Sunday, December 31, 2006


A year of loss: as 2006 slips into the wormhole of time, I reflect on a year in which I lost both my father and my job. One may be soon replaced, but certainly not the other.

Returning to the subject of spiritual materialism, we tend to look to our practice to soften the blow of life's losses. Although we vow to accept all consequences of our karma with equanimity, the trouble, the materialism, comes in when we look to our spiritual practice to anesthetize the pain of our losses, to cushion us from the rough blows of life. We imagine the Buddhas and patriarchs to have walked around like saints, untroubled by pain and by misfortune, and then we try to emulate their behavior in our own life. For surely, we imagine, if we just don't acknowledge our pain and suffering, if we just ignore it, it might just go away and we'll be rescued from our misery by our practice.

But the fallacy here is that we look at our practice as something outside of ourselves, something separate that can, in turn, rescue us. We're also looking at our pain and suffering as something separate, too. And as we get locked into accepting this duality of self (the one that suffers) and other (both the suffering and the practice that will bring an end to suffering), we're merely reinforcing our sense of separateness from all other things and hence our need to protect ourselves. And as we try to insulate our separate selves from this separate suffering, the downward spiral continues and we find ourselves suffering all the more.

So what can we do? If we can't rescue ourselves, what does that leave us?

Surrender. Just give up. Stop trying so hard and just be there with the pain when things are painful, and be there with the happiness when things are joyful. And the technique to begin this letting go is sitting meditation (zazen), or more specifically, "just sitting" (shikantaza).

I've long ago realized that there is no "goal" or "purpose" to shikantaza (otherwise it wouldn't be "just" sitting, it would be sitting with a goal or a purpose), but it's taken Arthur's wise counseling (and Greensmile's reminder) to show me that there also is no "goal" or "purpose" to the broader picture of spiritual practice. If we burden our practice with a goal or a purpose, we commodify it, we perceive it as something separate from us, and this materialism diminishes our practice.

So what does that leave me with? I grieve the passing of my father, and I worry about my lack of a job and all its attendant anxieties. I observe and feel my restlessness and frustration with these quiet holidays and I feel gratitude for the occasions when the idleness passes. But having said that, neither do I wallow in self pity and amplify my pain, nor do I ignore it and pretend not to feel.

Easier said than done.

Tonight is one of those opportunities to leave the house and feel gratitude for the opportunity to be doing something other than watching the mailbox for an offer letter - the New Year's Eve celebration at the zendo tonight. So Happy New Year's to everyone, and Happy Birthday, Jackie!


GreenSmile said...

So we may say, in the flippant mode of such expressions as "kill the Buddha",: "Zen is useless".

What you have written is deep but let me try to put it in other words to see if I am getting it.

To take on Zen practice, or to study the understandings of our existance embodied in Buddhism for their utility is a false path that mires the mind and its relation to Buddhism in the very view of the nature of mind from which Buddhism seeks to free its aherents.

Shokai said...

I often like to restate things in my own words to test my understanding too.

And I think thet you've very eloquently summarized what I was trying to say.

Old Sam said...

Practice just as practice-enlightenment has been taught for millenia: utility would, at face value, seem antithetical to this. But how does one reconcile this with the apparent utility required by the boddhisattva vow to save all beings?