In my last blog I talked about Zen Center’s mission statement, focusing on the meaning of “deep and quiet joy”, and suggesting there are three levels. In this piece I would like to talk about the deepest or unconditioned level, as well as the rest of the mission statement:
Our mission is to help people experience a deep and quiet joy- a joy that arises whenever we are fully engaged in the work or play of this moment
The deepest level of joy is not influenced by conditions because it emanates from what is called our “Buddha nature,” our still, quiescent nature that does not change regardless of the circumstance. When we sink into this deepest level, we are no longer caught by an “I” that is separate, and our feeling of well being is not affected by things that happen to us. It has no boundary whatsoever and is present in all aspects of our life. It’s what Walt Whitman was referring to when he said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” In a recent blog I suggested you might get a taste of that by repeating to yourselves, “I am more than my anger (hatred, fear, jealousy)” any time you find yourself getting stuck by an emotion.
I mention this deepest level of joy with a slight misgiving. If you idealize it and strive to be someone different than your current experience, you can get caught in the trap of spiritual bypassing, denying or repressing your needs and feelings in the service of an “ideal.” This is not too healthy.
As we gradually deepen our meditation through both daily practice and retreats, we are no longer thrown off when things “don’t go right” in our lives. Through patient, persistent practice, which I call turtle practice, we become less and less derailed when someone disagrees with us or criticizes us. Instead, we are able to drink from the deep reservoir of well-being that is the underpinning of life, an underpinning which we experience when we let go of all of the divisions which our mind makes.
I call this going into Bodhidharma’s cave. First we need a light to guide us- any kind of light-this could take the form of a phrase like, “I am more than this fear.” At some point we can blow out the light, let go of the phrase and enter and even bask in total darkness. When we do this we have a feeling that all beings, all life, is supporting us.
Here’s our mission statement again: to help people experience a deep and quiet joy—a joy that arises whenever we are fully engaged in the work or play of this moment
When you honor your commitment to your meditation practice you are on a path of transformation: a path through suffering to happiness (in Sanskrit this would be from dukkha to sukkha). We are attempting to move toward a pinnacle. Whether it be wisdom, awakening, or fulfillment.
But we need to be careful with this process. Maybe when you were in grammar school you thought junior high would be the pinnacle. Maybe in high school you thought it would be in college.
I can remember looking at the course catalogue my first year in college and thinking that mastering the material in these courses would surely be the pinnacle. But it didn’t happen.
Or maybe your career, or maybe your new relationship, or maybe having kids- striving to reach the pinnacle.
Or maybe you decide you want to become a Zen “master” by going through the entire formal process. Maybe when you get initiated you thought that would be the pinnacle, but not much happened, or at least not enough. Or maybe when you become ordained, or maybe when you become an independent teacher. Where’s that pinnacle?
And your life goes by and you can’t quite remember what the pinnacle should have been. Did you miss it? There it is somewhere in the future just out of reach. As Simon and Garfunkel said, it’s always, “Slip slidin’ away. You know the nearer your destination, the more it’s slip slidin’ away.”
My root teacher, Suzuki Roshi, warned us about getting seduced by the sense that we are going to reach a pinnacle later on by telling us not to do stepladder Zen. Yes, Buddhism is a path, but Zen is a dot, which includes all the other dots within it. As you read these words on this moment, could this be the pinnacle? The dot reminds us that we can enjoy each activity by just giving ourselves completely to it and not worry about moving up. Then we can bask in the sun, play in the lake, enjoy the rain, and even quack with the ducks?
Are you on a path or on a dot? If you are a Zen Buddhist practitioner, the answer is both. The middle way is one of balance. “Living in the now” is wonderful, but when we walk around doing what we feel like all the time, we can mess things up. Besides, our hearts yearns for some sense of direction.
This winding trail I’m walking now is leading me somewhere. It’s a series of dots. I only have a dim vision of where I want to go, but that’s fine. If my vision is too well honed or specific I may be captured by it and forget to the joy of being present on each dot. Dot practice means embracing each moment fully instead of waiting for some so-called pinnacle.
When I do this, I can act from the deepest part of my being and stay true to my purpose as a traveler on a path. Then we can value both work (the path) and play (the dot) and experience that they are two sides of the same coin. If your work feels just like work, how can you make it more playful? Lewis Carroll has a suggestion in Alice in Wonderland:
“No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.”
“Wouldn’t it, really?” said Alice, in a tone of great surprise.
“Of course not,” said the Mock Turtle. “Why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say ‘With what porpoise?’”
The porpoise represents play. Yes, we all need a sense of purpose, but lets not be so intent on getting somewhere that we forget that play is as valuable as work, and often more liberating.
When we do this we are doing just what our mission statement says, “fully engaging in the work or play of this moment.” In Soto Zen Buddhism the word for full engagement is shikan, translated at “just to.” Whether it be shikantaza (just to sit), shikan do the dishes or shikan mow the lawn, full engagement in the activity includes relationship and reciprocity. When I am fully engaged in watering my tomato plants, my energy is not split in a hundred different directions. And as the plants absorb the water and perk up, they are showing their connection with me.
Play is intrinsically motivated. It may have an end, but it is the process that’s most valued. When my youngest grandson was four years old, he loved making sandcastles on the beach. He didn’t mind if the sand washed a sandcastle away because the activity itself was his pleasure. Talk about being fully engaged! Regardless of how arduous our work may be, coming back to our beginner’s mind, as Suzuki said. Any time we get tied in knots about a difficult task, we to remind ourselves that we can “start over.”
Work is to produce some valued end, in some cases realizing whatever dim vision we are working toward bringing alive. That’s our extrinsic motivation. A mature meditation practitioner has learned how to incorporate both the intrinsic and extrinsic in to her way of life.
Let’s be serious about our purpose while we enjoy our porpoise. If we do this each of us can experience “a deep and quiet joy- a joy that arises whenever we are fully engaged in the work or play of this moment.”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher