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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.”
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?
“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?”
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?”
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.