Monday, October 21, 2013

Beyond Effort

With his archer’s skill, the archer hits the mark at a hundred paces,
But when arrow points meet head-on, how could it be a matter of skill.
                                                            Jewel Mirror Samadhi

Continuing to discuss effort and effortlessness, I like to use this example from the Jewel Mirror Samadhi.

Japanese archery is considered an Art, a way of life, and a spiritual practice.  The archers study for many years.  I suppose we could call that great effort.  Practicing over and over.  Through personal effort, through practicing, they can fairly easily learn to hit the target at a hundred paces.  Anyone can do that, if they practice very hard.

But for two archers to aim at the sky, and for the arrows to meet head-on, that is something that is way beyond skill.  It is beyond the mind of discrimination.  It is beyond the body of practice.  I think this might be congruent with the idea of forgetting the self.  In letting go of “trying”, in letting go of any intellectual idea of how archery should be done, these archers are simply totally, wholeheartedly merged with their activity.  The years of practice in a very easy way, in a relaxed way, comes through.  The archer, the arrow, the other archer are all one movement and one whole.  Subject and object merged.  This is what one might call effortless effort. 

From Reb Anderson’s book, Being Upright,  page 23-24
The famous Zen example for developing the practice of renunciation is pulling a bow, practicing archery.  One of the first books I read about Zen Buddhism was Zen in the Art of Archery, by the German writer Eugen Herrigel.  His archery teacher explained that you take the bow, pull the bowstring back, and just hold it.  This is like normal human life: you’re holding on to something and it’s a strain.  His teacher told him to hold the string until it was released, but not to release it.
Herrigel held the bow for many hours of practice, and he got really tired of holding it – just like we get tired of holding on to body and mind.  Then he got the idea that he could let go of the string without letting go of it by just holding it half as tightly.  So he held it half as tightly, and half as tightly again, and kept halving his grip until, finally, the string went without him letting it go.  He had figured out a way to let it go while he was still holding on.
The teacher saw his clever trick and kicked him out of the school.  Herrigel begged for years to come back, until finally the teacher agreed.  He went back to the practice of pulling the string and just holding it.  No more tricks.  He just patiently experienced the suffering of being a human who thinks he’s holding something.  One day the string released, and it was as if it passed right through his fingers, just as his teacher had described it.  He didn’t let go of the string: it went.
The string is already released, but we don’t generally understand that.  You have to pull the string as a metaphor for your delusion until you understand that the string is already released.  You have to sit with your life and feel how you hold it, and be willing for the release to happen.  It will happen spontaneously, because it’s already so. 

This is an aspiration for my practice- that I can be open and relaxed and the years of practice will just come through.  In the Fukanzazengi, it says that we should look for a teacher that is beyond effort.  What does that mean?  I think that means that the goal and the cause have merged, that our minds are calm enough to receive the moment as it is, and our reaction of generosity, patience, acceptance, integrity are so practiced that they have become our norm.


It is no longer a strain to receive the moment.  We no longer have to try to practice.  We can surrender to the life force of the moment and let it bloom.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Walking on the edge of effort and effortlessness


Where is the inter-being between effort and non-effort?  Too much effort and we are tight and constrained.  Too little effort and nothing happens.    Pema Chodron has a wonderful phrase:  “Not too tight, and not too loose.”  Practice is walking on the edge; adjusting our effort to meet the circumstances with a flexible mind.

Practice Effort is like a large soundboard, similar to the one’s used at concerts. Each lever is adjusted to exactly the right sound, the right loudness, the combination of bass and treble, for the whole to harmonize.   They are constantly adjusted as the concert moves from song to song, from experience to experience.    Just so, our attention is adjusted to fit the situation- our internal and external conditions.  Sometimes are attention needs to be stronger and sharper, sometimes it needs to be softer and more receiving.  We keep adjusting our effort so our clear attention can hold the unique situation as it arises and changes.

Sometimes, I experience this great effort for enlightenment as too achievement oriented.  “Spiritual Materialism”, Trungpa Rinpoche used to call it.  We are marking spiritual progress as notches on our belt.  This is quite different than being comfortable with surrender.  Or the ability to accept our life as it is with the deep understanding of what underlies all life.  That no matter what is showing on the surface of life, there is the underlying mystery of life constantly at play.

Dogen’s beautiful phrase:  swimming with our arms the surface of the waves of vicissitudes (up and down), and, simultaneously, having our feet walking on the bottom sand in the dark silence and emptiness of the deepest part of the ocean.

If we practice as if spiritual life is a series of accomplishments, this will not help us when the going gets rough and when life doesn’t call for a series of accomplishments.

From Pema Chodron page 231 in “No time to lose.”

“I saw a cartoon entitled “Reasons not to Meditate”.  First there’s a drawing of an infant, with the caption “too young.”  Then there are students, parents with children, and people at work, with the caption “too busy”.  The next drawing shows an elderly person, with the words “too old”.  Finally there’s a corpse, with the message “too late”.

When we’re about to die and we’re having our last thoughts, will they be about the dream house we didn’t build, the mortgage we didn’t pay off, the novel we didn’t finish?  Feeling that we’ve failed to accomplish our worldly goals is not the frame of mind we want to be in when we die.

It’s not uncommon to find ourselves thinking that we’ll practice when we have more time.  We’ll start meditating when the conditions are better.  Meanwhile our kleshas (negative reactivity) only get stronger, and our mind is even less able to relax.

I was recently with a dying practitioner who admitted that her dharma practice now seemed meaningless.  She didn’t understand what relevance it had for her as the ground was slipping away.  This could happen to any of us if we don’t use our bodhichitta practices and meditation as a way of surrendering and letting go.

With each meditation session, you could train in opening to whatever arises, and relaxing with the immediacy of your experience.  Just acknowledge your pleasant and unpleasant thoughts without bias and let them pass away.  Then at the time of death, you will be ready to let go of your attachment to this life and surrender to the process of dissolving.

This passage really impacting me when I read it years ago.  How do we practice that really helps us live and die in peace?  How can we see our practice in a non-dual way.  Spiritual life does not head just into success, pleasure and gain. (rather the opposite, old age, illness and death) Can we find a depth of understanding that can include everything?

Pema writes:
You can make a project out of precision.
You can make a project out of gentleness.
It’s hard to make a project out of letting go.

Dogen writes:
Loss is enlightenment

Gain is delusion.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Master of our Minds

Who is this person who can be master in any place and meet the source in everything?  Book of Serenity, pointer Case 4

Though I generally don’t like to use the word “master”, in contemplating this pointer I have liked the idea that I “own” or “master” my own mind through the practice of concentration.  Learning to place my mind is the clarity of mind that interrupts the running-in-circles “monkey mind” that we first see when we start meditation.  The untamed mind is a wild elephant, trampling around and running from here to there.

From Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva:

5.2
Wandering where it will, the elephant of mind,
Will bring us down to pains of deepest hell.
No worldly beast, however wild,
Could bring upon us such calamities.

5.3
If, with mindfulness’ rope,
The elephant of the mind is tethered all around,
Our fears will come to nothing,
Every virtue drop into our hands.

We can learn to tame the elephant of the mind, to relax, rest and be at peace like a pet curled up next to us.  This is the great gift of learning to meditate and focus our minds.  We can interrupt our stories, and tether the mind to the present reality, the present sensations and receive the moment as it is.  This can be hard to do at first and it needs quite a bit of practice; interrupting and returning to the moment at hand.  We do this over and over in meditation and then moment to moment, over and over, in our activity. Cultivating mind’s inherent capacity to stay put is called mindfulness training.

We can see the consequences of an untamed mind.  We take a story and run with it.  Sometimes creating a whole long negative adventure, that actual never happens.  We elaborate and create a storyline for the future that is a total fantasy.  What we project may happen, but most times, it doesn’t play out the way we fantasize.

If we have some mastery of placing our mind, we can continually interrupt our conceptual creation of the future and just plant a seed of virtue in the moment at hand.  We can plant a seed of generosity, patience, ethical conduct, honesty, or kindness.  We can let go of control and surrender to the reality of this moment.  We learn to handle what sensations are present, even if they are negative or agitated.  We can cultivate faith that if we do plant seeds of virtue in the now, we will create a more positive future.  Just this much is enough. 

With a clear mind, an open mind, we can receive the moment as it is.  This is a very deep understanding of equanimity.  We can meet the source in everything regardless of our evaluations or reaction to the outer conditions.
Can we be at peace with all the outer conditions which manifest as the 8 worldly Winds.
Can I be at peace with
Pleasure and pain
Gain and loss
Success and failure
Praise and blame
Our practice/realization is to meet the source in all circumstances, no matter if we like it or not.

Every moment is the expression of the mystery. Every moment is Buddha.