Saturday, April 18, 2015

Reb, With All Due Respect: Practice Matters

I appreciate Reb Anderson’s dharma talks. I feel that he approaches the dharma from the point of view of the emptiness teachings. I am always delighted by his teachings and endearing (to me) idiosyncrasies. But sometimes I just have to disagree.

In a recent talk, he spoke about one of my favorite topics: what is a Zen master? As I have thought about this over the years, I have increasingly come to the opinion that there can be no Zen master because there is nothing to master. 

In the talk, Reb described – at least as I understood it – a Zen master as not being a particular person, in a particular state, but the actual meeting between two people. I understand this to mean that the unfolding of the dharma, the teaching of the dharma, is a kind of formless, enlightening energy that can occur in a face to face meeting. The implication is that this meeting can occur between anyone.

He told the story of his being introduced to a famous Zen master in Japan, only to meet a very old man who was drooling. He had asked himself if this old man was a Zen master. He then realized that the Zen master was the meeting between him, this young (earnest) man, and an old Japanese teacher.

So I was excited to be listening to Reb’s teaching. But I still felt that there is a reason we are all sitting in front of Reb, listening to his teachings. Or sitting in front of other great teachers like Norman Fischer. So I thought that a person who has practiced for a long time has something, some Zen, to offer us.

I raised my hand. (One is always somewhat at risk when you ask Reb a question, something anyone knows who has attended his talks for a while.) Our exchange follows:

Me:    It seems to me that in a meeting between two people, if one of the persons has practiced for a long time, the dharma is more likely to manifest between them.
Reb.    No. What exactly are you saying?
Me:    Practice matters.
Reb:   No. Practice doesn’t matter. I will repeat this again. (In a louder voice) Practice doesn’t matter!

I was irritated and vexed. Not simply because I was contradicted, and almost scolded, but because I don’t believe this to be true.  After the talk I turned to one of his young disciples and said, “Why don’t you sit up there instead of Reb?” He laughed.

I haven’t decided whether his pronouncement that practice doesn’t matter is a very profound teaching, or whether it was just a pique of ego, that somehow I was being reprimanded for contradicting him. Perhaps both.

So this morning I was interested to read Chapter 16 of the Flower Ornament Scripture (The Avatamsaka Sutra) called “Religious Practice.” The enlightening being Truth Wisdom describes how all the usual ways we think about practice are not really practice at all. “Body” practice is not practice because, according to the sutra, the body is “unclean” and becomes a corpse. “Physical action” is not practice. (This rules out bowing and sitting posture.) Speech is not practice, since mere breathing in and out is not practice. (Ruling out following the breath). Verbal activity is not practice, because this would include all sorts of extensive explanations and criticisms. Mind is not religious practice, because this would include various thoughts and explanations and dreams. The Buddha is not religious practice because what is the Buddha anyway? Our conceptions of him/her?

And so the enlightening being, Truth Wisdom, continues in the same manner to rule out teachers, the teaching, the community, and even the Precepts as practice. (“Putting on monastic garb,” etc.)

However, Truth Wisdom says that contemplating the question of what is practice, where it comes from, by who is it performed, whether it is form or not form, consciousness or not consciousness leads to the reality that religious practice cannot be apprehended; that the mind has no obstruction, that the sphere of operation is nondual. 

In effect, “…because of knowing the Buddha’s teaching is equanimous, because of fulfilling all qualities of Buddhahood, is such practice called pure religious practice.”

In other words, I think this means that all the usual practices that we consider to be religious practices – bowing, zazen, reading sutras, listening to talks, precepts – is not practice. Practice is an act of faith: knowing that the teaching of the Buddha is reality. And if you can manage it, living as a Buddha.