From The Transmission of the Lamp
On December 8th, when the crown prince Shakyamuni was nineteen years of age,
he decided to make some excursions from his home, wondering what he would see. In the course of taking walks through the four gates, he saw four things: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic, which deeply stirred him. He said to himself: old age, sickness and death must ultimately be rejected. In the middle of that night a heavenly being, named Pure Dwelling, appeared at the crown prince’s window, saluted him, and said “The time for renunciation is at hand. You must leave your home.” Hearing this, the crown prince was overwhelmed with joy and crossed the boundary of the castle and Kashmir Mountains to seek the way of freedom from suffering. For the first three years he studied the samadhi of non-action but he found it no good and he gave it up. In the next three years he studied the samadhi of non-thinking and this too was no good and he gave it up. Then he went to Gaya Mountain and spent the next six years practicing ascetic disciplines together with many heretics wearing sack-cloth and eating but a little rye each day. It is said in the sutra that by having no intention and no action he was able to subdue many heretics and when wrong teachings existed, he was able to show many skillful means allowing people to develop different ideas and awaken to enlightenment. Now it is said, that on December 8th, at that morning of dawn when the morning star arose, the bodhisattva became a buddha, a teacher of gods and men. He was thirty years of age.
As we approach the anniversary of Buddha's enlightenment, we can reflect on the extent to which our practice is an attempt to recapitulate the course of his life and practice and enlightenment. To what extent we find ourselves evolving this time and this place in different directions. The brief vignette that I read encapsulates the traditional account of homeleaving, renunciation, the practice of intense ascetic discipline, almost to the point of death, in order to reach a moment of final and supreme awakening. And in many ways, particular in the Rohatsu sesshins that are traditionally held this week, there is a tendency to push ourselves as hard as physically and mentally possible, in some way reenacting the Buddha's own struggle in hopes of achieving what he achieved.
However, our practice is not really like that and that's not what we're doing this week, and I thought I would say something about the difference, and how I see it. Now even if one is not practicing with a kind of goal-oriented idea of practice as a means of breakthrough and killing the ego in order to experience some great kensho, one can imagine coming together annually, if not more often, for intensive sesshins, where there is a group commitment and exhilaration in the difficulty of practice, and it culminates in a kind of great exhilaration of accomplishment. I think of sesshins like that as equivalent to running marathons. There's a great popularity these days for that kind of practice and commitment, and pushing oneself to the limit for the experience of exhilaration that that provides, and I think people could practice zazen in that same spirit, which in many ways is just fine, the same way running marathons is just fine. But I really have no interest in these. And I don't see what we're doing, and I think this is the main point. I don't see us as running those sort of running a little mini marathon marathon--we can't do 26 miles, but we'll sort of do a mile or two, and we're going to just do a lightened version of the real thing, for those of us who are too old or infirm to manage the whole 26 miles--I don't think of what we're doing here at all that way. It's not a watered down version of something else. I really think of it as an attempt to foreground expression over training, in the ongoingness of our sitting. In a way we could call that a kind of post-enlightenment practice, a practice in which we express our Buddha nature rather than endlessly trying to find it.
We have to be clear what that means. See, in other versions of Buddha's enlightenment, he says, "Oh -- that's me." And the way I like to understand that moment of realization is in the context of all the years of extreme duress he's put himself through, of intense ascetic practice, struggling so hard to break through, to solve the problem of suffering. He looks up and he sees the star, and the star is just twinkling, and in that moment he realizes he is just like that star -- just twinkling, just expressing who and what he is, and that he did not have to achieve anything at all, become anything else, but just be what he was, the way the star is being what it is. And in that moment, he sees all beings, all things, everything everywhere, as just twinkling, perfectly expressing what they are.
Now, I believe when we sit zazen, its primary function is to create a space in which we can simply experience who and what we are, experiencing the moment-by-moment twinkling of our lives. And that twinkling expresses itself in a variety of ways: Through breath, through thought. through restlessness, through pain, through boredom. Everything is the twinkling.
Now, Joko particularly tried to focus on our resistance, or our unwillingness to see some of those things as twinkling, that we push off, avoid, deny the experience of pain, or anxiety, or anger, or restlessness. Those aren't it, you don't want to experience those things. We're endlessly trying to ward them off, endlessly trying to control and shape our mind into something we think we're going to like a little better. And the training aspect of this process, which we inherit from her teaching, is to particularly notice those moments of rejection, where we try to push away some experience and say, "That's not it. That's not me. That's not twinkling. That's not what enlightenment feels like." And she said, just notice that and just stay with that.
Now, when we begin practice most of our time may be taken up with noticing that resistance, constantly judging our experience, constantly avoiding. In general, if you practice over the years, the amount of time you spend in resistance gradually goes down, but it never disappears, and I would say that the overall balance of that kind of training versus some capacity to sit back, just think, just feel, just breath, before there's a foreground-background shift, we're able to more and more say to everything that we see in the mirror, "That's me." And once we have that orientation to our experience, our practice is not about accomplishing anything, because we're just what we are, and we're not going to become anything different; a star is not going to change into something. And our practice simply is appreciation, awareness, expression, and I think rather than our coming together to train for a marathon, I think we're much more like coming together to sit at the bench in Riverside Park, down by the river, and watch the river flow by all day.
Now, if we really went and did that instead of sitting here -- I hope we would have remembered our umbrellas -- if we spent the day sitting on the bench looking at the river, you'd get restless, your back would hurt, you might get bored. You might have some pain. Lots would come up in your mind, and you'd see lots of different things flow by the river. It might be that for many people the main difficulty would be the same as here: a sense of taking away our usual distractions. We don't have a screen in front of us. We're not plugged into anything. We're not engaged to all the forms of busy-ness that define our lives. We might feel like we're wasting our lives, I've got a thousand things I need to do, why am I just sitting here all day. It wouldn't be that different, yet the function would be the same, which is just slow down, see who you are without your distractions. See if in the absence of distractions we can first tolerate, and then maybe even enjoy looking in that mirror.
And I think, in the end, we really don't do this for any reason other than we enjoy living this way. It's sort of a funny idea, but I think it's true. You're not going to get anything from this. If you haven't by now, forget about it. [laughter]
Can we do this just because it's who we are, and in some way we just like doing something a little different than our usual busy-iness, our usual distractions. Something simpler, something quieter, sometimes something a little difficult, but nothing else other than watch our lives play out. Watch the river flow past, as we watch.
Everything we see is that twinkling. Sometimes we need little reminders of that. Sometimes being together with a group or a teacher helps us sit still. Helps us be reminded. Helps us see that everything is a star, but that even stars someday will go out.
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