Monday, October 17, 2011

Attachment to Meditation Practice

I really enjoyed this post by Andre over at Zen and Back Again. Mostly because it's familiar to me, and is something I've written about on here before.

If Zen is the practice of complete non-abiding, requiring the relinquishment of all attachments, then doesn't it serve to reason that we should let go of Zen too? For as I have found, Zen, namely zazen, can become a form of attachment.

We hear more about this regarding koans, where teachers caution their students against attaching to koans, since they are merely a raft to carry us to the other shore. Like the Buddha's teachings, they are upaya, skillful means.

But we seldom hear that said about zazen; instead, meditation, especially in Soto Zen, is regarded as the holiest of holies.

It almost feels anathema to imply that zazen can turn into a form of attachment, but try skipping 0ne day of meditation and you will soon realize how attached you are to the practice. Shame, guilt, anxiety commonly accompany a missed zazen session of mine.

Yesterday, we started a new group down at the zen center for those who have completed jukai. As one of the facilitators of the group, I introduced myself as "an eclectic practitioner" who is always experimenting. Which isn't to say I can stick with a form - such as zazen - only that I've grown more interested in how form flows in everyday life.

Having spent the last three weeks or so reading a lot about Dogen, as well as practicing with a few of his teachings, I find myself returning to some of the same things Andre is speaking about.

Dogen says that sitting is what a Buddha does. But isn't that making zazen something special by elevating it above all of our other daily activities?

The thing about Dogen's writing is that sometimes it really does seem like seated meditation is his sole focus, while other times he uses the word "Zazen" as an action in each moment. Some Soto teachers seem to lean in one direction, emphasizing seated meditation nearly all the time. While others seem to lean in the other direction, saying that Dogen applies zazen to all activities. I'm more inclined towards the latter, but sometimes it feels like a gloss over, an apology for a founding teacher that simply might have gotten too focused on seated meditation.

It's important to note the the openness to, and deep interest in, lay practitioners Dogen had during the middle of his teaching life greatly waned as he got older. At the same time, he maintained connections with at least a couple of lay disciples until the end, spending his last days in the home of one of them in Kyoto. Given the frequent social/political upheaval that marked 13th century Japan, I can imagine there was always a tension for him between upholding the practice of householders, and feeling the need to emphasize breaking away from it all and practicing in seclusion with a small group of dedicated others.

When I go back to Andre's consideration of attachment to practice, I find myself returning to the value of just paying attention. Noticing what kind of stories are arising. For example, sometimes that desire I have "to experiment" has a bit of extra added to it. Like wanting to do something novel, instead of "the same old thing." And sometimes I'm just plain giving in to laziness.

So, I have to stay vigilant around these kinds of questions, lest they become intellectual ways to trick myself, or justify opting out.

And yet, I have always felt a crunchy rub around Dogen's teachings about "zazen," and how they have come to be practiced today. Because just doing seated meditation and some ritual bows and chants doesn't constitute living the spiritual life.

What are your thoughts?


Robyn said...

While I would never pretend to understand Dogen in any in-depth way (or any way at all!), the little that I have read seems to be him pointing to there being sitting zazen as well as everything else zazen - eating zazen, working zazen, etc.. He does seem to put (sitting) zazen at the forefront in accomplishing the task of realizing one's true nature. I suspect if that were not true, then we wouldn't be doing it now, so many centuries later.

I remember my teacher describing a conversation with a newcomer to the Temple where she told him that she had sat every single day for 15 years (or some large amount of time). His response was basically "so what." Anyone can sit on a cushion for 1/2 hr/day and it can have nothing to do with zazen. Just as anyone can go through a series of asana and not be doing yoga. There is more that needs to happen, as I know you know.

For myself, I almost feel the opposite. Even as I love sesshin and look forward to the intensive sitting, 7-10 hrs/day, sitting zazen is a real challenge for me. Most of the times I have been able to loosen my grip on some deeply held attachment, it has happened not during zazen but during kinhin or just some daily activity. Yet, I know that those moments would never, ever have happened without all those hours on the cushion.

Ultimately, there really isn't any separation, in my view. How could there be?

Nathan said...

There are definitely a fair number of folks with your general reaction to zazen on the cushion. One of our sangha leaders recently gave a talk about the three years she spent at a monastery and she basically said the same thing. "I don't really love doing zazen."

As for myself, I have periods where I love it, and others where it's a total challenge at best. But none of those attitudes really matter in the end, just as the woman's 15 years of sitting doesn't really mean much in the end. It's how you live your life as a whole that counts.

Algernon said...

Haven't studied Dogen well enough to opine on that part of this -- and even then, I'd be wary of drawing conclusions from English translations without understanding the Japanese. But moving forward:

If zazen is the action of a Buddha, does this elevate zazen above other activites? Seems to me this is true if you elevate "being a Buddha" and make that special. Which is another famous snare.

Zazen has a central place in my life only because I find it helpful for applying myself to all of the other 10,000 activities. Works for me and I'm happy to share it. I draw no other conclusions about formal zazen and I refuse to apply "shoulds" to it.

Traditional Zen very easily becomes a familiar arena in which to act out one's "expert mind." Plunging oneself into unfamiliar situations helps to take the piss out -- that's the Glassman approach and there is truly something to that provided it does not become a show (hello Marnie). Same with experimentation: if it helps depart from the familiar into "don't-know," why not.

Nathan said...

Speaking of experimentation, I was meditating last week in the center of the plaza where Occupy MN is happening. At one point, a guy came up to me and shouted "Boo!" I opened my eyes and smiled. We both laughed, and then he walked off.

Sometimes I think people get attached to having silence and "perfect conditions" to practice in. But what is silence and what are perfect conditions?

jundo cohen said...

Hey Nathan,

Very interesting topic.

You wrote:

Some Soto teachers seem to lean in one direction, emphasizing seated meditation nearly all the time. While others seem to lean in the other direction, saying that Dogen applies zazen to all activities.

Why, both!

I sit Zazen (or rather, Zazen sits me) as the one place to be in the whole universe, one action to do in that moment. Not many things we do in life, if any, with such a feeling of wholeness. There is, in my mind, nothing more in life that needs to be added or taken away from that moment of sitting. With such attitude, sitting Zazen is an incredible experience of completeness in which the frictions and divisions between my self and the world fall away.

And then ...

... we get up from the Zafu back into the world of places to go, things to get done, discontents, lacking, success and failure, choices and ... perhaps ...

... we can also taste that same completeness and wholeness and "right at homeness" even as all that.

That is why I sit Zazen each day.

Gassho, Jundo