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Berkeley Zen Center

Lecture by Sojun Roshi

This lecture is reprinted from the April 2004 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

The Old Buddha Communes With the Pillar
(Continued from last month)

The purpose of my talk is always to encourage our practice. Last night I gave a talk at the Graduate Theological Union. I appreciated the invitation, but I wondered, "What can I say?" So I spoke about my time with Suzuki Roshi and the way I practiced with him. When I think about that, I always feel grateful for the practice that he offered to us, his students and how, little by little, he encouraged me to let go of the burden of my self so that I could stand up and find my way. And I will always be grateful for the fact that although he taught me many things, he didn't explain everything, and when I came to him with a problem he would usually give it back to me as a kind of koan to work out. He gave me a lot of space and a lot of trust.

The first time I came to sit at the San Francisco Zen Center on Bush Street I had no prior instruction. I just came in and sat down. After a while someone (Suzuki Roshi) came up behind me and adjusted my posture. There was something wonderful about this. I thought, "Here I am by myself, with nothing else to do, just myself and this wall and this cushion. How remarkable! And on purpose!" But what I'm most grateful for actually is the way that my teacher encouraged me to practice really hard. Even though I practiced hard, I regret that I didn't practice hard enough when I was with him.

Usually, when we begin our practice, we're not completely ready. Some part of us is ready, and some part of us is not. I was really ready to practice, but my karma was pretty heavy. So I had trouble with really wanting to practice wholeheartedly and being held back somewhat by the residue of my previous life and my attachments. My teacher understood that and gave me a lot of space to work out the effects of my residual karma. But I knew very well what I wanted, and I said to myself, "This is it. I know this is what I really want to do. If I miss this opportunity it may not come around again soon." Even though I made that determination, still, there was a lot of stuff that I had to deal with. So these two things were going on at the same time. I think this happens with all of us.

Do you remember the movie-I think it was a Bu˝uel movie-called "The Andalusian Dog. In it, there's a man in a dimly lighted room who, with all his might, is dragging what appears to be a couple of enormous seals or walruses on his back, across the floor. It seems to be his endless task in a surreal movie. Although this image is an exaggeration, it can sometimes feel that our life, or our practice, is like that. But the effort to practice, even though we have all that baggage, is true effort. We can't wait until we're free in order to practice. And our effort will help to purify our activity if we really have determination. Steady practice can transform our life. In that way, the baggage we have can actually help us.

People who have a lot of suffering due to the effects of past karma usually have a lot of passion. Passion is a two-sided word. It is the devotional energy which leads to suffering, as well as the devotional energy which leads us out of suffering. If you don't have passion, you can't really practice. It's possible to practice without it, but that practice is very cold. Sometimes Zen looks cold, but it is actually half cool and half warm. It's a devotional practice of determination, effort and energy. There is an old saying that you should have a cool head and warm feet. What that means is that we should have a balance of cool and warm, hot and cold. When passion of the heart is balanced with coolness of the head and directed toward seeking the way, then it becomes vital well-balanced activity. That means directing our desire in the correct way so that it becomes right effort that lights up our practice, lights up our life-Enlightenment. The combination of passion, and cool headedness or composure, provides the foundation for the arising of wisdom. I remember one time I was feeling real sorry for myself, and I went to Suzuki Roshi and I said, "You know, I'm really not such a good person. Do you think I can still be a priest?" He said, "Well, if you didn't have this kind of problem, you wouldn't be able to help people. You wouldn't be able to sympathize with their problems. If you were someone who never had problems, you probably would not be a really capable teacher.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi says you should give your cow a wide open field to roam in. If you want to control your cow or horse, you should give him or her a wide field, and not try to control, but just watch. If you ignore your horse or your cow, that's not right. You should watch and observe when the right time is to help or to do something. But if you try to control, or always try to manipulate, then that won't work. So give your cow a wide field. That's true. But if you stick to that, it's not true. The other side is that sometimes you have to put your cow in the corral. Sometimes you have to put your cow in the barn. If you want to get milk from the cow you have to put it in the barn. If you want to train the horse, you have to put him in the corral. So there are different ways. Sometimes you have to put your student in the barn or the corral, sometimes you give a wide field and just watch. Both are necessary. So our practice is sometimes very tight, in a corral-sometimes very loose, out in the field, just wandering looking for grass to chew. Under restriction our activity is very concentrated and we have the opportunity to see our self completely in the mirror of no place else to go. Due to our restricted activity we can find our true freedom. Then we can express it in the field. Knowing how to commune with the pillar-that's our practice either way. Whether we're in a tight situation or in a big field, how the old Buddha communes with the pillar is our practice.

Our Approach to Practice Period

During the six weeks of practice period we have the opportunity to renew and concentrate our effort, and re-establish our practice in beginner's mind. The practice period has some minimum requirements, but within these requirements each person can create his or her own schedule. This is the nature of lay practice. Some will be able to do only the minimum, while others, who have the opportunity, will be able to extend or stretch themselves much more.

It should be clearly understood that in no way is any sangha member required to participate, nor is there any pressure to do so. You should all feel free to continue to come as usual if you are not part of Practice Period.

When you include your zendo schedule in your calendar it incorporates zazen into the rhythm of your life as an intention rather than as a random or arbitrary activity. When we design our schedule for a limited time period, taking into consideration all of the other factors and responsibilities in our life, we have a foundation for practice. It is also necessary to honor our commitments and to be realistic about how we create our schedule.

I like to think of the spirit of practice period as the wish to do it all, and then narrowing it down to what is practical or possible, rather than simply picking or choosing pieces of it based on preference or convenience. This helps to create an edge; something to push against but not enough to be inhibiting. When we all have this attitude it creates a strong sangha feeling of mutual support and encouragement.

It is also important to manifest the spirit of zazen in our home life and work life as continuous, well-rounded practice; not just something we do on the cushion.

This can also provide a good atmosphere for those who are sitting and are not in a position to practice as fully. What makes the difference are the requirements and commitments. Except for that, we (participants and non-participants) are all practicing together.

Practice period can set the tone for the whole year, which is one of the reasons we changed it back to spring, rather than continuing to have it in the fall.


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Last revised 3/26/04. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

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