I gave a talk at Clouds on sunday about Work practice, Sangha and practice period. Something I said has been lingering in my mind. I said, “Zen is not a philosophy, it’s something that you do.” After all the books, scholarly study and the hundreds of Zen books in the libraries, how can that be true? It has also been discussed a lot- is Zen a religion, a philosophy, or a practice? Of course, it has to be a mixed answer of all three. But what I meant on sunday, was that Zen is not something that is done in your head although we can use our heads, for example through studying sutras, koans and words about zen. But Zen is something that you do. I really heard that a lot from Katagiri Roshi. Zen is not a machination of our minds and it is not our idea or concept of what it is. Zen is a manifestation in each moment and in our daily life of all that we think and do. It manifests in this one day – strictly speaking, in this one moment.
In the course of my spiritual life, I have practiced Zen in combination with 12 step recovery work. What they definitely have in common is that our spiritual life has to be expressed and practiced on a daily basis. One day at a time. It is not practiced in our heads, our ideas, our dreams for the future but in what you actually do today. And it cannot rest on the laurels of past spiritual work. What we did yesterday, or 5 years ago, does not specifically impact what we do today. It is included as a basis for today’s activity, but today’s activity is today’s activity.
I love one of the Zen stories about Deshan Xuanjian (819-914) in the Golden Age of Zen in China. He was a great northern scholar of the Diamond Sutra and when he heard what the Southern school was teaching he said, “how dare those southern devils say that just by pointing at the human mind, one can see self-nature and attain buddhahood?” So he packed up all his Diamond Sutra Commentaries, put them in his backpack, and journeyed south to correct their view.
On his journey he met an old women selling tea on the side of the road. He asked for some dumplings. The women said, “What’s that on your back?” “Commentaries on the diamond sutra,” Deshan replied. The old women laughed and said, “If you can answer my question, I’ll donate the dumplings.”
Then she said,
“The past mind can’t be attained.
The present mind can’t be attained.
The future mind can’t be attained.
With which mind do you eat these dumplings?
Deshan was speechless.
The old women points him in a direction to the Zen master and Deshan goes to explore and have a dialogue with him.
Eventually, Deshan sets fire to his books and commentaries
And continues to explore the Buddha way.
This is part of a much longer story, but the element I wanted to contemplate is in this particular part of the story. How do we practice in our life, that which is actually in this moment and not a story or philosophy in our heads?
This leads me over and over (in case I have forgotten) that a daily meditation practice and a structure for the day that emphasizes the spiritual view of life is the expression of Zen and our religious life. It is not in the talking- it is in the doing. Our practice period at Clouds is focused on setting up a rhythm or a ritual in each day to remind us of our intentions and our practice. As a whole community, we are committing to do certain gathas or verses as we wake up and go to bed, to a daily sitting practice and to some type of daily study. We are trying to practice as a community during the active part of our days, the incentive to “pause, relax, and open”.
This is what brings me consciousness and peace. Practice Period reinforces the fact that each day I surrender to a ceremony of religious life and bring my spiritual intentions for the day to the fore. Reminding me not to rely on past practice. The past is gone.
When I say ceremony of religious life, I am not talking about a ceremony imposed from outside yourself. At this point and for lay life, the conscious intention to express your understanding in this one day and the forms that help you do that, are very important to notice. It is very important to explore what forms work for you. What practices or ceremonies work in your life and are you doing them on a daily basis?
Sometimes I fall short and rely on my past laurels. But participating in practice period always reminds me of the importance of a spiritual structure to the day and the importance of surrendering to the loving disciplines of spiritual life. What happens when I do this? I am much happier.
You can register for practice period at www.cloudsinwater.org