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Keeping practice vital as you give up your gaining ideas Barry Magid January 16th 2010

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The other night I had a dream about Joko. I dreamt I was back seeing her in sesshin in San Diego. She looked the way she looked 20-some years ago, although I was there the way I am now, my age as a teacher. It must have been the end of a sitting or a sesshin because we were having some kind of closing ceremony or question and answer, and it’s curious, the question I asked. In the dream I was aware I was trying to ask it in a way that was going to be very circumspect and diplomatic because I knew she wasn’t going to like this, so I was going to try to ask it in a way I could get it by her.

And I said, Our sangha now has a lot of people who have been practicing for a long time, and when people start out, usually after a few years -- I think in the dream I said after five years -- they often will have some sense of realization or something that makes them feel like they’ve really entered into this practice. Then I said, for a lot of the people who had been sitting for ten years or fifteen years or twenty years or more, it seems to me that they lose the sense of direction and may be drifting, and I’ve been wondering about whether or not for some of those people it might be a good idea to introduce koan study as a way to challenge them, keep them on their toes, to feel like they still have more to do and more to learn. And Joko just gave me a kind of wry smile, shook her head, no, didn’t say a word, just no.

I should say there was something about the whole feeling about the dream that was quite pleasant. It was very nice to see her again. It seemed to be about the question that comes up about where we are going with our practice and how in any stage of this we can have a “Are we there yet?” kind of question. Gaining ideas or notions of progress are very persistent. The challenge of practice is to find a way to keep it vital even when we no longer have any sense of trying to get something from it or trying to get somewhere through it.

In a passage in Dogen that we were reading last week, he says that the true way ought to be easy, yet very few people seem to attain it. In a way it is reminiscent of the gatha we just chanted, which says, “This dharma is rarely encountered even in hundreds of thousands of millions of ages, but now we can see it.” There’s something that’s immediate and easy about our practice, something that is elusive and difficult. But when we ask what’s difficult about our practice, what’s the opposite of easy, I think it’s where we can go astray in misunderstanding the nature of the difficulty. It’s not the difficulty of winning a gold medal in the olympics or solving Fermat’s last theorem. It’s not the difficulty of having a special talent or even making extraordinary if not superhuman effort. The difficulty is more a matter of unease, the opposite of ease, unease, and unease as a sense of disquiet or separation within ourselves or within our lives that we don’t know how to bridge, we don’t know the source of, we don’t quite know what the solution is.

Our practice is about experiencing practice itself as the solution to that separation, that unease. Dogen speaks of the identity of practice and realization in that way. Yet it’s hard for us to trust, it’s hard for us to settle into. Our practice asks us to really engage the question of What if this really was it? It’s a strange kind of koan for most of us. See, you can say practice is easy the way dying is easy. Everybody can do it. Nobody’s going to miss. But it means being willing to just have the experience just as it is. It’s like trying to understand What does it mean to go deeper into our practice? We can for a long time give a very self-centered answer to that question and think it’s about cultivating different states of consciousness, having a different kind of deep, inner experience, and that may be the by-product of practice, that we will go through different kinds of consciousnesses as we sit.

But deepening our practice, in a way, is not about inner experience at all. It’s about the dropping off of that division between inner and outer, between cultivating my experience versus feeling a sense of interconnection, interdependence, and inter-responsibility. In that sense we say that the deeper practice gets, the more superficial we become, the more we tend to the surface of things right in front of us. In Soto practice it’s ritualized in the careful attention or mindfulness to detail, to order, to arrangement, to form. Not in order to get them right but to sacramentalize them, to really see that the care and attention we give everything is how the depth of our practice manifests.

The other place where we struggle with the ease or unease of practice, particularly in lay practice, is how it fits into or with the rest of our life. There’s a certain kind of non-separation that comes from a full-time monastic immersion in practice where practice and everyday life are identical because you’re living in a place that’s declared to be a practice setting, as if all of life wasn’t. But in lay practice we can fall into a sense of separation or dichotomy between the time in the zendo and the time out of the zendo and feel that there’s a kind of tug of war there. How much time should I devote to sitting? How often should I come to the zendo? How much of my life is given over to practice? Is practice in competition with the rest of my life in terms of time and effort, of money?

And so one version of the healing of that separation, is when practice and our daily life stops feeling so separate, when they stop feeling in competition with one another. That’s really, I think, the task of deepening that goes with many, many years of sitting, and we find the level that seems perfectly natural to us, and there is no particular content to that level, it’s not quantitative, there’s no way it should look. It just means that we’re comfortable with however practice manifests in our life, whether it manifests as coming to the zendo, picking up a stray piece of trash in the park, or just treating our family with a little more attention and kindness.

So I take my dream as a kind of cautionary tale about not at any level trying to bring back some notion of progress in this practice, but rather to be aware of the ways we have any unease about the way practice is part of our life, and to look at what it would mean to really make our practice, as Dogen says, easy.

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