Why Does God/Buddha Nature Let Bad Things Happen?

Why Does God/Buddha Nature Let Bad Things Happen?

Humans have been struggling with this dilemma for ages: God is good – even synonymous with love – and all-powerful, so why does God let bad things happen? Why does He continue to allow such suffering in the world? For a Zen Buddhist, this question is phrased like this: All being is Buddha-nature and this empty world is inherently precious and without defilement, but still the world is full of suffering. It feels as if there are two separate realities – and much of the time it seems they have nothing to do with each other. How do we integrate them? Is it possible?

Here’s the good news: the need to integrate what can seem like two separate realities is just one of the many stages of the spiritual path. Which means it’s possible, there’s more to come, and it’s worth forging ahead.

Note: the struggle I am talking about here is not about doubting whether God is good, or whether all being is Buddha-nature. That’s another struggle, and a fruitful one. What I’m talking about here is learning how to live wholeheartedly once you have a deep, personal conviction there is a profound and redemptive foundation to everything that embraces all the suffering and makes it, somehow, okay. This is conviction is wonderful, but at some point simply taking refuge in it, however comforting, begins to seem hollow and unhelpful.

I once wrestled publicly with this dilemma of two realities (see Wearing My Heart [and Doubt] On My Sleeve). After that event, my days were been consumed by normal, mundane activities like emails, databases, housecleaning, and worrying about money. At times it seems the doubt had dissipated, or was only a dramatic description of a momentary experience, but it was still there. It lurked like grief, which stays with us for a long time but can lie dormant, waiting for the right thing to wake it up.

Then one evening, happily munching on a veggie burger and not thinking any particularly deep thoughts, I was reading a passage from Ross Bolleter’s Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment. (1) My husband sat next to me reading his ipad, and I asked if I could interrupt him to share something. As I read the passages out loud from Bolleter’s book, I started to tear up. I couldn’t quite finish the section I meant to share because the words got stuck in my throat. (Fortunately, my husband is used to this and wasn’t alarmed.)

Strange – before trying to speak the passages out loud I knew I related to them, but I didn’t realize how deeply. Someone was putting words to my experience. Even more importantly, someone was identifying my experience as part of a larger process of awakening to reality and learning how to be a full and authentic human being. The depth of my doubt didn’t mean I was a spiritual failure, or that my spiritual path is ultimately useless. In fact, it was a sign that deeper understanding and integration was possible.

I want to share with you the passage in Bolleter’s book that so touched me, but it needs a little introduction. In this particular chapter Bolleter is talking about the fourth “rank,” a place in spiritual practice where we have personally experienced something transcendent (in Zen it is a realization of emptiness, in other traditions it might be an encounter with the divine, or a personal relationship with Christ) and now we are trying to integrate that experience with the often brutal or bleak reality of life.

In Zen, the transcendent is called the absolute, or essential, and the reality of daily life is called the relative, or the contingent. Bolleter offers commentary on a line of ancient poetry that describes the fourth rank, “No need to dodge when blades are crossed.” He writes:

“Crossed swords represent the opposition of darkness and light, which correspond to the essential and the contingent, respectively. Given that advance or retreat are equally impossible, we stay put and open to life where we are… Forgetting emptiness, we face up to hard-nosed particularity and oppositional circumstance, treating them as all there is. Yet, although we avoid taking refuge in emptiness, we nonetheless deepen and mature our experience of emptiness by facing up to the challenges we encounter…

“The image of the crossed swords may also symbolize a dilemma: we encounter the crumbling edges of our life and practice, where we sense that whatever we’ve realized can’t light up the darkness and grief of estrangement, or magically resolve our inability to forgive. We must respond by allowing this dilemma, filled with painful confusion and uncertainty, to be just what it is. This is the crux of the matter of not dodging when swords are crossed.”

All of this may sound rather academic or philosophical, but it’s not. What it means is that when I go to visit my friend who is a more or less housebound with extremely painful rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, I refuse to comfort either her or myself with platitudes about how life is ultimately precious, or how if we can just appreciate this moment our suffering is just a concept. These observations about the essential or the transcendent are true, and we may need to take refuge in them at times in order to sustain ourselves. However, they do not make the suffering go away. They do not in any way make the suffering less real.

The way forward, is through the suffering. Not turning away, not reaching back for comforting convictions. Meeting the suffering directly, on its own terms. And I’m not just talking about the acute suffering involved in physical pain, disease, death, injustice, etc. I’m also talking about the daily suckiness of anger, confusion, and the general frustration of being unable to grab hold of lasting peace and happiness.

Heading into the suffering seems crazy, right? Isn’t the whole point is to alleviate suffering? It may be completely counter-intuitive, but according to the teachings of our great spiritual masters, leaving behind our answers and throwing ourselves into direct relationship with the messy, ambiguous nature of the contingent eventually allows us to function even more effectively at alleviating suffering. It does not mean turning our back on the divine, the pure, the transcendent, because that is not actually possible. Our convictions are part of who we are and will manifest in everything do even if we do not consciously hang on to them.

Wow. Maybe, just maybe, if I learn not to “dodge when blades are crossed,” I will someday be able to experience the fifth rank, where (according to Bolleter) “all that we have regarded as the essential and the contingent are found to be none other than each other. The polarities of the earlier modes are annulled, and the algebra of the spirit disappears without remainder into our lives lived as the Way.”

Don’t you think the defining characteristic of a compassionate sage is functioning in the fifth rank, where essential and contingent, divine and human, are realized to exist simultaneously – occupying the same space and time without separation? Think of the saints and other radiant people who have seemed more awake to the world of suffering than most of us, but who also seemed to be not of this world. As long as I let go of any idea that “I” might become such a person, the way forward seems clear.

(1) Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment by Ross Bolleter. Wisdom Publications, 2014.



What Is Meant By Zen “Practice”?

What Is Meant By Zen “Practice”?

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:

  1. Don’t ask troubling questions, there aren’t any answers, so just try to fulfill your longings and cope with your fears; and
  2. 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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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…


Questions Are More Important Than Answers

Questions Are More Important Than Answers

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


Do All Beings Have Buddha Nature? No.

Do All Beings Have Buddha Nature? No.

DogIn one of the most famous Zen koans, a monk asks Zen master Joshu whether a dog has buddha nature. According to Buddhist teachings, all beings have – or are – awakened nature. This may be interpreted as saying all beings have the potential to awaken to reality and liberate themselves and others from self-imposed suffering, or that all life wakes up to the truth eventually, so all beings will inevitably become buddhas. It’s a lovely vision in any case.

Joshu answers the monk, “Mu.” This can be translated as “no,” or “nothing,” or just as a negation. The koan asks, “Why did Joshu say mu?”

Now I think I understand why, at least in part. It essentially comes down to this: Zen is not about having faith in ideas, even nice ones.

Over many years of practice, I was overjoyed to develop the deep conviction that all being has, or is, buddha nature. It was deeply healing to become personally convinced that compassion is built into the structure of the physical and moral universe. That we cannnot gain advantage at the expense of others without paying a price, whether we acknowledge it or not. That life, when viewed without the filter of any expectations or views whatsoever is inherently luminous and precious.

How wonderful! After many years of cynicism and despair, I had found a firm foundation of faith from which to operate. I could greet the world with optimism and joy.

Or so I thought. Recently, I have been consciously opening myself back up to grave troubles of the world. I have deliberately expanded my sphere of awareness beyond my personal everyday life – which is more or less peaceful and fortunate – to include climate crisis, environmental devastation, species extinctions, social injustice, senseless violence, and rampant greed.

As I contemplated the unimaginable suffering in the world, I found myself reaching for the faith that has developed through my Zen practice. Somehow, despite everything, everything is ultimately okay. Right? But the specter of doubt began sneaking around the periphery of my mind and heart. Did the sociopathic murderer have buddha nature? Will all beings awaken before all life on earth is destroyed? It began to feel as if I was clinging desperately to my faith in ultimate goodness, and that faith was starting to feel – as much as I hated to admit it – shallow, fragile, and trite.

But then I remembered what it was I really had faith in, which is the practice of dropping all views. With some trepidation I embraced what Zen calls “don’t-know mind.” This mind would perhaps be better called “view-free mind” because it is an interested, curious, open, caring mind (not a mind that shrugs and accepts a limited understanding). As soon as I had let go of my favorite ideas about ultimate goodness, I was liberated and refreshed.

Any conclusions I draw outside of my own experience are views I have developed. Those views may be useful, at times, for making decisions, or for communicating with other people. And they can be inspiring and motivating – I certainly enjoy it when I have a sense that awakening, connection, or compassion runs through all life like a blood vessel. And yet Zen practice is not about hanging on to even the most noble of views.

You see, it doesn’t matter whether all beings have or are buddha nature, or whether the inherent preciousness of the universe is any more “real” than the pervasive delusion of the universe. We can’t actually know these things, and we don’t have to. The only question before each of us is, “What will I do?” To choose the path of compassion and awakening based on our own direct experience of life is the ultimate act of generosity and courage.

As I awaken my own buddha nature and act in the world, I am repeatedly met by buddha nature. It is a lovely and encouraging occurrence. Will I always be met thus? Contemplating that question involves indulging in abstraction, focusing on the future, and, in a subtle way, getting caught in self-concern. After all, isn’t the question actually about whether I am right about buddha nature, or whether I’m wrong and will end up being taken for a fool?

Moving forward with don’t-know, or view-free, mind is to move without defenses. As another Zen master said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Am I Practicing Hard Enough?

Am I Practicing Hard Enough?

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

Image courtesy of markuso / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Stages of Practice When You’re Going Nowhere

Stages of Practice When You’re Going Nowhere

My 8-year-old nephew has been training in karate. Last time I talked to him about it, he expressed frustration. “I haven’t been there for the summer,” he said. “If I go back they’ll make me do all the same stuff over again.” He expressed interest in taking Taekwondo instead, because –according to a friend of his – there you get to do all kinds of neat kicks right off the bat, and you get to progress to higher belt levels more quickly.  Apparently my nephew goes to a pretty strict karate dojo, which insists that trainees are drilled in discipline and basic katas at length before they get to do the showy stuff like sparring.

My nephew is honestly expressing the same kind of frustration many of us feel about our Zen practice. Actually, the frustration we can feel in Zen may be even worse, because the course of Zen practice isn’t laid out for us anywhere near as clearly as the course of training in a martial art. We don’t get to master a particular practice, take a test, and then move on to the “next” practice. We don’t have belts or levels. While we may acknowledge the equivalent of “black belts” in the form of empowered teachers, it is not suggested that we are all training to achieve that status. We are asked to do the same basic practice over and over, like a beginner’s karate form, with no end in sight. 

With no clear course of training and no external affirmations of whether we are doing it right, progressing, or achieving anything, how can we maintain our focus and motivation in Zen practice? In Zen we are taught to give up petty ideas about attainment and to realize there is no place to go other than right here. In essence, we are asked to patiently and diligently apply ourselves to a demanding and repetitive practice, and… well, that’s it. There’s nobility in this kind of goalless patience and diligence, but how realistic is it to expect it from Zen practitioners who don’t have their black belts yet? After all, goallessness is a goal, not something that comes easily (unless you are actually just uninspired).

Hopefully we feel some benefits from our Zen practice, because this can help us keep up with it. Yet even this can become limiting. If we make our dedication to practice dependent on apparent benefits – such as a sense that our meditation is becoming more still over time, or we feel more calm throughout the day – then our practice may stagnate or wane when no new or substantial benefits are appearing. We also may be inclined to only put into practice the time and energy that seems reasonable compared with its results. For example, if the only benefit of our practice is feeling a little more calm throughout the day, than it might be worth… maybe one night of sangha practice plus 2-3 meditation sessions at home during the week? Maybe more, maybe less, but we base the amount we put in to practice on the amount we get out of it.

At a deeper level, Zen practice is not about improving our life, or getting better at anything, it is our life. It is about being completely who we are, where we are, when we are. Ultimately, our journey is entirely our own, unlike anyone else’s. What should we do next in practice? What should we work on? No one can answer that question for us. I don’t know what it is for you to be completely who you are, and vice versa. We can recognize a sense of enlightened ease and authenticity in each other, but that’s after that fact. I don’t know what’s keeping you from being completely here, completely now. I may be able to guess, but only you can find out. There are Zen tools, teachings and practices we all engage because they facilitate this process of personal discovery, but mastering them is not the point. That would be like someone in karate memorizing all the right moves but lacking the integration and spirit to embody them and make them effective.

Zen is frustratingly simple. Basically, we are given the ideal of buddhahood, and a basic set of tools that will help us get there. Then, from the moment we begin conscious practice to the moment we achieve perfect enlightenment, it’s up to us. Anytime we wonder what to do next (which is perfectly natural), we ask ourselves what is still standing in the way of our manifesting buddhahood. What keeps us stuck? What still makes us angry, anxious or depressed? What keeps us from practicing generosity the way we aspire to? What keeps us from appreciating the simple fullness of this moment? The list of such questions goes on, infinitely. Whenever we find an obstacle to our enlightenment, we turn toward it and practice with it. 

Zen practice over time is not linear. One moment we may work on our fear, the next on our willingness to let go, the next on our acceptance of ourselves. Sometimes a particular issue will become very pressing and important to us, and we will dedicate lots of energy to clarifying and working with it. Then it will recede beyond our grasp, even though we haven’t “finished” with it yet. In the meantime another obstacle will make itself known to us, perhaps one we really aren’t interested in working on. Occasionally we seize upon a problem we have do our best to understand and resolve it, but it resists all of our best efforts and we have to leave it on the back burner for the time being.

Most of the time our Zen practice is opportunistic – we take advantage of whatever material is coming our way, and practice with it. It can be a little disorienting at times, and does not lend itself to simple narrative descriptions of how our practice has been developing and improving over time. 

Still – there are stages in Zen practice. It is not that no development or progress occurs, it’s just that it is usually subtle and intimately entwined with our lives. 

Before practice begins there is ignorance. And by “practice,” I don’t necessarily mean just Zen practice. “Practice” just means conscious spiritual practice – the process of investigating this life to see what more there is to it. Before we are inspired to begin such practice, we think everything’s okay. Or, if things don’t seem okay, it’s someone’s fault, or else there’s nothing to be done. The thought that we could live differently has not yet occurred to us.

Oxherding 2Oxherding 1When we begin practice, we develop a growing sense that there is another way. There are things that can be done. There are people who have learned to live in a way that seems more free, authentic and bright than how we have managed to live. What is it we are seeking? We ourselves hardly know. In the ten oxherding pictures, this stage of practice is described by the first two images: first, of a man searching for the ox he has lost, and second, of the man discovering some of the ox’s footprints. In this stage we may alternate between excitement and doubt, conviction and boredom. At times we feel very inspired and motivated, at other times we may forget about the ox or feel despair that we will ever find it. For Americans, this stage of practice is often marked by skepticism – either about the teachings, or about our own abilities.

Oxherding 3Then we experience our first real reward of practice. It may be a flash of insight about our lives that can’t be easily described to others but which makes all the difference to us. It may be a problematic habit of mind or body dissolves. Perhaps our daily experience of life shifts enough that everything starts to look and feel very different than it used to. Or maybe our intuition about the truth is so strong, we are moved to tears by the words of the ancient Zen masters. At this point we know we are on the right track. In the oxherding pictures this image number three, where the man has actually caught sight of the ox. When we progress this far, we gain determination and patience we did not have before. We are willing to sit harder and longer, endure more discomfort, and turn toward more difficult truths – without demanding immediate pay-off.

Oxherding 6Oxherding 5Oxherding 4Eventually the truth becomes something that feels more present in our lives – something that we are developing a relationship to, rather than something we are searching for. Still, at times there is a struggle as we strive to keep hold of the truth and make it our own. This stage of practice may last a very long time. Actually, to some extent it continues forever. In the oxherding pictures this stage is represented by the man seizing the ox, wrestling it until he is able to tether it with a rope, and then eventually taming it so he climb on its back and ride wherever he wants. This developing relationship to the ox, or to the truth, is really about our relationship to life, so this is where we become more and more deeply who we are, where we are, when we are. When we reach this stage, we have a clear sense of what our practice is about. It’s not always easy, but we know what to do next. We know that we can devote all of our energy to practice for the rest of our lives and never lack for something fruitful to apply ourselves to.

Oxherding 7Oxherding 8Oxherding 9With even more time and dedication, the distinctions between self and truth dissolve. There is no more sense of seeking something outside, or of having to master anything outside us. It is not that there is no more point to practice, it’s just that it is all experienced in a very different way. The oxherding pictures portray this stage with an image of the man sitting peacefully, ox and rope forgotten; then with an image of nothing at all, because distinctions have been transcended; then with an image of a scene without man or ox, when it becomes understood that the whole struggle was an illusion to begin with. When we reach this stage of practice (perhaps only for moments at a time), we become very still and quiet. There is nothing to prove, nothing lacking. Everything appears optional, even as compassion flows freely. 

Oxherding 10Finally, there is nothing special at all. The last oxherding picture shows this as the man returning to the world, happy and simple. To return to our karate analogy, this would be a karate master joining the beginners in the dojo to do basic katas – blending in, not showing off, not self-conscious about his mastery, or how others will perceive him. He just does the katas like the beginners do – but does he? If we were watching, our eyes would be drawn to him. His mastery would be fully evident in the simplest movement.

So, there are stages in Zen practice. There are things to be “achieved,” and a direction to go. But the stages are descriptive, not prescriptive: they reflect the way practice evolves if we keep working at it with patience and diligence. We don’t get to decide how quickly we will pass through the stages; it is not simply a matter of determination, although determination is an essential element. Setting our sights on the next stage is useful only if it inspires us or gives us faith in what we are doing right now.  


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