Seamless Practice

Human life is complicated.  There are times of war when firebombs fall from the sky and times of peace when we can take a midday nap by the fireplace.  Sometimes we have to work all night, and sometimes we can enjoy drinking sake.  Buddhadharma is living this life of ever-changing circumstances following the Buddha’s teachings.  –Kodo Sawaki Roshi

Usually we are brought to practice by some difficulty in our lives.  Maybe it’s something acute like a grave illness or addiction, or maybe it’s just the persistent sense that something’s not quite right in our lives.  Regardless of how we come to practice, many people come to the zendo with the idea that a spiritual practice is somehow going to let us leap over our problems and enter into some rarified space where our problems are no longer with us.  Of course, that’s not what Buddhist practice, and especially not what Soto Zen is about at all.

Kodo Sawaki very elegantly describes the human condition.  We have good days and bad days, days or even years of catastrophe and days or even years of great ease.  Our practice is not to transcend these conditions or even to prefer one set of conditions over another, but just to be continuously present to them, continuously present to our life all the time, no matter what.

The key here is continuity of practice.  When Sawaki Roshi tells us to live this life of ever-changing circumstances following the Buddha’s teaching, this is what he means.  He used to teach students to be attentive without suki, which is a quintessentially Japanese term that means literally ‘a space between two objects’.  When continuity is broken, there is a suki, when tension slackens, some laxity creeps in, and this is suki.  We should practice without gaps, without suki.  What does it mean to practice without suki?

During formal practice, it can definitely mean being very strictly attentive to our breath and our posture, moment by moment, and being meticulously aware of each arising of thought and letting it go as soon as it enters into awareness.  It can definitely mean extending that precise and continuous awareness into our formal walking meditation, into our formal meals, into our work period.  By all means, it is good and helpful to practice in this way, without slacking.  But Uchiyama Roshi takes a wider view:

Sawaki roshi always taught us to be attentive without suki, without break, but he didn’t mean that one could never take a bath!  He taught attentiveness to our everyday lives, including stormy and calm days, always guided by the Buddha.

Shohaku Okumura expands on this:  In Uchiyama Roshi’s usage, it means being continuously attentive to every situation in our lives.  When we need to work, we wholeheartedly work; when we can take a nap, simply take a nap; when we bathe, just relax and enjoy.  We can live our complex lives following Buddha’s teachings in every moment.

This emphasis on being continuously attentive to every situation of our lives is a hallmark of our practice, and really I think it has to be the hallmark of any true spiritual practice.  When we do this, we bring every aspect of our lives into our practice.  There’s nothing left out.  It’s not correct to think that we are necessarily slacking when we take a nap.  Or that we are somehow better if we forego break time in order to work more.  In our practice, we place equal emphasis on work time, zendo time, and break time.  By that, I don’t mean that our days are uniformly distributed between work, zendo and breaktime.  It means that we don’t elevate one thing over the other.  In the monastery, during work periods, there are set periods to take a break.  When the bell rings indicating that it’s time to take a break, you tidy up your workspace, set down your tools, and go take a break.  It’s not appropriate to keep working through the break.  We don’t say ‘Oh, let me finish up these few things and then I’ll take my break.’  It’s not heroic to do that.  When that bell rings, the practice is to take a break.

When it’s time to work, we go to work; when it’s time to take a break, we take a break.  When we’re at work, we’re not wrapped up in how wonderful our break is going to be, fantasizing about the scones and tea you’re going to have.  And when we are taking a break, we’re not planning what work we need to finish during the next work period.  I have personally found this approach to be extremely refreshing, and I think it’s a powerful antidote to our work-obsessed culture.

Dogen expresses this idea so beautifully in his magnificent essay called Gyoji, or Continuous Practice:

On the great road of Buddha ancestors,there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained.  It is the circle of the way and is never cut off.  Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way.

This being so, continuous practice is unstained, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or yourself, it is so.

In other words, continuous practice, living our lives without suki, is not even something we do through our own power.  We may think that to practice continuously means making this titantic effort all of the time, but Dogen tells us this is not so.  Instead, Dogen tells us that continuous practice is the way our lives already are.  Our lives continue, moment after moment, without break, without pause, regardless of our efforts.  Just to be alive is to be engaged in continuous practice.  Even just the moment of aspiration, the moment when we hear these ideas and feel inspired, there is not a moment’s gap as we have already entered the path of continuous practice.

For sure, we must still make our best effort.  We must still practice zazen and make the effort to bring this awareness into our lives, but you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re doing continuous practice properly, and you don’t have to measure how far your efforts may be from your ideal.  From there very start, there is no gap, no suki.  Indeed, how could there ever be a gap in your life?
–Taisan Joe Galewsky


Grinning, with eyes full of tears

All sentient beings are busy making mistakes.  They think their unhappy affairs are happy and their happy affairs unhappy, and are always kicking and screaming.  When you give a piece of candy to a crying child, the kid grins with eyes full of tears.  The happiness that sentient beings speak of is no better than this.  — Kodo Sawaki Roshi

All of us, without exception, want to be happy, and we think that the best way to be happy is to get what we want, and to get rid of what we don’t want.  This is our natural tendency, but it turns out that it’s not really a winning strategy.  All too often, we can’t get what we want, and we find that even if we do get what we want, we can’t keep it together for very long.  The conditions we brought together will eventually fall apart.  So even if we are happy in a given moment, we are tensing ourselves up for the next moment, in which the conditions of our happiness may change.

Buddhism takes a completely different approach to happiness.  The Buddha taught that happiness does not arise from getting what we want and getting rid of what we don’t want.  Instead, the Buddha taught that the way to happiness is to let go of our ideas of gain and loss and to simply stay close to our own life, in each moment, as it is, whatever it is.  In this context, it’s not about getting what we want, it’s about feeling alive to the fullness of life.  We can’t really control our situation very well, and even if we can, it will eventually fall apart as we inevitably age and lose our capacities.  That’s a pretty grim state of affairs, if that’s the only perspective you have.  Buddhism points to a different way.

Kodo Sawaki often spoke about the transience of our normal approaches to happiness, and this is a very poignant image, a small child grinning with eyes full of tears.  As the parent of a toddler, I see this pretty often, and it always breaks my heart.  We’re all like this, with our happiness or sadness dependent on moment-by-moment conditions that are largely out of our control.  We are tossed around by our emotions and by the inherent transience of life.  Any true spiritual practice must point us to a way beyond getting bounced around in this way.

Sawaki goes on:

To study Buddhism is to study loss.  Shakymuni Buddha is a good example.  He left his father’s palace, his beautiful wife, his lovely child, and gave up his splendid clothes to become a beggar.  He practice begging with bare feet and a shabby robe for the rest of his life.  All the buddhas and ancestors suffer loss intentionally.  It’s a big mistake if we become Buddhist monks hoping to be successful in the world.  No matter what, we are beggars from head to toe.

This passage reminds me of how Katherine Thanas, my first Zen teacher, described Buddhism.  She often said that Buddhism is about moving against the current, that it’s pointing in a direction that is exactly opposite of how we normally think about things.  This is a great example of that.  Of course, we all think that gain is good and that loss is bad.  We are hard-wired with this belief.  But many of us find that it’s exhausting to be constantly wrapped up in keeping score, trying to boost our gains and minimize our losses.  We may eventually want to find another way, a way beyond gain and loss.

But in his commentary to this passage, Uchiyama roshi says:

For us ordinary human beings, the easiest thing to understand is whether we gain or lose.  Our fundamental premise is that gaining is better than losing.  From such a viewpoint Shakyamuni Buddha was a very strange person.  He walked the path of loss without thinking of gain.  Why did he begin on such a path?  All conditioned things are impermanent; therefore the criteria of loss and gain are constantly changing.  Shakyamuni Buddha saw the limitations of this path of gain and loss and renounced it.  he chose a path beyond gain and loss.  He intentionally walked the path of loss to show us the way beyond gaining and losing.    We ordinary people always dream of gain without loss.  The path beyond loss and gain is the life of the stable self that exists before the separation between subject and object.  It is beyond the duality of lucky and unlucky, rich and poor, superior and inferior.  If we’re poor, it’s fine to be poor.  Right there, we can find a dignified stability.  If we are sick, there too we can find a dignified stability.  When we live with this attitude, there’s absolute stability in the Dharma no matter what conditions we experience.

What a beautiful phrase: “dignified stability”.  When we hear this, we immediately know it’s true.  We know there’s a way beyond the rat race of gain and loss, rich and poor.

It is through our practice of zazen that we immediately connect with this place.  When we come to the zendo, assume the meditation posture, and bring our attention to the present moment, we can contact our lives directly, without the mediation of this constant evaluation of how a situation can be worked out to our advantage.  Even if we find ourselves judging our zazen, we can see that judgement with a greater perspective and give it space to come and go. This is what is meant by dignified stability.

Talking to Grief, by Denise Levertov

Ah, grief, I should not treat you

like a homeless dog,

who comes to the back door

for a crust, for a meatless bone.

I should trust you.

I should coax you

into the house and give you

my own corner,

a worn mat to lie on,

your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living

under my porch.

You long for your real place to be readied

before winter comes. You need

your name,

your collar and tag. You need

the right to warn off intruders,

to consider

my house your own

and me your person

and yourself

my own dog.


–Taisan Joe Galewsky