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Pure Practice

In our practice, we try to keep our mind pure and natural, unperturbed, like a clear stream high in the mountains, clean and life-giving.  But to have this kind of mind is often not so easy.  Something extra continually arises, something that muddies the clarity of mind. This “something extra” appears out of our activity of grasping, out of our  desires, expectations, and ambition. 

When we try to gain something from zazen practice, the mind feels separated from the body, as if the mind is trying to make the body a servant. In its desire, the “mind” is saying to the “body,” “Take this posture so that I can get enlightenment (or freedom or wisdom or peace of mind).”   Then the “body” thinks, “This posture is uncomfortable. Why should I put up with this for you?” So the “body” resists and “body” and “mind” are at war.  Actually, the mind is at war with itself, on one side the desire to attain something, on the other side the desire for comfort.  So instead of harmony, we feel separation and discouragement.  Rather than continuing to practice when feeling discouraged, most people will give up zazen, feeling “It doesn’t work” or “It doesn’t give me what I want.” This attitude is a result of misunderstanding, as the source of discouragement is not some impersonal “it ” but rather our own desires.   When we pay attention to discouragement rather than turning away, we can discover that our mind is at war with imaginary enemies.

The point of Zen practice is not to attain something. Rather, practice is our effort to go beyond the desires that arise in our everyday life, to go beyond experiences we have in zazen, beyond scriptures, beyond ideas of practice, beyond ideas of Buddha, beyond ideas of Zen. To “go beyond” means to have no idea of such ideas, to let these ideas dissolve, and to return to our posture and our breath. To “go beyond” means no separation between body and mind.

If we should have an exciting, insightful experience during zazen and feel, “This is it!” we have to be careful not to become too excited or attached to that experience.   It is nothing special; we should just observe it and let it pass. Trying to keep it in memory or repeat it means our mind continues to be driven by desires. As Suzuki-roshi said, “Even though you attain enlightenment, you should not try to have that same experience again.” The important point is to devote our self completely to practice, without dreaming, wishing, or complaining, just allowing body and mind to be engaged in one practice. Then the mind will not wander off and discomfort will not become an emotional problem.

The best way for us to proceed is to quietly and gently renew our intention to practice without the muddiness of desire. When we practice with unselfish intention, our mind becomes more subtle and flexible, and will not be concerned with holding on to a particular point of view or belief.  Instead, it will be ready to accept things as they are and accept things as they arise.

Without clinging, our mind will be like a still pool of water, moment by moment reflecting whatever appears. Just as a clear pool does not have its own permanent “face,” the mind of practice reflects all images without distortion or pollution. We often find it difficult to keep this kind of soft mind because of our human stubbornness.   We want to hold on to the image of our “face,” the comforting image of our self, of our ideas, beliefs, and how we want the world to see us.  But stubbornness eventually leads to discouragement and giving up.

Some years ago, a woman called and asked, “Is your library open to the public?” I explained that it was for members only. She was disappointed and asked if other centers allowed non-members to use their libraries. She did not ask about the activities at this center, about the practice itself.

It is easy to read and to study Buddhism and Zen through books, seminars, or lectures. But just “knowing” about philosophy, teaching, or practice cannot help resolve our question, that is, why we are seeking in the first place. Without the effort of practice, the knowledge becomes just a collection of information, like hoarding food: if we don’t use it in our life, it cannot help. It is foolish to have a “store away” kind of practice; we cannot practice by “storing away” ideas. We have to have to actually do it with body and mind.

Practice requires determination to have an unselfish attitude. It is not limited to reading great books to learn something useful and interesting. And it is not about having exciting experiences. When our mind does not long to gain something, our attitude becomes, “I will continue practice whatever happens, or however I feel, independent of experiences good or bad.” With this attitude, our mind will be flexible and our expectations will dissolve.

Traditional Zen practice is based on a monastic way of life, beginning with Buddha’s Sangha. Monks live together in close community, sharing responsibilities. Their time is devoted to meditation and taking care of each other and their environment. They have little concern for politics or economics and avoid worldly distractions. And they cannot voluntarily stay away from the zendo. Monks can live and practice this way but it is difficult for lay people, who have many worldly responsibilities.

So if we want to practice in the larger society with everyone, we have to make an extra effort. We have to discipline our selves and motivate our selves. In the monastery, someone else provides “discipline” and the monks have no choice except to follow rules and procedures. But each of us has a choice: we can practice in its true sense or not; we can continue, or quit at any time. Being active in the everyday world, many reasons may arise that will pull us away from practice. So we need strong determination to continue. Which do you prefer: self-discipline or discipline provided by someone else?

Determination arises from focusing on what is important, and rejecting the frivolous. Practice emphasizes opening our eyes to what is substantial and pure, to stay with it and not to be distracted by ideas of excitement. In other words, when we are thirsty, we should not exchange a glass of water for a glass of sweet, sparkling soda just because the taste is pleasing to the tongue. We should continually remind our self that pure water is life and that our practice should be like that.