At BCBS, September 2004
This evening I would like to follow up on what Stephen was saying in the morning about being careful, about energy, and about protecting, but I would like to look at the subject more from the perspective of the Zen tradition. Zen talks about cultivating three great attitudes—great faith, great courage and great questioning—and I think it is here that we find a continuation of the Buddha’s teaching about care, energy and protection.
Faith, I think, corresponds to the cherishing of the good mentioned earlier today, because faith is really about our potential and what it is we value in life. Sitting on a retreat is itself an act of faith; it is a way of saying “Yes!” to your own potential. Courage is a form of energy and enthusiasm, but also speaks to letting go and going beyond. Again, on a retreat we are asked to let go of what we think our limits to be and go beyond that. And questioning has to do with coming to understand our key concerns, and can itself be a form of vigilance requiring clarity and alertness. Our master, Kusan Sunim, used to say “Be calm and still while being fresh and vivid,” and I think he was saying to bring a certain liveliness to wherever you are in your life. So I would like to take each of these great qualities and see how we can look at them, both in our lives and in our practice.
Great faith is faith in our own potential. We tend to have some faith when we begin to practice, but we are not totally sure about it. Great faith really starts when we have a glimpse of how we can be in a non-tied, non-tense, non-grasping state. Meditation can give us a glimpse of that. But we can also experience it in ourselves in our daily life. I find it interesting.
Great faith begins with our having a glimpse of that potential of how we can be. It doesn’t come from thinking about it or dreaming it, but from really experiencing it ourselves. When we sit in meditation, that’s just what we can do. And when we experience a little bit our potential of being, then also afterwards, in our life, we can begin to see moments where we are not so stuck, we’re not so tight anymore. Great faith is faith in our own potential. We tend to have some faith when we begin to practice, but we are not totally sure about it. Great faith really starts when we have a glimpse of how we can be in a non-tied, non-tense, non-grasping state. Meditation can give us a glimpse of that. But we can also experience it in ourselves in our daily life. I find it interesting that people will come on a retreat and tell you “Oh, meditation, nothing is happening.” (We generally think something should happen.) “I’ve been meditating for ten years. Nothing is happening.” And when I say, “But has it made a change in your life?” they will always respond, “Oh yes, definitely.” So something is happening! But maybe not what we think should happen.
I presume that you came on this retreat because, when you thought of doing golf instead, this seemed a little better.
You came here because you had faith, in yourself and in your potential. I think this is a very important element of any retreat. But we have to be careful, since we often want something to happen when we sit in meditation. To me this is like not really trusting, not really having faith in ourselves. We might read in books that people are supposed to experience this, or experience that, and we think we should experience whatever we’ve read in books. But it is more important to see what is happening here in a singular human being with individual experience. That is when great faith is cultivated. Let’s try looking at practice, not as achieving certain states of mind, but as a natural thing to do.
Meditation is like food—spiritual food. We need food every day, but we don’t think “Oh, yes, something special must happen when we eat.” You just eat, you just feed yourself. When in the morning you brush your teeth, you don’t say, “Wow, that was such a great brushing of teeth. I am going to do this again.” We just do it, because it is what we want to do, what feels good, what feels clean. Great faith is like that. It inspires us to really do the practice and experience for ourselves what is happening naturally.
We have faith when we come on retreat and let go of the outer circumstances of our lives. We come here, we’re far away from our families, from our jobs, from our conditions… but what about letting go inside? This is what great faith is about. It helps us overcome some of the ambushes of the mind Stephen spoke of this morning, giving us the power to let go and to be more at ease in this very moment.
But an interesting thing happens when we actually try to do this. Here we are in this wonderful environment [BCBS].
It’s so quiet and green and beautiful here. (We were just in New York a few days ago—what a difference!) And you feel, “Wow; it should be so easy to meditate.” But we still find it difficult. In this case perhaps faith can help us appreciate for these few days the good fortune of these very good conditions and use them to practice even better.
But of course we can not stay at BCBS all the time. This is not real life. Your family is not here. You have to go and live with other people. You have to have your life outside of here.
You also have to practice in your own environment. So it is important to also let go of better conditions. How can we use these beautiful conditions with care and diligence, so that when we go back to our complex, noisy, modern circumstances the practice doesn’t remain here, but is taken with us? It is in the midst of confusion that we most need great faith.
People often say to me, “It’s not the same for me at home. I really don’t have the time to meditate.” But I ask, “Do you watch TV? And for how long?” To me this is an interesting question: Why is it so much easier to sit in front of the TV than to cultivate concentration and inquiry in meditation? I think great faith—and perhaps some diligence—would make a big difference to what we choose to do.
When we practice we have faith at the beginning, which is the faith that yes, this sitting is good for us, and so we do it. Then there is faith in the middle [stage], when it truly becomes our own because we experience its benefit for ourselves. If you’ve meditated for ten years and it truly hasn’t made any difference, then I would say do something else. Take up Tai Chi, or even golf. Meditation is supposed to make a difference to the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about others, and the way we relate to ourselves and others. It is not just about creating inner peace, which I do think is important. It’s also creating a much more creative and responsive engagement with others and with the world.
When we have that experience of the practice ourselves, it gives us the energy to really walk on the path Stephen was talking about. Faith is like the sun behind the clouds; no matter what happens, the sun is shining. The sun is there, still bright, even if here it is stormy and dark and we’re totally wet and covered over. Great faith is that sun, shining by itself, holding for us the potential that we can access and cultivate in our lives.
So faith is the very ground of practice. But faith alone is not enough. We also have to do something, and for that we need to be inspired. Once faith has brought us to a retreat, to the meditation cushion, what is it that inspires us to sit for an hour, or a whole day, or, in so many cases I saw in Korea, for years at a time? What is it that brings movement, energy, and enthusiasm for the practice? What arises naturally from great faith? Great courage.
There are different kinds of courage, of course. It is important to find just the right courage, with which we can try to do the best we can in our circumstances.
I met a nun once in Korea who seemed to me to have a very strong presence. She was just peeling potatoes, but there was something special in her energy. When I asked about her I was told that she’d been in silence for ten years, and had just come out of silence a few months before. You might think, as I did, “Wow, she must have amazing courage!” And it’s true! She had courage because she was inspired to do it, not because somebody told her to. The courage we have comes out of our aspiration, comes out of the kind of faith that says: “Yes I can do that. Yes, I am inspired to do that!” It is the same for my friend, immersed in household duties, who sits every morning at 3:00 am. Or the people who sit all night in very noisy, chaotic places. All practice takes courage.
What is the courage we require on this retreat? What is the courage we require in our daily life? It seems to me it is the courage to go beyond our habits. When you look closely during a retreat, and ask, What is the greatest obstacle? What is it that limits you, that stops you from really being fully present and awake? If you look, generally it is our habits, our patterns.
A meditation retreat is a very good opportunity to notice these. You can notice mental habits, emotional habits, and physical habits. And it is interesting to notice from time to time, What is it that distracts me? Where do I go? What do I do? You sit in meditation, watching the breath… and then you go off. Many people say, “Oh this is terrible! I can’t count the breath for more than a few seconds. Obviously I can’t be a good meditator.” But I would say you have a great opportunity here to look: What goes on? What is it that takes me away, again and again?
Perhaps you find that you have a tendency to daydream. You might be sitting here… the breath… the breath… what if I were a willow tree? Or what if I became the greatest enlightened person? Or whatever! You go off into this wonderful daydream. You are the actor, the director, and the screenwriter—you even serve the peanuts! And it’s wonderful! And the time passes very fast. You hear the bell, and oh, such a pity, it was getting very interesting!
But even more interesting is the fact that we have this tendency to daydream, to ruminate, to plot vengeance or revenge, to make a fanciful story, to plan the retirement, the holiday, the shopping, or whatever. Some people count. They count how many shoes they have in their cupboards. People do all kind of things. It is worthwhile to look: What is it that I do when I stop being really present?
The mental habit of planning can be useful, but when it becomes a repetitive habit it locks us up. It is not a path which goes somewhere. We just go round and round and round. To go beyond this requires a lot of courage, not to fight these habits but to go beyond them. It takes some courage to be able to say, “Not now. Now I will come back to the breath.”
Or we might see our emotional habits. Perhaps we have been lost in the feeling of joy or the feeling of sadness. Meditation does not mean to somehow not have the feeling, but to be with it in a different, more spacious, way. This too takes courage. It is an opportunity to see How does it feel, to be sad? Instead of being caught up in the feeling, we can try to know—to really know—how it feels to have the feeling.
Another habit we have is a physical habit. One of the greatest obstacles we have, both on retreat and at home, is comfort. We really are creatures of comfort. We love our comforts. This is one of the main themes of modern life! And of course it’s good to be comfortable. But at the same time, if we get stuck with that, we can never go beyond a very narrow set of physical limitations.
I remember my first retreat in Korea, when we would sit for 50 minutes, walk for 10 minutes, and then repeat the cycle 10 times a day from 3:00 am until 9:00 at night. (It seems tough, but it’s an easy schedule compared with what some of the monks and nuns do.) When I started to do this, it was excruciating. I had pain in the back, I had pain in the knee, and it hurt. So I would sit for a while and then go off to help in the kitchen or do something else. I convinced myself this would be more useful than to just sit there and have a terrible time.
After some time, Master Kusan, our teacher, came and sat with us. I tried really hard to just sit there and meditate, and did not move, but after an hour or so I went off. When I returned the Master said something in Korean which I had to look up in the dictionary (since my Korean was very poor then). I was led to a word that means “to bear beyond strength.” He was pointing me toward the great courage that we all need to go beyond what we are used to, beyond what we find comfortable. And that was actually a great gift. It helped realize that they had been doing this practice over the last 1500 years, and that if they did not die of it, maybe I can do it too!
And so I did it. And then after that I was often the first one to arrive at the beginning of any sit, and now sometimes the great courage seems truly immense. It gives us the energy to move beyond, to explore, and to experiment with the edges of our comfort. That is what we need, because we have a tendency to become stuck in our habits and unable to move.
When I was in Korea, I spent half of my time daydreaming. And what was I daydreaming about? That I was going to go to a hermitage, and I was going to practice so hard I was going to be awakened, and then I would save everybody. Then, of course, I realized I was not meditating at all. I was daydreaming about meditating. It’s only when I realized this that I was able to stop doing that and began to really do the job.
I once went to speak with a nun I really respect, to ask her about meditation. “What about practice?” I asked her. “Practice? Oh, just do it. There is nothing to say about practice. You just have to do it. You do it in the meditation hall, you do it in your daily life. There is nothing to say.” It was very beautiful to me. She was showing great faith, and also great courage, the courage to just do it.
Then there is questioning, which I think is essential. Stephen and I are both very much into questioning. We think it’s important to inquire, to reflect, to use your own wisdom again and again. But questioning, too, can be done in many different ways. You have to be careful that the questioning does not become a negative, existential questioning. When questioning is balanced by the anchor of faith, it is not an endless, pointless questioning of everything that leaves you feeling in a terrible, dark place.
One of our good friends in Korea is questioning the whole organizational structure of Buddhism in that country. Dismayed by the extent of wealth and other influences on the tradition, he has embarked on a three year begging and walking trip all over Korea to demonstrate a more renunciate way. It’s really quite amazing. Here is one person, questioning the way it is, by living a different life. Whether people agree or not, one has to admire the way in which his whole life is lived as a form of questioning the system.
At a conference with hundreds of women talking about Buddhism and practice and things like that, I heard a nun presenting a paper about vipassanā practice. In a country so dominated by Zen, I asked her why she did vipassanā practice and she simply said “It’s more efficient. Much faster!” I was impressed by the way she tried things out, and was not blocked by habit or opinion. By questioning the mainstream position, she was walking the path with different steps.
These are examples of one sort of questioning, but deep questioning can also go on in our practice. The key element of great questioning is the power to see clearly and to transform.
In meditation there is concentration, surely, but there is also inquiry We are not just watching the breath, but are also on a sort of guided meditation inside the breath.
We look inside the experience of breathing, and see that it is changing. How do you feel about your breath? How do you think about it, when you think of the breath? We generally imagine that we have a cocoon of air around us, but actually, when we sit, all of us together are breathing each other’s air all the time. How more intimate can we be? That my air goes into your lungs, your air goes into mine. We are breathing each other. We are breathing the trees, the birds, everything! But we generally don’t see this.
With great questioning we look through the misperception of me and mine, which keeps us limited, keeps us blocked, and stops us from seeing the collective nature of life and of all experience. To bring such great questioning is an important element in meditation, and in life too, because the questioning is what gives us choices. It is painful, but people so often feel stuck. People feel they don’t have choices. They can either do this, which is rather terrible, or they can do that, which is not much better. Stuck.
But meditation practice can help us develop creative questioning. We can start to know what is going on. Meditation is not meant to take us somewhere else, to some kind of pure, rarified state. It engages us totally into our existence.
What is going on this moment? What is happening? What is conditioning whatever am I experiencing? How am I experiencing what I am experiencing? And what is the result of that? To me this what the meditation in daily life is about.
We sit in meditation on retreat to learn concentration and inquiry, so that we can look steadily into experience in our daily life. It is not an endless questioning of everything, but rather a creative questioning. Great questioning is not an intellectual questioning, but is very much an experiential questioning.
These three—great faith, great courage and great questioning—are like lights on the path. When we need help in finding our way, we can use them. Sometimes, with sufficient faith, we can look at suffering itself. Sometimes we have the courage to look at the person who is suffering. And sometimes we can reflect on it. Sometimes we can only sit in the midst of it all, just trying to be with the turbulence, and then we cry and are very sad. But when it’s dark, and you want a little light to help you go to your home, these three lights can help guide us, and we can see we have choices.
I encourage you to cultivate these three great qualities during our time here together. Also, reflect on how you may be able to cultivate them in your daily life.