Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sincere Practice

Thanks to all who participated in the discussion about racism and the National Review cover. Everyone was civil, respectful, and had thought out ideas, which isn't always the case when disagreements arise over volatile issues.

Now, back to Suzuki Roshi, from Not Always So, a book of his talks that was published a few years back.

"What is sincere practice? When you are not so sincere it is difficult to know, but when you are sincere you cannot accept what is superficial. Only when you become very sincere will you know what it is. It is like appreciating good art. If you want to appreciate good art the most important thing is to see good work. If you have seen a lot of good work, then when you see something that is not so good you will immediately know that it is not so good. Your eyes have become sharp enough to see."

I remember back in grad school hearing something similar about writing. My poetry teacher, Deborah Keenan, would appear at the beginning of each semester with a packet of photocopied poems. Not a few, but many. And not from a few authors, but many. he wanted us to read widely, but also read those who were - to use Suzuki's simple term - good. It was really something one day when I came across a poet's work that I didn't really like, but recognized was still very good. There was a leap beyond preference to awareness of the talent and skill present in those pieces. It was kind of an awakening for me because I also realized that I could learn a lot from poets whose work I didn't really like.

Let me give you an example: Margaret Atwood. She seemed to pop up an awful lot in grad achool for some reason. And I often wanted to take out my writer's mallet and wack her back down like in those Wack a Mole games. Her work seemed to me to often feel bitter, fatalistic, and down right suffocating at times. And yet, it was impossible for me to say her work isn't any good. In fact, she's a hell of talented writer, and prolific too. She's written over a dozen novels, over a dozen volumes of poetry, several short story collections, volumes on literary criticism and politics, children's books, even a few TV scripts and a libretto. One thing I have always been attracted to are people with broad minds, that cross boundaries and work to tie together the most disparate of things. And Atwood has definitely been that, if anything.

At some point during grad school, my interest landed on Canadian poetry and history. And soon after this, I discovered Atwood's book Survival, which among other things, attempts to create a framework to view the development of creative writing in Canada historically. Well, that's no small feat, and she sure gives it her best. I wrestled with that book for weeks, looking up the writers she mentioned, reading their work in dusty old books on library shelves, and finding myself writing comments all over the book itself.

Now, frankly I have to say that Survival is as much a mythology that elevates some very weak and minor writers to places of central importance as it is an uncovering of forgotten truths. However, the book did it's main work of keeping the reader engaged. So much so that I can write about it several years later, having barely picked up the book since then.

So, what the hell does this have to do with zen practice and Suzuki's quote?

Well, for starters, I believe sincere practice means being able to step past your peferences to see the greater picture. And to see that the greater picture contains your preferences just fine, no need to destroy them or worry too much about them. I can have a certain dislike for Atwood's work, and yet be enriched by it all the same. Or not at all. It stands without needing my approval, or anyone elses really at this point.

In addition, I really think there's a need for radical openness for sincere practice to be present. Reb Anerson Roshi recently visited our zen center, and spoke of this saying, "welcome the unwelcomed." This seems similar to stepping past your peferences in the above paragraph, but I think maybe different in that after awhile, there's not really any effort. It just happens.

But that brings up the third thing - that sincere practice is calling for a kind of working energy, that you can't just sit zazen a few times and be there, just like you can't just read a few poems, and then be a master of poetry.

Which reminds me - I need to get on my zafu soon. Happy reading, and sitting, to you all!


Barry said...

I might go even further and say that sincerity is possible only when we step past our likes and dislikes.

And then, to have the courage to say, "I see that I dislike (like) this, but here's the truth of the matter."

This courage can be useful in learning about poetry, but becomes critical in our human relationships.

I need to be able to tell my wife that I don't like her (in the moment when it's true), but I also have a larger view of our lives together. That expression of the larger view is love, another word for sincerity (perhaps?).

Nathan said...

I remember reading Natalie Goldberg talking about talking to Katagiri Roshi about her zen practice and her writing. And him saying something to the effect of you'll learn about your life through your writing. Not that he discouraged her zen practice, but that he saw how she she could learn as much or more through her writing. I've seen a little bit of that in myself.

And i think you're right, it's pretty essential to have the courage to step beyond preferences and see what's actually there and work from that place.

ZenDotStudio said...

I love Margaret Atwood! I hated Survival. And that brings me to my thoughts on preferences. I always remember reading (and it stuck to me in this strange burr like fashion) that it's okay to have preferences, it's our attachment to them that's the problem.

I guess to me that means if my preferences cause me to strengthen my greed, hate or delusion then I'm moseying down the wrong path.