothing to attain, and no me to attain it anyway.
Do we have any tools to help us break out of this discursive thinking pattern? How do we unplug the label-maker and the automatic generator of preferences which constantly tells us things are either good or bad? How do I break out of the trap I place on myself and others based on my expectations of how I think life should be?
The answer is practice. Our practice, whatever it is, allows us to peel away the layers we build up that dilute our perceptions of life as it is. Our practice may be breathing meditation, sitting, or even koan study. We may do a combination of all these, depending on instruction from a teacher. But the key is practice.
Developing a daily meditation practice isn’t easy. It sounds like it should be pretty simple to just sit down once or twice a day for half an hour or so, but it’s not easy at all. It can be one of the most challenging things we face in our life.
That’s why I want to share with you how to begin a meditation practice.
After learning the proper meditation techniques (position, posture, and non-thinking), beginners are often taught to follow their breath with gentle attention placed on either the in breath or the out breath. Initially, the breath will serve to help anchor the beginner in the present moment. Mastering non-thinking takes a lifetime, but if we allow any and all thoughts to arise, with no censorship and no interaction with them, if we can patiently watch them arise, pass, and dissipate, then we begin to work with non thinking. Whatever thoughts need to arise are given room to arise, we see them go, and we return to our breath.
We have to faithfully practice every day. This isn’t something we can do just on the weekends or whenever we think we need to. It requires a commitment, but not just a commitment to sit and meditate, but a commitment to awaken to reality and stop telling ourselves stories.
As time passes and our practice grows and deepens, we find that we don’t need to put so much attention on the breath. Our mind reaches a stage where we don’t need the breath to anchor us in the present moment. We see that our thoughts come and go and need no tending from us. We can let go of the breath, we let go of that focus, and we’re left with the most base form of the practice. We sit. That’s it. We just sit.
When we sit, we’re sitting with whatever comes up. Achaan Chah said, “Just go into the center of the room, and put one char in the center. Take theone seat in the center of the room, open the doors and windows, and see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come.”
No matter what comes up, we sit with it, without labeling it, without preferring one thought to another, and without telling ourselves a story about it. We just sit.
When we sit, we don’t expect anything. We just show up at that moment and allow our selves to be.
Over time, the dualistic mind fades. It may take months, or years, or decades, but with serious practice, the dualistic mind will fade. It no longer will control us. It no longer constantly labels everything, sets up preferences, or tells us a story about how our life should be. We begin to see it as it is.
We begin to show up in our own lives more and more frequently, and as this happens, What do you think we begin to see? That’s when we ultimately discover that our practice isn’t meditation, sitting, breathing, or koan study.
We see that our practice is our life itself. The dualism of me and my practice are reconciled as one. Our practice, then, becomes every moment we breath, every time we go to the bathroom, every encounter we have with another person.
We don’t act in one way or another because we should act that way, we act that way because it’s the natural expression of our own Buddha nature. We remove these dualities in our life until we’re fully awake, no longer telling ourselves a story about life, but we’re actively living it.
Toni Packer warns us that “our hearts can become quite addicted to making the story of one’s life impressive to others and to oneself, and feed on the energies aroused by that.”
Our mind seduces us with dualistic thought. It’s hypnotic. It’s a dream. And it’s up to us to develop our practice so we can awaken from that state.
This week's Dharma talk - "On Beginning a Zen Practice" - will be given by Craig Taylor, who was recently ordained as a Zen priest.
The ideal place will be in or near downtown Chattanooga, sparsely-furnished (a yoga or dance studio would be perfect), with owners willing to either donate the use of the space for free, or let people donate whatever they can afford. Our meetings are held every Saturday, and last for two hours. We presently meet at noon, but we could move it to the morning if required.
Any offers or suggestions of venues would be very welcome. My email address is on my profile page.
"Just answer the questions," I said.
"Okay. I was planning to just say what you say."
I told him that if he did that, he would be lying. What he said wouldn't be true, even though it's true when I say it. Why? Because he's not me and I'm not him. When I answer a question about Zen practice, what I say is true because I'm speaking entirely from my own authority, not parrotting the words of someone else. It doesn't matter how wise, how compassionate, how enlightened another person's words are, they're not mine, and so when I say them they're not true. They don't reflect my experience and my practice.
The student I had this conversation with is a man of great wisdom, honesty and compassion, and his commitment to the practice of Zen is an inspiration - and yet he was missing a major point. He was handing his authority over to me, rather than speaking from his own Buddha-nature. To teach the Dharma with authenticity, to actually communicate and transmit the Dharma, you must trust in the Buddha - which means trusting yourself, because you are the Buddha. I told my student that, however much he likes my teaching voice, he must speak in his own, or else the words will just be noises, empty of meaning, empty of Dharma.
When Dogen says "practice is enlightenment," he's not playing a game or presenting a koan. He means it. What he's saying is literally true: practice is enlightenment.
People who take up a spiritual practice are often referred to as "spiritual seekers." This term should never be used for serious Zen practitioners, because they know that they don't have to seek anything. There is nothing to seek or find, and no one to seek or find it. Some people seek enlightenment, but a person who does that is like a knife trying to cut itself.
You shouldn't seek enlightenment, because you already have it. You are already enlightened. You are already, and always, a Buddha. You, me, the morons in the White House, thugs, monks, murderers, philanthropists, CEOs, crack addicts, everyone, all of us, Buddhas. Every one of us an enlightened being, perfect, complete, lacking nothing. So what are we seeking?
The farther you seek, the farther you get from awareness of your own enlightenment. The difference between a master and a monster is quite simple. Both are Buddhas, but the master sees it and the monster doesn't. Everyone is a master, capable of perfect compassion - and everyone is a monster, capable of cruelty and stupidity. We either manifest the Buddha - our perfect, enlightened Buddha-nature - or we don't. It's entirely up to us. If we manifest our true nature, we're free. If we don't, we suffer.
How do we manifest our Buddha-nature? Zazen. Some people think that zazen can lead to enlightenment, but they're mistaken. The Buddha didn't attain enlightenment - he was always enlightened. He just awakened to that reality, the reality that he was a Buddha. You and I will never attain enlightenment - we have always been enlightened. We only have to awaken to that reality, and we awaken to it in the practice of zazen.
Zazen is enlightenment. It is the manifestation of true nature, looking through the phantom, the illusion of self, the shallow fiction of ego. Zazen is not some method of attainment, or self-help. There is no self to help, so trying to attain things for the self is like baking cookies for your imaginary friend. No matter how good the cookies are, there's no one to enjoy them. Zazen is the manifestation of our perfection.
Stop looking elsewhere. Stop seeking. Trust yourself. Be fearless. You already have what you seek. You are the Buddha. Wake up.
Friday night has typically become quite a late night for me (because of my job, I mean - get your minds out of the gutter, you perverts), so here's some good news for you sorry, lazy, unenlightened, samsara-dwelling bastards who comprise our sangha: I've decided that, starting this Saturday, we'll be meeting at noon instead of 9 a.m.
The bad news:
You know those two 20-minute zazen periods you find so difficult? Well, we ain't doing that no more. Nope. Starting this Saturday, we're doing two half-hour periods. Serves you right for fidgeting during the 20-minute periods.
Any complaints, and I'll get me a kyosaku. Or a baseball bat.
I get quite a few emails from people who’ve heard about what we do and want to check us out. Usually, they ask what a typical meeting is like. I reply that we begin with some chanting, then sit two periods of zazen, and then I give a Dharma talk and answer questions.
Usually, they then ask if they can come along, skip the zazen and just hear the talk. I always say no.
Why? Because the Buddha Dharma is not found in words. It’s not something you talk about or read about, it’s something you do. Without the practice, the words don’t make sense. Without the practice, the words are not just useless, they can be dangerous and misleading.
Without the practice, there is no Buddhism. Buddhism is practice. Practice is Buddhism. You can’t pay lip service to it as though it’s a religion, because it’s not. You can’t sit around and debate it as though it’s a philosophy, because it’s not. It is the experience of your own Buddha-nature, of the reality that you are a Buddha. You may believe that intellectually, but the belief is useless. You have to experience it with your totality, whole body and mind, the whole phenomenal universe that is you – and the gateless gate to that experience is zazen.