It's wonderful to be back here in Victoria. I certainly enjoy the time I spend down in North Carolina but I'm always happy to get back to the island. I wanted to talk a bit about...I always say that, I always start the Tuesday talk with, "I want to talk a bit about"... these fifteen minute talks it’s all I can get is a bit about anything. So tonight I want to talk about form.
The Jikijitsu seems to be interested in having some correction about form, tonight he wants to make sure that people are following the form, and I think that a lot of people who come to practice meditation are really surprised, they're really set back by the amount of form that's used here on a Tuesday night for Zen practice. We try to keep it actually, I have to mention, very light, in comparison to the formal practice we engage in at the Victoria Zen Centre. The form that we use here on Tuesday night is very soft, it's gentle. We're not very strict with it. But I want to talk a little bit about the value of form, the function of form, why we use so much form. There is a practical aspect of it, of course. The form that we use in our tradition arises out of monastic practice. It arises out of a practice, which strives to have a large number of people practicing together harmoniously, without a whole bunch of chatter.
So we have bells and clappers, gongs and drums, and sounding boards, and all kinds of musical instruments that lead us through the schedule of the day. Understanding that this day that we engage in, a day of practice together, is a song in which we all take part, I think, is a more difficult aspect of practice for people to realize. But for now, just understand that those markers, the percussion, they're just gentle reminders, or calls to awareness of what's coming next.
It's time to let go of the situation that we're in and move on to the next situation. More than that, the form offers us a container- a structure. We have a lot of form, so we actually have a course that we run through the Zen center called the “Introduction to Zen meditation” course. In this course, we go over the basic aspects of form that are used so that we don't have to spend so much time trying to figure out what's going on. But in a nutshell, what we have is a container. It's something that we can apply ourselves to. Something that we can relax into, or even more than that, it's something that we can completely surrender to, or let go into.
As we go through our lives, we live in these environments that are constantly changing, that are constantly dynamically coming up, and breaking apart. We never know what's going to happen next. Because we never know what's coming at us, we never know what we have to face, we hold on very tightly to who it is that we think we are. We hold on very tightly to the things that we value, the things that we think are important, the things that we want to protect, and defend. And at the same time, we defend ourselves against all of those things that we don't want to come into contact with. All of those things that make us uncomfortable, that we find unpleasant, that we think are bad, and this is our constant state as we go through our lives. Constantly grasping onto this thing that we call a "self", the things that we call mine, and we never have this opportunity to relax to let go.
Buddhism teaches us that this tendency that we have to cling on to this thing we call a "self" is at root, the source of all of our suffering. But it's not enough for us to posit this theory, this philosophy. Zen practice is aimed at experience. What happens when we, even for a moment, let go of this thing that we have such a white knuckle death grip on? What happens when this separation between what we call inside, and outside, drops away? What happens when the distance between subject, and object dissolves, and they unify? These are all great philosophical questions that we can sit and think about when we're meditating but, that's not Zen practice. Zen practice is the act of investigating the experience of what happens when we let go.
The way that we go about doing this is by engaging or embracing this form. When we're sitting, we can be engaged in this activity of sitting thinking, “I'm sitting. That's what I'm doing. I'm following my breath. That's what I'm doing”, but all of this operates in the realm of the mind. All of this is taking place in the conceptual framework “I am doing”. As we let go into the activity of our breathing, the breath arising, the breath dissolving, we find that we can enter into the activity of this moment, where it's not just “me” doing “something”. We experience our lives immersed in the activity, the unfolding, dynamic activity of this moment. It's not me sitting here, it's the activity of this universe, sitting. Not separate from anything, completely unified.
This isn't a state. This isn't something that we can hang onto. Even if we catch a glimpse of this, immediately, it breaks apart and we say “Oh... that was interesting, what was that all about?” The structure that we use, this form that we use, offers us a stable framework, a structure that we can apply our self to over and over again. That we can let go into that we can drop away this idea, this concept of “self” to experience what it is to be one with this moment. This isn't some special state. This isn't some unique and rarefied experience. This is actually our nature. This is an activity, an experience, which is happening all the time, in every activity that we do. But in our mundane lives, we miss it. So caught up with “myself”, so caught up with inside and outside, so caught up with what I need to do, what I need to get, what I need to avoid. We miss the profound beauty of simply being at one in this moment.
The function of meditation, however, is not to meditate. Our goal, or the fruit of our practice is not to be able to successfully experience this state over and over again while we sit in a meditation hall. I've said this many, many times. The function of practice is that we become more and more able to realize this activity, to realize our true relationship with the world around us, to recognize that we are not separate from this world in which we live in our everyday lives. The practice that we engage in in Zen is systematic. We begin with something very simple, sitting. We engage in this practice in a room which is quiet, without distractions, where we're supported by the energy of other people sitting engaged in the same practice. In this environment it's easy to little bit, by little bit, let go of our mental busy-ness. Little bit, by little bit, to let go of difficult emotions and thought patterns that arise. Little bit, by little bit, to dissolve into the activity of this moment. At once, we can experience what it is to just sit.
The bell sounds and the clappers clap. We are asked to do walking meditation. Walking meditation is not a break. It's not a non-meditation practice. It is a continuation and expansion of the activity that we're engaged in while we sit. We are taking meditation into movement. As soon as we stand up however, we find that the self asserts itself again, we become "I". Things start to move, and we start to worry about “I”. “Am I going too fast? Am I going to slow? Is my step wide enough? Is my step too short? Is it too fast, too slow? I wonder what I'm going to do later…” and we lose the thread of it entirely. The practice of walking meditation is to let go, to let go of this idea of a separate self and to dissolve into the activity of the universe as walking. When we let go of our self concern, we find that walking is no problem at all. We're in step, we're close behind the person in front of us. There's no “I'm doing it right”, “I'm doing it wrong”, simply manifesting the activity of this moment as walking.
Some of the instructions were a little bit of faulty for the walking meditation. When we do walking meditation, you want to make sure that your right hand goes flat on your abdomen, just below your breastbone. Your forearms are parallel to the floor and your left hand is covering. When ever we're doing something in Zen meditation the left hand is always covering. So when we're sitting, the right hand is on the bottom with the left hand covering. The right hand is symbolic of our active, the plus, the "I am" self side. The left hand is symbolic, representative of the minus, dissolution, and no self, emptiness side. So when we're doing meditation, Zen meditation, when we sit, the right hand goes on the bottom with the left hand covering. When we do walking meditation, we don't just flip them up. The right hand again goes on the abdomen and the left hand is covering.
Chanting is no different. The practice is fundamentally no different than in sitting, as it is in walking. Again when it comes time to use our voice, the 'I" raises its head. This “I” that we want to protect, that we cherish, that we want to defend against destruction. And we start to say things like “Oh... am I doing this right? Am I to loud? Am I too quiet? What does this mean? What does it imply if I'm chanting it? What if someone saw me doing this? What is all this stuff about? “I, I, I…”, comes into it the simple activity of chanting a syllable, one syllable after the other, but we find that this tendency we have to grab the self, to shackle ourselves to it, interferes with the simple activity of making sound, so that rather than being able to make a clear and strong sound, our voice is filled with fear, our voice is filled with doubt and self concern.
So the practice as we chant, just as when we walk, just as when we sit, is to become aware of how we hold on to self and to practice letting it go. In the practice of letting it go, we have the opportunity to experience what it is to become unified. What it is to be one with the activity we're engaged with. What it is to manifest as this universe in sound. As I said at the very beginning, these are all lovely words. We can spend a lot of time talking about them, or thinking about them. But what we're here to do, what we're engaged in when we practice Zen is experience. So stop thinking about. Stop saying to yourselves, "Oh that sounds good, I want to try that". Do it! When it comes time for sitting, just sit. When it comes time for walking, just walk. When it comes time for chanting, just chant.
The manifestation of the state of zero, unification, is also not permanent. Soon enough, the self arises. The self will say, “That was interesting”. The self will say, “What a wonderful experience”. The self will say, “Wow, we've got to do that again sometime”. It's inevitable that the self will arise. So there is no need to be afraid. There's no need to hang on. There is no need to get stuck on protecting the self as you engage in each of these activities. Just practice letting go.
Listen to this talk on the Living Zen PODCAST