Practice and Enlightenment

[This text was first published in The Diamond Sword, a collection of talks by Kongo Roshi, Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago, first edition 1987, second edition 1992, pp 43-46.]

We have to be very careful in Zen, as in anything else, not to turn a striking idea into a mere slogan. Soto Zen places great emphasis on everyday life - not just "everyday life," but every minute life, every second life, every instant life down to the infinitesimal now. And here again, as soon as you say "everyday life," you are mouthing a cliche. It sounds like a good idea; we pick it up as a slogan; but the essence, the true meaning of exactly what is being communicated here can be misunderstood.

When Dogen Zenji says enlightenment and practice are inseparable, he means that you are practicing enlightenment, not practicing sitting on a cushion. This isn't an exercise in the accepted sense of the word: practicing enlightenment is the enlightenment of the practice. The practice illuminates itself. Just as a mirror bounces your reflection and throws it back in your face, so does the wall, and so does the actual sitting itself, wall or no wall. What's in front of you is irrelevant. What you do, where you are at each moment is what counts.

I was reading a book a couple of days ago on the Chinese art of Hsing I, which is one of the three internal martial arts that developed in China. Actually there are many martial arts in all of the Oriental countries. Most of them are related to the aggressive external hard style. The internal arts however, Tai Chi Chuan, Pa Kua Chuan, and Hsing I Chuan, were designed to develop the individual internally, so that an individual's external appearance is not massive, physical, or muscular, producing a sweaty looking body or a sweaty looking mind. Quite the contrary. The internal arts are very unobtrusive and unassuming, but they train the chi inwardly and they emphasize allowing the chi to circulate through the body and setting in the tanden, which I have discussed before. This is exactly comparable to Zen training. Intentionally or unintentionally, if one practices zazen correctly, it effects an accumulation, a storing up of vital energy. Hsing I is supposed to be the most profound, the highest of the three internal martial arts.

I was reading a biography about a Hsing I master, and he made a statement that in my mind expresses the essence of Dogen's practice of enlightenment. The Hsing I master's one-liner is this: "Instead of trying to achieve it, pretend you already have it. This will help your mind." This is the idea: when you sit in zazen you are not awaiting enlightenment or awaiting satori. If you carry the idea of enlightenment in your mind, you are a million miles away. One inch equals a million miles out there somewhere, and inevitably you will be off track. You must come to a final conclusion. Resolve all paradoxes in your mind and sit with absolute faith in the efficacy of zazen. It is very difficult to understand, but this encapsulates the statement that enlightenment and practice are one. This is how you sit in zazen. Instead of trying to achieve something, act as though you already have it. So now you are practicing enlightenment. Get it?

On or off the cushion it is the same idea. How do you continue practicing enlightenment off the cushion? Look inwardly at your state of mind before any thought arises, and when it does, cut it off and continue looking. This constant practice of turning the gaze of the mind inward allows your energy to be stored and remain at full charge, rather than draining your battery by allowing the mind's gaze to be sucked out constantly by everything that surrounds you in everyday life. Hey, look over there! Hey, look over here! Everything demands our attention. Be discriminating; be selective.

In the old days, when we used to go to Maxwell Street, the businessmen were out like a bunch of vultures. The outside stands could be seen for miles. You were being grabbed from the left, from the right, from the front. It was overwhelming. Of course, that was the fun of if. That was the beauty of Maxwell Street. It is nice when you intentionally go to a place to be distracted, such as a carnival. But, in everyday life you want to maintain your inner poise. Turn the gaze inward, use the energy and the wisdom that has been gained on the cushion. Don't just let it die there. When you get up from the cushion, gassho, and walk away; keep the mind sharp - hone it. The mind is a blade edge.

Do you know Somerset Maugham's story, "The Razor's Edge"? We are all walking the razor's edge each moment. You are missing it all if you do not have this mindful attitude. The mind is always flopping around some place else. You can't keep up. We are going through life sleepwalking, and we think we are so conscious. We are knowledgeable and wise, intellectual, well-read and well-bred. And we see all the right exhibits and go to the right concerts and know all the latest records. My, my how wonderful! We are lucky we are not all cripples from patting ourselves on the back so often. And all the time this moment is escaping us. We are so smart, but we don't have the ability, the inner discipline to focus the mind's eye inwardly on the mind, accepting and rejecting with a disciplined will. This is a different approach to life. Usually the mind, the eye, the senses are always extending outward, but here you are turning inward, constantly. In dealing with others, in speaking with others, the mind can always be reflected inwardly on itself. You are not missing a thing. In fact you are the essence of everything.

So take Zen with you. All life is kinhin (walking meditation). Don't lose it away from the cushion, or it will never get beyond that point. Zen will just be a black-cushion-Zen, and no more. You'll get a little comfort; you'll get a little relaxation; but that will be the beginning and the end of it, and that is pathetic. It requires full-time energy. So, mindfulness, Zen mind, no-mind, and all of these ideas are good slogans. Tack them up on the wall so you can see them the first thing in the morning. But carry them with you - that's better. Forget the word; forget the concept; you already know that. Eat the peanut; throw away the shell. Get the idea? You don't have to think what to think about. Just cut, cut the thought, cut the damn silly thinking process that goes babbling on forever. You have had enough of it already. Thirty, forty, fifty years - how much do you need? Look inwardly at the state of mind before any thought arises, cut it right off and bring your mind right back to the work. And what is the work? Looking inward at your state of mind. You operate from that vantage point, and everything else will be clear.