January is a time when we can take a look at our activity of the past year and recommit ourselves to practicing together over the next year. We have the opportunity to consider what Zen practice is and to remind ourselves of the value of the training we are receiving. We may ask ourselves, what are we being trained to do? How does our training serve us?
When I was young, I learned to parachute from an airplane, but the jump and landing did not go as expected. There were some very real moments of uncertainty in which I relied on the thorough and specific training I had received. Facing danger, I was terrified, but I remembered to return to that training, and following it, I landed safely in a tree.
We may not always understand how our Zen training works, and we are instructed to sit with no gaining ideas, so how should we think about this practice as training? Suzuki Roshi tells the story of meeting a young girl who saw him sitting and said, “I can do it.” After she sat with crossed legs, she said, “And what?” Suzuki Roshi laughed because he said Zen students ask the same question after coming every day and practicing Zen, “And what?” He explains that through formal sitting practice we come to experience something physical, but it is difficult to explain in words. Ours is not a practice of experiencing by mind or teaching, but by direct physical practice for each of us. Being able to fully practice this way, we should be able to express it in some other way too. He says that this happens quite naturally when we can express the same feeling of sitting, the same state of mind in which we do not stick to anything, and this is the purpose of practice. I think this takes a long, long time!
Zazen is at the center of our practice, and to learn not to stick to anything, we return to breath and posture. No matter what arises in the mind or body, we train ourselves to come back to breath and posture, over and over again. This is letting-go practice, or not sticking to anything. Additionally, we train in a variety of practice positions, rotating through them for short and longer periods of time, so nothing becomes “my” territory to protect and defend. This gives us the opportunity to bring zazen right into our daily activities, and when likes and dislikes present themselves, we train ourselves to return to breath and posture. Over time, we begin to see that we can practice in this same way outside the gate. Coming back to breath and posture in the middle of discomfort or uncertainty or disagreement or conflict creates a gap, a STOP, a moment of stillness. We do not know how our training may inform us in that brief span of time; in fact, a possibility may present itself. Our faith in this process grows, as does our confidence.
Sangha is the jewel of our practice. We learn together, observe one another, and develop relationships with our teachers, practice leaders, and each other. In this way, we train in community, encouraging and inspiring others, slowly revealing Buddha’s way, creating harmony.
Along the way, we make many mistakes, which is quite natural. Mistakes are the stuff of life; every single one of us makes mistakes. Mistakes give us the opportunity to see just where we are. Sojun Roshi says that recognizing our mistakes is the most important thing. We do not waste time chastising ourselves for a mistake; instead, we return to the activity, coming back to our upright position. This return to activity is the enlightened moment, remembering, recollecting, coming back; this is what our life is about.
I think the word “training” sometimes gets a bad rap. It may sound harsh, strict, too disciplinary, but the mystery of our practice lies in the training we receive. Zen training leads us without really leading us to a spirit of practice, a state of mind and body harmonizing in a way that makes it possible for us to practice not sticking to anything. We learn to be serious but light at the same time. Over time, this experiential approach to our lives supports us finding our comfort in any situation in which we may find ourselves.