The impossible task of giving beginner's instruction in Zen Barry Magid December 10th 2016

In some online forum, someone asked the question, "What is the worst beginner's instruction you ever heard of or received?" I think without much hesitation I was able to say, "Dogen's think not-thinking!" I can't imagine a beginner receiving that instruction and having the slightest idea what it means or what to do. If you've been sitting for twenty years you might have some idea. But the notion that you could say that to someone off the bat and have them get any of it is pretty strange.

Realizing that perhaps, Francis Cook, when he made his translation of Dogen in "How to Raise an Ox" he changed the line to "Don't think." Well, if anything, that's worse. It goes from being mysterious to being impossible. You tell someone as a beginner "sit down and don't think", you're giving them a formula for failure and self-recrimination. They are being told to do something they can't possibly do and all they're going to do is sit, concentrate, fail, concentrate, fail, concentrate, fail. It's the kind of spiritual version of telling someone, don't think about a rhinoceros. Don't think about a buddha. Don't think. Can't be done. Not for very long, anyway.

It's very hard for us to actually have any idea at all what monks in the old days of Dogen's time did when they sat there. And meditating, in fact, may have been a very small part of what they did at all. A monk's life was devoted to liturgy, ceremony, services, work. And if I remember correctly from a biography of Keizan, he may have been one of the first people to have some mercy on these monks and tell them, "Just sit there and count your breath." Actually an instruction that a simple illiterate monk might be able to understand and follow.

So it's very hard to know what to tell a new student or to tell ourselves about what we should be doing here. I think that, for myself, the actual instruction may be less important than the student being able to honestly inquire about what they think they ought to be doing, or why they're here, or what they're trying to accomplish. All of that comes under the heading of what I call the "secret practice." What the person is really up to regardless of what instruction they received. Because if they are troubled by the contents of their mind, one way or another whatever you tell them, they're secretly trying to obliterate that part of themself that's disturbing them. Their thoughts or their feelings. Their pain or their wandering minds. Their lustful minds, their angry minds.

So we always have to find out what the real intention of the student is. What beginner's instruction have they already given themselves before they walked in the door? And make it explicit. Be honest about it. Try to figure out why that has become your agenda.

We heard in a commentary of a koan at sesshin the other day the story of Yakusan and his teacher Sekito. Yakusan is sitting quietly and Sekito goes up to him and asks "What are you doing?" Yakusan replied, "I'm not doing anything at all." And Sekito challenges him a little further, "Well if you're not doing anything at all, you mist be sitting there idly, daydreaming." Yakusan says right back, "If I were sitting idly, I'd be doing something." So he's very secure in his practice and knows how to say I'm not doing anything at all.

When we hear that we tend to zoom in on the wrong end of the sentence, to "not anything at all". And we think there's a kind of blankness or equanimity or blankness in the "not anything at all". But I think the important part is at the other end, in the "not doing". He's saying, my zazen is not a project. I'm not working on anything. I'm not trying to get anywhere. This is not a technique. Not a project. Nothing at all.

Nothing at all doesn't mean blankness. It means really allowing myself to be present in the world, moment after moment. Not sitting idly. When we sit idly or daydream, usually there's a kind of home entertainment center kind of thing. We're a little bored and we want the distraction of thinking about our todo list or fantasizing about something. We don't really like staying present. That's a little dull and it's occasionally disturbing if we think about how we're actually feeling. So we usually try to do something that makes ourselves distracted or comfortable. Or we may just go back to one of our neurotic projects of beating ourselves up for being no good at this.

Yakusan though is not doing anything. But again that can't really be much of a beginner's instruction. Think not-thinking. Don't do anything at all. After twenty or thirty years, maybe that will be what your practice evolves into. I made up the beginner's instruction of saying "Just look at the wall like you're looking at a mirror. The mirror does all the work. You can't do it right or wrong. You just have to look." I like that. I don't know how useful that is.

Should we just have to go back to what Keizan said and have pity on those poor monks? Just sit and count your breath? That sounds very simple. One. Two. Three. But if you give people that instruction they'll all come down to dokusan and say, "After I got to three my mind was wandering, I'm not good at this, I can't concentrate." The problem is you can't give an instruction so simple that people won't screw it up in their own mind. As long as it's a technique people will find ways of doing it well or badly. And doing it well is the same problem as doing it badly.

The whole idea of beginner's instruction in a way turns out to be a strange kind of koan. Can you tell anybody about just sitting? How can you yourself wear out a lifetime of doing something and show up as a beginner and just sit?

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