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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