Dharma Talk, December 2011

Good evening.

Tonight I would like to speak briefly about a few aspects of formal Zen practice. Most of this talk has evolved from a discussion that followed the last Dai-sesshin, which the vice-abbess Shuko and I attended. The aspect of formal Zen practice I would like to speak about tonight is the form and the rules.

Well, here we go, there is the word “rules”. It often seems that in Dai-sesshin or when we come here in the evening, that there are certain rules that we are expected to follow. In the very strict formal set up of a Dai-sesshin these rules are enforced by the Jikijitsu staff in the Zendo, they are enforced by the Densu in the dining hall, directing the Handaikan, the servers, telling them what to do when they are not following the preset protocol. In the same way the Joko from the Jikijitsu staff corrects participants even during the meals. The word “rule” and correction seem to go hand-in-hand, and I remember that early in my training senior monks sometimes complained that “you don’t make enough corrections”.

What the vice-abbess and I discussed was, of course, that formal Zen practice is not about “rules”. It became evident to us that there is a very apparent lack of understanding in a good portion of the ordained Sangha as well as in many Zen students in general, a lack of insight why these rules were put in place and with what intention. What I would like you to begin to see is not the rule itself but the intent that stands behind it. Much of this goes back to a teaching that I have spoken about in the past that I received from my first Zen teacher Genro Seiun in Austria. Genro taught his students three principles that he always stressed:

Number one: “don’t leave traces”; number two: “don’t waste anything,” and number three “create harmony where harmony is lacking, maintain harmony where harmony is manifest.” Even these three principles can be further reduced – to a fundamental intention of formal Zen practice.

We have to ask ourselves “Why?” What is the intention that we wear the same robes when we go to retreat? Why is it that we all get up at the same time? Why is it that we all go to the same meal, at the same time, eat the same food, get up from the sitting platform when there is a clap, sit down when there is the strike of the bell, and why we don’t move during Zazen – we try to be very, very quiet during the meditation period. We also chant together the same words – why all of that?

The first thought that comes to mind may be that this is what spiritual boot camp is like, and to a certain degree there is some truth to that. It is a boot camp in the sense that your ego is sent to boot camp. Many of these rules and setups are there to make your ego brush against them, to create friction, so that we can actually identify this I-am-self and begin learn about it. Of course the ultimate goal is to transcend this I-am-self, that we no longer give in to every desire that this I-am-self tells us. Not moving is to not unconditionally affirm the urge to move which the I-am-self creates over time. When there is an itch, we learn to not unconditionally raise our hand and scratch: this is a manifestation of not unconditionally affirming.

There are other aspects in the formal practice which do not have to do with giving up one’s perceived free will, one’s own being different, one’s own constant self-affirmation. There are actions that actively bring together subject and object, that bring together the group and allow individuality to dissolve in a different way. For example Gassho, hands palm-to-palm, the bringing together of the left and the right hand, and completely becoming one with that action. At that moment, not just as the individual who becomes one with the action, but as a group – we all act at the same time, share the same moment and activity. We bow together, simultaneously, at the same time, during Kinhin we walk in step. All of these activities are there to broaden, to widen the understanding of what the self is, to experience that through the group practice. In the end, when you go and you see the Zen master in Sanzen, and you manage to manifest zero, after the manifestation of no-self, the Koan that you might be given is “How do you recognize everything? How do you recognize flower? How do you recognize mountain?” Of course the intellectual, the wordy answer would be “This is myself .” Letting that I-am-self fall away is the intention and formal practice and rules offer the opportunities for us to be exposed to the working of that I-am-self, to notice it and to really, truly experience what its limits are. By actively pursuing that in the formal practice we get closer and closer to the point where we actually transcend those limits and manifest true self: True self that does not leave anything out, that embraces everything. The formal practice with its “rules” is meant to promote just that.

During the meals we don’t scrape our bowl with the spoon, not just because there is a rule that says “Don’t scrape your bowl with your spoon.” Well, if you can scrape quietly so that nobody can hear it, it’s perfectly okay. The intention behind that rule, or a correction made to that effect would be something like “Don’t draw any unnecessary attention to that I-am-self, let it fall away.” And of course meals – meals are a place where we go and we fulfill the needs of a self, of an individual organism: we sustain the existence of a separate entity that requires nutrition, requires food. This inherently self-centered activity and need makes it even more important at a formal meal to fully understand the intention and to try to manifest that “not being unconditionally attached to the I-am-self.” Corrections in the formal context are meant to remind us of that, however, when the one making the correction doesn’t have the right understanding, when the one hearing the correction doesn’t have the right understanding, then it merely turns into a two-dimensional, flat process that is to no benefit to either party.

Therefore let’s always keep in mind that when we practice here together, that formal practice is meant to manifest the activity of shrinking, of becoming less. In sitting we try to manifest smaller, smaller, smaller, smallest possible; less I-am, less I-am, less I-am, until the I-am completely disappears. Ultimately this will enable us, when it is time to get up, to follow the activity of bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, until the ultimate expansion has been reached. While we sit, when this I-am-self disappears, we can experience that very activity in our breathing: going from the ultimately large to the ultimately small, back to the ultimately large, back and forth – without will and desire, without the need of the manifestation of that limited I-am-self.

Let’s keep this always in mind as the true intention for any rule, for any formality that we have when we practice together. Once we mature in our practice enough to do that, there will be no doubt, no fear, no hesitation, and we’ll be able to give ourselves fully to the manifestation of the present moment.