In “Continuous Practice, Part I,” Dōgen writes:
In the continuous practice of the way of buddha ancestors, do not be concerned about whether you are a great or a modest hermit, whether you are brilliant or dull. Just forsake name and gain forever and don’t be bound by myriad conditions. Do not waste the passing time. Brush off the fire on top of your head. Do not wait for great enlightenment, as great enlightenment is the tea and rice of daily activity. (Shobogenzo, Tanahashi 2010 edition)
What is it to not “be bound by myriad conditions”? What is it to not “waste the passing time”? How is great enlightenment the “tea and rice of daily activity”? These questions and others can be approached by looking at our relationship to time.
I was recently reading Kosho Uchiyama Roshi’s excellent Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice. There he has a wonderful discussion of the nature of sesshin. Sesshin is a several day retreat consisting of intense practice, primarily formal group meditation, zazen:
After my teacher Sawaki Roshi’s death in 1965, I began to do sesshins at Antaiji for five days every month. There are no sesshins in February, however, due to the cold, nor in August, due to the heat, and the July and September sesshins are only three days long. In all of these sesshins the schedule consists simply of a repetition of fourteen periods of zazen interspersed with briefer periods of Zen walking meditation (kinhin), from four o’clock in the morning until nine in the evening. There are three meals a day and a half-hour break after each one, when everyone attends to personal needs. At Antaiji each period of zazen is fifty minutes long…. (61-62)
So a sesshin is extremely intense—putting it lightly. I have never done one and I am uncertain of my physical/mental ability to do so. But I plan to work my way up to one someday. But what I want to focus on is Uchiyama’s commentary on the experience of sitting zazen all day long. Of such a sesshin:
The first thing we can’t help but feel when sitting these sesshins is the tremendous drawing out of time. Of sesshin it is said that “A day is as long as eternity” and “A day is long as it seemed in one’s childhood.” How often in our day-to-day life do we share a joke with a friend or perhaps watch a bit of television and, before we know it, half the day or perhaps even the whole day has passed. But when we sit zazen the entire day, time just does not pass easily. Our legs hurt and we become filled with boredom, and there is nothing else to do but live out time as the reality of life, moment by moment. (65. My emphasis.)
Reading these lines makes me both terrified and extremely curious about the experience of a sesshin. But it also makes me wonder how I might, how we might, “draw out time” in our daily lives; how we might make everyday as “long as it seemed in one’s childhood” (without necessarily experiencing boredom or pain, though those might be there, too). For consider how often we do the opposite. Not only do we sometimes “kill time” when we seem to have too much of it (a bizarre problem to have), but we are desperate to put so many of each day’s hours behind us because we view them as tedious or boring or worse.
So, I recognize that drawing out time may not be appealing initially to many people; again, after all, when we are busy “adulting,” so to speak, we are usually busy having to go to work, having to “make a living.” And who wants to make the time at work “as long as eternity”?! But that is just it, that is the vital point about everyday activities and not being “bound by myriad conditions.” We live unskillfully when we divide our daily activities into ones that we want to do and ones that we don’t, ones that we want to linger in and ones where we want time to pass as quickly as possible.
It is vital to realize that zazen isn’t only for the cushion; if it were, “great enlightenment” would not be “the tea and rice of daily activity.” For we must, by necessity, do more in our day to day lives than sit zazen. So how do we bring what we do on the cushion into our daily activities, into everyday tea and rice? In Dōgen’s “Model for Engaging the Way,” he explains how to do zazen, writing:
Arrange both body and mind, taking several deep breaths with your whole body so that you are relaxed inside and out,… Steady and immobile, settle into sitting and think of what is not thinking. How do you think of what is not thinking? Beyond-thinking. This is the essential art of zazen. (my emphasis. Leighton & Okumura, Eihei Shingi, 72)
What is this “beyond-thinking” that is so essential to zazen and which we can (and must if we are to be skillful) bring to our time off the cushion and into our daily life? Leighton and Okumura helpfully elaborate:
This beyond-thinking refers to a state of active awareness that includes both thinking and not thinking, but does not grasp, or get caught by, either thinking or not thinking.
When we are sitting, we do not follow or get involved in our thoughts, nor do we stop them. We just let them come and go freely. We cannot call it simply thinking, because the thoughts are not pursued or grasped. We cannot call zazen not thinking either, because thoughts are coming and going like clouds floating in the sky. When we are sitting, our brain does not stop functioning, just as our stomach is always digesting. Sometimes our minds are busy; sometimes calm. Just sitting without worrying about the conditions of our mind is the most important point of zazen. When we sit in this way, we are one with Reality, which is “beyond-thinking.” (fn. 36, 80-81).
I want to really emphasize the first line, namely, that beyond-thinking is “a state of active awareness that includes both thinking and not thinking.” The present moment is to be actively engaged with awareness, with presence, both on and off the cushion. When we divide the day into things that we desire to be doing and things we don’t desire to be doing, particularly when all of those are perceived to be things we must do, then we have left off of “beyond thinking.” Dear reader, I would encourage you to read this paragraph once more before moving on. Once you do, let’s look more closely at what is meant.
Many of the things we do every day are viewed both as things that we don’t want to do but must do and as being merely means to some future end or goal. So, for example, say you’re working on a report for work. It’s not very exciting and you can think of a ridiculous number of things you’d rather be doing. Further, you don’t see the report as a valuable activity in and of itself but rather merely as having value as a means to some other end. That end might be keeping your job or finishing the undesirable tasks for the day, but whatever the goal is, it “exists” outside of the present moment—it takes you outside of the present moment. So, the time spent on the report does not qualify as time that you want to experience as “drawn out.” You want to get it done as quickly as possible; you want the time at work to be done as quickly as possible.
But what is the result of this way of engaging your work? It is clear, I think: You. Suffer. It. Perhaps you think if you suffer it long enough, then you can work your way into a more fulfilling position. And, indeed, perhaps you can. However, if your work life changes and you suddenly love what you’re doing at work everyday, will this mean that you will not suffer other undesirable activities and times? Of course not. Life is filled with plenty of opportunities for dividing things into desirable and undesirable things outside of whether we actually desire to be at work every moment we are there.
I tend to be a rather impatient driver; I drive aggressively. Several years ago in the midst of a ramping up of my Buddhist practice I was attempting to be patient and let go of being in a hurry and generally letting go of judgments that were “unskillful.” But I was allowing myself, in part from a feeling of being justified, to curse and yell at the drivers and cars who I viewed as in my way. But it occurred to me, thankfully, that I couldn’t expect to make progress in being patient in other areas of my life if I was allowing myself to be impatient when I drove. That just doesn’t seem to be how humans work. We can’t pick and choose when and where we’ll be patient and when and where impatient. Either we habituate patience or we habituate impatience (and in this habituation lies karma and its effects) or we habituate some in-between place where we randomly act patiently here and impatiently there—randomly suffering here, randomly not suffering there.
Similarly with zazen and beyond-thinking. If we limit our effort to be present to the world to our time on the cushion, then we have no right to expect things to be different off the cushion. This is, in part, what Dōgen calls for when he calls for continuous practice. If we limit our effort at beyond thinking to our time on the cushion, then we have no right to expect not to suffer. Zazen and beyond thinking mean training ourselves to let go of our fixed and habitual patterns of judgment; and this training requires continuous practice. In particular, we practice letting go of judgments that parse the day into desirable and undesirable activities. And here is one place that faith come in in Buddhism. That is, in order to wholeheartedly practice beyond thinking, we have to have some trust, some faith, some hope that in doing so what we previously judged to be a miserable, boring, tedious activity, will be transformed. But we have to be careful here. It is not that it will necessarily be transformed into the most exciting thing you’ve ever done. Most likely it won’t—but even if it did, one still practices beyond thinking, realizing the transitory, interdependent nature of the experience, regardless of whether it is exciting or boring. The transformed activity may still be boring, it may still feel tedious in some respects—though those may well lesson as one lets go of judging them one way or another as such.
What is central to the transformation is the experience of being fully present to whatever the activity is, whatever feelings it gives rise to. One way to do this is to let go of engaging such activities as a mere means to future ends. This doesn’t mean literally forgetting that what you’re doing is a means to some other end—washing the dishes so that there are clean ones to eat on tomorrow, for example. What it means is shifting your perspective so that each activity, while certainly may still be a means, is engaged as an end in itself. This is so important. By engaging each activity, each thing, each person, as an end in themselves, you are no longer oriented to a time outside of the present. Think about it; if you write your report as though it were merely a means to keeping your job or getting done with the day, then your mind is partially on the report and partially on the future—partially in the moment and partially out. If you instead view each moment, each letter, each word written, as an end in itself, then time shifts, gets drawn out, but also transforms into something wonderful, as you are alive and have no where, no when, else to be.