Virtual Sesshin Day 5 – May 16th, 2020
Beyond the Self
To bring it back to where we began, the orientation of this retreat was to engage with a body of practices for solitary practice. These practices, the practice of Silent Illumination and the Empty Awareness practices are practices that one can engage in fruitfully on ones own. In fact these are practices born of solitude, hermetic practices. There is a straightforward path in these practices that build upon technique and experience. There are clear markers to bring oneself back to the path, for self-assessment and most importantly there is no bounding to them. These are practices for a lifetime.
Last February here at Tahoma I was in Dokusesshin, which is a solitary sesshin where you live in a primitive hermitage in the woods on the edge of the campus. You only engage with the teacher once per day, otherwise it is a self-structure and hermetic practice. During this time I every day engaged in the Empty Awareness practices, walking for an hour around the lake and through the woods. I would walk, stop and absorb what was in front of me, until I was emptiness walking. Then I would sit on the deck of the hermitage for long stretches of zazen. Sitting in Open Awareness, landscape samadhi throughout the day.
This time where we are in our domiciles, perhaps allowed to go out and walk, is an enforced hermitic situation for us all. Taking full advantaged of what is an unfortunate circumstance we are able to engaged in the two activities of this practice: zazen and taking absence walks. Most aren’t drawn toward the hermits life, but when circumstances put us there we can use it.
All of our practice deepens our ability to respond to the moment, to handle whatever life throws at us. In this time of increased suffering, these practices serve to root us in the essential, to be able to respond in the most appropriate way. As an illustration of this I am going to read from this Poetic/Spiritual Biography of the great Chinese poet Tu Fu. A Ch’an practitioner, whose poems are infused with Ch’an and Taoist elements, he lived the life of one who moves from their original nature. In The Awakened Cosmos, David Hinton ties together all of the concepts we have gone through in the terms of a masterful Poet living from absence in times of great suffering. Both a continuation of the teachings of this week, this also is a pointer for living in these challenging times.
I read almost the entirety of Chapter 7 Emptiness Dragon from David Hinton’s Awakened Cosmos (specifically p. 51-56). As I note above this chapter really captures what we are trying to get at in this practice and I recommend reading the whole thing.
Sheng Yen – Continuing practice outside of retreat.
BY NOW YOU ALL KNOW how to relax and practice just sitting. But do you know how to apply Silent Illumination to daily life? If you do not, perhaps the effectiveness of this method has not taken hold and coming to retreat has been of little use. So I want to talk about practice in daily life. It was common in ancient India for yogis to remove themselves from society to practice in solitude in the forests. There they would beg for alms and offerings from ordinary people who respected them. In China there was no such tradition. Someone who went around asking for alms was simply a beggar. Practitioners had to work to survive and sustain their practice. For this reason Chan has traditionally placed great emphasis on applying practice to daily work.
Sheng Yen goes on with a thumbnail sketch of the canonical (if somewhat a-historic) account of the development of Chan and its emphasis on work practice. Ch’an Master Baizhang’s admonition, ‘a day without work is a day without eating’ sums this orientation up. Sheng Yen’s point here is that the work that lay practitioners undertake can be view and utilized as samu, work practice. This is explicitly laid out as he continues with his discourse.
I have a disciple who was an accountant before she became a nun. When we made her the Center’s accountant, she complained: “Shifu [Teacher], I left home and became a nun to do serious practice. And here I am counting money again.” I told her, “This is very different. Before you did it for yourself and your family; now you are doing it for the sangha, the Buddhist community. And because there is no self-interest, no profit, no benefit, and no harm in your doing this job, that is genuine practice. Your mental attitude is also very different now. Before you came to the Dharma, your mind was chaotic, wandering here and there during work. Now you can attune and refine your own mind in the midst of business. You are offering your abilities to the sangha. If that is not practice, what do you call it?”
The same is true for all of you. Before you encountered the Dharma, you had no practice and your daily lives were filled with stirred-up emotions and wandering thoughts. After coming across the Dharma and learning Silent Illumination, you will be different when you go back. Work will become your practice no matter what task you are engaged in. Wherever you are, you will be able to regulate, attune, and refine your mind. On the one hand, you are practicing, and on the other, you are interacting with others while maintaining a stable mind. Wherever you are, that will become your practice.
– Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 42-44)
Our practice leads toward being able to operate in this world naturally, not pushed around by our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The practice is a deliberate changing of our a brains a change that we can facilitate by practicing in every situation and practicing this naturalness. At work, in the home, out in the world practice flowing through the world, practice single-tasking, practice silent illumination.
SILENT ILLUMINATION AT WORK
When we eat we should just eat; when we sleep we should just sleep; when we sit we should just sit; and when we work we should just work. Saying this is one thing, doing it another. So I ask you, where is your mind when doing these things? Let’s consider how this applies to working. To practice Silent Illumination means putting body and mind to the task at hand. This also means applying the best method appropriate for the task. If you do it single-mindedly and with your best effort, you will complete the work with a very stable and relaxed mind. You should approach the task with a plan that takes into account the past and the future, but once you start the task, focus on the present. You should carry out the task with a very even and ordinary mind, without feelings of like or dislike, good or bad, or engaging in discursive thoughts. When you complete the task, reflect on whether changes are needed, whether the job was done well, and how you can do better in the future. This is how to practice Silent Illumination while working, but the principles are the same no matter what you are doing. Silence manifests when you do not generate vexations, attachments, and discriminations while carrying out the activity. Illumination manifests when you clearly understand the activity, focusing on carrying it to completion.
Sheng Yen clearly expresses this way of living in the world, of not being beholden to our small minds. As we practice this and as we engage in rigourous ch’an practice slowly this will become our way of life. At some point we can have that all-at-once insight into the reality of things and are able to then just continue with our practice in a natural and unaffected way.
As practitioners we should clearly understand our own abilities and limitations. We should understand our roles in society, what we are capable of, and what is beyond our ability to do. Since everyone is born with certain aptitudes and limitations, knowing our own boundaries is also practice. Some people may be very skillful with their hands while others are less dexterous; some people are good at very detailed work while others are more suited to manual labor. We should learn to be content with our own limitations while working to the best of our ability. This is recognizing clearly where you are and what role you should play. Not knowing this can create vexations for yourself and for others.
Knowing where you should put yourself is silence; very clearly knowing this while engaged in work is illumination. Consider the ox in the fields. Although powerful and dynamic, the ox does its job without trampling on the crops. It responds according to our circumstances. Being like this ox will bring you happiness and joy wherever you are, at work or with friends. If there is peace and harmony where you are, this is practicing Silent Illumination. So please be an ox in your lives.
Practice is not limited to sitting meditation. It should not happen that as soon as you get off the cushion, life becomes stressful. Be very clear about your body’s presence and its sensations. When meaningless sensations arise, do not respond to them. That is silence. Always maintain this clear awareness of the total bodymind. That is illumination. Be very clear about the environment, without being influenced by it. That is totality. The sum of all the above is Silent Illumination. Now please practice Silent Illumination wholeheartedly.
– Sheng Yen, The Method of No-Method (pp. 45-49).
This final section here from Sheng Yen is worth reading over and over again. The absolute root of our practice is commitment; commitment to constantly return our attention to the practice; commitment to bringing our practice into the world; commitment to not increasing the suffering in the world; commitment to responding as the moment requires. Engage in the practice in every activity, wherever your are, twenty-four hours a day. There are no ‘breaks’ from the practice, can you take a break from living your life?
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