It is axiomatic that the most important aspect of Zen is the practice of meditation. But, it is also very important that meditation be practiced in the context of the other aspects of Buddhism. Meditation practiced in the context of preceptual inquiry and restraint becomes a life of compassion. Meditation in the context of the Eightfold Path is Buddhist meditation and all of this rests on the bedrock of compassion: if the outcome of our practice is suffering, then maybe we have gone astray from at least the Buddhadharma, but also from our own basic intention?
I say all of this, in part, for context as I zero in on an important aspect of the mind of Zazen, the aspect of just dropping whatever arises in the mind. When we sit down to meditate, our technique is to pay attention and when we notice that our mind is wandering around in some stream of thought, we just drop it and bring ourselves back to just sitting. If our current distraction is a trivial matter then this is easy to do and makes a certain amount of sense. But, If you are like me, then just dropping it becomes more difficult when we are distracted by something more weighty: I want to resolve the thing by thinking it through before I put it down.
The problem is, if we step back to consider it, our thinking mind has probably been worrying the thing for some time and hasn’t come up with a solution yet; thinking it through hasn’t worked. And, while thinking it through might be good to do at some point, it is a different thing than allowing the mind to meditate. We experience a sort of intermittent reinforcement with our thinking mind where every now and then it comes up with a useful solution to some problem that we have, so we try use it for every problem that we encounter but it just doesn’t work. And the thinking mind is particularly ineffective when it is activated in a compulsive, habitual, non-directed, spinning sort of way. The scope of the thinking mind is too small and limited to solve our deepest questions. So, we come back to cultivating our ability to drop whatever we are pursuing with our thinking mind and just sitting.
It is especially important that we do this “dropping it,” whatever “it” is, for the time we devote to formal sitting. The effort we make in formal sitting then helps us to see what we can drop as we go through our day. When I start to talk about bringing this aspect of meditation into daily life I can get a bit of pushback. The argument usually goes something like this: it is one thing to just go around meditating all the time when you live in a temple where everyone is nice and all accepting and there aren’t any deadlines or pressure and quite another when you live in the real world. I am quite sure that other people do live in more difficult circumstances than I do, but monastic life doesn’t somehow exempt us from the conditions of regular human life, what the Buddha called the “Eight Worldly Conditions”: gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the conditions we all face in our own minds. It is, in some way, the purpose of the structure of monastic life to disallow the monk from avoiding or escaping from facing themselves and is anything put pressureless.
In her book The Wild White Goose Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett says:
“It is in order to force the pupil to look within himself for true answers to true questions that Zen teachers employ obliqueness in their teaching methods and, for this same reason, the Zen monastery, in the Far East at any rate, trains its inmates with a degree of severity as to create for them a man-made hell.”
It is also said:
“It is not the Zen Master’s job to make a disciple’s load lighter, it is his job to make it so heavy, the disciple has to put it down.”
I want to assure you that I don’t, and monasteries of our order don’t go out of our way to make life hard for people, and especially not guests. It is more that pressure emerges from the density of activities and responsibilities in our daily monastic lives and the expectation of competence in both our outward responsibilities and our inward keeping of the precepts. And, particularly in the formative years, distraction from our own mind is kept at a pretty strict minimum (no TV except as the community might watch together, no fiction, limited reading list in general, no personal cell phone, minimal web-browsing – and that only for business purposes – no going out with friends, etc.)
It isn’t my purpose to describe monastic life except to make the point that its aim and tenor might be different then we expect; it might be more like our own present actual life. Monastic life has its pressures and difficulties and really can turn into a living hell especially when we get all caught up in what the Buddha called the “thicket of views” in our own minds.
Most of the people reading this will be lay practitioners who are leading active lives and who don’t actually need some Zen master to come along and make their lives more difficult (“so heavy you have to put down your load”). But we can all be encouraged to just drop our spinning mind; we can all be encouraged to notice the heaviness of our own load and use that awareness to spur us to put down that load. Caught up in wishing we had that really nice whatsit? Just drop it and bring yourself back to what is. Caught up in irritation with your vexing neighbor? Just drop it and bring yourself back to what is. Caught up in worrying about global warming … violence … the economy? Just drop it and bring yourself back to what is.
Most of the time when my mind is caught up in this spinning I am not in any kind of position to actually do anything (like, I am fuming about someone while I am driving down the road, but they are in the next state, way out of my range).
Letting go of the spinning mind is not about hiding in some irresponsible void space (like I said at the beginning, this “dropping it” happens within the context of Buddhist practice). I often think that the first precept should be “be responsible.” When we learn we can let go of the spinning mind it becomes clearer where we can step up and bear the responsibility for what has come our way. And it also becomes clearer when there is nothing for us to do.
When we see clearly what is, we can see clearly if there is something we need to do at a given time. We can see more clearly what our positive motivation might be – it doesn’t usually help for us to go charging off to do something out of anger or fear – and we can then do that thing. (Sometimes the necessary thing is to sit down and think through what we might could do or what we might need to do.) Often the next step to take is further sitting still and letting go, but sometimes the next step is some concrete action.