This is the transcript of a talk given to the Paramitas Study Group on February 16th, 2018. As usual, it draws heavily on talks by respected Zen teachers, in this case particularly Zoketsu Norman Fisher.
Virtually every spiritual tradition includes some form of meditation, but this word can refer to a wide spectrum of very different practices. Indeed, even within Buddhism it can refer to a variety of very different practices, and not all of them involve what we call mindfulness.
There are practices which are referred to as meditation that promote a kind of trance state, which may be pleasant, even blissful, but take one away from the present moment and out of connection with others. Zazen isn’t like that. It has the opposite effect: it promotes the awareness that you are living in a world with other people who also have lives and dreams and needs and pains, and that those people are exactly like you and deserve the same regard that you would want them to give you. Meditation can’t help but increase your empathy. It makes you reluctant to hurt anyone; that would feel like hurting yourself, and no one wants to do that. Hurting someone else is actually worse than hurting yourself: if you hurt yourself you can do something about it, but if you hurt someone else you might not be able to help them, and they might not be able to help themselves, so they have to live with the effects of what you’ve done to them, and so do you.
So ethical practice is intimately linked to the sensitivity we develop in meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn said it like this: “The human mind, when it doesn’t do the work of mindfulness, winds up becoming a prisoner of its myopic perspective that puts ‘me’ above everything else. We are so caught up in the dualistic perspectives of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But ultimately there is no ‘them’. That’s what we need to wake up to.”
The Buddhist way of life is a deep commitment to working for the wellbeing of others. This is not so much a goal as a paradigm shift in how we view the world. For example, if I want ease, I can reasonably assume that others also want ease… and the practice of securing ease only for myself doesn’t even make sense – what will I do with it? Hoard it, sell it, flaunt it? If I know that the wish for ease lives in all of us, there’s a paradigm shift in how I do my meditation.
Buddhist meditation is also the practice of emptiness. We are all interconnected. So if “I” acquire ease, who is it that acquires the ease? It’s not that I don’t exist, but the “I” that I identify as is always changing; it’s dependent on causes and conditions, both known and unknown, both in my time frame and outside of my time frame.
In writings on meditation, the word ‘concentration’ is often used. In English, ‘concentration’ implies doing something wilfully, with purposefulness and grit, and certainly that’s sometimes necessary. But that’s not the real nature of our practice, and our practice can’t depend on those qualities. Kathie Fisher suggests the word ‘immersion”: a sense of falling into our practice: you can allow your practice to fall on you as gently as water, or leaves, or snow; and you can allow whatever hinders you to fall away under its own weight. In this sense we become concentrated like a stock, rich with the essence of who we really are.
Zen meditation has no goal, “no gaining idea”. Those of us who are parents, or who had parents, know that the less we impose expectations on children, the better it is for them. The same is true for ourselves. Katagiri Roshi used to say: Settle yourself on yourself, and let the flower of your life force bloom.
One of the ways that mindfulness helps us is that we start to notice what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. If you sit Zazen tormented by some conflict you’ve got going on with your partner, your neighbour, your boss … sooner or later you realise that it’s just making you miserable.
Meditation sensitises us to the injuries we inflict on one another – and on ourselves. Speaking harshly to someone may be something you never gave a second thought, but when you sit, it comes back to you, and it pains you to think of inflicting pain on another. You also start to be more aware when things like that are done to you: you can’t escape from feeling the hurt feelings you’ve been trying to ignore. Meditation sensitises you to both yourself and to other people. The more you’re familiar with your own mind, and all its twists and turns, the more clear it becomes that others are probably like this too. The human mind is a constant swirl of activity mostly centred around “me”, full of justifications, recriminations, and scheming to get our own way. When you just stop and sit in silence you notice this over and over again, and eventually you realise that this is just normal. You’re a mess, and you’re in good company. And when you don’t take this mess into account, and pretend it doesn’t exist, things just get worse. But when you see and appreciate the mess, and eventually learn to have a little forgiveness, and maybe even a little humour, you’ll be much more generous and kind with yourself and everyone else.
Sitting Zazen regularly helps us to follow George Bernard Shaw’s advice to “Keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world”. But ultimately, it is a precious opportunity to express our Buddha nature, and to simply experience, undistracted, the miracle of being alive.