Transcribed from a talk given July 24, 2007
I think, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges that we face when it come to practice is our idea of what practice is. It’s that as we come to practice, as we make this effort to sit down and do this practice of meditation, as we sit, we are already completely full of ideas. Ideas about what should happen as we sit, what it is that we’re going to gain from sitting, how it is that we need to change, what it is that we need to see, what we should be experiencing in practice.
There’s a great old story of a western student sitting down with a Zen master and asking him to teach him about Zen. And so the master goes to pour him a cup of tea. And as he pours the cup becomes full...but the master just keeps pouring more and more tea as it spills all over the table. This is our position as we come to practice. We come with a cup that’s already full to the brim, full of ideas, full of hopes and expectations.
I speak about one of the founders of Zen, Bodhidharma, who brought the teaching of Zen, from India into China. One of his famous responses to the emperor at that time was, he was asked, “who is this that stands before me.” His response was, “don’t know” or “no knowing”. And as each of us enters into this practice, each of us, every time we take up this seat in a zendo we have to remind ourselves of this “don’t know”. As we take our first breath in and exhale, as we exhale we should exhale all our ideas about ourselves, exhale all of our expectations of what’s going to come out of this practice, what’s going to come out of this sit, exhale what it is that we think we need to do, need to get, or need to be rid of in order to be happy. Because all of these things, all of these hopes, expectations, assumptions are just ideas. They exist only in the mind.
This practice asks us to step out of the mind, to step out of what we think is happening in this moment, to make a connection with our bodies, to make a connection with the activity of this moment and experience it just as it is. To do this, to engage in this moment just as it is, is something which is very difficult to do because this moment is complete, as I say over and over again. This moment has as its content all things in this vast universe.
When I say something like this, it’s so easy to get lost in ideas. Immediately our mind wanders to all that is pleasant, all that is joyous, all that is wonderful and light. But when I say that this moment has as its content all things it includes the things that we don’t like, that we are uncomfortable with, that we would much prefer to avoid and get away from. So as we come to practice, as we enter into this activity or engage with this practice of “don’t know”, we also let go of all of our distractions, all of those little games that we play with our mind and with our body that take us away from the things in this very moment that we find uncomfortable, difficult or unpleasant.
These things manifest in all kinds of ways as we sit. The most coarse and simple ones are physical sensations. This posture of simply just sitting still even for a short period of fifteen minutes becomes virtually unbearable. I’ve heard all kinds of stories: the sensation of spiders on the skin, strange aches and pains, emotional turmoil, upset, anger, grief, fear. As we let go, as we settle into this moment just as it is, all that we try to avoid, all that we try to distract ourselves from, all that we try not to feel, arises.
This is why it is so very important to find a community of practice. The Buddha taught of three treasures. Many people focus so strongly on the first two: Buddha, Dharma—the teaching, the teacher. But the Sangha is given so little importance in our culture. I think it is cultural because ours is the culture of “me. “I can do this on my own, I don’t need help.” But as we sit, as we engage in this practice, as the mind and body settles and we come into awareness of all that is in this moment, as we deepen in our intimacy with our own sticking points, our own difficulties, we find at times it can be quite difficult.
We find at times we can make lists that are pages long of other things that we should be doing right now other than sitting here. We find that this physical activity of sitting creates such resistance that we want to run screaming from the room. But we also begin to develop the awareness that this practice of becoming aware, of becoming intimate with these things that we want to run from, that we want to avoid, allows us to gain insight into how it is that we go about living our lives.
We begin to see that it’s not just as we sit that we are so desperately trying to avoid these things. But in our day to day lives, in our day to day interactions, in our relationships and in our jobs we make decisions based not on wisdom, not on what is best for all concerned, but on what is going to remove me from what is difficult, what is going to help me avoid what is unpleasant of uncomfortable for me.
As we develop this awareness, and with the support of our friends in practice, as we engage in this activity of embracing that which is difficult, little bit by little bit we become free, no longer running with wide-eyed fear from those things that make us uncomfortable, we are able to enter into this moment just as it is with steadiness, clarity. We are able to manifest harmoniously regardless of what situation arises.
In order to do this however, as we sit we have to let go of what we think should happen, how we think we should be, what we think our practice is. We have to be willing to step off this cliff, letting go of our thinking mind, letting go of the grasping intellect and entering wholeheartedly into the completeness of this moment.
In Zen practice many people come with all kinds of questions—what about the six realms of existence, what about karma, what about birth and death, the twelve links in the chain of causation, the jhanas, what about all this stuff—but from the perspective of Zen we ask that you experience this moment just as it is, realize that in this moment all things are manifest, this moment has as its content all things. Realize this!
These teachings, all of them—causation, birth and death, realms of existence—arise out of the experience of this moment and until we grasp that, until we take hold of that for ourselves, these things are just discussions that take place in the intellectual mind, and they are of no value. We go out thinking we’ve understood something, we go out thinking we’ve gained something, we go out thinking that we’re better for it, smarter for it. But in our day to day interactions, in how we confront the difficulty of this moment, and how we are pursued by our fears and our anxieties, this knowledge makes no difference.
The great challenge that we have in our culture with Buddhism is that this practice is one that is fundamentally simple; we’re not trying to grasp some lofty knowledge which sits on a mountain top somewhere for only the best and the brightest. The experience of this moment is readily available to everyone. The fundamental nature of all things in this vast universe is already awake. But that just seems to simple. And in this culture of facebook, internet, international warfare and intrigue, that we could become liberated from suffering in this moment simply by becoming intimate with the activity of the breath seems an impossibility. And it is in our infinite complexity that we miss it.
So I encourage each of you as we practice together, to let go. As you sit down, fold your legs, straighten your back...take in your first breath. As you exhale, let what you know drop away and simply enter into this moment just as it is.