When I first entered Zen practice, Zen seemed like an enormous project with a very grand result. I was thrilled by the idea that I could leave my suffering life behind, purify myself, and enter some Vermillion Tower in the high distant mountains. I tried very hard. I surrendered to the form and tried to impress my Zen Teacher with my diligence. At one point, one of my Zen teachers said to me, “You are barking up the wrong tree.” I was very mad at him. I had given sweat, blood and tears, after all, for the zendo and its unending chores. I had worked so hard. How dare the world say, I had got it wrong!
There are many moments in a Zen life when you feel, “I have got it completely wrong.” It is part of learning that our mental constructs are not “it”. So we build up these constructs and then we tear them down, over and over, until we simply stop building them up anymore. In my life, that took a very long time to unwind.
What is left is beautifully expressed in Katagiri’s language as the “manifestation of simplicity”. This simplicity of practice/realization contains directions like; receive, let go, “just this”, openness and presence. Dogen writes in Fukanzazengi: “Going forward, is after all, an everyday affair.” What I see now when I examine my mind, is how tenacious my patterns are of “trying to get somewhere else” or “productivity”. The balance of doing and non-doing is very fragile. It is very hard for me to non-do, to be, to manifest simplicity. Is this day and its content enough? Do I really understand and realize that this moment, exactly as it is, is the Whole Works? Can I live my daily life in the pure sense of human activity, which I learn about through the experience of zazen? This is the grist for the mill of practice. Grinding out our patterns of evaluation and returning to the simplicity of what’s at hand to do, and sometimes within “do” is “not to do”.
I guess the “work” part of practice is learning to have a clear mind by letting go of our conceptualization. Arising with this clear mind is the ability to hear silence. Perhaps that does take a lot of sitting. Our simplicity needs the openness of this formless awareness. And yet accompanying sitting must be a deep development of acceptance and compassion for samsara (the world of cyclic suffering) in order to end up with simplicity. It’s almost like going backwards from accomplishment to nakedness.
In a phone conversation with a dear friend, we were talking about aging and life. We were talking about how we still have certain character flaws that we had been “working” on our whole life. Though they might be somewhat better, they still arise. Almost simultaneously, we laughed and said something similar: “Well, we are now at the last resort – acceptance.”
In a 12-step Recovery story, a man writes: “My serenity is inversely proportional to my expectations. Keep my magic magnifying mind on my acceptance and off my expectations.” This is a great expression of the manifestation of simplicity. Our expectation and goals are all part of our conceiving of reality. Even though we may have a goal, it can be manifested simply by the direction we are facing in the present moment and in the acceptance of what we perceive to be our hindrances. In the radical acceptance of life as it is, we have to accept samsaric life on its own terms - the terms of cause and effect. Through our radical acceptance of things as they are and our deep formless awareness, we find the simplicity to live. Katagiri Roshi would say, at the end of his life, “just live!”
From Ryokan, 18th century Zen master and poet:
Spring – slowly the peaceful sound
Of a priest’s staff drifts from the village.
In the garden, green willows;
Water plants float serenely in the pond.
My bowl is fragrant from the rice of a thousand homes;
My heart has renounced the sovereignty of riches and worldly fame.
Quietly cherishing the memory of the ancient Buddhas
I walk to the village for another day of begging.