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Why Do You Practice?

“Why do you practice?”  You may hear this question from friends or relatives after you have been practicing for awhile - after several months, or after several years. “Why do you do Zen  practice? Why do you sit in that uncomfortable posture?”  People may ask out of curiosity or   interest, when they realize you are continuing to practice.  When you hear their question, you might have an answer, some idea of why you practice.  The answer might feel clear, you may feel you know why you practice, but very often you will have a vague, tentative answer.  Yet if you think about it, if you reflect on that question, you will recognize the feeling why you started practice. 

We come to Zen practice for a reason. But usually what we think is the reason is not the real reason at all. Most often, the initial reason has to do with concern for our own well-being. We might want to gain  wisdom, or understanding; we might want to feel empowered in some way; perhaps we want to improve our personality, or not feel isolated, or gain control of our life when we feel it is out of control.  At the start, we come to practice for a personal reason, which, at the time, feels perfectly valid.

However,  those kinds of reasons are limited views of what this practice is about. Because those views are personal, we tend to see this practice as a method or technique for improving our life. But to improve our self or our life is a misunderstanding of the practice. At best, it is only partially true. Yet it is a very natural goal  when we first start. 

At some point we have to  recognize and understand that Zen practice is not a technique that we can try to use for our own personal well-being. This practice is a universal activity;  it is not intended for any of us in particular. And it is based on having  a wide vision of the world,  a view that goes beyond our individual self.  But even though the real reason why we practice isn't completely understood when we first start, it turns out that each one of us comes to practice for the same  reason, the true reason.   It can be very subtle so we may not be completely aware of what it is.

We practice to discover the deepest part of our self. We want to bring to light our universal self, the self beyond the personal.  We  want to bring into our life the universal self that has been asleep, or hidden from us. We come to this practice because we feel the need for a more complete understanding. We want to know truly what our life is. We want an understanding that is unconstrained, that is comprehensive, and that has the ring of truth of who we are, of what we are, and what our life is for. In other words, we come to this practice because we no longer want to feel like a small piece in a puzzle. We want to see and feel included  in the entire picture, the big picture. And we don't want to feel like a machine, with our life restricted to some kind of mechanical function.  So even though we may not be fully aware of the true reason, we sense  there is more to life than we have experienced so far.  We seek the practice,  and at some point, we begin to understand the real reason. And we need to accept, we need to admit the real reason, and that it is not limited to something personal. In other words, we come to understand that practice is not about gaining something, other than knowing ourselves. 

So each one of us comes to practice to understand the nature and the meaning of existence. Maybe you come to practice because you never thought about the meaning of existence, but now you feel it is time you should. Or may be you have developed some doubts about what you have  always believed is the meaning of your existence and you come to practice because you have doubts.   Or maybe you have been thinking for a long time about  the meaning of your life and the meaning of existence, but have not come up with a satisfactory answer. Or maybe you are frightened there is no answer, and you want some reassurance that there is.

We come to practice to fully understand the true meaning, because we are not content with a trivial meaning.  Here at this temple, we have the opportunity to practice together. At a place like this, our job is to provide encouragement for each other, and for individuals just starting out on this journey.  Practicing together provides encouragement to others to continue their practice, especially when doubts arise and it feels like practicing is  a mistake.  What seems like a mistake is actually only  a misunderstanding, which clarifies when we perceive the real reason  we came to practice.  Until then, we pursue the misunderstood reason, the self-oriented reason, which leads us nowhere. And so we may become discouraged because we haven't yet had a glimmer of the real reason. If we practice for a  self-oriented reason, it will keep us on the outer edge of practice. So through our own effort, we provide encouragement to not stay on the edge of practice, because eventually that leads to disappointment. 

We come to practice because we know something. We may know it only dimly, but we know it  deeply. We know that even though we may be confused about what we are seeking, and  even though we may feel isolated at times,  we know there is a path to the deepest part of ourselves. It is what led us to practice.  Sometimes this deepest part is called the heart or the soul, terms that are very endearing and  sentimental.  They are used in love songs and in poetry to stir our emotions. And they can be misleading or distracting when what we really want is to know the deepest part of ourselves.  So in our practice  we avoid using terminology such as  soul or heart. But we  have to say something, so we say something  ambiguous like “the deepest part,” or “true self,” or “true nature,” or “Buddha nature.” If we are asked what it means, we can’t give an exact answer.  But we use that kind of terminology to point to something. 

Our true nature, our true self, is not sentimental and it is not emotional.  It is the part of ourselves that is spiritually mature.  It is what we want to awaken, what we want to express. We want to be liberated from emotional attachments, to be objective in our life, but at the same time, not unfeeling.  We want to be generous, warm-hearted, open-minded,  accepting, non-judgmental, and caring. And we and want to have a large vision. 

This deepest part of ourselves may not be in our conscious  awareness but it is always present.  Sometimes we get a glimpse of it, and we are encouraged by that quick peek.  So when our practice lets go of its original self-oriented reasons, we create the opportunity to recognize the true reason why we practice. 

At the end of this evening, we will recite, as is our tradition, the Four Bodhisattva Vows.  If we try to understand them in the usual way of comprehending words, they seem very far out of reach, beyond what any human being is capable of  doing.  The four Bodhisattva Vows seem unrealistic until we recognize them as the essence of our practice. And we find them to be the path to the deepest part of ourselves, to our original self, our infinite self.  With this discovery, the Four Bodhisattva Vows no longer seem out of reach.   Practicing on the path to the deepest part of ourselves is the only way to organize ourselves, to orient ourselves from the center, starting with what we already have, not with what we hope to gain. 

We talk about true nature, Buddha nature, true self, or big self.  We can't describe it, but what we know is that it has the wisdom to make the final determination on how we should proceed with our life. It is what we have been seeking. Our true nature, our original self, is independent -  unscripted  and spontaneous. At the same time, it is very firm and strong, full of confidence. It is not susceptible to the distractions of the everyday world. And it is not subject to a personal or karmic past. It is originally independent, beyond our society's overwhelming emphasis on thinking, on analyzing, and on sentimentality. Suzuki-roshi once said that to attach to thinking and emotions is what creates the fear of death.

But sentimentality is an important part of our lives.  It is a natural part of being human. It inspires warmth and support, and it inspires caring for our friends and our family and for others. And nostalgia is also an important part of our life. When we re-live happy memories, we have a very calm and joyous feelings. Sentimental and nostalgic feelings show us that we do have feelings.  They show us that we are alive, they affirm our life. So we should appreciate our capacity to be sentimental, and to be nostalgic. Bu - as we learn from our practice - we have to be  careful not to be overwhelmed by such emotions, as they are mental pictures of a virtual world, a world that feels real but that doesn't really exist. And if they do overwhelm us, we will miss the real world. In other words, we will not hear the sound of a bird or see the blossom if we listen only to our own desires, to our own emotions. We should acknowledge them, but not become overwhelmed by them. To express our true nature, we need to have a vision without delusions. We need to have a vision without filters so that we can recognize the unambiguous simplicity of just being.