teishos 1101 2007/ 954 2005
The kind of work that we need to be prepared to do is like cutting through nails and breaking steel. There must be utter determination to let nothing stand in the way. We need to be prepared to work unconditionally, without any ifs and buts, without any kind of expectation.
This does not mean one must take up a heroic stance in relation to the practice. Zen practice is not about bracing oneself, tensing inwardly. To cut through nails and break steel requires patience and dedication, unremitting work. One does not look for a way out, one stays with whatever is, without trying to do something about it. One continues in the face of remorse, regret, and anxiety. Questions like ‘what is the point?’ ‘is it worth it?’ are thrown up by the personality, by those habits so ingrained of turning away from difficulty, of constantly looking for comfort and security.
When life’s circumstances crush down, what will you do then? Where is that place that nothing can touch? If you can be in that place where even a needle cannot penetrate, where nothing can touch you in any way, what does it matter what life presents?
The only way that you can get anything worthwhile regarding knowing and understanding is by your own labors, by your own willingness to work. Anything that you take from outside can be taken away; anything from outside is of a speculative nature.
One of the obstacles in practice is the desert, the dryness, an absence of any kind of stimulation, interest, or, it seems, of any value. We have to face boredom. Anyone unable to open themselves to boredom will be unable to see into their true nature. Boredom is the feeling we all flee from.
We have many members in the Sangha who are coming up to old age, if they have not already arrived there. With old age, we get a glimpse of ‘the concrete and perfect life of the spirit which manifests itself in the complete absence of all sweetness, in aridity and distaste,’ as St.John put it. How can this desert be the perfect life of the spirit? The sense of self has at last met its match, something is possible now which has never been possible before. When practicing, we look for those moments that are peaceful and easing, that have a sweetness to them. But this is still within the realm of experience. We cannot imagine a life where there is no experience, which is more wonderful than any kind of experience; imagination can only work regarding experience. But it is being at one with whatever is that is the true life of the spirit. This means above all being at one with the swords and arrows of outrageous fortune, with the dust and dryness of the desert. It is not that one has to turn away from peace and sweetness, but that one is open to everything, not only peace and sweetness. One opens oneself also to boredom, to the dryness. The complete absence of excitement, of enthusiasm, dried up emotions – this is the true cleansing of the soul, the real purging of the spirit, the purgatorial fire we must pass through.