Imagine that you just heard the news that a meteor is going to hit in thirty minutes. Somehow the astronomers missed it, but it’s huge. You can’t run away. You can’t prevent it. It’s going to destroy everything. What would you want to do? Would you panic and run around yelling? Would you watch the news obsessively, think about the problem and try to figure out a way out of it, a solution? Would you distract yourself, smoking, drinking, eating? Would you just try to find the most pleasurable thing that you could do for a half an hour? Would you go shopping?
I know that if I heard the news that a meteor was going to hit, I would want to be awake. I would meditate. I would deliberately pay attention to these last minutes. I wouldn’t sit cross-legged facing a wall, I don’t think. If I was with Keishin, I’d want to hold her hand. If I was at home, I’d go stand at the East River so I could see the city one last time before it’s leveled. But one way or another I would want to be awake at the end. What about you? Would you want to be awake if this was the last moment ever? Why?
There’s no time left to polish the mirror. If you were planning on cultivating wisdom and compassion so you could be a better Bodhisattva, there’s no time left for that. If you were planning on meditating so you could improve your ability to concentrate, that’s over. Whatever you are now, this is it. This is how the story ends. So what’s the point of being awake now?
Our ango study text this summer is by a Japanese monk named Dogen, who was born in the year 1200. Dogen had this question, too. Why do we practice being awake? What is the purpose?
Dogen became a monk at a very young age. He was studying in a sect called Tendai which mixes meditation, chanting, and sutra study, roughly in equal measure. Dogen practiced very hard in his teenage years and everything he read, everything he heard, kept telling him that we are already enlightened. And he had a question then: if we are already enlightened, then why practice? He went from teacher to teacher around Japan. Nobody could set his mind at ease. So, at the age of 23, he decided to take a risky trip across the sea to China, to meet the Zen teachers there and ask them, “If we’re already enlightened, then why practice?”
Twenty-three. So young. I have a lot of affection for this age that Dogen is at. I was 23 when I left home to move into a monastery. I was two years out of college and I was living in Austin, Texas. I think that things probably looked really good, externally. I had a good job as a computer programmer with a good salary. Apartment, friends, girlfriend, nice car. Everything seemed to be going okay but, I knew that it wasn’t. I knew that I was wrecking my life. I was smoking pot every day and I hated myself. I was trying to find some way out. So, I quit everything. I gave away my car, I broke my lease, I left my girlfriend, I quit my job. I had some adventures and moved into Yokoji Zen Mountain Center in Southern California, a monastery within our lineage. And I had this very foolish attitude about what I was doing there. I thought, essentially, that I could buy serenity by spending a year. As if I were literally spending the currency of one year of time, I could buy peace of mind. I thought it was for sale. And I was going to go shopping for it.
If I check myself these days, I find I still have this attitude a lot of the time. That I’m going to meditate in order to get some state, some way of being that’s going to be more comfortable for me. Ask yourself, do you sometimes think this way, too?
Dogen spent a few years in China, asking teacher after teacher, “Why do we practice?” And he finally had an insight while he was sitting in the monastery of master Rujing, an insight that just blasted apart his previous understanding and formed the foundation of his teaching career and one of the foundational insights of our whole branch of Zen. Dogen realized the answer to, “If we’re already enlightened, why practice?” is this: “Practice is enlightenment.”
(In our study text, it says practice is realization, or practice and realization are not two. I’m sure that that’s a better translation, but “enlightenment” is the alluring word for me so, that’s the one I’m going to use.)
So, practice is enlightenment. For a very long time, I found this a singularly uninspiring message. I use to get infuriated when I read Dogen. He thinks zazen is so great. He writes,
When even for a moment you sit upright in samadhi expressing the Buddha form, the whole world becomes the Buddha’s form and the entire sky is enlightenment. All Buddha tathagatas increase dharma bliss, and renew their magnificence in the awakening of the way.
Bullshit. I tried meditating, that didn’t happen to me.
But, the thing is, he’s right. And I’m sorry that I ignored him for so long.
So, here’s an example. Last month, Keishin and I moved into a bigger apartment and wanted to buy a lot of better furniture. We spent a couple of weeks shopping online, and I found it really addictive. Even after we’d selected the things that we actually needed to make our apartment comfortable and beautiful, I would still find myself up late at night on my laptop, scrolling through pictures of dining tables. On my nightstand next to me, I’ve got this whole stack of superb books full of wisdom and useful information and beautiful prose, and I’m once again ignoring them so that I can scroll through pictures of dining tables. What the hell?
I’m a little ashamed of the time I’ve wasted shopping online. And I’m deeply sorry for the proportion of my life that I’ve wasted shopping in one way or another. Half of the time my consciousness is in some way shopping, looking for something better, looking for something different. If I’m bored, I’ll daydream, shopping for some more exciting experience in my imagination. Or if I’m anxious, I’ll plan and analyze, shopping for a solution, some way to put myself at ease again.
I’m a photographer, and I even shop for a new view, often. Just walking around, I’ll look at people’s faces and judge them: interesting, plain, interesting. Who would make a good portrait subject? Or if I stand over here, do I get a better composition? This light is dramatic and that light is flat.
That mental judgment is useful when I’m actually planning a photograph, but at other times it’s a desecration of what we’re given here. The world that’s offered to us is perfect and withholds nothing. And most of the time I’m ignoring it, shopping for something better. It’s like I’m running up to the buffet and grabbing all my favorite food instead of just sitting with my bowls unwrapped, waiting for the food that’s on the menu. And I’m sorry for that.
I think that that feeling of sorrow is useful. Not guilt. Guilt is retrospective, guilt is sticky. It doesn’t do any good. It should be dropped. But sorrow motivates me to practice being awake and to quit judging and searching through my consciousness for something else. We need a kick in the ass to practice being awake, and sorrow, or regret, is part of that. We’ve really got to atone for all of the time that we spend ignoring the gift that we’re offered. Atoning pretty much constantly, if you’re anything like me.
Dogen says that, “Practice is endeavor in the midst of attaining the way.” It’s not practice on the way toward attainment, it’s right in the midst it. The moment we try to mediate, we are in the midst of the way, soaking in the way, drowning in it. The moment we try to be awake, it’s attained and we are it. He says, “This broad awakening comes back to you and a path opens up to help you invisibly.” We can rely on this. There’s no need to keep searching for the answer, or to try real hard to be better in the future. And there’s no need even to know that we’ve made it. It opens up to help us invisibly. And whether our shopping mind is conscious of it or not, that attainment, it’s there. Just trying to meditate is enough, when we are doing it.
According to Dogen we don’t practice in order to get enlightened, practice is enlightenment. But I have very often heard this misinterpreted, as meaning that practice has no purpose. Nothing could be more wrong. Practice is critical. Dogen even says that, “All those who live with you and speak with you also receive immeasurable Buddha virtue.” So, whatever the challenges are that we’re facing, whether it’s our own suffering, our own foolish stupidity, our own destructive habits, or the challenge facing our world and transforming our anxiety. We’ve got to be awake in order to to do any of this. When we’re awake, we have this power and when we don’t, we don’t. It’s not a matter of practicing now in order to gain the power in the future to meet these challenges. To meet them, be awake now.
So, what now? What are you going to do? Lately, it’s really felt to me that practicing zen is like living in a little water. The shallow puddle that we live in is drying up. This place, this house that we’ve been renting for 20 years, we might not have it next year. This might be our last week here. Next year we might have to go someplace else, or do something else. But that’s moot anyway because in the time I’ve been talking, the meteor has arrived. You can’t hear it yet because it’s coming faster than sound, but its light is here. This is the moment. What are you going to do? Are you going to obsess over the news, trying to figure out a solution to everything? Are you going to distract yourself? Are you going to promise to meditate well this week, even though you’re daydreaming right now? Are you going to hope for something better? Are you going to go shopping? Let’s not. This is the moment.
We can do this. We’re together. We have terrific teachers. We have a loving community. We have a valley that holds us quietly, protecting us. The path is open invisibly to help us. Everything we need is here now. Let’s practice being awake.