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Marrow of Zen

June 16, 2012

by Stephen Damon

While preparing for our sangha’s discussion of Suzuki Roshi’s talk, The Marrow of Zen,  I’ve been thinking about his reference to the Samyuktagama Sutra in which it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Suzuki says that most of us want to be the best horse.  He cautions us that If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one… in the zazen posture, your mind and body have great power to accept things as they are, whether agreeable or disagreeable.

I found great encouragement in this talk because I have seen over and over again that I am, at best, the worst of the four horses.  Although I’ve been sitting for a long time, it is never easy for me.  Every morning, I struggle with the kinds of daydreams and thoughts that I’ve been living with for my whole life.  In the beginning I often felt defeated by incapacity to sit still, but now I experience it as a motivation to keep on sitting, no matter what.  I experience that seeing my inadequacies vitalizes a new kind of force that turns me toward the Dharma and towards myself, in a new way.

When we look at ourselves in this way we see what Dogen called, shoshaku jushaku, or one mistake after another.  We see our incapacity and sometimes even our refusal to practice wholeheartedly and at the same time we feel the wish to to make contact with the part of ourselves that wants and knows how to practice. Suzuki Roshi says that in our very imperfections we will find the basis for our firm, way-seeking mind.  When we see our failures, something very deep in ourselves is called into action.  It is a new kind of attention that helps us change the direction of our lives from wanting to do to wanting to be

It is only when we see ourselves as immeasurably far away from the life we had dreamed about when we first started practicing, that we are able to move towards it.  It might be more accurate to say that seeing our inadequacies in this way we also see the deepest part of ourselves, our original nature.  In the deepest sense, it is not a matter of moving towards anything.  It is about seeing that we are already here.  It is about seeing that ‘birth and death’ is nirvana (Dogen).



From → Zen Buddhism

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