Nurturing Intention

I started practicing karate when I was a teenager, and soon after, I began to notice a phenomenon that now seems, to me, ordinary. A new person would come to the dōjō, love it, and declare that he was going to dedicate his life to the martial arts. And then he’d disappear. It seemed, in many cases, that a person’s longevity was inversely proportionate to his or her enthusiasm. I understood that not everyone follows through on everything, but the predictability of this always seemed strange.

By the time I started to see this in the Zen world, it just seemed sad and familiar. During my time in Alaska, two young people came and spoke with me very seriously about the prospect of ordaining as a priest.  They had never come to sit with the AZC; in fact, they’d never sat anywhere, with anyone, ever. In both cases, I suggested that before they change their names, put on robes, and enter a monastery, perhaps they should just come and sit with us, but the response was that they wanted the “real thing,” not this sit-in-the-morning-in-someone’s-living-room, play-acting version of Zen. I encouraged them to come; they didn’t come. That was the end of it.

Another young man wanted to travel with me to Japan one summer to train at a monastery, but he didn’t want to come sit with the AZC there in his own town. He told me without any irony how serious he was, how committed. It’s easy, after a string of these encounters, to just dismiss someone like this, but I do believe that as he made his case to me, he did feel that serious — he did believe that he was that committed, even though he had no idea either of what he was asking for or what he was rejecting. He was, in his way, sincere.

I suspect that this same scene is played out at Zen centers around the world, all the time. In Anchorage, someone would come and sit for the first time and stay talking with me in the doorway for half an hour afterwards, thanking me and saying she’s finally found her true home. And I’d never see her again. It’s recognizable even mid-conversation — you feel, with some certainty, that this exuberant hello is really goodbye.

Since I started this blog, a couple of people have written to ask for help in getting into a monastery in Japan. These are people with no teacher and no experience, just an idea that they know exactly what they need to do: become a Zen monk and train in Japan. I asked if they could sit with a local group, maybe cultivate a relationship with the guiding teacher there. In both cases, there was a nearby group, but in both cases, attending was out of the question. They wanted the “real thing.” Sitting with a bunch of ordinary people in jeans and t-shirts is fine for some, but not if you really want to solve the great matter of life and death.

I struggle sometimes to understand what this is all about, and how best to address it. Some people are just flaky, or flighty. That’s true anywhere. Most have created a narrative about the practice, or themselves, or both. If it’s the practice, it’s often connected to the idea that it’s all or nothing, that one either ordains and trains like Dōgen or stays home (unfortunately, this often brings with it the idea that the people actually attending the Zen center are fooling themselves); if it’s about themselves, then perhaps it’s that they see, in that first encounter with Zen, a vehicle for becoming the person they want to be, disciplined and compassionate and wise, and special.

Both of those narratives are mistaken. If we want to say that Zen is all or nothing, that’s not wrong, but “all” doesn’t mean what we think it does (nor does “nothing,” for that matter). However, we can just as easily say that it’s neither all nor nothing, that it’s just this. It just is what it is. If it’s sitting once a week on Sundays, that’s what it is; if it’s sitting six hours a day in robes in a 600-year-old building, then it’s that too. What it isn’t, in any case, is the version of it that you can’t have right now. And as for Zen making us who we want to be, that just isn’t the case. It doesn’t even do the Hallmark-card reverse: making us want to be who we are. Zen is about letting go of who we are. It’s radically not special. Along the way, as we navigate what that all means, it can even be a little depressing.

And yet, underneath all these misunderstandings and misguided intentions, there is what’s called hosshin (発心), the awakening of the mind to practice. Hosshin is the original wake-up call, the one that lets us know — even though we probably can’t articulate why or what it means — that this is important. Teachings tell us that this hosshin is what leads us to shugyō (修行), actual practice. Shugyō leads us to bodai (菩提), or letting go of the self. Bodai leads us to nehan (涅槃), letting go of letting go. And in the Zen tradition, we say that nehan then brings us back to hosshin, where we start the cycle over again. (One of my teachers describes this like turning a screw — if you look from the top, it seems you’re just going in circles, but if you look from the side, you see that you’re constantly going deeper and deeper.)

In short, hosshin is important. But by definition, when that mind is first aroused, it will bring with it all sorts of delusions and misunderstandings and immature views of what it all means. Someone looking at Zen from the perspective of hosshin cannot know what the practice really is, nor can they even begin to guess what it might produce. It’s just this feeling, this recognition. It’s what gets us through the door. Without it, nothing happens.

So when we see it, we see something precious, something to be nurtured and encouraged and supported, like a child. But often it also brings with it a childish view, one that is impatient and self-centered and unforgiving.

I feel a lot of love for these young (they’re usually young) people who come to the practice as if they’re on fire. I was like that — every wrong idea I’ve ever heard about the practice is one that I’ve had myself. When I was about twenty, I wrote a long letter to a teacher I’d met (a student of Thich Nhat Hanh’s) announcing that I recognized her as my true teacher, that I wished to formally be her student and dedicate myself wholly to her teachings and to the Dharma. She was the only teacher I’d ever met, but I just knew. It wasn’t that I knew about her, though I respected her deeply — it was that I felt, in my bones, that there had to be more to the practice than what I was doing, and that I had to be special for knowing that. I told her I was awaiting her orders, ready to jump and do whatever she needed me to do. I was ready.

She never wrote back. I waited and waited, but that letter didn’t come. When I think of it now, I’m embarrassed for what I wrote — not for the feeling behind it, but because I sense that she saw, in that letter, what I have come to recognize in people who appear from nowhere and say they want to move to Japan and train in a monastery. I was that guy. But I also feel grateful. She wasn’t my true teacher. I wasn’t her true student. Her silence — whatever her reasons — freed me to find my way to where I am today, to my teachers, to this tradition.

Mostly, when I think of that letter, I feel unsure about skillful means. That teacher saw a choice to either feed my intention or starve my delusion — she chose to starve the delusion, and from where I stand, that was exactly the right thing to do. And yet, and yet– When someone comes to me with great delusional dreams of jumping in head first, bald and bigger than life and engulfed in flames, of course I see the delusion, but my heart wants to feed the intention, to try to find a way to the mind that just now recognized, for the first time, something so huge and doesn’t know what to do with it, or even what it is.

When I talk with other teachers about ordained disciples, they’ll sometimes talk about the one or two that “got away” as if completely losing at least a few people in that way is a foregone conclusion, a predictable outcome. There’s an assumption that sometimes, despite our best efforts, the balance just won’t be right.

I, for one, have not figured it out. How to applaud with one hand while wielding a sword in the other? I don’t know.

I really don’t.

A French translation of this post can be found here.

Monasteries and the Real World

When I was a teenager, one of my teachers told us about his list of “required” experiences. These were experiences that he felt were prerequisites to being a fully alive, aware person. I remember nothing of that list except one: spend a night in jail. I asked him if he’d ever spent a night in jail. He had. (I have not.)

Twenty-five years later, I wonder how much of his list I’ve covered, and how much it’s changed. If I were to meet him and tell him about my life, would he feel that my life is on track, or would he only see gaps in experience? What about things I’ve done that he has not? Would he find them threatening? Would he dismiss them as distractions?

I’m aware, both in the Zen community and in myself, of our tendency to define what is real and what is not according our own experiences. It’s natural. Anyone who has kids (this is especially true of new parents) probably has the experience of talking to a childless friend and thinking, “This guy doesn’t know anything about the real world. He has no idea.” And many young people have the opposite experience — talking to a friend whose life revolves around her children and thinking, “Wow, she’s completely lost in her narrow little world.” When we are among the initiated, we imagine that it couldn’t possibly be any other way; when we are outsiders, we mock the people on the inside for their self-importance.

So it’s natural that in the Zen community, we tend to advocate a kind of training similar to what we ourselves have experienced. There are only a few Zen teachers in the US who are products of a traditional monastic system, and as a result, there are only a few who feel strongly about passing that system on. There are some on the extreme other side who feel monastic practice is a complete waste of time, then a majority in the middle who feel that it’s OK for people who are into that sort of thing, or who feel it might have value in small, manageable chunks. But, at least for the moment, there is very little energy behind establishing monastic training opportunities for the current and future generations of Soto Zen priests.

That’s how I see it, based on conversations with other priests, attendance at national meetings, and perusal of what’s written on various Zen center websites. A few teachers may still hold up “the monastery” as a kind of abstract, romantic ideal, but much more often, the language we hear is “outside the monastery,” or “beyond the monastery” (if the monastery is mentioned at all). Many, many teachers reference the monastery not as an ideal, but as something that is fundamentally at odds with modern living. It’s the problem with Zen. And when I read such statements, I always wonder, “Who is the audience here?” If American Zen teachers are already not actively advocating monastic training, then against whom are we arguing? At this moment in the history of Zen, abandoning monastic practice is hardly a revolutionary move.

I think there are legitimate and constructive conversations to be had about this: What is monastic training? What’s it about? If there is a goal, what is it? What does it produce? How has it justified its existence up to now, and do those justifications hold up in a modern, Western context? If yes, then what causes our cultural resistance to such practice? And if not, why not? What aspects of the monastic tradition in Japan can find traction in the US? Which require modification? Which don’t stand a chance from the start? And how do we determine such things? If we attempt to establish an “American” monastic model, what is our inspiration? Modern Japanese monasteries? The monastic guidelines (shingi) left behind by Dogen? By Keizan? Do we go back further, to the shingi from China? Do we go back to the beginning, to the birth of the monastic sangha in Buddha’s time and take our cues from that original structure? American culture hates rules, but it also has a deep puritanical streak that connects to the tradition of the vinaya (browse almost any Buddhist blog’s comments section to find people insisting that any monk who is not celibate and poor is a scam artist, a sexual-predator-to-be who’s just in it for the money).  How can we fund monasteries in the US, knowing that the Asian models of patronage just won’t work?

At the center of all of it: What is a priest?

These are really interesting questions. These are among the most compelling questions I’ve ever encountered.

But before we can address any of them, we need to move beyond the popular idea that the monastery is somehow different from the “real world.” This idea is everywhere. I hear over and over again that we don’t need monastics, because monastics can’t possibly understand the challenges of ordinary people. People refer to monastic life as something sheltered, a way of hiding from “real life.” They say, “Get a job.” This could only make sense to someone who is looking at monasteries from the outside.

One night in the monastery, I slept in a closet to hide from a monk who had gone down to the local village, gotten drunk, and decided upon his return that this was his night to kill me and the monk in charge. I just stayed where he couldn’t find me, and the next day we found our mutual ways back into the normal routine. I watched a monk trying to break a sleeping monk’s face with a kyosaku (but missed, luckily – it was dark). One evening after dinner, after hearing the next day’s job assignments, a monk who felt he spent too much time in the kitchen jumped completely over a table and tried to strangle the shuso (chief novice). I watched a fistfight break out over how much or how little monks should be involved in politics. A monk went crazy one day and basically destroyed a room, like a wild animal trapped indoors. We all waited in the hallway for it to end, then went in and silently cleaned it up.

For a time, the head monk, hell-bent on saving money, tried to force us to eat rotten pickles every day – so rotten that they had turned from yellow to a deep blue. One afternoon, I just went into the woods, dug a hole, and buried them.

In winter, when the head monk had to suddenly leave for medical reasons, some of the junior monks holed up in a room for three weeks. They were free, and their version of embracing freedom was to close the door and keep their little kerosene stove burning constantly, with the windows closed, essentially gassing themselves into a constant toxic sleep. They’d stumble out from time to time, looking intoxicated and confused, then wobble down the hall to raid the kitchen. During that whole period, I don’t think I ever heard any of them actually speak.

A monastery is not some romantic place where people spend their days serving each other tea and thinking about saving all beings. When we look beyond the schedule of ceremonies and zazen, what we find in monasteries is an experiment in intimacy. It’s an intimacy with others — more than once, I’ve heard it likened to a pot full of potatoes, rubbing against each other until they’re all skinned and shiny white. It’s also an intimacy with yourself. If you sit six hours of zazen a day, every once in a while, zazen will slip away and you’ll find yourself thinking about things — a recurring theme, guaranteed, will be, “What the hell am I doing here?” You have time in a monastery to go over every mistake you’ve ever made, to dissect every regret, to luxuriate in self-doubt.

More than anything, it’s an experiment in saying yes. We say yes to the bell, to the schedule, to the demands of being, in many ways, glorified custodians (if you go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 3am, that’s not just an 18-hour day, it’s 16-18 hours of actually working). We say yes to seniors, putting personal issues aside. We say yes to the tradition, to the 24-hour ritual enactment of the life of Buddha, eating this way, standing this way, sleeping this way, sitting this way. And under all of it is the fundamental yes, the one where we decide not to leave, to stay where we are. We agree to move in concert with these crazy people.

In this way, we start to understand what it is to move beyond preferences. A mantra in the monastery is suki kirai kankei nai (好き嫌い関係ない) — essentially, like and dislike are irrelevant. If you’re like me, then in the beginning, you hear this to mean, “Don’t whine.” But it’s much more than that. It’s at the center. When my daughter just bumped her head and my son is tantrum-screaming as if he’s on fire, but it’s something about which cup I gave him, I have lots of preferences about how I would like things to be. And none of them matter.

When we default to the idea that the monastery is another world, we both demonize and romanticize it — we insist that its differences make it irrelevant, and in doing so, we imply that it really is a magical world where bodhisattvas stroll around, unencumbered by human problems. The most basic stance of Buddhism, from its first day, is that human experience is universal — we all see the world through the lens of our own narrative, and in doing so, we all create criteria by which we judge (and thereby distance ourselves from) this moment. We all separate the world before us into “like” and “dislike.” We all believe, consciously or unconsciously, that some things are more “real” than others. We all, I suspect, have a hierarchy of experience.

And if pressed, I’d bet that most of us believe, deep down, that there is some place a person can go to “get away from it all,” a place for retreat.  There is no such place.

There is only this place. In a monastery, too, there is only this place. When this is all there is, how can this be unreal?

When this is all there is, how can there be someplace else to go?

“That’s Not Zen”

Not long ago, I was part of an e-mail exchange among Soto Zen priests about the possibilities surrounding a new monastery being built in the US. One prominent American teacher suggested it was a wasted effort, and when pressed on it, basically said, “To each his own, but a monastery has nothing to do with Zen.”

Laypeople in the US might be surprised to hear how much disagreement there is among American Soto Zen teachers — not just on this point, but on everything. Many aspects of Zen practice, from the bowing to the outfits to the chanting to the overall aesthetic, can seem foreign at first, so from the outside, it may seem that most Zen centers are embracing traditional forms, even to a forbidding degree. It can look as if everyone’s basically doing the same thing. But they’re not, not at all.

It’s a strange thing about Zen that we seem unable to define it to anyone’s satisfaction. The world of Buddhism is huge, and some directions it has taken can be surprising (to say the least), but removed from the question of this sect or that, I think that most informed people could sit down in a room and find remarkable agreement about what defines Buddhism. (What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Khyentse is one example of someone attempting a basic definition, and doing it quite well.) There would be dissent, but a majority could probably come together. Zen just isn’t like that.

The Buddhism section and the Zen section at the bookstore are so often not one and the same — I have many times ranted about how ridiculous that is, but it’s not hard to see how it happens. Even many people in the Zen world might not be able to see the connections. In high school, I wrote a paper about Zen in which I referenced the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, then showed it to an actual zazen-sitting person to get his opinion. The only comment I got was in the margin next to the Noble Truths part: “But in Zen, these don’t apply.” So we can’t even agree on something as seemingly basic as that.

For many people, Zen = zazen. Period. Everything else is window dressing — a support at best, a distraction at worst. It’s very seductive, this idea, except in order to say that Zen is zazen, we have to then ask, What is zazen? What is it? Is it a mental exercise? A physical one? Both? Neither? Some people say zazen includes everything, while others say that if you’re distracted during zazen, then that’s not really zazen. Is zazen something you do? Something you participate in? Something you express? What does it even look like? If you do it in a chair, is that zazen? When we talk about zazen reaching into every moment of the day, is that a kind of resonance, an influence, an echo? Or can ordinary activities themselves actually be zazen? We could probably get most people to at least agree that zazen is critical to any definition of Zen, but if we took that next step to define zazen, it would all fall apart.

There’s another strain of Zen people who talk less about zazen and more about “practice.” In the case of the teacher who said monasteries have nothing to do with Zen, part of his argument was that “everything” is Zen. It’s “everywhere.” I think what is meant by this is that Zen practice is always right under our feet, that practice is the practice of this moment, wherever we are. If so, I agree, completely. But how do we arrive at that? This is a huge idea, too huge to be accepted on face value. Even if Zen practice is always ever-present, implicit in that idea is the more complicated suggestion that Zen practice actually is something distinct, something we can learn to identify — in some kind of context — so that we can then recognize it outside of that place where we first discovered it. That is to say, even if we agree that Zen is everywhere, that does not mean that everywhere is Zen. Zen is something. Otherwise, why do we keep using the word?

I had a friend who used to complain — only half-jokingly — about how much she hated “dharma friends.” Dharma friends are a kind of Buddhist friend who is always jumping right over the relative to the absolute:

My friend: “My boyfriend broke up with me. I’m feeling so sad.”
Dharma friend: “Who is this ‘I’ who is sad, but an ever-changing aggregation of components which are themselves both impermanent and empty of inherent self? And what is this sadness? In attaching to this false idea that ‘I’ am ‘sad,’ you’re just perpetuating your own dualistic delusion. Here, I’ll lend you these great Dharma talks I just downloaded….”

To me, “everything is Zen” sounds like advice from the dharma friend — even if it’s true, it’s not useful, not right now. It’s too removed. It’s an insincere response to a sincere question.

When I first got interested in Zen, I would have used these kinds of words to describe it: cool, rational, simple, creative. (The only word I’d still use is cool. I still think Zen is pretty cool.) Even if I’d hit the mark, these are just adjectives — descriptors of a thing, but not the thing. Adjectives don’t mean that much (and “zen,” when used as an adjective, means even less than most).

The thing called Zen that I have found, through teachers and training and my own inquiry, is an immersive world of ritual enactment, one in which we sit not like the Buddha, but as Buddha (Taigen Leighton’s “Zazen as an Enactment Ritual,” from Zen Ritual should be required reading, along with the rest of the book). We don’t just chant the words of our teachers’ teachers, but we say those words as our own. We bow over and over again, offering ourselves — not symbolically, but literally, completely. We hold a teacup not as if we are holding all beings, but as a complete act, as our point of contact with all beings in that moment. It is a practice with no explicit goal except to do what we are doing without reservation, without hesitation, completely. It’s deeply physical, both in its requirements and in its expression. The things that we hope might come from practice — deepened compassion, awareness, mindfulness, concentration, whatever — are not goals. They are side effects. That’s a very different thing.

If this thing we call Zen (and more specifically, the Soto side of Zen) is definable, if it is a thing, then historically, it has been something like what I have experienced in monasteries. It has been the cultivation and preservation of that atmosphere and those traditions, mostly by monks. That doesn’t mean that Zen has not changed over time. It has, in significant ways. That doesn’t mean it won’t continue to change. It will. Nor does it mean that all the things we say about Zen being relevant in ordinary modern life are untrue, or that “Zen is everywhere” is missing the mark. But again, when we say that, we’re talking about something that starts somewhere, that has a shape, that is recognizable.

For myself, I am amazed when I hear, “Zen is everywhere,” and then, in the same breath, “monasteries have nothing to do with Zen.”

If you were to ask me what “dance” is, and I told you that dance has nothing to do with dance studios or stages, you might not bat an eye. After all, one can dance anywhere. But what if I told you it had nothing to do with the body? What if I told you dance was ineffable, and all-pervasive, and part of our ordinary experience, and also something that most people know nothing about? I can imagine someone with a deep feeling about dance making this kind of argument. But is it meaningful? In this case, even if this comes from a deeply felt sense by the teacher, the message is that dance is just that: a feeling. It’s something that lives only in the world of the mind, an aspect of experience we either recognize or we don’t. You don’t see dance in going to the toilet? You don’t see it in opening a bank account? Well, then, I guess you’re not a dancer yet. Keep working on it.

That’s not good enough.

I am hesitant to define Zen, to say that it is this. Any adequate definition will be complicated, and full of words like sometimes and but also and not just. Limiting it by saying what it is is not the point. But I will say that Zen is not what we think it is, which is to say, Zen is not the experience of Zen (just as zazen is not the experience of zazen).  It’s not our ideas about it. If it is something, then it really is something. It starts somewhere. It has a taste and a feel and a look. If I tell you that it’s the taste in your mouth right now, the feeling in your hands right now, the look of what is directly in front of you right now, in this moment– If I tell you that, I’m not lying. It’s all true.

But it’s also no place to start.

You’re Free to Stay

When I first started reading about Zen, I was struck by the depictions of Zen masters as spontaneous, unconstrained beings.  The word “spontaneous” came up a lot, actually.  They did and said things that could seem shocking, and they always seemed to have just the right response for any given situation.  Zen masters—as they have been presented to us in myth—are masters of a snappy comeback.  They seem to represent a kind of freedom.

This has been confusing, I think, as Zen has made its way to the West.  Zen masters were met on American shores by members of a counterculture that valued freedom above all other things, and there was ample evidence that these little bald men were offering exactly that.  That counterculture rejected ideas of rank and formality.  It rejected the idea that there were any “shoulds” in spiritual practice.

In fact, those bald men came representing a tradition of precision and conformity.  Their training had been to do everything—from washing their faces in the morning to bowing to using the toilet—in a neatly prescribed way, the way their teachers had done it and their teachers had done it, for centuries.  They were products of one of the most elegantly refined systems of vertical hierarchies the world has ever known.  From any Western perspective, they had trained in a very, very tight box.  If they had anything to teach, it was born of that training.  This surprised people then, and it continues to surprise people now, half a century later.

Traditional Zen training, put very simply, is an exercise in living in such a constricted way that one has no choice but to find freedom within those walls.  From my first moment in a monastery, I was told that the only word I should say—for at least the first few months—was “yes.”  When told to do something, the reply is “yes.”  When offered an explanation (rare—more often, one is simply shown), the response is “yes.”  Asking questions suggests that one wasn’t paying attention the first time.  There is no room for complaint; and since no one will ask about your well being, there is no need or opportunity to lie.  We take off our robes just so, pour water just so, hold our bowls just so, walk just so, sit just so, arrange our personal things just so.  We sleep (barely) and eat (barely) and sit (constantly) on a single 3×6 mat, and to this, we say “yes.”

This is not prison.  This is not a punishment.  I chose to be there.  I could walk away anytime.  During the first days, this was like a mantra in my head:  “I chose this.”  In fact, people leave all the time.  During spring and fall, when new monks enter, it is not unusual to wake and find that a person is simply gone, that all their possessions have been cleaned away.  A phone call later that day will find that monk at home, and we never see him again.  No one pressures anyone to stay.

The first week, called tangaryō, has been written about a lot, but I’ll add my story.  I entered Zuiouji on March 1, and though it had been cold in the days previous, March 1 was a sunny, beautiful day, so I didn’t wear any long underwear or think in terms of keeping warm.  After standing outside the gates and finally being granted provisional entry, I was placed with one other monk in tangaryō, a corner room with thin walls and window frames that didn’t quite fit the windows.  We were told to sit in zazen all day, and so we did.

We knew this was to last a week, but we were constantly threatened with more.  Inspecting monks would burst in at odd hours to see if we were really sitting or not.  We were told that if we couldn’t use our bowls skillfully by the end of the week, we would be a burden on the group, and would have to stay one more week in seclusion for good measure.  We were constantly encouraged to go home, told that we really were not monk material.

The first night, I went to sleep tired but full of resolve.  The second day, it snowed hard, and the snow came into the room through those ill-fitting window frames and gathered on my lap.  Thus began a week of being so cold that I couldn’t stop shaking, ever.  At night, in bed, I shivered so hard that my jaw ached, and I often felt I couldn’t breathe.  And of course, doing zazen literally all day every day, my legs felt as if they’d been hit with hammers.  I would lie in bed, moving between two thoughts:  first, that I had chosen this, and second, that I did not know why.  I tried every kind of pep talk, every kind of mental game imaginable to somehow escape that physical reality, or to feel better, or to feel stronger.  I felt I had been reduced to nothing, in a matter of days.

But around the fifth day, I gave up.  I gave up trying to make it better.  And I gave up hope that it would get better with time.  I had settled into a very cool place, as if sitting still in the most remote chamber of a deep, deep cave.  I did not feel warm—I was still freezing.  My legs still ached so badly that it was difficult to walk to the bathroom and back.  I had chillblains on my ears—they looked, and felt, as if they were made of bloody crepe paper.  I had let go of my fantasies about how wonderful this would all be, how spiritual.  I no longer imagined that I would be transformed here into a certain kind of person, or that I would learn things that no one else knows.  I could see in the monks who visited us that while some were quite kind in their strictness, all were human, and some were simply children, enjoying power over someone of lesser rank.  Even in seclusion, I could see clearly that this monastery would not transform us all into walking embodiments of compassion.  Until that day, I could not have known how much baggage I had carried with me into that monastery.

So I gave up.  But I did not quit.  I did not do what a rational person might do, which is to pack up my things, politely thank everyone for the food and shelter, and go home.  I cannot say why I didn’t leave—I’m certain that at times in my life, I would have.  But I stayed.  It may seem too simple, but now, years later, much of my understanding of Zen practice comes down to just this:  to give up, then to continue anyway.

If we delve into classical Buddhist texts and teachings, we come across the word “liberation” countless times:  liberation from suffering, liberation from desire, enlightenment as liberation, the liberation of all beings, and on and on.  And Zen—again, especially in what we’ve received in the West—seems to add to that this word freedom, this idea of being somehow unbound.  Both of these words, liberation and freedom, absolutely belong in any conversation about spiritual practice.  But, as with all the keywords of the tradition, they also require extreme caution.

Perhaps the greatest mistake we can make in this practice—or in any endeavor, any relationship, anything we undertake—is to have a clear idea of what success looks like.  I, like many, have watched my definition of success change over the years, but it has always been there.  At first, in high school and in college, I understood Zen to be something mental—reading about koans led me to believe that Zen was about breakthrough experiences and realizations that caused a permanent shift in the mind.  My assumption was that there was something I was not seeing, some great universal truth that was the domain only of the initiated, of the enlightened.  I wanted to see that.  I pictured that it would come to me in a flash, and that my thoughts and actions from that day forward would be based on a greater truth than what ordinary people could understand.

Later, after I had started sitting and had met others engaged in the practice, I held on to this idea of a mental realization, but my focus shifted from that experience to being a particular kind of person.  I had tasted a bit of the discipline of Zen practice, so I imagined that if I continued, I would become a model of discipline, a kind of spiritual warrior, unstoppable in my pursuit of truth, and recognizable—to myself and others—as, again, one of the initiated.  When I was very young, I watched Star Wars and wanted to be a Jedi; Zen, I think, offered me a real-world path to achieving that status.

Over the years, I broadened and narrowed my gaze.  In many instances, my vision of a true practitioner was based on compassion and compassionate action; at other times, it was all about insight; at other times, it was about single-minded focus, a kind of clarity of gaze.  Every time I sat down and faced the wall in zazen, I wanted something.  When zazen felt good, I imagined myself to be in the process of becoming the person I imagined; when it felt awkward or difficult, I despaired at my failure, or questioned the practice all together.

For the record, I don’t think we can avoid this goal-seeking mind.  Especially in the beginning.  “Practice for the sake of practice” means nothing if you’re not actually practicing, and to actually practice, there must be some draw.  There must be some reason, some hope—perhaps we can’t even define it to ourselves, but there is something we look for when we sit down on that cushion for the first time, or we would not sit there at all.  So this is a problem we cannot avoid.

But it is a problem.  Over the course of years of practice, do people develop some insight?  Do they investigate the nature of compassion?  Do they become more intentional in their own behavior?  I do not doubt that many of them do.  That practice sometimes bears fruit should not be surprising, and we can celebrate when it happens.  The problem is that by defining freedom, or insight, or compassion, we limit them.  We rob them of their true boundless nature, and in the process, we eliminate any possibility of seeing that nature for ourselves.  To say “I desire freedom” is, whether we mean to or not, to have a definition in mind of what freedom really is.  But that definition is wrong.  Because to imagine that you want freedom is to say that you are not now free; a person with boundaries cannot conceive of what it means to have none.  We have an idea in our minds, but it is not of true freedom—it is of a state with slightly broader boundaries.  That’s all.  That’s a very small wish.

Compassion, truth, enlightenment—these, too, are emphatically without boundary.  By definition, any definition we offer up is limited, and therefore false.  It falls short.  We fall short.

Our only hope of seeing into the true nature of things is to let the practice play itself out, and to do that, to let go of our idea of it, is to abandon all hope of fruition.  Sesshin (zazen intensives of multiple days) can offer this, sometimes.  Sitting all day is painful, and no one pats you on the back for it, and you could be doing any one of a thousand fun things instead.  So it’s not uncommon to spend the first few days just complaining to yourself about your legs, and about the teacher, and about Zen in general, and to think, over and over, “What am I doing here?  I should just leave.  Maybe I’ll just leave.  Maybe I’ll say I’m sick.  Maybe I’ll just storm out, or maybe I’ll sneak out at the next break.  Maybe I can get more kitchen duty, so I’m not just sitting here all day….”  Obsessing like this is not zazen, but we cannot really separate it from zazen, either.  Because one day, we wake up and realize that our legs are not going to feel better, that all the compelling reasons for leaving are not going to go away, that maybe this is not going to give us what we were looking for, and we stay anyway.  Zazen begins on that day.  Practice begins on that day.  Our lives begin on that day.  From that moment forward, anything is possible, because we have let go of what we needed it to be.