This an an approximation of a talk I gave on May 31, 2017 at Bright Sea Zen, the sangha led by my dear friend, Kate Hartland.
“The meaning of zazen, the enlightenment and liberation of all living beings, is not brought forth by the power of personal effort and is not brought forth by the power of some other. Zazen doesn’t start when we start making effort, doesn’t stop when we stop.
We can’t do it by ourselves, and nobody else can do it for us.”
From “Guidance in Shikintaza,” by Reb Anderson
I want to use this passage from one of our chants tonight to talk about the notion of ceaseless practice.
The universe practices ceaselessly. Everything that’s happening right here, now – everything that’s happening everywhere – is the universe’s practice. The universe is universing. This is Buddha’s practice. It is Buddha nature expressing itself.
Buddha nature expresses itself ceaselessly. The universe practices ceaselessly. E ndlessly flows forth; erupts; gives its all; gives it all up for the sake of . . . giving it all up.
Kate and I just had a nice visit at her house before our sit. She definitely delivered on her promise to make a wicked grilled cheese sandwich. The sandwich and time with her were a real treat, yet the main event was a tour of Kate’s beautiful garden. Kate is an avid gardener, as I suspect you know. I’ve always appreciated and admired the way so much of her teaching is inspired by what nature teaches her.
Kate’s garden is radiant now. Many of the flowers are erupting. The universe erupting as Kate’s flowers.
And, later in the year, when the flowers die, their death is the universe erupting, too.
It’s the same with us. Each of us is the universe universing. We are flowers blooming. Our lives – our thoughts, speech and action – are the universe erupting. And our deaths are the universe erupting, too.
And, yet, many of us, much of the time, don’t seem to regard our lives this way. We have this gnawing sense of separateness, of isolation, of not-okayness. And we often, in more or less unconscious ways, respond anxiously to this sense, and often in ways that tend to compound it. We take refuge in thought, speech or conduct, in situations we create or gravitate toward, that are about escaping from the here-and-now. That aren’t about nearness to it and intimacy with it.
Why is this? I don’t know. In some religious worldviews, it’s a mark of our fallen nature. In some, it’s a pathology; a kind of sickness.
I’m more inclined to see it in the spirit of what Zen types call the “samadhi of play.” Why shouldn’t the one wish to flow forth and know itself in the many; in and as myriad dharmas, “the 10,000 things”; as you and me? And why shouldn’t the many, why shouldn’t you and I, truly feel distinct and separate, with the twinge of discomfort that entails (even as it also creates opportunities for joy). And why shouldn’t all delight in discovering, and constantly rediscovering, oneness-in-manyness and the boundless love manifested in and generated through all this?
But these are just ideas, and, so far as I can tell, the universe universing doesn’t seem to be dependent upon my own or anyone else’s ideas about it.
This is the “we can’t do it for ourselves” part. We can’t do it for ourselves, because it’s already done. From this perspective, there’s nothing at all to do. Polishing ourselves – trying to be wiser, more virtuous, more spiritual; shinier, newer or whatever – it’s all futile from this perspective. This is a come-as-you-are universe. The universe goes on erupting, despite and as our efforts, whatever our efforts may or may not be.
So why practice? We practice because of the opportunity it provides to become more and more aware of the universe universing, and to discover ourselves as participants in the universe universing. It helps us not to resist our participation, just as we are here and now. To attune. Zazen tends to help us attune.
This is the “nobody else can do it for us” part. Nobody else can live our lives, and nobody else can sit for us. Nobody else can practice for us.
Sitting is optional . . . we’re part of it all, no matter what, and the universe goes on practicing as me, whether or not I sit. Yet this attunement, this particular quality of willing participation, can matter so much personally and collectively. So much individual and collective suffering is attributable to our resistance; to our attempts to take refuge in someplace other than this. Someplace we think promises something more.
The quality of our lives – our thought, speech and actions – may begin to change as we attune. The universe goes on erupting despite our efforts and as our efforts, no matter what, but we do have agency. We participate. We have the ability to influence the universe erupting as our efforts.
So what we realize from our practice is simply that we are part of the universe’s ceaseless practice. We realize that we are already home. That we are practicing ceaselessly, too.
This isn’t exactly a destination, at least not in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about destinations. The universe’s practice is completely open-ended. And our practice must take on this open-ended quality, too.
Time and again in our practice, we must confront the idea that there is a goal, a destination, an ultimate point. This idea can arise in many different ways, sometimes with a positive, sometimes with a negative tinge: a belief that there’s something wrong with my sitting practice, or that my practice is going really well; a belief that I’m virtuous or not virtuous; a belief that I’m not enlightened and never will be or that I’m finally realized.
However this idea arises time and time again, time and time again we must let it go.
So it’s all sort of like the line in that old folk spiritual: “My life goes on in endless song. How can I stop from singing?” The universe goes on universing as me no matter what. Goes on in endless song. So why not sing in tune?
As we let go of our gaining ideas over and over and over again (including our gaining ideas about supposedly losing), we tend to begin to manifest a positive quality of poverty of spirit. By this I mean simply that we become more at ease with our practice and with ourselves and our lives. We tend to increasingly practice without striving.
Another word for this quality of practice with poverty of spirit is reverence. Simple reverence. Reverence with a light touch. Reverence with a sense of humor. Reverence that is loving, but not too precious.
Reverence for the 10,000 things. Reverence for your own life and experience. Reverence for others’ lives and experiences.
Experiencing things this way is a cue that our personal practice is aligning with the ceaseless practice of the whole universe.
The universe, you and me practicing together. Each breath. Each step. Each supernova bursting. Each grilled cheese sandwich. Each flower blooming. Ceaselessly.