Since becoming what’s known in the Kwan Um School of Zen as a Dharma Teacher in Training by formally taking the second Five Precepts of Buddhism, I’ve come to notice something interesting about myself. I dislike correcting people even more than I dislike being corrected myself. Ours is something of a noodgy practice. There are lots practice forms and rituals, lots of dos and don’ts, and it’s taken me a while to let go of my resentment of being corrected. What’s arisen in its place, however, is hesitancy at correcting those who are new to the practice.
I was acting as Head Dharma Teacher at a recent sitting session, and someone was there who was attending for the first time. There’s generally some sort of brief orientation for newcomers to familiarize them with the Temple Rules, but there’s really no time to cover all the bases. As I’ve mentioned before, this practice is largely a game of follow the leader facilitated by periodic correction by more experienced students. This particular newcomer was the boyfriend of my partner’s friend, and I really wanted him to have a good first impression of the zen center. When his turn came for an interview with the zen master, however, he left the dharma room by walking in front of the cushions of those seated, rather than behind, as is proper. This particular faux pas I could overlook, as practice is a little looser at Open Meadow than it is at the zen centers in Providence and Cambridge. What was completely unforgivable in my mind, though, was that he didn’t bow to the Buddha when passing before the altar. How could anyone be so oblivious and disrespectful?
I elected to chew on the dilemma that this presented in lieu of doing anything resembling mindful meditation. As Head Dharma Teacher, it was up to me to keep everyone in line, and this guy was clearly out of line. I knew that I should correct him, but I didn’t want to sour his zen experience. What if he thinks I’m a jerk? What if he never comes back? (Incidentally, he never did come back. As to whether or not he thinks I’m a jerk, I have no idea.) When I passed him in the hallway between the dharma room and the interview room, I had only a couple of seconds in which to act or remain silent.
“When you pass in front of the altar, please bow to the Buddha,” I whispered as evenly and respectfully as I could. Time precluded any mention of the lesser infraction. He nodded and entered the Dharma Room. An appropriate comment and a spontaneous response. Nothing more. As I related my dislike of correcting others to the zen master, he responded with a remark I’ve heard from his lips many times.
“This practice is not about preferences.”
Although my misguided and selfish concern in this instance was to avoid alienating another, letting go of preferences is essentially the gateway to widening one’s circle of compassion. The living Indian saint Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma, has said that there is a difference between “love” and “Love,” that being that we love our family, but not our neighbor’s family. We love our spiritual practice, but not all practices. Hence, we experience “love,” but not the “Love” that is available when we love without discrimination. The purpose of our practice is to make this shift from “love” to “Love,” letting our light shine without preference, like the light of the sun itself as it rises in the morning.