A collection of articles and other Dharma by Rev. Leon and friends of the Priory
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.
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!)
A little while ago a student at my former college called on behalf of the alumni association to solicit donations. In the course of the conversation she asked me if I had any advice for her and after talking with her a little about some ideas I have about how to benefit from education, it occurred to me to say, since she didn’t seem like a self-absorbed psychopath, “trust yourself.” Later, as I reflected on the conversation, it occurred to me that it might have been more helpful to say “trust yourself even after you blow it.” Continue reading →