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It is Absolutely Necessary to Have Some Rules

May 18, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Suzuki concludes his discussion on “control” by telling us the importance of following rules, if one wants to live a life of “perfect freedom.”  He says that it is absolutely necessary to have some rules…to try to obtain freedom without being aware of the rules means nothing. 

Rules of how to conduct ourselves in the zendo and elsewhere are best understood not as restrictions, but as part of the conditions created by our ancestors to help us achieve liberation.  They are specifically designed to help us let go of our ordinary sense of things in order to go deeper into ourselves. These rules, like the dimensions and arrangements of the zendo are designed to create a sacred space in ourselves. In this sense, they are like the silence of our zazen.  Just as silence fills the zendo, rules of how to walk and when to bow are in the walls and floors of the zendo as well as in the air we breathe.  They are the air we breathe.

It takes a while to understand this deeper sense of the rules of practice. At first, they may seem as external devices, devised to control how you behave in a “sacred” setting.  They may feel like they are inhibiting your own best thoughts, feelings, and intuitions.  You may find yourself saying “If I don’t believe in a supernatural figure of any kind, why do I have to pay respect to a cheap wooden figure on an altar?  Why do I have to pay attention to how I enter the zendo and take my seat? I want to be just however I want to be.”

These questions, I think, are manifestations of our protesting egos, which refuse to give up their control over anything.  So they often become the focus of our early struggles with practice. How we respond to them shows us our understanding of the Way, and who we are at any given moment. Some of these questions don’t go away for years. But if you stay with them, you begin to sense the innate wisdom of every rule or precept of conduct of our practice. You begin to see that they are manifestations of an unknown part of yourself. You begin to understand exactly what Suzuki is talking about. 

The rules of the zendo as well as the sixteen bodhisattva precepts do not inhibit or restrict us but rather help us to free ourselves from the bonds of our ego-centered awareness so that we can live freely and non dualistically. The best example of this is our practice of bowing to a Buddha on an altar. Our ego doesn’t want to bow and, in the beginning of our practice we may find ourselves thinking that it is wrong to bow to a wooden statue.  But if we persist and let our bodies drop to the floor we experience something else: we experience ourselves giving up ourselves.  If we stay with this we begin to see that we are not bowing to something external. We  are bowing to the deepest part of ourselves that is non separate from everything.  There is no Buddha and no us. Bowing is not about paying respect to something external, it is about giving up our delusions of separateness.  Katagiri Roshi recited this gatha when he bowed:

Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature.

The bodies of one’s self and others are not two.

I bow with all beings to attain liberation.

To manifest the unsurpassable mind and return to boundless truth.

When the restraints of our ego-centered perception of things are removed, we become free to explore and experience our lives in a new way.  By bowing to Buddha, and the others in the room, the momentum of our automatic manifestations is interrupted so that something else may appear. Without the appearance of this deeper part of ourselves, very little is possible.  So, it is absolutely necessary to have some rules.

Bows,

Stephen

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