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Zen In Daily Life (Exclusive)
by David Scott
In the East, within the Zen tradition, those Zen students who have decided to commit themselves full to self-realization have (at least in the past) usually become monks or nuns. They give up their worldly lives and possessions in order to follow their path under guidance of a master within the confines of a monastic life.
In the West, Zen is much more of a lay movement and for those practitioners who wish to maintain their lives both in society and in the Zen way, a switch of emphasis is neccesary. Single minded devotion to achieving enlightenment or the 'Great Awakening' has to give way to a more varied practice in which formal Zen training and the demands and concerns of ordinary life are interwoven. Together they can then be used to challenge and test our ability to bring Zen into our daily lives and to take our life experiences back to the meditation cushion. The friction generated by this process can provide the heat that creates the changes through which we may grow. Unavoidably, this can sometimes be a source of pain and fear.
Robert Aitken Roshi says that: 'Practice in daily life is the same practice as on your cushion: check your ordinary thought of greed, hatred an ignorance and return to your original pure mind.' While the Canadian Zen teacher Albert Low describes the situation as follows;
One can, by committing oneself fully to the lay life and the sacrifices that it takes, in other words to live fully and authentically the role of a parent and spouse, 'be''committing oneself fully to awakening, to the Dharma. But such a commitment needs constant work. It is like steering a ship across the ocean; one cannot lash the tiller and then forget about it. It means constantly checking one's course and correcting direction.
In essence Zen is not concerned with how we conduct ourselves in society, but an outcome of Zen teaching is that dualistic distinction we may make between ourselves and others starts to diminish. This shift in perception is matched by an increased awareness of the interdependence of all phenomena. This then leads to growing sense of social awareness and community and compassion with other beings. Life itself may then become a koan in which we try to answer the question of how to lead a life that balances our own needs with the needs of the people and other beings around us.
The realization that you do not exist separately from everything else also caries awareness with it that you must now accept responsibility not only for your own actions but for everything you experience. It no longer works to say something like ' she made me jealous'. One must now say 'I made myself jealous'. Now if a problem occurs you cannot look outside yourself to place the blame but must look inwards, face yourself, and discover what it is in you that engendered a particular situation. To live from this place however requires considerable effort and ability to stay clear minded within the confusion of our lives. Apart from za-zen and contact with a Zen teacher, practical advice on sustaining ourselves in this endeavour is provided by the Noble Eightfold Path and Ten Precepts of traditional Buddhist teachings combined with the Zen emphasis on 'The Middle Way'.
The Middle Way
The Buddha is said to have been radiant, charismatic, gentle and most of all compassionate. His message was a very practical one. He was concerned with showing the way beyond suffering of existence to a place where on could lead a life of selflessness, compassion and wisdom.
The Buddha's teachings were based on his postulations that the way to achieve happiness and harmony and the elevation of suffering was to accept the Four Noble Truths and to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths are:
1. As a result of its impermanence we experience life as suffering;
2. However, suffering itself is caused by our desire for life to be otherwise;
3. Therefore the way to stop suffering is to stop desire;
4. The way to stop desire is to follow the Eightfold path.
At first sight this seems a most depressing message but the Buddha's teachings offer hope once the fact of suffering has been accepted. That suffering is universal and not the result of accident nor a punishment is illustrated in the Buddha's story of the woman who went to him with her baby, dead in her arms.
The Buddha taught that to follow the Eightfold Noble Path was to stop desire and the route to spiritual liberation. This path recommends rightness in:
Of course the interpretation of 'rightness' and how it applies to the qualities listed is open to much discussion. This has resulted in various schools of thought but the Zen path recommends the Middle Way with the emphasis of mindfulness cultivated through za-zen. Thus, in Zen, moderation is a quality that is respected. Remember, however, that moderation in moderation is also important, hence the occasional story of Zen masters getting blind drunk! The Middle Way is described as follows by Zen master Gudo Nishijima Roshi:
This most fundamental teaching of Gautama Buddha is 'Don't do wrong, do that which is right'. So he taught his disciples the eight 'correct ways'. These eight correct paths are all rooted in the balance between activity and passivity, optimism and pessimism, tension and relaxation, reason and irrationality.
For example, right world view (understanding) refers to seeing life for what it is and being neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic as a result. Right thinking are those thoughts, plans and theories which arise from a right world view, that is neither too idealistically impractical nor too materialistically trivial. Right speech has often been interpreted as meaning not to tell lies, but in a deeper sense it refer to 'gentle words', speech which is in harmony with both the speaker and the listener and their situation. Right action is always appropriate for the situation, and is not unduly influenced by our transient moods or whims. Right effort is the fine work enabled by inner harmony and balance. Right mind, as you may suppose, refers to a tranquil undisturbed mind. Right body balance refers to being neither too tight nor too loose, neither too tense nor too relaxed.
These goals may seem a bit simple, but, after all, the inspiration for Zen comes from a man like us who lived long ago, and the goal of Zen is to purify and to bring ourselves into harmony, not as some fantastic unbelievable experience, but rather a return to the good balance we often enjoyed as children. Paradoxically, we can say that the goal of za-zen is, through our effort, to return us to the common place; through hard work to become normal.
This view echoes another Zen master who, when asked for teaching, gave the reply:'When you bring me a cup of tea, do I not accept it? When you make bows to me, do I not return them? When do I ever neglect to give you teaching? If you want to see, see directly into it; when you try to think about it is altogether missed.'
Morality And The Ten Precepts
Do not kill.
Do not steal.
Do not be greedy.
Do not tell a lie.
Do not be ignorant.
Do not talk about others' faults.
Do not elevate yourself by criticizing others.
Do not be stingy.
Do not get angry.
Do not speak ill of the Three Treasures.
These Ten Buddhist precepts offer us another guideline on how to lead our daily lives but from the Zen point of view they are not necessarily something to be attached to. Rather they offer us an idea of a deeply enlightened person may behave. They are not commandments in the Christian sense and not to obey them is not a sin, but in Buddhist terms an act ignorance. They point the way of action to the discovery of one's own Buddha nature. Philip Kapleau Roshi compares the precepts to scaffolding; they are needed to erect a large structure but taken down once the building is complete. Thus the enlightened person does not consciously follow the Precepts but he or she will do so spontaneously and naturally as a result of the complete realization of their own Buddha nature. It is perhaps from this perspective that Zen is sometimes described as above morality. Philip Kapleau Roshi says of this:
Zen transcends morality but does not exclude it. Or put it more Zen-like, 'Zen is above morality but morality is not below Zen.' The moral man knows right from wrong, or thinks he does, but he does not know who it is who thinks right and wrong. Such deep understanding requires Zen training and awakening.
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