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Missing zazen Barry Magid April 10th 2010

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It’s good to be back sitting together again, with a new floor installed here in the zendo. I don’t have to sit on a bump. I’m sure many of us missed being able to sit together this last week. It’s interesting to take a moment to reflect on just what it is that we missed. As the song says, Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. So not being able to do something for a while can help reveal what place it takes in your life, what function it serves. Ordinarily most people go through life not noticing their breath, the air they breathe, unless something happens to interrupt it, when suddenly they’re short of breath, they can’t breathe, the air is so polluted, then they notice the air. When we sit at least we pay attention to the experience of our breath, the air that we’re breathing.

We may miss zazen the way we miss having a chance to see our favorite TV show. It’s something we enjoy and when we don’t get a chance to see it we miss it. I’m sure most people give dharma talks that way, the weekly entertainment, but occasionally we might realize that our practice is not about a particular experience that we’re having on any particular day, whether it’s enjoyable or unenjoyable or useful or not useful, but as part of a whole form of life, part of the fabric of our life that we try to hold and maintain, that our life sustains this practice and our practice sustains our life, and when it’s interrupted we realize there’s something unbalanced or incomplete about how we’re living.

Now that form of life and that balance can be experienced in many ways. On one level it provides a continuity, a rhythm, a sense of an ongoing container for all our experience. And that regularity, that simplicity, that ongoingness, can give us psychologically a great sense of security and stability. I think that in our life we’re always striving in some way to balance the need for stability with the need for novelty or creativity. Too much stability can be just routine and deadening and too much novelty, too much uncertainty or change, can be overwhelming and destabilizing, and most of the time in our life we’re trying to find the right rhythm, the right balance, something that forms an ongoing container for our experience.

Lots of social systems function by providing some kind of stability and identity and security. Hobbs said that people originally formed political affiliations and kingships in order to have the security, the protection of a political order to guard them against the chaos and violence and insecurity that would be life without that order. And they traded submission to a king in return for the security of a stable political life. That trade of submission for security is probably characteristic of a lot of monastic life and a lot of other places that we’ve been involved in.

We would like to think that this practice is something more than the pursuit of regularity, the pursuit of security, although that element is always there and we do want something to count on, something that is steady, reliable, but I don’t think practice is reducible simply to that sense of a secure, stable, repetitive part of life, a routine that we can count on. I think we want it to be that but we want it to be much more than that. And for it to be more than that, it has to embody and enact some higher principle, something that gives it a different level of meaning.

We can articulate that in a number of ways. One way would be to say that our practice embodies our vow to save all beings, that there’s some way in which this is not just about providing stability in our own life, but it's a practice directed at everyone, for everyone. How does this practice, how does sitting together, saving all beings, how does it rise to that level? How does it rise above providing us with personal or individual equanimity? How does it rise to saving all beings?

Another way of expressing that vow is to speak of no gain in practice. It may not be immediately evident that those two things are identical, but they are. No gain is a way of speaking by negation. It says practice is not about fulfilling any personal, curative, transformational fantasy. It’s not about becoming. It’s about being. See, if we were to put no gain into positive language, we might say no gain means loving what is. It means experiencing each moment in ourselves and each other and this world as in some way perfectly worthy of our love and intention, just as it is, not in order to improve it or change it, but simply out of an experience of cherishing it. And that cherishing of things and each other, just as we are, is the fulfillment of our vow to save all beings. Because what we save them from, most fundamentally, is our own and their own sense of deficit, deficiency, brokenness. And we redeem ourselves and others when we’re able to practice and embody this spirit of no gain, which means nothing needs to be gained, nothing needs to be added. There is no deficiency that we’re correcting. We’re full up just as we are.

Now that way of seeing and being can be hard to maintain on our own, can be hard to maintain in a daily life of getting and spending, of being a day late and a dollar short. It’s hard to hold on and maintain that sense that nothing is missing. That’s what I think we renew in our practice. That’s the perspective that I think we’re grounded in here. And I think that’s what we really miss when we don’t have the chance to sit together. I think when we come together like this we’re able to deeply feel, together, the rightness of being here, the rightness of who and what we are, the rightness of sitting together like this. Let us enjoy and maintain that practice together.

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