Follow this link to see the October 2019 Priory Newsletter where this was originally published.
– By, Rev. Master Daizui Macphillamy Head of our Order from 1996 to 2002
This transcription, originally published in the Journal of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives is of part of a talk given during Jukai at Shasta Abbey in the 1990s, edited by Rev. Master Hugh.
When do we start Buddhist training? When do we keep on training? You start training – at least I did – when you see someone else training. Because, well, how else am I going to know it’s possible! Reading books is great, but… (sigh) for me at least, it takes seeing someone else walking the path. So that’s how I know, when I see someone else walking the path. And we’ll come back to that point.
There is a saying that, “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” Unfortunately a number of people take this as something magical: that somehow the teacher knows, and is just waiting for you to be ready, then they will magically manifest themselves. I don’t view it that way. I view it that there are teachers walking by all the time. “When you’re ready” is when you can start to see that. It is said that “When you look with the eyes of a Buddha, you see Buddhas,” and you see them everywhere; it’s true. The teacher may be the Teacher (capital T) in one sense: they may be a particular person who you wish to take as your teacher for this time in your life, or even for this lifetime, and they may look like a monk, they may look like a teacher. Or the teacher may be your dog, wagging its tail without any reservations, just wagging its tail because it’s glad to see you: something so simple. I love dogs because there’s something so simple about them, so uncomplicated. Greed is there, yes, you bet. But there’s also a very uncomplicated sort of love. And they’re just happy to see you. That can be your teacher, too. The teacher can be your co-worker, they can be your spouse, they can be your kid.
One of the stories Reverend Master Jiyu tells about children is that, many years ago, she was talking with someone who was a student of hers who had a very young daughter, and the mother was asking how to introduce her to meditation. Reverend Master Jiyu said, “Well, perhaps you can refer to it as your secret place, your still place, ‘I’m going to my secret place now.’” Not that you meditate secretly. You’re just sitting down and a kid is saying, “What are you doing, Mommy?” “Well, I’m in my secret place, l’m in my still place.” Now the mother came back a few months later and said, “It worked, but I think maybe it worked a little too well. I explained this to my daughter, (the daughter was maybe three years old) and then there was a day the other week when I was late for work, and I burned the oatmeal, and I was really pretty grumpy; and my daughter came up to me, tugged on me a little bit and said “Mommy, I think you left your secret place.” Gotcha! Hmm: the teacher appears!
So, we walk the path when we see that it is possible to walk the path, and we see it is possible because we see others walking the path. There is also a decision to make. “Am I going to set aside what I am doing now and walk the path, or am I not?” I remember one Jukai when I was serving as Sacristan, and we were setting up for a ceremony, and there was Reverend Master Jiyu starting the ceremony! “Oh, aaaargh! Now what do I do?” Well, you’ve got to decide what’s most important. What’s most important is to walk the path. You have to set aside what you are doing, what you would like to do, whether the altar looks absolutely perfect, or whatever it may be. You have to put training first. Now, that doesn’t say you have to be a monk. Heaven forbid, if we were all monks. It does say that if you want to do this wholeheartedly and completely, Buddhist practice has to come first: it can’t be second. You have to put down other things and walk the path. It doesn’t mean that other things are not to be done; they are to be done.
Before I became a monk, my previous calling in life was as a psychologist, and I was a lay student of Reverend Master Jiyu’s for some five years or so before I came here as a monk, and it was not easy, particularly because I was in graduate school. Perhaps there will be some wan smiles from those who’ve been in that position in life. It takes a lot of time. And I kept fighting this, I kept fighting, fighting, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have time to even meditate, I don’t have time to do this, I don’t have time to do that.” I also didn’t have time to ‘smell the flowers,’ as it were, in life, and Reverend Master Jiyu gave me very cold advice, she said, “Doug, you’re going to have to decide what comes first.” And I said, “Eh, but, but, but …” Now at that point, I was a graduate student who was a Buddhist. It was after a sesshin, a retreat here, and getting this advice, that a few months later I had a new idea, “Oh! You know, I could do that the other way around.” I wondered what it would be like to be a Buddhist who happened to be a graduate student. “Hm. Okay, I think I’ll try that.” You know what? It worked. I still got my work done. I passed; I got my ‘union card.’
And it was a whole lot easier, because I knew what my priorities were. My priority was training. I was following the Buddha’s way; I was a trainee … who was a graduate student. Fine, nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with any honest attempt to be helpful in this world. You can do those things. And, if training comes first, then all the rest of life falls into place a lot easier. So, the decision has to be made: “Am I going to put aside x, y, and z, and walk the path?” even though it may not be convenient at the moment. Even though, as in the case when I was the Sacristan and the altar was half complete, “I’m going to look like a damn fool, but am I going to walk the path, or am I not?”
In starting out to walk the path, there is a certain amount of trust, a certain amount of faith, because you don’t know where all this is going to end up. Different people are strong in different dimensions of religious training. I don’t think of myself as a faith type, perhaps because when I was young I was taught a type of religion which said, “First you must believe.” And I said. “Uh uh, sorry, can’t do that.” It’s one of the things that got me to Buddhism, because Buddhism said, “Okay, you can take this as a working hypothesis. You don’t have to believe it first, you can try it first.”
But even the trying, I later found out, is an act of faith because you don’t know what’s going to happen. But you’re willing to try, and you’re willing to suspend judgement, and to walk on into the unknown and see what happens. And yes, as you walk on, when you look back, if what you see seems good, then it gives you increased courage and faith to continue to walk on. And you still don’t know where the next step is going to be. And, you know what? That doesn’t change. Sorry to dispel any illusions on that, but this isn’t going to change: Buddhist training is always walking on in the darkness; it’s always an act of faith to take the next step.
One of Dōgen Zenji’s teachings is, “Always we must be disturbed by the truth.” Not disturbed, as I understand it, in the sense of ‘upset by,’ ‘dithering about,’ or ‘worried about,’ but “disturbed” in the sense that always there is more, never is it that all is known, all is safe, all is clear. Always there is more to learn, more to do, more to be. So it’s always an act of faith: taking the next step, walking the path.
And then we find ourselves following in each other’s footsteps, and sometimes in the footsteps of a teacher. Now, do we have to do that? No, you don’t have to. You can ignore two thousand five hundred years of the evolution of this religion if you wish to. You can ignore the experience of all those generations that have gone before you, if you wish to.
Why would you wish to? “Well, I want to do it my way!” Believe me, you’ll do it your way. Because, although you walk a path that has been trodden by many, many footsteps, the next footstep is yours and yours alone, and you must make that foot move, you must take that footstep. Oh, yes, it will be your way all right, but not necessarily the way you want it to be. It will be the way it is for you, the way it must be for you, the way it can be for you: not necessarily the way you would like it to be, the way you think it ought to be. Thus, we can learn from one another, and we can learn from the generations that have gone before .
To use another metaphor, when I want to go to Vancouver, B.C. in Canada, I get in my car and I go up Interstate 5. And yes, I’m breathing all sorts of other people’s exhaust, but I’m a lot more likely to get there than I am if I just walk out that door and head generally northwards, sort of, you know, wander northwards: “It’s up there somewhere, I know it’s up there somewhere.” Well, I might make it to Vancouver that way, some day, eventually. Chances are not terribly good that I would, however. I don’t find anything demeaning about following in others’ footsteps: I can use all the help I can get!
So, generally speaking we’re following another’s footsteps. And that too, is an act of faith. You’re following others, following a teacher. And when you see the teacher go by, metaphorically speaking, they may not look like much. And they will definitely be human. And they will blow their nose and they will burp, and they will make missteps: they are walking the path. But it takes an act of faith to follow along, and to have a sense that you can follow this path in good conscience, in good faith, and relax a bit: because these generations have gone before, it’s probably a safe path to walk. I say, “probably”, because we can never be absolutely sure. This is a risky business. Life is a risky business. And the teacher too is walking the path. Buddhist training is something which continues, and it always continues. It’s not a case of an absolute perfection that you can see and revere and bow down to and that will somehow magically get you there. It’s a case of someone else (and other people, not just one), who has been practicing perhaps a bit longer, who has worn the path, and has followed in the footsteps of their own teacher throughout the generations. They’re human, they always will be, and following them is an act of faith.
And when we do follow, there’s this unbroken line of people walking the path. Metaphorically speaking, this training has gone on for generation after generation and the line goes on to infinity. There is no beginning; there is no end. It all comes from the Source, and it all returns to the Source. It is a circle; where is the beginning and the end of a circle?
The Way of Buddhism is very broad; it has evolved many different forms throughout the centuries, and we in this particular tradition have no claim on you: we wouldn’t want one. You are free to walk the Buddha’s path in whatever tradition is best for you. If it be this tradition over the long haul, great: glad to walk beside you. If it be another Buddhist tradition in the long haul, great: walk beside them. As I said, it makes more sense to walk beside someone, to follow a road, than to wander north hoping to hit Vancouver. The road doesn’t have to be I-5, you can go up Highway 101: the coast road is quite beautiful, too, Okay? There is no obligation here.
Right, we walk together. This also means that we’re less likely to get lost because we have each other. Not only do we have a road and a teacher, but we can help each other along the way. If someone stumbles, their friends can help them get back on their feet. If someone wanders off into a manzanita bush, we can help each other get unstuck. If someone’s clothes get caught on a branch, we can stop and wait a moment and help them get uncaught, etc. It’s also easier to do, in the sense of faith: we have each other to support one another as well. And that’s Sangha: doing this together, walking on together, supporting one another, helping one another, and yes, enjoying each other’s company. That’s part of Sangha, as well.
And, the next step can only be taken by one person, and that’s you. No one else can move your foot for you. You have to take your own next step. So you are both alone and together at the same time. And this is true in training as well, and it is not easy sometimes, this business of being both alone and together. Sometimes the alone is scarier and sometimes the together is scarier. But both are true. And so, because you do have to take the next step in your way, ‘in your shoes’ as it were, you will walk in your own way. That’s why I said a little bit earlier that Buddhist practice may not be what you think of as the ‘perfect’ way that you would like, but it will be the way you can do it. And that too is an act of faith and trust. You have to trust yourself that you can indeed take the next step, and the next, and the next.
And if you walk in a way that doesn’t look like the way the person in front of you or behind you is walking, you have to trust yourself in this also. “Okay, I can’t copy their style of walking. I’m on the same path, we’re next to each other, but I can’t make my body act the way their body acts, because it isn’t their body, it’s mine, it’s what I have given to me. It’s what I have to work with. And so, I must use what I have and what is presented to me to the best of my ability. And I will walk in my own way.” Again, we are together, and we are alone.
It’s not always straightforward, it’s not always clear cut. And, it’s not always easy. We would like it to be both. But it isn’t, sorry. And there are not always signs for when you are going the right way. Least of all is “it being easy” a sign. One of my little pet musings is to wonder where in the world in this culture we got the idea that if it’s not easy, somehow we “weren’t meant to be doing it.” I don’t know where we got that one from, but I’m pretty darn sure it’s not in the Buddhist scriptures, because I’ve read a whole lot of them and so have some of the others that I’ve met, and so far none of us have found the Buddha saying that. In fact, experience suggests that it’s quite the opposite. Sometimes it is darned hard, and sometimes one has to keep going despite the fact that it’s hard, if one’s going to get anywhere.
So it’s not always straightforward, and it’s not always easy. It also doesn’t always make sense. There’s more to all this than I know, I’ll tell you that much. The more I do this Buddhism, the more I realise the less I know about it. And the more I know that it is bigger than anything I know. And it doesn’t always make sense. Again, it’s not written anywhere that I know of in the scriptures that it always will make sense. I mean, sometimes it will make sense. But it won’t always make sense, because there’s more to you and me than a logic system. Thank goodness! There’s more to us than simply a logic system: you’ve got a heart, as well as a mind. You’ve got an intuition. And you have to trust all the bits of you, and not just the mind.
There is a point here which sometimes gets lost, I think. We read the Buddha talking about the end of suffering, nirvana, and then we read people like Master Dōgen saying, “Always going on, always being disturbed by the Truth, enlightenment is training, etc.” And you say, “Huh? What? What’s going on here? Are these people talking the same language; are these people in the same religion?” Because there are those who say that Zen is only marginally related to Buddhism, but I don’t believe that. I would say they’re both right. There is the end of suffering. The Four Noble Truths are true. But it says the end of suffering; it doesn’t say the end of training. It doesn’t say sitting back and eating chocolates! It says the end of suffering.
And look at what the Buddha Himself did. Throughout His entire lifetime from the time of His Enlightenment onwards: He got up in the morning, He put on His robe, He meditated, He went out for His alms round, He sat down, ate His meal, and washed up His bowl. Then He took a little rest, did a little teaching, meditated some more: he did training, a form of practice very recognizable to us Zen people. He didn’t stop His practice.
Always going on. That is the training, that is the enlightenment; and that doesn’t make sense. But it grows on you, Okay? It grows on you. And by putting it into practice, you unknowingly teach all beings. Remember what we said in the beginning about the fact that we only start on the path when we see others walking the path. If you walk the path, you will pass this on; without trying to, without thinking, “Oh, now I’m a Buddhist teacher.” Heaven help you if you do that; don’t do that: just put it into practice, and by so doing all beings who meet you will benefit, for you will be passing it on. And it is up to you to do that; no one can do it for you. All those generations before have done what they could, and it is now up to you.