Let Go of Imbalance

Sunday, March 19, 2000

Good morning, and welcome to our first observance of Spring O-Higan in this new millennium. Our celebration of O-Higan is a wonderful tradition. We have been observing O-Higan, both spring and fall, at this Temple since its inception by Matsuoka Roshi in 1949. And we can assume that O-Higan has been a significant date for our lineage going all the way back to Dogen, the founder of our Soto Zen Sect, and beyond. O-Higan was certainly our late Abbot Kongo Roshi’s favorite holiday.

For Roshi, this time of year is so significant because it has such a profound effect on everything and its influence is so far-reaching. With other holidays, no mater how significant, we just have a date that we infuse meaning into. As long as we all agreed, we could celebrate most holidays on any date. However, with O-Higan the time of year and the date are the event. The whole world and everything in it is sharing in this observance whether you are Buddhist or not. After all, O-Higan is the time of the global equinox, which is when the sun is directly above the equator. This is when the sun’s influence on the earth is spread evenly over the northern and southern hemispheres. Mother earth and all that she embraces are influenced by this balance, both in the spring, around March 21, and in the fall, around September 21. Large forces, on a planetary scale, are at work here as we shift from the extremes of winter to the extremes of summer. This shift reaches a point of balance at this time of O-Higan. Think of all that depends on this planet and the global implications, the global influence of this event. All things on earth, including all beings, animals, plants, minerals, all things animate and inanimate, all continents, all oceans, all forces of nature, everything shift back and forth between the winter and summer solstice. To some degree, everything on earth is effected. Certainly different parts of the world will feel this influence differently depending on each area's local climate. Perhaps O-Higan has even a more profound significance for us in the Midwest. Yes, in this sense we are lucky here in Chicago because we get the full experience, we get to experience large shifts in climatic extremes from winter to summer and so we can really appreciate and learn from the balance we observe at O-Higan. So, who would have guessed, we are so very lucky to live here in Chicago! Just think, if we lived in some parts of the world, like California for example, we might miss the whole thing!

So we have this very powerful balance of forces and natural influences at this time of year in the world around us, in our macrocosmic environment. Likewise, similar forces are at work in our own individual microcosmic environments. We certainly experience many extremes in our lives in our fast-paced 20th and now 21st century. We experience personal difficulties, successes, challenges, and stresses. We have exhilaration, and constipation. We have worries, hardships and true friendships. We experience many ups and downs, sunny days and cloudy days, warm days and cold days. We experience all of this and more each year, each day, and even each moment. It can be very much like a roller-coaster ride. We may be influenced by many unbalanced psychological states throughout our lives. So what can we do? We certainly only have so much control over the world around us. But consider, most of the problems of imbalance that we encounter are circumstances that we bring on ourselves. We may have limited control over the macrocosm but we can have decided influence over our reaction to it. If you don’t see this go rent the movie Life is Beautiful or something even more contemporary, American Beauty. Anyway, the great value of O-Higan is that it is a huge reminder, a wakeup call, like a large silent wakeup gong going off, to remind us to cultivate balance in our lives, in each day and in each moment. The foundation for this cultivation of balance, for a Zen practitioner and follower of the Buddha, is to emulate his practice and reaffirm our daily seated meditation, we call zazen. The Buddha called his path "The middle way." This means the way between extremes. The Middle Way is our personal path between the extreme highs and lows of our self-imposed asceticism to the extreme highs and lows of our self-imposed over-indulgences and every extreme in between.

So, I would like to spend some time today talking about affirming a balanced state of being in our lives. And let me at this point just propose that one of the keys to achieving balance in our lives is to just let go of imbalance. To not hold on to all of the problems, difficulties, struggles, addictions, all of the issues and on and on, that we encounter each day. Is this too simple? How do we react to the world around us?

Several years ago I went with my family to Boulder, Colorado, at Christmas time, to visit my sister. One day we decided to go up into the mountains to do some skiing. We really didn’t have much experience so we decided to ease into the sport by trying cross-country skiing first. Now keep in mind that cross-country skiing in the mountains of Colorado is a little different from cross-country skiing in the Midwest. The terrain is a little bit more challenging in the mountains of Colorado. So, we also decided to get some instruction at a nearby ski resort. The lady that was our instructor was well into her 60s and at first I was a little concerned about whether she was up to the task. But once I saw her ski, that idea totally vanished. Watching her ski was like watching a gifted dancer. I was amazed at how graceful and balanced she was on skis. She was light as a feather and totally at ease. When she would go to turn to the right she would simply look to the right and to the right she would go. She moved so effortlessly but with such skill. She was in total command and balance.

The reason that I am telling you this story is because of what this instructor’s advice was with regards to learning to ski that I want to share with you. Her advice was "never look where you don’t want to go." Here I was, I had just spent the better part of an hour just trying to stay on our feet. I was getting pretty tired, and a little frustrated. I had experienced how my anxiety over avoiding a steep drop-off, if you were looking at it or dwelling on it, could actually cause you to go toward it. What you looked at, to a significant extent, was where your body would take you. So here I am tired, struggling with trying to absorb all I can from this ballerina on skis and not break a leg, and what do I hear? "Don’t look where you don’t want to go." Maybe it was the thin air. Maybe it was the beautiful mountain scenery or a combination of all of the above. But this statement just pierced right though me. It so summed up the essence of what I was experiencing, but hadn’t realized it until just then, and at the same time it so summed up our human condition. I was deeply struck by the simplicity yet profundity of her statement. I wanted to give several deep bows in response though I didn’t dare for fear that I might slide down the mountain out of control. Now she could have said, "always look where you want to go." This would in essence be saying the same thing in a more positive way. But "never look where you don’t want to go" has a little more bite to it. And due to all of the significant hazards in the mountains this added emphasis was quite appropriate.

Equally appropriate, and relative to O-Higan, and relative to our finding balance in our lives, I say to each of you, "don’t look where you don’t want to go." Often our fears, our doubts, our apprehensions, our compulsions, which are rooted in our self-centered, self-deluded notions about ourselves, will tend to take us in the very direction that we are resisting. The more we are obsessed with our phobias the more they have us in their grasp because we are feeding them. No mater how large and significant or small and inconsequential they are, in equal measure, we will be trapped and thrown off balance by them. I remember what Matsuoka Roshi often said when asked by a student how one should approach Zen practice. He would say, "once you have started down the Buddha’s Path, don’t look to the right or to the left, just march straight ahead."

So again let me say, to cultivate balance in our lives we need only to let go of imbalance. Don’t embrace what you don’t want to become. Let go of all self-doubt and march straight ahead. This is at the very heart of Buddha’s teaching. This is at the very heart of Buddha’s affirmation that from the beginning all beings are already complete. All beings are inherently balanced Buddhas. We must learn to let the imbalance in our lives settle like sediment settling in a glass of muddy water, which when allowed to sit undisturbed reveals its inherent crystal clarity. How do we learn to let go of and settle this imbalance? How do we emulate and internalize the balance of O-Higan in each of our lives? The answer is to reaffirm our conviction to follow the Path of the Buddha and the Buddha’s teachings. And in the most succinct terms, this means following the path of zazen.

In zazen our posture is physically balanced, we rest on the natural rhythm of the breath, and we practice non-attachment with objects that arise in our awareness. Through the practice of zazen we come to understand that centering ourselves and finding our balance can only happen in our present circumstances, in the present moment. We cultivate living in the present moment, which is the only moment in which we are alive. Moment to moment we practice letting go of imbalance by letting go of whatever arises in our meditation. Whatever comes up in our zazen we let go of. We find our way moment to moment by letting go each moment. Balance is letting go and letting go is balance. Holding on and dwelling on issues leads to imbalance, leads to ill physical health, leads to poor mental health, and leads to instability on all levels. Letting go fosters balance and an ability to flow naturally with the rhythm of our lives. Indeed, at first clutching to things can seem to bring security. But in the end it only foster dependence, restrictions, limitations, confinement, delusions, and fundamentally a lack of adeptness at balance in our lives. This is certainly true in our zazen practice. In our practice we find that the key object that we cling to, which is at the heart of our self-delusions, ignorance, and prejudices, is our clinging to our selves. Clinging to our self-centeredness, Me, My, Mine and all these variations. This is the very issue that causes us to feel separate and isolated from our inherent oneness, completeness, and unity with all things. Zazen gives us a practice, a discipline, a vehicle that allows us to develop our skills of letting go of whatever arises each moment. We train ourselves to flow with our present circumstances and learn to not be attached to anything. This is true balance. This is true freedom. Zen does not say that you should not have things. Rather Zen teaches us how to not be attached to anything in our lives. We must learn to understand that having things and our selfish attachment to them, which causes suffering, are two different things. We can truly appreciate our lives, truly see our lives when we approach things with this clarified. Learning to live in the moment fully, not because of tomorrow, not because of yesterday, but to truly understand the completeness and balance that is inherent in our lives right now. As we cultivate our skills of letting go of object that arise each moment in our zazen this is instilling more and more over time as we practice, a new less self-clinging approach to everything that we do. This will foster a greater and greater degree of balance in our lives. We can better flow with the ups and downs in our lives because of this balance. Look deeply at the difference between a problem and a challenge, which spawns growth in our lives. Remember, though we can not know what the next moment will bring, we can cultivate our center our balance and learn to flow with rather then resist and struggle with life.

I would like to close with some additional words of specific advice for cultivating the balance of O-Higan in our lives. First and foremost, rededicate yourself to your daily zazen practice at home. This is the cornerstone for anyone following the Buddha’s Way. Also, as often as possible, sit with others. Come to our Temple services as much as you can to be encouraged by sitting with other practitioners, receiving instruction and words of encouragement, and supporting other practitioners. Maintaining our own enthusiasm is vital to our practice. Sitting with others can be very stimulating for your solo practice at home and vice-versa. The reason the Temple is here is to support your practice. Take advantage of the opportunity it affords. Another key piece to cultivating our Zen practice is sesshin. Yes, I know that sesshin are very difficult and can be very challenging. But sesshin simply reveals a concentrated reflection of the issues that we are confronted with in our daily lives. Sesshin gives us a wonderful opportunity to learn to work through these issues in an equally concentrated way and to learn to let go and stop clinging to things, to ourselves, and find greater balance. As challenging as sesshin may be, in equal measure is their benefit. So, daily practice at home, sitting at the Temple, and attending sesshin can form a very strong foundation for your Zen practice. Right practice is to always continue, continue to strengthen and deepen your zazen.

Through our Zen practice, through this maturation process we cultivate greater and greater balance in our lives by learning to let go of the imbalance.

I would like to close with the following words of encouragement from Dogen Zenji: "Life is short and no one knows what the next moment will bring. Cultivate your mind while you have the opportunity, thereby gaining the treasures of wisdom, which in turn you can share abundantly with others."