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