I have been thinking a fair bit about how we use the will in practice and keep coming up to two points. The first point, which I can’t get over, under or around, is in an old story of a student who comes to a Zen teacher and says something like “there is a stone in my garden and I would like to carve it into a Buddha, can I do that?” and the teacher says, “yes, you can!” Having second thoughts, the student says “carving that stone into a Buddha would be hard, are you sure I can carve it?” And the teacher says “no, you can’t carve it.”
Of course, the stone is the student themself and the teacher here is saying, if you set your mind to practice, you can realize what the Buddha taught. Or, conversely, if you put up self-doubt and other obstacles, you won’t be able to carve that lump of stone into a Buddha.
If we want to find what the Buddha found, or if we want to benefit from what the Buddha taught, we have to decide for ourselves to put the Dharma into practice, and we have to actually practice it ourselves. This isn’t a matter of a standard or my personal point of view, it just seems to be the way it works; it is sort of like gravity or other physical laws of the world. If an action doesn’t happen, its attendant consequence doesn’t happen.
Also, this isn’t a commentary about the “what” of practice or the “how fast it will get done”: it may be that all we can do to practice is to just decide that we will, with a little openness about what practice looks like. (There is an astonishing variety in what actual practice looks like, and we don’t need to assume that our practice will look like the next person’s practice.)
Deciding that we will practice is really the daily starting place of carving our stone into a Buddha.
The second point is related to the “what” we do for practice. There is an often quoted line from Dogen’s chapter, Uji. It goes: “The koan in daily life is will; words are its key; adequacy is oneness; inadequacy is duality and each of these, will, words, adequacy and inadequacy, are themselves existence, time, flow.” Usually it is the first two clauses of this line that are quoted and I am sure that there are many things that could be said about that, but for this, my attention is drawn to what the whole line is getting at.
We usually think of will as an action on, or relative to, some external thing or set of conditions: in terms of practice, it looks something like “I am going to sit in meditation today” and then either sitting or failing to sit. We apply the will in this way to all manner of things, including aspects of practice, and this is good and helpful. But Dogen is drawing our attention to using our will in a very specific way with this line: he is saying look carefully at our tendency to get into the opposites, if we can let go of the opposites (our judgements about ourselves, the world or the quality of our practice) we can find real adequacy; this adequacy does not depend on whether we get to our cushion or not (although we will still have the consequences of getting there, or not). And further, if we find ourselves in inadequacy, enmeshed in the dualistic opposites (being all judgey about ourselves or whatever), we can let that go and step into this deeper adequacy.
We decide to practice, and we do (or don’t do) whatever external form we have decided upon. We sit, we work on a precept, we work on compassion or patience or whatever. And, in the midst of these things (including the doing or the not doing), we work on letting go of the habit of judging ourselves and the world. (Working on seeing how we get enmeshed in the opposites and letting go of that, could also be the practice that we choose to do at a given time.)
This letting go of judging, helps us to see that our immediate, temporary, success or failure is just for the time being, is just part of the flow of life, and needn’t be the cause of worry, even while we continue to decide to practice. Dogen very nicely said, “our eventual success is built upon a thousand failures.” We just need to keep deciding to practice.