Transcribed from a talk given November 27, 2007
When we begin to take up a practice like Zen, I think that for many of us we’re very interested in the external components of practice. We’re interested in learning about the form and doing it right. We’re interested in what it is that we think that we’ll get from practice and how that will appear, manifest itself, outwardly in our lives. At the Victoria Zen Centre when people come and approach practice I take a very methodical approach. We have a course called the Introduction to Zen Meditation course, and in this course, people are introduced little bit by little bit to the form that we use in our formal practice. But more importantly, as we go along in this course we are given homework, physical practice homework, in which we are encouraged and supported to develop a stable and consistent practice, starting very small and developing as we go.
I have found that people in general, as we start to do this practice, we seem to have a very good idea of what it is that we think we need to get from practice, or what we think practice will give us, or what it is that we need to sort out in our Zen practice and what we think will come of it.
One of the first masters in Zen is famous for an interchange in which his response to a question of who he is—“who is this that sits before me?”—is, “Don’t know.”
When we first come to practice, generally speaking we are coming from a position of wanting to change, wanting to transform, wanting to improve, wanting to develop, wanting to grow. These are all synonymous but they don’t seem to catch, they don’t seem to encompass, the totality of this experience that draws us all to practice.
For each of us something is just not quite right. There’s just something that can be improved or enriched or deepened or transformed. Something is just a little bit out of place. And we hope that by engaging in something like Zen practice, we can put it right.
But what is it that’s out of place? What is it that we feel so strongly needs to be put right?
A lot of people, when I start to talk about the four noble truths in Buddhism, have reservations about the first noble truth that life is suffering; they’ll say, “Well, no it’s not. It’s not always suffering.” Suffering is a poor translation of this term dukkha. Dukkha, accurately translated, comes closer to dissatisfaction, dissatisfactory-ness. And so the first noble truth that life is dukkha is in fact what draws us to practice. Each of us, if we were perfectly satisfied and happy, feeling completely fulfilled and enriched by our lives, I don’t think would be looking for something like Zen practice.
So the very fact that we’ve wound up here shows us that we are aware, we are aware on some level, that something is not quite right. There is some insight, some awareness of this first noble truth. The second noble truth that the Buddha taught is the truth of the cause of suffering; the cause of suffering being desire, or craving. The Buddha taught that we like to identify our self, we like to define, to separate, to isolate, this personality, this body, this thing that we call a person or a self. We like to separate that from everything else in this universe, and we call it “me” and we call it “my” and we call it “I”. And having created this distinction between inside and outside, and having completely accepted its reality, its permanence, its durability, we begin to make judgments, we begin to make value statements, be begin to decide on good and bad, right and wrong, what we like and what we don’t like.
But when we make these judgments and when we make these decisions we forget that these are based on this thing called a self, that these are subjective evaluations. And as we forget, we begin to take these judgments as being absolute. When we find something that makes us happy, that makes us comfortable, we want it, we desire it and we pursue it. When we find something that makes us uncomfortable, that’s unpleasant, we also desire, we want to be away from it, we want to avoid it.
So regardless of what situation we come across, by creating this separation between the self and other, inside and outside, by piling on top of this our subjective opinion of things—“this is good and this is bad”—we enter into a world of craving, desire. We want the things that we like, we want to be away from the things that we don’t like, that make us uncomfortable; either way, always wanting.
One of the principles that the Buddha also taught was this principle of anicca, impermanence—all things in this vast universe, all things that are of the nature to be born are of the nature to die. So, as we pursue things and people, objects, wealth, position, we pursue these things as if they’re absolute answers, they’re absolute solutions, and we say, “I’ll be happy when I have this” or “I’ll be happy when I’m in this position” or, conversely, for the things that we don’t like we say, “I’ll be happy when I’m rid of this at long last, for good.” But I don’t think any of us has come across anything in this life that has been lasting.
The money gets spent, the beauty fades, the position changes, and we find ourselves once again fundamentally dissatisfied, looking around for what it is outside ourselves that’s making us unhappy, or what it is outside of ourselves that we can get to make ourselves happy.
The third noble truth that the Buddha taught was that there is a way to end this suffering, there is a way to let go of this concept of self, there is a way dissolve, to let go of this constant craving, this constant wanting. In Zen practice we begin to take up this path, this eight fold noble path.
Our first practice, the first task that’s set before us as we practice is to first and foremost plant our feet in this moment. So when we first come in and we’re given an opportunity to be instructed in sitting meditation it’s very important to pay attention, because what we’re being guided in is not just a physical activity—how do we place our bodies so that we can sit comfortably, it is an instruction on how it is that we can begin to be born into our lives, into this moment.
We find that as we begin to engage in this practice, as we start to sit, we find how little we’re here, how little we live in our lives, how very little time we spend in this moment; constantly we’re drifting around in a world of past, in a world of future, reminiscing about a past which in all likelihood is not completely accurate, fantasizing about a future which is most likely rather ideal.
The first practice that we take up Zen is to simply become aware in this very moment—what it is that we’re doing. Entering into this moment fully we experience this activity, which in our tradition is referred to as the activity of plus and minus. The plus activity is one of arising. As we arise we recognize distinction, we recognize differentiation, we recognize the uniqueness of each thing manifest in this world. But we don’t stick there, we don’t hang on. This is the mistake of most people. We don’t take this form as something which is lasting, permanent or fixed. We don’t mistake it for something which is absolutely distinct or separate from everything else in this vast universe.
As we continue, reaching the maximum of the activity of plus, just as when we breathe in we can only breathe in so far, we can’t keep breathing in, and so this activity turns and we begin to dissolve, to manifest the minus activity, the death activity. And as we dissolve, as we melt away, as we let go of this fixation with distinction, we experience the dissolution of self. And like a wave that has crested we experience the embrace of the vastness of the ocean, we experience the embrace of the vastness of this universe, and perhaps for the first time in our lives we experience that we are not separate, we experience what we call in Zen “one true nature” or “our original face.” We experience this state which is also called unconditional love. Or if you’re so inclined, from the Buddhist perspective the manifestation of this state of zero we can understand as the experience of “God”. But in this state, there is nobody to talk about it, there’s nobody to compare and contrast, there’s nobody to talk about good or evil or right and wrong, for in this state of absolute zero not even a speck of dust is separate.
Just as we can’t keep inhaling, at once this state, this experience—zero—turns. One single speck of dust breaking apart from this complete whole and all things in this vast universe are born. The practice or Zen is not about grasping this activity as an intellectual concept, it doesn’t take very long to do that but it’s also of very little use. As we practice, as we engage in this simple activity of breathing and being aware of our breath, of living and being aware of our life, we begin to experience the activity of this universe, we begin to experience that with each breath we are born and with each breath we die.
We begin to experience that this thing that we have so strongly grasped onto and identified and taken as being solid and permanent, this “I”—with its preferences, with its choices, with its “I’m this kind of person and I’m that kind of person and I would never do that”—we stop holding onto it so tightly. And maybe, just maybe, as we practice we start to gain a glimpse of this “don’t know”. As we experience this state of “don’t know” we start to taste, we start to witness the possibility, we start to gain insight into the limitless capacity of our true nature, that these boundaries that we put upon ourselves and call “I” are just something that we choose to take up, that these inadequacies, that these things that we have taken as being outside of ourselves—both the ones we like and the ones we want to avoid—we begin to realize are not separate from us, that this idea of inside and outside is just something that we make up.
And when we start to experience this, when we start to really move beyond the concept, we wonder, “What is it then that’s missing? What it is then that there is to obtain? What is it then that there is to avoid?” When we come to this place, we realize that this very moment is our true home, we realize that this very moment has as its content everything there is, we realize that there is nowhere else to be, and in this single moment just as it is, we’re happy.
So as we head into this season, which has I think over time become more and more about what we want and what we don't want, I hope that you can all reflect on this and understand that just as we are- we’re complete, just as we are-there’s not a single thing lacking, just as we are we are whole.