Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Square One

May 12, 2015

…we should live in intimate reliance on one thing only: “care for skillful states” – meaning practicing the path”


If I have everything, but lack that, then I have nothing; if I have that, but nothing else, then I have everything.

The traditional view of the above saying is that it’s theistic. As long as I have God (or am with God), then nothing else is needed. And if I don’t have God (or am not with God), then no amount of anything else will make up for the lack.

But the premise and the promise of Zen is that it needn’t be a theistic “thing,” it’s a real, immediate, immanent, non-transcendent fact of our situation, our human make-up, our reality. From this point of view, religions have been elaborations that grew from a basic insight into human nature, and added their deities and so on to “explain” it. But the Zen view as enshrined in the koans is that this intrinsic, infinite, intimate fact of who we are—with awareness of which all is ever well, and without awareness of which we will suffer—is just how we are made. It couldn’t be more immediate and real.

In Zen we might call it the Dharma, the real self, the Fact. Or “mu” or “Masagin!” or “kaaatsu!” Or the “path” or the Supreme Way. Or “floor,” “cup,” “thought.” Or maybe just practice. But it doesn’t matter what it’s called. It has no name anyway.

 * * *

Buddha said there are four conditions needed for entering the path. The first is to “comprehend dukkha”: to experience suffering, see it, feel it, acknowledge it, in some sense cease to resist it or distract ourselves from it, and to understand its arising.

The other three conditions are: “associating with good friends,” that’s to say with friends in the practice, in other words to have fellow-practitioners in our life; “listening to the Dharma,” that is, hearing the teachings of the Buddha and Buddhism; and finally, “following the instructions of the teachings.”

The Buddha was highly practical. Again and again he lays out fairly simple, though not always easy, instructions on how to suffer less. You’d think this last of the four conditions for path-entry would be relatively simple to follow, but it can be surprisingly hard to do. Often, for example, we may find our way to some quiet state in our sitting, and enjoy it. Therefore we try to re-manufacture it every time we sit, and in the process we may inadvertently veer away from the actual practice we have been given. In some way, we are seeking a certain result from our sitting, and then ideas of good and bad will creep in, or have already crept in without our noticing, and we are actually not following the instructions any more.

One way to frame this kind of situation is with the figure of Mara, the “demon” who is always figuring out new ways to distract us from our practice. Mara is perhaps simply an emblem or figure of all our own recalcitrance and reluctance—what we often call “resistance.” Mara’s primary endeavor seems to be to stop us from practicing.

What if any time we felt disinclined to practice, if every time we missed a daily sit, and the following day felt even less inclined to sit; or missed an evening at the zendo, and the following week felt a reluctance to go, a certain inertia or resistance or even distaste about going – if every time that came up, what if we knew that actually nothing could matter more than to be freed of our misleading, entrenched ideas about who we are, and through being freed of them, to open up to the vast gift of this existence, and we clearly recognized that the path of practice is a path to just such openness, and that therefore any queasy reluctance we might feel around practice were very likely the work of Mara, the great discourager? Wouldn’t our hesitation then serve as a spur and an inspiration to resume the path?

Buddha also advises the king Pasenadi that when we have good friends in the Dharma,

we should live in intimate reliance on one thing only: “care for skillful states” – meaning practicing the path.

Not letting ourselves get trapped in a seeming corner by Mara, or by our own inclination to resistance, to closing down rather than opening up. Or noticing that we have been closed down, seemingly trapped — and then welcoming that fact, surrendering to it, giving ourselves enough spaciousness to feel the pain of it, and to go back, as we will do again and again in our practice, to square one. Blessed square one! Is there any other human activity where square one is always most blessed?

Image Credit: Foliage, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Featured Image Credit: Between Red and White, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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