by Zoketsu Norman Fischer
written in March, 2001
The mission statement of my organization, The Everyday Zen Foundation, says, “We believe in the possibility of engaged renunciation: being in the world but not of it, living a fully committed religious life that does not exclude family, work, and a powerful interest in the world. Everyday Zen’s mission is to bring the Zen attitude and spirit to the world in a variety of settings, traditional and nontraditional.”
It goes on, “Everyday Zen is a people-centered community. It has no location, and all that it does, it does in the spirit of collaboration and friendship, and in the faith that all of us want and need to engage in spiritual practice of some kind, to benefit ourselves and others, and that all of us can do it.”
One reads many such high-minded statements; one even writes them now and then. But do we really mean them? I read this one again and thought, “Yes, this isn’t just talk: I really believe this, I am really serious about it.”
Spiritual practice isn’t some predigested pre-arranged thing. There isn’t some standard we are supposed to be adhering to, some external authority we are supposed to be bowing to. Real spiritual practice is the honesty and reality of each of our lives, and finding how to bring out the truth right there, instead of feeling we have to go somewhere else, and conform the shape of our lives to some pre-existing standard. So I always say, Everyday Zen doesn’t have a temple you are supposed to go to. The temple is your life, your relationships your work, your mind and heart: that’s the temple. You are always practicing there. We come together to encourage each other in that.
There’s an important Soto Zen poem called Sandokai, Merging of Difference and Unity, with a line that says, “Don’t make up standards on your own.” We read that line and we chant it in services, and we think it means, “Oh, I need to conform to someone else’s standard, not my own.” I have thought about this line for years, and recently I saw that what it really means is there are no standards. This “no standards” doesn’t mean anarchy. It doesn’t mean willfulness either – that whatever practice we like or want is the practice for us. “No standards” points to the unfolding of our lives without any preconceptions. “No standards” means there really are no standards, not ego standards or any other kind. In other words, yes we practice according to our own needs and wants – but our real needs and real wants. We all have to get over ourselves, beyond ourselves, and into ourselves as we actually are. This, I realize, is tricky business.
The phrase “everyday zen” was made famous by Joko Beck, who wrote a book with that title. Joko is a very good teacher and I bow deeply to her for emphasizing this phrase. I mean it the same way she does – that practice is about our daily lives, not something special. (I think Joko wrote a book later called “Nothing Special“).
The phrase originally comes from an old Zen story, a dialog between Zhaozhou and Nanquan. Zhaozhou is one of the really wonderful teachers of the Zen tradition, a personal favorite of Suzuki roshi’s and a personal favorite of mine. He didn’t start teaching until he was eighty years old, and so he was very simple and very humble because he was beyond having anything to prove. Zhaozhou, as you know, is the one who answered, “Mu” when someone said, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” And he’s also the author of my favorite saying about zazen. When he was asked, “What is zazen?” He said, “It’s non zazen.” And someone said, “How can zazen be non zazen?” and Zhaozhou said, “It’s alive!”
Nanquan was Zhaozhou’s teacher and this phrase, “everyday zen”, comes from this dialog between them:
Zhaozhou asked, “What is the way?” And Nanquan replied, “Everyday mind is the way.” Zhaozhou said, “Well, what can we do about that?” or “What can we do with that?”
Nanquan replied, “If you try to do something with it, you lose it.”
Zhaozhou said, “Well then, how can we know it is the way?” If we can’t do anything with it, how can we know it is the way? How can we practice?
And Nanquan replied, “The way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is an exaggeration. Not knowing is just stupidity. The way is open and vast and empty. Why do you insist on reducing it?”
So that is where the phrase “Everyday Zen” comes from. And this Everyday Zen, everyday mind, is really the essence of the Zen approach to Buddhism.
“What is the way?”
“Everyday mind is the way.”
Well, that’s great news! We don’t have to do something special; we don’t have to put on robes and march around carrying incense, and so forth and so on. Everyday mind, ordinary mind is the way. That’s great! We’re free of all that claptrap.
But, also, it’s not so great, because, well, what am I supposed to do? If everyday mind is the way, I mean, I’ve been doing everyday mind all my life and I’m still miserable and confused. That’s why I took up practice in the first place. It was supposed to help me with all that. So now what? Surely there something more than this. Surely there is something I’m supposed to do.
Everyday actions, ordinary things, speaking to someone, having breakfast, cleaning the dishes and so on, these things that we have limited and reduced by our pre-conceptions and habits of mind, by our conditioning, by our ego habit, are, in fact, something wonderful, vast, unknown, mysterious. If only we could let go and shed ourselves of our pre-conceptions, our limited ways of looking at things, we could find joy and satisfaction on a religious level, not just with smoke and incense and peace and quiet or chanting and ritual, but with everything. Really with everything in our lives. This is the Zen message and understanding. To let the light inside of everything shine forth. And I think that is what makes Zen practice so wonderful, the recognition that it’s not about special activity — it’s about each and every activity. To recognize, as Nanquan says, the vastness and openness of all our experience is to see the truth of the Heart Sutra’s saying, “Form is not other than emptiness, and emptiness is not other than form.” Everything is empty, but emptiness is not something special: it has no reality outside of that which appears. There is no other realm of emptiness in the distance. There is no other God than the God that appears right here and now, in each moment of experience, if only we could release ourselves to the actual dimension of that experience.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of this emptiness, this Godishness, as potential. The potential, the potency, of every moment.
Potential is a strange concept, just as emptiness is a strange concept. Potential both is and isn’t at the same time; that’s its essence: that it both is and isn’t. If something has potential you feel it, the potential is something real that is there in a way. And yet, it isn’t real, it isn’t there, because as soon as it becomes real, it becomes actual, and it’s not potential any more. The actual and the potential are exactly opposite. They are logical opposites. Something that is potential is not actual. When it becomes actual, then it’s no longer potential. So potential is a power in things that is really there, and yet doesn’t manifest in the way that we usually think of things manifesting. Every moment is a moment of potential, a moment of power.
The essence of potential, the source of its tremendous power, is possibility, the possibility inherent in any moment for growth and development. Everything that happens, every moment of our lives, has the power to transform us, to shape and develop us — for good or ill. Even difficulties have that potential. Everything has that potential, and so to begin to view our lives as empty and therefore full of potential and meaning means that we are no longer thinking “I want this. I don’t want that. This is good for me. This is bad for me.” Instead, we are looking at the possibilities, moment after moment after moment for infinite development. This is a very different sensibility from our usual way of looking at moments of our lives: we are either asleep to them, or we are worrying about whether it is good for me or bad for me. Like one of the characters in Catch-22, we see everything either as a “feather in our cap” or “a black eye.” Looking at the world this way we are reducing something vast and powerful and transformative into something very mundane and flat. To see that life is not like that is what it means to know that everything is empty. That is what it means to practice everyday mind: to realize that everything is like that all of the time.
There is, by the way, a wonderful technical definition of the word “potential.” In physics potential is defined as, “The work required to bring a unit electric charge, magnetic pole, or mass from an infinitely distant position to a designated point in a static electric, magnetic, or gravitational field, respectively.” To bring something that in infinitely distant to a point that is right here— that is what potential is.
So this is really Everyday Zen, everyday mind. It is basic Zen, the koan of the present moment. That is why you have all these books about the Zen of drawing, and the Zen of running, and the Zen of this and the Zen of that, and motorcycle Zen and so on. Maybe people are cashing in on this idea of Zen but it isn’t actually so far fetched. It’s something true. Because everything really does have this potential, this vastness, this dimension of meaning.
All of this is very good, it is very comforting and encouraging; it is very metaphysical. But we’re still left with a more practical question, which perhaps is Zhaozhou’s question in the first place: how do we put all that into practice in our lives? How do we activate it? How do we access it? How do we understand it on a moment to moment day by day basis?
There are two parts to an answer to this question. First, attitude, and second, activity.
In spiritual practice attitude is crucial. Practice is subjective, not objective. This doesn’t mean it is trivial or inexact: it just means its not objective, not external. If you study something objective, say, biochemistry, you begin with facts, external facts. No one asks you to spend years working on your attitude, because your attitude isn’t the issue, isn’t all that relevant. But if you are engaging in spiritual practice your attitude is very important, it bleeds through all our practice; it may be the key conditioning factor in your study. So you need to pay attention to it, and to cultivate it in a particular direction.
I want to talk about three attitudes. The first one is “you can’t do it — it’s impossible.”
I think it is really important to be clear on this point, because our whole problem is that we have been muscling our way through every day of our lives, from the beginning to now. “I’m going to do this. I’m going to make this happen. I can do it.” Or, another form of the same thing: “I can’t do it, I am not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, beautiful enough.” If you think in the first way, then your life can work to some extent. It works in a worldly sense. You can learn biochemistry, you can do this, you can do that. If you think in the second way then you can have a hard time of it. The truth is all of us think both ways, in various proportions, depending on our conditioning. But either way, when it comes to freedom, real freedom, when it comes to settling into the meaning and real purpose of our human life, neither of these ways of thinking fill the bill. Because you can’t do it. You really can’t do it. In recognition of this, theistic traditions speak of God. Because we can’t do it we have to call out to Another to help us — another who isn’t really elsewhere or other and yet who isn’t exactly reducable to us either.
Because it is exactly the notion that it is our effort to do and make happen and create our lives that defeats us. I’ve been studying the Mumonkan lately, a Zen koan collection. Kan means barrier. Life is like a barrier. You keep running up against that barrier, over and over again, and you can’t ever get past it. Mu means no or un, and mon means gate, so Mumonkan is Gateless Barrier. There’s no gate, no way through this barrier. In your life you come up against the barrier over and over again, but you can never get through, because there’s no gate, no way through. I can’t do it. Ever. No matter how good I am; no matter how strong I am, how determined, how many periods of zazen I sit, and so on and so on. I’ll never be able to do it, because it’s not that kind of thing. This is why so many of us try the strategy, consciously or unconsciously, of avoiding the barrier. Thinking about something else for fifty or seventy years. Because we can’t face the impossibility of our life as it really is. You can’t blame anyone for that. It’s a rational response. But the trouble of course is that it doesn’t work. Because the barrier isn’t elsewhere and its not really avoidable — it is right in front of us wherever we are. It always catches up to us in the end. In fact, we are it.
So this is the first thing that we need to recognize. To just let go and relax, knowing that we really can’t do it. None of our efforts will bear fruit. This tells us that practice is less about what we are going to do, than about what we undo, what we try to let go of. Practice is shedding something, rather than adding something extra. We have added, already, plenty of extra things, a lifetime of extras. That’s the problem. We don’t need any more extras. We need to let go of something. So practice is not doing. Practice is undoing.
Of course, practice involves many forms of cultivation and effort, but all the cultivation and effort is done with this attitude, with this spirit and recognition that it is really about undoing, falling off the mountain, not scaling the mountain. When we cultivate with this attitude, the attitude of letting go, and of trusting, we can have a lot of relaxation even if we are working hard on our practice. We make effort, in various ways to work on ourselves, it’s not that we don’t. But the attitude behind that effort is to undo, not to do; to release and fall apart, not to hold on and build up. To let go, not to build up; to throw things away, rather than to add something extra—when we do cultivation with that spirit and that attitude, we’re relaxed. We’re not under pressure. There can be a lot of joy in our effort, even though we may come to see that it is endless. Pressure comes from “I need something. I have to get it.” Relaxation comes from, “I’m just doing this. There’s no way to do it, but I’m just doing it and letting go, and not worrying about what happens.”
So that is the first attitude for the practice of Everyday Zen. The second attitude is very much a corollary to the first, and makes the first attitude possible. It’s the gradual development, over time, of dedication, faithfulness, devotion, trust in our very practice itself — in our very own body and mind and our practice.
And this is also not something you can produce. “Okay, starting tomorrow, I’m going to have faithfulness, dedication and trust in the practice, and in my own body and mind.” It’s something that just takes time. Showing up over time. Keeping on even when it may seem boring or useless. Our style of practice, Suzuki-roshi’s style, Everyday Zen style, is not some brilliant enlightenment. It’s more just every day showing up, every day just being stupid and doing it. Just doing it. One finds that over time, just doing it every day, a very, very strong sense of dedication and faith will gradually arise, so that you really become unshakable. You don’t even notice it. But it is there. And you are not worried about how good you are, or how bad you are, or what you need or what you don’t need. There’s just a sense that life itself, practice itself, always pulls me, always shows me what to do — I’m always held, I don’t need to worry. I don’t need to create my life. My life creates me.
And the third attitude is this feeling of, or of moving into a spirit of, renunciation, which I have spoken of many times. It’s odd, you know, even though the essence of the way we are practicing together is that we all have our lives and work and family, and so on, we’re all very connected to our world, and passionately involved in our world, and we’re not monks and not aspiring to be monks: you would think that the idea of renunciation would be foreign to what we are trying to do. But I find myself, over and over again coming back to the crucial importance of renunciation.
What is renunciation, actually? We think of it as a kind of deprivation. Life has many good things in it, so a person that is a renunciate nobly gives up all these good things, and lives a life of deprivation. We might think this is very admirable, or maybe we think it is crazy, but in any case it is certainly very difficult to give up all these good things.
I don’t think that’s what real renunciation is. If someone thinks that, and gives up many things in the course of spiritual practice, depriving themselves of happiness, giving the things up so as to suffer and endure hardship: to me this spirit is really rather twisted and unhappy. I do not think this is what renunciation is about. Renunciation really means letting go, becoming free of conceptual attachment.
Literally, a renunciation is a kind of statement that one makes within one’s heart, of letting go. So it’s actually a kind of announcement. It comes from the same word as announce, and annunciate. So there is an annunciation, and a renunciation. The annunciation is when you are pronounced to be something. You are so and so, this is your situation. And renunciation is when you turn around and let go of that very thing that has been annunciated. So the queen is coronated, and in the coronation ceremony she is pronounced the queen, and then later on she stands up and says, “I renounce the throne.” She gives up all that burden of designation, and she become free.
With renunciation there’s a recognition that that which you supposedly had, in fact, you never had anyway, because it was never have-able. It’s not as if you are giving something up. You are recognizing that you never could possess what you thought you had: your identity, your possessions. The queen never was the queen anyway. That was just a social designation. Renouncing the throne is just admitting what’s actually been so all along.
It’s funny, people have many possessions, and then they die. The possessions don’t evaporate when they die. Instead the relatives fight over them. That’s what always happens. I have seen this many times. It is very undignified, and yet very common. So who possesses those possessions? The person is dead. The living persons are miserably agitated. Meanwhile the possessions themselves, the houses, boats, cars, bank accounts, antique furniture, are all serene and quiet. Possessions possess us, we don’t possess them. We say we work for money: this is truer and more literal than we know. So you recognize that, from the beginning, and you say, well, all these possessions, including my own body, including my identity: I don’t possess them and I never did. So you let them go. I don’t mean necessarily you give them away, though you might. But inside, you understand their nature and your own nature. You are no longer fooled and oppressed by the situation. This is renunciation.
So we renounce our families, our professions, our work, and so on. Even though this is our life, we renounce it all, in the midst of it, so that all these things can become vehicles for our practice. Oddly enough, we renounce all of it so that we can really enjoy it, use it, be used by it, in a good way, with freedom and love instead of attachment, confusion, pressure, stress, and burden. When we renounce our work we stop thinking “I am my work,” and we realize that the work that we are doing is already finished, already complete. When we see it like that then that work becomes a vehicle for our practice, something interesting and joyful even when it is hard. It only looks like lawyering or doctoring or gardening or designing. In reality it is spiritual work. When we renounce our family, we don’t leave our family or become detached from it, we love it more purely, more broadly. Because that’s what happens when we let go of attachment and self identification with something: we let go of the desire that it should be a certain way. We let go of the idea that it is our possession.
So I feel that renunciation is necessary for happiness and for love. It’s the gateway to freedom. It’s not some forbidding thing for monks and nuns and acsetics. Monastic renunciation is something beautiful I think, rare but beautiful when it happens. But renunciation in the world is also something beautiful — and, as far as I can see, something necessary. With renunciation we can really see our practice as our whole lives, not just something we do on Sunday, or in retreat, or over there. Practice becomes, with renunciation, a matter always of over here, not over there. It becomes a matter of total dedication and total renunciation all the time, of opening ourselves to the wonder of the world, and to the possibility of love, and to this task of benefiting others, which we take on with a great deal of joy.
That’s what I mean by renunciation. So we have these three these attitudes: first, recognizing that we can’t do it, second, having faith and dedication to our practice, and third, the spirit of renunciation. These are the three underlying attitudes that characterize and support the practice of Everyday Zen.
Good. But still we haven’t yet tackled the question: “How do we do this? How are we going to cultivate those attitudes?” How, concretely, are we supposed to undertake all of this? Now we come to the seond part, the activities of practice.
I would suggest that we practice in these ways:
First of all, I really feel that regular meditation practice, or some other practice that brings us to quiet, brings us to zero, or raises up the possibility of zero, references zero, even if we can’t quite get there, is necessary. Theoretically it is not necessary. Theoretically we don’t have to do anything — we are it or are in it already. But practically speaking it is necessary. Otherwise we are just indulging in ideology, not in practice, which is after all a way of being, not only a way of thinking. So we need regular meditation or prayer practice — daily if possible. But if not daily, regular, meaning, we are never far away from it, never out of touch with it. It is always just there are our fingertips.
The best time is in the morning, getting up early enough so that you can get to it before your mind starts working hard and the day gets underway. Maybe you have a small altar, you have a stick of incense, you make a bow to the Buddha and a you give rise to a feeling inside yourself of dedicating your time of sitting to awakening, to Buddha, to God, or to whatever you honor as that which surrounds, holds, and transcends you and your concerns. And then you sit. And after sitting, if you can, if it is meaningful to you, you can chant a text, or you can read a Dharma book. Not to get information, and learning, but just to take it in, as if it were really true, for your inspiration and inner edification. Just to listen and let the words come in. And it need only be ten or fifteen minutes. And if something strikes you, you can remember a word or phrase, and you can write it down and put it on your altar. And you can stay with that word or phrase for some time, letting it soak into your mind and body and heart.
This daily practice of sitting, over time, becomes part of your life. Les Kaye always says, “Nobody think it is a big problem or a burden to brush their teeth every day. People don’t complain, ‘I’m so unhappy. It’s so burdensome that I have to brush my teeth.’ People brush their teeth; it’s no problem. Nobody thinks about it.” He says, “Your meditation practice should be like that. It’s just like brushing your teeth. You just do it. You don’t think, ‘Oh, how great I am, look at me, I’m meditating.’” Nobody says, “Gee, look at me, I brush my teeth every day. What do you think of that?” Nobody says that, they just do it. It’s not a big thing. So in that same way, you just do meditation practice.
That’s the first thing. It may take time to develop a practice like that. It may or may not be right for you but you have to try it out. Try it for a month and then another month. Try it three days a week, for twenty minutes, for a month or two months. Make short term commitments to yourself so that you can see how it is for you. Little by little maybe you will appreciate your practice and how it makes you feel inside and you will develop full commitment to it.
So that is the first thing about practice, it seems to me, that we do a regular contemplative practice of some kind. I think this is really foundational. Otherwise, what are we talking about, if there isn’t a daily practice, what are we really talking about? So that is the first activity.
And the second activity is, we practice with others when we can. We sit together, we study together, we talk together, we support each other. I think it is really important that we get together, because when you are sitting by yourself and never getting together with others who are sitting it becomes easy to feel that your practice is self-centered. “I’m sitting to become a better person, to become smarter, calmer, more spiritual. I’m sitting to have a better day, to have a better life.”
And of course, we do become calm, we do have a better day, we do have a better life. But if it is only about that, then it’s not going to go deep enough to really satisfy our lives. We have to sit for and with others. So when we come together and make contact with each other, then when we go home and we sit alone, we recognize that we’re not sitting alone. Nobody is sitting alone. We’re sitting with our Dharma brothers and sisters and we’re sitting with all sentient beings. We really are. That’s the feeling we have when we are sitting. When we have the experience as often as we can, given our lives, and our conditions, and so on, of coming together, of sitting for and with each other, then our sitting becomes magnified; it extends and grows. So that is the second activity we do, we come together for practice as often as we can.
The third activity of our practice flows very much directly from this, and this is our spiritual relationships, our warm spiritual relationships. Relationship is crucial in spiritual practice I think, it is transformative for our lives. When spiritual relationships take hold — and they are not quite the same as personal relationships, which are based on likes and dislikes — they are magical. True friendship is magical. Allowing ourselves to enter another’s life and to have our lives entered by another is magical. That’s why when someone close to you passes away, you feel that you yourself have died in some way, because that relationship draws out in you part of your life that wouldn’t otherwise have existed.
So our relationships are really important—relationships to our spiritual teachers, but also to each other. They’re personal, they’re warm, they’re human, but at the same time, they’re not exactly personal. They’re also transpersonal, or impersonal, or something like that, because in spiritual relationship we are committing ourselves to relating to each other on the level of “You are Buddha. I am Buddha.” To be sure, we are also not Buddha. We are mixed up, confused, deluded, neurotic. We’re all that way. It’s not that we’re saying, No, we’re not that way, we’re entirely perfect. We admit that we’re that way, we’re not trying to deceive anyone. We can emphasize that, if we want to. That’s the way we’ve always lived, emphasizing that part of ourselves, imagining that that’s all there is. The practice of Everyday Zen is to recognize we are Buddha and we are also everyday, ordinary people, but that our commitment is to relate to each other by putting the Buddha foot forward.
When you walk, you put one foot forward, then the other foot. Then one foot then the next. That’s how you go along, two feet, one then the other. In our spiritual relationships, we put the Buddha foot forward, and we really know that that foot is there, even though we know the other foot is there, too. We need both feet if we are going to get anywhere. So that’s the difference between our spiritual relationships and other relationships. In the end, of course, all relationships are spiritual. In the end, we relate to everyone the same way, there’s no difference between people with whom we practice and others. But, initially, we need to establish this special kind of relationship, to train ourselves in it, in order to discover that all our relationships are special relationships.
I’ve spoken before about relationship to teacher, so I won’t say much about that today, but in a way, it’s not so different from what I’ve just said. Each relationship is unique. Each pairing and group is unique. We’re a different person in this relationship, and in that relationship, and so on, because each person evokes something different in us. So every relationship between teacher and student is different, depending on the persons. What I am devoting my life to exploring, as a spiritual teacher, is the possibility that we can have significant spiritual relationships over the long haul in which there really are teachers with spiritual authority who are yet also ordinary human beings, not people on high, who by virtue of their being on high will have to fall down, but just persons, who can relate person-to-person, grown-up to grown-up. This is a real trick, I think. It’s difficult not to fall into extremes — either the teacher is all wise and reads my mind, or no one can be my teacher because no one can tell me what to do or see things any better than I can. It is hard to avoid these extremes. Through our trust we give power to spiritual teachers so that we can engage in a relationship that will empower us on an ultimate level.
So spiritual relationship is the third activity of our practice that I think is really important.
Now we come to the last activity of the practice of Everyday Zen which is probably the most important one. And this is the daily practice, the moment by moment practice, of paying attention, of being present in our ordinary activity, all the time. Truth is always present, always there. It’s not something that is only on the cushion. It’s not something that only exists in a retreat, or only when we see our teachers or fellow students. It’s really an every day affair. An all day long affair. As I said earlier, in our everyday zen practice there’s no temple. There’s no place that is the repository of the truth. The place, the temple, is our body, speech, and mind. That’s the temple. That’s the place that you go to practice. It’s too bad I have almost come to the end of my talk because there are three hundreds talks each about body speech and mind- how to practice with these in daily situations. But there’s no time to talk about all that.
Just very briefly, the practice of body. In the Mindfulness Sutra it says, practice “awareness of the body in the body,” being in the body, being the body, being aware within the body, taking care of the body, how we act with our body. We need to really pay attention to our body, and love our body. Not as me, but as a marvelous appearance of Buddha or of God. The Bible says, we are made in God’s image. This is profound and we need to take it to hearft. The body is God’s pattern. The practice of awareness, the practice of breathing, walking, standing, lying down, giving loving kindness to the body, in the many, many ways, there’s much we can say about that. That’s the first thing. That’s all day long.
Then there’s speech, a hugely important practice. Again, the Bible tells us that the world is created with God’s word; Jesus is said to be “the word.” So our words are powerful and mysterious; we create worlds every time we speak. How do we speak to ourselves, how do we speak to others? Not lying, speaking with kindness, speaking carefully, not speaking frivolously, speaking accurately — in the human realm, the practice of speech is very challenging, as we have conflicts and difficulties, emotions: a very difficult practice in the real world at large. That’s the nice thing about getting together and doing meditation practice. We don’t have too much trouble because, mostly, we don’t talk! And when we do talk we have no issues that we are grappling over; everything is fine. It’s easy to speak with kindness. But in many situations it’s not so easy. So that is the practice of speech.
And then, mind. Which doesn’t only mean intellect, it also means emotions. Someone told me recently that scientists have discovered (scientists are constantly discovering things that people have known for centuries!) that the heart has as much neural activity going on in it as the brain. In other words, the heart thinks as much as the head does. We really need to think clearly and think straight, with heart and head, to recognize our delusions and our confusions and our joys and hopes for what they really are. I think that this is actually the most important thing of all in spiritual practice: to be aware of your own mental and emotional condition. To see it clearly and to have patience with it, and to understand the difference between conditions that give rise to peace and happiness and conditions that give rise to grief. If we practice clear awareness of all of this then eventually the magic of awareness will kick in and we will clarify our lives- or our lives will clarify just naturally in the course of our practice.
Here is where study helps us. Studying texts and scriptures helps us to clarify our thinking and feeling. We study for this reason, not to become knowledgeable, but because we know that it actually matters how we think and how we feel. In this we get a lot of input from the world. So study at our own pace and in our own way, helps us to counteract the confusion of the world, to get input from a deeper and wiser source. It doesn’t matter how much we study, how much we learn. Some people read thousands of books. Other people read almost not at all, just a word or two. Issan, an old Zen comrade of mine, used to brag that the only book he ever read was Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and he barely go through that. But that was all he needed. I suppose that I am still, in my old age, idealistic enough to believe that we can practice all the things I have been talking about, and that if we do it will make a difference for us. And not only for us, but for the world. Zen is, after all, Bodhisattva practice. In the Avatamsaka Sutra it says that if people need food, the Bodhisattva appears as food. If people need a tablecloth, the Bodhisattva appears as a tablecloth. If they need a garbage collector, the Bodhisattva appears as a garbage collector. If they need a lawyer, then the Bodhisattva appears at the bench. If they need a doctor, the Bodhisattva has a stethoscope. If they need a computer technician, the Bodhisattva is wired.
This means that there needs to be Bodhisattvas everywhere, practicing with the spirit to benefit others. Otherwise, it would be a really bad thing if all the people who had spiritual leanings, all left the world and were in monasteries — all of them. This would be a bad thing. The world would really go to pot.
Monasteries are really good, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that monasteries and temples aren’t good. I feel that they really are necessary. All of us, if we have a chance, should go and spend some time in a monastery. Bob Thurman has a thesis, which I think is quite right, that monasteries are the social alternative to armies and governments: armies and governments are for protection and aggression, but monasteries are for teaching peace and love. So yes, we all need temples and monasteries, it’s not that they are unimportant. But practice outside monasteries is also good. The human mind, especially the Western mind, is very funny. It says, “if this is good, then everything else must be less good. If this is good, this must be the right way, and everything else must be wrong.” But it’s not like that. This is good and that’s good, too. This is important and that is also really important. But it’s obvious that we all can’t do all of it, we each have to do what we are given to do without saying “oh, my gosh, poor me, I can’t do that, I can only do this.”
What’s the point of being born and dying anyway? It all goes by so quickly and after a while it becomes hard to tell the difference between being born and dying, it begins to look like the same thing after a while. But what’s the point? It seems as thought it is certainly very nice to do this and that, to have a home and a family, and so on, but none of it is in and of itself enough for us. We are human beings after all- wild and crazy beings!- earth tillers and star gazers- and we will never be satisfied without making the effort to know and live the truth. Who knows what truth is or whether there really is any such thing but no matter, we do need to seek the truth. So this is a grand experiment for us- the practice of everyday zen. All our life through we will never be able to exhaust it, never be able even to understand it. So that’s good. We won’t we bored. And when we come to end of our lives we will know we have used our time well.
This talk transcribed by Judy Gilbert, edited by Norman Fischer, and proof-read by Tim Burnett.
© 2001, Norman Fischer