Practice is not magic (from a teisho)

People sometimes tell me, “I’ve tried this and that but nothing has happened!” This no doubt means that that they feel that there is, or should be, some kind of magic that either they or a teacher can call upon to make something happen.  They believe that if they go through the right kind of incantation, do the right things, say the right words, or feel the right things, then, because of the magical power of this teaching or technique, wonderful things should happen to them.  Meditation still has a kind of magical aura that surrounds it.  This is obvious if one picks up a New Age magazine or New Age books that talk about meditation.  It’s all flowers and halos.

There is no magic.  Or rather, the magician is you.  To look outside yourself, to expect someone else or some system to do something for you is really putting yourself in the position of a slave.  If somebody can do something for you that is of vital importance, you are dependent upon that person.   And this dependency is a form of enslavement. The only true value, the only true possibility, comes from your own power, faith and wisdom.  This means that you are already free.  You do not need a teacher or a teaching.  All that a teacher or teaching can do is to allow you to work for yourself.

But you must have a single-minded desire or longing for the truth. Ultimately all our desires are the desire to find ourselves.  Even joining the various isms that we can join in the world is done in the hope that it will lead us home.  People do not use these words “lead us home;” they use instead words like ‘happiness,’ ‘success,’ ‘fulfillment’ or ‘perfection.’  But these are substitute words.  Where is there fulfillment, perfection, happiness, and success outside of yourself?  When are you most happy?  It is when you are most at one with whatever it is that you are doing.  When you can give yourself over to it without reservation.  When you want it and, at that moment, want nothing else.

Our problem is that we cannot seek to know ourselves unconditionally and without reservation, except after much practice and much suffering.  People ask, “Why does it take so long to come to awakening?”  And the answer is, of course, that we want something else.

People feel that it is enough simply to say they want this or that, or even just to think they want it.  Sometimes I ask people, what is it you want from practice?  And they say, “Oh, I’d like to come to awakening.”  And very often they give a little laugh afterwards.  They reply much in the same way they might say, “Oh, I’d like a new hat.” A Hindu story tells of a guru and his student walking along the seashore.  The student told the guru that he would very much like to come to awakening.  The guru seized hold of the student and thrust his head under the water and held it there while the student thrashed around helplessly.  Eventually the guru let go of the student who arose spluttering and coughing, sucking in air as fast as he could. The guru said, “”When you want awakening as much as you want air at this moment, nothing can stop you.” When the pain gets so bad, when you really do feel that you have reached the end of the road and you have exhausted all your strategies to avoid seeing the truth that life is suffering, then it will be possible for you to say truly, “I want nothing else.”

Basically, everyone wants to come home and nothing else. And everyone will eventually come home. If everything comes out of and returns to the One Mind, then such a statement is a truism.

When you are practicing with Mu or Who or when you are following the breath, this practice will enable you, if you are sincere and honest, to come to the point where you will truly want nothing else.  But this means that you must practice without protest.  You must practice without complaint or self-pity.  And also, of course, you must practice without expectation.  Protest and complaint simply undo the work that you have done so far.  Protest and complaint sets up a counter current to the current of the work.  It sets up a conflict and it generates its own kind of pain.  Truly, only by trudging through the desert of the mind will you find the truth.  You do not find the truth in lush meadows.  In the desert, everything is taken away from you.

You have the belief that Zen practice is in addition to the question “Who am I?”  One keeps touching this ‘practice’, stroking it, feeling it for reassurance.  You ‘practice’ just in the same way that some people carry magic pebbles or wear crosses.  In the desert, even this is taken away.  All of your talismans, your magical charms are taken away.  One feels, I have nothing to look forward to.  That’s right!  There is nothing to look forward to.  ‘Looking forward to’ is the lure, the bait that constantly attracts you out of yourself.  You are always looking for the promised land.  But in the desert, the promised land just dries up and shrivels.

You do not even have feelings in the desert; just flat emptiness.  This is again a good thing because so many people feel that to ‘turn inward’ is to turn into their feelings.  In the sixties feelings were themselves a new religion.  In the New Age philosophy, feelings­­–– feeling good about yourself, feeling good about others, feeling good about one’s life, one’s situation­­–– were all that mattered. But in the desert, feelings dry up and all that is left is a naked, bare, austere possibility.

This is the master’s furnace.  It is during these moments, during this time in practice that the real work is done.  The dross is burned off and only what is true remains.  Don’t back off the desert!  It is true that during these times it seems that the practice is so remote, so uninteresting.  You feel so feeble, so futile.  But it is the personality that suffers. You must go on even so, although now it is no longer the personality that goes on.  It is what is true that does so.  Do not force yourself.  Just be there; just stay there, moment by moment. Come back again, and again and again, come back.  Not with force or fury, not with gritted teeth, not with clenched fists.  You just come back and then you come back again.

In this way you are starting to be honest with yourself.  And you are starting to really want nothing else.

The problem is not that we have other desires, but these other desires are so often in conflict one with the other.  How many people are there that have the real need to live a life that gives them the possibility to turn in on themselves fully and completely;  and yet at the same time they have the need to become engaged as fully as possible in the world, to be lost in some profession, undertaking, or project.  It is as though in each of us there are the two: the hermit and the professional.  A monk and a business-man.  The nun and the business-woman.  And they both have their own agendas and these have their own sets of conflicts. Sei and her soul are separated!

These conflicting needs and desires that we have are what Buddhism calls the Wheel of Samsara.  The need to be the business man but then to be the monk, keeps the wheel turning.  The need to lose oneself, to give oneself over to something outside oneself,  yet also to live a meditative life keeps the wheel turning.

Sometimes people phone to ask whether I could recommend a monastery where they could go to live and ‘really practice.’ Unfortunately, there are still Zen Centers that encourage this kind of activity.  I say ‘unfortunately’ because it does give the impression that the real work that one does in the world is not ‘spiritual’ work, and only work that one does in a monastery, center or ashram is real.

These people who phone have the yearning to retire from the world that many of us have.  The nun or the monk part of us longs for this kind of life.  As a consequence, we tend to look slightingly on our day-to-day activities, the work that we have to do, the mundane work that seems to be so boring, tedious and inconsequential. I have heard people who have undergone extensive training in a profession say that they feel their lives and their work are meaningless. It is true that, in terms of the absolute, whatever is relative is inconsequential.  Yet, even so, the only way the absolute can manifest is through the relative, through what we look on as inconsequential and contingent.

A disciple said to his master, “Everything is an illusion.” and the master said, “Don’t insult Brahman.” Layman Pang said, “My magical power and miraculous activity are chopping wood and carrying water.”

When we are told that we must want to see into ourselves and nothing else, this is not an invitation to depreciate what we do on a day-to-day basis.  On the contrary, it means that we must see whatever we do on a day-to-day basis as the fullest manifestation of our true nature.  In that way we will do it with full awareness, full commitment.  Whatever you do, do it!  Don’t judge it.  If it is necessary to change your job, you will change it.  But it is not necessary constantly to spend time wondering whether you ought to do so. Many people keep themselves in a state of suspension in this way.  Their inability to commit themselves, their unwillingness to commit themselves prevents them from finding the fulfillment that they seek. They want to have their cake and eat it. And yet in this suspended state, they lose the cake altogether: they lose the possibility to be at one with what it is they are doing.

So many people spend their time wondering how they can get into more activity, do more things, meet more people.  In the extreme, they are workaholics who are always busy, always on the go.  Never do they have the possibility of just sitting and enjoying just sitting, or of just reading and just enjoying reading, or of just gardening or of just walking.

Christ said, “Seek yea first the kingdom of Heaven and all things will be added unto you.” Find yourself and do as you please, because everything you do then will be fulfilling.  But first you must really find yourself!

Let me repeat: finding yourself is possible in sweeping the floor, in carrying out the garbage, in doing whatever it is that your work calls upon you to do.  It is true that if situations were different you could be employed better.  It is almost certainly true that most people are not fulfilled in their work in a way that might be possible were the society organized in an ideal way.  But it is also true that if pigs had wings they could fly.  It is a waste of effort, time and energy to dwell on what is possible: everything and nothing is possible.  But it is not a waste of time to keep bringing yourself back to the moment, wherever you are, and giving yourself fully to what you are doing.  When you do something, do it simply because it is there to be done, and not because of the rewards that you will get or the results that you will attain.

This does not mean that we are not pleased when others appreciate what we do.  Of course we are.  But this is not why we do it.  We do it because it is there to be done. This, too, is how to practice.  Some people are proud of their practice.  They feel that they are superior to others in some way.  They feel that they are on an inner track.  Others are disappointed and dejected about their practice.  They are not getting anywhere they say. Give yourself over to the practice because that is what is required. When we really give ourselves fully to the practice, we know this is right.  This is it!  This is what I have been looking for.  We have a sense of completeness such as we can get in very few other situations.

Doing something because it is there to be done is particularly important when helping others or ‘doing good.’ There was a master who used to live in a tree.  He would never go into a monastery or a temple.  But he would sometimes sit in a tree outside.  And he did this up to a very advanced age, even when he was about eighty, he still sat up in trees.  And a monk came along on one occasion and said, “What are you doing up there old man, it is dangerous?” The master looked down and said, “It is not as dangerous as what you are doing down there.”  The monk asked, “What do you mean?” “You don’t even know how to live,” replied the master. “All right, how do you live?” responded the monk.  “Avoid evil, do good, save all sentient beings.”  “Oh, a child of eight knows that!” snorted the monk. “Yes, but an old man of eighty can’t do it,” retorted the master.

What is interesting is that the master says first of all “avoid evil.”  So many people want to do good, and yet they do not know how to avoid doing evil.  This need, this wish, this longing to do good is an expression of our true nature.  But once it becomes the desire to be a good person, it becomes a form of sentimentality, and sentimentality is the desire to experience pleasure without having paid the price to do so.

“Avoid evil.”  And how do you avoid evil?  The only way to avoid evil is to know yourself.  It is to see into one’s own conflicts and go beyond them.  Because all evil comes from people acting in dreams.

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One Response to Practice is not magic (from a teisho)

  1. Claude Archambault says:

    Merci Mme Low
    J’ai de la difficulté avec la traduction mais ces teishos pour que vous publiez pour ce que je réussie à comprendre m’aide dans ma prpratique.
    Claude

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