This post was written by guest-contributor, Kevin Heffernan
For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about New Year’s resolutions in the context of a statement by Shunryu Suzuki: “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.” How encouraging and humbling in one breath! I think this is essentially the same as Dogen seeing that practice and enlightenment are one. We already are buddhanature, or enlightenment itself. Zazen, which we are encouraged to practice with “no gaining idea,” is just this activity of buddhanature. Perfection and improvement, practice and enlightenment, go forth hand-in-hand. Yet we often turn to practice out of some sense of lack. Similarly, we make resolutions out of some aspiration for improving ourselves. What would this effort to “improve” feel like if we had some glimmer of or even faith in our inconceivable, unescapable, ungraspable buddhanature? What if resistance and realization are made of the same stuff? What if effort or struggle is buddhanature? What would a buddha look like at the gym? How would a bodhisattva balance the checkbook? What would a government clerk look like on a zafu?
Kevin Heffernan is the coordinator of the Richmond Zen Group, at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha and the Zen Campus Minister at the University of Richmond.
Sitting in zazen is an action whose purpose is Being comfortable in the middle of actionlessness. Zazen trains the mind to sit with discomfort and hold the pause button on it long enough to notice it and dissolve it.
It is not easy to sit with uncomfortable feelings. They make us squirm. They make us want to do something–to struggle against them– to speak or to act in a way that may provide a momentary release of them, but rarely a permanent solution to them. Reacting to uncomfortable feelings without identifying what they are may make a situation worse.
For example, someone driving dangerously, weaving in and out of traffic, cuts you off while you are traveling at 70 miles an hour. A physical “fight or flight” response probably occurs in your body before your mind even fully registers what has happened. When it does, you may feel anger, dismay or even rage. At this point, you could react by driving equally dangerously to get that person back; you could curse up a storm to either no audience or the wrong audience; you could weave in and out of your lane as you crane your neck in their direction to lock their gaze long enough to flip them the bird; or, you could notice that you are angry, have compassion for yourself for being angry, wish the other driver freedom from whatever madness has descended upon him, and let it go. When you do this, you release yourself and others all around you from the consequences of suffering from rage. Moreover, you make the world a better place by changing the energetic value of rage into compassion. Your compassion towards yourself radiates out to another. Other people on the road are saved from your madness, and then their madness in reaction to yours, and so on…
The practice of zazen is not just for mystics and monks. All of us experience discomfort and restlessness in our day-to-day lives. Sitting with squirmy feelings can be uncomfortable. Silence can be rather unnerving. In a moment of intentional quietude, all manner of mental disturbances may parade across the mind. Zazen trains us to notice them as they arise, smile at them in compassion, consciously let them go, and redirect attention back to Just Being in the breath Now.
If more people practiced zazen, perhaps there would be fewer @#$% on the road!