Lotus in the Fire
October/November 2007

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My idea of adult practice
Twelve Years Since Aum (Part 17)

Abbot Muho with kids on motorbike.

Usually at the end of our monthly five day sesshin I say something like: "Sesshin isn't over now. The real sesshin starts the moment you think it is over, so take good care!"
Sitting for fifteens hours a day facing the wall isn't easy. Keeping absolute silence for five days isn't either. But the real issue is what you do once this sesshin is over, you get down from your meditation cushion and back into what people sometimes call "real life".

When a sesshin was especially chaotic, I might add something like:

"Don't think that sesshin is over now, because these five days were not a sesshin in the first place. It was a kindergarten.
My idea of Antaiji is that it is a place for adult practice. To practice as an adult, first you have to be clear about exactly why you are here. What brought you here? Is it only the two to three free meals a day? Or is there a bigger question? What is the question?
Next, you have to be aware of the fact that you create Antaiji. No-one else creates this place, this practice, this life and this world for you. It is your place, your practice, your life and your world, and you have to take responsibility for it. At the same time, you have to be able to completely forget yourself. You don't count at all. You have to broaden your perspective, forget about your ideas and preferences, see what is happening around. You have to be able to understand how others see you, and what is demanded of yourself. If you think that you are able to practice without the help of the community, you need not be here. You can live alone in the mountains. If you don't want to do that, but practice together with the rest of the group, you need to show consideration and appreciation towards the sangha. To allow a smooth community life, we have some rules. As an adult, you should be aware of these rules, respect them and keep to them. As an adult, at least you should be able to wipe your own ass. And - unfortunately - more often than not, you will have to wipe the ass of someone else too.
Closing the door behind you, switching out the lights, arranging your slippers ... all of this shouldn't be so difficult for an adult practioner.

People tell me that they didn't come to Antaiji to learn about petty rules. They don't want to hear about the form, they want to hear about the content. Isn't the Buddha-Dharma beyond forms and rules?, they ask. I think that everyone agrees that when you separate the form from the content, it is the content that matters, not the form. But it is really so easy to separate the two? Where is the content - what people like to call "Buddha-Dharma" - supposed to manifest if not in some kind of form? Where will you find your "Buddha-Dharma" if you aren't aware of your slippers, the sound of your steps, the lights you left on? Where, if not in the practice of this moment?

If you are responsible for striking the bell in the meditation hall or the wooden clappers at the eating table, you should know exactly how to do it. If you don't, you are not only wasting the time of your own practice, you are wasting everyone's time. One strike of the bell can change the whole atmosphere in the zendo. What the cook does in the kitchen will also have a direct influence on everyone's practice. One meal can change a practioners mind. As an adult person, you need to be aware that what ever you do is not only your personal business but part of the practice of the whole community.

When critized, sometimes people say: "I don't even know where the problem is. If you think there is a problem with what I do, I guess that's your problem, not mine. I have no problems!" If other people have a problem with us, that might be their problem. But often there is a problem on our side as well. On the other hand, there are people who come to have a private interview just to tell me: "Antaiji has a problem, and the name of the problem is A", and A is the name of one of their fellow practioners. So I answer: Yes, A has a problem, and the name of A's problem is indeed "A". But is that really your problem? The name of my problem is me, and maybe the name of your problem is you, wrong?

Antaiji's door is always open. People who want to practice with us are welcome anytime. But the door is open the other way as well: If you realize that you do not want to practice here with the rest of us, you can leave anytime as well. So when you stay, it is your decision to stay. We do not "make" you stay. So, even though sesshin may be like hell, or samu is hard, you shouldn't feel like a victim, you chose to come here, and you choose to stay here, each single day, each single moment. Don't blame your suffering on anyone. If you stay, stay. If you sit through sesshin, you should really sit through it. Don't just kill your time on the zafu because it is raining outside and you don't want to carry your suitcase the 4 kilometers down the mountain.

Now, how does an adult practice? One of my Dharma brothers used to work in a sushi restaurant before he became a Zen monk. They let him do the dishes for months without teaching him anything, or at least that is what he thought. Then one day the sushi chef told him: "Today you'll do the sushi!" Without any further instruction. If you answered: "But how? No-one taught me how to do that!", the chef would say: "But what have you been doing all the time? Where were you when you washed the dishes?"
In Japan, they call this way of learning "to learn by stealing". You have to steal the know-how, no-one takes you by the hand and teaches you step-by-step. If you are working in the restaurant and your mind is somewhere else, thinking of how you wish to be with your girl-friend, counting the time until work is over, you won't be prepared for the job when the chef tells you to do the sushi. Even if your mind is 100% focused on the dishes, you won't be able to do the job, because your consciousness is restricted to the sink. As an adult practioner, you have to be aware of what is happening in the 360 degrees around you. Through this 360 degree awareness, you create the world you live in. So when we say that you have to create Antaiji, it doesn't mean that you can set up your own rules or schedules, but rather that you have to extend the borders of your awareness: The more you see, hear and feel of Antaiji, the more you create Antaiji. And to see, hear and feel completely, you have to forget yourself and open up in all directions.

The communtiy helps us to follow a schedule that would be difficult to uphold when practicing alone. On the other hand, living in a community 24/7 can be much more difficult than living as an hermit in the mountains. Others are just as imperfect as we are, but we usually see the faults of the others much more clearly than our own. Therefore we are annoyed by the others, while we can't understand why they are so annoyed with us. In reality, when you see the fault of another, it is like watching yourself in a mirror. What we should aim at is called sessa-takuma in Japanese: Unpolished rocks crash and rub against each other and thus eventually become polished stones, or jewels actually. We have to see the mistakes of the others as a mirror of our own short comings. We also need the spirit of Shotoku Taishi (573-621), which is expressed in his "Seventeen-article constitution":

"Harmony is to be valued... Let us cease from wrath and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can any one lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another, wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like them."

Adults have to learn to wipe their own ass. In the beginning at Antaiji, you might not even know what belongs to "wiping one's ass", and you don't realize how many tiomes others will wipe your ass for you. After some time, you learn how to do things, where to be at what time, how to do this and how to do that. But that is not enough. Next it will be your turn not only to wipe your own ass, but also that of others. you have to return the favors you received and weren't even aware of. "Ass-wiping" is our way of creating Antaiji.

We use to go begging for a week or so in Osaka at the end of March. One time a group of us took a crowded commuter train back to the cheap hotel in Shin-Imamiya, where we were staying. One of my students missed the stop, or maybe she couldn't manage to get out because of the wall of flesh that obstrucetd the doors. We returned to the hotel, which is a five minute walk from the station. When she arrived some time later, she was furious: "Why didn't you wait for me? Why didn't you inform the police? Weren't you worried that I might get mugged?" Honestly, I wasn't worried at all. Japan is a save country, and even without knowing Japanese it wouldn't be to difficult to get back to the hotel. Finally she got me: "I have the impression that you care more for your two children than for me. What would you have done if they had got lost!?" My children are four and two years old. I sure would have been worried if they had got lost on a crowded train. So why wasn't I worried about my student. Had I failed as a bodhisattva? I'm not sure. Maybe I'm not a good bodhisattva, but maybe there is difference here as well: My student is almost twenty years older than me, she isn't a three year old child. "But you are my father figure", she countered.

I see an important difference between the relationships in a family and in a sangha here. A sangha consists of adult practioners. A family consists only in part of adults. So although I view family life as a model for bodhisattva practice, I don't think that life in the sangha should be exactly the same. Parents take care of their childs without expecting any reward. Ideally, they don't even hope to be taken care of in return when they are old, although their final aim will be to help their children grow to become mature adults as well. Bodhisattvas help others without expecting any reward as well. But the aim of this help is to help the others to help themselves, and help still others as well. The aim of bodhimind is to save others before one self is saved, but this means to help others to give rise to the same wish, i.e. help still others without expecting to be help themselves. So if a bodhisattva is someone who rows a boat to the shore of liberation, then the other people in the boat will not be just he guests, but they will have to become bodhisattvas as well. And when everyone rows the boat together, they might realize that liberation isn't on the other shore, but that everyone in the boat has been liberated long ago.

Some people seem to think that children are better human beings than adults, or that our aim as Zen practioners is to return to the state of young infants. I do not agree with this kind of re-infantilaztion, although it seems to be a quite common idea even outside of spiritual circles. In the eighties, a German pop song went something like this: "Power to the children: they don't calculate what they do. The world belongs into children's hands, there will be no good or bad, no black or white. Only laughter, no more suppression. And strawberry ice cream for the rest of our lives..."
At the time it seemed to make complete sense to me: Weren't it adults (especially males) that started wars, exploited others, used violence? Until I watched the scenery in a sandbox one day: Nothing of the joy, peace and harmony I expected, even one year olds where thinking only of themselves when they faught about their toys.

You might say: But little children don't have the idea of a separate individual self yet. Only adults separate between "me" and "mine" and "you" and "yours", and that is why we start fighting. If you have children, you'll know how wrong that idea is. True, little children have no idea of a separate self. But that only means that they think that the whole world belongs to them, and that everything, including other persons (especially the parents), is supposed to move according to their wishes. In a sense, little children are the absolute idealists. Adults have to learn to acknowledge the fact that others exist as well, and that others view the world from a different perspective. I really don't think the aim of a bodhisattva is to return to the sandbox, but rather to live in a way like Shotoku Taishi recommended in the quote above.

So, anyway: The teacher shouldn't be like a parent for the student, and the student shouldn't relate like a three year old to the teacher. In general it can be said that many people in the begining of their practice think that you only have to find a good teacher and everything will be taken care of. Actually, that is what Dogen writes in the Gakudo-yojin-shu: The teacher is like a good sculptor that will make an excellent piece of art even with a crooked piece of wood (i.e. an imperfect student). But this is only half of the truth. Not only does the teacher create the student. What is more important for the student is that on his side, he or she has to create the teacher as well. Shakyamuni had thousands of students, but they all had a different teacher, because they create their own Shakyamuni: Devadatta didn't have the same teacher as Maha-Kashapa. Who is your teacher?"

(to be continued ... Docho)

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