Intention and
Control in Practice

I would like to begin with a passage from a poem by the Kentucky poet and farmer, Wendell Berry.

And there are ways
the deer walk in darkness
that are clear.
It is not by will
I know this,
but by willingness,
by being here.

The practice of zazen or Zen meditation involves finding a balance between our will to practice and our willingness to allow practice to happen. We need both the will or determination to practice as well as the willingness to give up our expectations of what we want practice to be. Discipline is necessary to get ourselves onto the cushion day after day, especially in the beginning, and once there to maintain an upright position. Self discipline and effort and energy are one side of practice—the side we consciously work on. But we need to balance our conscious effort by letting go of our hopes, our expectations and goals, so that once we are on the cushion, we can open to our wider, less conscious areas, our deeper intention. We can't consciously direct our practice or realization the way we might direct our study for a driver's licence exam. Part of the intention we bring to zazen is to open, to let go and disengage from our habitual patterns, especially our mental patterns.

One of our habitual patterns may be to try control things or control ourselves. This pattern may be so deep and fundamental, that we may not even be aware of it. Zen Master Dogen addressed this in his text, Only Buddha and Buddha, where he quoted this dialogue:

Long ago, a monk asked, "When hundreds, thousands, or myriads of objects come all at once, what should be done?" Objects refer both to things we are attracted to, that pull us along, as well as things we want to avoid — so, the things in the external world, including the demands and responsibilities that come with taking care of our lives, our jobs and home life, as well as objects of mind, our plans, ideas, thoughts, memories, emotional states, etc.

So, "When hundreds, thousands, or myriads of objects come all at once, what should be done?" The Master replied, "Don't try to control them."

Dogen commented, "What he means is that in whatever way objects come, do not try to change them. Whatever comes is the buddha-dharma, not objects at all." And then Dogen said, " Do not understand the master's reply as merely a brilliant admonition, but realize that it is the truth. Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled."

Most of the time, in most of our experience, don't we want to change it, somehow, in some way? Isn't there something that could be added, taken away, or changed to make whatever is happening within or without a little better? Most of us don't need to sit zazen for long before we begin to realize how little control we have over our attention and habitual thinking. Fortunately, our practice isn't to try to control our thinking in zazen, but to be awake with the present experience of our body, breath and mind—to simply be aware.

As young children we are taught to control ourselves, to control our temper, our desires and appetites, our bowels and so forth. For the most part we succeed. And perhaps finding some security in this, we try to control more and more parts of our lives, trying to avoid pain and create pleasure. But the fact is we're not in control. We don't know when we will get sick, have an accident, die, or when those we love will. At this time, this is in our face, probably more than any other time in our lives. This lack of control, probably more than anything else, motivates us to try to be in control. So we try to control anything we can, how we comb our hair and dress, how we present ourselves to others, and the impression others have of us. So, how do we practice giving up control or this false sense of control?

At the same time, we need to control ourselves to some extent in order to have the discipline to practice, in order to get up in the morning and sit zazen, in order to sit still and invite our wandering mind back over and over. The points that are emphasized most in our posture are an upright back and sitting in a position that supports stillness, and both of these promote physical and mental stability. From this stability, we can begin to let go of control. But if we let go of control prematurely, or if letting go isn't balanced with some intention and stability, we might fall over, or wander aimlessly in our fantasies, or fall asleep. On the other hand, if we are too controlled or disciplined, our practice can become narrow and brittle.

So, our effort to be present needs to be balanced with our trust in practice. Again, if we try too hard to be alert, we can become tense and "on guard"—our consciousness will be directed by our thinking mind. When this happens, a rigidity sets in, and our field of practice narrows to what we think we can control. In the midst of the rigor of sitting upright and staying present, we need to find a way to allow a relaxed quality and a sense of ease in our body and mind. Although the back is upright, try to let your spine support you so that your muscles can relax, allowing a sense of ease and opening. When we are actually engaged in zazen, our will and willingness are finely tuned, our effort and ease are integrated. This is what is meant by effortless effort. The 20th century Chinese master, Sheng-yen said that one of the most important things in practicing meditation is to be relaxed.

Two ways that we tend to judge and reject our zazen is that either we think too much or drift away into dreaming or sleep, and we may think that is wrong. But actually the stability of our body and mind goes beyond these two opposites where the thinking mind is either too active or asleep.

I've found that if a person stays with zazen practice long enough, sooner or later, they will fall asleep during zazen. In the beginning, I take it to be a good sign, in the sense that they are beginning to trust the process and let their guard down. When a person never falls asleep in zazen, they may be directing their practice too much. At some point we should be stable enough in our posture and grounded in our presence so that we can begin to let go of control and trust this practice. And an advantage of falling asleep in zazen is that we can bring some level of consciousness to it which helps us bring awareness to other transitions in our state of mind. This way, we get a wider range of consciousness to experience and to practice with. Of course, sleep can also be a way of tuning out and avoiding what is going on. So, I'm not advocating sleeping in zazen, but when you do, like everything else—look for ways to practice with it.

Our intention can help us not get lost when we are in less conscious states or falling asleep in zazen. Intention can be both the intention that brings us to practice this moment as well as the original inspiration that brought us to practice in the first place. The usual meaning of intention is the state of mind with which we act. In Buddhist teaching Right Intention is the absence of all emotional obstructions, the state of consciousness that's free from the limiting considerations of self-interest.

Sometimes the first inspiration to practice is called bodhicitta—it might be the first time the thought arises of the possibility that enlightenment or the unconditioned exists, that we could be completely awake or completely free. We tend to develop bodhicitta by degrees: first we have the idea that we could be awake—that we could live without becoming so enmeshed in our own point of view and habitual activity. Then sometime later we may decide that this idea is important enough that we will act on it by practicing. As we practice, we begin to experience our connectedness with all beings and realize that our liberation cannot be separate from another's. Suzuki Roshi used the phrase, "our inner-most desire" or "our inmost request" to refer to the fundamental desire to return to Original Mind — the mind before we overlay it with our desires and fears and histories.

As we practice sometimes a vow forms of itself. We carry this vow from zazen into our daily lives by dedicating what we are doing to the fulfillment of our vow. The vow becomes our intention—the mind with which we act. Intention is how we bring practice to whatever we're doing. In Zen practice we emphasize the intention or the motive with which we act, rather than whether the results of our efforts are successful or not. Sometimes when we act with wholesome intentions, the outcome isn't so good. There is no way we can control how our actions will be received. Although we should not disregard the effects of our actions—we need to take responsibility for them—it doesn't help to get stuck in remorse. To work with your intention, try to find where its located in your body and learn to call it up. Throughout the day, try to stay with your intention, your most authentic intention, and make your state of mind your priority instead of what you are trying to get done. This way, whatever activity you are doing provides a form for working with your state of mind. Try to ground yourself in your intention, letting go of concern for the results.

Like everything else we do regularly, we can take our zazen practice for granted and do it on autopilot. So, how do we keep it from becoming just another conditioned activity? At the beginning of zazen, I suggest trying to recall what originally prompted you to begin practice and rededicate your original intention. If you find that you are falling asleep or day-dreaming pretty regularly in zazen, remind yourself that you would be much cozier in bed instead of sitting upright, supporting your back. You can investigate, "why am I here?" I mean, why am I here sitting zazen as well as, why am I here at all? We should have a sense of why we're here in zazen, even if we can't put it into words.

In his book, You Have to Say Something, Katagiri Roshi is quoted saying, "To live in vow is to take care of the little details of life — like getting up in the morning. When it is time to get up, just get up.... Getting up is only a tiny activity. It is not unusual." He said, "everyone does it. Although there is nothing outstanding about it, the goldenness of the earth is found in just such activities in everyday life." So, he said, "When it is time to get up, just get up." Suzuki Roshi also emphasized this as practice, so much so that I think of it as the essence of Zen practice. Without hesitating, equivocating or deliberating, when the alarm goes off, when the bell rings, or when you hear the han, just do it. Step into the realm of the present, into the realm of your deeper intention.

When we bring our intention or vow into our activity, we don't need to be doing anything special in order to be practicing. Suzuki Roshi said, "The points we emphasize are not the stage we attain, but the strong confidence we have in our original nature and the sincerity of our practice." He said, "We should practice with the same sincerity as Buddha."

There was a discussion once where we were talking about taking refuge and the difference between taking refuge in Buddha and taking refuge in ice cream. In my first year at the San Francisco Zen Center, I decided, as a kind of experiment, to look for the limit of my desire for ice cream, to look for the boundary where I came to the point that I was satisfied. So, I began eating and after awhile, my lips and tongue began getting numb, and San Francisco is usually chilly anyway—but I still liked and wanted more ice cream. I considered this experiment a failure. It didn't work then or now—I still want more. So, I found that trying to satisfy my desires is usually a hopeless task.

Zen practice doesn't emphasize stopping taking refuge in ice cream or conditioned activity, in order to be able take refuge in Buddha, or the unconditioned. Instead it emphasizes looking clearly at the causes and conditions that lead us to take refuge in ice cream and looking at the effects of this on ourselves and others. Seeing clearly what prompts us to take refuge in ice cream is how we take refuge in Buddha. Clearly observing what we are already doing is how we loosen the knot of our habit energy, whereas fighting our impulses tends to tighten the knot.

Our experience is not repeatable. This moment will never come back and can never be recreated. Yet, our practice is to sit zazen and repeat the same activity over and over. We should try to sit with the same strength of purpose, the same enjoyment, as if this period of zazen were the only zazen we will ever sit, maybe as if we were on our way to the guillotine. This is the only zazen we can sit right now. We can't be more awake in the zazen we sat yesterday, and we can't settle our body and mind now for tomorrow's zazen. This moment is the only moment we are alive in. This breath is the only breath we breathe.

The first Buddhist ordination I went to was a priest ordination. During the ceremony, it was as if the walls of the room disappeared and we were in boundless space doing something that had a timeless, ancient quality. I was so taken by the ceremony that I kept a copy of the text and on my days off, I would read through the whole ceremony, doing the bows, saying all the statements, the repentance verse, the precepts, and so on. I did this for a couple of months, and it helped me clarify my ambivalence. This is one way to work on the precepts, by practicing taken them.

The actor Peter Coyote once said, "It is finally only intention that we can train to be as constant as our breathing, and only our intentions that will finally stand nakedly revealed by our lives." I don't know which is more accurate, to say that practice is the intention to develop our vow, or that practice is the vow to develop our intention. But we need to decide if what we are doing is important enough to bring our full being to it. Because this will make the difference between whether our activity, our time, whether we, ourselves, are asleep or awake, dead or alive.

© 2021 Taitaku Josho Pat Phelan