Sitting Meditation Step by Step: Being in the Body, Labeling, and Opening into Experience
Sitting Meditation Step by Step: Being in the Body, Labeling, and Opening into the Heart of Experiencing
The Buddhist practice of sitting meditation has three aspects. Being in the body is the ground of practice. Labeling our thoughts breaks our identification with them. Opening into the heart of experience awakens us to love and compassion.
I used to approach sitting, and especially retreats, with the idea that meditation was supposed to make me feel a special way. Often, I just wanted to be free from anxiety. As a consequence, I rarely had a clear idea of what sitting was really about. Even now, when I'm no longer trying to feel some special way from sitting, I still find it helpful occasionally to reorient myself to exactly what I'm doing in my sitting practice.
How often have you realized, right in the middle of a sitting, that you don't even know what the basic practice is? How often have you asked yourself, "What exactly am I supposed to be doing here?"
This confusion is a normal part of the practice path, which is a good reason to review basic sitting instructions regularly. Practice can never be learned just through reading or thinking about it. To awaken clarity based on genuine understanding, we have to learn from our own experience. Nonetheless, it's good to have a clear overview of what sitting practice is, even if it is, in part, conceptual.
Meditation practice, can be divided into three parts. These three are not really separate and distinct; they are a continuum. For the purposes of description, however, we will look at these three aspects of sitting as if they were separate.
The first aspect of sitting is being-in-the-body. This is the basic ground of practice. When we first sit down to meditate, we take a specific posture. The important point is not which posture we take, but whether we're actually present to the physical experience. Being-in-the-body means we're awake, aware, present to what is actually going on. So even though it's true certain postures are conducive to this level of awareness, it's also true that we can meditate on a subway, standing up or lying in bed.
It's useful to have a routine to bring awareness to the physical reality of the moment, especially when we first sit down to meditate. For example, when I sit down I ask myself, "What is going on right now?" Then I touch in with my physical state, my mental/emotional state, and the environmental input (temperature, sound, light, and so on). This check might only take a few seconds, but it immediately takes me out my mental realm and grounds me in the more concrete physical world. The point is not to think about the body, the emotions, or the environment, but to actually feel them.
After this quick check, I return awareness to the posture by telling myself: "Allow the head to float to the top, so that the lower back can lengthen, broaden and soften." This reminder brings me further into my bodily experience. Throughout the sitting period, whenever I find myself spinning off into thoughts, I use this reminder to bring my awareness back to the present moment. The essence of being-in-the-body is simply to be here.
Normally, after settling into the sitting posture, I bring awareness to the breath in a very concentrated way for just a few minutes. I am not thinking about the breath, but bringing awareness to the actual sensations of it entering and leaving my body. For this brief period, when thoughts arise I don't label them; I narrow my awareness to focus solely on the experience of breathing. The value of this practice is that it allows me to settle into sitting.
But the value of this (or any other) concentrative practice—that it can shut life out—is also its limitation. Practice is about opening to life, not about shutting it out. And even though continuous concentration on the breath can make us feel calm and relaxed as well as focused and centered, this is not the point of sitting practice. As much as we would like to have pleasing or special experiences, the path of meditation is about being awake. It's about being awake to whatever we feel. It's ultimately about learning to be with our life as it is. So although concentration practices can certainly be helpful at times, we aspire to spend most of our sitting time in a more wide-open awareness.
Wide-open awareness is the essence of being-in-the-body. This is where we become aware of bodily sensations, thoughts, changing states of mind, and input from the environment. The practice is just to be aware, to simply observe and experience whatever is happening. There is really nothing special about this approach—it is very low key. We're attempting to see and experience life as it arises by letting it just be there-minus our opinions and judgments. This approach highlights the never-ending struggle between just being here and our addiction to the comfort and security of our mental world.
So this first aspect of sitting—being-in-the-body—simple as it sounds, is actually very difficult. Why? Because we don't want to be here. A strong part of us prefers the self-centered dream of plans and fantasies. That's what makes this practice so difficult: the constant, unromantic, non-exotic struggle just to be here. As we sit in wide-open awareness, however, as the body/mind gradually settles down, we can begin to enter the silence, where passing thoughts no longer hook us. We enter the silence not by trying to enter, but through the constant soft effort to be present, allowing life to just be.
The second mode of sitting is labeling and experiencing. As we sit, emotions arise. Sometimes they pass when we become aware of them. But sometimes they demand more of our attention. When that happens, we become more focused in our practice. With precision we begin to label our thoughts. As well, we focus on experiencing the bodily state that is an inextricable part of an emotional reaction.
As emotions arise, we can ask, "What is this?" The answer to this question is never analytical. It cannot be reached with thought, because it is not what the emotion is about. It's what it is. So we look to our experience itself, noticing where we feel the emotion in the body. We notice its quality or texture. We notice its changing faces. And we come to know, as if for the first time, what the emotion actually feels like.
Invariably we will slip back into thinking. As long as we are caught in thinking, we can't continue to experience the bodily component of our emotions. In fact, the more intense the emotion, the more we will want to believe our thoughts. So the practice is to label the thoughts over and over-to see them clearly and to break our identification with them. That will almost always involve moving back and forth between labeling and experiencing.
Learning to stay with—to reside in—our emotions in this way allows us to see how most of our emotional distress is based on our conditioning, and particularly on the decisions and beliefs that arose out of that conditioning. We come to see that these emotional reactions—which we often fear and prefer to avoid—amount to little more that believed thoughts and strong or unpleasant physical sensations. We can see that when we are willing to experience them with precision and curiosity, we no longer have to fear them, or push them away. Thus our belief systems become clarified.
The third aspect of our sitting practice is opening into the heart of experiencing. On those occasions when we experience dense, intense or even overwhelming emotions, when we seem so confused that we don't even know how to practice—what can we do?
When the precision of labeling thoughts is not an option, the practice is to breathe the painful reaction into the center of the chest. Although eventually we will still need to clarify the believed thoughts that are an inextricable part of our emotional reaction, for now we simply open to our deepest fears and humiliations. We're pulling our swirling physical sensations, via the in-breath, into the center of the chest, allowing the center of the chest to be a container of awareness for our strong emotions. We're not trying to change anything. We're just learning to fully experience our emotions. Why? Because experiencing our emotions fully will allow them to break through the layers of self-protective armor and awaken our heart. Fully felt, our emotions will clear the path to the deep well of love and compassion that is the essence of our being.
It is in these darker moments, when we feel overwhelmed, that we are apt to judge ourselves most harshly. We're likely to solidify the most negative core beliefs about ourselves, seeing ourselves as weak, as losers, as hopeless. It's at this point that we most need a sense of heart, of kindness, of lightness, in the practice. We do this by learning to breathe into the heartspace, thereby undercutting the relentless self-judgment of our deeply held beliefs. As we breathe into this space, piercing our armoring and awakening the heart, we can open into a more benign awareness toward ourselves and the human predicament. We can begin to relate to ourselves as we might relate to a defenseless child in distress-nonjudgmentally, with friendliness, tolerance and kindness. Our willingness to breathe into the heart, to stay in that space for just one more breath, shows us our strength, our courage to go on.
By opening into the heart of experiencing, we can come to understand that everything is workable. This is one of the key points of practice. Our efforts to be-in-the-body, and to label and experience, will inevitably "fail" at times. We will have periods of aspiration and effort, followed by dry spots and apathy. Ups and downs in practice are predictable and inevitable. That we seize these ups and downs as opportunities to judge ourselves—as failures or as superstars—is the problem. The countermeasure is always to simply persevere-to attend to one more breath, to label one more thought, to experience one more sensation, to enter just one more time into the heartspace. We can then experience for ourselves that it is ultimately possible to work with everything. It may not be possible today, but it is possible. In fact, it may take years of work in all three aspects of sitting practice for this understanding to become real to us.
Until now I've spoken of these three modes of sitting as if they were distinct from each other. In truth, although each mode does entail a different aspect of practice, they do have one essential thing in common: they all require that we experience this present moment. That's what our practice always comes down to: just being here. By continually allowing the light of awareness to shine on the confusion and anxiety of the present moment, we break the circuitry of our conditioning. This is the slow transformative path to freedom.
(c) 2001 by Ezra Bayda. Ezra Bayda received dharma transmission from Charlotte Joko Beck, and teaches and writes at the Zen Center of San Diego.
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This Life Which is Wonderful and Evanescent
This Life Which is Wonderful and Evanescent
"One of the Buddha's most
significant teachings is impermanence. But actually that is just how
things are—anything, anytime, anywhere. To live in harmony with this truth
brings great happiness."
If you think about it, it's awesomely,
amazingly wonderful just to be alive! It's a wonderful gift, and
especially on a beautiful spring day like today. But it took me several
years of meditation practice and a heart attack before I really got it
that just to be alive is awesome. As I was walking out of the hospital I
thought, "Wow! I could be dead. The rest of my life is just a
gift." And then I thought, "Well, it always has been a gift from
the very beginning and I never noticed it until it was almost gone."
I think it is true of many of us that we don't notice what a gift it is
just to be alive. How could we not notice? Well, we sort of take it for
granted. But this gift is not without its problems. One of these problems
is actually the very thing that made me realize how awesome life is, what
a gift it is and how much I appreciate it. That is the fact that life is
evanescent, impermanent. It is precious because we can't just take it for
granted. When we realize this, we may wonder, "Well, if my life is a
gift, how shall I use it, how shall I give it back, how shall I express my
appreciation for it, or completely live this life which is wonderful and
In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi tells the story of the four
horses. One of the horses starts to run just seeing the shadow of the
whip, before it even touches him. The next one starts to run just having
the whip touch the hair of its skin. The third horse starts to run when it
really feels the pain of the whip on its skin. And the fourth horse
doesn't really get going until it feels the whip in the marrow of its
What is this whip? This whip is just that evanescence of life, just that
teaching of impermanence. One of the Buddha's most significant teachings
is to hold up impermanence for us to see, but actually it is just how
things are—anything, anytime, anywhere. There is a Pali chant which
All things are impermanent
They arise and they pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings great happiness.
If you see how things are, "things
as-it-is" as Suzuki-roshi used to say, you see that they arise and
they pass away. The trick is to live in harmony with the way things
actually are; our suffering comes from wanting things to be different than
I don't know why those of you who came today for the first time came. Why
are you here at a Buddhist center? Why is anyone here? Why I'm here is
that I began to notice that all things are impermanent, including myself.
I came to practice the first time I almost died. The second time I almost
died, I really came to recognize what a joy it is to be alive.
Maybe that's like the fourth horse. I didn't get it until it really got to
the marrow. But maybe it's not so bad to be the fourth horse because when
it gets to the marrow, you've got it through and through. You don't think,
"Well, maybe just some things are impermanent, maybe, but not me.
Maybe I'll live forever, or maybe whatever I love will live for ever, or
maybe impermanence is not really the truth."
So we may try to bargain with impermanence or get into denial about it.
But somehow, if we're lucky, we do come to understand
"things-as-it-is" and that this is actually the life we are
living. Then the question of how we live it becomes really urgent for us.
It's not going to last forever; I just have a limited amount of time to
live in a way that feels satisfying to me, that feels right, that feels in
consonance with the way things are. "To live in harmony with this
truth brings great happiness," the Pali chant says.
When I first came to Zen Center I heard Suzuki-roshi say, "Just to be
alive is enough." That went right past me and it may be going right
past you. I just put it out there so you can take a look at it and decide
what it means to you. But I do think that we become curious about Zen
practice or any kind of religious discipline when we begin to run into
some of the difficulties of life and the question of how to live with
those difficulties becomes a direct issue for us. Or we may notice that
how we are living doesn't feel quite right. Or that the familiar fixed
ideas we have don't seem to hold up on closer examination.
The chant that we do at the beginning of lectures says:
An unsurpassed, penetrating and perfect
Is rarely met with even in a hundred thousand million kalpas.
Having it to see and listen to, to remember and accept,
I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagatha's words.
Notice that it doesn't say that an
unsurpassed, penetrating and perfect dharma is rare. That is just the
truth of things-as-it-is and it is always in front of you every moment of
your life. It is right here, nowhere else.
The chant ends, "I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagatha's
words." This is a vow to taste the truth of how things really are, a
vow to see directly. Taste is a very intimate sense—you get it right on
your tongue, right here in your body. That is what my heart attack did for
me; I got it right up close and personal. And each of us has some
experience in our own life where the way things are is tasted directly,
personally, right here. And that changes our life. We look at our life and
we say, "This life is not in harmony with the way things are. That's
why I'm always uncomfortable. So how do I bring myself into harmony with
the actuality of this life?"
The Zen teacher Kobun Chino once said in a sesshin talk that when you
realize how precious your life is, and that it is completely your
responsibility how you manifest it and how you live it, that is such a big
responsibility that "such a person sits down for a while"! He
continued, "It is not an intended action, it is a natural
Some of you came here today for meditation instruction, for zazen
instruction, for instruction in how to just sit. Now, why do you need
instruction in how to just sit?
There was a wonderful young Danish man who came to Tassajara in the early
days. He arrived at the gate and he said, "I want to come in and be a
Zen monk." The person he was speaking to asked him, "Have you
ever sat?" English was not his native language so he kind of took the
question in and considered it for a bit, looking perplexed. Finally he
drew himself up to his full height and he said, "All men have
So, why would you need to have instruction in just sitting? Well, just
sitting doesn't mean merely sitting. It means completely sitting; not
doing anything else, just sitting. You may have noticed that when you sit
down intending to just sit, there is a lot going on! We don't really
notice how active our mind is until we sit still with the intention of not
deliberately thinking. Even though we are not deliberately thinking, a lot
of thinking is going on! I had no idea how completely, incessantly busily
active my mind was until I sat down with the intention of just being still
and just being quiet and not grasping the thoughts that came along.
So one of the reasons we need instruction in how to just sit is that we
need to know what might support us in letting some of that busyness just
go along, without grabbing on to it. Something like paying attention to
posture and paying attention to breath. Paying attention to what's
happening right here and right now, which is this physical body, whatever
sensations there might be, and breathing.
Most of the stuff that is going on in our mind is not about what is
happening right here and right now. Check it out sometime and see: most of
the stuff that is going on in your mind is either chasing after the past
or chasing after the future. Or worrying about the future and regretting
or chewing over the past incessantly. And figuring out who to blame for
all our difficulties. It takes a long time to realize that there is no one
to blame and to be willing just to be here.
I was invited recently to participate in a spirituality discussion group.
My friend said the group was going to be giving attention to what we do in
situations where there has been some real loss, where things are never
going to be the same again. Someone you know and love has died; you have
had a serious illness or an accident. Something has occurred that feels
like a terrible loss that can't be recovered. How do you work with those
Some of the people there had experienced losses which they could relate to
the question, but the discussion was really about how our lives were going
now and about how to arrive at a sense of ease or a feeling of composure
in our lives. One person said, "Things are going pretty well for me
now, but I just noticed today that even though everything is fine I have
this kind of worried uneasiness, not about anything in particular, and it
seems strange when everything is going fine."
The teaching that there is suffering in the midst of joy was right there
in what he was saying—the worried uneasiness that although everything is
fine now, something might happen and it won't be fine. Have any of you
ever had that kind of experience? It is a very common human experience.
We have all kinds of ways of imagining the future that distract us from
actually living in the present. What just sitting, what zazen is really
about, is living in the present so that we can actually manifest this
precious life in a way that feels right, a way that is consonant with our
inner understanding of the dharma, of the truth. Shortly before he died,
William Butler Yeats said, "If I had to put it in a single phrase, I
would say that one can live the truth but one can really not know the
truth, and I must express the truth with the remainder of my life." I
can live the truth but cannot know it, and I must express it with the
remainder of my life.
Dogen Zenji, the Japanese founder of this particular stream of Zen, said
this about the precept "I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures
(Buddha, Dharma, Sangha)": "To expound the dharma with this body
is foremost. Its virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is
unfathomable. We just accept it with respect and gratitude." It is
unfathomable. We cannot know it. The inconceivable really is
inconceivable! But we still try to find a way to grab onto it.
In his lecture in the San Francisco Zen Center's "Buddhism at the
Millennium's Edge" series, Stephen Batchelor was talking about a
willingness to live in perplexity, a willingness to live in the realm of
not knowing. This is quite difficult. We can expound the dharma with this
body, we can live the truth; we just can't grasp it. We can feel in our
body when we are out of line with it. That is why Kobun Chino says it is
such a big responsibility that naturally a person sits down for a while.
We want to attune ourselves carefully to our body and mind so that we can
notice when we are out of line with our deepest intention. We want to
cultivate that intimate knowing without words and ideas—an intimacy with
ourself—so that we can tell if we are living our life the way we really
want to or whether it is just a little off.
We can do this by just tuning in with ourself, with our fundamental human
nature, which is sometimes in Buddhism called buddhanature. Suzuki-roshi
says a human being practicing true human nature is our zazen. Buddhanature
is not something mysterious or arcane. Buddha just means awake; one who is
awake. We find out how to be awake and to align ourselves with our true
intention, with our true being, with the wisdom and compassion that is
already inherent in each being, including ourself. No one is the one
single exception to the fact that all beings are Buddha. We are not that
Blanche Hartman is the former abbess of the San
Francisco Zen Center.
The Four Highest Emotions
The Four Highest Emotions
"True love exists when the heart is so broadly trained that it can embrace all human beings and all living creatures."
When we think of love, we have ideas that are purely personal and, on the whole, quite fanciful. They are based in general on our desire to be loved, from which we expect fulfillment.
In reality love fulfills only the one who loves. If we understand love as a quality of the heart, just as intelligence is a quality of the mind, then we won't deal with love as people customarily do. As a rule, we divide our hearts into different compartments, for lovable, neutral and unlovable people. With that sort of divided heart, there's no way we can feel good. We can be "whole" only with a heart united in love.
True love exists when the heart is so broadly trained that it can embrace all human beings and all living creatures. This requires a learning process that is sometimes hard, above all when someone turns out to be very unfriendly or unpleasant. But this condition can be reached by everyone, because we all have the capacity for love within us.
Every moment we spend on the training of our hearts is valuable and brings us a step further along the path of purification. The more often we remember that all our heart has to do is love, the easier it will be to distance ourselves from judgments and condemnations. But that doesn't mean we can no longer distinguish between good and evil. Naturally we know what is evil, but hatred of evil needn't forever be stirring in our heart. On the contrary, we have compassion for those who act in a way that does harm.
Most of our problems are concerned with interpersonal relations. To address these, we can direct our view to the teachings on the four highest emotions. These are called in Pali the brahmaviharas; or four divine abodes. They are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
If we had only these four emotions at our disposal, we would have paradise on earth. Unfortunately that's not how it is, and so we rarely experience any paradisiacal feelings. Most of the time we torment ourselves with difficulties in the family, in our circle of friends, and on the job. Our mind constantly tells us about all the things that don't suit it; and it usually fingers the guilty party, the person who's bothering us, who doesn't want things the way we want them. But let's remember: whenever somebody else says or does something, it's a matter of his or her karma alone. Only a negative reaction on our side creates our own karma.
This is what we absolutely have to understand: who is doing the loving—myself or the other? If I myself love, then I have a certain purity of heart. But if the love is dependent on this or that person or situation, then I'm passing judgment and dividing people into those I think lovable and those I don't. We're all looking for an ideal world, but it can exist only in our own heart, and for this we have to develop our heart's capacity so that we learn to love independently. This means that we increasingly purify our heart, free it from negativity, and fill it with more and more love. The more love a heart contains, the more love it can pour out. The one and only thing that holds us back is our thinking, judging mind.
So the only thing that matters is to incline one's own heart to love, because the person who loves is by nature lovable too. Yet if we love only because we want to be endearing, we succumb to the error of expecting results for our efforts. If an action is worth doing, then it doesn't lose this value, whether we get results or not. We don't love as a favor to another or to get something. We love for the sake of love, and so we succeed in filling our hearts with love. And the fuller it gets, the less room there is for negatives.
The Buddha recommended looking upon all people as one's own children. Loving all men and women as if one were their mother is a high ideal. But every little step toward this goal helps us to purify our hearts. The Buddha also explained that it was quite possible that we already were mothers to all the many men and women. If we keep this fact before our eyes, it'll be much easier to get along with people, even those who don't strike us as lovable.
If we observe ourselves very carefully—and that's the point of mindfulness—we will find that we ourselves are not one hundred percent lovable. We will also observe that we find more people unlovable than otherwise. That too can bring no happiness. So we should try to turn this around, and find more and more people lovable. We have to act like every mother: she loves her children even though they sometimes behave very badly. We can make this sort of approach our goal and recognize it as our way of practice.
The Buddha called this kind of love metta, which is not identical to what we call love. "Craving" in Pali is lobha, which sounds rather like the English word for love; and because the entire world revolves around wanting-to-have, we also interpret love this way. But that's not love, because love is the will to give. Wanting to have is absurd, when we think of love and yet degrade it to this level. Although a loving heart without wishes and limits opens up the world in its purity and beauty, we have made little or no use of this inherent capacity.
The far enemy of love is obviously hatred. The near enemy of love is clinging. Clinging means that we're not standing on our own two feet and giving love; we're holding on to someone. It often happens that the person we cling to doesn't find it especially pleasant and would be glad to get rid of this clinger, because he or she can be a burden. And then comes the great surprise that the love affair isn't working—but we clung so devotedly! Clinging is thus called the near enemy, because it looks like real love. The big difference between the two is the possessiveness that marks clinging.
Such possessiveness proves, time and time again, to be the end of love. True, pure love, so famed in song and story, means that we can pass it on and give it away from the heart without evaluation. Here we have to be on the lookout to recognize the negativity within us. We're always searching for its causes outside ourselves, but they're not there. They always lie in our gut and darken our heart. So the point is: Recognize, don't blame, change! We must keep replacing the negative with the positive. When no one is there to whom we can give love, that doesn't in the least mean that no love exists. The love that fills one's own heart is the foundation of self-confidence and security, which helps us not to be afraid of anyone. This fear can be traced back to our not being sure of our own reactions.
If we meet someone who has no good feelings to bring our way, then we already fear a corresponding reaction on our side, and so we prefer to avoid such situations in advance. But if the heart is full of love, then nothing will happen to us, because we know that our reaction will be completely loving. Anxiety becomes unnecessary when we've realized that everyone is the creator of his or her own karma. This feeling of love, which is aimed not at only one person, but forms a basis for our whole interior life, is an important aid in meditation, because only through it is real devotion possible.
The second of the four divine abodes—the highest emotions—is compassion, whose far enemy is cruelty and whose near enemy is pity. Pity can't give others any help. If someone pours out her heart to us and we pity her, then two people are suffering instead of one. If by contrast we give her our compassion, we help her through her trouble.
It's very important to develop compassion for oneself, because it's the precondition for being able to do so for others. If someone doesn't meet us lovingly, it will be easier for us to give this person compassion instead of love. It's easier because now we know that this person who comes to meet us unlovingly is angry or enraged, is most definitely unhappy. If she were happy, she wouldn't be angry or enraged. Knowing about the other's unhappiness makes it easier for us to summon up compassion, especially when we've already done so with respect to our own unhappiness.
Unfortunately we often deal with our own suffering in the wrong way. Instead of acknowledging it and meeting ourselves with compassion, we try to escape our trouble as quickly as possible by developing self-pity or getting distracted or making someone else responsible for it.
Here compassion is the only possibility for meeting our difficulties. We experience exactly what the Buddha teaches: in this world suffering exists. That's the first Noble Truth. Then we can try to acknowledge what we really want to have or get rid of, and thus make suffering our teacher. There is no better one, and the more we listen to it and find a way into what it's trying to make us understand, the easier the spiritual path will prove. This path aims to change us so emphatically that in the end we may not even recognize ourselves.
Suffering is a part of our existence, and only when we accept that and stop running away from it, when we've learned that suffering belongs to life, can we let go—and then the suffering stops. With this knowledge it's much easier to develop compassion for others, for suffering strikes everyone, without exception. Even the so-called badness of others can't bother us, because it only arises out of ignorance and suffering. All the evil in this world is based on these two things.
The third of the four highest emotions is sympathetic joy, whose far enemy is envy, consisting of greed and hatred. The near enemy is hypocrisy, pretending to oneself and others, which we believe is sometimes necessary. We think: these are just little white lies that can readily be forgiven.
Sympathetic joy is rightly understood when we see that there's no difference between people, that we're all a part of whatever is momentarily existing in the world. So if one of these parts experiences joy, then its joy has come into the world and we all have reason to share in it. The universal will replace the individual when we have experienced and tasted it in meditation. Our problems won't let up as long as we try to support and secure the "me." Only when we begin to put the universal over the individual and to see our purification as more important than the wish to have and get, will we find peace in our hearts.
The Buddha called the fourth and last of these emotions the greatest jewel of all: equanimity. It's the seventh factor of enlightenment, and its far enemy is excitement. The near enemy is indifference, which is based on intentional unconcern. By nature we take an interest in everything. We would like to see, hear, taste and experience everything. But since we have often been disappointed by our incapacity to love, we build an armor of indifference around us, to protect us from further disappointment.
But that only protects us from loving and opening ourselves to the world of love and compassion. What clearly distinguishes equanimity from indifference is love, for in equanimity love is brought to a higher development, while in indifference love is not felt at all or cannot be shown. Equanimity means that we already have enough insight so that nothing seems worth getting worked up over anymore.
How did we reach this understanding? We've learned that everything—above all ourselves—comes into being and then passes away. When we get too excited, instead of recognizing the fullness of life, we don't yet have a loving heart. Only a loving heart can realize the fullness of existence. The understanding we get through meditation clearly shows us that the end of this life is constantly before us. Teresa of Avila said: "Not so much thinking—more loving!" Where does thinking get us? To be sure, it landed us on the moon. But if we have developed love in our hearts, we can accept men and women with all their problems and peculiarities. Then we'll have built up a world where happiness, harmony, and peace are in control. This world can't be thought up; it must be felt. Only meditation can present us with this ideal world, in which it is absolutely necessary to give up thinking. This heals us and gives us the capacity to turn more to our heart.
Since equanimity is a factor of enlightenment, it is based on understanding, above all on the realization that everything that takes place also passes away again. So what do I lose? The worst that can happen is the loss of my life. But I'll lose that in any event—so what's all the excitement about? In general, the people who cause problems for us don't exactly want to kill us. They just want to confirm their ego. But that's not our business; it's wholly and entirely theirs. So long as we meditate and win new insights, it will always be simpler to recognize that all desire for self-affirmation, all aggression, all claims for power, all wanting to have and be are intertwined with conflict. So we have to keep trying to let go of willing and wishing, in order to return to equanimity. You can't meditate at all without equanimity. If we are excited or absolutely want to get or get rid of something, we can't come to rest. Equanimity makes both everyday life and meditation easier.
That doesn't mean that conscience should simply be set aside. We need only understand that this judge in our own heart creates nothing but conflict. If we really want to have peace, then we have to strive to develop love and compassion in our heart. Everyone can achieve this, because ultimately the heart is there to love, as the mind is there to think. If we renounce thinking in meditation, then we sense a feeling of purity. We develop purity on the spiritual path. If only one person develops it in himself or herself, the whole world will be the better for it. And the more people purify their hearts, the greater the gain for everyone. We can do this work every day from morning to night, because we are constantly confronted with ourselves—with all our reactions and with the mulishness that keeps us busy, because it has such a solid hold on our inner life. The more observant we are, the easier we'll find it to let go, until the stubbornness has disappeared, and we've become peaceful and happy.
This work compensates us with great profit and with a security that can be found nowhere else. At bottom we all know about the factors that make up the spiritual life, but acting in accordance with them is very hard. Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are the four highest emotions, the only ones worth having. They bring us to a level on which life gains breadth, greatness, and beauty and on which we stop trying to make it run the way we want it to—on which we even learn to love something that we may not have wanted at all.
The Buddha spoke about a love that knows no distinctions. It's simply the quality of the heart. If we have it, we'll find a completely new path in life.
Ayya Khema, born Ilse Ledermann in Berlin in 1923, was a pioneering Buddhist nun in the Theravada tradition from her ordination in 1979 to her death in 1997. The author of more than two dozen books, she established Buddhist centers in Australia, Sri Lanka and Germany, and was instrumental in the creation of Sakyadhita, a worldwide Buddhist women's organization.
From Visible Here and Now: The Buddha's Teachings on the Rewards of Spiritual Practice, by Ayya Khema. Published by Shambhala Publications. Translated by Peter Heinegg; edited by Leigh Brasington.
Appreciate Your Life
Appreciate Your Life
The pitfall is always within yourself. This very body and mind is the Way. You are complete to begin with. There is no gap, but you think there is.
How do you answer when someone asks you, "Why do you practice?"
In the Genjo Koan, Dogen Zenji says:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self
To study the self is to forget the self
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas.
To be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas is to free one's body and mind and those of others.
The word narau, or "study," is more like "to repeat something over and over and over." We could also say "to learn," but not necessarily to learn something new. Perhaps an even better word would be practice. To practice the Buddha Way is to practice oneself, or just live life. This seemingly repetitive process is nothing but one's own life.
Our practice is much more than acquiring some kind of knowledge; instead, the implication of practice is doing over and over and over and over. In a way that is what we do in zazen. Of course, our zazen is not just learning something over and over; rather, as Dogen Zenji says, it is realization itself. In other words, do not separate practice and realization. We do not practice for the sake of realization; realization is already here. Each of us has some realization, one person more, one person less. When you do zazen meditation day after day, time after time, moment after moment, you are manifesting yourself as that realization. Repeat what you know by merging your life into what you know, or what you have studied, and do this over and over and over again.
Dogen Zenji says, "To study the Buddha Way is to study oneself." How do we study ourselves? How do we practice ourselves? I say "we," but it is always singular. My life! Your life! The Buddha dharma, the One Body, is completely my life, completely your life. Shakyamuni Buddha himself found this out. That is why he said: "How wonderful! I and everyone in the universe is enlightened." Not just I, but everyone. That is what I means; I means everyone. But knowing this is not enough. That is why the words learn or study are not quite sufficient. They do not convey this sense of over and over and over. In other words, minute after minute, how do we live our life as the One Body, or the One Body as our life? No more, no less.
Dogen Zenji said, "To study the self is to forget the self." When the Buddha dharma and my life are separate, when I do not see that my life is the One Body, that is a delusion. When I see that they are together, that is the so-called enlightened life, or the genjo koan. Genjo Koan is the name of one of the writings of Dogen Zenji. We translate it as Manifesting Absolute Reality. In other words, absolute reality manifests as one's own life.
How do we work with this koan? By realizing and living our life as the Buddha dharma, as the enlightened life. By not talking about enlightenment as if it is something outside our own life. Even talking about delusion or enlightenment is already a kind of delusion. The same can be said for studying koans or for doing shikantaza [resting in a state of pure attention, without a supporting technique such as following or counting the breath]. When we set anything up as the object, as something outside ourselves, right there we are conditioned by it. It does not matter how fine the object is, the result is the same. It is a deluded view, a kind of ego trip because in one way or another the ego is involved. It is very easy to be trapped there.
How can you forget the self? Dogen Zenji says, "To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas." To be enlightened, to be confirmed, or to be verified by the ten thousand dharmas simply means to be verified by anything and everything, or more straightforwardly, by all of life itself. Life is verified by itself. It has to be! When we forget the self all we are is the ten thousand dharmas, all we are is life itself. This is how we must live, over and over again.
"To be enlightened by ten thousand dharmas is to free one's body and mind and those of others." In other words, there is no division between oneself and others. The Buddha realized this when he saw the morning star. Seeing into his own nature, he saw the universality of his life, the freedom of his life. Life is absolutely free from the beginning. It is not at all restricted. The Buddha found this out, and we should appreciate our life in this way. When you are truly unconditionally open, you are forgetting the self at that moment. If you are hanging on to something, you have the self and you are not completely open. When we truly forget the self, there is no division between inside and outside, no division between yourself and externals. In such a way, we can appreciate life in its fullness.
I think openness is a wonderful characteristic of the American temperament. How can we be unconditionally open? What kind of openness are we talking about? Thorough openness itself is the best wisdom. When you are open, you are able to be one with another person. It does not matter if the person is a close friend or a stranger.
Some of you ask, "How do I apply this to the workday world? I have stress-filled workdays. How can I forget the self in the midst of trying to meet deadlines?" Simply put yourself completely into your work and just do whatever needs to be done. Deadline after deadline? There is no deadline! Each moment is a beginning as well as an end, not a goal or a deadline set up by someone else.
So when you practice shikantaza, just sit. This is the condition of openness. Then being totally open, you are nothing other than all space and time. Dogen Zenji says, "On this body, put the Buddha seal." The Buddha seal is this openness, where there is no conditioning, no division between yourself and the object, no division between yourself and your life. When you close this gap, Dogen Zenji says, you become "the Buddha seal itself; the whole space becomes subtly itself." If we are open this much, is there anything else that we need?
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. When you practice with a koan, take the koan as your life. Koans are not something to study or evaluate apart from yourself. Make your life itself genjo koan, the realization of koan. This is what your life already is. Such a life is totally open and full, and one is not conscious of oneself.
So imprint the Buddha seal, not the human seal, upon your body and mind and penetrate this openness. Just do this over and over and over.
We have a practice known as the paramitas. "Paramita" means "to have reached the other shore." Dogen Zenji says, "The other shore is already reached." In other words, the meaning of reaching the other shore is to realize that this shore is the other shore. This life is the unsurpassable, realized life. There is no gap.
So if there is purpose to our practice, it is to realize that this shore and the other shore are the same. The purpose is to close the gap, to realize that there is just one shore, there is just one life. To reach is extra. Until you realize that this shore where you stand, this life that you are living, and the other shore, the life of the buddhas, are the same shore, you cannot appreciate your life to the fullest.
In that sense we can say that the purpose of practice is no purpose. If we have a purpose, then we have problems. We set up all kinds of goals and we reach for them. But the amazing thing is that the goal is right here! We are on the starting line and at the same time we are already on the goal line. In other words, our life is already the buddhas' life; we are already living the buddhas' life. Regardless of whether we realize it or not, regardless of whether we are new or old-time practitioners, we are intrinsically the buddhas. Yet until we see this, somehow we simply cannot accept that fact.
We get stuck when we try to figure this out intellectually. From the intellectual point of view, the start and the goal must be different. This shore and the other shore cannot be the same. Then what to do? There are as many different paths to realization as there are people. But we can say there are two basic ways. One way is to push ourselves to realize that our life is the buddhas' life. Another way is to simply let our life be the buddhas' life and just live it. In a way, this is the difference between koan practice and shikantaza. But whichever practice you do, the point is the same. Do not create a gap between your life and the buddhas' life.
How can we close the gap? How can we realize the other shore is here, right now? In other words, how can you become one with breathing, with koan, with zazen, with work, or with whatever you do? Do not play with intellectual comprehension. This is the biggest source of trouble. Unfortunately, we are usually not even aware that we are being intellectual. Simply by being in our heads, we become self-centered. We make others and self separate. As long as ideas are involved, regardless of how fine our ideas are, this gap is there.
So how are you practicing? When you count your breaths, just count breath after breath. Soon you will forget about counting and become the number. When you do shikantaza, just sit. When you do zazen, become zazen yourself. When you work on koan, become the koan yourself. Otherwise, regardless of how much you practice, you will not be satisfied.
The pitfall is always within yourself. Everything is already here with you! This very body and mind is the Way. You are complete to begin with. There is no gap, but you think there is.
Master Joshu asked Nansen, "What is the Way?" Nansen answered, "Ordinary mind is the Way." If you think ordinary mind is the Way, right there you miss. If you think that our ordinary mind, which is nothing but the monkey mind, cannot be the Way, you also miss. The point is your ordinary mind and the Way cannot be separate. Saying ordinary mind is the Way is not enough, for the word is points to separation. So how can you eliminate this separation? How can you realize that there is no separation to begin with?
The most important point is to forget yourself. What we do most of the time is exactly the opposite. We reinforce the self. Always, I am doing something. This is the problem; we create this separation. When you truly forget yourself a very different scenery is revealed in front of your nose. The other shore is where you stand. The buddhas' life is your life. So please, however you have been practicing, really focus on forgetting yourself.
How to close the gap between Yourself and yourself? Please take this seriously as your fundamental koan. Sit comfortably and concentrate well. There are all kinds of things that disturb our practice. We call these disturbances makyo. Ma means "devil" and kyo is "object." So makyo is an object of the devil. Not having enough money could be makyo; having too many things could be makyo. If you are diligent, your effort could be makyo; not expending your energy in the right direction could also be makyo. When you are disturbed, your mind becomes scattered and you cannot concentrate well. Many people become sick simply because they do not know what to do with themselves.
How do we make our lives more orderly? When you stabilize your life you will concentrate better, and when you eliminate all separation you will realize the Buddha's wisdom. Upon his realization, Shakyamuni Buddha declared, "I and all beings simultaneously attained the Way." This is true order, the order of no-order. All dharma comes out of this no-order. Simultaneously attaining the Way is the true order of our life. Our life is being realized right now; not just our life, everyone's life. Buddha wants us to realize this! When we realize this no-order, then so-called disturbing situations are no longer disturbing; they can then be taken as occasions to encourage our practice, not disturb it.
Someone asked me, "How can I really be responsible for my life?" I asked her, "Do you know who you are?" Not knowing, how can you be responsible for your life? The problem is that what our life actually is and our so-called intellectual understanding of what it is are often two different things. Most of the time we are deceiving ourselves, whether we know it or not. Please be careful about this. Shakyamuni Buddha himself said, "Be a torch for your life." In other words, depend on yourself and be responsible for yourself but not as what you think you are but rather you as the dharma. This is very important. You cannot depend on your complaints, on your greed, anger, and ignorance.
So close the gap between Yourself and yourself. Carry this wisdom into your daily life and let your life continue in this way. When you close the gap, that is the best way to take care of your family, of your community, of your life. Then your life becomes delightful, not only for yourself but for the people around you as well.
You do not need to lock yourself in a closet to think about this. With beginner's mind, the mind that sees no separation, you can take care of this gap. This awareness can take place at any moment, under any circumstances. We should also appreciate that our practice is not just for this lifetime only. Shakyamuni Buddha talks about his past lives in the mahayana sutras. He is not the only one who has had past lives; all of us have had past lives. The more I realize that this practice is not just for this lifetime, the more I appreciate the opportunity to practice together with all of you.
I want you to appreciate your own life, too. Every moment, right now, is nothing other than us, our practice, our life, our realization, our manifestation! Refresh it each moment! Having such a practice not only benefits you and gives you joy, it also inspires others. And vice versa, too. When you live this way, your life will become very different and you will not complain about things. You will become more tolerant and generous. if anything does not go well, you will see this I as the responsible person. You will see the other shore as your life this very moment. So regardless of the situation, when you close the gap you can take any situation as the Buddha's life and manage it well.
Taizan Maezumi Roshi was a pivotal figure in the transmission of Zen Buddhism to the West. Ordained as a Zen monk at age 11, he moved to the United States from Japan in 1956. Maezumi Roshi was founder and abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and founded five other Soto Zen temples in the United States and Europe. He transmitted the dharma to twelve successors and established the White Plum Asanga to carry on his lineage.
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In Praise of Derision
In Praise of Derision
Every now and then a person just needs a good screed, a healthy diatribe, a dose of invective, a solid shot of vinegar to cut the treacle. In the random-acts-of-kindness age, the appeal of the satirical, sarcastic slice may be less than fully appreciated, but the New Age will not get on without it. No age has. No age will.
Just as a person lives on a diet of food, so does a society live on a diet of words. And in both cases some balance is best. Imagine surviving on an unending diet of sweet or bland, with no sour or bitter for bite, no pungent chilies to bring on a sweat, indeed nothing at all to break the unending flow of sweetness down the gullet.
Being nice in the conventional way, randomly slathering doses of kindness on everything and everybody in sight, may not in fact be the most genuinely kind, the most genuinely honest way to engage. It's hitting the same note over and over again, playing what will make people superficially happy, and quite often burying the bitter and the sour in some deep, dark place, only to unleash it inappropriately in a torrent of artless, useless and ill-directed rage.
In speaking and writing, as in cooking, the use of the bitter and the sour requires the greatest of care. This is most aptly illustrated in good satire, where the keen edge of invective is married with wit. But to unleash negativity badly, ham-handedly, is the lowest of arts. The poison pen, the ad hominem attack, and the newest genre, the flame, are all bile, no art and no grace. The bitter and the sour are so easily indulged in, so readily played for effect, it's no wonder we bury them under do-goody bumper-stickers like What would Buddha do?, What would Jesus do?, or Chicken Soup for Whatever. But what we may lose in the bargain is the truth.
Penetrating critique delivered in the form of satire has a venerable lineage. In the sixteenth century, the sometime monk Francois Rabelais exposes aristocratic and clerical life in the early Renaissance, taking the epic form so admired at the time and turning it into sketch comedy. Outrages such as describing a friar as "a crack dispenser of prayers and masses, an expert at polishing off vigils-in short a true monk if ever there was one since this monking world of ours first monked a monkery," earned him the condemnation of the church and banishment from the Sorbonne, but he is the father of the genre that gave us Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" and "Life of Brian."
Several centuries later, Jonathan Swift drew inspiration from Rabelais in creating his master work Gulliver's Travels. His disdain for the arrogance, self-importance and belligerence of men of virtue left us with the term Lilliputian, for high-minded people with essentially trivial, self-serving aims. His equal disgust for low-brows left us with the term Yahoo (although his trademark on the word has apparently expired).
In Swift and Rabelais, the jabs lie beneath the surface. With George Bernard Shaw, the greatest barbed tongue of all time, the rapier is unsheathed. Among his many plays, one of the most iconoclastic is Don Juan in Hell (contained within the longer play Man and Superman).
At the play's climax, Shaw declaims in the voice of Don Juan how all the world's turned topsy turvy, and those who appear to be the best are in fact the worst: "They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated: they are only college grads. They are not religious: they are only pewrenters. They are not moral: they are only conventional....They are not artistic: they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal, they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not public-spirited, only patriotic; not courageous, only quarrelsome; not determined, only obstinate; not masterful, only domineering; not self-controlled, only obtuse; not self-respecting, only vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated; not progressive, only factious; not imaginative, only superstitious; not just, only vindictive; not generous, only aiming to please; not disciplined, only cowed; and not truthful at all: liars every one of them, to the very backbone of their souls."
When the audience hears this diatribe, inevitably they laugh-because they see themselves. And that's the point of all this mockery. Our best intentions to better ourselves and the world-through politics or religion or activism-easily descend into self-interest and self-absorption, and a sharp thwack and a good laugh can bring a delightful comeuppance and relief from the great burden of being holier than thou.
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.
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