I’m sure one way or another everyone is affected by the events of the past week, the inauguration of the new president, the sight of Donald Trump leaving Washington once and for all. Whatever mixture of reactions, relief or anticipation you might feel, all in all it’s a reminder that we are living and practicing within history, at a particular time and a particular place.
Sometimes in spiritual practices we can fall into the assumption that what we’re doing is reaching for something that is timeless, something that stands outside of culture and history. In Zen, the most explicit reference to history is in the lineage, where we trace the transmission of the Dharma step by step back to Shakyamuni and even back before him, and we’re to imagine a kind of unbroken chain that as it stretches over two millennia, from India to China and Japan and to America, the primary lesson that it’s meant to convey is that the realization of each of those ancestors and patriarchs is in some sense identical to the realization available to us today. It’s precisely a kind of assertion of a timeless, ahistorical truth.
We can read stories in the old koan collections about the idiosyncratic behavior of different masters, and remark on how this one had an incredible facility with language, and that one just sat in silence, or hit with a stick, or yelled. And all these stylistic differences, though, are in some way meant to convey a common truth. When we sit, we sit and feel our body breathe, and in doing so, our minds may become very clear. Thoughts may seem to cease for a while. We may have just that pure physical sensation of the inhalation and exhalation. It may feel for a while that the rest of our body drops away. There’s just breath. No thought, no body, just this awareness hanging there in space.
That kind of concentrated awareness can remind us of the idiosyncratic or arbitrary content of our moment to moment thought, that all that is transient and in some sense unreal. But it can seduce us in a way into imagining that our true nature is to be found in this kind of timeless formlessness, a pure awareness, separated from body, separated from the ordinary contents of consciousness, separated from where we find ourselves in time and culture and history.
Those kinds of experiences are in their own sense valuable, but I think that my practice always comes back to the fact that, as I feel my body breathe, I’m feeling my breath in the body of a seventy-one-year-old man sitting in a chair because his ankles and knees are too stiff to sit cross-legged. I’m feeling the breath in my particular body here and now in this particular condition. I’m not sure that the point of our practice is to get into some state that allows me to imagine it’s just the same now as when I was thirty. I can do that for a little bit, but then I’m always reminded that Joko wanted to call sesshins “intensives,” not retreats.
Some of the bits I’ve been posting lately on Facebook about Heidegger have engaged with his picture of history and I’ve been thinking about it in contrast to the timeless ahistorical way of thinking we sometimes encounter in Buddhism. For Heidegger, what we are is inseparable from when we are. Being is inseparable from time. He says we are a kind of being preoccupied with the nature of our being, with our becoming the sort of being we can possibly be. We don’t have a fixed essential nature. We have to discover or create one or find one in our being in the world, in our embeddedness in a time and place, culture and set of practices. And because we’re fundamentally defined by that sense of possibility and potentiality, the future is built into our very notion of the present. The very notion of who we are is inseparable from what it is that we’re becoming.
The possibilities of what we are becoming are always in some sense in relationship to our finitude, to the reality of our death, which in Heidegger doesn’t just mean that one day sometime in the future I’m going to die and my life is over, but rather that every day I’m alive I face the possibility of the closure of possibility, of becoming this but not that. And because we are beings preoccupied with possibility, we’re also automatically engaged with our past because the past is the ground of what’s possible for us. He says we’re thrown into a particular situation and we are born into a world that defines who and what we are and what we can be, and the possibilities that we develop always must arise out of that ground that we find ourselves in.
He says that we never should imagine that we can get behind our thrown-ness, that we’re not going to ever be able to step outside our particular time and place. There’s never going to be the possibility of a view from nowhere or the possibility of somehow freeing ourselves from all sorts of conditioning. What he does say is that we can become aware of that conditioning and its essential groundlessness, and that when we see the basic groundlessness of our practices, this gives us a great deal more freedom or wiggle-room in how we operate within them.
He says ordinary people simply are tranquilized by conformity to what’s ordinarily going on around them, what they’re accustomed to. There’s a kind of sheep-like passive acceptance of norms that we take for granted and call common sense. But it’s possible to see what those norms are. We’re not able to step outside them completely, but we can see that history has provided us and those around us with a great variety of options and he says in one brief passage, we’re able to choose our hero, that we are able to some degree to resolutely, consciously choose what is most authentic or valuable among the options presented to us by our situation.
Now, I think that that is in a certain way always the attitude I’ve had towards teaching in lay practice. We’re not simply the recipient of an unchanging Dharma and I’m doing my best to hand it down to the next generation. But the Dharma itself is always shaped by and thus made relevant to its particular time and place and culture. What I’m doing and what we’re doing here is always situated in the contemporary life that we’re living, and how we practice is very much up to us. We don’t have here and now the option of simply living Dogen’s life in a monastery following all the rules that he set out, that form of life, continuing his Dharma by trying to imitate life in twelfth century Japan to the best of our ability.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how much we can and must be adaptable to changing circumstances. And sitting together can now be sitting together remotely. The whole meaning of together has changed for us, as it should. Who we are and what we’re doing is a work in progress, and it’s work that’s taking place here and now in history. Our sitting may give us momentary experiences of the empty, of the timeless, of a moment of presence in which it seems that everything drops away except our pure awareness, but really our practice is to always come back from that, to be here, to be now, in all the specificities in this time and in this body.