We may say that when we sit we’re expressing our true nature. We might say when we sit we’re just being who we already are. We might say that by sitting and through sitting we become who we potentially are. There are subtly different ways of thinking about it that can shape our experience of practice, and they involve the difference between imagining that there’s something inside of us that we’re endeavoring, on the one hand, to discover, something of a true self that lies hidden and deep inside and needs uncovering or thinking that there’s a latent capacity that needs to be developed, and that through practice, like practicing any kind of skill or craft or exercise, we develop that capacity. Or we can say that in our sitting everything is already present and complete, and it’s just a matter of recognizing it, rather than making anything new at all.
This kind of question comes up when we look at koans like “Show Me Your Original Face.” Where is that? Hidden deep inside? Does something obscure it? Is it present all the time? Where is it now? I’ve just started reading a new biography of Simone de Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick, I believe. Beauvoir is famous for saying that one is not born a woman, but one becomes a woman, and we can understand that in light of the existentialist slogan that existence precedes essence, the idea being that there is no essential nature, like being a woman, having a particular gendered identity that simply develops or is uncovered, but that this is something that is created in the course of a lifetime through some combination of social conditioning and conscious choice.
And Beauvoir is particularly interested in deconstructing all the things that has been socially taken as natural or givens, and seeing the historical and cultural conditioning involved in that, where choice and option could exist where nothing but a combination of compliance that existed before. In particular she wanted to see that women are not defined purely in relation to men, but that their subjectivity or their identify was independent of that kind of social expectation, and the biographer of course points out that in her obituaries, she was inevitably described as Sartre’s lover, popularizer of existentialism, and also an ardent feminist, without much noticing the last might contradict the former.
In her existentialist formulation, there is no essence that we are seeking to uncover. Rather, we are always endeavoring to see: What are our choices? What are our possibilities? And it’s interesting to try to draw parallels between that anti-essentialist position and what we see in Buddhism, which certainly seems to share that kind of anti-essentialism when it comes to the self, although Buddha Nature is sometimes construed or misconstrued as a kind of true nature that we’re trying to uncover or develop. But we understand this to mean that our Buddha Nature is precisely our non-essential nature, it’s precisely the emptiness of self and the creation of self experienced through interconnection and interdependency.
I think that when we look at Dogen’s picture of just sitting, where he talks about the identity of zazen and enlightenment, there’s a way in which it sounds very much as if he is describing zazen being the expression of true nature, of what it is to be most fully at the intersection of human nature and Buddha Nature. Whatever those are, however empty those things are, it seems that Dogen has a strong sense that this form of life is the fulfillment and expression of who and what we are. In some way allowing ourselves to be shaped or given form by that form of life is to discover our enlightened nature.
In lay practice we have to look at our zazen somewhat differently, since we’re not going to live a monastic life in its ritualized form that is going to embody the enlightened way in every moment, but to see what it means to be as present as we can in all aspects of our life, including our lay life with an awareness of impermanence and interconnection, however they manifest. And I think that the basic assumption of lay practice is that life as it is constantly teaches the truths of impermanence and interconnection, that they’re always on display. You don’t have to go anywhere special to discover them or realize them.
There’s a very subtle interplay between what it is we think we develop in our practice and the side of practice that leaves everything just as it finds it, the side of practice that is about showing up to moment after moment experience, nothing being developed or tamed or changed at all, except for the fact that it’s all changing anyway. See, there’s a side of practice that I never tire of comparing to learning to make your bed every morning. And there, when we have this habit of making the bed, the point is not that at the end of every day we have a made bed. The point is at the end of the day we have become the kind of person who makes their bed every day.
You could think of it as an Aristotelian project of developing a virtue, developing a capacity, becoming a certain kind of person through doing the activity. And we might say we have to approach it with that Aristotelian notion of moderation, that what we’re trying to find is the balance between being obsessively tied to the form and making sure everything is absolutely meticulous and neat and perfect and being obsessed with the product, and on the other hand a kind of laxness or looseness where we say, Oh, it doesn’t matter whether it’s made or not.
In our sitting, there’s definitely this dimension of showing up, of becoming the kind of person who just shows up for zazen. Whether we think of that as daily or weekly or however we structure our practice, we become the kind of person who structures it that way. We become the kind of person who’s here every day or we become the kind of person who comes when they can, when it’s convenient. And I would say that in some sense, in lay practice, we’re not trying to privilege one form over another. We’re not trying to say that Hope is the one person really practicing because she became a resident, she sits here every day and every period and never misses anything, and that’s the real Zen practice. I think that would be a mistake.
Rather, I think that we have to become aware of our choices and how those choices are made and conditioned. Like I say, impermanence and interconnection are not only found in the zendo. They’re everywhere. Our practice is to say: How attuned do we stay with those realities in our daily life? To what extent is our life shaped by resistance to those things, or the denial of those things, and attempt through control or acquisition or distraction, to try to create a false sense of constancy or a false sense of independence or autonomy and the denial of dependency on others.
I think these are the questions we all have to try to keep alive in our minds as we practice together. I always ask: What is it that you think you’re doing here? What are we performing? What are we creating? What are we discovering? Who are we being?