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Tradition, Form, and Practice Barry Magid November 8th 2008

Let's start this morning with a quote from T.S.Eliot: "Tradition cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour." That certainly applies to much of our practice - there is form, and detail, and structure to practice and running a zendo that we must learn, maintain and practice meticulously. It is something this practice has in common with many other forms of practice , say the practice of medicine or of playing the piano. There is a body of knowledge to be learned, a skill to be developed, standards to be met and passed on. You can't call yourself a doctor without going to medical school and passing your exams, unless you want to end up in jail.. And with the piano: there is clearly a skill, a technique that must be developed. In "Everyday Zen," Joko tells the story of her own training at the piano with a particular fine, but strict teacher. She'd come in for her lesson and he'd play five notes, and say, "now you play them." And she'd try to play them, and he'd simply say "No," play them again, and again she try, over and over and over - until she finally got them right and they'd move on to the next five notes. Traditional koan study could look like that - you go into the Roshi, present your answer to the koan you'd been assigned, and he'd just say no, or ring his bell, and out you'd go until the next time. I remember a student who couldn't believe there could be any "right" answer to koans - wasn't the point just to come up with a personal response that felt right to you? No.

Now another perspective. When Dogen was a young monk, he was consumed by the question, "If Buddha said we all possess the Buddha-nature just as we are, why did all the Teachers in the past have to practice so HARD?" Let's look at his question - what is Buddha-nature really mean? Is it an attribute or essence that we possess? Or is it something we need to develop? Neither. One of the commonest errors we make is to assume that "Buddha-nature" means the potential to become a Buddha, if only we practice hard enough. We mistake it for something like musical ability, and think practice takes an innate talent and develops and hones it into a mature skill. But Dogen, once he was mature Teacher was very clear on this point. Buddha-nature isn't a potential. Firewood doesn't have the potential to become ash - firewood has a complete existence as firewood, ash a complete existence as ash. Buddha-nature is no THING at all, nothing we possess or develop. It is simply a statement that what we are is this moment, which is constantly changing, and has no fixed essense or nature, but which is complete and perfect in itself.

The other mistake is to assume that if it's we already have or are, we really needn't have to practice. But that ignores our psychological reality of suffering. Because we suffer, we cling to moments, try to shape and control them, or rush through them and anaesthetize ourselves to them. We practice being just this moment, first of all, by being aware of our resistance to it. The resistence that manifests as tension in our bodies and restlessness in our minds. We practice being aware of how we try to control our experience in the zendo and in life. We want to have and be just CERTAIN KINDS of moments, don't we? This is where the hard work of practice comes in, the need to practice over and over with our resistance to being just this moment, our basic resistance, you might say, to being Buddha.

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