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    What Is This?


    Telephone answering machines were introduced into modern life around twenty five years ago.  They soon became an indispensable asset in our complex and busy world.  From the start, the recorded announcement that people left on the machines were elaborate and creative, intending to be humorous and entertaining to the caller.   

    Back in those days while I was still working, I needed to talk to a colleague about a project we were working on together.  It was the weekend, so I called him at home.  I got his recording machine.  It said: “You know what this is, you know what to do.” I felt this to be a refreshing change from the too cute announcements so common at the time.  It was to the point, while making fun of the more elaborate announcements.  It was a joke, and I was in on the joke.   I did know what to do because I did know what this is.  

    Today we all know about answering machines.  But what if we came from another world?  What if we encountered one without knowing about such devices?  What if we did not know what this is?   We would not know how to respond to: “You know what to do.”  We would be confused; we would need someone to explain the machine to us.

    When new people come to Kannon Do, we have a responsibility to help them learn what to do.  We can explain and we can show.  And we can encourage them to pay attention and point out that, with practice, they will become familiar with what to do. This explanation is logical, objective, and straightforward.  But what this is is subtle and inexplicable; we cannot really explain it; we can only start with what to do.  Yet, we are actually beginning with the subtle and mysterious part - we are expressing what this is when we mindfully explain what to do, when we emphasize care and attention in our explaining.   HOW we provide the message of what to do is also a message, no less important than providing the details.  

    So we are careful of our language, avoiding rules-oriented terminology, such as “You should always do it this way,” emphasizing instead encouragement, pointing out that the practice is an exploration, rather than a project and that there are no mistakes, only an individual’s sincere effort.

    The background for giving instructions needs to be based on our own practice.  And the background for our relationships needs to be selflessness, that is, not oriented towards our self, but towards others.  Simply telling people what to do is not practice; if we correct people without our own background of practice we  create a separation, losing the chance for a friendly, trusting connection. 

    This means that in our practice what to do is always an expression of what this is.  So if someone arrives late for zazen, we say nothing.  Or if someone makes a noise, we say nothing.  We just continue sitting.    If someone continues to be noisy or stands up and sits down frequently, we do not criticize or say “You are bothering others.”  We try to show what to do through our practice,  expressing what this is, perhaps by saying: “Can I make a suggestion?” or “Our practice is to be quiet now.”

    When we are born into this world, we don’t know what to do; it is actually arriving from another world.  So over the years, little by little, we learn what to do to take of our self by experiencing the everyday activities of the relative world - the what this is in the objective sense.  We are taught by parents, relatives, friends, and teachers.  We learn by observing, doing, and making mistakes.  But how do we learn what this is in the universal sense?  Can our parents or teachers truly explain?  

    Continuous, dedicated zazen practice enables us to discover what this is.  Then we understand the meaning of our life and always know what to do, that is, how to respond to what we are called on to do in our immediate circumstances.  Inherently, we already know what this is.  Only, we need to practice to understand.  Without practice, we actually don’t know what to do in the large sense, even though we may have a successful life and feel we know all that we need to know. Each of us has to discover what this is and what to do through our own effort.

    The first time I visited Eiheiji monastery in Japan, I got into a conversation with a young monk who was welcoming tourists in the reception area.  He spoke English very well and wanted to learn about Zen practice in the United States.   Apparently,  we talked too long, because another monk came up to us and gave my new friend a severe scolding - in public - for spending so much time with one tourist.  He smiled at me and said, “I have to go now.”

    This is one way to show what to do.   The young monks cannot walk away; they have to learn to accept harsh criticism - justified or not - without reacting.   As a training technique, it causes the trainees to drop off their egos.  It is useful for monks in the monastery, but for us we have to find a more appropriate, creative way to demonstrate what to do, and what this is, in each situation. 

    With experience, we can learn about machines and mechanically learn what this is.  Then we will knowwhat to do, mechanically.   We will know how to leave the message on the machine.  With experience, mechanically learning what to do is no problem.  But our life is not mechanical.  Things are constantly changing and we are always encountering strange, new situations.   What to do is rarely predefined or explicit.  To know what to do in a large sense, we need to know what this is, with big mind.  We need to constantly return to empty mind, to selflessness. 

    We all need to know how to do things in our everyday world; that is, we need to know what to do, mechanically.  The skill is vital for taking care of ourselves and each other and our world.  But what we truly want to know about life is what this is.  This is the important point to recognize.   We cannot be satisfied with a life that is only mechanical, because we are not mechanical beings.   So we practice, continuously exploring what this is, expressing this wisdom in our relationships with things and with people.