In our zazen practice, we bring our attention back to breath and body over and over again, not with a goal to get good at it, but simply to be present with whatever is going on. In the same way, we come back to the cushion to practice over and over again, every day, every week, year after year, not with the expectation of finally figuring out how to meditate properly, or resolving anything, but simply because we find it helpful, somehow, to bring this quality of attentiveness to our lives every day. Some days we may be settled and peaceful, others we may be agitated or distracted, but it doesn’t matter because we are committed to being in our lives, as they are, every day.
As anyone who has played a musical instrument, or played a sport knows, this spirit of diligent repetition is at the heart of any kind of practice. Many of us have had some experience of this when we were younger, maybe in high school, if we played sports or danced or were in theater or played a musical instrument. I think one of the most valuable experiences a young person can have is this feeling of practice – putting in your best, wholehearted effort every day. Some days are good, some are bad, but we develop the commitment to just continue, more or less, no matter what. Unfortunately, when we leave school and get involved with our own families and careers, we often set aside this feeling of practice that we had when we were young.
You may have noticed, when you yourself were young or from watching your kids, that when we approach anything with only the wish to be good at it without taking a real joy in the daily practice of it, we tend not to stick with it. Maybe when we were young we wanted to speak a foreign language fluently. Wouldn’t it be great to go to college in Paris and talk about existentialism and Camus in French over red wine and cigarettes! Maybe we could even get a French boyfriend or girlfriend! But then you go to French 101 and it’s so boring! All that repetition and those long vocabulary lists! If I have to go through all of that, then maybe I won’t go to school in Paris after all. So we just drop it. Maybe this sounds familiar.
But if you were lucky, sometime in your past you found something you just really loved and you were not worried so much about reaching some distant goal because you really loved the daily practice of it. You did it for its own sake, not to get somewhere with it. Maybe when you were in high school, you got up every morning to go to swimming practice, or every afternoon you were out on the practice field for marching band, or you were running, rain or shine, with your cross-country team, or you were in rehearsal with your theater group. Maybe you had competitions or contests that you would practice for, but underneath it all, at least in hindsight, these goals weren’t really the main thing, and you just really enjoyed making the daily effort with your friends. A really inspiring and well-developed example of this spirit in the arts is the former New York City ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, who was a protege of the great George Balanchine. In a wonderful profile in The New Yorker, Farrell said that when she was onstage, she never looked at the audience. “I dance for God,” she said. If others wanted to watch, that was their business.
I’m telling you all of this to remind you that the spirit of practice is already very familiar to us, but many of us lose track of it as we get older. So how does this spirit translate into our Soto Zen practice? There’s a wonderful vignette from the Mumonkan that points to this. The Mumonkan is one of the classical compilations of Zen stories from the golden age of Chinese Zen compiled in the 13th century. Most of these stories involve an encounter between two people, but this one, case 16, there’s just the teacher asking us a question:
Unmon said, “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”
That’s the whole case right there. If you have been to a larger Zen temple, you probably know that after morning zazen, and before service, the bell sounds and we all recite the Robe Chant and then put on our robes – the priest’s okesa is the seven piece robe Unmon is talking about here. Unmon is asking, why, when there are so many things going on in the world, do this practice? Why put on the robe when the bell sounds?
There is no answer to this, really. Why, when you were in high school, did you get up early to go to swim practice? Why did you practice the piano? Why did Suzanne Farrell dance? We did these things just because we loved them, because that’s just what we did. We are people who put on our robes when the bell sounds. We are people who go to soccer practice every afternoon. We are dancers who simply go to the barre every day to practice.
I think there’s a kind of emotional sickness that we get when everything we do, all of our efforts, are driven by some pressing immediate need or requirement, and unfortunately, this is the modern, middle-class condition. When we don’t have something that we do just because we love it, it makes us a little bit coo-coo. I’m not talking about just relaxing or hanging out, although there’s certainly a place for that, even in monasteries. I’m talking about something that requires real effort, but that we do for the love of the effort itself. I think that there’s something uplifting about making the pure, sustained, substantial effort of practicing in the sense I am describing here. This is certainly what I would wish for any young person to experience, and it’s a spirit that is really essential for all of us to cultivate, because when we make this sort of pure effort, it really does lift up everyone around us. So who knew that high school marching band was a vehicle for enlightenment?
I want to conclude with one of my favorite passages from Dogen Zenji’s Genjo Koan, and as I read it, let’s think about ‘practice’ in the sense that I’ve been talking about:
When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find you way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it–doing one practice is practicing completely.