In the course of my lifetime, roughly the years since the Second World War, we’ve seen a tremendous flowering of Buddhism in the West, a transmission of a variety of traditions, Tibetan, Indian, Southeast Asian, we in Japanese, and all of these different traditions have found different expressions in the West, from the transplantation of monasticism into America on Asian models to the development of lay practice, the introduction of meditation into the daily lives of people who are never going to become monks, all the way into the complete secularization of meditation into mindfulness and stress reduction and generally medicalized techniques.
I think we have here a certain tendency to look at this big range of phenomena and think in terms of a core or essential set of Buddhist realizations that are being spread by a variety of means, and that the different forms that practice takes here in America are basically different ways to spread the teaching as broadly as possible, to many different populations, many different demographics, to people of different lifestyles. I think, however, in contrast to that perspective, we should recall that for many of the Asian traditions themselves, the form was not separable from the content, the way we tend to imagine it is here. In the original community around Buddha, in a way that’s preserved in Southeast Asia, the teachings of no-self, impermanence, are made manifest and transmitted in the lifestyle of home-leaving, ascetic renunciate monks. The medium really is the message and that form is not separable from the content it conveys.
Likewise, our own tradition deriving from Dogen, the ritualization of everyday life in the monastery, is the way in which practice and realization become identical. Zazen, for Dogen, is not a means to become enlightened. The life of the monk is not a way to become enlightened. The form of life and the form of meditation are the expression of enlightenment. They’re inseparable, and the very way in which Dogen does away with the whole notion of the instrumentality of meditation is by making the form and the content one.
In the West, for a variety of reasons, we’ve separated these out and tend to think in terms of meditation as a technique aimed at bringing about a certain result. This happens in a lot of traditions in a lot of different ways. Yasutani Roshi, when he came here, felt that the form of Japanese monasticism in which he trained, had become hollow, sterile, and realization was not taking place within that form, was not being expressed by it any longer, and so he began to see sesshin as a vehicle for realization. He felt that the experience of realization was the essence of Zen, that it had nothing to do with a monastic life-style, that is was available to lay people but that sesshin was the mechanism for bringing about this realization.
One of the things that happens as a result of that orientation is that we begin to see or think we understand realization as a personal or private inner experience that we have, and it becomes something that we want to have take place inside our heads in a flash and some way will transform our psychology, but by definition, by framing it that way, it’s much less oriented towards: How’s it manifesting in our life? What is the relationship between that inner experience and the outer life?
A model of sesshin as a kensho-inducing mechanism is always in danger of losing track of the precepts as organizing principles for the whole of life, and the way of seeing whatever happens in the zendo is integrated into our daily life. Likewise a lot of what happens in the teaching of mindfulness is a conscious attempt to secularize meditation and abstract it away from its Buddhist religious roots. Again, this becomes a kind of meditation that is very results-oriented, where we look for quantifiable, research reproducible results that can be verified and passed along, which is a very different orientation to what meditation is.
In Joko’s lineage in particular, an attitude towards meditation was merged with psychology in a way that may look like it is also about inner experience, but my understanding of her teaching, and what I’ve tried to convey over the years, is that the psychologizing of practice is the way in which we restore it to permeating every nook and cranny of our daily life. It becomes an alternative to ritual. Dogen used the form of ritual to have zazen permeate every aspect of monastic life, so the question for us is: How do we carry forward that identity of practice in everyday life in the absence of those forms? Our answer here is through a kind of self-awareness where we experience particularly our on-going resistance to the realities of impermanence and interconnection as they manifest throughout our daily life.
See, we’re not so much focused on having a singular or unique experience while we meditate. One is all too liable to be dissociated from the rest of our life as a special experience. But we look to how we can stay aware of the basic realities of impermanence and interconnection as we go about our lives. I don’t think that the form of practice can be separated from its content and have the content be a timeless essence that is transmitted. I think that there is a radical transformation of what Buddhism is, when it goes from being a practice grounded in home-leaving, monasticism and asceticism to a lay practice grounded in everyday life.
But there are basic truths that we may be able to share about the nature of interconnection and the nature of impermanence. Perhaps our practice comes down to seeing that no matter how much autonomy or self-control we attempt to exercise, we will always be vulnerable and interdependent. We will always be subject to change. And equally, no matter how alone and disconnected we may feel, we’re always embedded in the fabric of life, always interconnected and always one.