Matters of Concern

Sunday, February 29, 2004

There is a very old Japanese book, not ancient by Zen standards, only a few hundred years old, called Hagakure. Hagakure means Fallen Leaves. It is a collection of ideas and thoughts by and about samurai, an inspirational and motivational manual, if you will. I don’t know whether "fallen leaves" is meant to refer to the fallen samurai ancestors, or to the inspirational words and phrases scattered like so many leaves among the students of Bushido, The Way of the Sword; no matter, it is wonderful reading and its thoughts apply equally to students of The Way of Zen.

There is one I was reminded of recently that I wish to share with you. It was a scroll of calligraphy hanging on the wall of a famous sword teacher’s kendojo. It said, "Matters of great concern should be considered lightly... Matters of small concern should be considered seriously." What are our greatest concerns today? How we are doing now? How we are going to get to where we want to be? Not this instant, but in general, what does our progress look like? Other matters of great concern: going over what to say in a job interview next Monday, or exactly how to present an argument to parents or to the in-laws tomorrow about some ongoing disagreement. Thinking and planning what to say, how to say it; going over future conversations in the mind -- ridiculous. They are just unnecessary attachments to the world of illusion. Focus on this instant every detail of the task at hand.

If you must plan that interview in detail, write it out; get the terminology straight, and the grammar perfect. Then forget it. Put it away. Concentrate on now. Thoughts pop up, "Got to do the taxes." "Where did I put that Homestead Refund form that came in the mail?" Stop -- center -- focus on tanden. Clear the mind. Focus on breath. "I wonder if so-and-so loves me as much as I do him, or her..." Stop, focus, breathe (exhales loudly, slowly). Every thought is distracting.

Zazen every day, because it is the perfect expression of Buddha-mind. And daily practice gets us in the habit of returning to Buddha-mind. But just maintaining Buddha-mind (sitting on the zafu) is just the training. It takes some effort to maintain all day. The effort is well worth it... We must stay in the present moment. We can only live in the present moment. All else is illusion. Learning to live in the present is discarding all thoughts of past or future, focusing on mundane details of whatever we are doing right now! Nothing else is important. This maintaining Buddha-mind, provides a clear, fresh outlook. All the world and your place in it -- is continuously obvious. No distracting attachment; it is as though you are reborn, anew each moment.

Matters of GREAT concern - - should be treated lightly.
Matters of small concern - - should be treated most seriously.

Zazen is no less a matter of life and death than dueling constantly with Katana, the long sword. This is the reason Soto Zen, or rather Zen Buddhism, was the religion of the Samurai.