what’s on your zafu? practicing the great matter

Winter 2014-15 has been one of the most challenging we’ve had here in the NE corner of North America. Atlantic Canada and US have been pummelled by snow, blizzardly snow and by March even the most-hardened of optimists had stopped regaling us with their memories of winters past. And, to really bend the mind, it’s also been the warmest winter on record globally. Too bad we don’t live life in the averages or the picture my dear friend sent from California of an 82°F sunny day in San Francisco would have cheered me up.

A plow makes its way through heavy snow on Route 20 near Park Corner, PEI, 16 March 2015 (Facebook)

I wish I could also say this winter has been a call to deepen my practice by turning towards that Great Matter that hangs around like an optimistic stray which thinks you’ve only forgotten to feed it this time. In one way, I have actually committed to a more consistent practice by sitting everyday. But I must confess, it’s only by virtue of greed and clinging that I’ve managed that. You see, the Insight Timer gives its users a little yellow star – one for every 10 days with a session – and you even get a green star after a bunch of these sessions. I don’t know how the “50 days with a session” star system works. It’s cheesy, I know, I know! But it gets my butt to zafu and that’s really all that matters in the matters of the Great Matter.

Or not really. A couple of days ago I came across a Facebook post by the glossy magazine Mindful quoting ABC anchor Dan Harris (him of his book 10% Happier – which I thought was quite funny except that he never really copped to his drug addiction). Harris’ comment was excerpted from an interview with Charlie Rose: “I think meditation can be anything you pay attention to. I just think you need a couple of minutes a day of formal practice in order to really get it.”

Just think. Well, I could be paying attention to my Miss Vickie’s potato chips which I munch each day with the same dedication as my butt-to-zafu commitment. It takes less time – only a couple of minutes because they’re the mini packs – and I’m likely to get it! Of course, I do want to be fair because Harris doesn’t say what kind of attention or what the “it” is we would get, really. Would it be much different from the “sudden enlightenment” proponents of Zen, for example. Nah. For me, I do believe all I’ll get from my addiction to crispy, oily snacks would be another cardiac “event” or a different outcome to that couple of minutes of vertigo last night.

That Great Matter again, dammit.

Harris’ comments on practice are not unusual and quite apparent both in his book, subsequent interviews and co-hostings with his new-found pals who are meditation teachers. They are much like the aphorisms we throw out in the heart of winter when our brain freezes over and we regress to magical thinking. In our Zen group last evening, I asked why we practice. The answers were the typical round of “being,” “the present moment,” “here and now” and all the other catchy phrases we think great teachers are pointing to. It’s rare to push past that mind-muffling stage into the real question: What is it in the present moment that we are practicing?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book The Buried Giant offers a piercing metaphor of what happens when we fall into a fog of forgetfulness. The inhabitants of the mythic land of post-Arthurian Britain live without awareness of their history or their relationships to each other except in the most rudimentary ways. They function quite well and feel safe in those wrappings of unremembered purpose. It serves to silence the competitiveness, the hatreds, the need for revenge and recompense. It also stops all process of forgiveness and growth. Our practice gets this way. And we fall prey to the quick sound bytes of shiny objects, characters and promises.

We think this is practice. And that’s the poison – we think. And we go no further.

What are the great teachers pointing to then with their commentaries of being, present moment, here and now? The same thing climate change, societal upheaval and our anxiety are pointing to: You don’t have the time you think; you only have the time you practice. And it’s going to take more than a couple of minutes paying attention to make a real practice of the Great Matter.

some kind of maneuvering

For the most part, we are not just sitting; we are nursing delusions one after another.  There is often this feeling that I am doing shikantaza.  When we have this feeling, then shikantaza is not at all shikantaza.  Instead, there is some kind of maneuvering, some kind of action of one’s self.  Do not be fooled by words and ideas.

from Appreciate Your Life: The essence of Zen practice by Taizan Maezumi Roshi

groping the elephant

Eminent students [of the Dharma], long accustomed to groping for the elephant, pray do not doubt the true dragon.*

I like my misconceptions.  Actually, it’s more accurate to say I don’t dislike them enough.  In fact, they are so weakly challenged for their right of passage through my inner world that they tend to leave quite a mess behind.  None of this genteel “guests” in the Guesthouse à la Rumi.  And yet, strangely, I like them for the momentary respite they give me from reality.

Then on Monday, Barry at Ox Herding wrote a lovely post on reality to which I commented that “if reality is not optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  So there you have it.  Grope on that elephant all you want; reality will win out when you sit atop it and the tree trunks start moving.

*Maezumi, Hakuyu Taizan, Commentary on Fukanzazengi.  In Loori, John Daido (ed.), The Art of Just Sitting: Essential writings on the zen practice of shikantaza.

PS: Barry has graciously offered his new book The Path of Zen to everyone.  It’s simply beautiful… and very real!  Please click here to obtain a copy.  A deep bow of gratitude for all your teachings, Barry!

Edit: “if reality is optional, then suffering is inevitable.”  Not surprising I’m always confused!

art amid all

Come said the muse,
sing me a song no poet has yet chanted,
Sing me the universal.

In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed of perfection.

By every life a share or more or less,
None born but it is born, conceal’d or unconceal’d the seed is.

Walt Whitman

In the cold, damp shelter of our primitive ancestors, lit only by the flickering of a campfire, at day’s end there was a time for recollection and stillness that would help to fuel the next day’s events.  Since the beginning of human history, the still point has served as the birthplace of all our activity.  Virtually every creature on this great earth practices the backward step of quieting down and entering this still point.  Birds, beasts, bugs, and fish all seem to find time in their daily existence to relax and recreate – to bring forth the flower from what Whitman called “the seed of perfection.”

John Daido Loori – Editor’s Preface
The Art of Just Sitting

adjust just sitting

Hummingbirds like to hang out in the front garden.  There, the bee balm and honeysuckle keep them well-fed enough to dismiss my plastic containers of fake nectar.  Sometimes, however, they hover over the little red fake flowers and I can watch them, entranced by the buzz of the wings.  It amazes me that wings can move so fast and the sparkles doesn’t fly off the feathers.  To keep themselves fed they may have to visit as many as 1,000 flowers a day.  Perhaps the fake nectar helps although I doubt the average hummingbird gets a complex if it sips sugar syrup rather than flower nectar.  Its only intention after all is to just do what it does.

In the term shikantaza, the word shikan is sometimes translated as “just,” or “only.”  Ta Means “hit,” and za means “sit.”  It literally means “hit sitting,” but the ta really intensifies “sitting.”  So it means “sitting.”  Shikan means “just,” but it also means “by all means do it,” or “get on with it.”

Tenshin Reb Anderson, in Just Sitting (The Art of Just Sitting edited by John Daido Loori), emphasizes the intention of shikantaza – stopping conceptions of what it should be and experiencing, immediately and directly.  Just sit.  As with his book Being Upright, I like Anderson’s affinity for another slant on the word “just.”

In English, just also means “valid within the law, legitimate, suitable, or fitting.”  It means “sound, well-founded.”  It means “exact, accurate.”  It means “upright before God, righteous, upright before truth.”

It may feel uncomfortable or even contrary to load onto shikantaza these concepts that carry a tinge of “right” and “wrong” in the sense of judgment, but I don’t know that practice can be separated from the ethics or ethos of practice.  However, Anderson takes it in an interesting direction.

What I’m saying here is just reminding you of what you already know, what you already intend.  Mostly, what I will be doing besides reminding you will be simply adjusting you, just “justing” you.  That’s all.  That’s all I can do.  I’m not correcting you, I’m adjusting you.  Of course, I can’t really adjust you: you’re already adjusted.  But sometimes I may feel that you’d look a little more “just” if you sat like this, rather than like that.  If I see your mudra over here, I may think, “You’d be a little more just if it were over there.”

I try to steer clear of any kind of judgment in the adjustment: I just adjust.  And then it’s for you not to think about being judged, but rather whether you feel more just after the adjustment.