Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Attachment to Meditation Practice

This is a repost from last fall. I've had a lot on my plate recently, including doing work to promote the new book I have an essay in. There are a few blog post topics brewing, so I'll be back with new content soon. However, having spent the last year studying Dogen with several sangha friends, I'm still wrestling with some of the ideas in this post. So, here it is for you.

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?


Bill said...

Well, I think that there was probably a reason Dogen stressed the importance of sitting meditation. We are of course aware of the potential dangers involved with it, attachment to feelings of bliss, mistaking flashing light sensations for "realizations," the "unified mind" sensation, etc.

The thing is, we are practitioners and this is our practice. US practitioners, particularly privileged white ones, have ingrained habits of imagining that they know best, and this has not helped the community of practitioners in this country. There is a tendency to discard aspects of the practice that developed and worked for centuries (or more). Often this is done in the name of "a uniquely North American Buddhism." I am very convinced this is almost always done much too quickly.

I can't remember where I read it--it may well have been on this blog--but the Dalai Lama had a line in response to those who, faced with the precepts, repeated to him stories of high-achieving lamas whose practice was so solid that they could engage in fornication, drink hard alcohol, and likely cheat at poker without so much as a minor blemish on their samadhi.

The Dalai Lama replied that, yes, great practitioners can do all these things without so much as the slightest blemish on their samadhi. They can even ingest piss and shit and, through their samadhi, transform the excrement into the "sweetest ambrosia." However, he stressed, if a practitioner cannot yet transform piss and shit into ambrosia as it courses the digestive tract, it would be best to refrain from fornication, drinking, and cheating at cards.

Briefly put, we would be well-advised to take Dogen at his word for the moment.

Nathan said...

The thing is, I don't think many of the "we" - the very same privileged, mostly white convert American Buddhists - know what "Dogen's word" is. Teachers and students. Myself included.

You're absolutely right that there's this tendency to toss out, and dismiss as unnecessary all kinds of elements of practice. This is highly problematic, and my post isn't suggesting tossing out meditation practice, or even to downplay it's importance. In fact, I'd say the same thing about bowing, sewing a rakusu, and chanting practices. All of these have been important to my development in different ways.

At the same time, Buddhism has never been carbon-copied from one place to the next. There's diverse expressions in every nation, and diversity within each nation as well. Many of the world's Buddhists do not meditate - either at all, or in any regular way. The very same privileged, mostly white convert practitioners have a strong tendency to sweep those who don't meditate under the rug, and/or simply dismiss them all together as not "authentic" Buddhists. Those of us who centralize meditation, based upon our understanding of Buddha's teachings and other lineage masters, can certainly question whether practices such as ritualized chanting or offering merit to monks have any benefit or not, but the fact is that there isn't really an "our" practice, if we expand the scope of Buddhism to include everyone under the broad fold.

Nathan said...

When I originally wrote the post, I was questioning the lack of questioning around Dogen's teachings amongst many Soto folks. That he seems to be placed upon a pedestal - in large part, I think, because so many of us don't have a good sense of what he's up to, and just assume that he was so brilliant that he couldn't have been wrong about anything. What I would say now is that it's less about whether Dogen was right or wrong about anything - and more about convert practitioners claiming to "know" Dogen, and suggesting that they "have the only,true way" based upon that knowing.

I guess I just find it kind of funny that for all the clamoring for "innovation" and a "uniquely North American Buddhism," there's a hell of a lot of heel digging in secretarianism. Within Soto. Soto vs. Rinzai. Zen vs. Tibetan. Convert vs. non-convert. The human mind is brilliant at coming up with this kind of nonsense. Which points us back to practice and the teachings, in whatever form they take.

Bill said...

I am afraid I may have misunderstood. My reference to Dogen's word(s) was in response to your note about studying him in a group.

I ought to clarify my own position. I came to the practice in a Ch'an setting, specifically through a teacher who is heir to Sheng Yen, so my sect such as it is is Dharma Drum. I have practiced with all kinds of people and currently sit in a different lineage's Ch'an temple, but I still identify with Dharma Drum, because that practice has never done me wrong. No reason to change it in my case. Briefly put, there is a strong emphasis on sitting practice coupled with the firm admonition to not "leave your method on your mat."

I truly did understand that you were raising a question and not providing an answer, which was why I provided my answer. You're right, there's a lot of sectarianism that isn't helpful, and us privileged white folks as a group are even more attached to being "right" than we are to our method of choice. I'm genuinely better than I used to be but still love being right. "Fuck yeah, I'm right!" is the little voice in my head.

What is really rough for me is to call something something it's not. There are 84,000 Dharma doors, we are taught, and Ch'an is ONE of them. However, if you're going to call it Ch'an, you owe it to everyone to maintain some fidelity to the methods and humility in innovations.

My experience with practice has taught me that I am getting massive, massive results while simultaneously scratching the surface. I have experienced enough to know I have a lot more to experience, and sticking to my method is the key. I've abandoned it many times but--you can see where I'm heading--it's not yet abandoned me.

What does Ch'an practice promise? (Or Zen, for those in a Japanese-derived tradition?) Unmediated experience of absolute mind. It offers the brass ring. If you chase it you lose it, etc. Yet the promise is a big one, and while we delude ourselves if we keep our conversations in the airy-fairy "damn, my samadhi kicks ass" level, we also benefit by knowing that our broad path leads to the resolution of all contradiction.

Feeling better is a step on that path, and a critical first one. We often--not suggesting you do--as a group limit our approach to the practice to this first, important step. However, our path is about going all the way and, critically, helping others do the same before us.

jundo cohen said...

Hi Nathan,

Your premise is mistaken.

Zazen is the Alpha and Omega, the Holy of Holies, and sits us as a complete and fulfilled wholeness ... no other place to be, no other act to do or which needs doing in all time and space in that moment.

And we sit such ... diligently ... without being attached to Zazen in the least. No attachment in the least.

Gassho, Jundo

jundo cohen said...

By the way ... Zazen is ONLY seated Zazen on the Zafu, and there is nothing else ... when seated on the Zafu.

But Zazen can be all and any activities when off the Zafu, all of life.

Dogen was a brilliant man about some things. About other things, an average man. Sometimes he even comes across in his writings as a stuborn, compulsive ass. Nonetheless, the brilliant parts are worth the whole price of admission.

Gassho, Jundo

Anonymous said...

Beyond all mental images the mind is naturally clear:
Follow no path to follow the path of the Buddhas;
Employ no technique to gain supreme enlightenment.

KYE MA! Listen with sympathy!
With insight into your sorry worldly predicament,
Realising that nothing can last, that all is as dreamlike illusion,
Meaningless illusion provoking frustration and boredom,
Turn around and abandon your mundane pursuits.

Cut away involvement with your homeland and friends
And meditate alone in a forest or mountain retreat;
Exist there in a state of non-meditation
And attaining no-attainment, you attain Mahamudra.

A tree spreads its branches and puts forth leaves,
But when its root is cut its foliage withers;
So too, when the root of the mind is severed,
The branches of the tree of samsara die

A single lamp dispels the darkness of a thousand aeons;
Likewise, a single flash of the mind's clear light
Erases aeons of karmic conditioning and spiritual blindness.

KYE HO! Listen with joy!
The truth beyond mind cannot be grasped by any faculty of mind;
The meaning of non-action cannot be understood in compulsive activity;
To realise the meaning of non-action and beyond mind,
Cut the mind at its root and rest in naked awareness.

Allow the muddy waters of mental activity to clear;
Refrain from both positive and negative projection -
leave appearances alone:
The phenomenal world, without addition or subtraction, is Mahamudra.

Anonymous said...

and now for something completely different...

tentacles upon tentacles and the legend of the overfiend

ejected life capsule observation deck records
rising wheel of fiery lightning based jewels
as spearhead point of cascading legions
descends upon fields of nubile flesh
thrusting directly into the heart of the matter
again and again and again
wielding foregone diagrams and expedient
excellence of expert knowledge on root-cuttings
scaled chains of earthquake tremor worms
striking blackened pit in a haze of ozone
fruitful multiplication of swarming hordes
trampling winds upon waves of marking epochs
bit by bit calculated in cast stone column
devices turning circles by measured degrees
reckoning in the light of its remote eye
blinking steadily with the pulse of pounding
blood rushing towards orgasmic fury
showering sparks of multicolored escape velocity
shattering articles into textbook conclusion
mass confusion of tongues brings hyperspatial bypass
and fleeting chances for rescue
accorded random statistical advantage manipulation
at the last minute by a heart of gold engine
and falling

one thousand holes for double snake-head freak show

Changing hands, not changing shovels;
in the black for the black list with five coins dropped.
If six braids wind up for double-helix triple knot,
seven maids milk endless herd of cows.

fox enters rabbit hole, sun and moon diving into ocean

seven birds shaking tree, eleven snakes boiled for potion
lights in sky read by procurer of prostitutes
no use for automatic weapons when rising in bed for dog
sesame grinder has laser guided shoe

underground bridge for toll booth access

slouching and slurping sloughing skin
and garbled gargling from toothless rend
recollected reflected fondling tenderly within
fractured gravitational forces of spindle spin
spraying untimely curse beating wings and fins
sitting in chair spitting shit eating grin
train track wreck grinding railroad tied in
up against the wall the wheel the freight the end

necklace of severed heads and wandering nexus

in the clinging cave
sounds of rock and metal
divide the day and strip the floppy
the shrug of a keyboard
listlessly responds to the wiring in
the pulleys, the levers and wheels
groping with tongues and fingers
slap the edge of mammy's mouth
in a four on the floor signature
sixty beats per minute, sweeping filters
in a straight laced swinger shuffle
swimming in boot sized lakes
canned sardines and expired anchovies
munching, not marching
spreading notches on an
unbuckled belt strap loader
slowly moving hand under chin
as we ride the following
explosive sound
to coral majesties of spectral tombs
inviting warmth of frictional fluids

Nathan said...

An interesting set of responses. Thank you all!

Jundo, I don't know if my premise is mistaken or not.

I do agree that seated zazen is just that when one is on the cushion. And I also agree with what you said about Dogen the man. The brilliant piece is why I keep returning to his words.


"Feeling better is a step on that path, and a critical first one. We often--not suggesting you do--as a group limit our approach to the practice to this first, important step. However, our path is about going all the way and, critically, helping others do the same before us." I'm right there with you on this. It's a reminder that we need to remind each other with, again and again.


Thank you for the Diamond wisdom words. May we both cut through all delusions.