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Nothing Extra

May 8, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Last night, our sangha discussed the second talk in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Breathing.  While this talk is ostensibly about breathing, it goes to the essence of Buddhism, and Zen practice, in particular. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it goes to “the essence of life itself.” In fact, if we pay close attention to anything we encounter in our day-to-day lives we will find an expression, however indirect, of our original nature or what Uchiyama Roshi called, “the life force of the universe.”  This is the heart of Zen practice.

So what do we see when we keep our attention on our breathing?  Suzuki Roshi says: “The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door.  If you think, ‘I breathe,’ the ‘I’ is extra.” A person in our group once asked me how she could live a simple life and I responded that we need to be careful not to add anything extra to what we are doing.  We need to see that our judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, and our emotions of like and dislike, are non essential, external things, added to the “what is” of the moment.  We need to see how the ego adds these discriminations as a way of asserting itself into a situation.  We need to see that our ego, our sense of I, is something extra, and unnecessary.

Suzuki Roshi goes on to say: “There is no you to say ‘I.’ What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.”  So, if we take time out from our hectic day-to-day lives to pay attention to one single breath we will discover the most simple and elusive of all truths: our sense of ourselves as independent, substantial “things” is an illusion.  Of course, to develop one’s ability to pay attention to anything is a skill developed over time, so we need to sit over and over again, paying careful attention to everything that arises in our minds and bodies.

After a while, we may see that the ego, or what Suzuki Roshi calls “the small self,” is like a thought, appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing into nowhere. We see that all our thoughts and emotions are like that.  We see that everything that arises must pass away, if only to reappear in another form the next moment.  As the Buddha said, birth and death occurs every moment of our lives.  And if we see that what is being born and passing away is just an illusion, we will get a better sense of what the Heart Sutra says, There is neither old age and death nor extinction of old age and death



From → Zen Buddhism

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