During World War II, when I visited a coal mine in Kyushu, they allowed me to go into the mine. Like the miners, I put on a hard hat with a headlamp and went down in an elevator. For a while, I thought the elevator was going down very fast. Then I started to feel as if it were going up. I shone my headlamp on the shaft and realized the elevator was still going down steadily. When an elevator starts descending with increasing speed, we feel it going down, but once the speed becomes fixed, we feel as if the elevator were rising. The balance has shifted. In the ups and downs of life, we’re deceived by the difference in the balance.
Saying “I’ve had satori!” is only feeling a difference in the balance. Saying “I’m deluded!” is feeling another. To say food tastes delicious or terrible, to be rich or poor, all are just feelings about shifts in the balance.
In most cases, our ordinary way of thinking only considers differences in the balance.
Human beings put I into everything without knowing it. We sometimes say “That was really good!” What is it good for? It’s just good for me, that’s all.
We usually do things expecting some personal profit. And if the results turn out different from our hidden agenda, we feel disappointed and exhausted.
–Kodo Sawaki Roshi
We live our lives immersed in the subjective world of me and mine. Everything is evaluated in terms of the relative balance of our preferences. That this is even a framework that could be questioned is beyond most of us before we come to practice. It’s the water we swim in. Zazen is the practice, the realization of stepping outside of this framework. It’s not a preparatory practice that we do so that some time down the road we might be able to have some special experience that allows us to see outside of the framework. When we sit down, take the posture, and bring our awareness to our breath, body and mind, we immediately set aside this subjective agenda. It’s not that the agenda disappears. We notice the thoughts about this balance arising all the time during zazen. My knee hurts. I wonder if it would hurt less if I move it just a little bit. I wonder when the bell is going to ring? I hope the dharma talk isn’t boring tonight. I have some acid reflux. I wish I had taken an antacid before zazen.
On and on it goes, but because we have made a commitment to just sit in nonreactivity, we don’t act on those impulses. We notice them and their ceaseless arising, but by not engaging with them, we get some perspective on them, we see how this constant stream of evaluation is entire subjective world.
In his commentary to this passage by Kodo Sawaki, Uchiyama Roshi says about this point:
Good or bad luck is always our main concern. But in reality, is there good or bad fortune? There isn’t. There are only calculations using our expectations as a yardstick. . . it’s human to have expectations, but clinging to them causes suffering. If we can loosen our grip on expectations and settle down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment, we find unshakeable peace of mind, and a truly stable life unfolds. Doing zazen is ceasing to be a person always gauging gain and loss and evaluating life according to such calculations.
This idea of settling down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment is the key point, I think. Our practice doesn’t make us into some sort of super-beings who are always grooving on whatever is going on. But we can come to see that whatever our experience is, is just the side of the balance at this moment. It may meet our preferences or not, but we can settle into that moment with some ease and spaciousness.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t participate in the relative world. We still have our jobs and our families, we vote in elections, we have to buy new tires for our car, we have to fix the water heater, we have to make choices all the time. Even during zazen, when the instruction and the commitment is to not move, we sometimes have to move. When that moment arises, we don’t beat ourselves up about it, we just move, quietly and efficiently and don’t make a big deal out of it. Zen isn’t quietism, and we don’t use our spiritual practice to avoid making the hard choices that we face in a normal human life. Instead, zazen gives us room in which to inhabit our lives without getting so terribly wrapped up in the constant subjective analysis that we usually live with.
This is a subtle practice, and while our words can point to it, it’s not something that we can necessarily grasp with our conscious mind. As Dogen Zenji wrote in Genjo Koan:
Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.
We live in a multidimensional world but can only experience the four dimensions of space and time. The other dimensions can be intuited, but perhaps not directly grasped.
This reminds me of something that Shohaku Okumura taught in a sesshin he led at San Francisco Zen Center many years ago. He said (and I am paraphrasing here):
When we make a map of the world, we have to use a map projection and because of that, there is always some distortion. The point of zazen isn’t to throw the map away or to make a better map; instead, the point of zazen is just to sit directly on the Earth.
This is an intuitive practice. We can talk about it at the edges, we can point to it indirectly, but ultimately, it’s something we have to experience directly.
The great Beat poet Philip Whalen was a Zen priest in our lineage and I recently came across a section of poem that he wrote that evokes some of this sense:
Chaos is an ideal state
None of us has ever experienced it
We are familiar with confusion, muddle and disarray
True disorder is inaccessible to us
–Taisan Joe Galewsky