Gail Sher Dharma Talks

Beginning Practice

Beginning Practice
Questions and Answers

Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha-nature?

The Buddha nature which you think you  already have within yourself is not Buddha-nature. When you become yourself, or when you forget all about yourself and say ‘Yes!’ that is Buddha nature.

“Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha-nature?” was Dogan Zenji’s primary question. After failing to get an answer from teachers in Japan, he searched all over China for a Zen master who could answer it. At the very end when he was about to leave, he met the new abbot at a monastery he had already visited, and this abbot, Rujing, told him that we don’t sit to “get” enlightenment, we sit to express the enlightenment we already have. Just as we immediately become a thief when we steal something, when we sit following Buddha’s example our zazen is itself Buddha.

Do we already have goodness inside us?
“I hear that it is because we have goodness already in us that we can afford to be good but inside me I’m not sure that I AM good. I see my jealousy, my incapacity, my gaining ideas. It’s probably there but I don’t know how to get in touch with it.”

You already are in touch with it. Just the SEEING of jealousy, incapacity and gaining ideas is an indicator that you are working hard with your karmic consciousness. Part of the problem is the word “good.” There is no such thing except in relation to something else. In Buddhism it is said that just seeing and following what our bodies and minds are up to, without judgment, is practice itself. To me it seems like you should just “keep on keeping on,” without any idea of improving yourself or becoming a “good” person. This kind of practice has the flavor of the Way. There’s nothing more worthy of you.

What is the “wish to save all beings” that I hear about as part of the bodhisattva precepts ceremony? How can I do THAT? It seems preposterous.

Two things:

  1. bodhisattvas are not about results; they are about practice. You take the vow as an orientation for your practice and make sure, minute by minute, that you do your absolute best.
  2. Because all beings are interconnected and co-arise dependently with each other, YOU are “all beings.” Don’t forget. It’s a critical point. Worth repeating.

It is significant that we take a vow to do the impossible. Thereupon we are always lacking in the accomplishment that we vowed to make. We regret and repent our failure. All the while we keep trying and re-trying to do our very best. This is practice itself so you are already on to it. It’s good that you are challenging everything. “Being picked by the Precepts” (as some say) is a big deal. Being ready to realize that you have been is also a big deal.

What is nonthinking?
“When I sit, my mind is racing. I don’t think I know what ‘nonthinking’ is. That’s why I feel the whole Zen venture is hopeless.”
Practice noticing it and naming it in the moment. “Discursive thought. Discursive thought. Discursive thought.” Keep returning to this conscious naming. Pay attention to the gaps even if they’re brief. They are the non-reference points called “enlightenment.”
Explain “the past and future lives of all beings.”
“I’ve read that the Dalai Lama considers the notion of the past and future lives of all beings an important aspect of being a bodhisattva. Could you comment on this controversial idea?”

I’m a fan of the Dalai Lama and I know that he teaches the Buddha’s explanation of cause and effect which states that no thing arises without cause, that there is no uncaused cause, and no cause that loses its effect.  So consciousness is always preceded by another consciousness, and always gives rise to further consciousness.  The idea that we live many lives before and many after this present one, the quality of which is affected by our own conduct and motivation, provides the context for appreciating the great rarity and value of life as a free and fortunate human being who alone has the ability to attain enlightenment.  Moreover, understanding that all beings have already lived countless lives allows us to accept our interdependence and appreciate that at some time every being has been kind to us in some way.  There is no need to buy into this unless it helps your practice.  You can just listen and let it go.

What is “The Perfection of Generosity”?
” ‘The perfections of the Bodhisattva do not support me—it is I who support them,’ says Shantideva, the great seventh-century Buddhist poet. I don’t really understand what this means.”

Yamada Koun Roshi (Aitken Roshi’s teacher) often said, “I wish to become like a great tree, shading all beings.”  In other words, “I so want to give of myself entirely for the benefit of others that I wish to just stand day and night and give my shade to all passers-by.” Another of our ancestors wished to become a water buffalo selflessly (and constantly) serving people in their toils.  By virtue of their generosity both of these beings support (uphold) the “Perfection” of Generosity, the first and foremost of the six transcendent behaviors of a bodhisattva. By virtue of their “enlightened” effort, the Perfection stays alive.  Otherwise it is just words.

“By a single act of relinquishment, everything is relinquished.”  What does this mean?

It’s an ultimate truth and means because everything is interconnected and interdependent, each behavior of ours is not really ours.  It belongs to and expresses all beings.  That’s why Shakyamuni Buddha said upon awakening, that he awakened along with the great earth and all beings.  It goes both ways.  We truly are united, more intricately than most of us can imagine.  That said, when one person relinquishes something (gives something up like a habit, a prized possession, an ungereous or angry thought) because of our interconnection, relinquishment is present everywhere.  Because it’s an ultimate truth our mind can’t actually grasp this, but one can have a feel that it is so nonetheless.  I do.

Frivolity and  happiness
“The idea of ‘binding one’s frivolity’ which is usually allowed so much room—does this mean we can never really have a good time?”

Actually, it means just the opposite.  Our normal idea about frivolity has some relationship to a heightened state, be it intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, by physical speed, by beauty, by excitement (or whatever) outside the ordinary pattern of our daily life.  The shila paramita brings us back to our basic life, fully present with our everyday activities.  It’s a special mix that when it happens, you will immediately recognize of proper + correct + lightness + serving others.  The normal mode of frivolity is an add-on, like enjoyment in a kind of shell.  When you enjoy from your basic self, there is a quieter but deeply resonant feeling that takes up your whole body-mind and truly satisfies.

Dealing with “discursive thoughts”
“I keep hearing that our discursive thoughts separate us from ourselves and prevent us from knowing who we are. Can you say more about how this works? I sort of like my thoughts and don’t see how they get in the way of who I am.”
Freedom means being free from being enslaved by our mind, from unnecessary preoccupations and unnecessary preconceptions. This state is said to be the basis of all virtues. (Virtue means healthiness and wholesomeness.) It means to constructively organize your life as creatively and simply as possible so as to be present and fully engaged with what is there. Discursive thinking is like a separate world. Like a distraction, it lifts you out of being present. But it’s from the groundedness of presence that we begin to attain jnana or wisdom, which is the essence of the practice and the source of attaining enlightenment. You can’t think your way into enlightenment. You have to shed your way back and back and back to your home base.
Patience can mean “wait and see what happens.”
When you see yourself indulge in anger there is a tendency to criticize yourself.  Patience means you wait a minute;  you wait and see what happens.  It means not coming to conclusions too quickly.  “But I don’t need to wait a minute.  I already know what is going to happen.  My anger will not go away.  If anything it will grow with time as I feel more and more justified and think less and less of the person for whom I harbor anger.  It’s like a righteous thing.”

I’m thinking that this means that you’ve never actually waited a minute.  Consiousness is everything.  Waiting a minute means allowing consciousness to enter the picture.  And then you wait a few more minutes and even more consciousness enters the picture.  Now you have several minutes of consciousness and if you allow yourself not to come to a quick conclusion and just go on with your life, the next day you really might have at least a glimmer of youself being like the ocean–whatever happens you cannot be perturbed.  You remain the same all the time, which means you keep your inherent equinimity.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t care.

Can I practice Zen when I’m not doing zazen?
Harada Roshi talks about dividing our life into “Zen within stillness” and “Zen within activity.” In this way we will be able to be one with our work and be one with the samadhi of zazen. “Being one with our work” means being present with whatever is in front of us right now. Whatever we are experiencing, we do not try to distract ourselves away. We stay and we stay and we stay until, because change is the nature of reality, eventually it turns into something else. Meanwhile we will have had the full experience of ourselves throughout the process. I know someone who features a powerful presence of mind though she has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. She stays with herself, her feelings, her questions, her wish to understand her treatment plan. She is not impatient or angry or resentful. She is just herself today knowing that she has lung cancer. That’s practicing Zen when you’re not doing zazen or you could say that’s zazen when you’re not on the cushion.
“I want to ask about sleepiness being an obstacle to arousing the mind of awakening. I am sleepy a lot. Even though I think I am doing the right thing in my life, I still find myself in subtle ways not awake to it. Not alert. Is there anything I can do about that?”
Let me describe what the opposite looks like. When you are awake to your life, you can hardly wait to live it. There is a deep sense of correctness surrounding your activities even though they’re hard. There also is a natural sense of practice around them, e.g., you just want to do them regularly and completely and that’s all. You have a strong feeling that “This is my life.” It is palpable. Sleepiness is an obstacle to arousing the mind of awakening and if you are not doing the right thing with your life, that certainly could be a cause of it. Study that until you’re sure. It’s worth being sure even if sleepiness weren’t a problem
Practice right here, right now
“I heard you say that we don’t consider this practice as a step to something else. This practice is right here, right now, in this situation, to awake to the reality of this self. I find these words very beautiful but I’m not sure I understand the last part–‘to awake to the reality of this self.’ Can you say more?”
The other day I participated in a dharma talk given by Tenshin Reb Anderson. He used for us participants the word that the Buddha used when addressing his own disciples—”assembly.” I was shocked. I never flinched at the word when it was used for the Buddha’s disciples, but to use it for me! But then I thought, “Well, who else?” I’ve been practicing Zen for over fifty years. I’m the one right here, right now. Of course I’m part of his “assembly.” It felt weird to say so however. That’s how awakening to the reality of “this self” can feel. Start to notice when you are sitting, for example. At that time you are also part of Buddha’s assembly. See how it lands in your body.
Working with the four brahmaviharas—love, compassion, joy, equanimity
“How would you suggest that we work with the four brahmaviharas—love, compassion, joy, equanimity? I love the phrase ‘divine states of dwelling’ but they seem too big. How do I ground them into my daily routine?”

That is a really good question. Most of us sort of nod and agree, but then we forget about them. Honestly, I would take one of them a year and be very intent on manifesting it whenever you have a chance. Take equanimity, for example. “I am the person consciously practicing equanimity. In situations that usually rile me, I target them and study myself carefully.” Keep reminding yourself like this for awhile and try to be equanimious as often as you can. Once your resolve sticks you’ll find more and more pleasure in its practice. Next year you can make a resolution to practice joy. I used to laugh at New Year’s Resolutions but I made three this year and learned that they provide a reference point. “Now, what am I working on? Oh right.” Otherwise, over time, things I’m “working on” seem to go away.

What does “All of Buddhism is but a footnote to zazen” mean?
It means that all of the scriptures, liturgies, practices other than zazen, are valuable in relation to zazen like a footnote on a page is valuable to the page. It’s interesting but not essential. If something is left out, it would be THAT, the footnote, not the writing on the page itself. Sawaki Roshi is saying that zazen is the whole page. Everything else is expendable.
What is the point of “no-gain Zen”?
Dogen says, “If we do things for our private gain or personal benefit, then no matter how hard we work, no matter how much we achieve, it will come to an end. Instead we dedicate our work to all beings. That is our attitude toward work and toward other people. That is joyful mind.” Here Dogen is using the word “gain” to mean anything that we do that is not focused on the present moment. To be completely pure in our non-gaining, we must be completely pure in our non-doing. In other words, when we do something, we are empty of ideas of anything other than the quality of our attention right now, not the result of having done it later. Perhaps there will be no other result than your current Joyful Mind. Joyful Mind is one of the Paramitas, the transcendent actions of a bodhisattva, but even that is not why we practice with a no-gain spirit giving all of the merit away. We practice with a no-gain spirit so as not to indulge a non-existent independent, individual self.
What is the difference between a goal-seeking mind and a vow-seeking mind?
Goal-seeking is no different from our normal samsaric world, living a life pulled by karma. Living by Vow is being pulled by Vow. It situates you in an entirely different place internally, and is spiritually cleaner and more alive. It’s not just words. You can feel the difference.
Don’t expect helping to be a big deal
” ‘Don’t expect helping to be a big deal. In our everyday life, we can help someone or something all the time.’ This obvious remark somehow was a big reminder for me. The other day I was parking my car in my building’s garage and a woman came running over to me to ask me to open the door because her key’s battery was dead. When I did she was so relieved. It sort of made my day. What if she hadn’t run over to me?”
I know. We all have experiences like that. They show us our deeply entwined nature, don’t they? I was delayed in work I do together with another person recently because he went away for several weeks to help his wife’s parents’ friend. I thought to myself, “Gosh. This unknown person in a far away state, tangentially related to someone I know, totally knocked me off my work schedule. For me it served yet again as a reminder of how others are simply contents of me. We are SO connected. Why is this constantly so shocking!
The best advice for Buddhist social action
“Robert Thurman ended a talk with what he calls ‘the best advice for Buddhist social action I have yet seen’ referring to Dogen’s ‘Four Methods of Guidance’
(which Thurman called the ‘four political practices’)—giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity action. That was kind of an eye opener.”
It’s a reminder that everything we do, even small actions, are political because of our interconnectedness. It turns Jane Austen’s main theme of “manners” into social-action-teaching completely relevant for today, because she studies how people treat each other and their growing understanding of behavior that is beneficial as opposed to destructive. For her, generosity and kind speech are at the heart of it. In the end her indicators of growth are always some form of deepening consideration for others. Those who are best at this not only are the happiest, but the best liked and therefore the most powerful. It turns what is political away from big speeches to small personal actions. So insightful.
Our life as human beings
“You were saying à la Katagiri Roshi that ‘This is our life as human beings. We always feel somewhat unsatisfied. Whichever is chosen; it does not fit one’s heart neatly.’ I’ve only recently started to be aware of this. Even in the best of moments I feel slightly agitated. It helps to hear that this is normal.”
Western culture (especially advertising) promotes a be happy, be excited feeling. It’s the innocent, childlike feeling that delights us in children. But even a child has in it a force that negates being a child. Old people have in them the force that negates oldness. And then they re-join universal life. If we try to stay in our childhood modes, clinging to and treasuring those expressions to the exclusion of more mature expressions, we WILL notice something not quite properly joined. The more you practice zazen, the more attuned you become both to the presence of this unsettled heart and also the presence of a different kind of satisfaction, very steady, stable and strong. Please continue as you have started.