Respect for Things

“[To do things in the easiest way] is very convenient, but it will givmason-haspray_300e us a lazy feeling. Of course this kind of laziness is part of our culture, and it eventually causes us to fight with each other. Instead of respecting things, we want them for ourselves, and if it is difficult to use them, we want to conquer them. This kind of idea does not accord with the spirit of practice.”

Shunryu Suzuki, “Respect for Things” from Not Always So


In this talk, Suzuki roshi emphasizes an attitude of respect for the particular things that constitute our life. Chairs, shutters, tools, even our bodies. The point of zazen is not to be a perfect sitter, but to gradually refine our capacity to engage an active caring posture toward our actual life, in the world. At first this capacity might be quite small. Maybe we can only pay respectful attention for a millisecond. Since we are actually only living our lives moment by moment, I think this is still pretty good.

With the help of good teachers and practice guidelines, I began investigating a different sort of quality in my own zazen practice a few years back. I noticed persistent patterns of physical and mental tension manifesting in my life, and I saw it in my zazen. I noticed that I could sit still, but I felt a bit wooden. Part of my solution to this was to practice being “lighter” in my attention. In essence, I began to be more gentle with my own thoughts and feelings. I was gentler toward them, more respectful, and I approached “stillness” or “no thinking” with a lighter touch. I wouldn’t expect to keep focused on it, but rather I hoped to just brush past it occasionally. It’s hard to describe; it is an intuitive thing.

We had a guest speaker last year, Beatte Stolte, and she described after many years of very serious Zen discipline (maybe too serious?), she had basically given up “zazen” altogether, and she was delving into

Riding the Tamed Ox

Tibetan teachings. My paraphrasing (which is only that, and unfairly succinct) is that she considered it something a waste of time/energy to sit still if you don’t naturally feel “still.” I can’t agree with her in this, at least not completely. I think practicing stillness can help, in various ways both concrete and subtle. I can wholeheartedly agree with the impulse to be a lot more natural and gentle with ourselves and with zazen. I agree with her that we need to gently and patiently “tame the ox.” Or as in the book The Little Prince, tame the fox.

The fox actually wanted to be tamed, but only as an act of love. Not in a game of domination. That is not a truly lasting or nourishing sort of relationship. As Suzuki roshi points out, we have to be aware of our human and culture propensity to control through domination – imposing our will. This can be quite subtle. Subtle or obvious, this is not the “spirit of our practice.”fox

Roshi points here to how change begins within our own hearts and minds. This is why we are drawn to practice. I fully believe that everyone coming to zazen already understands all of these teachings, and that part that understands drags you to zazen in order to express it with one’s whole body and heart/mind. This turns the self-improvement angle a bit upside down, but this is what our tradition says. This is what distinguishes Dogen’s approach, which is only the Zen approach, which is only Things As It Is. Water is wet; fire heats. Eyes horizontal; nose vertical.

Roshi describes how Zen teaches that we should see a 16-foot Golden Buddha in a blade of grass – meaning sacredness in mundane things. He says maybe this is easy for some people, but it’s not for him. In that recognition, rather than just get bummed out, he finds energy to practice. So we have both sides – recognition of our fundamental, active wisdom, contrasted with the impediments to actualizing that in our life. Turning toward zazen, we respectfully turn toward this dilemma. We could call this turning itself a prayer for the betterment of this culture roshi speaks of, where lazy mindedness gives rise to greed, and a sort of spiritual laxity, leading directly to conflict and abuse. The deeply personal is indeed profoundly political. We can vote with our attention, moment to moment. I know for myself, I feel deeply supported by zazen in this work.


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