The late Zen teacher Myo-On Maurine Stuart had a saying that I read years ago and that has stuck with me: “The thing that you can do or not do won’t do.” I think there is something helpful here for us to consider.
First I just want to point out that if we look at our Women Ancestors chant, we will find Stuart toward the end of that list. She made a significant contribution to bringing the Zen tradition to the U.S. She was an artist; an accomplished concert pianist. And significantly in our historically patriarchal tradition, she was a woman. I often like to remind myself that we in the modern world have some things to offer this ancient tradition that is giving us so much – like feminism for instance, and science, and democracy. It’s good to remember, so we don’t think we should be medieval Japanese, or merely subject to some fixed tradition. That is not Zen.
So, what is she talking about here? From a conventional standpoint, her statement is nonsense. Worse, it could be read as a sort of zen provocation, to be responded to with a clever retort. This happens.
But I think she gets at the feeling we start to arrive into, when “shit gets real” as the saying goes. When things get hard, really hard for us, we are forced sometimes to go beyond our limited ideas of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. When we begin to open into that feeling of helplessness, we simultaneously find ourselves drawn to appeal to some greater power. We can call this power zazen.
Twelve Step programs talk about this. The first three steps describe realizing the problem of suffering, recognizing the insufficiency of controlling everything, and turning to a higher power of one’s understanding. I find the parallels with our own tradition inspiring.
In our way we take refuge in the higher powers of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Buddha is things as it is – fundamentally complex (and fundamentally good) beyond comprehension or control. Dharma is our heart/mind responding to conditions with uprightness. And Sangha is coming together like this to support each other, and face the challenges of being an enlightening being in an enlightening society. All of these capacities (if we are truly honest) are beyond us, as we inevitably experience ourselves in a contracted, alienated way.
Sitting on our own is important. I suggest everyone sit every day, including me. Taigen just celebrated 40 years of sitting everyday, but he’s like us. He sometimes is scheduled, and sometimes he fits it in when he can. Remember, you can do zazen for a minute, for just one breath. But 30 minutes is good too. Sitting alone is good; but just sitting alone without sitting with others on some sort of regular basis I have come to genuinely think might be worse than useless (and I’ve heard ancestors say this is in fact so). Practicing alone can reinforce some problematic tendencies, if done to excess or without guidance, and we remain cut off and prone to our mind’s predilection to avoid and deny the harder stuff. We can’t do it alone.
So, going beyond the thing that you can do or not do is in fact the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha. It may not look like how you think it should look. This is why we listen to the ancestors when they caution us to avoid setting up standards of our own. Which may seem to contradict the teaching that we must go beyond Buddha. These conundrums point us toward a place of surrendering the illusion of total control, which I feel is close to the heart of our zazen practice.