Transcribed from a talk given October 9, 2007.
One of the sayings in Zen is that we must practise like our heads are on fire. What does that mean?
One of the most difficult aspects of Zen practice, when I’m dealing with students just starting into the practice, is commitment. I think that this is a real challenge. I don’t know if it is a recent one in our culture, in our time, but it seems that many, many people struggle with commitment. At the Zen Centre we have a course for students who have completed the introductory course called "The Fundamentals of Zen", and in this course we talk about a ceremony called Jukai, or receiving the precepts. This ceremony of Jukai is fundamentally a commitment ceremony, and I think that in investigating a commitment ceremony, several things arise.
As we go about our lives, I think that many of us develop a great fear. I’ve talked about how each of us holds ourselves as being separate. Each of us takes ourselves as being fundamentally separate, apart from the rest of this world that we live in. We take ourselves as being fixed and permanent, lasting amidst this universe that is changing, amidst this universe which is a manifestation of this fundamental activity of plus and minus, birth and death. As we fixate, as we more and more strongly attach ourselves to this idea of “I”, we start to engage in habits, in behaviours, which enforce, which strengthen, which support this belief.
We live in a culture of abundance, abundance in every aspect—in resources, in opportunities, in everything. Each of us is faced everyday with a myriad of choices, choices about everything—what we want to eat, what we want to drink, what we want to do with our lives, where we want to live. But I think along with these myriad choices, many of us develop a kind of neurotic fear.
As we face each of these choices, we start to worry, “What if I make the wrong choice? What if I make a choice now and then two weeks down the road I don’t like my choice? I’ll be a fool. People will think less of me. I’ll have wasted time.” And bound so strongly by this fear, this concern, many of us never make choices. And we find that there are more and more people in this world who, as we grow older and older, have never settled down, found a home.
More and more people have difficulty maintaining relationships, whether they are friends, or whether they are intimate family relationships. More and more people are finding themselves older and older and still not quite sure what it is that they want to do for a living, for work. Each of us is so plagued by this fear of making a mistake that it virtually paralyzes us. Paralyzes us from going deeper, from doing more than just scratching along the surface.
If we reflect on our own lives, we’ve got to ask ourselves if this is the case—is this the case in how we live? Is this the case in how we love? is this the case in how we work? Commitment is something which I think for many, many people is terrifying. It shows up in all kinds of different places with different people.
I’ve dealt with a lot of young men, who after living with their girlfriends for some time, the girlfriends start to talk about getting married, and the young man starts to squirm. “But babe...we’ve been living together...that’s the same as marriage isn’t it?” But it’s not.
When it comes to practice, we find that in the Jukai ceremony there are a couple of components that I speak about during this fundamentals course, and one is this part of the script in which it says, “I will refrain from following deluded teachings. I will take the Buddha as my teacher from now and into the endless future.” People get all squirrely about this stuff—“Woah! What are you talking about?”
Each of us, in this wonderful culture that we live in, where there is freedom to practice whatever form of spirituality that we wish, make this same mistake. There’s no commitment. Hopping from here to there, we take little bits of this and little bits of that, whatever it is that makes us feel good and comfortable, leaving whatever it is that makes us uncomfortable, that squeezes us a little bit.
I think that most of us by now know that it is in these tight corners, in these places that we don’t want to go, these places where we get squeezed, that we sometimes gain the greatest insights. In Buddhism, from the beginning, it’s important to understand that each of us is free to come and go. Even for a monk, a person is free to come and take ordination, they are free to leave the order. Having left the order they are free to return.
It’s important in practice that we understand that making mistakes is not such a big thing. In fact, if we are alive, if we are breathing, walking on this earth, we will make mistakes. Can you deal with that? Can you be okay with your mistakes? Can you say, “I am sorry"? Can you say, “I messed up”? Can you say, “I will try to do better”?
In the end we find that what is of greater value, greater weight, as we walk through this world, isn’t so much where we make that choice, what it is that we choose to do, who it is who we choose to be with, but rather, how completely we engage in that commitment. In practice we are encouraged to practise like our heads are on fire. This is a very graphic image.
When your head is on fire, you spare no expense to put it out. You don’t pat at it with one hand while you are doing something else. You don’t say, “Oh, I’ll deal with that in a minute.” Completely and fully it captures your entire attention. Just do it! But this encouragement isn’t something that we just talk about for Zen practice. This admonition is one for the rest of our lives.
If you are going to live, then LIVE! Live with your full attention. Wake up! Stop daydreaming! Each of us has as our capacity this fundamental wisdom, Buddha nature. The Buddha said, “Fundamentally, each of us is already awake but we don’t know it.” As we practice, whether we are engaged in this simple activity of breathing, just simply sitting here, whether we are walking through this world doing our work, being with the people that we love, do it like your head is on fire.
There is nowhere else to be. We can spend so much time vascillating, saying, “Well, if I commit to this thing, then I leave everything else out. If I commit to this person, then it means that all of these other wonderful people I can’t be with. If I commit to dedicating an act to a certain group of people, then I leave every other group of people out.” In the end, we find that all we have accomplished is being stingy with our very lives. We can’t save it. It doesn’t gain interest.
Each of us, in every situation that we find ourselves in, has got to live. So, maybe some of you are engaged in a spiritual practice, maybe it’s Zen, maybe it’s something else. Maybe some of you are engaged in getting an education. Maybe some of you are engaged in making a relationship with another person. Maybe some of you are engaged in a type of work.
Please, don’t waste your life. Earnestly consider if you’re really doing it. Shore up the energy and commit. Because in the end, it’s not that you are committing to this job, this education, this person, this religion or this spiritual practice; you are making a commitment to your life.
There’s another quote, from the Mumonkan, case one: if you can’t do this, if you can’t cut off the thinking mind (which thinks, “Well what about this and what about that.”), then you’re just going to live your life like a ghost, clinging to bushes and weeds.
This choice is yours to make, so please, make it.