I would like to begin by reading a set of practice principles put together from various early Buddhist sources by Ken Wilber, and I think they do a very good job of distilling a certain approach or attitude towards practice and what many people think of as spirituality, what they're trying to do or obtain in their practice. So listen to these principles and see how closely they are in accord either with what you do, what you aspire to, or what you wish you were able to do.
I have a body, but I am not my body. I can see and feel my body, and what can be seen and felt is not the true seer. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, but that has nothing to do with my inward eye. I have a body, but I am not my body.
I have desires, but I am not my desires. I can know my desires, and what can be known is not the true knower. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they do not affect my inward eye. I have desires, but I am not my desires.
I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. I can feel and sense my emotions, and what can be felt and sensed is not the true feeling. Emotions pass through me, but they do not affect my inward eye. I have emotions, but I am not my emotions.
I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I can know and intuit my thoughts, and what can be known is not the true knower. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me, but they do not affect my inward eye. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.
I am what remains, a pure center of awareness, an unmoved witness of all these thoughts, emotions, feelings and desires.
What we have here is a picture of practice that sees the insubstantiality of body, feelings, emotions and thoughts, but sees behind it all an unmoved witness, a pure center of awareness. And what this offers is a picture of pure autonomy, pure imperturbability, being pure awareness, not subject to the vicissitudes of body, mind, thought or feeling. It's a kind of presentation of what I think of as a certain kind of curative fantasy of practice, that I will somehow be able to subtract from the real, inner me all these outer vulnerabilities, all these things that give rise to desire and attachment and vulnerability, and I will be a pure unmoved center of awareness. As I say, I think that's what many people think of or hope for as spirituality. One word for what is happening in this kind of practice, is transcendence. Another word for it is dissociation. It all depends on whether having a body, and mind, thoughts, feelings and attachment, are the problem, and whether being above it all is the solution. Or whether you think it's actually the other way around.
And so I'm now going to present a set of practice principles from the other way around, and you can see how they compare, and which ones you prefer.
I am my body. A living, breathing body, with all its physical sensations of comfort and discomfort, relaxation and tension. Changing each moment, with each inhalation and exhalation. Dependent, each moment on the air I breathe, and the environment, which sustains my life.
I am my desires, my appetites, my needs for love and attachment, my ambitions and ideals. In each moment, I may experience satisfaction or lack, fullness or emptiness, learning gradually to distinguish my needs from my wants, the conditions for my flourishing from the fleeting effects of gratification.
I am my emotions, my love and my anger, my sadness and my joy, my calmness and anxiety. Moment after moment, reflecting my inescapable dependence on others, my vulnerability to the vicissitudes of their attention.
I am my thoughts, which pass through my awareness moment after moment like clouds through the sky, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Whatever their content, I can recognize them as thoughts, part of the ongoing flow of my consciousness, a necessary part of what feels like me, to be neither banished nor suppressed, but acknowledged in their passing.
I am my intention to practice the values and ideals of the Buddha Way, which are not of my own creation, but are passed down to me through generations of students and teachers, on whom I depend for the forms and discipline and understanding that make practice possible. I am simultaneously the product of that long tradition, its manifestation in the present and its shaper for the future.
I am a whole person, whose body, desires, emotions, thoughts, intentions, and awareness are all inseparable from my Buddha nature, all continually manifesting the inherent interdependence, impermanence and imperfection, just as they are right here and right now.
I think that pretty clearly presents a different picture of what practice is, and what counts as the spiritual or the awakened life. And part of our dilemma as Zen practitioners in the 21st century is that we're heir to a long tradition that for the most part has been more like the first set of principles than the second. What we have to realize that where we come from is a tradition established by ascetic, renunciant, celibate monks, and for them, an authentic -- or what people call authentic Buddhism -- attachment and desire, and the needs of the body, are part of the problem, and that the whole form of life prescribed for the monks was one in which we would attempt to free ourselves of the kinds of desires and attachment that give rise to suffering.
Homeleaving is a basic definition of monastic life, and what counted as spiritual practice. You had to sever your attachments in order to really follow the way. Sometimes I sum up this sort of practice as, "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose." It's an attempt to say, "I will free myself from relationships, from a permanent abode, from possessions; because impermanence is inescapable, I won't try to hold onto anything." Now I think that we have to start by being honest and say, "We don't practice like that." If attachment is the source of suffering, inevitably, I think our attitude now is "Bring it on." I think the way we actually practice is to say, "I will enter into loving and attached relationships, dependent relationships, and I know that will bring me suffering. I know that because I have parents, because I have a partner, because I have a child, I have friends and students, I am going to be emotionally vulnerable to all the things that can befall them, and that I am not going to try to create a life where I sever those attachments in order to escape that suffering. Rather, I am going to live a life in the midst of all of that, knowing that interdependence and impermanence are inescapable.
So our practice, I think, now, is much more about recognizing the inescapability of vulnerability and attachment and dependence. And basically what we're doing is trying to get out of the habit of trying to control the uncontrollable. We know that we're going to be subject to all of those things, and part of what we do in sesshin, is practice at letting go of a certain degree of control for a period, even in the midst of a fair degree of discomfort, and just leave everything alone. Just allow ourselves to be subject to things. We're not going to have it the way we want, we're not going to be able to control it, we're going to, in some way, just go along for the ride, wherever it takes us, and allow ourselves to be more vulnerable and more subject to conditions in our daily life when we're busy trying to have it our way.
Now obviously, even in our daily lives, most of the time, control is an illusion. But we struggle after it, and a large part of what we call our suffering is that attempt to control the uncontrollable. So we just try while we're here to let go of that, to sit still and experience whatever's going on, whatever is going by, and we leave it all alone.
Yesterday, Pat read a selection from the Genjokoan, and I'd like to add something about a couple of lines in there, not the famous ones about forgetting the self, but the lines where it talks about those who have realization about delusion are Buddhist, those who are deluded about realization are sentient beings. What it means to have realization about delusion could be summed up as saying, "Our minds are not defiled by their contents." To be deluded about realization is to create two very separate realms, and to turn practice into a vast, endless purification project about removing delusions. We’re endlessly wiping the mirror of dust and defilement so that we'll finally be able to see clearly. But to have realization about delusion is to see delusions are empty. Nothing has to be done to make them more empty than they already are. We don't have to be endlessly wiping the mirror clean, in the sense we do not have to sit here trying to endlessly calm or clear our minds.
Our real practice is to allow ourselves to experience everything that passes through our mind and body while we sit, all the uncontrollable thoughts and feelings and aches and pains. We're not trying to make anything at all happen. We're looking in a mirror. The mirror does all the work and all we have to do is look at it, and try not to flinch at what we see. That's the hard part of looking at a mirror, we just don't like what we see in there. And sesshin is just one long looking in the mirror, "That's me, that's me, that's me."
And you see, I think that first set of practice principles describes an endless project of cleansing the mind, of "I'm not my body, I'm not my thoughts, I’m not my feelings, I'm gonna end up with this pure center of awareness." I think that's a particular kind of fantasy of practice, but people can really do that up to a point. I'm sure we all have periods when we settle in in sesshin and our mind is just very clear and calm and quiet. It happened for me the other day, and in my mind there was not a thought going by, and at some point I had the thought, "This is cheating." You know, it's nice, but there's no real work done in that. It's just really being able to settle back in the pleasure of a certain clarity or calmness, but it's going to go away and I'm going to have to deal with my messy life when it's all over, and my practice is not really about maximizing the amount of time I sit in clarity. My practice is "How do I relate to my mind all the other times?"
The other thing that I want us to be honest about, in terms of our practice, is that one of the radical shifts in what we're doing from what those old monks were doing, is that we are unashamedly interested in our own happiness and our own flourishing. We are not attempting to practice in such a way that we have an indifferent acceptance to pleasure and pain, happiness or unhappiness, allowing either one to come, we have no preference, no picking and choosing. We do not think that our practice is one of asceticism, in which we constantly winnow down our needs and our wants and our desires so that we are happy with almost nothing. And we won't be disappointed by anything, because we can get by on air and a few crumbs. We don’t really think of our practice that way. We want our practice to help us be happy in our lives, we want our practice to help us flourish in our lives, become what our talents and capacities and opportunities allow us to become. In a sense it's really this "We have a picture of flourishing, not a picture of subtraction and contraction.”
This brings me to one last point, in that I was very disappointed to see that when you did the meal chants, you did not use the updated chants that we've been using for many years in Garrison, and you reverted to an old form, and I will remind you that the updated version says, "Fourth, to enjoy our life, we take this food, and thus we enjoy this food with everyone." We do not take this food to support our life, we take this food to enjoy our life. This is a nontrivial difference. I would point out that the reason we are in this retreat house instead of the one we were in last year is that you didn't enjoy the food over there. If you're all good ascetic monks you would say, "Let's go to the place with crappy food, because then we could really practice overcoming our likes and dislikes." Well, we're not doing that, and we shouldn't pretend to be doing that. The enjoyment of our life, like the enjoyment of our food, happens, yes, when we free ourselves up from too much pickiness or too much needing to have it our own way, but we want to free ourselves from that in order to expand the range of things we in fact accept and enjoy in this life. And we want the sesshin to be something that at some level we enjoy doing. It should not just be an exercise in how well you can hold up under torture. It's not just an exercise in developing endurance and tolerance. There's a way in which we're cultivating joy. It may not always seem that way, but if in the end it's not what we're doing, it's not worth it. So I hope we bring the enjoyment back into the meal chants and back into our practice.
This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.