Work hard, play hard

As I write this I sit on a carpet of red-brown-yellow leaves under one of the big trees which, like much of the surrounding mountain foliage, is rapidly changing colour as winter approaches.

I am struck by the beauty of this land, so much so that it usually feels trite and embarrassingly incomplete to try and express. That may be because any descriptions I do offer, however detailed or effusive, are not going to come even close to capturing the colours of the trees, the warmth of the sunshine during break time on a cold morning, the helpless terror of a deer about to die, the moments during zazen when everything falls into place, or any other aspect of life here. In fact, there is no intersection between the actual experience of those moments and what I write now. That caveat said, I will share some things.

What surprised me most when I arrived in April this year was the busyness and intensity of daily life. I had anticipated long and hard sitting hours, which I looked forward to, but I was not prepared for how challenging the non-sitting hours can be. For most of the 2.5 month trial period, I felt certain I was going to leave. This was to the extent that I remember one of the senior monks showing me how he had protected the outside water taps from the heavy snow last year using bamboo, rice stalks, and wire, so that I would know what to do when winter came, and I was smiling to myself thinking “ah, but I won’t be here by then.” Well, recently it’s been getting pretty cold, the water taps have their new winter protection, and here I am! And despite how much my mind complains (there’s usually a current “complaint theme” – too much work, not enough free time, eating meat, not sitting enough zazen etc. – which changes once I’ve made peace with whatever the previous “problem” seemed to be), I am very grateful this is where I am. Truly, there is no where else I would rather be.

Before Antaiji, I spent most of my adult life playing games. I would work out what I wanted (to get fit, good marks, exciting dating life, travel the world, enough money etc.) and then figure out how that particular game worked so I could win what I sought. Even Antaiji is an example of this; I decided years ago that I wanted to come, and then set my life on course – from studying Japanese to getting a job in Japan so as to acclimatise to Japanese culture – in order to make it happen.

This way of approaching life was something I was proud of, both because I found I am quite good at it, and also because it seemed, and still seems, markedly better than it’s counterpoint way of living (if it can even be called living) which is to be beaten down into a state of pitiful resignation, and which unfortunately seems to characterise the lives of many people. In the words of Henry Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”.

In the first approach, and the approach I took, one is active, ambitious, and unavoidably assumes the role of the dominator looking to conquer life with all its temptations and challenges. In the second approach, one is passive and resigned to suffer as the victim of circumstance. In both approaches, there is a fundamental sense of separation between you and your life (i.e. you find yourself trying to dominate life, or are dominated by it). It also struck me quite early on, although I wasn’t ready to give up the games at that time, that the “success” one achieves is never close to as sweet as it appeared to be, and as soon as one game is won, another replaces it. Treating everything as a game leads to a chronic sense of dissatisfaction and a compulsive need to constantly chase after the next shiny goal. All the while life as it is right now remains untouched, unlived.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve given up playing games. Even though it’s more difficult, I still do it here (e.g. chasing after caffeine and food, fantasising about life after Antaiji). I am also sure that the basic worldly games (sex, status, money, power) will look to grab my attention again when I am confronted with them as more realistic possibilities when I am not here. However, I’ll cross that bridge when that time comes. For now, I find the sense of treating life as a game, although still present, recedes more and more into the background as just another thought, while the inherent vividness of each moment comes to the foreground.

Daily life at Antaiji has a way of inviting you (although it feels more like “shoving” a lot of the time!) into life as something to be lived, not played. Again and again it is impressed upon us that Antaiji has nothing other than “what life at this precise moment has to offer you”, and the zazen we spend all those painful-wonderful-boring-enlightened-deluded hours doing is “good for nothing”. It’s this emphasis on not needing to add anything extra onto life which appealed to me most about coming here. I’m not interested in some grandiose spiritual journey or enlightenment (although I’ve certainly chased that before). I just want to see what life is like when each moment, whatever it contains, is sufficient in and of itself, and not used as a means to some imagined end. Antaiji supports this exploration.

Ultimately, though, I don’t know what Antaiji is, why I’m here, or what “practice”, let alone “Zen”, means. It is utterly mysterious that all of the things I would like to point to as me or mine, such as the intention to come to Antaiji, the actions that brought me here, and these words and ideas I’m sharing now, arise out of a sort of impersonal void (although even to call it that is to say too much). Whatever it is, and wherever all this “stuff” that appears in each moment comes from, I certainly can’t claim agency over it, in the same way I cannot know what thought will appear next. On the other hand, nor does the content of each moment feel like something distant to me that I am subject to or merely observing, most of the time.

I’d like to say that rather than treating life like a game, I am remembering that I am life itself, and that living at Antaiji is not a way to attain this insight, as if it weren’t true before, but rather to express this truth though simple, everyday activity, from chopping wood to sitting zazen. But now I really am just playing with pretty words.

It was two weeks ago that I began to write this. Outside it’s raining and I can see the tree I was sitting under. Almost all of the leaves have now fallen.