Zen practice is sometimes described as the study of the self. This description, in part, arises out of the old story of an interaction between Bodhidharma, Zen's first ancestor in China, and the student who later became his dharma heir, Huike. The story can be found in the koan collection "The Gateless Gate," Case 41.
In the story Huike says that his mind is not at peace, and he asks Bodhidharma to help him with this. Bodhidharma agrees to help saying, "Bring me your mind, and I will set it at rest." However, after some time, Huike responds by saying, "I have searched for the mind and finally it is unattainable." To which Bodhidharma replies, "I have thoroughly set it at rest for you." (Translation by Thomas Cleary)
Thus, our earliest Zen role models were engaged in the study of the self, the study of how best to live in a human body and mind. This is the study of what we mean when we say "body and mind." This is the study whose culmination is setting the mind at rest. And when this study yields a result that points to the limits of human conceptual capacity and to the boundlessness of mind, then it begins to show us how we can rest. It's ironic really, particularly when placed in the context of a Western society that highly values the intellect and its capacity for investigation and categorization. Yet, it can be a deeply satisfying experience to come face-to-face with the knowledge that you can't figure something out. That fact is fundamentally a good thing.
In order to see it as a good thing, though, a practitioner must have the courage to face the facts and then consider the potential responses. That is, if you encounter the limits of your concept of mind and react in fear or complacency, then you have missed the opportunity it presents. To say that it is enough simply to lead your life whatever way you like, because it is impossible to understand, is also to waste a whole lifetime of opportunities. So what might be a skillful way to study the self?
Shakyamuni Buddha gave us a pointer about this kind of practice in his teachings called "The Dhammapada." In this text the Buddha teaches:
Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet she indeed is the noblest victor who conquers herself.
The Buddha speaks of conquering one's self, meaning to stop being fooled by one's sense of separation. And what to make of the military reference? For me, it points to the value of courage, perhaps the most important attribute of a warrior. That is, in the study of the self you must have courage - the courage to face the conditions of your life, to face the conditions in the world, to face the nature of suffering and of inconceivability. In fact, the great bodhisattvas, enlightening beings, are usually referred to as mahasattvas as well. "Mahasattva" is a Sanskrit word that can be literally translated to mean "great being" but its roots and connotation provide more nuance. The term mahasattva originally referred to the large cats - lions and tigers - as noble, courageous beasts. Later it came to be associated with people who were also noble and courageous.
So today I encourage you to have the courage of the big cats. I ask you to consider how you might find the courage to face your life, to face a world which seems to be separate from you. I encourage you to face the desire to separate from the world, and to have the courage not to turn away, but to turn toward it. Study the desire to build a wall and have the courage to step across that divide, toward a self that is incredibly more vast than any wall could contain.
Today is a pivotal day, a turning point in my path of practice. As some of you may have heard, I am taking up the role of Guiding Teacher at Empty Hand Zen Center in New Rochelle, New York. I write this post from the plane, as I travel from California to New York. I've packed all of my belongings - the books, altar items, and the clothes of a nun. I've sent those things ahead, boxes traveling across the mountains and plains on their way to the eastern shores of the US.
However, even if those things did not arrive at the Zen Center, I'd still have everything I need. For, as the poet Basho so eloquently put it,
I set out on a journey of a thousand leagues, packing no provisions.
That is to say, I meet that which arises in the moment, with a fresh eye, not reliant on the physical supports but on the ability to respond.
I've bowed the many bows, given and received many hugs, and even shared some tears with my local Dharma family. It's a big family - the students, faculty and staff of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, the Graduate Theological Union, the nuns of Aloka Vihara and Karuna Buddhist Vihara, and the residents and students of San Francisco Zen Center and of Berkeley Zen Center. The many streams of Buddhism are related, all part of the Great Ocean, but they need to remain independent of each other in order to nourish the land.
In the end, what does this move mean for you, the readers of this blog?
For some it means that you were my local sangha, and are now my long-distance sangha. We continue to practice together, but it will be a practice of staying in tune with each other's words and voices, more than with each other's bodies. It may mean that the blog becomes more important, a taste of the teachings of the moment as seen from afar. In a way, reading any sort of dharma is like this. It is a window into another person's practice. You can look in the window and relate it to your own experience, and you may or may not be living something similar.
For some it's not much of a change, you were part of the mahasangha ("greater," as in broader, sangha) and you will continue to be.
For still others, you may find that we are now local sangha, sharing the space between the brick walls of the Zen Center, sitting, standing, or walking. With the local sangha, we will carry out the traditional forms as they find their expression in our particular place and time. Our practice will be inevitably informed by American culture and the English language, but it will also find expression in Latino culture and in Spanish. I hope that we will find the points of contact with tradition to be many and varied. And I'd like to take practice out of the zendo (meditation hall), and into the world through service and dialogue with those who are looking for connection.
Generally, for everyone, this change means that there will be many more opportunities to practice with me. By taking up the Guiding Teacher role, I am committed to the life of a temple priest - sitting zazen and chanting daily, offering Dharma talks several times a week, and leading workshops on Zen arts such as sutra copying and gardening.
Given this opportunity for greater focus, I plan to continue writing and to begin to offer online study groups. Please continue to visit www.ekanzenstudycenter.org for future blog posts and more information about how to study with me.
Finally, I want to share gratitude for my teachers Shosan Victoria Austin and Sekkei Harada Roshi, both of whom have shown unwavering confidence in the Dharma as it expresses itself through me. It is my pleasure to repay the teachings by continuing to share the practice of Zen. I may not be packing any provisions, but I am prepared to pick the fruits and be nourished by them.