Commitment and Intention
A talk by Roshi Enkyo O’Hara
I like to think of Zen as a way to meet my life—what comes up, the people I encounter—with kindness and compassion. It’s not complex—it’s simply to be able to meet every encounter with kindness and compassion. Because, who are we really but that relationship that arises between us–between the individual and what’s in front of them, whether or not that’s another person or a complex situation, a piece of music, an art project, a group of people? We’re not separate but we act as if we are, and so much suffering arises out of that! We think, “Oh, there’s me and there’s all the things I think,” but actually there’s “me” and “everything I encounter.”
How can we find a holding space, a religion, that encourages us to see this? How do we train, in other words, to be committed and to maintain that commitment? I would say that here at this Zendo we’re very aware of the coming and going of people and the sensitivity of new comers to the kind of strict training, old fashioned Zen training devices—so at the beginning we kind of soft-peddle the commitment required for practice. We say, “Come on in, just sit down, just follow along with the others and just watch your breath.” But actually what often happens when people do this is they find in themselves a kind of yearning for a strong commitment and for intentionality about their practice. “Commitment” is “to trust something”, “to join with” – and I think when we’re committed there’s a quality of reverence that arises. So I wonder what you’re committed to? Perhaps because you’re here I could think that maybe you’re are committed to the Way-seeking mind, to the Buddha-mind; you’re committed to the project of waking up to who you are, of waking up to what this whole thing is about –this world we live in, our lives, our coming and going.
But are you also committed to practicing the Way? To discovering that practice – as in sitting, standing, walking, relating to one another – that that’s not separate from the experience of waking up. You see, they’re not two.
Dogen, our great teacher in our line of Zen from the 13th Century, once said that there are three things that spoil very easily before they become ripe: fish eggs, mangoes, and the Buddha-seeking mind. I like that! Notice the word “ripening.” You know, it’s very delicate, this way that we may find to nourish our Buddha-seeking mind. When I say “Buddha-seeking mind” I mean the mind that wants to be awake, that wants to really live one’s life, to really be present. What a tragedy to live one’s life and to have missed the whole thing because one was watching a movie of oneself instead of one’s own life – living out of reactivity, out of denial. Tragedy!
When we start practice, when we begin, we may think there’s something missing in our lives that we want to get, and we search around for what that might be, and if we’re lucky (in my opinion) we stumble upon the way. We stumble upon the Zen way and we enter it at we begin to practice. And those first steps – there’s nothing like them really! “Oh! I didn’t know what that was!” Exploratory – those first steps – exciting; and it can keep our interest for quite some time: this wonderful new path of awakening. Yet if we’re not careful we can begin to expect something brilliant and exciting to happen, some major fireworks that will change everything. (They do happen, but it’s far more subtle and deep and nuanced than anything that you’ve read about or heard about.) The truth is that we can’t see it when we’re in it; so guaranteed when you hear somebody talking about it, that’s not it.
Looking from far away we miss our life as it’s going on. We miss our practice as we’re practicing. And that’s when our commitment can begin to lag, to become slack. Maybe our zazen falls off, we stop coming to the Zendo, we stop supporting the activities and being supported by the community. We stop allowing the community to support us (this part is particularly for the pod cast people who are not in this room). Or maybe we stop studying the teachings, we stop listening to the talks and going to the workshops – “Oh, I’ve done that, I’ve been to a workshop or two, I get it.” What about a lifetime of study, a lifetime of investigation? To think that we already know, that we “got it” because we read Zen for Idiots? I mean, “What?”
Maybe we think that we got it enough so we could take it on the road, share it with others. Or maybe we lose confidence in the whole project. “Oh! She’s just an ordinary person; she’s not a guru. She even said so.” We don’t realize that when we carry a cushion across the floor, that is the practice; that when we pay our dues so we can pay the rent, that is the practice; when we help clean up after coffee and tea, that is our practice. When we learn to do these things that we do here in order to hold and bind our community together, that is our practice and that is our awakening.
There’s a story from ancient China that addresses this. It’s about that lovely master Daowu that many of you know from the koans about “Avalokitesvara’s Many Hands and Arms” or about “Daowu Tending the Sick.” One of his students, by the name of Chongxin, asked Daowu, “Since I’ve come here I’ve not received any instruction from you about the way.” Daowu had a medium-sized monastery and Chongxin went there and practiced with all the other people there; but then he came to Daowu and said, “Since I’ve been here you haven’t given me any teaching at all.” And Daowu said, “Since you’ve gotten here I’ve done nothing but give you teachings. I have done nothing but demonstrate the way for you.” And Chongxin said, “Well, where did you demonstrate it?” And Daowu said, “You came and brought me tea and I received it from you. You came serving food and I received it from you. When you bowed, I lowered my head. When did I not demonstrate the way?” Chongxin bowed, and as he was bowing he had a realization; he woke up. He said, “But how can I uphold this?” Daowu said, “Give yourself over to everyday mind for there is nothing sacred to be realized outside of this.”
Outside of this! (strikes the podium)
Sunday morning in Soho! (strikes the podium) Nothing to be realized outside of where you are right now!
Chongxin was looking for some fancy words. Maybe you are too. (Intones): “This is the Way!” It’s like he was looking everywhere for himself – everywhere outside himself for himself. The teaching – it is always so close. What we seek is right here.
Master Dogen commented on this koan story, “Thus in bringing tea and making tea the Way is realized and mystical powers are realized.” Mystical powers are realized in the simplest of actions. There’s Ben Sen (the door monitor); Sunday mornings he takes care of the door. Mystical powers realized. Dogen is teaching us that when we’re committed to our practice and we have reverence for what we do, when we practice with others, this is waking up. And then when we finish our morning service and we walk out the door and enter our ordinary life, we carry with us a certain quality of noticing, a kind of softness of self that realizes it isn’t this shield around us but our self is a flowing, interactive relational energy. And in each moment, perhaps even as far as pressing the button on the elevator, we may realize our true nature. Maybe when the elevator opens and we step the door we still have some sense of our true nature. Maybe when we step out into the flowing river of bodies on Broadway we still recognize that we are not separate. We can be awake in our ordinary lives.
Dogen says, “Make each moment the top of your head.” That’s not clinging to the last moment, and that’s not projecting ourselves onto not only the future moment but the ideas we have about what possible futures there might be – which become fantasy, or longing or envy, but definitely illusion.
To be caught in a dream and not realize your life is a tragedy.
Sometimes on my way to the Zendo I think I’m late in the mornings, you know, and I’m rushing down the street – and I’m missing the street in that moment, so caught up in getting there. It’s hard to recognize that we’re not separate from time but we are time.
You know, there’s a certain time we start in the morning, like at 9:30 on Sunday, but that does not mean that when the second hand hits 12 that’s when we start. It’s just a clock. It’s when the whole community starts that zazen starts. That’s the mystical teaching: that we are time itself. This is our time; and this moment has passed. This moment has passed. We are here.
So our practice here is very simple. We come together, more or less start on time, we do things in the same way – we bow to the cushion and we bow to each other, sit down, twirl around, face the wall; we are aware that there’s someone sitting on our left and on our right. Perhaps we’re being trained to ring the bell. I remember when I first started I had a bit of performance anxiety around ringing the bell. It took me a long time. Every time I hit the bell it would sound like I hit an old pot. It was awful! And then, as people began to tease me about it, it got worse. I could never get that beautiful sound that these instruments are capable of. I remember going out into the forest one day to learn – you don’t hit it like that; you strike it on the side – same with the big bells. And it’s a practice. You can’t do that on your own. It’s something that is done for a community with others. That’s where the teaching is; it’s certainly not in the talks on Sunday morning. The teaching is here all the time. In your life the teaching is present all the time. And when we get off and we begin to want it to be some other way than it is right now, we’re lost in a fantasy, we’re lost in an old story, we’re not here in our lives. And we can’t live with intention in that way because we’re not present.
I encourage you to look carefully at this, to join in this community and support it by showing up. Do the dishes. Make a life that’s true.
Let me end with a gatha to encourage you:
It is always so close, so fresh
What you seek is right here:
Serving coffee, offering service
Your waking up is like a ripe mango,
And it does not spoil.