There's a slightly provocative post over at No Zen in the West I'd like to draw your attention to. For our purposes here, I want to examine one section of it, which goes like this:
A distinguished Buddhist scholar told me that the burden of Zen teachers he knows is the need to act/be “enlightened”. How heavy! “I’m a Zen teacher, great! Now I have to somehow embody the premise that this way of life and practice makes people better, enlightens people.”
David Chadwick, after decades in Zen circles, hasn’t noticed that Zen practice works, which means that Zen teachers and Zen students everywhere could be off of the hook. If it’s not making us better than other people, it’s not because we’re not doing it right!
The late Rev. John King said that he loved so much going into our San Quentin Sangha because in prison – perhaps only there – “you don’t have to pretend that your life is working”. You don’t have to pretend to be a success, because it’s clear that everyone’s life is a failure. So you can just relax.
I’m feeling something like that about David’s observation. Great! Zen doesn’t work. I don’t need to pretend it does, or convince anyone else it does. I can just do it for the love of doing it, if I happen to love doing it, and forget that any good might come of it in the least. Forget the idea that I’ve gotten any better from it.
Of course, you might recognize that "success" and "failure" are part of the Eight Worldly Winds that Buddha spoke about frequently in various forms. And if you know anything about them, you know that they're always blowing about, shifting and changing like our own breath does.
So, any talk about whether Zen practice "works" or not is coming out of those winds, and as such, doesn't have any ground to stand on. What's considered a success today, is tomorrow's failure. Something gained today is lost tomorrow and regained the next day. Yesterday, I was called a "good Zen student." Tomorrow, maybe I irritate everyone and suddenly am now considered "a bad Zen student." And so it goes.
However, this leaves us in a predicament, I think. Because all of our regular ways for assessing what's happening basically fall flat when it comes to the spiritual life.
Is everyone's life in San Quentin "a failure"? Based upon conventional view standards, I suppose you could say "yes." Yet, that's only one way to see it.
Go a little deeper, though, and you might notice that not only is talk about working and not working, success and failure lacking ground, but it also is all about comparison. And I don't know about you, but when I'm trapped in comparing myself with others, it tends to be a walk down the royal road of hell.
Somehow, if you're really going to do Zen practice, or are really intent on liberation, you have to stop defining whatever it is that you are doing (or not doing) with variations on the Eight Worldly Wind theme. In other words, coming to a place where you can let all the noise of life blow around you and even within you - without choosing to identify yourself with any one or a handful of aspects of it - is pretty key.
Just relaxing - without the need to label "success" or "failure," for example - that's one possibility. Another might be to function with the understanding that all labeling is provisional, just a skillful means for working with the causes and conditions of the moment.