Transcribed from a talk given October 16, 2007
Many people take up an interest in Buddhism when they hear about it, when they hear about the teachings in Buddhism of compassion, or mindfulness, or awareness.
Many people come through the Zen Centre as well as the Chaplain's office here at UVic interested in talking about the ideas, the concepts that are presented in the Buddhist scriptures, in the writings.
It’s important to acknowledge, it’s important to recognize, as we come to practice, that this teaching, the Dharma, is not something that was meant to be studied in an exclusively intellectual way. It was not something which was intended to be conceptualized and understood in our minds. This is a teaching that is a practice. It’s something that, if we really want to grasp, if we really want to gain insight into it, it’s something that we need to practise. So we come together in this group.
Many people who have done various kinds of meditation in various kinds of traditions, are sometimes surprised by the formality of Zen practice, they are surprised by the form. For me, I think a big part of this surprise is really the sort of popular culture image that Buddhism is given. It should be acknowledged that the Buddha’s term for this practice was dhamma vinaya which means something like “the teaching and the discipline”.
In Zen practice, as we come into this form, we find that immediately we are confronted. Immediately, the things that we prefer, the ways that we are comfortable, what we like, is bounced back at us and we are asked to sit just this way, we are asked to walk just this way, we are asked to bow, to respond to the bells and clappers. We are asked, in essence, to let go of our fixation with self-satisfaction, doing things our way, and we are asked to manifest harmoniously with our environment, with all things within it.
We find that if we practice in the Zen Centre, Eshu doesn’t talk so much about compassion, Eshu doesn’t go on and on about mindfulness. What I emphasise is practice, practising in harmony with all things. When we engage in this form, we find that immediately we are kind of squished right up against our neighbour. When we are shown into the zendo, there are no spaces allowed from one sitter to the next. Why?
As we practice, we come to experience what it means, what compassion means, what mindfulness means, by bumping up against one another. We find that when everything is so tight, if we gap out, if we are unmindful, we step on the person in front of us. If somebody is unmindful, their cushions and the contents of their clothing start to spill over into our already limited space, and we start to experience how that impacts us. And if we’re sensitive, we start to become aware of how our own awareness, our mindfulness, how our behaviour and how our conduct, impacts those around us. We begin to become aware of our connection through the experience of practice. We begin to practice as a group, we begin to practice as one. We begin to let go of our own concerns. We begin to let go of our concern for ourselves and to experience harmony.
This word compassion—the Sanskrit term karuna—is one of the few words that I actually really appreciate the English translation of—compassion. It means “to suffer with”, to recognize that the suffering of another is not something which is separate from ourselves.
Just the experience of being pressed ourselves, just the experience of being stepped on ourselves, helps us to understand what it is to be pressed, helps us to understand what it is to be stepped on, and it gives rise to mindfulness, awareness. We begin to carry ourselves differently, and we begin to investigate these principles not as a concept—“Ahh, I understand compassion now”—but as a visceral, experiential realization.
No longer looking at myself as something that is separate from my environment, separate from the things around me, separate from the people that I’m in relationship with, I begin to have an inkling, or a glimmer that maybe this assertion of separation isn’t such a good idea.
For many people, the form of Zen practice is a difficult one; the lines are very clear. And for those who engage in the deepening of practice through performing one of the officer roles, one of the challenges is to really engage with such clearly defined boundaries; what is this person’s responsibility? What is that person’s responsibility?
We engage in this practice of committing ourselves entirely to fulfilling our clearly defined responsibility and not stepping over. This is a challenge for a lot of people. Seeing something undone but that lies outside of our personal responsibility is difficult. In training we are asked to allow it to go undone, to allow the person who’s responsibility it is to fulfill it, and if they miss, to be held accountable for it.
When we first start practice, the boundaries are no less clear. We’re given specific instruction on how to hold our hands, how to sit, how to breathe, and how to walk. The only responsibility we have is to manifest harmoniously with the form, but we find that this simple and very clearly defined instruction, this very clearly defined responsibility, really can just rub us the wrong way sometimes—“I don’t want to do it this way. "..."I don’t want to walk in-step.” We find that all kinds of thoughts, and emotions, choices and preferences and dislikes rise right up into our throat. The simple activity of walking in-step, for some people, can inspire downright anger.
Zen practice, this engagement with a formal practice, is sometimes referred to as “the mirror of zazen”, and if we don’t hold that uncomfortable feeling, if we don’t hold those responses, those reactions to practice, at arm’s length, if we are willing to engage them, to embrace them, to recognize them as our own, we are able to use this practice as a mirror, as an opportunity to reflect on how it is that we walk through this world and what it is that we fixate ourselves to, on how strongly we engage in this activity of fixating, of attaching to like and dislike. We can become more aware of how this tendency leads us to suffer.
As we continue to practice, we can learn to let go, to dissolve, to allow these things that we so strongly attach to, to melt away. We can learn to manifest in harmony with our environment, with the situation that we find ourselves in. This isn’t an easy practice. Our habit when we come across something that is uncomfortable is to get away from it as quickly as possible, to distract ourselves, to avoid.
Zen practice asks us to simply sit, just be with that. Don’t try to get away from it, don’t try to avoid it, but also don’t indulge in it. Just simply be with it. Come to know it, intimately. As we continue to do this practice we find that there will be moments where our resistance gives way, where for even a moment, even a breath, we are able to let go of this sense of separation and melt away into the activity of breathing. Breathing with all things in this vast universe, we find that we’re able to drop away, even for a glimpse, into the activity of walking, in which there is no “I am”.
We begin to realize, to experience, that the foundation of compassion, the foundation of mindfulness, is not in the head, it’s not a concept, it’s not a way of working from the outside as an idea that things should seem more connected, but rather working from the experience of the unification with all things in this vast universe and then beginning to live your life based on that experience. So as we continue to practice, please, don’t spend your time in spinning over concepts. Feel yourself sitting. Simply breathe. Be with the person who is sitting beside you. Be with the people that are practising in this room; be with this room. Let go of this sense of separation. Let go of this sense of “I am”, “I want”, “it should be” and experience the completeness of this very moment just as it is.