One of the first things Buddhists ask each other upon meeting is, “Do you have a regular practice?” You see, the thing that distinguishes Buddhism from many other spiritual endeavours is that it is all about “practice”. Buddhism is not about faith. Buddhism is not about devotion. Buddhism is not about belief. Buddhism is about discovering (and realizing) who you really are… And there’s only one way to do that… practice! But what, then, is this practice? It is nothing less than looking into your own mind and waking up to who you are.
Mostly, when we talk about a practice, we are talking about a particular activity; it may be meditation, it may be chanting, it may be recitation of the Buddha’s name; it may be a study of the scriptures or sutras. Ultimately, however, it is not the activities themselves that are important to the practice, but how the practices point to direct experience. The Buddha himself achieved enlightenment, not through reading, worship or other teachings, but through his own practice of self-enquiry. He said,
“Those who really seek the path to enlightenment dictate terms to their mind. They then proceed with strong determination.”
The great Chinese Zen monk, Rinzai (Linji) taught that all of these so-called practices, including meditation, were unnecessary distractions. He pointed to the fact that all that was required for enlightenment was direct experience. Rinzai said,
“Here, sitting in front of me, listening, is you!”
In their wonderful book, “Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers”, Perle and Manfred B. Steger (Wisdom Publications, 2011), relay this famous story of Rinzai’s exchange with his patron, Governor Wang:
“Do the monks here read sutras?” he asked.
“No, they don’t”, replied Rinzai.
“Do they learn meditation, then?”
“No they don’t learn meditation.”
“If they don’t learn sutras or learn meditation, what on earth are they doing here?” asked the governor.
“All I do is make them become Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” Rinzai replied with a smile.
For the Soto Zen master, Dogen, (a.d. 1200-1253), Just Sitting (Shikantaza), or the practice of sitting meditation, Zazen was identical with Buddhadharma. There was no difference between the practice and the result. Taigen Dan Leighton in his preface
Preface to the book, The Art of Just Sitting, edited by Daido Loori, Wisdom Publications, 2002, quotes Dogen as saying to his students,
“We should know that zazen is the decorous activity of practice after realization. Realization is simply just sitting zazen. . . . Brothers on this mountain, you should straightforwardly, single-mindedly focus on zazen.”
For Rinzai, who eschewed meditative practices and Dogen who equated “just sitting” with Buddhahood, there is really no qualitative difference. For the enlightened individual, sitting and not sitting are two sides of the identical coin of self-realization.
How should one practice then, if one is to overcome suffering and awaken to the true nature of things? Dogen said, “To go forth and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things spring forth and experience themselves is enlightenment.” In other words you don’t need to do anything. You just let things be!
Hongzhi, Dogen’s Chinese Master said:
“The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness.”
Zen Master Bassui said,
“If you push forward with your last ounce of strength at the very point where the path of your thinking has been blocked, and then, completely stymied, leap with hands high in the air into the tremendous abyss of fire confronting you — into the ever-burning flame of your own primordial nature — all ego-consciousness, all delusive feelings and thoughts and perceptions will perish with your ego-root and the true source of your Self-nature will appear. You will feel resurrected, all sickness having completely vanished, and will experience genuine peace and joy.”
The modern Chinese Zen master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud) 1840-1959 said,
‘The objective of Zen practice is to illuminate the mind by eradicating its impurities and seeing into one’s true self-nature. The mind’s impurities are wrong thoughts and attachments. Self nature is the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata. The wisdom and virtue of Buddhas and sentient beings are not different from one another. To experience this wisdom and virtue, leave behind duality, discrimination, wrong thinking and attachment. This is Buddhahood. If one cannot do this, then one remains an ordinary sentient being.”
“In Zen training the most important thing is to have an earnestness to leave birth and death and to generate a persevering mind. If there is no earnestness to leave birth and death, then one cannot generate the “great doubt” and practice will not be effective. if there is no perseverance in one’s mind, the result will be laziness, like a man who practices for one day and rests for ten. The practice will be incomplete and fragmented. Just develop a persevering mind and when great doubt arises, vexations will come to an end by themselves. When the time comes, the melon will naturally depart from the vine.”
No matter your particular practice, be it chanting mantras, repeating the Buddha’s name, meditation on the breath or recitation of the sutras, Hsu Yun urges us to “stay with your method! If it doesn’t deliver you today, try again tomorrow. Tell yourself that you will be so determined that if you have to continue your practice in the next life, you will do so in order to succeed. Old Master Wei Shan used to say, ‘Stay with your chosen practice. Take as many reincarnations as you need to attain Buddhahood…’ Be steadfast and patient. You’re not alone in your struggle. According to ancient wisdom, “We train for dreary eons – for enlightenment that occurs in a flashing instant.”
Do not despair! Surely enlightenment is at hand, for in the Zen view, practice is enlightenment itself… Practice is perfect!
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.