I am always deeply affected when I read anything by Hakuin Zenji. Hakuin was an 18th century Rinzai master who practiced hard, had various enlightenment experiences, and finally settled to teach at a small, poor, broken-down temple. He died in his 80s; by then he had become a famous master and is credited with reviving the Rinzai school of Zen. He also systematized koan study and his system is used by many teachers in our lineage.
A recently-translated volume of his letters includes missives written to his monks as well as lay students, urging them to practice hard. One particular letter tells the story of a layman who decided to sit till kensho, and indeed did zazen so intensely that he had a major enlightenment experience in less than two days.
Hakuin’s words always resonate with a fierce, passionate, and intense part of me. This occasion was no exception. I came to the Zendo last Tuesday fired up, ready to remind people about our upcoming one-day sitting, which we’re doing today. But during our announcements Setsudo also reminded us of the weekly Stone Soup Café, which prepares lunch every Saturday for the larger community, and I found myself urging people to either come and sit, volunteer at the café, or do one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
As I drove home I wondered why I had changed my message. I had been so determined to urge people to come and sit! And as often happens to me when I push people to do anything, I felt ambivalent even about the choice I’d urged on them; after all, I reasoned, everyone in the Zendo is a grown-up who knows his/her needs and commitments better than I do. Why should I push anyone to practice?
Besides, I thought. Isn’t cooking in the café practice, too? As Dogen points out after giving detailed instruction on how to do zazen in his Fukanzazengi, zazen is not a matter of sitting or lying down. One can do it while cooking in the café, for example. But is cooking in the cafe like zazen? I thought back to the times I’ve worked there in the mornings, chopping and slicing vegetables under Kirsten’s direction. The radio is usually on and I’m hanging out with the rest of the volunteers. Farmers come in bringing organic fruits and vegetables and we are all happy and joking around, inspired by Kirsten who, as head cook, is herself very warm and loving.
Those dynamics are not what Dogen described in his Tenzo Kyokun, or Instructions to the Cook. The cook in the monastery had to work so one-pointedly that if Shakyamuni himself appeared in front of him, he would banish him from his sight so as not to lose track of the rice cooking for the next meal. Dogen said nothing about radios, about fooling around by the grill, or crying along with the homeless guy standing next to me slicing red onions that were picked that very morning. In sesshin we keep the kitchen in Dogen style (during the last summer sesshin, Dantika, as head cook, even read aloud portions of hisInstructions to the kitchen crew at the start of each work period). People were silent and highly focused on what they were doing. In the Stone Soup Café, my sense is that relating to the people around us is the most important thing, even while cooking, serving, eating, and washing up.
It’s not much different when I talk to young parents who assure me that there is nothing more they’d like to do than JUST cook or JUST wash dishes or JUST fold the laundry, only little kids are pulling at their pant legs demanding juice, a bedtime story, or just attention.
When I talked to Bernie about this, he said, “Of course, cooking in the Café or being home with the kids and family is not a monastic practice.”
Lay Zen centers like ours are not monasteries. When we do sesshins or shorter retreats, we are trying to replicate the monastic setting. We create a controlled environment governed by a structured schedule in order to minimize all external disruptions. Practitioners are told to adhere strictly to that schedule. The kitchen is run in accordance with Dogen’s instructions, all work is done with focus and silence, and there are firm injunctions against speaking, making eye contact, or any form of social relationship. This leaves people free of external disruption. The internal distraction is still there and they deal with that in zazen.
I’ve led many retreats by now and its contrived structure is very visible to me. I therefore find it interesting that many people think of Zen practice as sesshin practice. They associate it with this contrived setting, long and tiring hours of sitting, with the lack of relating, and they think that this is Zen, or this is pure Zen.
Please don’t misunderstand; I don’t wish to imply that people who only do sesshins don’t bring the practice back to their lives or don’t have the commitment to practice even outside sesshin. All of us talk about practice in everyday life. I just don’t feel we can bring sesshin practice into our complex lay lives. I have known Zen practitioners trying to do one-pointed practice while in family and social situations, and in my opinion it just doesn’t work. It’s as if they’ve erected mental/emotional monasteries around themselves and are doing their best to ignore the outside world, including its inhabitants.
Most of us don’t live in monasteries. We raise families, take care of people who are usually much younger or much older than we are, and we live with and work alongside other human beings who have completely different values and commitments from ours. Whether we’re plumbers or professors, farmers or film-makers, our lives are complex and vulnerable in a rapidly changing world. That world will disrupt JUST cooking and JUST washing up time and time again, usually in the form of human beings seeking some form of attention. When we respond, we often feel like failures. After all, this is not the kind of one-pointed practice we thought Zen was all about, yet when we try for that we are ignoring everyone around us. No wonder so many of us feel we don’t have the level of commitment and clarity we think we should have. It’s a set-up for failure.
The ironic thing, of course, is that many of us came to Zen because we were attracted to its note of purity and radical simplicity. Reading Suzuki Roshi’s or Kapleau Roshi’s books, we are deeply moved by descriptions of great enlightenment experiences, as well as the radical simplicity of the Zen life. When Dantika returned from her hiatus at Tassajara full of joy and inspiration, I could empathize. And in fact, I’ve heard from many people that one day, when no one depends on them any longer, they’ll join a monastery. As if only then will they be doing real Zen practice.
Simplifying the complex life of work and family is not easy. I also feel we have to examine that notion of simplicity further. Mahatma Gandhi’s life was frugal and simple to an extreme, but it seemed to increase his capacity for complex issues and never-ending challenges, not to mention long days of very hard work.
We need to develop new practices for people leading lay lives. Practices to what? I’d like to say, to realize the interdependence of life, to see and experience that all is one. But this question calls for more consideration.
Lately, I bear witness to two things. First, that 30 years of practice and training have not adequately prepared me for the task of developing Zen practices in lay life. Again and again I see my conditioning taking over. While I genuinely respect lay practice, each time I visit a monastery there is a deep voice that says that this, here, is where practice is lived deeply.
My training took place at the Zen Community of New York, which involved a lot of social action in building the Greyston organizations and companies. Even there, where we worked side by side with non-Zen practitioners every day, the seniors were still fanatic sitters and usually those who studied koans. They were the acknowledged leaders of the sangha, not necessarily those whose skills lay in personal relationships with our low-income neighbors and co-workers.
I also bear witness to how my communication is similarly conditioned. The monastic style of dealing with students is typified by the story of Bodhidharma and T’ai-tsu Hui-k’o, his student and eventual Second Patriarch, who sat in the snow for a long time waiting for attention from his teacher and didn’t get it till he cut off his arm. We don’t ask people to cut off their arms, but the onus remains on the student to prove his/her commitment to the practice before being taken seriously. The teacher’s verbal style is often brusque, with little patience for hesitation, discouragement, and certainly anything that is perceived as a lack of commitment.
At the same time, I also bear witness to the lack of practices we have to realize oneness of life other than through the cushion. I hear people say all the time that their practice is their daily life, but that can be very conceptual and an excuse for sloppiness and laziness. Our ancestors wanted us to experience something, not think or read books about it, and gave us practices for how to do that. Many of those practices are not appropriate to our lives in the West right now. It won’t be enough to just say that the practice is my daily life, we must develop new upayas and experiences of oneness, of full-heartedness, in this complexity.