Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 15
Tomatoes and cucumbers

In the "Genjokoan", Dogen Zenji writes that "in aversion weeds spread". A good disciple has to be like a weed that grows even while being stepped upon by his angry master. Don't wait for anyone to cherish you or praise your practice.

During the last months, I have been emphasizing the importance of our physical posture for our practice. I said that rather than racking our brains about some ideas we have about "shikantaza", we should rather try more on the zafu. Does this mean that there can or should be no other instruction for "adult practice" than telling each person to take care of their own physical posture during zazen? Certainly no, I think. On the other hand, if we can't even take care of our own physical posture to start with, how can we expect to learn anything from some kind of "advanced instruction"? As adults, we have to be able to look and see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, think with our own brains and put the practice into practice with our own bodies. Absolutely no-one can do that for us, not even the best master can or should.

Why then, you might ask, do we need instruction from a master or senior students at all? That is because our field of vision is necessarily limited: We might think that what we see with our own eyes is objective truth and that there is nothing beyond that, but "we see and understand only what our eyes of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, we must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet." ("Genjokoan").

In other words, we do have to learn to look and see with our own eyes, but we also have to learn that there is a whole world beyond our horizon. Our field of vision is more limited than we can fathom, because we only see what is covered by our eyes of practice, we are not able to see the limits of our field of vision, not to speak of what lies beyond it. The same is true for our perception of sounds. It is obvious that we don't hear sounds that dogs hear, for example. We don't even hear many things that other people hear very well, especially the noise that we make ourselves, interestingly... We perceive the mistakes of others much clearer than our own. Maybe that is why Dogen Zenji says "it is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet"?

It is required from an adult that he can think for himself, form his own opinions and have his own views. But it is just as important to realize that what goes on in our heads isn't objective truth or anything. We only take our look at the world from our limited point of view. If we claim that our view is true and any other view that contradicts it is therefore false, we are behaving like quarreling infants. Any view we have is just one view, and what we call "a new world order" might be "an axis of evil" for others, or vice versa. We have to learn to think with our own brains, and we have to learn that there are whole worlds out there that we haven't even imagined yet - because they completely transcend our capability for imagination.

We have to learn to put the Dharma into practice with our own bodies as well, but real practice won't be possible for us unless we really let go of our bodies and minds as well. And this we cannot "do" by ourselves. If we try to practice the Dharma all on our own, we will be just wandering around in the limits of our own understanding, and even though we might think that we have achieved "oneness with the universe" or something, that "oneness" exists nowhere except in our brains - but we can't see that!

There are whole worlds out there beyond our field of vision, and also directly beneath our feet: What sounds difficult to understand is an everyday matter when you live in a sangha, a community of practioners. The world of the sangha totally transcends the individual worlds of its members. Each day your personal views and opions will be contradicted by the life in the sangha. You will discover things that you never saw before, or rather: People will point to these things that you did not want to see, and you will hear opinions that you did not want to hear, because they don't necessarily conform with your view of things. You might not like to see or hear these things, but actually this is what is called "instruction" - instruction from a world that lies beyond your field vision: not in outer space, but directly beneath your feet.

Our problem is that we don't realize that there is a subtle difference between ourselves and our ideas of "ourselves". The difference between what we are and what we think we are. The fact that we confuse what we think we are with what we really are, is the cause of our suffering and the trouble we are constantly causing in this world.

It is easy to realize this with people. Some people can't stop telling us what incredibly good people they are - when in fact they just don't realize what a pain they are in our ass. They offer their help and advice - but why can't they just shut up and mind their own business? They talk about righteousness and justice when they can't even take care of their own lives. We are surrounded by idiots and self-righteous hypocrites!

What we do not realize, though, is that that is not OUR problem. OUR problem is that the same things we think about people, they might think about us. We might be creating the same pain in the ass of people that they create in ours - we are just not aware of it. Yes indeed, we might be the idiots and self-righteous hypocrites ourselves! I have the feeling that this kind of realization has much more to do with "satori" than the state of spiritual bliss that some people try to reach for themselves. You don't reach this realization by yourself. It is caused by the friction of the rocks and stones around you: The sangha and the master you live with.

Sometimes people tell me that they really like the intensive zazen hours here at Antaiji, and that they are able to reach samadhi really quick, and that they enjoy the work outside too - it makes them feel one with nature when they just follow the universal energy flow... yes, their practice here at Antaiji could be like heaven if it wasn't for that one room mate that they don't get along with, or that one monk that always tells them what to do or not to do although he makes so much many mistakes than they do...

But how can you be one with the universe when you don't even get along with people? Hasn't practice something to do with opening your eyes and realizing that there are whole worlds out there beyond your horizon? The world of your room mate for example. "Sessa takuma" is a Japanese expression that describes what happens in a sangha: Rocks and stones rubbing against each other, polishing each other by the mutual friction. Individual worlds clashing help us to wake up to a bigger world beyond the horizon of our own personal views. Of course this rubbing and clashing against each other hurts, just like your ego being trampled upon by the master's "you don't count at all". That is why your practice has to be like a weed growing in aversion.

The same is true for upright sitting. Don't wait for someone to "teach" upright sitting to you. Of course there must be some kind of basic instruction in the beginning, and it will be good for you to have someone correct you from time to time until you are centered well enough in zazen to feel the "gravitational force" of the sitting pull you by itself. The ideal is a zazen practice that is like a growing weed, but if that seems to be impossible to you, you should at least aim at practicing like a cucumber, not like a tomato: Tomatoes need a pole for support to grow, and they need to be tied to that pole every couple of days or so, otherwise they will break. You will also have to remove extra sprouts to prevent the plant from having to many fruits, and if there is too much rain you need a roof so that the tomato doesn't get any disease or it will die. Anyway, a tomato plant requires quite a lot of your daily attention and care. It won't grow by itself. A cucumber on the other hand will grow and climb on the pole that you placed for it originally. In the climate that we have here at Antaiji, there isn't much else that you have to do: if the pole is straight and firm, the cucumber will climb straight up, and will have flowers and fruits in due time.

Being an adult does not mean that you need no instruction. But it means that you can work with that instruction - like a cucumber growing on a pole, not like a tomato having to be tied to it all the time. Don't wait for the master to "explain" everything to you - the instruction is always there, you just have to open your eyes and see it, right beneath your feet. Don't think that the other members in the sangha obstruct your practice - isn't it exactly those crashing rocks and stones that help rub off the layers of dirt that obstruct your sight?

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