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Shambalah Conference: Discovering Happiness, What the Buddhists Teach Barry Magid August 9th 2009

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Please begin by placing your palms together and repeating after me:
This dharma
Incomparably profound
And minutely subtle
Is rarely encountered
Even in hundreds of
Thousands of
Millions of ages.
Now we can see it,
Hear it,
Hold and maintain it.
May we completely realize
The Tathagata’s true meaning.

It’s been a very interesting weekend for me to hear teachers from other traditions talk about practice and about happiness. I don’t get out much, so it’s been especially interesting to hear the view from the other side. But as a speaker here, to follow Gaylon and Polly and Sharon, just to follow any one of them would be a tough task, but to follow all three of them, well, I hope you have a little empathy for my dilemma as a speaker, to do something new for you.

I do want to try to tell you some stories that convey the flavor of Zen’s particular approach to practice and the problem of happiness. It happened that a little before I came up here I received in the mail a book that was put together to celebrate the 80th birthday of Mel Weitsman who has been the Zen teacher at Berkeley Zen Center for many decades now, and it was put together by a student, Max Ernstein, and collected tributes and memoirs from all of Mel’s dharma successors over the years, of which I think there are 20-something now. And Max has also at different times been a student of mine and has come to my sesshins. But before he practiced Zen he spent many years studying Vipassana, and when he tells the story at the beginning of the book, that when he first went to sit with Mel at the Berkeley Zen Center, he wanted to really know what the difference was between Vipassana and Zen’s forms of meditation, and so he goes up to Mel, and he says, Please, can you explain to me how is Zen different from Vipassana? Mel says to him, I’m busy now, I can’t tell you that. And Max says, OK. So the next week he comes back and asks again. Mel says the same thing. Too busy, can’t talk about that. Max is persistent and he goes back a third time and he gets the same answer. And finally, a little light goes off and he gets the idea that he’s gotten the answer each time. Not in the form of an explanation, but in the form of a presentation, of a difference. So part of what we’ll look at this morning is How was that an answer to his question? What was he conveying about the difference between Zen and Vipassana?

But since we’re here to talk about happiness, I want to start with offering one more definition that comes actually from classical Greek, a tradition that goes through Aristotle and then the Stoics. And their definition was that happiness is a sign of flourishing in animals the way flowers are for plants. Happiness is the sign of our flourishing, like a flower. I always liked that definition, but actually this weekend, in the context of some of the things we’ve been talking about in terms of planting seeds and nourishing the growth and development of happiness, we can ask What kind of flower was that? And under what conditions was it growing? Because we can picture two very different kinds of scenarios: Is the flower a flower that is being grown in a carefully cultivated garden in which we are carefully weeding the soil, making sure we’re providing all the right fertilizer, making sure we’re watering it? Is it a flower that we’re taking care of on an ongoing meticulous way or is it a wildflower? Is it a flower that is just growing all by itself in the fields with no one paying any attention to it whatsoever, but it’s flowering, just being the product of what it is, on its own?

That kind of flower is what we hear referred to in the gospel where Jesus says, Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin and yet they are clothed in a raiment more splendid than that of King Solomon. The lilies, just by virtue of being lilies, are already more splendid than the garments of the king. Now I think that there is always, in our practice, a kind of dynamic tension between these two views of our flowering: One is the side of nurturance, growth and gradual development and on the other side is the sense that the flower of happiness or realization, Buddha nature, is already fully present without any effort whatsoever. Now all traditions, all practices, have to have some balance between these two positions. Probably Zen tilts much more to emphasizing the lily side, the side in which we need to see how our realization, our happiness, is not the product of any effort or any process, but is immediately available right here and right now.

So I’m going to tell a few stories to try to illustrate that in different ways. This one comes from the autobiography of a Zen teacher, Uchiyama Roshi, a contemporary Japanese Zen teacher who wrote a very good manual for practice called, “Opening the Hand of Thought.” He told the story of his training as a young man in a Japanese monastery with a teacher, Kodo Sawaki Roshi, and this teacher, Sawaki Roshi, was a very famous, very charismatic, powerful teacher, a big, tall, imposing kind of man who just totally dominated any room he was in. And Uchiyama describes himself as a young man as very frail, very shy, quite anxious, who became a monk at a very young age, and here he was studying with this famous, powerful teacher. And after he’d been there for a few years, he actually got a chance to ask a question, and he got up his courage and said, Roshi, I’m a very anxious person, but if I really dedicate my life to Zen practice, if I do this whole-heartedly for the rest of my life, do you think it would be possible for me to become a person like you? And Sawaki said, Absolutely not! I was like this before I practiced Zen. Zen had nothing to do with it. Zen is useless!

Now that uselessness of Zen, I think, is in fact, it’s single most important attribute. And it refers to the idea of no gain that we hear in the Heart Sutra. The uselessness of practice, what does that mean? Why would you do something for your whole life, when you’ve just been told it’s useless? See? It’s an important question. We always inevitably go into this for a reason. Uchiyama was very sincere and direct about his reasons. He wanted to be transformed by his practice and he was told, No, that’s not going to happen. And in fact at the end of the memoir, he said, You know, Roshi was right. Thirty years later and I’m still a wimp.

Now I want to make a particular claim about that uselessness, and I want to maintain (we’ll see if I can back this up as we go on) the fact that Zen is useless is what makes it a religious practice. How does that sound? It’s very uselessness is what makes it religious. See, because by religion, I mean something that we’re doing totally and solely for its own sake, to simply deepen our experience of our life as it is in which we experience something of reverence, or awe, or deep acceptance of the mere fact that we’re here at all, and that that is not contingent in any way whatsoever on the content of our life or whether engaging in the practice changes our life. It says that our religious practice expresses who we are, is who we are, it’s not about our becoming something else.

I want to read a short quote from Dogen. I should be able to memorize it but I will read it. Dogen was the founder in Japan of the Soto Zen school that these two teachers, Sawaki and Uchiyama belonged to in the 20th century. He lived in the 13th century. And this is what he said about zazen, which means “sitting zen”: “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease. It is the practice of realization, of complete enlightenment. Know the dharma emerges of itself, clearing away hindrances and distractions.” Zazen is not learning meditation. It is not a technique or a method. It’s not a means to an end.

I think that in itself begins to give a very different flavor to a meditation practice, however you want to call it. If you think you’re doing it to relieve your anxiety, to cope with anger, to cope with stress, to relieve suffering, to be happy, Dogen would say, As long as you have any goal like that whatsoever in mind, you’re not doing zazen. Zazen is not a means to an end. It’s the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease. The dharma gate. Dharmas are each moment, it means it is how you enter into the full enjoyment and ease of each moment, again, regardless of each moment's content. It is the practice of realization, of complete enlightenment. Practice realization in original Japanese, I gather, is a single word, and what he meant was that, when we sit down in this posture, in this way, that sitting itself contains everything, is the full expression of what it is to be human and alive, that it is how we manifest who and what we most deeply are. It’s right there, immediately available the first time you sit down. Nothing is lacking at all. And yet we don’t intuitively or reflexively want to accept the experience of that very first sitting as a complete fulfillment of who and what we are.

Here’s another story from another modern teacher, Katagiri Roshi, from Suzuki Roshi’s lineage. There’s a nice biography of him that just came out by Dosho Port, and it’s a nice memoir of both his teacher and his relationship as a student to his teacher. And in it he describes a student going to Katagiri and saying, Whenever I get angry now, I try to go sit zazen, and when I do that, it calms me down and I’m able to really see what hurt me and what got me angry, and I’m really able to process it much better as a result of that sitting. And Katagiri Roshi said, Don’t use your zazen for that! Again, it’s a complete projection or dismissal of the idea that zazen is a means to an end. Don’t use it for that. That may be a very good thing to do, find a way to quiet yourself down and look to causes and roots of your anger, but don’t turn meditation into yet another psychological tool. See, one of the reasons I maintain the zendo as a place of religious practice, where we’re not a temple but we have daily services, I wear a rakusu like this, and we maintain a certain ritual and formality, is that I don’t want zazen to become one more form of self-improvement that everybody engages in. A zendo is not a spiritual health club. It’s not a place to get yourself in shape mentally and spiritually the way you do physically at the gym. It’s not about that. Our practice may have all sorts of by-products but we don’t do it as a means to an end.

So if we’re not practicing meditation as any form of technique, what actually are we doing when we sit there? Well, in Zen we also call meditation Just Sitting. Just Sitting. Don’t just do something, Sit there. Well, what makes that hard, is that we find that we are never leaving ourselves alone. If I say Just Sit and give a basic instruction of just be in this posture, feel your body breathe, almost inevitably people start wondering: Am I doing it right? But the whole point of setting up zazen as not a technique is that you can’t do it right or wrong. You can’t do it wrong and you can’t do it right. A technique, a method, is something that can be done correctly or incorrectly. You can sort of get it or not, you can be a novice at it and then do it a long time and then practice it and then master it, but what I’m trying to describe is creating a space in which there is no getting it right or wrong. It is just what it is.

A student came to me and said, I’ve been sitting a long time but I feel like there are still so many obstacles in my practice. I’m restless, my knees hurt, I get angry, my mind wanders all the time. How do I deal with all these obstacles in my practice? I told him, There are no obstacles in practice. There are no obstacles in this practice. All the things that he listed are simply attributes of his moment-by-moment experience. He was automatically comparing that experience to how he wished it was going. He had in mind a sitting in which he was physically comfortable, his mind was calm, he was emotionally stable, and all these things were intruding and spoiling his practice. They were obstacles. So I wanted to tell him, there are no obstacles. There’s just this moment. There’s no right or wrong about any of these things. But people come to practice because always they have some kind of agenda like that.

People come for very interesting reasons. I had one student who would sign up for every monthly sesshin that we would conduct but he would only show up to about one out of three or four of them. And this last time he finally told me what was going on. It turns out that he’s married and he’s in the middle of having an affair, and the only way he can get out of the house and get away for a weekend is to tell his wife he’s going to a sesshin. And so when he signs up for sesshin, sends in the check, has all the evidence, then he goes to meet his girlfriend. But once in a while it doesn’t work and the girlfriend can't get away from her husband, and then he’s stuck, and he has to come to sesshin. Well, it gets him through the door, you know? Once he’s there, he’s got to deal with it, and eventually he owns up to the whole scenario and the sesshin begins to work on him. I think it’s a wonderful story about aspiration and practice.

I’d like to turn it into a little parable, though, and say his girlfriend’s name was Samadhi, and she only showed up sometimes. Then the other times he was stuck in sesshin without the goal that he had in mind. Samadhi is a word for the kind of concentrated clarity or calm or concentration that we say we want to be the object of our practice. And sometimes we can really get it. I mean, that’s something you can get good at. But you know, you’re not going to get good at it 100% of the time, and what happens in those bad sittings? The ones that don’t turn out the way you want? Where you’re left with a wandering mind? Where it just hurts? Where you’re bored? Where you’re thinking the teacher is not as good as the other teacher down the block or you’re not as good as the student sitting next to you, and you just can’t get any of that crap out of your head, right?

You see, I usually try to remind students that those sittings are probably much more important to their practice than the days when they come in all blissed out and beaming. That’s great! I’m glad that you can have those days. But the real work of practice is sitting with all those things that we come to practice to get away from, when we’re really left stuck sitting still with every aspect of our personality and our physical body that we don’t like, that we came to practice to get rid of.

In Buddhist literature you hear the word dualism a lot, and it’s often presented in a way that seems very abstract, sometimes like the dualism of absolute and relative or even the self and other, and it’s not clear necessarily how that actually happens on the cushion. But the most basic dualism that we have to face in practice is the self divided against the self, one part of the self being set up against another and calling it practice, a part that in the name of observation becomes judgment, in the name of wanting to be spiritual rejects the physicality of our bodies, in the name of being compassionate wants to repress or deny our anger, in the name of being selfless wants to learn to live without any needs of our own, without any need for love. So often we hear about how important it is to be compassionate, loving. I don’t think we really acknowledge or hear enough about how important it is to be on the receiving end of compassion and love.

I was very gratified to hear in Sharon’s presentation yesterday that she began with the metta exercises directing the happiness, safety and ease to oneself first. Because I’m a psychoanalyst as well as a Zen teacher, a lot of my practice is filled up with people who have read my books and want to have a therapist who is friendly to the idea of practice, and that means I’ve ended up specializing in the psychoanalytic treatment of neurotic Buddhists. It’s a very interesting professional niche to occupy. Unfortunately, what often emerges, it seems like these are people who have taken a vow to save all beings minus one, and a lot of what has to happen in the course of the treatment is that I have to persuade them to start being bad Buddhists. They have to learn how to get angry again. They have to learn that they have to admit that they have needs. So often practice gets perverted into a way of saying, I’m going to get to a place where I will be autonomous and I won’t be hurt anymore by anything. I’m going to become pretty much the stone Buddha on the altar. And the problem with that idea is not that you can’t do it. The problem is that you can almost do it. You can go really a long way in the direction of turning yourself to stone and trying to deny very basic human needs, and the more you deny them the deeper you think your practice is going. So it’s a very subtly dangerous business we’re in.

In my book I’ve referred to this as our secret practice, the secret practice of Buddhism. Whatever we say our formal practice is, whether it’s zazen or mindfulness, just counting breaths, inevitably we have an unconscious underlying agenda where we’re trying somehow to extirpate the parts of ourselves that we just don’t know how to deal with, parts that are suffering, and we want a relief from suffering but inevitably there is a little voice in us that says, we’ll get rid of suffering by getting rid of our vulnerability or of our needs, and practice, if it’s really genuine practice, takes us exactly in the opposite direction. It makes us more vulnerable, not less. It lets us admit to being dependent, vulnerable, mortal, human beings.

When we’re talking in various contexts about the First Noble Truth, which is translated often as Life is Suffering, with different variations on that, I had the thought that if only Buddha had been Greek, we could go back to the original root of suffering in the Greek, which is the word pathos, and that word has a spectrum of meanings. On one hand it means suffering and things that befall us, generally of a negative nature. But pathos also means the whole range of emotion, the whole range of feeling. And I thought it would be a very interesting way to rethink practice if we restated the First Noble Truth as All Life is Feeling. And then it would be very clear that we’re not in the business of ending feeling. It sounds good to say we want to end suffering, but really, we translate that because all life is feeling, and then we can say, there’s a ground and a complexity to feeling that we can learn to understand. We can learn to become wise about the nature of feeling, but we won’t imagine that we’re going to get to some realm that’s free of feeling, the way we can imagine we can be free of suffering.

In a certain sense I’ve often told my students that it would have been much more useful if the Buddha had stopped with the First Noble Truth and said Life is Suffering. Period. End of story. Get used to it. But, you know, everybody would have left and we wouldn’t be sitting here today, so he had to entice them a little bit. You have to go along with people’s curative fantasies for a while, just until they’re hooked. The fact is, that because we’re mortal, because everything changes, and time’s arrow goes in only one direction, we’re not going to ever escape the reality of vulnerability and mortality and illness and death. We can come to terms with those things. We can become wise about them, but we have to watch out for enlisting a spiritual or religious practice in a curative fantasy of somehow escaping or transcending what it is to be human.

So the practice that I teach, the practice of zazen, is a practice in which we leave everything alone. We sit and simply experience life as it’s happening, manifesting in our body, in our mind, in this moment. And we’ll do that, we’ll have a period of sitting like that in a few moments, but let’s first open it up to you for questions or reactions to this way of thinking about practice and it probably would be a good time to stretch our legs too. Why don’t we stand up, stretch, and then think of some questions.

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