Taking the Path of Zen
By Robert Aitken
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1982 Diamond Sangha
All rights reserved.
I beg to urge you, everyone:
life-and-death is a grave matter,
all things pass quickly away;
each of us must be completely alert:
never neglectful, never indulgent.
This is the evening message of sesshin (the Zen retreat), called out by a senior member of the assembly just before lights-out. It expresses three concerns of the Zen student: first, being alive is an important responsibility; second, we have little time to fulfill that responsibility; and third, rigorous practice is necessary for fulfillment.
Our model is Shakyamuni Buddha. Known as the founder of Buddhism, he lived in India more than 2,500 years ago — but religion is fundamentally not a matter of history. I recall a course in Buddhism given by Dr. D.T. Suzuki at the University of Hawaii a long time ago. He began the course by telling the story of Shakyamuni. He did not tell it as history or biography, but as the story of Everyone — the story of you and me.
The Buddha was born a prince and it was predicted that he would become either a great religious leader or a great emperor. His father, the king, preferred to see his boy become a great emperor, so he had him trained in the arts of the warrior and the statesman. He also provided the comforts and entertainment appropriate to the station of a young prince — fine food and clothing, and the rest of it.
This is your story and mine. When we are young, we are all little princes and princesses. We are each of us the center of the universe. In fact, our mouths are the center, and everything enters therein. We are guided by our parents toward a sense of responsibility, but despite the program set up about us, we emerge, each in our own way, as individual inquirers.
The Buddha's program of power and ease palled for him before he was thirty. It is said that despite his father's efforts to protect him from the realities of suffering, he was witness to sickness, old age, and death. Once, he glimpsed the figure of a monk in the palace compound and asked about him. Pondering deeply, he questioned his purpose in the world. Finally he left his little family in care of his father to seek his spiritual fortune in the forest.
You can imagine the difficulty of this decision. Everything that anyone might hold dear, a beautiful spouse, a baby child, a career as a beneficent ruler — all given up in a search that could well lead nowhere. His decision was rooted in profound concern for all beings. Why should there be suffering in the world? Why should there be the weakness of old age? Why should there be death? And what in the life of a monk might resolve such doubts? These questions plagued the young Gautama. He recognized that unless he resolved his doubts, his leadership could not truly bring fulfillment to others.
Our childish pursuit of gratification palls and we too sense that something we do not understand lies within all our hectic coming and going. Our selfish ways become unsatisfying. Perhaps it is when we attempt to find a sexual mate that we become especially aware of our difficulties. For all its promise of peace and wholeness, the partnership can turn out to be very hard work. It becomes clear that we must go on further.
The Buddha's search led him to become a monk and to seek instruction in philosophy and the attainment of so-called higher states of consciousness. He studied with the leading yoga teachers of his time, but remained unsatisfied. Though he could control his mind, and though he gained a complete grasp of the abstruse and subtle philosophical formulations of his time, he could not resolve the question of suffering.
In our twentieth-century Western setting, religion is not so other-worldly. It is not necessary to leave one's family to search out good teachers and it is not necessary to become a monk or nun to receive good instruction. Like the Buddha, however, we can be relentless in our pursuit of the truth we sense from the beginning. "If not here, then somewhere else, somehow else."
The Buddha went on from philosophy and mystical studies to take up asceticism. He denied himself food, sleep, shelter, and clothing. For a long period he struggled with his desires and his feelings of attachment. But this way too turned out to be a dead end. For all his self-denial he could not find true peace.
Nakagawa Soen Roshi once said to me, "Zen is not asceticism." He said this by way of assuring me that I need not follow his example of swimming off the coast of Japan in February. But Zen is not indulgence either. The practice involves rigor and is not possible in a casual life-style. We need to find the Middle Way. The Buddha learned, and we learn also, that lengthy fasting and other kinds of excessive self-deprivation only weaken the body and spirit and make the practice more difficult. And, as the Ts'ai Kên T'an tells us, "Water which is too pure has no fish."
So the Buddha turned back to meditation, which he had undoubtedly learned from his teachers. He took his seat beneath a Bodhi tree, determined not to rise until he had resolved all his doubts. Early one morning he happened to look up and saw the morning star. He cried out, "Oh, wonderful! wonderful! Now I see that all beings of the universe are the Tathagata! It is only their delusions and attachments which keep them from acknowledging that fact."
Tathagata is another name for Buddha. It means literally, "thus come," or more fully "one who thus comes," and implies pure appearance, the absolute coming forth as the living fact. All beings are Buddha. All beings are the truth, just as they are. A great T'ang period teacher used the expression, "Just this!" to present the heart of deepest experience.
This deepest experience is not available to the casual onlooker. Delusions and attachments consisting of self-centered and conceptual thinking obscure the living fact. The Zen path is devoted to clearing away these obstructions and seeing into true nature.
This can be your path, the Middle Way of zazen, or seated meditation. The Middle Way is not halfway between extremes, but a completely new path. It does not deny thought and it does not deny the importance of self-control, but reason and restraint are not its main points.
Dr. Suzuki used to say that Zen is noetic, by which I understand him to mean that it originates in the mind. It is not intellectual, but involves realization, the purest gnosis of "just this!" It also involves application of such realization in the daily life of family, job, and community service.
Making It Personal
In taking up Zen Buddhism, we find that the life of the Buddha is our own life. Not only Shakyamuni's life, but the lives of all the succeeding teachers in our lineage are our own lives. As Wu-mên Hui-k'ai has said, in true Zen practice our very eyebrows are tangled with those of our ancestral teachers, and we see with their eyes and hear with their ears. This is not because we copy them, or change to be like them. I might explain Wu-men's words by saying that in finding our own true nature, we find the true nature of all things, which the old teachers so clearly showed in their words and actions. But the authentic experience of identity is intimate beyond explanation. And it is not only with old teachers that we find complete intimacy. The Chinese thrush sings in my heart and gray clouds gather in the empty sky of my mind. All things are my teacher.
On the Zen path, we seek for ourselves the experience of Shakyamuni. However, we do not owe fundamental allegiance to him, but to ourselves and to our environment. If it could be shown that Shakyamuni never lived, the myth of his life would be our guide. In fact it is better to acknowledge at the outset that myths and religious archetypes guide us, just as they do every religious person. The myth of the Buddha is my own myth.
Thus, it is essential at the beginning of practice to acknowledge that the path is personal and intimate. It is no good to examine it from a distance as if it were someone else's. You must walk it for yourself. In this spirit, you invest yourself in your practice, confident of your heritage, and train earnestly side by side with your sisters and brothers. It is this engagement that brings peace and realization.
The first step on this way of personal engagement is concentration. Usually, we think of concentration as focusing on something with intense mental energy. This is not incorrect, but for the Zen student it is not complete. Even in ordinary experience, we transcend concentration. For example, what happens when you take a civil service test? If you are fully prepared, you sit down and write. Though your neighbor becomes restless, or it begins to rain outside, your attention doesn't swerve. Before you know it, you are finished. A relatively long time has passed. Suddenly you find that your back is stiff and your feet are asleep. You feel tired and you want to go home and rest. But during the course of the test, your stiffness and your tiredness did not distract you. You were absorbed in what you were doing. You became someone taking a test. You forgot yourself in your task.
Rebuilding an engine, nursing a child, watching a movie — all these acts may transcend concentration. Focusing on something involves two things, you and the object, but your everyday experience shows you that when you are truly absorbed the two melt away, and there is "not even one," as Yamada Roshi likes to say.
Accepting the Self
The everyday experiences of forgetting the self in the act of, say, fixing a faucet, may be understood as a model for zazen, the meditation practice of the Zen student. But before any forgetting is possible, there must be a measure of confidence. The diver on the high board lets everything go with each dive, but could not do so without the development of confidence, a development that goes hand in hand with training. Such letting go is not random. The diver has become one with the practice of diving — free, yet at the same time highly disciplined.
Even champion divers, however, do not touch their deepest potential simply by working out on the high board. A more useful model may be found among the archetypes of zazen, such as Mañjusri who occupies the central place on the altar of the zendo (meditation hall). He holds a scroll, representing wisdom, and a sword to cut off all your concepts. He is seated upon a recumbent lion, and both Manjushri and the lion look very comfortable. The lion power is still there, however, and when Manjushri speaks, it is with the voice of that lion. Completely free, and completely controlled! The new student must make friends with the lion and tame it before he or she can take the lion seat. This takes time and patience.
At first this inner creature seems more like a monkey than a lion, greedily snatching at bright-colored objects and jumping around from one thing to another. Many people blame themselves, even dislike themselves, for their restless behavior. But if you reject yourself, you are rejecting the agent of realization. So you must make friends with yourself. Enjoy yourself. Take comfort in yourself. Smile at yourself. You are developing confidence.
Don't misunderstand. I am not directing you to the way of pride and selfishness. I point to the way of Basho, who loved himself and his friends with no pride at all:
At our moonviewing party
there is no one
with a beautiful face.
I commented on quoting this poem elsewhere: "What homely bastards we are, sitting here in the moonlight!" This kind of humorous, deprecatory self-enjoyment is the true basis for responsibility, the ability to respond. When you make a mistake, do you punish yourself or can you shake your head with a smile and learn something in the process? If you curse yourself, you are postponing your practice. If you simply tick off the error and resolve to do better the next time, then you are ready to practice.
If Shakyamuni Buddha had dwelled upon his own inadequacies rather than the question of suffering in the world, he would never have realized that everything is all right from the beginning. Zazen is not the practice of self-improvement, like a course in making friends and influencing people. With earnest zazen, character change does occur, but this is not a matter of ego-adjustment. It is forgetting the self.
Yamada Roshi has said, "The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something." This does not mean that you should try to get rid of your self. That is not possible except by suicide, and suicide is the greatest pity, for you, like each other being of the universe, are unique, the Tathagata coming forth in your particular form as essential nature.
Forgetting the self is the presentation of uniqueness. See how particularly himself the mime Marcel Marceau becomes when he forgets himself in his work. And that is his work — we each of us are particularly ourselves when we forget ourselves as we change a tire, or whatever. Forgetting the self is the act of just doing the task, with no self-consciousness sticking to the action.
Zazen is a matter of just doing it. However, even for the advanced Zen student, work on the meditation cushions is always being refined. It is like learning to drive a car. At first everything is mechanical and awkward. You consciously depress the clutch and shift into low, then release the clutch gradually while depressing the gas pedal, steering to stay within the white lines and to avoid other cars. There are so many things to remember and to do all at once, that at first you make mistakes and perhaps even have an accident. But when you become one with the car, you are more confident. And you become a better and better driver with experience.
The preliminary method on the way of Zen is the process of counting the breaths, as it is for many other illuminative schools of Asian religion. Once, at our Koko An Zendo in Honolulu, we were hosts to a Theravada Buddhist teacher from Sri Lanka. We asked him how he taught meditation to his disciples, and he proceeded to demonstrate to us the same techniques of counting the breaths which we had learned from our own Japanese Zen teacher. It is somehow the natural first step. The breath is both a spontaneous part of our physical system and, to some degree, under our control. In early days of our Western culture, breath was considered our very spirit, as our words, "inspiration" and "expiration" show clearly. When we "expire," once and for all, we have ended our inspiration for this life.
In the next chapter, I will give a detailed exposition of Zen method. For now, it is sufficient simply to try to count your breaths. Sit with your back straight, and count "one" for the inhalation, "two" for the exhalation, "three" for the next inhalation, "four" for the next exhalation, and so on up to "ten," and repeat. Don't go above "ten" because it is too difficult to keep track of higher numbers. You are not exercising your thinking faculty in this practice; you are developing your power to invest in something.
Counting is the first mental exercise you learned as a child. It is the easiest of all formal, mental efforts, the closest to being second nature. I have seen people who have migrated to a new country and adjusted themselves fully to their adopted culture and language, still counting their bills at the bank with the numbers of their childhood: un deux trois quatre; ichi ni san shi.
But though breath counting is natural, you cannot dream at it and just let it happen. Truly to meet the challenge of your rampaging mind, you must devote all your attention just to "one," just to "two." When (not if!) you lose the count and you finally realize that you have lost it, come back to "one" and start over.
Many people can count to "ten" successfully the first few times they try, but no one who has not practiced can maintain the sequence for long. Though one needs a disciplined mind even for quite ordinary purposes, such as conducting business or teaching, few of us have the faculty of extended attention. I have had people tell me after trying zazen for twenty-five minutes, "You know, I never even got to 'one'!" Counting the breaths shows us that indeed, as a Chinese proverb says, the mind is like a wild horse.
Breath counting is not the kindergarten of Zen. For many students it is a full and complete lifetime practice. But even with just a month of practice, a few minutes each day, you will be able to focus more clearly on your work or study and to give yourself more freely to conversation and recreation. You will have learned how to begin, at any rate, the task of keeping yourself undivided, for it is thinking of something other than the matter at hand that separates us from reality and dissipates our energies. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken. Copyright © 1982 Diamond Sangha. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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