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Buddhas Keep on Becoming Buddhas

April 7, 2013

by Stephen Damon

A few weeks ago I began volunteering at a local dog shelter, and I have already learned a lot, not only about dog behavior but also about myself. I’d like to share an experience that I had last week trying to walk Theo, a three-legged puppy. Usually, he is very energetic and likes his morning stroll in the park, but last week he stubbornly put on the brakes after getting just a half block from the shelter. So I did what I had been trained to do: I lobbed a treat about two feet in front of him and he walked to it and gobbled it up. But then he stopped, refusing to budge an inch. I tried coddling him and singing to him the way I do with my dogs at home, but nothing worked.

Now this may not sound like such a big problem, but I felt as if I were failing at my job and I got very upset. I felt obligated to take him for his usual 20 minute walk around the park and this sense of obligation was preventing me from being more attentive to what was going on with Theo. I started to pull his leash, which you’re not supposed to do, but that didn’t work either.

So, feeling like a failure I turned around toward the shelter and gently tugged on his leash. Well, Theo was overjoyed and energetically walked back to his “home.” I stopped for a moment and tried to let go of all my expectations and feelings of failure and just take everything in as best as I could. I stood still for a moment or two, trying to contain my presence within my body instead of dispersing into the air around me. Doing so, I came up with an idea to pick him up and walk toward the park and then put him down and let him walk toward the shelter. Well, this worked and we wound up doing that exercise for about twenty minutes.

I tell you this because I learned something that felt very “new” to me even though I thought I had already “learned” it in my Zen practice. I learned that it was essential to give up all expectations and just deal with the situation in front of me. I saw that my expectation of taking Theo for a walk around the block prevented me from helping him get the exercise that he needed. As soon as I was able to let go of these expectations and come back to the present I was able to come up with a “new” way of walking the dog. As Suzuki Roshi would say, I let go of feeling like an expert dog walker and became a beginner, trying to find a way to give loving attention to a homeless dog.

I have tried to keep this lesson in my mind as much as I could during the past week. I have found it to be very helpful when I take my seat in the morning. Instead of expecting to sit quietly for certain amount of time the way I’ve done nearly every morning for as long as I can remember, I have tried just to see what happens without judgment, interpretation or any expectation as if it were my first time. If my mind is filled with images and thoughts I just watch them as they grow stronger and then fade away without any recriminations. Now of course this is nothing “new” to me. It is what I tell new students when they come to try to sit Zazen for the first time. But this week I discovered (again) that learning is an ongoing process that never stops. As Dogen says, “Buddhas keep on becoming Buddhas.” This week I learned that dog walkers keep on becoming dog walkers.

And so each morning when I silently chant the lineage of Buddhas and ancestors, I give thanks to my newest teacher, a stubborn, three-legged puppy.


From → Zen Buddhism

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