During our last sesshin the word acceptance came up. I didn’t think so much about it before I began practicing zazen. During my early years as a novice, there were times when zazen was excruciatingly painful.
Suzuki Roshi was always encouraging us to sit still and not move. Our zazen periods were forty minutes, just like now. At that time, in the early 60s, his students were mostly novices. He had only been here for five years when I came. Sitting zazen once or twice a week was a significant experience for me until I came to my first Saturday morning.
After the first period and kinhin, everyone sat down again. I thought, “They are going to do this again?” I said to the fellow next to me that this was really painful. He said that yes, it always is.
But somehow I kept coming back. I knew that even so, there was something else that I was not able to explain. So coursing through a forty-minute period of zazen, when the pain would arise I would hope that the bell would ring and save me from my suffering. My whole life at that moment was waiting to be rescued. Saved by the bell! I simply could not be where I was. But in fact, I had no alternative because my intention was to stay through the forty minutes. Sometimes, just when we thought the bell would ring, Suzuki Roshi would say in his soft voice, “We will sit ten more minutes.” We’re bursting at the seams, how are we going to do this for ten more minutes? But we did. This was our basic training.
Suzuki Roshi taught us the meaning of acceptance: We must open our self to each sensation and become one with it. If you try to escape you will suffer. But it is not so easy to be one with the pain because of the embedded associations of our discriminating mind. Most of us have to go through the painful process before we can truly open up and be free from our conditioned responses. Instead of shutting down and resisting, we open up and accept whatever appears, and instead of narrowing our borders we allow them to expand and include whatever appears. It is counter-intuitive. Instead of gritting our teeth and clenching our fist, we relax our jaw and open our hand. Suzuki Roshi would encourage us by saying that those who have the most difficulty and see it through will have the most benefit.
As soon as an “uncomfortable” feeling arises and we don’t “like” it and don’t “want” it, we form an attachment and begin to suffer. Wanting to hold on to a “good” feeling, it is painful when it leaves. So in this sense, acceptance means letting go, or freedom from attachment, which is the bedrock of practice. There is no special state of mind to attach to and no special feeling to desire and no special self to hang on to. This can be called bliss.
Suzuki Roshi said he admired the frog sitting completely still on a rock. When a fly buzzes by, without hesitation the frog’s tongue darts out and catches it. If he likes it, gulp. If not, ptooi, he spits it out and just keeps sitting. Frogs are really dumb, but who are we to judge?