Once again we reach back into the archives of this publication, back when it was called the Oregon Zen Priory Newsletter, this time to August 1985. The following articles both appeared in that issue. Some of the terminology has been updated a little bit, but you still get a feel for what members were thinking about back then. Gyokuko's article was written when she and Kyogen were living in Eugene, running the center there, and Gyokuko was working part time to help make ends meet. Hence the reference to bike paths and riding to work. ed
It is said in Buddhism that to find the Truth you must give up everything. The "ideal" seekers of Truth are the "left home ones," the wandering homeless monks, begging for alms. As a symbol, this ideal can be of use to anyone on the path, not just monks This is because when you do your meditation, you can take nothing with you; not possessions, family, or friends; not ideas, hopes or dreams. When sitting you let go of everything, letting thoughts, emotions, and all ties, drop away. The zafu, the meditation cushion, is the seat of nonattachment, the place of homelessness.
This nonattachment is essential to all-acceptance, and in it we discover selflessness. Through selflessness we can find peace of mind, learn to give of ourselves freely, and open ourselves to unconditioned, non-possessive love that can be a wonderful basis for marriage and successful parenting. The following is an article by a Center member who discovered that nonattachment does not, indeed cannot, exclude tenderness and loving care for those who are close to us. Each of us, whether monk or layman, should remember that "ideal" forms, whether in meditation posture or life style, are clues to the inner life. When we become attached to them, however, they can lead to suffering instead of its end.
During the past year, I have come face-to-face with one of my own misconceptions. I want to discuss it here so that others in similar circumstances may avoid the mistakes I made. One of the insights many of us gain from meditation is the awareness that we have done many, maybe even most, things in our lives because they were expected of us. We may have chosen our jobs, gotten married, bought a house, and made any number of other decisions, from this motive. Actually, these actions may never have been expected of us, really, but we perceived that they were, which led to the same result.
After practicing meditation for some time, we may begin to notice a resistance within ourselves to doing things that go against what we intuitively feel to be right. We are learning to follow our own hearts. At this stage, the Precepts can be extremely useful, for they are not an external straight-jacket, but a way of helping us rediscover our own inner sense of direction about what is "right" in a given situation. In time, then, with continuing meditation and practice, we gradually withdraw, to a lesser or greater degree, from letting "the world" set our priorities, and we gain a greater sense of doing what is right for ourselves. Yet we must be careful at this point to be sure that we have not replaced one set of external guidelines, those perceived as worldly ones, by another so-called "holy" set of guidelines, that still leave us directed by what we think is expected of us.
What do I mean by this? Take, for example, the choice to eat or not eat meat. This decision can be made naturally, from an inner sense of what is right for the person involved, in his or her own situation. When done this way, a person will tend to accept quietly the choices of others, and not condemn, by words or actions, those who do eat meat. But when the decision is made from a sense of what is acceptable amongst one's new peers, for example, other Buddhists, then we open ourselves to judgmentalism about those who have made a different choice. When we go at this way, it is easy to subtly, or even overtly, express condemnation of the choice someone else has made, without any understanding of that person's circumstances.
Last summer I became aware of a similar mistake in my own training. I had the chance, after twelve years of marriage, to return with my wife and family to the scene of our meeting and courtship. I reexperienced many forgotten sentiments, and touched again all the reasons that we were initially attracted to each other. All at once it felt right for me to allow that fondness to grow, and to live my daily life with it in mind. At first I felt that this new awareness, which was very important to me, meant tempering the "sharp edge" of my Buddhist training, and I went through several months of confusion regarding my practice. For years I had felt, on some level, that my wife and family were unimportant, an impediment to my training that I had inherited karmically from past actions. This attitude came partly from my own particular koan, and partly from how I perceived Buddhist teaching. I came to believe, from my contacts with the monastic form of training, that it was not "Buddhist" to cherish one's family. Training became for me some ideal, rather cold, meditative practice. I had adopted, without considering whether it was right in my circumstances, an attitude that I perceived to be correct for a sincere Buddhist trainee.
I have since come to realize that I had been living and training with an artificial attitude. I now feel that this attitude was in error, and I regret deeply the pain to my family this created. My only consolation is a deep sense of gratitude that I have learned this lesson while there is still time to act upon it.
I do not wish to convey that what I have discovered for myself is necessarily right for others. What I wish to say is this: I cannot let external things, not even the decisions made by other Buddhists, supersede my own will in determining my life. It is, after all, my own responsibility. It is between each of us and our own deeper nature to determine what our own best course may be. I have learned that if I listen to my heart - that intuitive sense of what is right - and check my decisions against the guidelines of the Precepts, there is less chance of following some detour because of a misconception concerning someone else's training. Of course, others on the path can help me a great deal in learning to listen to my own deeper wisdom, but I must listen to their words while grounded in non-attachment. Otherwise I may hear only my own opinion of what they are saying.
I also think that a way of viewing training that is right today may not necessarily be right tomorrow, or next week, or next year. I don't think it's necessary, or even wise, to try to make final determinations on such matters for all time. Instead, I'll just remain open in meditation, listen to my own deeper heart, and remain willing to change my mind, if that is called for in new circumstances. While guarding against the pull of selfish desire, when I hear or read teaching given for the monastic community, I'll try to apply what I can to my own life, but not at the price of causing deep suffering to others.
Bicycling to work on a Saturday can be a hazardous business. There aren't as many cars on the roads as on a weekday, but the bike lanes are very busy, and it often seems to happen that I startle at least one someone out of a daydream as I pass. Perhaps I wouldn't notice someone else's dreaminess if I were equally relaxed and aimless in my riding. But because my purpose is clear, i.e. to get to work on time and in one piece, my mind is clear and alert to changing conditions on the road. As long as I am able to maintain that mindfulness, I am able to accept and sometimes foresee the changing conditions. To the extent that I am able to adjust to those changing conditions, I can keep them from becoming obstacles.
Our purposes in life and training are not always so clear as just getting to work on time, and the obstacles to the deeper levels of meditation are not as quickly identified as careening cyclists. But the basic principle remains the same: the more clearly you are aware of your purpose in training the more clearly you can recognize the obstacles and the potential obstacles. Conversely, the more you fine-tune your powers of concentration, alertness, mindfulness, and acceptance, the more deeply you will understand your purpose in training and, ultimately, your purpose in life.
I talk about depth of understanding, clarity of perception, and even levels of purpose because, as changes occur in practice, awareness of the purpose of practice changes. As training grows in breadth and vigor, so our sense of purpose grows. And as meditation and training clarify our perception of Preceptual Truth, we can begin to see that there is a purpose in life itself.
Acceptance of our own humanity is important to being able to accept our purpose at any given point on the path. I think that if we are honest with ourselves, we see that our purpose in sitting down to meditate each morning is rarely the heroic stuff they write into novels. In fact, most of us start with very simple motives of unadorned self-interest. There is, however, nothing to be ashamed of in that. As a priest, I am delighted when someone starting out at the Center admits that they are trying meditation because they are haunted by depression, or afraid of dying, or afraid of a relapse into alcohol. I am delighted, not because they are suffering any more or less than anyone else, but because these purposes are so simple and clear that the entry to meditation will be very swift. Further, that entry into meditation brings them that much closer to the cure for those fears.
When I began practicing, and for quite a while thereafter, I could not have stated my purpose clearly. I started from the point that so many of us do; I was experimenting with meditation as I had with B-vitamins and a sugar-free diet, simply to see if I would feel better. I had no clear idea of what my problem was nor any detailed expectations about how the meditation could help me. Although I did have a fearful sense of the magnitude of my problem, I had memories of having been less troubled, and although I was ill at ease with myself, I had some hope that meditation could help to ease the discomfort. That hope was enough to get me started, but it was not enough to keep me going when obstacles began to arise. It was two years after that vague beginning that I put some determination and discipline into my meditation practice. Those two years were not entirely wasted, however. I must give credit to the hit or miss meditation practice that I had begun as one of the changes I made that helped me see my crudely constructed hurdles of guilt and self-disdain. This small glimmering of understanding was enough to nurture the hope and faith that there was some help for me in meditation. That faith in the power of meditation and some slowly growing clarity opened my mind to the truth of the Precepts. At that point, Buddhist training became my direction in life, and I first became aware of a purpose that I could express in words. When I think of that time, it seems as if my spine turned from soft cartilage to firm bone. Not long after that, incidentally, I actually started to stand up straight. When it comes to training, the two principles I mentioned above are not opposites, but complements, like a left and right foot in walking. By taking a step in making the mind more still in meditation, we make it possible to take another step in seeing the deeper purpose of training and our karmic obstacles to that purpose. On the active side, the more we deal with those obstacles, which are the results of our own past actions, and learn to live with joy in the Precepts, the clearer the meditation can become.
As in walking, this progression is so natural that in most cases it is not necessary or even helpful to concentrate on each alternating step. Until you stub a toe. Daydreamy training is as dangerous in its own way as daydreamy cycling. The dangers in training are the hazards of our own unconverted karma. Without the clarity of a focused mind we often miss the subtle signs of approaching karma and may not wake up until we are embroiled in old, destructive, patterns of behavior.
At the time that I first heard the Precepts and recognized their validity in my own life, without realizing it I allowed my purpose to deepen several degrees. Going from wanting only to feel better to wanting to live a good life, my new purpose was the precept "Cease from evil." Although I made many mistakes in the Precepts while trying valiantly to keep them all immaculately, the energy and concentration I put into the effort showed results very soon in the deepening of my meditation. This deeper level of meditation was pleasant and startlingly different from what I had experienced before, and so was exciting. But the excitement soon waned as this deeper meditation brought more unconverted karma, more clearly into awareness. I got a better look at my own mental bad habits and their consequences. Lethargy, I discovered, was just an expression of the self-disdain that did not want to be named or examined. Over a period of months, even years, it became obvious that the self-disdain, the apathy, and even a chronic problem of appetite could be traced to anger. Plain, simple, everyday anger, buried deeply beneath the other problems. But, lying deeply hidden, it too would not be named or examined. Therefore it would arise as an obstacle to meditation, and got in the way of the Precepts, until I made meditation and the Precepts themselves my own deepest purpose in life. In the light of that purpose these habits of self-defense and self-deception lost their importance. In the light of the Precepts, these habits could be understood as self-defeating, accepted compassionately, and gently allowed to pass away when they would arise.
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Stillness, activity, stillness. Bringing the clarity and all acceptance of meditation into daily life and into training within the Precepts is the process of seeing, accepting, and transcending karma. To deal with past karma is to open more of the body and mind to the work of meditation. To deepen awareness in meditation is, in itself, to leave past karma where it belongs and to be in harmony with That Which Is. This is my purpose in training. This is my purpose in life. When I keep this clearly in mind, "obstacles" are just part of the process of walking. Whatever your purpose for undertaking meditation practice may be, it is good to have it clearly in mind. For then the meditation practice can do its work, and your purpose will deepen as it comes into harmony with daily life.