Monday, February 1, 2010

A note on one-pronged practice

This morning I woke up at 5:00, as I do once in a while. Getting my annual mammogram today. Thirteen years since I had breast cancer. They have been difficult years but I'm so glad I had them.

Meanwhile, the year's brightest moon is dropping through the bare branches of the oaks. I have never seen it move so fast - you can almost see it moving. But I am not a good moon watcher unless I'm on retreat, where there is so little stimulation that the sky becomes enough, becomes fascinating when you get a break and get to see it.

Yesterday after church my older friend Nancy and I shared a hug, as we do, and talked a little about what's going on in our lives. I reminded her how we used to enjoy meditating together years ago in a little group, nothing special. She told me she doesn't meditate now, meaning sit, but tries to be totally aware as she does her t'ai chi in the morning. I remarked that that's a form of meditation, and I said, an afterthought, "Anyway, what really matters is what you do when you're not meditating."

She was struck by that, and so was I, the statement coming out in that good space you can be in after church. It laid it out for me in plain talk, what the bodhissatva vow is all about, what we mean by being on the Buddha way. We don't vow to meditate all day - meditation is only one of the steps on the eightfold path. I recalled an incident in one of Bernie Glassman's books, where the sangha goes to meditate in an abandoned schoolyard, then gets to work cutting down weeds. He says something like "Meditation is a luxury, I could do it all day. But there's work to be done."

Here and there I've written about how I came to Buddhism privately, through books and tapes. Later, I found group practice on retreats with a sangha that emphasized form in imitation of the Japanese tradition. Ritual, severity, discipline seemed to be everything. I was challenged and fascinated by the wierdness, frankly, and learned how to do things right, but I also rebelled against the militarism, heirarchy, and violence. This teacher's use of the stick ultimately drove me away.

I tried hard but couldn't reconcile it with the ideal of kindness I believe is fundamental to Buddhism and Christianity, the religions I have practiced in my life. I couldn't reconcile it with the feminist ideals of cooperation and respect. And, like many women who were abused as girls, I could not be comfortable with the ideal of obedience expressed in full prostrations to the teacher as I entered and left dokusan, and more generally, with the many stories in this tradition of rudeness and violence as a teaching method. I am far from alone in this. I know there are wonderful women offering retreats in gentler styles.

This is a big subject, and a fundamental question for each individual: How do we practice the Buddha Way? Is it "just sitting"?

I hope that just sitting naturally improves people, which is the theory behind a one-pronged practice. I hope sitting builds awareness "off the cushion," and that helps us to be kind as we cut through our dualism, but I have seen it to not come true. Being A Student of Zen can so easily be used to feel superior to all those non-meditators out there that I have started making a point of not making a point of it, if you know what I mean. The far enemy of regular practice is arrogance, the near enemy smugness. Something like that.

It is so easy to fall off the path! For years I have yearned for a Teacher to locate here in central Ohio, and begin to build a sangha in which we could work together on some meaningful service. The events in Haiti unfolding in the news night after night make me yearn for involvement in a Buddhist organization with open hands, with a mission beyond . . . just beyond.


  1. What we do when we're not meditating.. definitely something to meditate on.

  2. Hi DL,

    Re. 'Just sitting' improving people:

    Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi (a Rinzai Master of all people!) addressed the question of self improvement to a student in this way:

    Q: Some people would like to improve themselves with spiritual practice, to get better...

    Roshi: If the desire to become better disappears, then they will become better.



  3. A marvelous comment. Thank you, Harry. It neatly displays the contradiction inherent in the idea of "self-improvement."

    It makes me want to rewrite - "I wish I could believe that just sitting is sufficient, and must naturally lead to awakening."

    Does that work?