Founded in 2010, The Existential Buddhist publishes essays on Buddhist Philosophy, Ethics, Psychology, Art, Meditation, and Social Activism. The Existential Buddhist is non-sectarian, exploring Buddhism from the point of view of reason and lived experience, rather than from adherence to dogma and/or spiritual authority.
Why do we come here on sesshin to sit in silence? What do we hope we’ll get out of it? We must suspect that in some way all this sitting might be good for us or else we’d never do it. But what is our reason for sitting? Each of us has his or her own reasons, and the different Buddhist traditions have differing explanations about what we are supposed to experience or what we might get out if it.
On my first few silent retreats there was the hope that I would become Enlightened, whatever I thought Enlightenment might be. The hope was that I would have something like the same kind of experience I imagined the Buddha had. I remember on one early retreat thinking, after the bell ending the session had rung and I was on my way to lunch: “Damn, I was almost there, a hair’s breadth away from enlightenment. If only I hadn’t gotten up for lunch!”
Let me assure you that none of you will achieve anything like what you imagine the Buddha’s Enlightenment to have been on this sesshin. If you’ve been on lots of retreats or sesshins, you already know this.
This isn’t to say that you might not have some remarkable experiences. Maybe, for example, entering the first jhana or meditative absorption, when you are one with the breath accompanied by a profound sense of happiness and wellbeing. Maybe an experience of kensho. If you’ve ever had one of these experiences, you may be hoping to experience it again. Intending to repeat a past experience is a sure way to ruin sesshin. You can never step into the same river twice.
I’ve had a number of remarkable experiences on retreat and on sesshin and I’m happy I had them. But they didn’t make me Enlightened. Just someone whose had some remarkable experiences. There are people who have had many remarkable experiences, yet they remain assholes. There are others who’ve had none, but through sitting over time, they’ve become a locus of enlightened activity in the world.
But of course, by saying you will not become Enlightened on sesshin, I’ve already fallen into error. Dogen says zazen is an expression of our enlightenment, not an attempt to obtain it.
This is clear from the following koan in Dogen’s compendium of three-hundred koans:
Nanyue went to Mazu to ask, “ Great monastic, what do you intend by doing zazen?” Mazu said, “I am intending to be a Buddha.” Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.
Mazu said, “What are you doing?”
Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”
Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”
Nanyue said, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”
And as Dogen says in his Bendowa:
“If even for a short time one sits erect in meditative absorption and impresses the buddha seal upon the three sources of karma, everything in the world of things will become the buddha seal and all space will become enlightenment.”
Some of us aren’t hoping we’ll become Enlightened or have remarkable experiences. Some of us are only looking for a kind of therapy. We want to become calmer, less anxious, less neurotic. And sitting can do that. If we focus on our breathing, our body relaxes, and to the extent that we can let go of all the thoughts that stir us up—self-critical thoughts, cravings, fears about the future, regrets about the past—we come to see these thoughts as “just thoughts,” and we grow calmer.
But is becoming calmer all there is?
In the Theravada tradition, after making ourselves calm, we are instructed to move beyond calmness to develop insight. What kind of insight? First, insight into impermanence—an awareness of how everything is continually coming to be and passing away.
Second, insight into unsatisfactoriness—how no experience, attainment, or possession is unalloyedly pleasant or capable of making us permanently happy. Every good has some bad associated with it, even if it is only its being subject to change and being capable of passing away. The things that make us happy also have the capacity to cease making us happy, and even worse, the capacity to cause trouble for us.
The third insight is that nothing is “I, me or mine.” I can’t control how I think or feel, so my mind isn’t mine. My body isn’t mine. It doesn’t always listen to me, and eventually will grow sick and die. The idea that there is some inner Self in control of our mind and body is a pure fiction.
These are the insights that the Theravada tradition says lead to liberation and happiness.
When we turn to the Mahayana tradition, there are other insights that are the ultimate fruit of meditation—specifically the insight into emptiness—the all-togetherness-of-things, the fact that things aren’t things at all but processes or energy—that the energetic process that we are is part of the wholeness of the universe.
These are insights and experiences you may or may not have while sitting. I want to suggest, however, that you don’t strive for any of these insights.
I want to suggest that you sit without expectation with just one intention. That’s the intention of simply being present. When you try sitting without any other intentions, the first thing you’ll notice is all the other intentions you have—the intentions to be more alert, less distracted, calmer, happier, more comfortable, and so on. You can’t make them go away, but you can just watch them come and go. You can, as Uchiyama Roshi says, “open the hand of thought.” Let go of them as you become aware of them, and remind yourself to just be present for whatever shows up. Whatever it is, welcome it in. Treat it like an honored guest. Let it abide as long as it wishes, but don’t invite it to stay longer.
As Ajahn Chah said:
“Try to be mindful. And let things take their natural course.
Then your mind will become still in any surroundings – like a clear forest pool.
All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool – and you will clearly see the nature of all things.
You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still.
This is the happiness of the Buddha.”
Your body—and by your body I mean your psychophysiological energetic being acting in concert with the universe—knows more than your conscious mind knows. If you just sit quietly, that whole process unfolds and reveals itself. Your fullness of being expresses itself in ways your conscious mind couldn’t possibly anticipate. Allow it to do just that. In doing so, become more fully yourself. In so doing, you can discover the path you’re meant to be on, or what the next step on that journey is. Whatever it is, it’s unique to you.
There’s such a thing as Father Zen and such a thing as Grandmother Zen. Father Zen says, “Practice like your hair is on fire.” It says, “Shut up and sit up straight.” It says “Break on through to the other side.”
Grandmother Zen says, “Sit down, relax, make yourself at home.” It sees zazen as similar to water that slowly wears away rock. You don’t need to do anything except continuously show up. Zazen itself does the work. You don’t make enlightenment happen; enlightenment is what zazen does to you.
There’s a place for Father Zen and a place for Grandmother Zen. But I have to admit, I’m partial to Grandmother Zen.
And speaking of Grandmotherly types, there’s a story allegedly about Mother Teresa. I have no idea if its true.
In the story, someone asks Mother Teresa what she says during her prayers. She answers, “I don’t say anything; I just listen.” She’s then asked, “Well then, what does God say?” She answers, “He just listens too.”
If you sit in this way, you will not attain Enlightenment. There is no Enlightenment to attain. There is just endless awakening and realization. You will not have the Buddha’s experience. That experience was his. But you can have your own.
I started my Buddhist practice in the Insight Meditation tradition, and after about a decade and a half, switched to practicing within the Zen tradition. The reason for my switch wasn’t due to any dissatisfaction with my Insight Meditation practice. I had moved to a new location and there just weren’t any Insight Meditation groups nearby. There was, however, a zendo in the next town that proved to be a congenial place to practice.
I soon found myself puzzled, however, by the differences between the Zen talks I was now hearing and the Insight Meditation talks I was more familiar with. As a result, I developed a keener appreciation for the differences between the multiple–sometimes conflicting–streams of Buddhist thought that had made their way to American shores. There is a tendency for Westerners–practitioners and teachers alike–to sometimes blend those streams together in a kind of incoherent mash-up without sufficient awareness of and/or appreciation for the inconsistencies lying just beneath the surface. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition was acutely aware of these inconsistencies and devised various ingenious ways of dealing with them. One method was to divide teachings into those that were considered subject to interpretation (neyarhta) and those considered to be definitive (nitartha), or ultimately true. The central idea underlying this typology was that the Buddha offered different teachings to audiences of different capacities. Buddhist commentators then organized these teachings into doxographic hierarchies, with the most definitive teachings at the top. Not surprisingly, commentators differed as to which teachings were thought to be provisional and which were thought to be definitive. Also, not surprisingly, there was a tendency for historically later schools to view their teachings as definitive and those of historically earlier schools as interpretable. While Buddhist scholars are well aware of these intricacies, Western Buddhist teachers and practitioners (especially outside of the Tibetan tradition!) often are not.
There are a number of crucial ideas in Zen (and Mahayana in general) that are either not found or not emphasized in the Theravada tradition from which Insight Meditation is derived. Just to give an example, the concept of “emptiness” (sunyata) is crucial in Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese Buddhism, but relatively unimportant in the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, or Cambodia. The concept of emptiness didn’t gain currency until the first century BCE, only reaching its full flowering in the second century CE in the Prajnaparamita Sutras and Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy. The Theravada tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted from India to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE, well before the blossoming of Indian Madhyamaka.
What does this mean for each tradition? For one thing, it means that the Insight Meditation tradition focuses on insight into “the three marks of existence”–the impermanence of all things, the idea that all things are in some way experientially unsatisfactory, and the idea that nothing experienced ought to be considered as “I, me, or mine.” This is essentially a psychologically minded approach. The last of the three marks–not taking experiences as part of the “network of me-ness”–was meant to help people see that they had no unchanging, essential Self to grasp onto. It was concordant with the Buddhist doctrine of annata or “non-self” which denied the idea (derived from the Vedas and Upanishads) that people had eternal souls that shared an ultimate identity with the godhead.
By way of contrast, the idea of “emptiness” is an elaboration on and extension of the Theravada idea of not self-grasping at phenomena as “I, me, or mine.” Emptiness posits that everything–not just the personal Self–lacks independent self-existence. Nothing exists in the world by virtue of itself, but instead depends for its existence on its interrelationship with everything else. This is essentially a process view of reality–reality isn’t made up of “things” or “substances” but instead it made up of the flow of ever-changing interrelated processes. “Things,” according to this point of view, are just slow-moving processes. Thus, the person I am now–once a sperm and an egg and later dust and ashes–exists only by virtue of its interchanges with the environment–taking in food and oxygen, dependent on energy from the sun and water from the rain, existing by virtue of parental rearing, and living in a community. Without any one of those elements, “I” cease to exist.
To a certain degree, the doctrine of emptiness shifts Buddhism’s focus away from Theravada’s psychological-mindedness and towards an ontological concern with the absolute nature of reality. Zen and the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism posit that it’s possible to undergo a fundamental shift in how we directly experience reality based on this fundamental interrelatedness of things.
This second-century Madhyamaka view of emptiness underwent a further metamorphosis with the development of the Huayan school of Buddhism in seventh-and Eighth-Century Tang Dynasty China. This change is beautifully expressed in the Flower Garland Sutra metaphor of “Indra’s Net.” Indra’s Net is an infinitely vast net with jewels at each of its interstices, each jewel reflecting the light of every other jewel. According to this metaphor, reality is just like Indra’s Net–every part of the universe is in immediate and intimate interrelation with every other part. The word “interpenetration” is often used to describe this intimate relationship. This cosmological vision of absolute interconnectedness–everything in the universe depending on every other thing without exception for its existence–lead to placing a more positive spin on the Madhyamaka view of emptiness. In Madhyamaka, the emptiness and lack of self-existence of all phenomena was seen as something negative–one more reason not to get attached to things. Why become attached to things if no “thing” really exists?
The Tang Dynasty Huayan visionaries, on the other hand, sensed a profound beauty in this complete interpenetration of everything. They called it the “suchness” of things. This positive transvaluation of emptiness moves one beyond mere detachment and towards a positive caring for all of existence. There is a way in which earlier forms of Buddhism sought to detach us from the everyday world to reach a higher plane–Nirvana–whereas the heirs to the Huayan tradition (and Zen is one such heir) sought to ground us in caring for all of existence as it is, insisting that there’s no difference between form and emptiness–between everyday reality and Nirvana–except in our view of things. In this way, the Huayan tradition turned early Buddhism on its head.
There are other ideas that occur in Zen that also weren’t part of earlier Buddhist doctrine. Centuries after the flowering of Madhyamaka in India, a third Indian Buddhist school known as Yogacara emerged. Yogacara introduced several innovations at variance with earlier streams of Buddhist thought. (I ask scholarly readers to forgive the oversimplification here–there are, of course, some ways in which the Madhyamaka and Yogacara innovations were anticipated in pre-Mahayana Buddhism, just as there are ways in which the Chinese innovations were foreshadowed in earlier Indian Buddhist thought.) Among the Yogacara innovations was the idea of the illusory nature of the subject-object dichotomy. Zen meditation values losing the sense of an “I” who is watching the theater of the mind–in other words, losing the distinction between the observer and the observed. This is not a part of Insight Meditation.
Another Yogacara innovation is the concept of the tathagatagarbha, or the “womb of the Buddha,” also called Foxing (pronounced “fo-shing”) or “Buddha Nature,” by the Chinese. The Yogacara Buddhists wondered how ordinary human beings could become Buddhas. How could one make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Nothing comes from nothing. The question is exemplified by a conversation between the Chinese Zen master Nanyue and his attendant, Mazu:
Nanyue asked, “Great monastic, what do you intend by doing zazen?”
Mazu said, “I am intending to be a Buddha.”
Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.
Mazu said, “What are you doing?”
Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”
Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”
Nanyue said, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”
The Mahayana Buddhists wondered how an ordinary person could become a Buddha unless the seed for becoming a Buddha was not somehow already present. This “seed” is the “womb of the Buddha” or “Buddha Nature.” The idea of Buddha Nature has been variously interpreted by different East Asian Buddhist traditions as meaning either 1) the idea of a universally present seed of awakening, dormant and waiting to be nourished, or 2) the idea that all human beings are in fact already Enlightened, only they don’t realize it yet, or 3) the idea that the integrated-universe-as-a-whole was, in fact, the Buddha’s ultimate body (dharmakaya) itself, and that our true selves are not the individual personalities they seem to be, but are, when seen correctly, the entire web of interconnected being. The last alternative informs the Zen notion of one’s “true self” or “big self” being the entirety of the interconnected universe, as opposed to the “small self” of personal ego.
I might parenthetically add that the idea of an essential Buddha-nature or “true self” seems, at least on the surface, antithetical to the earlier Buddhist doctrine of annata or non-self. In fact, the Nirvana Sutra–one of the earliest Yogacara texts–is quite explicit about this contradiction, claiming that the tathagatagarbha doctrine supersedes earlier Buddhist teachings on non-self.
Even the quintessential story of the Buddha’s enlightenment differs between the Theravada and Zen traditions. I remember my sense of disorientation when I first heard a Zen teacher tell the Zen version. According to the teacher, after sitting all night, the Buddha suddenly looked up at the morning star, exclaiming “How wonderful! All beings and all things are enlightened just as they are!” I naively thought to myself, “how can this teacher not know the real story of the Buddha?” I was certain the Buddha never said any such thing!
Since then, I’ve heard some variation of this story from every Zen teacher who’s ever mentioned the matter. I’m not sure of the original source for the Zen version of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, but a variant of it can be found in Eihei Dogen’s Shobogenzo, the thirteenth–century foundational text of Japanese Soto Zen. In it, Dogen writes “Sakyamuni Buddha said, ‘When the morning star appeared, I attained the way simultaneously with all sentient beings and the great earth.'”
The Theravada account of the Buddha’s first words upon awakening–the one I’d always heard before from Insight Meditation teachers–comes from the Dhammapada, a series of versified sayings attributed to the Buddha, and perhaps the most popular text in Southeast Asian Buddhism. According to the Dhammapada, the Buddha’s first words on awakening were:
‘Through many a birth in samsara have I wandered in vain, seeking the builder of this house. Repeated birth is indeed suffering! O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving.’
Not a word about “all beings” or “all things” being enlightened along with the Buddha.
Why the difference between the texts? Each text deeply reflects the philosophy of the school it belongs to. The Dhammapada emphasizes the Buddha’s personal accomplishment, the most important part of that accomplishment being the destruction of craving and the ending of rebirth. These are Theravada Buddhism’s primary concerns.
The Shobogenzo version, on the other hand, reflects a belief we are all already enlightened but just don’t realize it yet. It also reflects the belief that everything is interconnected: when we become enlightened, everything in the world contributes to and shares that Enlightenment. Finally, it’s concordant with the Zen vow to bring all beings to Enlightenment. The Zen version emphasizes awakening to interdependence and the “all-togetherness” of the world rather than the individual ending of craving and rebirth.
The takeaway from all this is that it helps to understand that Buddhism isn’t “one thing,” and that Insight Meditation and Zen aren’t always saying exactly the same thing. Buddhism is best understood as an interpersonal historical process that has metamorphosed in a variety of ways over two millennia, that has co-existed and swapped ideas with other developing traditions, and that has divergent branches which both share core conceptual DNA and differ on key points.
All this makes it easy to get confused when one switches practice traditions. Which tradition gets things right and which gets things wrong? Which tradition accurately reflects what the Buddha “actually said,” or teaches the best way to meditate, or has the truest understanding of what Enlightenment actually is and how to attain it? People get caught up in these questions, withdrawing to their respective dogmatic corners.
You can too, if you like.
I think the more important question is, “How’s your practice going?” Different people probably do better with different sets of teaching and practices. That’s why there are 84,000 dharma doors. There is no way to know in advance which door is best for you. If a particular teaching or practice is helping you to become more mindful, fully present, compassionate, and responsible; if it’s helping you to develop a greater sense of equanimity and become less enslaved by your passions and desires, then it’s probably a good enough practice for you. It’s best to consider all teachings through a pragmatic lens. It’s beyond our pay grades to determine the final answers to ultimate questions, but we’re perfectly capable of determining whether or not adopting a particular practice, view, or attitude is helping us grow or not. That , in the end, is the most important question of all.
When we experience the world, we experience not only the “just-there-ness” of things, but also the “what-they-are-for-us” of them. I experience that chair over there, not as a swatch of blue with such-and-such a form, but as something to sit on. The meanings of things as they appear to us are always informed by the actions we can perform on or with them—actions that begin and end with our need as organisms to assimilate the external world and accommodate to it. In addition to the sensory qualities of our experience and the implicit knowledge gained from our past interactions with things, our immediate experience is also inflected by dimensions of value—truthfulness, aesthetics, and ethics. Cultures and individuals may differ as to how they define what is specifically ethical, beautiful, or true, but every culture and every person apprehends these realms of value in roughly the same way. While you and I might disagree on whether a specific painting is beautiful or whether a specific fact happens to be true, we both understand what it means to say that a painting is beautiful or a fact is true.
These value realms are manifest in the structure of experiencing. By this I mean that—at least in the very simplest of cases—they are experienced effortlessly, immediately and directly. When we see a sunset, we don’t need to think about whether it’s beautiful or not—we immediately experience it that way. If I tell you that there’s a unicorn in the room with us, your sense of my statement being either false, a joke, or evidence of my insanity is immediate. You don’t need to deliberate about it. You don’t need to resort to inductive or deductive reasoning. If we see an adult torturing a child, we don’t need to reflect on the categorical imperative to know the behavior is unethical. We feel it viscerally and immediately with every fiber of our body. While the specifics of what we find decent, beautiful, or true vary from era to era and culture to culture, what doesn’t vary is the fact that these realms exist–and in simplest cases–exist without our having to effortfully think about them.
It’s interesting to note that these three disparate realms of value seem to overlap in some way, as if sharing something in common. They all seem to be “good,” as if they were each a variant or subspecies of the Platonic Form of “the Good.” We can borrow words appropriate to one realm to describe the others. We can say that a scientific theory is “beautiful.” John Keats can write “beauty is truth, truth beauty” and we can intuit what he means. We can deem a painting “decent,” or an act of kindness “beautiful.” What do all three realms have in common? What makes them all “good” is that they all contribute in a unique and significant way to our wellbeing and flourishing. Ethics, beauty, and truth contribute to making our lives worthwhile.
Just as plants have a tendency to turn towards the sun, we have a tendency to desire and apprehend the good. We want beauty, decency, and truth in our lives. To be sure, these aren’t our strongest desires. We want air, food and water more. We want love and safety more. But after our basic survival and affiliative needs are met, what we want more than anything else is beauty, decency, and truth. We want to experience it, and we want to embody it.
The part of us that orients us towards these realms of value isn’t the loudest part of ourselves. It doesn’t order us around with shouts and imperatives. It’s like a quiet, encouraging voice within. Sometimes we have to become still in order to properly hear it. It’s not a literal voice—it doesn’t make itself known in words, like some cartoon angel perched upon our shoulder. It’s more like a tropism—an aspect of our organismic functioning. Anyone taking the time to become acquainted with his or her own interiority—to meditate, to walk silently in the woods, to listen to the sound of the ocean or watch a roaring campfire—can grasp the role of stillness in reorienting us towards realms of value.
Human flourishing requires more than the necessities-of-survival and the enjoyment of sense pleasures, relationships, and accomplishments. Behaving and being treated ethically, apprehending and creating beauty, and recognizing and knowing truth are crucial aspects of the well-lived life. Things are that way, not simply because we’ve learned to appreciate them through our culture, but because that’s what we are as human organisms. That’s why even a brief visit to an anthropology museum reveals to us that wherever and whenever there have been humans, there has been art, music, dance, myth, and worship. As soon as we’re capable of rubbing two sticks together to create fire, we’re busy painting caves, dancing and singing, dying cloth, and decorating pottery.
Why has evolution endowed us with both the ability to discern realms of value and the need to desire them? Its easy to speculate about how ethical behavior enhances group survival by furthering cooperation and cohesion. It’s easy to speculate on the survival value of being able to distinguish truth from falsity. Understanding the survival value of beauty—that’s a harder nut to crack. Darwin worried so much about it that he wrote, “the sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.” Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum wonders about whether there might not be a separate evolutionary pathway for the development of aesthetics that isn’t so tightly tied to reproductive fitness. Colorful male peacocks attract females even though their beauty confers no real benefit in terms of reproductive fitness. Much the same can be said about the role of beauty in human mate selection.
While there’s a real mystery here, there can be no doubt about the importance of beauty in our lives. One glance around the house my wife and I live in underscores the centrality of aesthetics in everyday life—the pleasing way the colors of its painted surfaces compliment each other, the decorative paintings hanging on its walls, the well-wrought artifacts adorning its shelves, the pleasing contours of its sofas and chairs—the way all of these cooperate to “pull things together”—it’s evident that a great deal of thought, care, trouble and expense went into making our house a “home”—a dwelling place that enriches our lives beyond the shelter and safety it provides. We can say something similar about the time, effort, and expense we put into grooming, dressing, and decorating ourselves, or into hearing music, attending concerts, films and theater, gardening, and a-thousand-and-one similar pursuits that have an aesthetic aim. Is there anyone who doesn’t take delight in pursuing an art or craft that allows them to create something of aesthetic value—playing an instrument, designing clothing, writing poetry, drawing and painting, knitting, making ceramics, planting a garden, learning to sing, developing one’s physical grace as an athlete or dancer?
While all spiritual schools aspire to truth and decency, some are suspicious of, trivialize, or otherwise denigrate aesthetics. Buddhist monks are not allowed to adorn their bodies with garlands, jewelry or perfumes, or sing, dance, or play musical instruments. In fact, Buddhism treats all sense pleasure with a certain degree of suspicion because of their role in arousing attachment and desire. The Islamic Salafists and Wahhabis consider dancing to be “haram” or forbidden. And then, there’s the old joke about Baptists banning sexual intercourse because it might lead to dancing. On the other hand, these same religions appreciate aesthetics when they’re employed to express and heighten religious sentiments—the beautiful aesthetics of Buddhist temples, Islamic Mosques, and Christian Churches being cases in point.
There are schools of philosophy that view “values” as something extra in the world—as things having only quasi existences—as human projections onto a cosmos that does not include values within its basic fabric. It seems true that ethics can’t exist without humans—when lions kill gazelles, no moral laws are being broken. Ethics always implies a human-like capacity to employ the conditional tense, to imagine a world different—better or worse—than the one currently existing. And I suppose that beauty also needs an observer—there can be none without one—although I’m troubled, just as Darwin was by his peacock feather, about why there should so much beauty in the world—the mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, clouds, rainbows, butterflies, flowers, stars, nebulae, and galaxies that please the eye and draw us into wonder. It seems to me that God or Nature could have made a plainer world, but chose not to. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead believed in a God who’s primary role was not moral, but aesthetic—to be the gentle encourager of novelty in the world’s proceedings. Just as the colors of a flower attract the bees that pollinate it, there is an important way in which aesthetics makes the world go round. There is something deep here, even if it is only the way in which organisms and environments evolve to fit each other hand-and-glove. Even if values don’t exist prior to observers and appreciators, once there are observers and appreciators, values come with them, and in that way, become a real and inextricable part of the fabric of the universe.
According to Ecclesiastes 3:1, there is a time for every season and purpose under heaven. Sesshin, too, has a time for everything: a time for sitting, walking, eating, chanting, preparing meals and cleaning up. This time, right now, is the time for listening to someone speaking words.
In Zen, although we do many different things, we do all things in the same way—whether sitting, walking, eating, or listening; whether folding our clothes at night, placing a fork on our plate, or opening a door. We do it with a specific kind of attention called menmitsu no-kafu in Japanese. Men means “close, intimate, or densely woven,” mitsu means “cotton fabric,” Ka means “family,” and Fu means “wind” or “manner.” Together, they express the Zen family style of exquisite, careful, considerate, intimate, warm-hearted, continuous attention to detail—an attention both soft and subtle—that characterizes all of Zen practice. It’s similar to the Pali word sati—remembering, bearing in mind, or mindfulness–with the possible difference that sati emphasizes awareness of one’s heart/mind, whereas menmitsu emphasizes awareness during one’s actions-in-the-world. A good deal of Zen monastic training is learning to physically embody menmitsu as one goes about one’s daily activities—putting on one’s robe, sweeping the walkways, refolding one’s bowing cloth, assembling and disassembling one’s oryoki bowls, and so on. Our intention on sesshin is to maintain this continuous thread of awareness in all of our activities.
Insight Meditation Teacher Sharon Salzberg recounts a story that also exemplifies the quality of mind I’m pointing to. She was attending a retreat with the Burmese vipassana master Sayadaw U Pandita, and preparing for her teacher interview—the vipassana equivalent of our daisan or dokusan.
“I diligently wrote down brief notes after each period of sitting and walking meditation. I wanted to describe my experiences clearly in our interviews. When I began relating my experiences, U Pandita said, “Never mind that. Tell me everything you noticed when you put on your shoes.” I hadn’t really paid attention to putting on my shoes. He told me to try again. That was the end of the interview.
The next day I went into my interview ready to report on sitting meditation, walking meditation and my experience while putting on my shoes. U Pandita said, “Tell me everything you noticed when you washed your face.” I hadn’t really paid any attention to washing my face. My interview was over.”
So, how does one practice menmitsu while listening to a someone speaking words?
The Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, once wrote “Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”
Yet here I am, staining the silence.
Here I am, speaking word after word doing the sixth day of sesshin, your minds perhaps considerably quieter than they were on day one. It feels, to me, like I’m throwing stones into a still pond. Each word creates ripples, like Basho’s frog—Ker-plop!
If I say something you agree with or like, you think, “I’m glad I came!” or “Tell me something I don’t know.” That’s one kind of ripple. If I say something you disagree with or don’t like, you think “I can’t believe he said that!” or “I used to think he was a good teacher!” That’s another kind of ripple.
Can you watch your mind’s reactivity moment by moment? Can you be aware of it without getting caught by it? Without getting caught in a train of thought that carries you out of the present into memory, planning, inventing speeches, and daydreaming? Just be here, listen and watch the ripples— and your breathing—and the sounds from outside. Everything is present, happening right now. This is how to practice menmitsu during a dharma talk. Listen to your mind, not the talk. No one ever learned anything from a dharma talk. We learn by observing our minds doing what minds do.
In my experience, there’s a pattern to what happens to my mind over the course of a sesshin. This is because our minds arise out of causes and conditions. When I first arrive, maybe I haven’t been getting enough sleep. Maybe I’ve been engrossed in work, or in worries or planning for the future, or arguing with a friend.
The first few days are hard. The mind is sluggish, distracted, occupied with whatever matters were affecting me before I arrived.
Midway though, my mind settles down. It becomes clear and lucid. It can stay with the breath without problem. My body feels light and transparent—illuminated by an inner awareness. Colors, sounds, and smells are vivid and alive.
As sesshin draws to a close, I get caught in the gravitational field of my returning home to my pre-sesshin life. Thoughts about the tasks ahead intrude, It gets harder to pay attention to the breath This is when we begin wondering how to best keep the spirit of sesshin alive once we return home.
I once read an account—my memory of this is fuzzy, and I can’t access the original source—of a young man on a month-long solitary retreat who asked Shunryu Suzuki Roshi how he could retain his peaceful state of mind once he left. Suzuki Roshi said something like, “Don’t worry, it will go away.”
That’s the way life is. Mind is affected by causes and conditions, and we can’t hold onto anything. You will not hold onto whatever peace and concentration you’ve obtained. But that doesn’t mean everything is lost. Your mind/body remembers what you’ve done here. At some future moment, when you’re feeling all stirred up or caught up in something, you will remember to breathe and let go. Having sat sesshin, you are already changed—not greatly changed, but changed a little—and you will carry that change forward into your life.
Your job, as sesshin nears its end, is to continue to be with everything that’s happening just as it is, and to do it with menmitsu-no-kafu—meticulous and exquisite attention.
If your mind is still and quiet, be aware of that. If your mind is drawing you back into the world, be aware of that. Notice where you place your shoes. Notice which foot you put forward when first entering a room.
Whatever is happening, give it your exquisite attention.
You can’t force this to happen. Just keep the intention in mind, returning to it over and over whenever it’s lost.
Our minds have minds of their own. We don’t control them. We can’t make a sitting be the way we want it to be. Whatever happens happens, and we try to be present for it in a warm-hearted way.
Sometimes we come to sesshin with goals or intentions for what we want to accomplish or see happen while on it. As author Anne Lamott says, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” But things happen to us in sesshin—things we really need to learn—if we’ve ears to hear and eyes to see. We can’t make things happen when sitting. Nevertheless, sitting changes us, as surely as rivers polish driftwood and stones over time.
When I worked as a psychologist, I advised clients that at any given moment their relationships with loved ones were either getting better or getting worse. They weren’t stable entities. You couldn’t put a relationship on the back burner and expect it to keep. Lately, I’ve been reading the American philosopher John Dewey, who placed the changing relationship between organisms and their environments at the center of his philosophy. Organisms, he reasoned, strive to maintain optimal relationships with their environments. When they can obtain what they need from their environment while avoiding external sources of harm, all is well. When relationships with the environment go awry, however, organisms must experiment, reflect (if they’re the sorts of organisms capable of reflection), and adjust their actions to do what’s necessary to restore as close to an optimal relationship as possible. Like the relationships I used to advise my clients about, organism-environment relationships are never stable, but always, at any given moment, getting better or getting worse.
As a consequence of reading Dewey, I found myself thinking more about human flourishing—the best kind of life a person can live—and what it entails. Aristotle believed it meant developing one’s virtues, working to enhance one’s community, and contemplating truth. Psychologist Martin Seligman says it’s characterized by positive emotions, engagement in life, good interpersonal relationships, and a sense of meaning and accomplishment. I want to propose yet another way of thinking about human flourishing: the good life is characterized by the quality of one’s relationships. Specifically, the relationships one has with one’s loved ones, with one’s community, with one’s work, with one’s body, with nature, and with oneself. At any given moment, any of these relationships may be optimal or suboptimal. If we’re wise, we optimize each as well we can.
All sorts of mishaps create disruptions in these relationships and render them suboptimal: loved ones disappoint us, grow apart, leave, or die; social mores change, new leaders emerge, the economy undergoes busts and booms, and new conflicts develop; our bodies age, change in appearance, and become injured or frail; our vocational interests, job demands, job opportunities, bosses and coworkers change; our natural world is subject to climate change, invading species, earthquakes, tornados, wildfires, floods, and other physical catastrophes; our relationship with ourselves is challenged when we fail to meet our goals and obligations, discover new aspects of ourselves, fall prey to trauma, or observe declines in our abilities.
This is where Buddhist practice can help. Optimizing relationships requires our mindful attention to subtle breaches in our relationships within each of these domains. Once we become mindful of a breach, repairing it depends on our good will—cultivating the intention to care for and fix what can be fixed, and putting forth our best effort in doing so. Patience, persistence, courage, non-reactivity, empathy, practical wisdom, acceptance, and a willingness to see things from another’s perspective are useful virtues as we set about this work. Many of these are virtues that are enhanced by sitting practice, by setting aside time for silent contemplation, by cultivating the virtues of mindfulness, lovingkindness, acceptance, compassion, and equanimity, and by recognizing our impermanence and fundamental interdependence with all things.
Given that the classical Buddhist literature says so little about relationship, it may seem surprising to place Buddhist practice in this very different frame—one that suggests that its main benefit may be—not ending the cycle of rebirth or bringing an end to desire—but its capacity to enhance the relationships that characterize a well-lived life. I’m increasingly convinced that as we become more acquainted with Buddhist practice in the West, that this is exactly where the Buddhism-of-the-future is heading– a melding of traditional Buddhist ideas with Western philosophical ideas regarding human flourishing.
There are esoteric strands of Buddhism with secret teachings revealed only to initiates. In Zen, however, everything is in the open. Its beginning instruction—pay attention!—is its only instruction. When we pay attention, everything is our teacher. Why search far and wide, when everything that’s needed is here?
Our lives unfold from this place, here and now. There’s no other place to start from. All of history—ours and the universe’s—leads to this very moment. Turn left, turn right? Pay attention and a way opens before you.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted to this blog. I have a collection of half-written posts, subsequently abandoned. Some are repetitions of things said before; others are needless provocations. None are what I really want to say. At the same time, I’m nurturing ideas requiring further incubation. I’m not quite ready to write about them.
I’m in an in-between place, a fallow time. At first, it felt like something negative—like writer’s block or an obstacle in my path. Paying attention, I can see it’s the path itself—a time for stillness; a time for reflection; a time to be patient; to time wait for things to emerge into greater clarity.
It’s like a winter field before the spring.
That’s how we move forward with our lives.
By being inwardly still. By letting each moment be fully as it is.