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It Would Be Better To Practice!

September 19, 2012

by Stephen Damon

When Dromtonpa saw a monk doing circumambulations, he remarked, “It’s good to do circumambulations, but it would be better to practice.” Later he saw the same monk making prostrations. “Prostrations are good,” he said, “but it would be better to practice.” After some time, the monk began to do meditation and Dromtönpa again remarked that doing retreats was laudable, but it would be even better to practice. Finally the monk, who by this time was thoroughly perplexed, inquired what he meant by the word practice…

–Atisha’s Lamp for Enlightenment.

Reading this quote from a classical Tibetan text we are in front of the question that each of us must face day after day, from moment to moment: what is practice? What do I need to do now? Is it just following the external forms and rituals of our spiritual path, or is something else required? Are these forms ends in themselves or are they skillful means to help us find a new relationship to the unknown?

After we carefully arrange our bodies on our cushions in the morning or in a Zendo for an all-day sesshin, we need to find the right alignment of our attention to what is going on inside us.  You might call this our “inner posture,” which is necessary to bring the external forms, including our Zazen posture, to life.  We need to take this inner posture wherever we go, whatever we do.  It is very subtle and often takes a while before it becomes natural to us.

It doesn’t take long for a person to learn the external forms of sitting upright in meditation, but it takes a while to learn what it means to take an “upright” inner posture—not to be identified with our thoughts and emotions, but to be in relation to them. One has to learn how to disengage with the continuous, “horizontal” motions of the psyche.  One has to learn how to watch but not engage with whatever arises in our minds. As Suzuki Roshi advised, It’s okay to have thoughts, but just don’t invite them in for tea!  As anyone who has sat for a while can tell you, we continually send out invitations to our thoughts.  Our lives are often one big tea party!

Zazen, like all forms of practice, is not a matter of what we do as much as it is a matter of how we do it. So, it’s not really a matter of how many circumambulations and prostrations we do, or how long we sit, as it is to find a way to use these practices to help us to be free of all attachments, even to the forms of our practice. It’s a way of eliminating any “space” between ourselves and what we are doing. When we do this, the forms of our practice become alive and full of energy.  They become ritual enactments and expressions of awakened awareness, of enlightenment.  As it is said, form is emptiness and emptiness is form!

When we take the posture of the Buddha resting on our altar, we must align not only our body but also our mind in such a way that they allow the Dharma to move freely throughout each and every cell of our body.  When we do this, we are not doing zazen—no, the Dharma is doing zazen. Zazen is doing zazen!  Homeless Kodo put it this way: Zazen is just our self doing itself by itself.  If I say that I am doing zazen, I am creating a space between myself and what I am doing.  I am adding something extra.  Anytime we add “I am” to our awareness we are adding something extra.  As Dogen said, when we forget the self, we are enlightened by the myriad things. Our practice is to forget the self so that the Dharma moves freely throughout our body and mind.



From → Zen Buddhism

  1. I really like this. Thank you.

  2. facingthewall permalink

    Great post! I might add that Sawaki Roshi (Homeless Kodo/Kosho Uchiyama’s teacher) said, “Zazen is good for nothing.” We just sit.


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