Dharma Talk, January 2012

Good evening. I would like to give tonight’s talk in relationship to the my last talk which I have given recently, regarding rules, regarding corrections, regarding all the restrictions that appear to be present in formal Zen practice.

Here are the questions that come to mind:
What is this all about? Why? Why do we need all these restrictions and why is discipline necessary in this kind of practice, in this kind of endeavor?

These are all very good questions, especially taking into consideration that we are looking for freedom. Everyone who arrives at this practice comes from their own personal circumstances and background, comes with certain experiences in their past and in the present. In many cases some of these experiences could be described as burdens. For each of us there is something that brings us to this practice – certain hopes, certain expectations, certain intentions that we bring – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Many of us are looking for something that helps us to alleviate, that helps us to get over the pain and unsatisfactoriness, something that helps us not to remain stuck in it. It is very important that we do not approach the pain and suffering in the way that Western medicine does, merely as symptoms and treat it symptomatically. We need to get to the root of this pain and suffering, not just cover up the symptoms or the experience of it.

When you look at culture, modern electronic culture especially, the culture of entertainment, a lot of it is geared towards distraction from that what irks every living being. Every being that has a mind of its own, which has self-consciousness, has the question about death, life, about change, about loss. Many of us here arrive in this situation joining this practice because we have such a question to answer, because we have such a burden to attend to or we have the intuition that there is more to it to answer these questions. Just to distract oneself from the questions appearing will not do. Compartmentalizing and hiding the questions in a closet, trying to sweep them under the carpet will only keep them hidden for so long. Some people take the initiative to look deeper, to explore and refine their inquiry.

One way to do that it is Zen practice. It is important to always keep in mind that Zen practice (and Zen practice in the way we conduct it) is just one of many ways to approach these deep questions. However, when we find our home in this practice and decide to follow it through, there are certain developmental steps and stages that we go through. The formal practice aspect is very important, especially in the beginning, in the first – maybe let’s say the first 75 years – of practice it is very important that there is some kind of discipline. After 75 years one can relax a little bit more.

Let us return to the question why discipline is necessary when we are looking to free ourselves, when we are looking to alleviate pain and suffering. Being exposed to these rules, instead of being able to just let go, we find ourselves more tied down: more restrictions, more rules, more corrections than ever before. “Don’t move!” and all kinds of sharp, incisive, abrasive corrections are made. We have to learn to discipline this at first undisciplined self, we need to learn not to give in to every whish, not to give in to every little desire or the hope that things will change and get better.

When I first came to practice at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California, the first seichu I bought myself a bag of potato chips, because I am very fond of potato chips. I deliberately restricted myself to having one chip a day, at night before going to bed. Minutes before there was to be absolute silence (except the snoring) and before the lights would be turned off, exhausted or not, I opened the bag and ate a single chip. It was a feast, it was a feast and it was an even greater lesson to learn not to give in to just taking one more. This restriction and discipline is essential to the stripping of all the layers of self-centeredness. It helps us correct and realign our point of view, it helps us to get to the point where we truly can let go of all the restrictions of which we are not aware. Until then we don’t realize the restrictions, our self-made rules and all the burdens that come with the “I am this”, “I am that” kind of self. Relinquishing this “I am self”, becoming free of that kind of fixated self allows us let a new self arise and opens up the possibility for a new and completely fresh experience of what it means to be in the moment, what it means to have a “self”, what it means to be able to give birth to a new self in the moment when you stick that chip in your mouth.

And even though it is the self that tastes, even though it is the self that benefits from the nutrition, that experiences it, it is a different self that arises spontaneously. A self that arises spontaneously is at the same time a self that has just awakened. Arising and awakening, disappearing and dying – all of that is very important in this practice, and it can also give you a hint what awakened means. In order to be awake there needs to be a self, but it needs to be a self that has freshly arisen and that freely exists and without any resistance disappears.

Comings and comings, goings and goings: kiwame kitari, kiwame sarubeshi. Even Kozen Daito says that in his last admonition: look at the comings, look at the goings. Then the key is that even the one who looks disappears and comings are just comings, goings are just goings. It is counter intuitive, against our logical sense that restriction would lead to freedom, but as I have said many times before: true freedom is the freedom to be even free from one’s own little self, to be free from any kind of judgment, any kind of burden, any kind of expectation. It is okay to be strict with yourself, but only if we are not attached to strictness. Being strict is the preparation for truly letting go; however, as soon as that strictness, as soon as that discipline solidifies and becomes like a congealed hardened behavior, then it is not of its own dynamic nature anymore, then it is just another type of fixation.

So – I suppose we have a few more years to go before we reach 75 years of practice when we can relax a little bit. Every period of zazen, every period of kinhin, every chanting, every sarei, every morning getting up, brushing your teeth, washing your face, having your coffee, relieving yourself, going to work,  meeting strangers, getting tired after that, all of these activities are the opportunities for that letting go and for that letting arise, letting awaken a self that is not tied to any of these moments.