The Practice of Zen

Zen can offer something very simple, very direct and readily accessible to anyone seeking inner peace, seeking healing in some form, or seeking answers to questions such as ‘Who am I?’ ‘How can I find meaning in my life?’ ‘How can I live in a most authentic way?’

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Dear Friends on the Zen Path, New Year’s Greetings, 2012

As we enter the 2012th year of the western calendar, which is also the Year of the Dragon in the East Asian cycle, we are made aware from many fronts that we live in troubled times, that there is turmoil and suffering in so many places in the world. Violence is perpetrated by our fellow human beings upon one another, in so many different ways that we cannot even begin to list here. Our consumeristic values and attitudes that propel the systems of mass production, consumption, and disposal of the waste products of our human civilization wreak havoc on our planet, seriously impacting our ecological well-being and threatening our very survival as a species. The lingering effects of the natural calamities that took place in the past year, with heavy flooding in some areas and severe drought in others, major earthquakes, the tidal waves (tsunami) that triggered nuclear disasters in Japan, among others, still continue to be felt by so many in different parts of our world. The “Occupy” movement highlighted the blatant inequalities between the “haves” and the “have nots” in our human family, and more and more of us are feeling the pinch of the economic downturns that are indicative of a global trend, facing uncertainties in our short term and long term future.

How are we to live, what are we to do in the face of such a scenario?

Allow me to offer some reflections, addressed to those of us who have found something empowering, lifegiving and healing in this practice of Zen meditation.

If we engage in our practice of Zen meditation with the intention of shutting ourselves from the rest of the world and finding a haven of peace in a secluded place, so that we can just be content with ourselves and forget everything else, then we misunderstand the point of this practice entirely.  Sitting in stillness facing a wall is not a way of escaping, turning our gaze away from a world in turmoil. Rather, in doing so, we follow a path that precisely enables us to plunge right into the heart of the world.  A genuinely spiritual person is not one who seeks an escape from the realities of everyday life, but rather one who is able to see these realities with new eyes, with an open heart and mind, willing and ready to offer a response moved by compassion.

Following the call to live a spiritual life is to heed the invitation to go more deeply within ourselves, to seek a place of refuge, find a place of Peace (Shalom), a place of Shabbat (rest). As we discover wherein lies that place of Peace in the midst of this violent world, we are able to offer that Peace as our gift to the entire world.

We “seek refuge.” We are “refugees” in the spiritual sense of the word.  This word, “refugee,” brings forth the images of millions of peoples throughout the world who have been displaced from their homes, due to threats of physical violence, due to extremely difficult situations in their lives that threaten their very survival, or else due to dire economic necessities.  These events happen to millions of peoples in different parts of the world.  Even now, right now, as we sit and enjoy our silence, somewhere families have been forced out of their homes.

As we look into our own lives, we realize that we also are refugees. We have been displaced, not yet having found that place of peace that we can call our home in this universe. We are beguiled, hounded by a nagging sense of dissatisfactoriness, a sense of dislocation.

We feel that longing to come home, to seek refuge in a place of peace where we can truly feel at home, deep in our hearts.  Where is our home?  How can we find it? Where can we seek refuge?

Alas, we have a tendency to take refuge in many kinds of things, wanting to satisfy our inner longing, and in doing so, come to realize that these things we pursue are not what we truly seek from deep in our hearts. It may be that the very things we try to grasp and hold onto in order seek some kind of satisfaction, are the cause this sense of uprootedness, displacement, of not being “at home” within ourselves.

When we look at our global society, especially in the so-called industrialized world, we see an abundance of material goods dangled before our eyes by the mass media, enticing us, telling us that we must have this or we need that, in order feel happy and satisfied with ourselves.  People pursue different things in their lives to give themselves that sense of self satisfaction.  We search continually for new thrills and new pleasures.  The entertainment industry keeps coming up with new attractions, one after another, and so we gladly buy into these.  We want to be up to date on the latest fads, the latest movies, and the latest video games, the newest car model.  There is always that drive to seek more, to have more.

Our own sense of rootlessness and powerlessness, our wanting to bolster our “place” in the world, drives us to seek more possessions. We want some more in our bank account.  We want a bigger house; we want a flashier car.  We want more satisfying relationships. We want to have all of those good things the “cool people” in society seem to have. Of course! Who doesn’t?  And so we are driven to work more, to strive more, to keep pumping the gas of our inner accelerator. As we do, the further we are thrown from that sense of being at home. The external force of wanting more propels us to want to do more, to be more successful, to feel more powerful.  That desire to be more powerful is a dynamism that drives not only individuals like us, but also social groups, corporations, political parties, governments, nation-states, and so on.  Being led on by the drive for power, be it in an individual or corporate entity, will inevitably cause us to clash head-on with others also seeking power. The result is the kind of world we live in, namely a world of conflict, violence, warfare, and enmity among ourselves, between human beings on different levels.

It is we ourselves who bring about this kind of world, by our own misplaced grasping for more possessions, by our hankering for more power and pleasure. We make ourselves part of that vicious cycle that continues to keep us and our world in a state of dissatisfaction and turmoil, in so far as we ourselves are not clear as to where our true satisfaction lies. And when you do come to realize that that way of going about life, that is, the way of grasping, is not where true satisfaction lies, then you are ready to take on the invitation of the Awakened One.

When asked by people around him how they could also become awakened, the Buddha’s response was, “Stop, and see!”

In short, stop grasping, stop your mind from wanting more and more, and just be still. Be still, and you will see. Be still, and you will know peace of mind, and be awakened. As the Psalmist enjoins us, “Be still, and know. I am what the nations grope toward. I am the earth’s desire.” (Psalm 46. From Norman Fischer, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. Penguin, 2002, p. 68.)

Our practice of seated meditation (zazen) is our way of taking up this invitation of the Awakened One, and enabling us to find the place of Peace we so long for in our lives. Sitting in stillness is our way of returning to that place where we are most at home, where we will find our true peace. Not a stillness that is an escape from the world’s turmoil, but a place where we are able to look directly at the source of that turmoil, that is, in the turmoil in our own hearts, and let it be quelled, by a clear vision and discernment of what is, just as it is.

To sit in stillness is not to take a passive “do nothing” stance to life, but on the contrary, to purify our mind, to empty our mind of the hankering for power and possessions, and to open ourselves to experience inner freedom and equanimity whereby we see “things just as they are.” It is this inner freedom and equanimity coming out of the exquisite experience of stillness that enables us to live each moment of our lives more fully, more deeply aware, and able to “smell the flowers” along the way. It is also what empowers us to respond to the world’s turmoil and address the world’s ills from a place of inner peace. In the clarity that comes from sitting in stillness, we become sensitized to the pain of those around us, and are thus also moved to respond to particular situations with a heart of compassion, and be enabled to activate skillful means in addressing those situations, each in our own ways.

This is the path we are launched into when we allow ourselves to sit in stillness as an integral part of our day to day life—the path of awakening, a path leads to true inner peace, the path that at the same time opens our heart in compassion. This is the path of Kannon, the One who sees clearly and hears the cries of suffering of the world, who offers her thousand arms toward the alleviation of that suffering in its manifold forms. Yes, Kannon is Us. Each and everyone of us.

It is a great gift and blessing to encounter others on this path of awakening, and to find belonging in a community of practitioners on this path. This is what sangha is about. Amidst our vast differences in personalities and backgrounds, we feel a deep bond and cherish a true sense of kinship with one another. It is this bond of kinship that assures us that we are not alone, that we are in good company, in our pursuit of true peace, healing, and wholesomeness in this world of ours full of turmoil and suffering. It is in this good company, among kin, in sangha, that we, in accepting and listening to one another and bearing one another’s wounds, can find the strength and empowerment to turn our lives around and offer it as our own little gift for the awakening of the entire world.

I bow in deep gratitude to each and everyone of you, for being kin to me and to one another, for the gift of yourself to all of us, in walking this path of awakening together.

Palms joined,
Ruben L.F. Habito
Maria Kannon Zen Center
January 13, 2012