Giving life to Zen practice Barry Magid May 15th 2010

What animates our practice. What gives it life? What sets it in motion? What makes it breathe and feel?

The word animate comes from the Greek "anima" for soul, and much of the root of that word and our cultural inheritance around the meaning of soul came with the idea that something was needed in order to bring to life dead matter, that something, a spirit, an energy, a breath, needed to be added to mere matter to make it come alive.

And in Biblical terms that is seen as God's breath - bringing the clay figure of Adam to life - and it's very personal. For the Greeks, they were looking for a scientific explanation of what brought us to life. And Aristotle, when he discusses the soul, first reviews all the theories about what is added to matter to bring it to life. And one of the more appealing versions of the time was Democritus, who believed that the motion of atoms in the air, which is constantly moving…there's no stillness in the particles of air they realized…that the constant motion of air entering into the body somehow imparted the force of that movement and transferred itself into living bodies.

But Aristotle turned that around and suggested a very different kind of definition for soul that I think is relevant to our practice. He reversed the question and didn't ask anymore what had to be added. Instead he asked something about how a thing functions. He used a very curious analogy. He said if the eye just by itself were an animal, its soul would be seeing. The soul of the eye was seeing, that is that the soul is the functioning of all the parts arranged in the proper way so that it does what it is designed to do. And he extended that with other analogies, like of a candle, where they said the soul of the candle is its arrangement of wax and wick in such a way that it could be lit and provide light. Or the soul of a house is that it can be that the timber and the bricks and the various parts are arranged in such a way that it stands up and gives shelter.

Now what's important in those kinds of analogies or those explanations is that there is no added substance, no added spiritual or otherwise kind of substance that is the shape of the candle, or the form of the house or the seeing of the eye. You can't take away all the parts and have this one extra part left over, which is the soul. You don't take away all the parts of the eye, cut off the cornea and the lens and the retina and line up all the pieces on a table and when you've subtracted all the physical parts you don't have seeing left over in the corner. It's no thing at all.

So Aristotle with that kind of analogy got rid of any notion of a separate spiritual substance that was added. And he also got rid of the idea that somehow the soul was separable from the body, in the same way that it doesn't make sense to say that seeing is separable from the eye.

Now in our practice, we often have a funny kind of idea that something has to come from the outside to animate what we're doing. Sometimes that inside and outside is blurred, whether we think of it as adding our effort from the inside, or we think of having some kensho-like insight arrive to bring our practice alive, there's something in which we're not sure that the sitting itself, the sangha itself, the practice itself is where the Zen is. It's as if we create this extra thing, whether we call it enlightenment or Zen or spirituality, that like the soul we think of as a certain kind of added substance, or something that hovers over our practice, or is supposed to emerge like mist from the surface of our practice.

But it takes us away from the actual functioning of ourself, in practice, as the only thing that there is. So what's the equivalent of seeing for a zendo? See I think that's what Dogen is trying to talk about when he speaks about the identity of practice and enlightenment, that the very practice manifestation of the sitting is the enlightened way, is our enlightenment. Enlightenment is not some special way we feel about doing it or something that's added on top of it, it is the very expression of sitting. It's the fulfillment of who and what we are. The sitting itself, like the eye when it sees, is fulfilling its function. You can say that function is enlightenment, if you want to be fancy, or you can say that function is just being human.

Now there's a funny way in which when there's no physical eye present - there's no seeing - but there's also a way in which seeing is not dependent on any given eye, but continues as long as there are eyes in the world. And in some way the soul of our practice continues even after we're gone and we're not doing it anymore. The Dharma continues. But that's not because there's some capital D Dharma existing in heaven, or some transcendental world that lives on afterwards or has any separate reality. It's that we keep recreating and manifesting the Dharma generation after generation as long as this practice continues. So that even if we continue this zendo for decades, people will come and go. It won't be the same people sitting here, they won't be doing the same things, but the Dharma continues, even as every element in the zendo changes. The people who are here, even maybe who the teacher is will change over time. Dharma continues. Just as sight continues as the eye ages, or you start wearing glasses, or you get all sorts of fancy surgical implants or whatever, that even though all the particular parts change, seeing goes on. Dharma goes on. It is a kind of immortality for the practice. Nothing fancy or transcendental about that kind of immortality. It's the immortality of literature, of culture, of tradition and practices, that are embodied first by one generation in particular - individuals - and they are replaced, but the tradition goes on. Changed but continuing.

You have to be very careful not to generate abstract, capitalized words for Dharma, and Enlightenment, and the soul, and reincarnation, and all these things, as if they had separate existences. They all exist, but they exist as the flavor of what we do day in and day out. They are how we animate our life. They are how we animate our practice. They are how we are who we are, by doing what we do.

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