I teach 8-10 new people to “do” Zen meditation every month. At times I feel kind of radical, but more and more I just want to tell them to sit still and do nothing at all. After 20 years of Zen practice, 14 years as Zen monk, and 5 years as a Zen teacher, I’m becoming deeply convinced that meditation is not something you do. Basically, just deliberately put yourself in the position of not doing anything, and the transformative and healing power of meditation takes care of itself.
“Meditating” is like resting or gardening. These “activities” may require a fair amount of care, planning, and effort in order to create a certain set of conducive circumstances, but ultimately the body rests or plants grow without “you” doing anything at all.
In the case of meditation, you create conducive circumstances by setting aside a period of time for not doing anything productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. You settle the body into stillness or into a very simple, repetitive physical movement. You gently set your intention to set aside all of your usually thinking and activity for however long you’re going to meditate. “Okay, I’ll think about my grocery list/ problems/ upcoming trip/ projects/ the book I’m reading/ etc. after meditation. There’s no reason for me to think about it all right now.”
As you sit, your mind will continue to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even though you aren’t acting on any of your thoughts, but this is generally much less agitating than actually doing things.
In these conducive circumstances, your whole being has a chance to realign itself. Your body inevitably gets included in your awareness more than it usually is. Your perspective increases. You remember what matters most to you. You realize you’re okay right now, despite all the things going on in your life and the world. The ephemeral and somewhat arbitrary nature of thoughts and emotions becomes more apparent. Your nervous and endocrine systems reset (I know from experience, not from scientific experiments, although those are supporting the anecdotal observations of meditators). A more sane aspect of yourself settles into the navigator’s seat – a seat which may have been empty, or occupied by various imps, much of the time since you last meditated. Generally speaking, the longer you go without meditating, the more the imps are in control.
The trick is, none of these results are something special. They are just a normal part of healthy functioning as a human being. It’s not that you sit in meditation and consciously try to experience grand realizations about What Is Most Important in Your Life, or who your authentic self really is, or how to achieve great inner peace (although you might gain a few insights). Meditation is an unconscious or semi-conscious reset that the conscious “you” has very little to do with. Which is a great thing, except…
We want to be responsible for the positive results of meditation. We want our meditation to be good because we’re doing something. We just can’t stand to be doing nothing at all productive, entertaining, or pleasurable, so we make our meditation into something productive, entertaining, or pleasurable. If we like our meditation experience or its results, we feel proud, successful, and satisfied. If we dislike our meditation experience or its results, we beat ourselves up, give up in frustration, or try harder.
We just can’t believe we’re just supposed to sit there. That’s unfathomable. How do you even do that? (See how natural that question sounds?)
I can imagine readers protesting, “What about following the breath, or concentrating on an object, or letting go of thoughts? What about the meditation techniques we’ve been taught, and that seem to help?”
My answer is this: As least as concerns Zen meditation, techniques are ways to counteract the strong habitual tendency of our minds to try to be productive, entertained, or satisfied even when we’ve decided not to act on any of our thoughts. You might say the techniques decrease your “doing” level (because a simple technique like following your breath involves much less mental activity than brainstorming a new project for work). In this sense techniques can make the circumstances more conducive to doing nothing.
But mostly I think we give meditation techniques because people need to feel like they’re doing something. Anything. Heck – make me do something as boring and unproductive as counting my breath, but at least I can imagine it’s good for me and try to do a really good job of it! Anything but nothing.
How do the benefits of meditation happen if you don’t do anything?! Surely you can’t just sit there and let your mind do anything it wants to! Surely you need to make an effort! (Because if you don’t do something, nothing will happen!)
Isn’t it amazing that plants grow all on their own? That our bodies rest and heal, moisture ends up in the sky and comes down as rain, and species evolve, without any direct, conscious effort on our part? We can affect these processes by what we do, but ultimately they are out of our hands and part of the larger functioning of our universe.
Our being – our body-and-mind, which are actually not two – has a way of reorienting itself to reality, if we only let it. Isn’t that great? You don’t have to do anything.
Except, that is, to spend some time not doing.
Zen master Dogen wrote in 1242, in his essay called Zazenshin:
“Nanyue said, ‘If you are identified with the sitting form, you have not reached the heart of the matter.’
“To be identified with the sitting form, spoken of here, is to let go of and to touch the sitting form. The reason is that when one is sitting buddha, it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. However clear the sitting form is, the heart of the matter cannot be reached, because it is impossible not to be one with the sitting form. To penetrate this is called letting go of body and mind.” (Translation by Kaz Tanahashi & Michael Wenger)
We already have everything we need. When we sit, we are sitting buddha – no matter how admirable or insufficient our meditative concentration. Buddha does not depend on this. By our sitting, by our not doing, we place ourselves in alignment with this truth. Naturally we want to consciously realize it, and this is the passion behind our effort, but the irony is that we consciously realize it when we become completely immersed in nondoing.
A priest and leader of a congregation needs to be thoughtful about when to speak up about “political issues,” but I want to offer three practices for Buddhists in troubled political times.
Why now? At a certain point, things happening in political spheres become moral issues, and our Zen Buddhist practice becomes directly relevant. We need our practice to maintain sanity and perspective, but our practice also calls us to Right Action and the path of the Bodhisattva. And let’s not forget, the central champion of Zen is Truth itself.
Right now, those in power are denying the fact of human-caused climate change and rolling back environmental protections that were already too little, too late to prevent worldwide suffering and chaos. Five million people are facing starvation in Africa, but the U.S. is planning to cut aid in order to place America First. People of color are once again being scapegoated as we target Muslims and undocumented Latino immigrants, as if excluding them from our country will be able to prevent terrorism and fix our deep, systemic economic problems. The U.S. has just given North Korea – one of the most dangerous and volatile countries in the world – an ultimatum, while our Commander in Chief is someone who reacts angrily to parody and determines foreign policy by Tweet in the middle of the night. If the current administration’s budget gets accepted, seniors will go without meals and infants without formula so we can build an incredibly expensive wall on the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration just when such immigration has fallen to the lowest levels in nearly 50 years. Facts don’t seem to matter, and compassion seems to be out of fashion.
What can we do, as Buddhists? Three things.
First, we keep our Buddhist practice strong: sitting zazen, spending time with Sangha, practicing mindfulness in our everyday life, studying the Dharma, periodically renewing ourselves in the space of a meditation retreat. We have to take care of ourselves and our lives in order to do the next two things to the best of our ability.
Two, we keep ourselves informed. This is the practice of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who “perceives the cries of the world.” Sure, it can be overwhelming and depressing. Sure, we need to take a break sometimes, consider carefully what news sources we consume, and find the dynamic middle way between bad-news-overload and putting our heads in the sand. But this is our obligation as bodhisattvas and citizens of the world. It’s not always easy to witness! (Click here for a post I wrote about what happened to Avalokiteshvara when he was overwhelmed by the suffering of the world.)
Three, we do something to change our world and come to the aid of suffering beings. Anything! But the more active the doing, the more it brings us into contact with others, the better! Why? Not only because we might benefit someone else, but because it’s the best medicine in the world for denial, overwhelm and despair. As Buddhists, we are not limited to a doctrinal playbook. We observe what relieves suffering, increases wisdom, and strengthens compassion – and then we do it. If exercise relieves your depression, then exercise needs to be part of your practice. If writing poetry increases your sense of appreciation for your life, than make writing poetry part of your practice. If gardening keeps you present in your body, your gardening is Zen practice.
Activism expands your focus beyond your own life, and directly counteracts passivity and a sense of helplessness. Once you find something to do, you can put aside grief and worry in order to devote yourself to your task. Periodically, of course, you need to ask yourself if you can do more, or whether your time and energy would be better spent elsewhere. But only periodically. The rest of the time you can find some solace in knowing you’re doing what you can, and supporting others in the fight for compassion and justice.
A lovely side-effect of activism? Community building! It lets you get to know people outside of your regular circles. I’m new to activism myself, and was delighted to find my local Indivisible Group – a bunch of concerned and defiant neighbors of mine who gather regularly to learn, support one another, and enjoy beverages, snacks, and humor!
Photo credit: By Kathryn Kendall, of a #SomosPortland action in November 2016.
If you have spent any time in a Zen community, or reading Zen books, you will have encountered the term “practice” countless times. Zen ancestors and teachers exhort us to practice diligently. Fellow practitioners talk to one another about their practice: “I have been practicing 20 years,” or “I just started practice,” or “Lately my practice has been focused on an acceptance of change.” We say it is hard to practice without a Sangha, or community. When facing challenges in life, we say, “It’s good practice.”
If you asked 100 Zen practitioners what they mean by “practice,” you probably wouldn’t get 100 different answers, but you would probably get about 25 different answers. With the word “practice,” some people are referring specifically to the things they do that can be clearly identified as “Zen,” like study of Buddhist texts, participation in Sangha, or meditation. Most include these things but also are referring to the day-to-day efforts they make in their own minds and hearts to understand and/or manifest Buddhist teachings.
Knowing my definition will change over time, I’ll nonetheless take a risk and offer a definition of “practice:” inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest questions, longings and fears, in order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense. Below I will explain this definition, phrase by phrase.
Inquiry and behaviors: In general there are two paths of practice, understanding and manifestation. Inquiry leads to understanding, and the adoption and cultivation of certain kinds of behaviors leads to manifestation. Many people have more affinity for one path than the other. Some of us want to understand – not just in an intellectual way, but also in a deep knowing that comes from personal experience – before we fully commit ourselves to action. Others of us are primarily drawn to manifestation or action and want to start living out our values and aspirations as soon as possible; understanding can come later as a side effect or bonus. Of course, most people are interested in both understanding and manifestation, and ultimately our practice must include both. The Buddhist ancestors have taught many times that no matter what behavioral practices you adopt, if you don’t understand the great matter of life and death you will not really have achieved liberation. On the other hand, what good is understanding if you don’t manifest what you have learned?
Undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest spiritual questions, longings and fears: Our secular societies and other spiritual traditions typically offer us two options with respect to these issues:
- Don’t ask troubling questions, there aren’t any answers, so just try to fulfill your longings and cope with your fears; and
- Here are the answers to your questions, as well as instructions for what to do about your longings and fears.
Zen is a radical tradition in that is proposes:
- There are indeed answers to your deepest spiritual questions, including ones like, “What is the meaning of life?” and “How can there be so much good and evil in the world at the same time?” and there is no limit to the depth of the questions that can be asked and answered except your own courage and perseverance;
- It is possible to address and resolve your deepest longings and fears, including longings like those for meaning, security and connection, and fears like those of death, loss or annihilation, and again there is no limit to the depth of that which can be faced and transformed except your own courage and perseverance;
- The answers and resolutions cannot be taught to you by others or read in books, they must be personally explored and experienced. While Buddhist teachers have taught about the answers and resolutions for well over 2,000 years, you do not need to accept anything they offer without personal verification, and if you do, it will not be of nearly as much good to you as your own personal experience. Answers and resolutions occur, come into being, only when lived.
In short, Zen dares you to address and explore spiritual matters that may make you quiver in your shoes, and is a method, not a system of answers.
In order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense: What does this mean to you? According to one Buddhist teaching there are five kinds of “energies” within us, and for most of us one or two energies predominate. Each energy is associated with a different kind of spiritual preoccupation:
- intimacy (with other beings but also with everything we encounter)
- stability (or security, the sense of being real, strong and substantial)
- order (the universe has a structure that is, or should be, reflected in everything)
- efficacy (ability to move, act and interact with universe in a impactful and efficient or graceful way)
- transcendence (a sense of the “more” beyond the details of our everyday lives)
With each of these spiritual longings comes an accompanying set of typical fears and tendencies.
Whether the particular breakdown of human spiritual preoccupations offered above makes sense to you or not, it makes clear the variety of ways people will conceive of “living the best possible human life in a spiritual sense.” One person may think of living a moral life with a maximum of benefit, and a minimum of harm, to others. Another may think of rich, meaningful, intimate, brave relationships with family and friends, and an general open generosity to all beings. Another may think of developing a deep understanding of the universe and human life, and creating things that reflect their understanding of the beauty and order they have discovered. What is common to all of these is a liberation of human potential from the bondage of misunderstanding, longing and fear.
You certainly don’t have to accept my definition of “practice.” In fact, if you don’t, if you argue with it, it will be of just as much – if not more – benefit to you than if you find it true or useful. The important thing is engaging everything wholeheartedly in the spirit of practice – inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve…
Throughout my teen years and into young adulthood, I felt miserable about the state of the world. You probably wouldn’t have known it if you’d talked to me: I appeared fairly cheerful and well-adjusted because that’s a strong natural part of my character. Underneath, however, I carried an existential angst that threatened to pull me into neurosis and despair.
“How can I enjoy my good fortune,” I wondered, “while so much of the world is going to hell?” Was I supposed to distract myself with the pleasures of my own life while ignoring widespread starvation, oppression, injustice, extinctions, resource depletion, and environmental degradation? Contentment seemed like folly given the preposterous possibility we would destroy the entire planet with nuclear weapons within a day.
I was led to Buddhist practice by my pervasive sadness about the world and my sense of being powerless against the juggernauts of greed, hate, and delusion. Buddhism seemed to promise a way to gain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world was. I hoped to achieve an “enlightened” view of the world that would let me see how things like injustice, starvation, and mass extinction weren’t that big a deal. I hoped to gain a transcendent view of the world which would put all the misery into perspective and make sense of everything.
Fortunately, after many years of practice, I did learn to access a certain peace of mind no matter how crazy the world is. But I didn’t achieve it the way I expected, by somehow escaping the pain of empathy or the conundrum of responsibility.
Instead, I realized at some point that my real happiness would benefit the world.
What Real Happiness Is
At this point I need to clarify what real happiness is, by first explaining what it’s not. Real happiness does not result from the successful pursuit of self-interest, pleasure, power, material wealth, or stimulating experiences. Real happiness is not getting everything you want, although that’s very nice. That’s just conditional happiness, which doesn’t particularly benefit the world except that others don’t need to worry about taking care of you.
Real happiness is deciding to be appreciative and content in the midst of your life, just as it is – and in the midst of the world, just as it is. Real happiness is refusing to postpone the kind of satisfaction you usually associate with achieving all of your dreams. Real happiness is embodiment and direct experience, free from the filters of expectations and self-concern. When we embrace real happiness, we wake up to miracle of life.
In the Soto Zen scripture on the Buddhist precepts, the Kyojukaimon, it describes the treasure of sangha, or community, as “they who release their suffering and embrace all beings.” Isn’t this remarkable? It doesn’t say, “they who transcend their suffering,” or “they who manage to make their suffering disappear.” The sangha jewel is made up of people who quit holding on to their suffering – which of course implies that we are in charge of our suffering! This passage suggests we can learn how to let our suffering go, and thereby benefit others.
These Buddhist teachings about releasing suffering and attaining peace of mind can be easily misunderstood. It may sound like we’re saying, “Suffering isn’t real, so you can just put it out of your mind, achieve internal peace, and that’s good enough.” We’re not saying that at all. That’s actually an anti-Buddhist way of looking at spiritual practice. The Buddhist way is not selfish. It’s about direct experience… and when you actually let go of your suffering and embrace all beings, the result is not what you think.
How Real Happiness Benefits Others
When we practice real happiness, we wake up. We notice everything – and not just what we can see and hear in our immediate environment. We notice the state of the world, and the state of our heart. We recognize calls to respond, and then our best response naturally arises. We recognize what’s ours to do, and we’re free to do it because we’re not caught up in our own misery, or in pursuing conditional happiness.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes it this way, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:
“Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse…
“We who have been fortunate enough to encounter the practice of mindfulness have a responsibility to bring peace and joy into our own lives, even though not everything in our body, mind, or environment is exactly as we would like. Without happiness we cannot be a refuge for others. Ask yourself, What am I waiting for to make me happy? Why am I not happy right now?”
It is not necessarily easy to be happy in this real way, at least not until you learn, for yourself, what it really means. Once you know, and once you build familiarity with the practice, all you have to do is bring together body, mind, and heart in once place and trust your awareness. The miraculous, inherently precious nature of our existence is immediately apparent if we just drop all of our concepts about the way life is or should be.
The ability to touch this way of real happiness does not in any way absolve us of responsibility to relieve suffering in the world. It also doesn’t cripple our empathy, or wrap us in a cocoon of cold detachment (things I used to be afraid would happen!). That’s because the way of real happiness is in touch with reality, and in reality, we’re not separate from any other beings, or from the universe itself. In reality we’re embodied human beings with thoughts and emotions. We have time and energy, and we inevitably have to make choices about how to spend them. We can fritter our time and energy away, dedicate ourselves to pursuing comfort or pleasure, or work to benefit self and other in a real way.
The Actual Practice of Real Happiness
I remember walking down the street one afternoon, in the early years of my Buddhist practice, and suddenly realizing my misery and guilt wasn’t doing anyone any good. I thought, “What if I dropped it?” Because of years of practice, I was actually capable of doing that – although it was only for a minute or two. When I “released my suffering,” my world instantly expanded. Instead of feeling like I was wearing blinders that kept me focused on the abstract issue of how I should respond to the sad state of the world, I noticed the trees, sidewalk, birds, flowers, and the crisp, cool air. I noticed my body, walking, breathing, and ready to get to work. I noticed people, and it occurred to me I was available to listen to them in a way I never had been before. I felt as if I had just woken up from a dream. Since that moment, I have understood that my real happiness actually benefits others.
You can recognize the benefit of real happiness from the other side, too – just think of the rare people you encounter who seem to be delighted to be just who they are, doing just what they’re doing. Even if they’re only stocking vegetables in the supermarket, you feel energized, strengthened, inspired, and encouraged when you encounter them. Your burdens feel a little lighter, and your aspirations awakened.
The fact that little daily encounters can let others benefit from your real happiness does not let you off the hook of the bodhisattva vow, of course. We vow to save all beings, end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and embody the Buddha way. Only you know if you’re doing your best at honoring those vows. However, don’t postpone your real happiness until you’ve achieved your ideal of bodhisattvahood. That would make sense if real happiness were a reward you have to earn, rather than a practice that’s accessible to you at any moment.
Everyone wants answers. We figure answers tell us how to live more happily. Answers let us fix things, while questions are simply problems to be solved with answers. Preferably answers come sooner than later because questions point to limitations in our understanding or ability, and they’re often associated with discomfort.
I think this view of questions is unfortunate, because the process of arousing and engaging questions is where all growth and aliveness occurs. We directly encounter life when we recognize something we don’t know, when we become curious, when we move forward into life even while knowing we don’t have things figured out. It’s well worth the discomfort, but there are many reasons we choose, instead, to stay within the limits of what we’re sure of – or overestimate how far our understanding extends.
Here’s a lovely story illustrating how someone can refuse to overestimate the power and relevance of their answers:
In the documentary “No Ordinary Genius,” Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a story of how he was taught to question things as child. He observed that when he pulled his wagon with a ball in it, the ball would roll to the back of the wagon. When he would stop the wagon, the ball would roll to the front. He asked his father why. His father responded, impressively, with an explanation of the law of physics that states an object in motion stays in motion, or an object at rest stays at rest, unless an outside force acts on it.
Now, most parents would be more than satisfied to have provided such an erudite answer to their child and they’d stop there. Feynman’s father, however, continued. “This tendency is called inertia,” he said, “And no one knows why it’s true.”
Admitting to ourselves that we don’t know something can trigger a sense of inadequacy or panic. To know is to be able to predict and control, to rationalize and explain, to make sense of things. To not know something after the age of 18 is usually seen as a slightly embarrassing situation that we can only hope is temporary. If we admit to others that we don’t know something, they are usually very concerned for us and try either to provide us with an answer or advise us where to find one.
Sometimes we find some good, inspiring answers. That’s great – but considering the universe is infinite, there will always be more questions waiting if we are open to them.
I once had the opportunity to ask my Zen teacher a question in the midst of ceremony that took place in front of a couple hundred people. I asked a question that had been troubling me for some time: “When he was enlightened, the Buddha said he awakened simultaneously with all beings, but how does the Buddha’s awakening benefit beings who do not see what he saw? What about those beings with heavy karma, or in whom the way-seeking mind has not arisen – those who do not experience the relief and joy of his realization?”
I was trembling a little because of how much I cared about this question. To explain it a little further, while I was fully convinced that spiritual practice can result in liberation and peace, I wondered whether such liberation was just a matter of adopting a particular alignment of mind and heart. Is awakening simply being able to see the universe as complete and precious (a view), or is the universe actually complete and precious?
If salvation lies solely in achieving a particular understanding or embracing a particular faith, it will be of limited usefulness in saving the world. We will never manage to convert everybody to the path that has resulted in salvation for us. On the other hand, if beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what – as our saints and sages tell us they do – then there’s hope.
Gyokuko, my kind teacher, answered me with a smile, “How could Buddha-nature not benefit all beings?” (Or something like that, I can’t remember exactly.)
My response: “But…”
Gyokuko asked if I could see our luminous, complete Buddha-nature.
“Yes!” I answered. “But…”
Before I could launch into another explication of my doubt, Gyokuko said, “You do not see It.”
I paused for a split second, ready to keep arguing, but then bowed abruptly in response and with deep sincerity spoke the ceremonial words that end this kind of exchange, “Thank you, great teacher, for your great compassion.” This elicited some laughter from the audience because of the timing.
For a time, Gyokuko’s answer inflamed my ego with a sense of humiliation. “Great,” I thought, “Now everyone knows I don’t know something so fundamental. Many people will assume they know the answer when they actually don’t, just as they might think describing the physical law of inertia actually explains what’s going on when a ball appears to roll when the wagon beneath it moves. They’ll pity me and think they’re more realized than I am.” But at some point I just set aside any concern about what others might think or about how my understanding rates in the world of Zen. Screw it, I thought, the only thing that matters is the truth, and wrestling wholeheartedly with questions is the only way I know to get closer to it.
After the ego-centered moment passed, Gyokuko’s answer brought great hope. If I kept engaging the question, I would see it someday. I would have the direct experience of how beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what, and how the deepest truth is not dependent on one’s understanding or faith. I would be able to tap into that in order to help save the world. And if I had never asked the question, my realization might have remained shallow.
Do you realize how many questions there are you don’t really know the answer to? What keeps us from opening our hearts to one another every time we meet? What is the nature of our experience of time? What is it inside us that always knows what is generous and kind? How do we fully face and appreciate the fact that we will die? Is there a time to fight? What is it that allows us to keep participating in destructive and unjust systems? Wholeheartedly engaging any one of these questions could open up a lifetime of discovery and growth.
Don’t be satisfied with half-assed answers. And ultimately all answers are half-assed.
Photo by tracy apps, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/4Exzp5, Some rights reserved