Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

Message from Henry: Continuous Practice

November 29, 2014

Dogen talked about “continuous practice,” but by this he didn’t mean “learning to practice all the time.” He meant that practice itself is happening continuously and universally. The whole universe, all existence, is practice.

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Many of us come to practice, to the dojo – the “place of the way” – because our lives aren’t how we want them to be. We don’t feel the way we want, the world doesn’t behave the way we want, and somehow we aren’t acting as we want. We may want to find a way to accept this, or perhaps more commonly we want to find a way to fix it, and hope practice will help with that.

This kind of approach to practice is understandable and natural. In effect it’s utilitarian, seeing practice as a tool or instrument that can help us the way we want to be helped: we want to deal with things better, have a better life, suffer less, get more of what we want in life. All of this is surely good and positive. We sometimes talk about “my practice” – that is, practice as something “I do.” And that’s natural too.

But practice tends to work in a more paradoxical way. To chase after something, from a practice point of view, is like chasing one’s own shadow: the faster we run after it, the faster it moves away from us. In fact a practice-based approach in effect works backwards. It begins with stopping, ceasing, coming to rest in the ways things are, right now, and accepting that they are as they are. Only then can practice possibly start to deliver the changes we’d like to see.

But even then, somehow we are still only scratching the surface of practice…

Dogen talked about “continuous practice,” but by this he didn’t mean “learning to practice all the time.” He meant that practice itself is happening continuously and universally. The whole universe, all existence, is practice.

In his fascicle of this title, he chronicles a number of great Zen masters through the ages, showing how they joined and sustained one great stream of everlasting practice, and how in his view they are still doing so.

In other words, along with a utilitarian approach to practice that sees it as a tool or skill-set for personal relief or betterment (positive though that may be), there is also another way of understanding practice, that is radical and different. Here, practice is reality itself, vastly beyond our notions of the world and self and life, and our role as practitioners is to surrender our own agendas and join the greater life of practice that transcends time and space.

Or, another way to express it would be that when we see through time and space, we discover in living experience that they are truly just concepts, at which point the limitless abundance of universal practice opens up.

If everything is participating in this practice, then everything is awake and alive. In fact it’s only we ourselves, caught in the narrow band-width of our self-preoccupation and self-concern, who are not awake. Practice is our way to tease apart the strands of craving and aversion that have woven themselves into the cocoon of who we think we are, and gradually, sometimes suddenly, to break free of that web into reality – which is none other than the great wakefulness of all things, all engaged in the marvelous work and joy of “continuous practice.”

From this perspective, practice is not so much a matter of meeting our ends, but of surrendering ourselves and our agendas, allowing them to dissolve in practice. The price of entry to this “continuous practice,” to this “one bright pearl” as Gensha called it, is self-surrender. The paradox is that we may then finally find the peace of mind we were seeking from the start. So it comes not by meeting our perceived needs, but by giving them up. Practice after all was never a tool in our hands; we were a tool in its hands all along.

Image: Lotus, by Razabar, CC0 Public Domain, from pixabay.com

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