27 December 2011

Just Sitting

I found out recently that our lineage is one of the very few in the States that doesn't allow moving during formal rounds of sitting. 

When I first started sitting I was a basket of anxiety plated with armor.  The first time I tried to sit, I broke into a cold sweat and just about passed out.  No mat and cushion for me, the teacher said, and I was shown a chair.  Next time I came back I was bound and determined to get on the floor with everyone else.  I propped myself up with extra support cushions, but I can't say that the extra padding did anything to alleviate the pain.  Still not knowing the distinction between pain and suffering, I thought that the way out of the suffering was by eliminating the pain, so at each kinhin I grabbed another support cushion until I was seated atop a stack of now increasingly unstable cushions.  Toward the end of the evening rounds, the pain was more than I could bear, so I adjusted my leg a bit.  "No moving!" stated the monitor, in as clear and dispassionate a voice as possible, and I held the position until the end.

I kept coming back, and I kept feeling the pain, and every once in a while I would see if I could get away with a little bit of an unauthorized adjustment, and the voice came back, "No moving!"

At any point I could have said, "Fuck this shit," but I'm glad I didn't.   I could have said, "These people are attached to their forms; don't they understand about being beyond form and emptiness?" but, again, I'm glad I didn't.

And why?

Because dukkha is a teacher of the highest order, and whenever I seek to avoid dukkha, whether in day-to-day life or on the mat, I play hookie from school, fail to learn the lesson, and fall short of my aspiration. 

Eventually I stopped playing this game of trying to move on the mat.

Eventually, as a result, the "I" began to stop more and more.

I don't think it can be emphasized enough that the point of all this practice – the point of our ceremonial forms, the point of koan training, the point of sesshin, the point of dealing with sangha, the point of shikantaza – is to see into and live the truth of dukkha, its cause, its end, and the path to its end.  If we're not about ego-attrition, then what, pray tell, are we about?

Allowing moving on the mat is like, I don't know, allowing cigarettes at a smoking-cessation clinic.  If one says one wants to taste the liberation Buddhism has to offer, but instead keeps retreating into ego habit and comfort, then what's the point, exactly? If we can't manage to learn to let go of fidgeting while on the mat, then what are the chances we'll be ready to let go when the stakes are higher? 

I came to Zen because I saw in it a practice that could bring about what I had come to sense was true: that the fullness of life requires the death of the self.  I had heard that message preached for years, but I never knew how to begin to realize it.  In its utter simplicity, Zen gives us a tool by which to do that.  It's called zazen, seated focused meditation.  Like any tool, though, it has to be kept sharp and well-tended and – most of all – used properly.

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