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What does it mean to practice in the face of death? Barry Magid June 9th 2012

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Today Julia has brought a portion of Rich Ring’s ashes to the zendo which we will keep enshrined on the side altar according to his wishes. The ashes are housed in a small box made by Marv Blaustein and as a sad irony we’re going to add the name of Marvin’s brother, Jay, to our service list as Jay has also been diagnosed with lung cancer. We wish him a full recovery and we hope that his illness will be completely treatable. But it is a reminder of what we all face one time or another, sooner or later. We naturally ask ourselves, What is practice supposed to do for us in such moments when we face the illness or death of a loved one or our own illness and impending death? What does it mean to face these things with equanimity? What does it mean to face them at all?

We hear a lot in practice about how life is perfect just as it is. Are we able to see that perfection when we place our friend’s ashes on the altar? When we receive a diagnosis of cancer? Where is the perfection of life then? Does it have any meaning for us at all? I would suggest that, if it’s not going to be a completely empty word, perfection is a way of talking about deep acceptance of life as it is, a capacity developed after many, many years of practice to simply say Yes to the whole of life.

As we go along in this practice I think it manifests itself as a capacity to see that having difficulties is not a problem. It’s not a sign that there’s something wrong with us, we have done something wrong, or that there’s something wrong with life itself, but that the things that we call problems or difficulties are all inseparable parts of what it means to be alive, and although no one wants to face pain or suffering or impermanence, perhaps our practice eventually allows us to say Yes, this is what my life is. This is what everybody’s life is. This is what life has always been and will always be. Perhaps when we’re able to accept that this is what life is, we can find some joy in it, even in these dark moments. We find joy even in sharing one another’s sorrow. We find joy in going through this together.

I’d like us to end now with nine bows to Rich and to life as it is.

[Pure Land] tends to get a bad press in a lot of Zen circles where it’s considered sort of common-people’s Buddhism, where you pray to be reborn in the Pure Land and if you just have faith and recite the Buddha’s name you’ll be reborn in another life. Traditionally some people consider this a much less rigorous or deep kind of practice, but the potter [Milton Moon] said, actually, that his old Rinzai Zen teacher had great respect for Pure Land teachers who thought they had something that was often missing in Zen, which is that side of surrender and faith, that it’s not all about my doing something in some kind of macho, elitist way, as if the nature of life and death is going to be revealed only to spiritual triathletes who can do this incredible intense practice for decades and is not available to common folks. But since we all live and die, I have a feeling that what it all means is as accessible to anybody as anybody else.

In any case, I was thinking about all this, having a conversation with somebody who wrote to me out of the blue, who practiced Zen for many years but who was really plagued by the sense of having never quite gotten there, never got it right, feeling like after all these years his mind was still wandering, he couldn’t concentrate the way he thought he was supposed to, and so forth and so on. It’s a picture of somebody who very much had that sense of Zen as a matter of habit and discipline and effort but was stuck with the chronic core belief of I can’t get it right, I’m not good enough, I don’t try hard enough, my mind just isn’t the way it should be, it’s not working for me the way it works for everybody else. Maybe even some of you have had that problem once in a while. It’s really an example of the whole pitfall that it’s easy to fall in if you think of this as a matter of a disciplined practice that you can do well or badly.

For somebody who’s stuck there, the first thing they have to be able to do is see that the problem is not foremost their wandering mind but their judging mind. It doesn’t really make much difference if you sit and daydream about what you’re going to have for lunch. Maybe you’re wasting a little time but it’s harmless. What really is terribly painful and causes this whole life of suffering is to sit there and say, Oh my God, I’m sitting here thinking about lunch. What a failure I am! Those are the thoughts that are really messing you up, not the thoughts about the banana.

The practice is really first of all to see all thoughts as exactly equal, they’re all just equal. The first step has to be seeing that Oh what a failure I am! is just an empty thought, the same way as Boy I can’t wait to have that banana for lunch! In a certain sense it just doesn’t matter at all whether you have either one or the other of those thoughts. They’re just thoughts. They no more contaminate your mind or ruin your practice than the fact that there’s a dog barking in the garden. It’s not like, Oh my God, if that dog doesn’t stop barking how am I going to have a peaceful calm sitting the way I’m supposed to.

If we let anything intrude and spoil things, we’ve already made the split. It doesn’t really matter whether we sit and complain about the city not being quiet enough to truly meditate or whether we sit and complain that our mind isn’t quiet enough to truly meditate. We have to sit in the midst of it all. To do that you really need the surrender side, not the control side. You have to be able to let everything just pass through you, like sounds from the street, sights through the window, any metaphor you like.

I would rather people just sit in the zendo, daydream their life away if they’re happy doing it. I have no problem. If that’s what you want to do, be my guest. It’s worse to torture yourself with Oh my God, I’m not doing this right. I’m not doing this right. Am I there yet? I’m trying so hard. That’s a shame. That’s a bigger shame than the person who sits and thinks about lunch. You can eventually get bored thinking about lunch. I think that those kinds of distracting thoughts tend to go away when we’re tired of them, when we feel like, well, I’ve paid enough attention to them. As long as I’m here I might as well just sit.

It happens in an atmosphere of deep acceptance and permission to just be yourself. Just look in the mirror. There are so many more dangerous pitfalls in that model of making heroic efforts that are always falling short and always failing. The old poet of Pure Land Buddhism, Harold Stewart, said that really, it’s a wonderful deep practice, but first you should do everything else, but when they fail, when you’ve come to the conclusion that you’re not going to be one of those great spiritual triathletes who has the big satori of the century, if you’re not a reincarnation of Hakuin, maybe you should just sit down and do something simple. Just recite the name of Buddha. Trust that that’s enough. Trust that who you are is enough.

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