Friday, May 1, 2009

What is it that you get from Zen practice?

Transcription of a talk given September 11, 2007.

I’d like to start tonight by just welcoming back the students that have returned from their summers and to welcome the new students that have come out tonight for the first time to practice Zen with this community.

I think in our culture we operate from a perspective of gain, of obtaining, getting something. I think a lot of people have come to school, come to this University, so that they could get a good education, so that they could gain some knowledge, some understanding about this world that they live in.

Even when we come to this practice of Buddhism, for most of us, there is this idea of getting something. We think about getting some peace, getting some tranquility, getting some relief from stress. This is our position as we walk around in this world, looking at things from the perspective of self, of an “I” that stands separate from all things in this vast universe.

The fundamental perspective of Buddhism is that just as you are in this very moment you are complete. Just as you are in this very moment you are not separate from all things. We are one. We go about in this world deluded, to use the traditional term. We have grown from children with this idea, with this belief that we are separate, that we are distinct, that we are removed somehow from this world around us. And as we grow, as we develop, we start to rely on all kinds of external things to identify ourselves.

We start with mommy and daddy: I am son, I am daughter. We have a name. We begin to have things that we have particular affinities for, likes and dislikes. We become this person that likes this thing or dislikes that thing. We become the kind of person that does this and doesn’t do that, that socializes with these and not with those. And as we continue to develop, as we continue to grow, more and more strongly, in a more and more complex way, we engage in this identification of self. And as we continue to develop, more and more, we engage in the fixation, or the attachment to this self that we have identified.

As we continue to develop, as we continue to get deeper and deeper into this definition of self, at first we find that it is a relief, that it’s a refuge that we can know ourselves, that we can more and more clearly define what it is that I am. But at some point we begin to notice a sway in balance, that is to say, as we continue to do this, as we continue to engage in this practice of more and more specifically defining ourselves, we begin to experience this realization that the more specific we become, the more and more things we are not. The more clearly we define our limitations, our personal limitations—“I like this and I don’t like that”—the more we find ourselves in contact with those things that we don’t like, the more we find ourselves longing for the things that we do.

We begin to feel a lack. We think, “Oh, I’m incomplete, I’m just this, and I would be so much better if I could just get the other, these things which I have clarified as being outside of myself, these things that are not me, are outside.” These manifest in all kinds of different ways: “Maybe if I just had this much money. Maybe if I just had this degree, or that diploma, or this certificate. Maybe if I could just find a relationship, or have a child, or have a nice fancy car.” And so we go from one thing to another. And sometimes, through a great deal of effort and through a great deal of time and energy we actually achieve, acquiring this thing that we feel we need. So we have our money, we have our car, we have our job, or our partner. But this tendency we have to separate, to isolate, to define ourselves is still in place; we feel separate from this world around us and incomplete. We can think to ourselves, “How can this be. I was sure if I got this money… I was sure if I got this diploma… I was sure if I got married or had a family… that I would feel complete, but I don’t. Having this one thing just makes me more clearly realize all the things that I don’t have.” So what is the remedy?

As I said, the fundamental position of Buddhism is that just as you are in this very moment you are not separate. Just as you are in this very moment you are complete. We begin by simply taking up this stable seat, sitting still. We begin by turning the mind inward, following this breath. As we engage in this activity of being aware of the breath, the activity of the breath, breathing in and breathing out, we begin to become aware of the fundamental activity of this universe, this activity of plus and minus, male or female, arising or dissolving.

As we continue to investigate this activity, as we begin to become more stable in our mind and in our bodies, as we begin to let go of our distracting thoughts, we can begin to investigate this thing that we call a self. We can begin to investigate this thing that we have taken, unconditionally, without question, as being solid, fixed, permanent, definite, and we can start to investigate it: Who am I? What am I? At the root of the teachings of Buddhism is this statement that there is no self, there is nothing in this vast universe which is fixed, permanent, unchanging, or lasting. And we’re not asked to believe this, we are not asked to accept this as an article of faith, unquestioningly. But rather, with a stable mind and body, we are asked to investigate whether or not this is so.

As we reflect, as we sit in this posture, as our thoughts arise, as our feelings arise, as physical sensations arise, there is nothing to do but to witness, simply be aware in this very moment, and we can observe this activity taking place. We find that these experiences arise, they are born. We can find that these experiences exist for a time. We can witness these experiences turning, dissolving, melting away. And we can experience these sensations disappearing. When we come to investigate ourselves, it’s very difficult in the beginning to look at the self as anything other than solid. But when we actually take the time to investigate it, to ask ourselves, “What is this thing that I call ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’? What is it that constitutes this thing which I hold separate, opposed to all other things in this universe? Is it my thoughts? Is it my feelings? Is it my dreams and aspirations? Is it my physical body?”

Even if we briefly investigate these things, we find that as they are in this moment is not how they were even a week ago, it’s not how they were a year ago, and it’s certainly not as they were when we were children. I think that each of us, as we investigate this thing that we call a self, can readily accept that as we are today we will not be next week or a year from now. So where is this thing that we call a self?

If we cannot lay a hand on it, then we seriously have to question our activities in this world. When we interact with others, when we interact with objects, are we manifesting ourselves harmoniously with the understanding that we are impermanent, or are we taking ourselves as being solid, fixed? Are we taking ourselves as one with things, intimately connected and dependent on all other things in this universe, or are we taking ourselves as separate and disconnected?

This practice that we are engaged in is quite counter to the way that we’ve been brought up. It’s counter to the way that we’ve been educated and groomed to grasp. The fundamental point that ‘just as you are you are complete’ is the ground of practice; there is nothing to be gained, there is nothing to be added, there is nothing to be improved upon.

Each of us in our practice has to come to this realization that these limitations that we feel were not imposed upon us by something external—our mother did not impose it upon us, our father did not impose it upon us, our culture did not impose it upon us. These limitations, these fixations, are things that we ourselves have accepted, we ourselves have chosen, we ourselves have attached to.

Many people ask, “What is it that you get from Zen practice?” And I often respond that it’s not so much that I’ve gotten anything from Zen practice but I have lost an awful lot. I have lost a feeling of isolation, I have lost a feeling of loneliness, I have lost a feeling of fear of something other.

If there is anything to be gained through practice, it is this experience of waking up, this experience of seeing things as they truly are, this experience, this visceral experience, of realizing that we are complete in this very moment just as we are. There is nothing to be gained, there is nothing to be desired and there is nowhere else to be.

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