Transcribed from a talk given Tuesday January 16, 2007. To listen to the podcast of this talk, click here.
Where is it, that we’re living our lives? When we investigate this moment, when we investigate this life that we’re living, where is it that we spend our time? Can you say that you’re truly present, in this moment, fully, doing the activity of this moment, fully? Or are we in the past, reminiscing about how wonderful this was or how awful that was? Are we in the future, fantasizing about how things will turn out, how wonderful things would be if only just... you fill in the blank?
Buddhism teaches us that the content of our lives, the content of this vast universe, is present, in this very moment, just as it is. Not one single thing is lacking in this very moment. And yet we go around spending all of our time, thinking about past, thinking about future, walking into things in this very moment, unaware.
It’s easy to disregard things. It’s easy to think things small and insignificant. It’s easy to create a hierarchy of activities in our lives, and relegate this to important, worthy of our attention, and that to, oh, just go through the motions. There’s a bunch of things that we do this with. Brushing our teeth maybe, making our breakfast maybe. Sometimes even eating breakfast, eating our food, is relegated to this pile of things which is a necessary inconvenience for survival. Where are you? What is more important than the activity of this very moment, which is the content of your life?
There’s a saying in Zen: the tiger kills the mouse with all of its strength. It doesn’t disregard even such a small thing as a mouse. TAAAH! Everything goes into catching that mouse. If we truly appreciate our lives, if we truly appreciate that this very moment is the complete content of our lives, we can live like this. And if we engage in our lives in this manner, it’s clear, it’s radiantly clear to ourselves and to those around us, and when we don’t, this is also clear. An old master called this living like ghosts, clinging to bushes and weeds; bushes in the past, weeds in the future, drifting like an empty spirit.
The form of Zen practice as we engage in this practice is another opportunity for us to engage with the activity of our lives. Even in this formal activity that we engage in on a Tuesday evening, there are things that fall into the hierarchy. What’s important, we think, is the sitting meditation, that’s what Zen practice is. The walking, why that’s just about stretching your legs, feeling better. We need to pay attention to our practice. This moment is the content of our lives. When we think something’s not important, we aren’t taking our lives, this moment, as important. We become a ghost.
Walking meditation has a simple instruction: keep in step, and walk close behind the person in front of you. It’s a simple instruction which we can see is remarkably difficult to follow -- if we even bother to try to follow this instruction. We find that as we move, as we walk, the mind goes this way and that. We look around, we start thinking about this and that. The next time we look down at our feet, we realize that we’ve fallen behind; we’ve fallen out of step.
Walking meditation is the practice of harmonious activity: letting go of the sense of separation, letting go of our self-concern, and manifesting harmoniously with our environment, with our community, as one. Zazen, the sitting meditation, is important, but being able to take that stability, that sense of interconnectedness that we can gain through sitting, that we can experience and realize through the practice of sitting meditation, being able to take that into action, is the function of practice.
We begin with something very simple: keep in step, stay close behind the person in front of you. But we find that our self-concern, our habits of thinking about past and future, make this actually quite a very difficult thing to do. This is why it’s called practice, we need to keep coming back to it. If these concerns, if these habit patterns, if this way of being with others and with our environment prevents us from manifesting harmoniously in a simple activity: left, right, breathing in, breathing out... When we’re engaged in this practice with a bunch of people, with a community that is also engaged in this activity of trying to manifest harmoniously, well, if we can’t do it here, how can we take this out into the world?
We are creatures of habit, of conditioning. Buddhism teaches us to become aware of the activity of cause and effect. What we are practising is walking in harmony with our environment, walking in harmony with our community. This starts very small. Breathing in, breathing out. Left, right. So I encourage you all to engage in this practice, instead of like ghosts, going through the motions, like tigers. Don’t discount any aspect of this practice as being insignificant or any less important than any other part. Because in the end this practice isn’t practice. It’s not an object. It’s not something external. This activity is what you have chosen to expend your life in. This moment is the content of your life. So don’t waste it.