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April 30, 2016

By Stephen Damon

I’ve often noticed that any realizations or insights I might have always occurred when I wasn’t really making any spiritual efforts at all. I might spend a week sitting from early dawn until bedtime in a zendo, but I rarely had any insights or intuitions into anything. Most of my insights would come days or weeks after an intensive. I always thought that was strange, and I never could figure out why that was. I can honestly say that during a forty year meditation practice I may have had just two or three “aha” moments while sitting in the posture of Zazen.

This is not to say that I have only had had two or three insights or realizations, but they have always occurred at odd moments when I really wasn’t trying anything at all. I might be washing dishes or taking out the garbage when a response to a koan that I had been working on in Zazen would appear. While I never understood why that was, I gradually accepted it as “lawful” and just the way things are. It was as if “not trying” was the secret of a spiritual practice.

Now that I am no longer physically able to take part in a Zen intensive or even have a disciplined daily practice I seem to be having more realizations than ever. Of course, most, or perhaps all, of these realizations haven’t been great. I haven’t discovered anything that thousands of other Zen practitioners haven’t already experienced. And yet, some of them have had a profound impact on me, and I hope that in sharing some of them they be of some help to others.

Here is an example of a “little” realization that I had the other day. While I was pulling weeds in the garden I became aware that I was very grateful for being just an ordinary person nearing the end of his ordinary life. This thought gave me great comfort. Gone were all my strivings to achieve something, to become a Buddha or at least a good teacher. Gone was my being proud of some of the things I had accomplished in my life. Nearly everything that had once filled my life with expectations of one sort or another was gone. As it says in the mantra of the Heart Sutra, Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond. Now, there was nothing really to achieve. Suddenly, hundreds of years of practice and study dropped away. To quote Dogen, my body and mind dropped away. For the first time in my life I felt really free. Now, I thought, it is time to really live.

As I reflected on this particular insight I began to see a particular reason for what was going on. I now see some things about my spiritual practice that I had never seen before. I realize that most of my spiritual life was spent in generating great efforts to do or achieve something. Yes, I knew that Suzuki Roshi and others have said that there is nothing really to do when you sit, but I think that all of my “non-doing” took a lot of effort. Perhaps that is why I often felt exhausted after a week-long Zen intensive.

Most of my efforts felt like a battle against seemingly impossible odds. I think I felt that I had to create something “new” in myself that could sustain itself even after the dissolution of death. I had forgotten that Soto Zen is all about sudden enlightenment that appears as if from nowhere. Enlightenment is sudden because it is already here and you are relaxed and open enough to see that. Buddha as well as all of the Zen patriarchs and ancestors that came afterwards agree that we are already Buddhas.

So if truth is already here, if I am already a Buddha, then right effort is not about trying to achieve or make something. For example, there is a story about a Zen master who sees one of his students sitting. He asks the monk why he is sitting and the student replies that he wants to become a Buddha. The master picks up a tile and rubs it. The student asks him why he is rubbing the tile and the master replies that he is trying to make glass. The student says that is impossible and the master tells him it is impossible to become a Buddha by sitting.

It is impossible to create a truth and it is impossible to create a Buddha. All you can do is find a state of deep relaxation where you can be open to let timeless truths appear. This state of relaxation is not a new state that one has to achieve, but is rather the natural state of being human in which a person is able to let go of all things that he or she has learned. Effort is just about allowing the truth that already is to reveal itself. The purpose of sitting is only to Turn around the light to shine within, then just return. The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from. (Song of the Grass Hut) This “turning” is not so much about an active change in a person’s direction as it is a relaxation of one’s autonomic impulse to move forward, and outward toward external things.

So now that I have a great many physical limitations and my energy is quite low, I find it easier to relax into a real not-doing as I can’t really “do” much of anything. My neurologists have told me that my brain constantly overworks itself in order to do the simplest things. When I do try to do “harder,” more complicated things I have experienced my brain just shutting down. When that happens it feels as though I have crashed and many of my symptoms become very intense.

And so I have come to realize that what I really need to figure out is how to relax more completely than ever before. How to relax in a deeper way has become a focus of my inner life. And sometimes when I come to a deeper relaxation what appears is a simple truth that changes everything I had thought of before. It’s as if my entire life before I became ill was a long Zen retreat full of intense efforts, and now I’ve come home where all I can really do is take care of the daily concerns of an ordinary life. And doing so I have “returned” to a life that I had never really lived before. I can see that I have a lot in common with centuries of unknown monks who did “nothing” but sweep leaves off a garden path or pound rice in the kitchen. More than that I have a lot in common with countless others who had no spiritual practice at all. As I walk down the sidewalks in my neighborhood I feel as though all the faces that I see are not “others,” but really just manifestations of something that is appearing in my own life: life as it is. Experiencing this gives me not only comfort but feelings of great love and compassion.

Now I can admit (quite easily) that I had thought that all my accomplishments had set me apart from others. My small self or ego had created a fictional life that I was proud of. And while I “knew” that was the case I still felt that my life was a work of non-fiction. Now, I see that it is this small, fictional self that is being forced to give up things by being sick. A couple of years ago I had given a lecture at San Francisco State about something Thomas Merton had said: The only thing one has to give up is his idea of a separate self, but his words described a spiritual goal I could never reach. Now, as my ability to create new story lines for my fictional self wanes, it seems less like a goal and more like a description of the life I am beginning to live.

One Comment
  1. My Lovely Litte Corner permalink

    I enjoyed this. It got me thinking. Thank you for sharing =)

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