Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Zen Survival Handbook part II: the call of duty

I am one of those people who suffers from an excess of duty: I fill my head with a lot of "should" and "ought-to", especially where Zen is concerned. Because Zen asks us to throw ourselves in to practice, to commit ourselves, it is easy to reach the point where we forget that practice actually can be enjoyable. You could read an awful lot of Zen literature, and listen to a lot of Dharma talks before you unearthed such a sentiment. There is such an emphasis placed on having  a regular practice, that we can get to the point where we are slavishly going through the motions, as if conforming to some model of  a Zen student will end our suffering. It won't. We need to be doing living zazen, and to appreciate that, maybe sometimes we need to take a break from it. Gasp! Having said all this, there's nought worse than a Zen slacker, "It's all Buddha mind, friend." Either you're practicing the Zen way, or you ain't. Reeling off the odd koan on a forum and "going with the flow" is also not going to help your life very much.
I've used Zen as a way to beat myself up before now: I'm not doing enough zazen, I don't go to enough sesshins, I'm not sewing my rakusu quickly enough, and so on and so forth. It's not Cub scouts, you're not earning badges (funny, when I was a Cub Scout I got but one solitary badge....), you're not in a competition to see how "Zen" you can be. This excerpt is from "Not Always So",  by Shunryu Suzuki, edited by Ed Brown:

"If we do not have some warm, big satisfaction in our practice, that is not true practice. Even though you sit, trying to have the right posture and counting your breath, it may still be lifeless zazen, because you are just following instructions. You are not kind enough with youself. You think that if you follow the instructions given by some teacher, then you will have good zazen, but the purpose of instruction is to encourage you to be kind with yourself. Do not count your breaths just to avoid your thinking mind but to take the best care of your breathing."

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Waking up to zazen

So I was talking with a good friend the other day, and explaining to them that my injury* had prevented me from keeping up a dedicated zazen schedule, but that weirdly, I was beginning to see that zazen could be done outside of sitting on a cushion, to which she replied "How clever of your body to teach you that!" The more I thought about it, the more I realised how right she was. How many injuries can prevent you from sitting meditation? Not many. It has to be something extremely localised, and persistent. So the abscess was a very particular condition, perhaps the only thing that could have prevented me from sitting zazen and therefore granting me a chance to see practice without my normal practice. There is a certain bloody-mindedness to the Way, which goes along the lines of you will wake up no matter what. So then it just becomes an issue of how much you want to resist or go along with that movement. There is something irritating about insisting that the world and the universe is beneficent, something rather of the Californian Optimist about saying that things are meant to be just as they are...but that's what I'm saying. I've always struggled with the reasons for zazen, and Zen practice in general. Recently I had the idea that zazen makes things easier. But now I'm not so sure. Zazen, I now see, is utterly useless, and I  mean really useless in all ways spiritual, emotional, and developmental. It only expresses leaving things exactly as they are. It took not doing it to see that. Which I can't recommend exactly. So now, when I get back to doing zazen, I can do so knowing that it doesn't rely on anything apart from my desire to express that. There's no duty, no "ought to", no club to join or thing to prove. Only sitting. Now if I could just convince my posterior...

* a euphemism for an abscess in my butt....

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Zen Heroes: the Marvellous Bankei

Bamkei is one of those Zen masters who you don't really hear about. He had a subversive style, amongst the Zen people of his day, because he seemed to be totally anti-practice. For him, Buddha nature had nothing to do with zazen, koans or even any sort of "mindfulness": he just insisted that whatever situation you are in, or type of person you are, you are Buddha right there and then. His attitude seemed to be that practice of any kind could cloud your understanding of your own Buddha nature. He didn't seem to insist on zazen, but his students did. He had no problem with people sleeping during zazen. He railed against the asceticism that Zen practitioners can fall into. He also left no official disciples.
"Practice" is the buzzword in Buddhist circles today. The familar koan about rubbing the tile having nothing to do with being a Buddha is wheeled out as a nod to the sort of untrammeled Zen that Bankei was spreading, but really everyone ends up still playing the Buddhist game, sitting for all their worth on a regular basis, wearing robes, building centres and so on and so forth. It's not that any of this is bad, but quite simply that the trappings can get in the way. It's easy to confuse sangha building and the "Zen game" with a real enquiry into Self, life and death. This is what Bankei pointed out.
I would recommend both Peter Haskel's and Norman Waddell's books about this one-off Zen great. Hurrah for Bankei!