Beginning Zen Practice

(from e-Newsletter March – May 2010)
by Rev. Kyoki Roberts

Many of us come into a Zen temple having read a book about Zen or maybe a friend told us about it. Perhaps, we come in out of a deep dissatisfaction with our life. Either way, we are stepping into a world that is quite different from our ordinary experience. You will be greeted at the door, certainly by Mya the German Shepard, and perhaps by someone with a shaved head and black robes. (No, you don’t have to shave your head to practice here; that is only for ordained priests!). One of the members will give you a short introduction to basic Zen Buddhism and then you will be asked to sit staring at a wall. Now what?!?

Actually, that is up to you. We call this seated meditation zazen. You will have been taught to sit up straight (cross-legged on a cushion or in a chair), to allow thoughts, sensations, and emotions to arise, shutting nothing out and to allow anything that arises to pass away returning to breath. The art of zazen is to not cling. “Am I really supposed to just sit here?” “Can I scratch that itch?” “Is it okay to move if my knee hurts?” “What do I do if my feet fall asleep?” “What if I need to go to the bathroom?” “Will I disturb people if I cough?” Questions come flooding in and one certainly doesn’t feel peaceful and quiet. This is crazy. “Why in the world would anyone want to do this? But people have been doing this for thousands of years. There must be something going on here.”

What that something is, is Mind. We are having a direct experience of how we create the idea of self from the thoughts and sensations we have. We experience how things are constantly changing. And just maybe, we might become aware of the space that is between thoughts and sensations. All of this is the beginning of Zen practice.

Let’s take up that itch on our nose. Normally, we just scratch and it goes away. This time we are just going to be with an itchy nose. We take a breath; we notice the instinctual desire to move our hand; not moving, we become acutely aware of how much it itches until it is all-consuming. We also notice that it changes. When our knee is hurting, where is the itchy nose? Our mind flicks back and forth, but it doesn’t seem to be able to do both at the same time. Suddenly, we are aware of time passing and we wonder when we will be stopping and if the teacher is watching us. When did our nose stop itching?

The ringing of a bell startles us from what finally had felt like a quiet place. People are moving. “What am I supposed to do?” And there is mind again, doing its very best to protect us and keep us from being thought of as a fool. “Now they are bowing-what does that mean-how do I do that-which way do I turn-and now!?” Mind again-but perhaps this time there is just that little bit of space and uneasiness is replaced by curiosity.

“Who am I?” “What is the nature of the universe?” “What is my place in that universe?” “How do I live out this life as a human being?” “Why is there so much suffering in this world and what can I do about it?” This simple quiet sitting leads us directly to these questions and also to Zen Master Dogen’s “practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.”

Part 2 of 3

Last month I wrote about the difficulties that arise with mind when we first receive instructions for zazen (Zen meditation). I suggested that if we are able to take a good posture, allow thoughts, sensations, and emotions to arise, and then to let them go, we might just notice the space that exists between these thoughts. Noticing this, perhaps curiosity might arise as to what is actually happening with mind. Very deliberately, without any explanation of why, the Zen teacher gives the new student a process to explore what it means to be a human being. This month I would like to look at the intention a Zen teacher might have for asking a student to sit zazen in the first place.

None of us has to go very far to run into people who are really struggling with their lives. Job loss, divorce, death of a loved one, and so many of life’s difficulties can give rise to depression, anxiety, and anger. How many of us chase after the fancy car, the better house, the younger spouse? We have spent a lifetime of pushing away what we don’t want and greedily seeking out the things we just have to have. Next time you make a major purchase, watch the mind justify why you need it. And then notice how long the euphoria of the new purchase lasts before reality sets in and we need something else. We are addicted to entertaining ourselves. The Zen teacher knows that the best way to understand that mind is to sit quietly and just let mind work all by itself. Since you and your mind are not separate, you experience your own nature-the nature of greed, of anger, of fear and of course, the nature of joy and peace too. We just might “wake-up”; in fact, the act of sitting zazen is waking up. What does it mean to “wake-up”? One could define this as fully engaging 1) in the present moment bringing both compassion and wisdom to bear. By “fully engaging” we drop the concept of an other than self, and we drop the concept of a self that is separate from the activity at hand.
2) “Compassion” means sympathy for the suffering of others, often including a desire to help. “Wisdom” would mean that we are not creating the sense of “other” in this activity. Thus, waking up has something to do with a complete entering into this moment 3) bringing an inherent wisdom of interconnectedness4, a deep understanding of why we suffer with our lives, and the absolute intention for the well-being of all concerned. As human beings we cut the world into pieces-trees, spouse, earth, food, enemy, friend. As awakening human beings we are experiencing the world without doing this! Fortunately, there are no fixed or permanent states of mind such as delusion, greed, anger, fear, or depression. Alas, the mind of awakening is also not fixed or permanent. Thus, it behooves us to continually aspire to waking up moment-to-moment.

The role of the Zen teacher then, is to teach awakening. It is only the awakening mind that ends the suffering in life. The primary teaching methodology is by displaying one’s own understanding, but a Zen teacher has some other tools in her (his) tool belt as well. We’ll look at some of those next month. I use the participle of the verb “engage” to create a sense of dynamic activity Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese monk responsible for introducing Soto Zen Buddhism to Japan, called this “body-mind dropped away”. Current medical and psychological models are now talking about training in “mindfulness”. If we only bring “mindfulness” to the activity at hand, we could very mindfully kill human beings, kick dogs, and smack our children. Wisdom and compassion must also be included.

It is important to understand that “moment” here is not referring to a point in time but rather is the activity at hand or a dynamic functioning. Awakened activity is not bound by our sensory inputs or a limited conceptualization of time and space. “Interconnectedness” is seeing the entire universe as one body. Different parts of our universe-body might have different aptitudes and activities, but all parts are required for existence. Our hand doesn’t exist separately from our lungs.

If we are all interconnected and functioning as one body, who is it that wakes up? Could delusive mind and awakening mind, both be part of Mind and if so, to what are we aspiring?

Part 3 of 3

Last month I talked about the “waking up” defining that as fully engaging in the present moment bringing both compassion and wisdom to bear. When fully engaged in our lives, we drop away the concept of self and other. We are not viewing the world from the side of the everyday reality nor are we slipping into a state of mind where it is all One. Instead there is a dynamic functioning that jumps over the Relative and Absolute view of the world. This jumping over is not something that you can rationally decide to do. Instead we practice it by beginning and ending our day sitting zazen and then taking that into everyday activities. It is these activities of daily life that allow for the interaction between student and teacher.

The most important, really the only tool a teacher has at her/his disposal, is his/her own practice. The teacher displays her/his practice by just going through the day. After morning sitting there is a bowing and chanting service. Everything we need to exist is being supplied by the universe. Human beings as well as other sentient and non-sentient beings are gifting their lives to us. We bow to Shakyamuni Buddha who taught us this practice, to our teachers who have dedicated their lives to handing down their understanding, to all those people known and unknown who have taken care of us, and to all those beings supporting our life. We bow because there is simply nothing to say or do that can repay them for their generosity and efforts. Finally, we just bow.

When I first was training in Japan, I went to Zuioji monastery on the island of Shikoku. There I was put in a small room for five days and taught the ways of eating, chanting, bowing, and moving around the temple. At my first morning service I sat in the back row while forty monks made their bows and harmonized their chanting of the ancient texts. The abbot, Ikko Narasaki, was leading service. He was already quite elderly and appeared rather frail, but after he offered incense and spread out his bowing mat, I witnessed my first bow. Now I had been training for ten years and had been doing morning service every morning for the past four years. I knew how to bow or so I thought! But here was someone who brought every cell in his body to just making this one bow. And then after standing up, he did another bow and then another. Each one was if this was the first and only bow he was ever going to do. I remember saying to myself, “Now that is how to bow” and ever since, I try to bow like this old monk, who just completely displayed his practice. With my painful knee, I’ve resorted to doing standing bows, allowing me to aim at just bowing with this body as it is.

Morning service is followed by meals, work, exercise, evening zazen, and study-activities of daily life. Students who are here get to interact with like-minded Sangha members and with Jisen and myself. Each moment-by-moment activity is an opportunity to wake-up and the spoon, computer, seed packet, Sangha member become teacher and student. Ninety-nine per cent of the training in Zen Buddhism is the interaction that is occurring all the time. Narasaki-roshi didn’t come over and correct my bow, he just bowed. This training-by-example can be very difficult to grasp. Dai-en Bennage, abbess of Mt. Equity Zendo in Muncy, PA says, “You have to steal the teacher’s dharma *1.”

Zen teachers also use the hitting of the bells, formal meals, chanting, and the choreography of the zendo and Buddha Hall to teach. Does it really matter if one steps into the zendo using one’s right foot (versus the left which is “correct”)? Absolutely! To step in with the left requires one to pay attention to even this small detail of life. If we are ever to end the deep suffering in our lives, we have to pay attention to this life right here and now. Take care of this moment, and this moment, and this moment. If I had to say what my Master-that old Buddha Nonin- taught me, I would have to say “It is a matter of life and death”, where “it” is every moment *2. Zen Master Joshu put it this way to a newly arrived monk: “Have you eaten this morning? Then please wash your bowl.”

*1. Dharma in this context means teaching
*2. On the back of my students’ rakusus (small bib-like Buddhist robe denoting someone who has taken the precepts with me) I write “Just This” to remind my students and me.

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