The aim of these talks is to offer, as there will be no other instructions besides the one given during the opening ceremony, some context for what we are practicing during our time together here. Often, people who are not familiar with Zazen, come to ask themselves questions during their time of practice: "What am I doing here? What is the purpose of this sitting? What am I actually supposed to be doing? Where is this going to take me? Am I doing it the right way?"
These questions are understandable and in a way inevitable. So, the aim of the talks is to offer some context as I said, so that you can hopefully make more sense of this practice, while at the same time, whatever I am sharing with you here, whatever I am presenting to your understanding, you can also altogether forget about it. It doesn't matter if you don't remember my words. And, if you will remember some of what I share with you here it is all right to forget it as this practice is after all the practice of just sitting, just sitting and letting go.
So, in zazen, the idea is to let go of everything, including the teachings should they arise, including the insights when or should they arise, but mostly, as we sit in an open and permissive way with the mind, mind and all its confused thinking, we let go of thoughts whenever they arise without evaluating or judging them .
Now, the mind is such that we always need to see and have a certain understanding as to what is coming next, where is this going to take me, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but if I continue, where is this practice going to take me to? Is there a destination? Is there an achievable goal? In most practices, we are offered some kind of reward as a result of our efforts, and that is also understandable, but as this practice is one of letting go it opens a whole realm of not knowing before us. So I don't know what will show up, I don't know what I am going to encounter as a result of my practice and realize that I can actually settle in that not knowing. That part is difficult to navigate when we are beginners. The appreciation of a practice that encourages letting go of all mind constructs and feeling how liberating that could be, is something that is cultivated over time and, that calls for patience.
In presenting our retreats, I try to refrain from telling people that if you came to one of them this or that will happen, you will go through a transformational process, or something important will change or shift in you, or somehow you will feel different about yourself, which is often how things are presented to people; they are mirrored some kind of reward as result of their participation and effort. The thing is I just don't know what is going to happen to you, what kind of processes you may go through, so clearly I cannot speak about that, I cannot speak about something I don't know.
Each retreat is also a period of personal practice for me. I come and sit with you with my own mind, my own confused thoughts, emotions, with my own baggage. Sometimes, it feels the weight of that baggage has lessened, at other times, that's not at all how it feels. Even though I have been meditating and sitting for some time now, each time I present myself to this practice it still challenges me in some way.
People who have practiced zazen for much longer than me, for 50, 60 years, a life time, they will tell you that the condition in which they sat at the very beginning and the condition in which they sit 50 or 60 years later is not much different. This means we come and sit each time on the cushion and, extend ourselves to this moment and open up to whatever arises, not really knowing what to expect. And, there are times when, no matter how long you have sat, you realize that the waters on the surface of the mind are choppy and you sense the resistance of simply sitting with the discomfort of that.
So maybe after many years of practice, you begin to notice those resistances better, you're more aware of them, but the human being that we are is not going to become fundamentally different as a result of that. Now, many practices aim at helping people to change, to transform, to become someone other than who they are, through some deep mystical or spiritual realization. The deep insights may happen, but they don't necessarily penetrate all the layers of a personality that has been shaped and solidified over a lifetime. So, I think it's important to understand this point: spiritual realization does not necessarily translate into a fundamental change in you as a person. I like to look at this as a process of refinement and, that refinement is a lifelong journey. You never graduate from this process; it doesn't ends until you die. So, you never become a finished product, as such. That's what can be misleading about notions such as enlightenment. People with deep spiritual realization and insight may nonetheless have deeply flawed character traits that could go on manifesting itself in their relationships with others. They could have an aura to them, they may be seen as having charisma, so seeing them we may come to think this is a person who's fundamentally different than me and, I would like to reach what they have realized, that is something special because, so we think, if I reach a special state then I am no longer just this ordinary being, something I deep inside consider as a flaw.
So for me, this practice of zazen is something that I know will accompany me for the rest of my life because it has become an expression of me. I'm no longer doing it with the idea of attaining anything, of reaching any particular state. This practice, of course, when I started it as someone much younger, these ideas I just mentioned where there; ideas about becoming someone radically different, someone who has gone through a unique spiritual experience. If we don't have these ideas we can't begin the journey, so there is nothing wrong with seeking realization or awakening, or reaching some destination. They're actually good to have for without them you wouldn't begin the journey, but years of practice help us to slowly forget about them. We forget about them as we begin to forget about ourselves, it's that simple. Forgetting oneself in the sense of having the karmic charge of being a separate individual limited by a personal consciousness alleviated by opening to the endless network of interconnectedness, in another word to the wondrous dharma.
Now, if you look into and study the life of some of the great mystics, there's always this fundamental experience or realization or understanding that you read when you study their lives, when you study their writings, which is; you already are what you are seeking, you are what you are looking for. Without some form of wanting or personal desire we would not begin the journey but what opens up to us at some point is no longer the result of my personal will power. The paradox is that what I am looking for is already there, has always been there; it's already there in the sense that it cannot be created, cannot be fabricated as a result of some particular practice, exercise or effort. It's there as an expression of my innermost nature, so in a way, the more I try to reach it, the more I distance myself from it, for it is too close to me to become an object of my desire.
Everything else in life is an object of desire which makes of us subjects seeking after it and that gap never quite fills which is why we are often frustrated or dissatisfied. Again, we human beings are beings of desire; we cannot live without them, but sometimes our desires limit us, and we move from one to another desire, and then that sets us in a cycle of endless pursuits of objects, of things we perceive to be realizable or reachable somewhere outside of ourselves. In Buddhism, that is called craving; the Sanskrit word for it is trishna, which means thirst. We are always thirsting for something, and that's one of the main reasons why we suffer because our craving never comes to an end. We may change the things we desire or crave for, and we think maybe yesterday I was looking and wanting something and, today I am aspiring to something that seems much more noble and elevated, but at the bottom of it there is always the never ending thirsting that I encounter.
So from a Buddhist perspective, we can say awakening or realization that we are looking for is actually right here in our present moment experience, it cannot be somewhere else. If it is somewhere else then it is not awakening. Awakening cannot be apart from what opens up to me right here and now. It's at this level that the practice of zazen is important, in that it is a constant invitation to let go of everything the mind fabricates, just letting go of thoughts as they arise and, come back to the fullness of the moment again and again. And, the moment is always full when I am empty of thoughts.
So, I was given this question by Georg, which relates to what we were discussing earlier. The question is, "while meditating, are we supposed to just let our thoughts come and go, or are we allowed to follow them to see where they take us? I am not sure which one to do as I have learned more about myself doing the latter." So, following my thoughts, even if I think I am on something very interesting, and I can develop my line of reflection, maybe it will give me an understanding or an insight, of course, you can do it whenever you want, and sometimes it is good to take the time to just sit and reflect on a subject, on a topic, and develop one's thoughts around it. We do that when we journal, for example, but in zazen, the idea is to let go of thoughts in a way that I may at moments perceive a sense of being, a sense of presence in between the thoughts that is not a creation of the mind.
Our thoughts, as far and as deep as we can take them, are usually about something related to me and my experiences. Sometimes, as I said, it is helpful to do that, but no matter how far and how deep I pursue my thoughts, I am never liberated from my thinking. Now, even in a short retreat such as this, there may be moments as you are sitting and open the hand of thought, what's inside that mind, that construct built through years of conditioning, all my reference points and my sense of self as a separate entity, built by the superimposition or amalgamation of multiple self-images just stops, comes to an end, even if for a moment but that moment has a timeless quality to it.
We all have self-images; it's my sense of self as a distinct individual from you, from what I perceive to be outside of me. Often those self-images create conflict within me and between myself and others. When I am dissatisfied and frustrated in my relationships, then my self-images bring up subconscious barriers we call defense mechanisms. We all have them since none of us can function without a personal identity in the world; it's part of being human, but sometimes these self-images and the defensiveness in which they place me come from a place that feels quite constricted and narrow. This is because we fundamentally identify with those self-images, and believe those self-images and self-identities comprise who I am as a person. That's the limited sense of self that immediately separates reality into what is me, what is mine and what is not me, or is outside of me.
So this retreat is an invitation for each of us to experience or sense this presence, this awareness that is not a function or a fabrication of the mind and, as it is not something created by the mind, it is not something I can trace in the past, nor is it something I can pursue in the future. It's something that always erupts in the moment.
Now, that moment brings us to another paradox mystics have talked about and experienced, and that is the still point in time. So that is what I wanted to say earlier, that there is no path to get there, to this experience. There is no path to it, even though we all tread a path. The path implies that you move from one point to another, from here to there, and between here and there there is always a gap, there is this distance. But this moment, this moment that arises out of the unknown before me, right here, right now, to this moment there can be no path.
There can be no path is the flowing of the moment as awakening.
I used words to point out to something you alone can intimate in the stillness and silence of what is opening before you at this very moment.
Thank you for your attention.