Commitment to ourselves is most important if we want to have a steady practice. Of course, sometimes weíre just looking, and we come and practice for a while to see what itís like. Thatís fine too. But I think itís helpful to give yourself the opportunity of committing to a practice schedule for some short space of time, just to see what thatís like, regardless of what your feelings are about it.
When you finally start practicing zazen, and particularly if you sit sesshin, if your legs begin to hurt or if your back has some old problem, or if there are thoughts running through your head all the time, youíll want to get more comfortable. You may feel, "Get me out of here," or "Iíd rather be doing something else." But what keeps you here is your commitment. And through your commitment, you can see how feelings and thoughts arise, and how these feelings and thoughts are always trying to pull us around by the nose, one way or another. Itís hard to see something through because, as soon as things get a little difficult, we want to escape from reality. And when we keep trying to escape from the reality, we lose ourselves. We are no longer present. We are no longer settled on ourselves.
We have to be careful that we donít sell Buddhism as "the opium of the people," you know, as something nice. The fifth precept is donít sell liquor or intoxicants. Sometimes this is interpreted as, Donít sell Buddha Dharma as wine, as something intoxicating, as if it will take all your cares away or make you feel wonderful.
We Are Not Trying to Get Something Good
Sojun Mel Weitsman
Talk given to the Chapel Hill Zen Center, March, 1993
What Zen does is sit us down right in the middle of reality, between pleasure and pain, between good and bad, so that we accept everything equally. We donít try to run away from our difficulty to some kind of pleasant state, or run away from some pleasant state just because itís pleasant. When something pleasant arises, itís just pleasant. When something painful arises, itís just painful. When something easy arises, itís just easy. When something difficult arises, itís just difficult.
The only way that we can really practice this is through our commitment, because otherwise, as soon as things get difficult, we will want something pleasant. Feelings are important; we should accept our feelings, but Zen is the practice of not escaping. There is no way out except to be whatever is happening. When we depend on our feelings too much, we canít experience things completely. The only way is to give up our self-centeredness.
Zen master Dogen wrote the Shobogenzo which has many essays on Zen practice. His fascicle "Genjokoan" is at the center of his writing. Genjo means something like "manifesting in the present" or "arising in the present." "Koan": In this case, "ko" means leveling, or completely level or sameness, and "an" means a position, like "dharma position." "Dharma" is a thing, so, a thingís position on level ground, manifesting in the present, like our life, moment by moment, manifesting in this phenomenal world as an expression of Absolute Reality, which is what zazen is. The koan of manifesting in the present, moment by moment, in reality.
In Genjokoan, Dogen says, "To study Buddha Dharma [or Buddhism], is to study the self. And to study the self is to forget the self [or to let go of the self]. And to let go of the self, is to be enlightened by all things [the "10,000 dharmas"]. To be enlightened by the 10,000 dharmas is to find perfect freedom for yourself and for others, and this traceless enlightenment goes on and on and on, not leaving any trace at all."
So, to study the way, to study the Buddha Dharma, is to study the self. Here, study doesnít mean study in the sense of reading a book. The word "study" here means to do something over and over and over again, constantly doing something until it becomes part of you, until it becomes you, actually. This is to study the self, and itís like zazen. In order to practice zazen, you do it over and over until you get it through your pores, and when you get it through your pores, then you can drop the self, because you realize that all the things you need are yourself. To be enlightened by the 10,000 things is to meet everything as yourself.
Zazen is a kind of unconditioned practice, practice where you are conditioning up, and just exist as absolute reality, as an expression of reality, without discriminating the world. You just let everything come as it comes, and go as it goes. Itís a wonderful practice, but itís not so easy. Itís not easy to just sit still Ė it takes all of your integrity to just to be able to sit without any expectation. Expectation is what gets us into trouble, and we think, "It feels very good now. This must be the enlightened state." As soon as you think that, it changes.
Then we think, "How could the enlightened state suddenly get so miserable?" We try all of the tricks in our mind to justify our feelings, but nothing works until you finally just let go. Then you can sit still. But you have to get to the point where you sit long enough so you can just sit still. It just happens by itself. This is why I say commitment is so important. You donít get to that place through your feelings; you only get to that place through your commitment to see something through.
In our lives we like to be comfortable. If you see what people are doing, mostly they are trying to get comfortable, but we never can really get very comfortable. We can only get comfortable for a little while, and then we have to change and get comfortable another way. So weíre always changing our position. Zazen is called the comfortable way. Dogen says that zazen is the comfortable way, but itís not comfortable in the usual way. When you can actually accept yourself completely in all situations, then youíre comfortable.
How can we take zazen into our daily life? When we know how to settle and have a calm mind in zazen, no matter what kind of difficulty or discomfort we have, when we go out into the world, we should be able to take that ability to have a settled mind into all situations. No matter whatís happening to us, we know how to settle, we know how to reach that unconditioned place.
I suggest just paying attention to breathing, because breathing is an activity which is somewhere between "Iím doing" and "Itís doing." When you breathe in zazen, your breathing should be in your lower abdomen. But when we get tense or angry or frightened, our breath comes up, and that is not a condition for calmness. The condition for calmness is to keep the breath in your lower abdomen. If youíre always breathing in your lower abdomen and aware of your breathing, then you can always establish your mind in calmness. When youíre used to doing that, as soon as some problem comes up, you establish your mind in zazen on your breath, thatís all you can do. You confront some difficulty by putting your mind into your breath. Thatís how to establish yourself on this moment. Otherwise we establish ourselves in our momentum.
Because weíre all such busy people, our body and mind are oriented toward accomplishing something. Weíre always driving somewhere, weíre working somewhere, weíre establishing something all the time. But we forget about establishing ourselves in reality. We donít look at our movements. We forget that our movements are our life. We think our life is in accomplishing our goals. But actually our life is in walking and sitting down, standing and lying down, in the minute movements of our body-mind. At the same time that weíre rushing around doing something, weíre also just being, and this quality of pure existence is our life.
In order to establish our life in an integral way with pure existence, we have to be aware. Mindfulness is how we establish ourselves on pure existence within our activity; for example, just stopping for a moment or being aware of our body movements while we are doing something. While Iím walking from here to the store, in order not to be bored, I think about something. But you could just be aware of how the foot falls on the pavement, and how one foot follows the next, how the body is being held, what the breath is like. Just being in the body, doing what youíre doing, instead of going someplace in your mind. Going someplace is okay, but actually what weíre doing at the moment is just being where we are.
So these two qualities should be working at the same time: the awareness of being, as well as the awareness of doing. Then we are never bored. Weíre open to everything, and we can really see things. Sometimes our vision is so concentrated on something that we donít see whatís around us, we donít see that weíre part of our surroundings. Weíre focused only on our own project, but sometimes if you stop thinking about your project and let yourself see whatís around you, itís incredible what you see. That way we can meet things, we can meet life.
Thereís a famous story about the Zen monk who was enlightened when he saw the peach blossoms in bloom. He suddenly woke up from his tunnel vision and looked up and saw a tree in blossom. He was completely blown away because his self dropped away, and he could identify with the tree as himself. When we get very busy, we get hung up in our routine and our projects, and our projects run us. Itís so hard to not be run by your projects.
We come to practice for various reasons, but we donít always know what it is that we come for. I donít think I knew exactly what it was that I was coming for. But when we make a sincere effort to practice, sooner or later we realize what it is. We realize that there is nothing to "get." And, this "nothing to get" has to be "found" by each one of us, by ourselves.
Q. Can you say something about what you mean by "sitting still?"
A. What I mean by that is, once you make your commitment, you donít move from it. Thatís what I mean by sitting still.
Q. Is the commitment just to seek the Zen, or does it include that my room will be tidy also?
A. In zazen, it means that you donít move from your position. In your daily life, it means that you donít move from your intentions.
Q. For the most part it seems like that would work well, but then when my daughter comes in and says, "But I have this and this to do," then I find myself saying, "But I have zazen this morning."
A. Your daughter comes first. This is an immediate thing. But if she says that every time you want to do zazen, then you have to change your schedule. I have to do that too, because I have an eleven-year-old son, and as he gets older, I have to do more things with him, and fewer things at the zendo. When he was born, I thought, "Iím not going to let anything interfere with me taking care of him." But I also thought, "But Iím also not going to let him stop what Iím doing."
I carried him around on my back for a long time and he was a very good baby. I cannot believe itĖ because heís changed. Heís changed a lot. But he was very good up until he was fiveĖyou know, just a model kid. But then he changed. Then I didnít like to take him around with me anymore. He used to come in the zendo in the morning, and, sometimes heíd sit zazen, and sometimes heíd just do service, and sometimes heíd come in and show everybody his pictures.
Itís a kind of give and take, and when your life is involved with the various things, they all have to intermingle somehow. So there has to be space for children, and space for family. You know, youíll go off to sit zazen, and someone else resents it. So thatís a problem that a lot of people have to deal with. Itís like youíre taking yourself out of someoneís life when youíre doing that, even though thatís not whatís happening, but they feel abandoned sometimes.
Youíre gone all day to sesshin, and your husband or your wife is doing something else. Itís good if your spouse or your family is very understanding. You have to be careful how you regulate your practice so it integrates with your other responsibilities. Lay practice means that you have to take the responsibility for integrating it with your family, your work and other activities, and itís going to be something that is going to create a little problem, and everybody has to be able to accept the problem.
Q. It sounds like itís just more practiceĖyou can either escape your family responsibilities by saying, "Oh, but at such and such a time I sit zazen," or you can use family or whatever as a means of saying, "Oh, well, I canít sit zazen because I have to doÖ" It seems like it really has to be continuously weighed and reassessed.
A. Thatís rightĖit does have to be continually weighed and reassessed. People within a family have to give each other space to do something, without feeling that somebody is running away. Itís really good if you can take the quality of your practice and extend that to your family, extend it to your workplace, to your world, thatís what makes practice not self-centered. Itís not something that you do just for yourself, even though you do it by yourself. If youíre doing it just for yourself, itís not practice.
Actually, we come to practice trying to do something for ourselves, but, after we mature, we realize that the practice is not just for ourselves. The first stage is that we do this practice for ourselves. The second stage is that we do the practice for everyone else. The third stage is that we just do the practice for the practice, which includes us and everyone else. Practicing just for myself is a little bit egotistical Ė itís a lot egotistical. Practicing just for others is also kind of egotistical. But to do the practice just for the practice is "no self," and then others get taken care of without our taking care, and we get taken care of, so these three aspects are always working together. Of course, something is for me and something is for you, but it is out of the realm of you and me. If we all take care of the practice, then everything gets taken care of. The practice takes care of everyone.
Transcribed by Patti Fogg
© Copyright Sojun Mel Weitsman, 2007