Why Practice?

Pilgrims at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

I’m giving an introductory dharma talk at Cambridge Zen Center on Thursday, and I think I’d like to say a little more about practice than I did when I gave an intro talk at Open Meadow Zen a couple of months ago. There’s a section titled “Motivations for Practice” in the Kwan Um School’s quarterly magazine, Primary Point. I always check it out to see what drives other people to bow, sit, and chant, and it’s usually a good read. When we’re describing our motivations to others, we tend to take the high road and speak of the grandest ideals at the root of our practice: to end suffering, to stop the Wheel of Karma, to save all sentient beings, and, of course, the perennially “correct” answer, “I sit for you.”

These are all noble ideals, but if I’m honest with myself, I can see that my true motivation for practice shifts from year to year and from day to day. When I came to the practice several years ago, I had a strong desire to end, or at least lessen, my own suffering. This is not an uncommon reason for sitting, or, come to think of it, for doing anything that human beings do. I want to increase the feelings I like, and decrease the feelings I don’t like. This approach is problematic for two reasons: I’m creating “I,” and I’m creating “like” and “dislike.” As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Don’t make ‘I.'” Clearly, then, my reason for sitting must include others; it can’t just be for my own sake. Somewhere along the line, I grabbed hold of this idea of practicing for the sake of all sentient beings. “Now I get it,” I decided. “The purpose of sitting is to become a better person and help others.” This is an improved motivation, but still not so good… Wanting to become a better person, I’m still making “better” and “worse,” still creating opposites.

How’s this for a motivation for practice, then? “To see clearly.” Sure, there’s still some “wanting” there, but considering that I’m starting from a place of ignorance, getting caught up in semantics or waylaid by false ideals like “I should sit for no reason because I’m already enlightened, therefore beyond any continuum of logic” isn’t going to help me get off the ground. (Or “on the ground,” more accurately, because that’s where the cushion is, if you want to get caught up in semantics.)

I think that I’ve come far enough in this practice of zen to realize that I’m a bare beginner… I have no idea what I’m doing. That’s the beauty of formal spiritual practice: I don’t necessarily have to know why I’m doing it at any given moment. All I need to do is to continue my practice as my motivation shifts, as my understanding ebbs and flows. Swami Satyananda said that Kundalini yoga is effective because it’s a physical practice; practitioners needn’t worry about what the mind is doing. He advised students to perform their exercises consistently, and eventually, the mind would settle down. Zen practice has that quality. In 12 Step Recovery parlance, “bring the body and the mind will follow.” The glitch here is that the intellect is the seat of the ego, and the ego always wants the kinds of answers that will substantiate its own existence. Ego always wants to know “why.” Considering again, however, that we approach spiritual discipline from a place of confusion, any practice that makes perfect sense at the outset probably isn’t very valuable.

So, although zen isn’t about belief, there is a leap of faith involved. I need to trust that the practice forms have value, even though it may not be apparent all the time. An appreciation of the importance of all elements of the tradition comes with practice, not before practice. There is, I think, a tendency among American Buddhists to want to modernize practice, to strip down traditions to what is essential. The danger here, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng, is that if we start weeding out parts of the form, we could very well lose something that we didn’t even know was important. So it all stays: the robes, the bells, the incense, the chanting… all the stuff that makes no sense.

What Do You Mean, “No Self?”

Monks’ quarters at Tibetan Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

Some time ago, I attended a talk by Lama Surya Das, who has studied and practised extensively in the Tibetan tradition, and is apparently known to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as “the American Lama.” The talk was held at the Follen Church, a unique octagon-shaped Unitarian church that was built in 1836 in the village of East Lexington, Massachusetts. It’s a building that I feel very comfortable in. My father worked there as a janitor when I was a kid, and I’d play the pipe organ while he vacuumed the carpeted aisles and arranged the missals in the wooden racks on the backs of the pews. Later in life, I came to know the church for the wonderful A.A. meeting that’s held there every Saturday evening at 5:30. I currently live a block down Mass Ave. from the Follen church, and for the past few years, I’ve used the steeple bell as my meditation timer, sitting on the cushion at twenty minutes to the hour and ending my session at the bell’s toll.

Surya Das was discussing his latest book, Buddha Standard Time, which explores the importance of remaining present as the demands on our attention continue to increase in the 21st century. As we entered the Q and A portion of the evening, I decided to raise my hand. I don’t actually remember what I asked because, to be honest, my intention was really to give my local zen center a plug. What I succeeded in doing was, however, in the parlance of the Kwan Um School of Zen’s practice manual, to “point to the gap between my cognition and my practice.” In other words, I publicly fell on my face in an impromptu koan interview. In the course of my question, just for good measure, I’d worked in the phrase “no self.”

“What do you mean, ‘no self?'” Surya Das interrupted very clearly, very loudly, and a little bit aggressively.

The sound of creaking 175-year-old wooden pews was deafening as 100 people turned their bodies to await my response, which never came. I had no answer, which isn’t a bad response when the interview is one-on-one, but it’s a bit unsettling with a small legion of spiritual seekers looking on. Not only did I no longer feel comfortable in the venerable old church, I no longer felt comfortable in my own skin. “Mortified” is probably the single best descriptor. The ensuing silence was awkward probably to me alone, and possibly enjoyed by anyone fond of seeing a true teacher deftly bludgeoning a student with his own arrogance and confusion. I had glibly tossed out this lofty philosophy with no expectation of being challenged. “We’re all Buddhists here, right?” I thought. Isn’t the whole “no self” thing a given?

“How can you say there’s no self?” the onslaught continued. “If I eat, do you get fed? I’m over here and you’re over there. What do you mean by this ‘no self” thing?”

Whatever words Surya Das delivered next were most likely very good and useful teaching, but I didn’t hear the vast majority of them, stewing as I was in my own embarrassment and shame. After the dust had settled and he was on to the next, more cautious victim, however, I understood what he was getting at. I had no actual experience of “no self.” It’s all just heresay to me.

My daily reality, based in ignorance, doesn’t feel like unity and oneness; it feels like clear division between self and other. I’m sitting here in East Lexington typing these words, and you’re out there somewhere reading them. Two different people… that’s the starting point. To deny that is to be dishonest about my situation, which is never an effective way of dealing with a problem. “No self,” from the perspective of my current state of consciousness, is simply a concept or belief, neither of which is something that zen concerns itself with. Zen is about groundedness and action.

Trusting in the dharma, and all great teachings, how does one transform this idea of “no self” from belief to reality? Only by moment to moment practice. This is where the 12 Step Recovery notion of “act as if” comes into play. The basic premise here is that it’s easier for me to act my way toward right thinking than it is to think my way toward right action. I need to emulate the qualities I want to possess. When I wanted to stop being obsessed with drinking, I needed to act like I wasn’t obsessed with alcohol. After a continued period of not acting on that obsession, it was lifted. Likewise, if I want to truly realize the concept of “no self,” I need to start acting selflessly. “No self” is not a philosophy, it’s a practice, one that has the power to save all sentient beings.

I live in the same town as Lama Surya Das, and I run into him from time to time. I smile and he smiles back. In all liklihood, he has no recollection of me or my “failed” koan. But I remember the words he spoke to let me off the hook before taking another question. “You’re a zen guy,” he said, “so I know you have eyes to hear what I’m saying.”

Without Attachment

Prayer wheels at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

Zen is a practice of 100% doing. It is about responding to each situation spontaneously, appropriately, and without attachment. This seems, like many teachings in this non-intellectual practice, paradoxical; how can I possibly do anything 100% unless I’m completely attached to it? Paradox, as any zen practitioner knows, doesn’t exist in nature. It exists only in our minds, specifically in our mind’s inability to conceive of reality, which is, by definition, inconceivable. We tend to think things ought to be different than they are in order to fit into our existing mental constructs. Or at least I do.

For me, the paradox of acting completely yet without attachment stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of non-attachment. This idea has eluded me more than any other tenet of Buddhism with the exception of “no self,” which is, interestingly, basically the same idea.

It goes like this: I’ve always thought that this business of “non-attachment” sounds like indifference. It sounds like not caring. In reality, it’s about caring so much, so completely, so 100% about others that there’s no room for “I.” Ego is removed from the situation. Without the delusion of a separate self, there can be no attachment. Only doing for others.

Non-attachment, then, is the practice of no-self. If I sit around and think about these ideas of non-attachment and no-self, I’m not going to get very far… When I act selflessly and completely, however, they’re no longer ideas. They’re simply reality as it is.

NOW I’ve Got It.

An interesting thing happens whenever I make what I perceive to be a “mistake” in a life situation. I tell myself that “next time, I’ll know exactly what to do.” That, in and of itself, isn’t particularly interesting… what’s noteworthy, however, is that it’s never true. There is no “next time.” Every situation that arises is unique. Maybe the circumstances are a bit different than they were in yesterday’s situation, or different people are involved… Always, my mind is different. All that I’m left with, then, is the ability (or inability) to respond spontaneously as each moment presents itself.

Zen Master Bon Haeng has said that human beings like to have a system. We want to see the blueprint for life, to have a template to lay over each situation so we’ll know what to do. We want to know that when Situation A arises, the appropriate reaction is Response A. Such a system doesn’t exist. The closest thing we have to it in the Buddhist tradition is a list of precepts, but the precepts aren’t really a prescription for responding to life. They function as guideposts along a path that allows us to respond instinctively to whatever comes our way.

One of the promises of following the spiritual tradition of 12 Step Recovery is that “we will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.” There’s a reason why the Big Book of AA says “we will intuitively know how to handle situations” rather than “intellectually know how to handle situations.” A life lived on life’s terms isn’t something to be grasped mentally. If I’m trying to figure out a situation, I’m already baffled. “Already a mistake,” as Zen Master Seung Sahn would say.

Intellectualizing is ego’s cunning, baffling, and insidious way of inserting itself like an iron wedge between Me (over here) and The Situation (over there). There’s no way the arrow can hit the mark, and, surprise of surprises, koan practice is custom cut and sewn to fit this problem. There’s a reason why no one’s allowed in the interview room while I’m doing koan practice: it’s unsafe… there are arrows flying everywhere. The zen master, however, is safer than a baby in its mother’s arms; my arrows are going nowhere near him. I’m confident that, with practice, my aim will get better. Until that time, though, I’ll content myself with the delusion that the next time an old woman walks into the dharma room with a wooden stool, I’ll know exactly what to do.