Talk given on March 15, 2017 in Madison, WI.
This lecture is primarily for those who participated in our recent “30 minutes for 30 days” zazen challenge. I deeply appreciated the effort you all made.
To begin - and without taking away from what everyone accomplished - we should recognize that 30 minutes is not really a long time. It’s certainly wonderful if we can sit for 30 minutes or more at least once a day. Even better is twice a day. Omori Roshi said that if we don’t sit for two hours a day, we’re not serious! However, it’s true that most of us cannot do that in the beginning. It’s something we have to build up to gradually. So, this 30-day challenge has been very useful, I think. It’s provided a structure, a ladder, to help everyone begin cultivating their practice.
Of course, the important thing isn’t that we sit for a particular amount of time each day; it’s that we can start to integrate practice with the rest of our daily activity. The line between sitting and not-sitting has to eventually disappear. That’s the real Zen practice. Unless we do formal sitting practice – and a great deal of it – we’ll never integrate in that way. That is the crucial point.
One interesting thing I observed, after speaking with many of the people who participated in this 30-day challenge, is that some of them had difficulty with feeling that 30 days is such a long time. There were also some people who did not take up the challenge, saying “Ah, well, 30 days is too long! I can’t predict that I’ll be able to do that, to not fail.”
But, the thing is, there’s no such thing as “30 days.” You’re only sitting for one day. You’re only ever sitting on one day. “30 days” is just something in our heads, something we project; we don’t actually live 30 days as a block. We only live one day…then one day, then one day. So really, it’s only a One-Day zazen challenge! Each day you sit, you don’t fail. If there is a day on which you don’t sit, it’s also alright: another day comes, and you can succeed again.
This way of seeing is very important. Some of you know that I have a background in martial arts training, so I’ll give another example using that. One year my students and I decided that for our New Year’s day training we were going to do 10,000 suburi: cuts with a wooden sword. There were samurai in the feudal period in Japan who did that kind of practice daily, so we said, “OK, we’re going to do that, let’s bring in the new year with energy!”
Well, it took us all day. If you don’t do that kind of training every day, it’s a hard thing! At the end of that day my hands and arms wouldn’t function. I suppose I had some kind of nerve damage; for a week after I couldn’t type or use a computer mouse. But in any case, I decided that I would brush a calligraphy for each of the participants, even though I’m not a calligrapher. It was very shaky calligraphy since I could barely hold the brush. But the characters I chose read “One cut.” I chose this phrase because, actually, none of us had experienced something called “10,000 cuts.” We don’t live that way. We lived and experienced just one cut, fully, in each moment.
It’s very important to approach practice this way. We don’t have to look at how long our sitting is. We don’t have to judge our sitting, saying, “Oh, today is a good sit, I feel very clear!” or, “Today is not so good, I’m not doing very well today compared to yesterday.” We just completely become one with each breath, using the count, using the koan, moment by moment. Our practice, in fact, can completely change within the space of one breath. It is completely fresh, completely new, with each breath, with each day. All we have to do, moment by moment, is unify body, breath and the method we’re using. If we get distracted or lose the method, there’s nothing to worry about: that moment is already gone, completely gone. A fresh moment is here now, the next breath is already here.
This isn’t anything profound; it’s really just a realistic way to practice. Past and future don’t exist except in our minds. Our actual existence is not past, or future. We exist only here, in this strange, miraculous unfolding, moment by moment. Our practice is also only here…it’s constantly changing. In the space of one moment, we can completely transform. This is the freedom of our existence. It’s not fixed or bound at all.
If we can practice in this way, then our practice is always fresh, always new, never stuck. You don’t have to worry about or judge anything. The transformation of the quality of your existence will manifest naturally, with the unfolding of each moment.
Does this mean that we are practicing to “stay in the present?” Well, I guess many people often use words like that. I often say we should “remain present.” But actually, there’s no need to make an effort to “be in” in the present. You already are. There’s no need to cling to each moment as it unfolds. Don’t make “the present” another object of fixation either; the most we can say about the present, actually, is that it’s also just an idea we have, something we’ve created to describe this seeming odd point at which our imagined future becomes our remembered past.
The truth is that we are the present. We are the passing of time. There aren’t 30 minutes, or 30 days, or 70 years. There’s just one moment. Our practice is right here. Where else could you be, or try to remain? Resting into our practice in this manner is the easy, straightforward way to practice.
So, those are my general comments on the 30 minutes for 30 days.
Now, for those of you who participated, it may well be that you began to experience some transformation or fruition in your practice. So I’d like to talk briefly tonight about some things it is important for us to recognize in our practice.
You may already know that there are various things we should understand which can help our Zen training. For example, we should grasp the meaning of Bodhidharma’s famous four lines about Zen, which reveal the intent and general method of our path. We should understand the general stages of Zen practice…not that these are fixed, but it is sometimes useful to discuss “stages” as an aid to seeing whether or not our path has come to fruition. We should also understand the three general purposes of all Zen practice methods.
What I want to discuss now, however, are three things that we should clearly recognize and differentiate within our practice experience. If we do not differentiate these, and particularly if we conflate or confuse them, it is possible for our practice to go in a mistaken direction. These three things are, first, the mind’s capacity for clarity, second, samadhi or meditative absorption, and third, awakening, or what we call kensho: seeing your nature.
Clarity first. If you sat for 30 days, it may well be that you experienced moments in which the mind’s natural clarity manifested. As you practiced breathing the count with your whole body, for example, you may have started to experience times when the mind seemed clear and awake, yet without fixation on thoughts. You might especially notice this at the end of each exhalation: breathing the count “one” then “two” and so on, there is a moment at the end of the exhalation, before it has turned to become inhalation, in which the mind is completely settled and still. That is a moment in which we can recognize that the mind does have a natural clarity, a spacious awareness, within which thoughts, emotions and other movements seem to arise.
Now, this clarity or spaciousness is not a Zen thing, or a Buddhist thing. It’s just a human thing. You can experience it easily at any time, if you know how. For example, in zazen we have a particular way of using the eyes. Try this now: look straight ahead. When I say “go”, just spread your vision out – activating your peripheral field and permeating the entire room with your awareness – as fiercely as you can. Ready? Go.
[a few seconds pass]
Alright, stop. During those moments, what were you thinking?
[students reply: “nothing”, “my mind was clear”, “I was just aware”, etc.]
So, that shows you your natural capacity for clarity. You can use this method any time you need to. If there is a time when you feel awash in spinning thought, emotion, depression, and so on, go down by the lake, look out over the water, spread out your vision, and remember this. It means that you can regain objectivity in a way; you will see that all those things arising and spinning in your mind don’t actually touch or affect this basic, expansive clarity.
There are many other ways to do this. Anything which causes the mind to become still or momentarily stop will work. For example - and I’m sorry to speak now about bodily functions - there is a moment right after sneezing in which we can experience this. Also, right as we begin to urinate…perhaps especially if you really have to go! When you release those muscles and pee, for some reason – just for a moment – the mind stops. The moment of sexual climax is also like this. Any kind of fear or shock can cause it too, for example if I come up behind you and shout “Boo!” Being suddenly frightened like that, we usually fall immediately into annoyance toward the person who did it, but actually before that annoyance arises there is a moment of complete clarity.
Another time you can experience this is at the border between wakefulness and sleep. There is a place, after our minds have stilled but before we slip into unconscious sleep, in which the mind is completely clear and calm. If you practice to recognize that moment, you can learn to sustain it and use it.
There are many methods like this which we transmit, but I believe for now you get the general idea. Using the body and mind as a laboratory in this way is actually very interesting!
Now, is this experience of clarity what we call awakening or wisdom? What do you think?
Actually, it isn’t. I won’t say it’s not good, or not true. It teaches us something about ourselves, but it’s not enough. It is common for people who don’t practice correctly to think that this experience of basic clarity and stillness is equivalent to recognizing one’s true nature, the nature of mind, awakening, and so on. By itself, however, for most people that is not sufficient at all. So let’s not be confused about that.
The second thing we should recognize, now, is samadhi. We can say that this condition of meditative absorption arises when we are able to seamlessly sustain the basic clarity we discussed, by unifying body, breath and mind. Another way we describe samadhi is that it’s a state simultaneously manifesting complete relaxation, and complete focus. It is not a trance at all, in other words. It is a condition that is fully aware and functioning freely, stable and uncompromisingly present, and finally with greatly lessened habit of fixation on anything. The central fixation, the great delusion of our existence, also can be greatly lessened in samadhi: that is, the self-referential fixation of seeing from the standpoint of “I” and “me” becomes less rigid.
Samadhi can be of varying depth, and like our basic clarity it is just a human experience, not a specifically Zen one. All of you have already experienced it at some time in your life. Especially when we are young, we may find that we enter such states spontaneously. I expect everyone here has a memory of such moments in childhood, perhaps looking out at a beautiful scene and somehow becoming one with it such that the world seemed magically alive, vivid and timeless.
Those of you who do activities like athletics or art may also know such states; some people call it being “in the zone.” You may sometimes so throw yourself into an activity that the sense of separateness from the activity, and of the passage of time, lessens or even seems to drop away. You may feel that you become the painting, or become your surroundings as you run. You might experience the world becoming completely white and still, or sometimes that colors are very vivid…as if a red flower is somehow revealing the original, archetypical red. These kinds of things are experienced when samadhi arises.
Many of you are using the breath-counting method. It is, in fact, one of the best, most rapid techniques for cultivating samadhi. So there is no need to get excited, or be surprised, if you start to experience such things as I have described. It’s just a sign that your practice is deepening.
Is samadhi awakening, then? No, not yet. Again, I won’t say it’s not nice, or not true. It is. But it’s not yet good enough. Well, I suppose it’s true that no matter what you experience, I’ll probably tell you just that: “not good enough.” So you can get used to that!
The thing is, even if samadhi manifests so deeply that we feel we have become completely one with everything…even if I feel “I AM the universe”, there is still an “I” there, isn’t there? In that case, it could be a very big “I”...universe-sized, in fact. It may seem to be something transpersonal, as if this “I” has melted into the expanse of reality, but in fact even in that kind of universal samadhi the sense of separate self is still subtly there. We may have gone from the experience of small self, shoga, to big self, taiga. But there is still one more step, one more turning around that must occur, for it to be true wisdom.
Passing beyond even this experience of “I am the universe”, we must enter a truly all-encompassing samadhi in which even the last subtle grip on “I” is let go, and we “die the Great Death” as it is traditionally said. When that samadhi then shatters, and we emerge from it back into the world, we could then recognize that our true nature is no-self, muga.
That is awakening. Awakening or kensho is not something we come to understand. It is the experience of returning to the world after letting go and plunging completely into the void. Coming back to life, we suddenly recognize that our true nature is in fact no-nature. To use positive language, we can say it is utterly boundless.
I have said too much tonight, so let me sum up now. These are three things we should clearly be able to differentiate in our practice: first is the fundamental clarity of mind that manifests in practice and which we can recognize using various means; second is the condition called samadhi which starts to arise in practice, and by which many of our obstructions – including the core obstruction of self-fixation – can start to dissolve; and third is the actual experience of awakening, by which we gain great faith and confidence to continue our practice, and upon which that practice will be based.
After awakening, actually, clarity and samadhi also are different. Using the various methods to return to basic clarity, we come to see that we are in fact returning to the recognition of awakening again and again. Using various practices to cultivate samadhi, we find that samadhi in fact manifests inseparably from the wisdom of awakening, and so its cultivation then becomes the vehicle by which we can seamlessly manifest awakening in all activities.
Finally, regarding these things and especially awakening, you could perhaps understand now that part of the Zen teacher’s job is to help us differentiate, confirm and clarify them when they arise in our experience.
So I’ll stop there. Thank you all again for coming tonight, especially those of you who participated in the “30 minutes for 30 days” zazen challenge. Quite a few people in the USA, and also in our community in Europe, took part. I’m very happy. To be honest, when Myoan came up with the idea for this challenge, I wasn’t so excited. My old-style attitude was something like this: “If they want to sit, they’ll sit. If they don’t, they won’t. It’s up to them!” But she said, “No, you have to give people some encouragement and structure.” I guess that’s right, so I’ll try to be more open to such ideas in the future.
But now, you might want to know, what’s next? So let's say: 45 minutes a day for the next 30 days!