The whole point of Buddhist practice, or any religious or spiritual practice, is to learn to be happy in the face of this life that we live. It’s not easy to live with happiness. The life of the individual self – the self that we continuously fabricate and which experiences thoughts and feelings, and pursues plans and projects – is a tragic life. It may find times of joy and pleasure, but the story of that fabricated self universally contains suffering, growing old, the loss of people and things that are dear, and ultimately one’s own death. So, it takes some work to discover how to be happy in the face of this.
The practice at our Centers is in the tradition of Theravadan Insight meditation, and of course, that is my main practice. But I also find it useful to reflect on teachings from outside this tradition. I find some of the Zen teachings particularly helpful. Zen articulates and encourages a non-dual stance toward experience. In Zen it is said that all things are already Buddha Nature, that delusion is not separate from enlightenment, and that practice itself is enlightenment. We therefore can never become any better than we already are. This contrasts with the more linear language of insight meditation where one moves from suffering to awakening. I personally find it easier to engage with the practice of insight meditation, but I also feel that it’s useful to balance the implied linearity with some of the more holistic, non-dual teachings of Zen.
I’ve recently been reading Zen master, Kosho Uchiyama’s book, Opening the Hand of Thought. In it, he says that the Zen practice of zazen, is about aiming at, and repeatedly coming back to shikantanza – or just sitting. When one begins one’s zazen meditation, one starts out “just sitting” with one’s whole body and mind, but of course, thought arises and pulls one in, so that one is no longer “just sitting.” When this is recognized, one releases the thought, and returns to “just sitting.” This is similar to how we approach our Mahasati practice. We begin by “just observing body and mind,” and when thought pulls us off, we simply return to “just observing body and mind.”
Uchiyama fleshes this out a bit more by making it clear that a period of zazen with no thoughts is not in any way superior to a period of zazen with many wanderings of the mind. The point of zazen practice is not to be free of thought. Sittings in which there are thoughts and sittings in which there are no thoughts are equal. The thoughts and feelings that arise when we are practicing are simply the scenery of one’s zazen. The scenery of one’s zazen is just different from sitting to sitting.
For Uchiyama, just as for us in the Mahasati tradition, zazen is not only practiced on the cushion. When one is walking, one aims at, and returns to “just walking.” When we are talking, we return to “just talking.” When we are paying the bills, and are pulled off by thought, we return to “just paying the bills.” Just as with sitting practice, thoughts and emotional reactions that pull us off from just living don’t diminish our life in any way. Having no thoughts or emotional reactions is no better than having thoughts and emotional reactions. According to Mahayana Buddhism, even our moments of delusion are nothing but expressions of Buddha Nature. Uchiyama describes Zen practice as recognizing our life as the reality of life living itself. The thoughts and emotions that are experienced in the body and mind are merely the scenery of life living itself. Therefore, the point of practice is not to be empty of thoughts and feelings, but to recognize thoughts and feelings as simply the scenery of life living itself. It is the practice of coming back to just sitting or just walking or just working, or just observing body and mind, which allows us to recognize this.
So, according to Zen, we don’t get any better through our practice, and being lost in delusion is not failure. So why bother? Well, this brings us back to what I started with – the point of Buddhist practice is about learning how to be happy. Recognizing that uncomfortable thoughts and emotions don’t diminish us and are just the reality of this life living itself, is a very skillful way to be happy.