A Person Of Practice
From our Still Point Archives, February 1996 – by Gyokuko Carlson
I wanted to share with you this morning a phrase that I picked up earlier this month. A very small phrase: ‘A person of practice.’ It just hit my ear, and I wanted to bring it here, and give you some of my thoughts. Of course, as soon as I say this it brings up questions. What is a person or practice? How do you know a person of practice if you meet them in the street? How do you become a person of practice? This is my direction.
We just started term, and in this term that we have just begun, we’re going to put some emphasis on the forms of practice, down to little things like putting your shoes straight. I was really pleased, when I went downstairs to check the doors. I passed thirty pairs of shoes, and almost every one of them was put side by side in straight rows. I could walk down the hall and not trip over anything. It did my heart good to see thirty pairs of shoes straight.
Paying attention to how you leave your shoes is a form of practice. How it’s going to look to someone else. How much attention you put into putting the shoes side by side, out of the way of traffic.
We go all the way from there up to discussions of learning to do oryoki meals in which there is elaborate ritual. One of the things I really love about oryoki meals is that right at the end when you’ve finished your meal, you’ve cleaned up your bowls and everything is all done, you bow to your bowls, put your hand over the top, put one-half of the napkin through your fingers this way and the other half through your fingers a certain way and your bowls are tied in a neat little package. It feels finished. The body tells me: “Ha. It’s finished.” It’s very satisfying. It’s not just the food that is satisfying. The physical movements that go with the eating are satisfying.
One of the things that Jiko is going to discover as she teaches people even the simpler forms of practice is that she’s going to get complainers. She’s going to get people saying ‘why’. Or ‘why this way. I would prefer it another way. I don’t like to pay attention to how I put my shoes straight. I don’t care how I put my shoes.’
And in a sense none of it matters. Absolutely none of it matters. But, on the other side of the ledger, everything matters. Every teensy little dust mote matters. The joyful part is when you put your attention into the little things that matter, resting your heart in the part that knows it doesn’t matter, but still putting your attention into the little things. You discover along the way there is something these little things have to teach you.
I’d like to suggest to you that the dharma comes closer to real truth when you discover it with your body, when you discover it with your experience, than it does when you discover it as a concept. I can tell you that there is a teaching in putting your shoes straight. I can tell you that it has to do with harmony, and it can have to do with integration with the universe. I can tell you things like that, but until you go through the process day after day of putting your shoes straight, putting your shoes straight because the Chief Junior tells you to and she’s going to nag you if they’re askew. Then one day you put your shoes straight and you feel something about straightening your shoes that teaches you the dharma of putting your shoes straight. When you have that feeling associated with the activity, you start to get the dharma of putting your shoes straight, and its not a concept any more.
It’s something you know in your bones. You may not even be able to explain it to your head. You probably don’t have the words for it, but you know in your bones there is a good reason why you want to do it this way.
Another example is that I can tell you that there are pages and pages of writings about making gassho. About this finger represents something and this other finger represents something and when I put this finger with this other finger it means something and all the way up until I get my fingers just exactly so. There’s no gap between them and this means some metaphysical ya da ya da. It’s just a concept.
Until one day, you’re grumbling and griping about some person or some thing that you feel isn’t right, it’s too much work and out of habit you bring your hands together and the heart goes calm. That’s metaphysical. That’s not a concept. That’s the dharma of gassho teaching your body.
The mind will follow if you can get the body in line. The mind will follow. The forms are not magic. They don’t do all the work for you. The forms that we practice with in this temple are going to be different than the forms they use at ZCO. They’ll be different than the forms they use at One Drop Zendo. They’re going to be different than the forms at the Chinese Buddhist Church down Madison. They’re going to be different wherever you go.
But the dharma that is contained in the forms of practice goes to a place where it doesn’t matter. When you learn with your body what the dharma of those forms is, you can go to another place and practice with different forms and still be seen as a person of practice because the dharma goes deep.
When I was first learning this zen business, I found the ancestral line extremely boring, repetitive and stupid. Practicing with it over the years, I discovered that it is not cold; it is not distant; it is not repetitive. These are personalities and while they aren’t always with me when I chant those names, sometimes I do feel their presence because of the chanting. There have been times I have felt like the ancestors reached out and saved me from my own despair. That, for me, was the teaching of the ancestral line. I wouldn’t have decided to do that practice ahead of time, on my own, but it was part of the forms of practice. I did it because I wanted to go where this train was headed, and I didn’t realize that was a significant part of the means for me.
You can’t let the head lead in this business. If you try to decide ahead of time which of these forms is going to be your dharma teacher, you’re not going to make it off the platform. You have to put your body into the position of zazen before the zazen can start to teach you about equanimity. About peace. About quieting the mind in the thousand and one teachings that exist in the position of doing zazen.
The same is true with putting your shoes straight, closing a door using both hands, picking up a cup with two hands, cleaning every grain of oatmeal out of a breakfast bowl, and other silly little forms of practice. But when you do them and pay attention, there’s tremendous depth of teaching.
It almost never hits my head. Later on I figure out, ‘Oh, I got something back there.’
It’s more than just doing it with the body. If a robot does these forms or practice, a robot is not going to get it. Anywhere. Well, maybe if it has Windows ’95. Probably not even then. You have to really be trying to keep the mind engaged, but let go of that part that is trying to edit, trying to compromise and weasel out of doing the forms completely. Keep the mind engaged so that it just notices, just notices, over and over again. Even notice the part that is weaseling and trying to get out of it; notice the part that is editing and trying to be not completely there. But do keep the mind engaged so that if it starts to get totally robotic and monotonous and you find yourself going elsewhere, taking trips while you’re doing to the forms, try to come back. It’s just zazen. Try to come back.
The first part of becoming a person of practice is to know the forms so you can do them automatically. They come naturally, smoothly and without trying to appear to be something special. In fact, just moving along with the flow of practice is one of the forms or practice. Not standing out; going with.
So the first stage is to appear to be a person of practice; to work on the external. But to really be a person of practice, you have to let the dharma that is in the forms inform you.. For that you have to keep the mind engaged. Keep coming back to ‘What is my hand doing? What is my mouth doing? What are my ears doing? How much noise do I make when I go down for a bow? How smoothly can I get up?’ Keep paying attention to all the little nuances of it. The dharma of it will come through.
My teacher used to say that when you were on a train in Japan as a monk, everyone knew you were a monk. It didn’t matter what clothes you wore, how you covered your head, or how you tried to disguise all the marks of being a monk. Everybody knew. The way they would describe that knowing is that they would say it was the smell of incense, which might be partly true. You hang around enough incense and it doesn’t go away very quickly. Like smokers. They can shower, but it’s still there. But, there’s another way they know, and it’s that a monk embodies the dharma of the forms. When you have been cleaning out your bowl of every last little grain of rice and oatmeal for enough years, even when you’re on a train eating a cheese sandwich, you don’t let the crumbs go everywhere. That paying attention to the crumbs of a cheese sandwich is part of being a person of practice. It is part of the smell of incense.
Closing a door with two hands; picking up a cup of tea with two hands; paying attention when somebody’s talking to you. They’re not necessarily big things, but a person who is into noticing will notice.
One of the marks is paying attention without drawing attention.
So I would suggest to you as this term unfolds, that when the Chief Junior makes announcements after morning service, asking people to move a certain way, or to stay quiet, or to say something, try to accept whatever it is that she points out as remarks pointing to the teaching. There is some dharma waiting to unfold, but we need to pay attention and keep our hearts open to the possibilities.
Q: I’ve noticed especially recently that when I pay attention to what I’m doing, most times in little things like folding laundry, it seems to denote respect for the other objects or the other people with whom I am in relationship during the task. It’s a form of intimacy.
Q: I don’t know what dharma is.
A: Dharma is a teaching. It’s a word that can have different levels. It can mean the absolute truth, or it can mean teachings about simple things. It can also be the literature about the Truth. We use the concept dharma because we can pack so much into it. We can’t find another English word that is receptive to that much.
Q: Should we pay attention to what resistance goes on inside when we are doing these forms?
A: Yes, I would pay attention to resistance and try not to club yourself over the head with the fact that there is resistance, but notice and keep the form as closely as you can in spite of the resistance. I know sometimes it can be extreme. Just keep coming back, being gentle with yourself.
There’s also teaching in the resistance, so you don’t want to dismiss it too quickly, but you also don’t want it to rule your life. Pay attention and try to keep the form. If the form activates a resistance, then there may be opposite sides of the same teaching happening. This is good.
Q: I’m always struck too by the resistance that following forms brings in the world around me. At home, raising my kids in a somewhat unmindful sort of way, and then I start changing my expectation for myself, I might get a response like ‘You’ve changed. Now you’re doing this.’ Resentments and tensions arise just because I’m trying to pay attention to what I’m doing.
A: I’d point out that you’ve described a circumstances, but you also described your change as following pretty quickly. One thing that is really useful is to disconnect that interpretation reflex and go back to just noticing. When you make the statement, you get this reaction. When you do this activity, this happens. So, don’t be too quick to judge why others are reacting and just notice. There may be more to your action than you’re acknowledging, and you might be able to clear it out so that you are just asking for a certain amount of space or a certain circumstance without asking for approval or some other little other agenda item that got tacked on there when you weren’t looking.
Q: I’ve been struggling with an East/West dilemma, and I was wondering if I’m not missing something by calling on my genetic ancestors. When you described feeling warmth and support while chanting the ancestral line, I’m wondering if I’m not missing out on not calling on my genetic ancestors by calling someone else’s ancestors.
A: That may be worth following up on. A lot of us, as we get older have felt called to check into our genetic or sociological history a bit. Part of that, as a training exercise, is following karma. Some of our biological ancestors were not all that great, quite frankly. Or maybe yours were, but some of mine were less than cool, and to follow up on who they were and what I have inherited from them is an act of humility. It’s working on the fact that I am carrying some of this bigoted stuff. I need to acknowledge it and be careful with it.
Q: Some of the things that you’ve mentioned seem, at first glance, pretty picky. Straightening shoes. Any suggestions to how a person can help a child to pay attention to the little things without coming on as a total jerk.
A: Unfortunately, I am picturing your child. I know her. She is a personality all unto herself. What I notice about her is that she does pay attention to the details, and I think that your challenge is not to get her to pay attention, but to channel the attention she is paying. You reward her when her attention paying has positive aspects, and when she gets crabby and nitpicky, try to talk her down to a more generous attitude.
Q: I think that between the resistance and just doing the forms, there’s a point of practice where one can embellish the forms. I’m going to do this great bow! I’m going to put my shoes perfectly straight because I know that’s the way they should be. This happens just before putting the shoes straight.
A: You are pointing to the transition from just doing them externally to taking them deeper. I know I’ve done this transition myself, and the way it feels is that you’re going into it wholeheartedly. What I know after the fact is that the doing was a lot for show. Paying attention without drawing attention. There is a point where we really want to be seen as doing everything perfectly grandly. So spiritual. Really, it’s just feeding ego and feeding self.
It’s fine. It’s a stage. We do the same thing with the precepts. We want to absolutely, completely, 100% pure and we get a little self righteous about it. It you just keep training at the point, and don’t get stuck there, you go a place beneath that which is a lot more gentle. It’s a good point.
Q: There’s also the body of the sangha and the body of the historical sangha. Little forms vary from sangha to sangha, but I’m very conscious of the fact that millions of Buddhists are bowing as this whole room is bowing. The mats and the rahksus and going up on one side or another is harmonization of the body of humanity.
Q: A lot of times practice is a way of checking my habit energy, mind objects and being aware of what’s going on. What happens when you have a feeling and you know there’s a certain mind object? Fear or something like that? Then my question is always: what practice could I use to work on that?
A: You always have the practice of breathing. No matter how confused you get, or how difficult things can get, you can always come back to paying attention to the breathing. That practice by itself is tremendously powerful. Very slow, but it’s very good and grounding when things are difficult.
For fear in particular, grounding is important. One of the aspects of fear is that it has all these possibilities in it. It’s like all the energy rushes to the head and the heart, so what you want to do is bring your energy down as low as it can go. You can do that by breathing into a lower center of gravity. One of the uses of malas is for chronic fear or anxiety or hysteria energy. It can be kept at hand, and when energy rises to the point of confusion, going back to recitations, using the mala to focus the mind, bringing it into stillness.
All kinds of practices.
Q: The question ‘why?’ seems to come up. How would you suggest responding.
A: In the long run it is good to notice ‘why’ as the base or foundation for these confusing things. When you’re in the midst of some of this stuff, though, to fret about ‘why’ is actually to add to the confusion or the fear. You just add another layer of business about it. It may be better to wait until you’re through the worst of it, and then reflect on the first moment in which this arose. What were the circumstances of the arising? You can trace back the causation and be more aware the next time you hit those circumstances. ‘Aha, I’m in a danger spot. This is where I need to be more conscious.’