One of the last direct personal teachings my teacher gave to me was to let go of the mind of “If Only”. At the time, it was becoming abundantly clear to me and the sangha around me that, because of my health situation, it really wouldn’t be good for me to live at Shasta Abbey any longer. (I have a wonderfully varied array of allergies, chemical sensitivities and intolerances.) While it was becoming clear, it was difficult for me to accept.
Since I had invested a great deal of myself in my life at Shasta, there were many facets to the difficulty in accepting the need for me to leave: it took a lot of effort for me to get to Shasta and a lot of effort to stay there and learn what I needed to learn to become a monk and a teacher; I believed, and still believe, in the mission and purpose of that monastery and I wanted to use my life to support and further that mission; I could recognize that my training was far from complete and felt that it would be helpful to stay there with my teacher to further my own practice. Also, though, there is a certain sense of safety and security being a monk at a place like Shasta since there is a high concentration of sincere people putting the Dharma into practice in a profound way and all of this means that there is a lot of momentum in the life of practice at a place like Shasta. So, I was a bit afraid of the prospect of leaving there.
For me, the mind of “If Only” is the mind that occupies itself with the speculative concern for possible circumstances where life could be better. I suppose a little bit of this type of consideration can be helpful (if we didn’t have some sense that we could find a better way of living, I wonder if most of us would start practice at all?). But for the most part, for me at least, spinning in the mind of “If Only” is just a means for distracting myself from present circumstances that I find difficult or would like to avoid.
Of course I did leave Shasta and so far, things have worked out to be pretty ok. A long time ago, as a lay person really, I decided to rely on my practice as the central means for dealing with my life. As I go along in my life, and my life of practice, I can wholeheartedly say that that was the best decision I have ever made.
The conditions of my life have changed and I am sure will continue to change, but there is still that abiding, internal ability to find some way to practice in whatever circumstances I find myself. In the “Scripture of Brahma’s Net” it says that a practitioner of the Way does not see conditions as separate from the Way. We do not have to become someone different from who we are, or wait for some set of ideal circumstances in order to practice the Dharma. We can let go of the mind of “If Only” and turn little bit toward the life we have right now, and begin to work with it. Our life, your individual life, right here, right now, as bleak and miserable as it might be (and I hope it is neither bleak nor miserable, but it could be), is where we (You) can find the life of Buddha.
(There is story Dogen tells of his master, Tendo Nyojo, taking off his shoe in the meditation hall and slapping his lectern to get the monks attention as he exhorts them to be diligent in their practice. When I make this point, I feel like Nyojo slapping his lectern: Right where you are, just as you are, YOU CAN FIND PRACTICE!)