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MeditatorIf you think of yourself as having a Zen practice, you should regularly ask yourself this question. On the other hand, if the question stresses you out, you’re missing the point of Zen practice.

I am coming to believe that the essence of Zen is learning to embrace paradox. This means learning to fully engage with life even when you encounter a situation where two apparently contradictory things are simultaneously true. In paradox, it’s not that one thing is sometimes true and the opposing thing is true at other times. It’s not that the situation looks a particular way from one vantage point, and looks another way from a different vantage point. In paradox, both things are fully true at exactly the same time.

When you consider how hard you’re practicing, the paradox is this:

  • You can always practice harder, and should, and
  • Perfect, complete practice is always – and instantly – available to you this very moment.

Let’s examine both sides of this paradox, and then how real practice is about fully actualizing both.

Practicing Harder

How “hard” you practice makes an enormous difference to your life, and to your ability to be awake for it. Hard practice is about effort and time. Practicing harder means you sit more zazen. It means you devote more time and energy to activities that strengthen your resolve and mindfulness, such as participating with sangha, Zen study, or meditation retreats. Practicing harder means you make sacrifices. You spend your vacation time at a Zen retreat instead of in Hawaii. Instead of sleeping in, you get up and sit. Instead of relaxing in your garden with a lemonade on a hot summer day, you go sit zazen in a stuffy zendo that smells of sweat. Instead of drifting on to a new, more interesting activity when Zen gets a little dull or grueling, you make a commitment to stick it out no matter what.

Hard practice moment by moment means being brutally honest with yourself. Are you being lazy right now? Chances are the answer is, “Yes.” In the context of practice, laziness means “the failure to apply what is wholesome.” At some level you know that you are indulging unhelpful habits or self-concern, but you do it anyway. At some level you know that such-and-such an action would be beneficial, but you don’t bother to do it. We make little excuses to ourselves all day long, pushing deep mindfulness and compassion around the next corner.

It’s not without reason that Zen master Dogen wrote, “Be mindful of the passing of time, and engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire.”[1] Most of us who engage in spiritual practice have the experience, at some time or another, of feeling as if we have momentarily awakened from the dream that is our everyday life.  This is a very liberating but disconcerting experience. It’s liberating because you can see how your everyday stresses and concerns are, in a sense, unreal, or not nearly as imperative as you thought. Waking up from the dream is disconcerting because you know you are going to fall asleep again.

Seeing your everyday life as a dream may sound dismissive or judgmental, as if you are concluding that normal human activities are petty and unimportant. That’s not the case. It’s just that when you see things from a greater perspective, priorities get realigned in a radical way.

It may help you understand this process of “waking up” if I use a different metaphor, one offered by an ancient Buddhist text called the Lotus Sutra. In the sutra’s parable of the burning house, a man’s children are playing inside a house that is on fire and full of all kinds of other dangers. He calls to his children, trying to convince them to come outside, but they are so wrapped up in their play that they ignore him. Eventually he persuades them to come out by convincing them even better playthings await them out of doors.

Of course, the parable of the burning house is an analogy for practice. The father is trying to get his children to practice – to let go of their attachment to their playthings and come outside, where a larger perspective will let them see how ephemeral life is. In summary: if we don’t practice hard to wake up, if we don’t let go of our fascination with the stuff of our lives, death will catch us unawares. And: when you look at things from a big perspective, even the most important concerns and projects of our lives appear like playthings. There’s nothing wrong with playthings, or play! But do you want to sacrifice your life for them?

Perfect Practice – Instantly

The parable of the burning house also holds the other side of our paradox about hard practice. The father convinces his children to emerge from the house by enticing them with visions of the wonderful playthings that await them outside. When they come out, what they find is practice. In the very act of leaving the house they have received the greatest reward they could have, and it isn’t another plaything. (The sutra makes the point that you could accuse the father of falsehood, but because this was an act of compassion it was okay for him to embellish the truth.)

Ironically, when we get too concerned about waking up from the dream, getting out of the house, attaining the larger perspective, or knowing that we’re practicing hard enough, we are still letting ourselves be fascinated with playthings. Now we’re after “spiritual” playthings, but they’re still just distractions. We’ll find ourselves lingering at the door of the burning house, deliberating about whether to let go of the toy in our hand in order to go outside and see if there’s something better there. Maybe there is, but maybe we’ll regret letting go of what we have. Or, having momentarily left the house, we’ll find ourselves back inside, returning to our playthings as if we’re addicted to them. Being stuck in the house with the awareness that it’s burning can be even worse that never having seen our life from a larger perspective at all.

This brings us to the other aspect of practice, which is true all along, even as we have to work diligently, spend the time, and make the sacrifices: there is a sense in which practice operates outside of every rule known to humankind. It defies every definition, and is not bounded in space or time. While it doesn’t make any sense that you can practice perfectly, this moment, even after decades of laziness, it’s true. To think that practice is something more than this is delusion. Ultimately, you just put down your toys and come out of the house. It really is that simple.

You know this instantaneous, perfect practice. You know the peace of letting go of self-concern. You know the ease of putting aside all your worries and activities to just be. You know the feeling of deep intimacy with life that can be aroused by an inspirational story, a poem, a piece of music, or a grand, natural vista. If you can drop your playthings, including the spiritual ones that require you to keep track of your laziness, nothing keeps you from leaving the burning house.

And Yet… BOTH Are True at the Same Time

Most of us want to hold on to one side or the other of this paradox about Zen practice. Either we get stuck striving to awaken (or to awaken more, or to be awake more often), or we realize practice is instantly available to us at any time and leave it at that. The latter view is especially tempting. After all, why work so hard when you can just relax and enjoy life, and dip into awakened mind now and then?

The fact is, even though we can leave the burning house at any time, even though we can wake up from the dream of everyday life at any time, we usually don’t. We spend most of our time playing and dreaming, more or less happily. If we practice harder, we strengthen the habit of waking up and getting out.

But once the sincere intention to practice harder arises, we can avoid stress and heartache by keeping in mind the other side of the paradox: by practicing hard we’re just trying to learn how to make the choice to be awake, to take the larger perspective. There is no obstacle to awakening that we are trying to overcome with a good Zen practice resumé. And yet…


[1] From the essay “Zazen-gi” by Zen Master Dogen, as translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi in Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, North Point Press, 1985

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