Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 9
Don't care if I die...

The life that I found waiting for me at Antaiji was quite different from the "Zen practice" that I had imagined until then. Last month I wrote about my surprise to find the monks sleeping during Zazen, also about how hard the work was for me, and about a completely new attitude towards practice that I had never thought about before: "You create Antaiji!" I want to reflect a little more about those first impressions I got at Antaiji.

Work at Antaiji is said to be physically demanding, and I actually found it to be that way. This is not because work is one part of practice and should therefore be as hard as possible, to push each one to his limits. No, we just do whatever is necessary to support our lives here, and that happened to be a lot more than I had imagined when I had heard that Antaiji was "self-sufficient". Especially during that fall when I arrived, because of the typhoon that had washed away the road and rice fields and unrooted hundreds of trees. At age 22 I had never lifted up anything heavier than a volume of the "Shobogenzo", and I also could not tell a vegetable from a weed in the garden. Three days of carrying rocks and fallen trees in the heavy autumn rain had already brought me to my limits. The head monk asked me during a break:
"Are all of you German 'Zen practioners' so lazy?"

Actually I did not think of myself as being lazy at all. I was trying my best, but it wasn't much - far from being enough! In school I had always been one of the better ones - now I was only a burden on everyone else. That was a difficult experience for me, but I am sure it was even more tiring for the monks who had to put up with the pain in the ass that I must have represented for them.
I was not only surprised about the amount of work that was done, but also about the lack of efficiency with which it was done. Of course, no one expects a college student that has just arrived and represents only a burden to give his comments on how things are done or how they might be done more efficiently. My later master, Miyaura Shinyu Roshi also did still take part in most of the work at that time, but trying to give even the less experienced monks a chance to be creative and develop some sense of responsibilty, he would not play the role of the leader even when it was obvious that time and energy was wasted on unnecessary work. In Zen it is quite common to say things like, "move your body, not your brain!" - which resulted in keeping us busy for days for jobs that could have been done in a few hours. In such cases it was not always easy for me to just follow the other monks silently - as was expected. What we were doing seemed to be just too stupid!
Still, thinking back about it now, it is clear that the most "un-efficient" practice imaginable is Zazen itself. I had come to practice Zazen, so how could I complain about the work taking more time than necessary (one part of the reason being myself not carrying my weight)? If you want to practice Zazen, you have to be prepared to waste both your body and brain "for nothing". In this sense, the un-efficient work that I took part in at Antaiji was a good practice, "good for nothing".

Threshing the rice caused a hayfever allergy which kept me caughing until winter. I was caughing throughout the work, during Zazen and even during the night. Again that was hard for myself, but even more disturbing for the monks around me, who probably wouldn't have minded much seeing me leave . My brain wouldn't agree with what I was doing, my body was aching, and my lungs could hardly breath - why wasn't I leaving in the first place. The only time I felt like myself at Antaiji was during the hours of Zazen, but there are other places where you can practice Zazen, and for a 22 year old college student there should be more fun waiting out there in the world than carrying rocks and trees in the rain. I think the reason why I stayed was that I had a quite negative outlook on life. "I don't mind if I die like this", I thought. One day one of the monks told me, "you completely lack any emotions!" At the time, I didn't even understand what he was talking about, but I think he meant my absolute dis-interest in life.

Sometimes people say that Buddhism takes a negative view on life, emphasizing that life itself is suffering. I do not think so. Quite the opposite, I think that I discovered interest in my life through this first experience at Antaiji, that later led me to discover the joy of just being alive right now, in this single moment. But at age 22, this didn't seem possible. Life was such a drag. Each day was just another 24 hours of boredom. How could I escape from this prison? If I hadn't had the idea in my head that if I couldn't endure the hardships of the life at Antaiji "I might as well die", than I am sure that I would have returned to Kyoto University in no time. But ideas like "enjoying life" or "taking care of one's body and mind and live a long and healthy life" were completely alien to me. If Zen won't work for me, let it kill me at least... I was a quite depressed boy at the time, and I am still grateful for the monks who nevertheless shared their lives with me.

Funnily, the monks seemed to regard the times of Zazen, which for me represented the only times where I could be myself, as "sleeping time". Last month I already wrote that one reason for this was the amount of work and the total commitment with which the monks sacrificied themselves to protect the temple. But this was not the only reason. Another, even more important reason seems to me the lack of motivation to do Zazen. When beginners hear that "Zazen is good for nothing", they might be surprised at first, but it also sounds cool somehow. If you practice this "Zazen that is good for nothing" every morning and every evening, with two Sesshin each month, over a strech of say 5 or 6 years though, your perspective changes: "What am I doing here in the first place? They told me it's good for nothing - I'm afraid that's just what it is!"

"Adult practice" starts exactly at this point. Unfortunately, few practioners realize this. Most expect "the teacher" or some other experienced person to help them out. And if they do not get that help, or if it comes in a form other than expected, they lose their initial motivation to practice Zazen. As long as we still have the hope that we might "get somewhere" with our practice, we are willing to give our best, but once we realize that this practice is really not getting us "anywhere", that it is literally good for nothing, we will come to the Zazen hall just because we have to - and fall asleep!

What is most scary about sleeping during Zazen is that once we develop the habit, we stop realizing that we are actually sleeping. Even though the teacher tries to wake us up saying, "stop sleeping!", we will just think: "Who is he possibly talking about? Me? No, I'm not sleeping... I'm practing Zazen just like everyone else here... Isn't this what 'Zazen that is good for nothing' is all about?"
Once we fall so deep, we become unable to take care of our own practice as adults. And when the teacher tries to help us after all, we can't even hear him anymore. We're lost.

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