Authentic Practice

In a recent email exchange with Dosho, I made an offhand comment about “authentic practice.” Dosho, very reasonably, then asked me to explain what I mean by that. I want to acknowledge that there are lots of practices which I consider “authentic,” and that authentic practice can take lots of different forms in lots of different contexts.  That said, my simple answer is that authentic practice has (at least) these two components:

1. Authentic practice is radically, emphatically impersonal.

This practice is not about me.  Of course, we arrive at spiritual practice because of something we want—answers to questions, or comfort, or (common in Zen) the means by which to become a particular kind of person, one we imagine must be wise or confident or compassionate. Those desires are natural and human, and they can serve as catalysts for positive action.  Whatever brings us to the practice, we can be grateful for it. But the depth of the practice doesn’t offer the kinds of rewards we seek at the start.

One of the most critical aspects of practice is the experience of giving up.  In a weeklong sesshin, it’s normal for participants—for some this happens in the first hour, though it seems to be most common (and most dramatic) about three days in—to waver in their commitment.  The posture is zazen, but the mind is on fire with the question, “Why on earth am I here?”  You think of the things you could be doing, and that shifts dramatically towards what you should be doing (“It was irresponsible of me to leave my family for so long—I should go home right away.” “I’ll never get that report in on time—what was I thinking?”).  They decide that the pain in their legs is too much, that they’re hurting themselves. They say, “I’m just not ready for this.”  Or whatever it is. And so a good number of people will just go home.  But many—even though they have all those same impulses and all those same concerns—stay.  They give up, but without moving from where they are.  After that moment of letting go, in my experience, zazen suddenly reveals itself in a very different way, and the aches and pains and fears and excuses tend to largely fall from view.  That moment of giving up is critical to this practice, but it is only possible when we hold ourselves to a standard that is not entirely comfortable, one which confronts us—and our stories about who we are, what we need, what we are capable of—directly.

It is a basic human impulse to “fix” what is uncomfortable—Zen training, in my experience, runs completely counter to that impulse. When we really commit to something (a teacher, perhaps, or a community, or even just a schedule), we don’t suddenly come to love all the things that were previously difficult or ill-fitting, but we do let go of the idea that we need to adapt that thing to make ourselves feel better.

Because I trained in Japanese monasteries and tend to do things in a way that seems formal or traditional, people often assume that I feel strongly about adhering strictly to traditional Soto Zen ceremonial forms.  But that’s not really the case.  My only real allegiance to traditional Soto forms, if I even have one, is that 99% of the time, when I see people adapting/rejecting/replacing them, it’s obvious that they’re doing so for their own comfort. The forms can fall away. They can be different forms. And they’re constantly changing anyway. But they offer us practitioners two things that are very difficult to manufacture on our own: (a) a strict and thorough template for action, which frees us from the potentially self-serving pitfalls of making things up; and (b) a kind of culture shock which forces us out of our comfort zones and begs the question—the very critical question—“What is this?”

If you are called upon to sing a song to a crowd of people, you can either refuse, or you can sing, offering your voice to those people and to the song itself.  All the stuff you might add to that—saying you’re not a good singer, or insisting that you don’t know the song, or singing meekly out of embarrassment—only serves to make that experience about you.  But it’s not about you.  So in Zen, you just stand up and sing.

I have heard it said that Zen practice is recognizing that something is impossible and just doing it anyway.  We don’t get to rehearse something until we get it right, nor do we get to offer excuses—we “get it right” by throwing ourselves into it completely.  “Standing in one’s position,” which I wrote about last week, is like this.  Vowing to save all beings is like this—if we hold up that vow to our own story of what we think we can and cannot do, we won’t even start (that, or we’ll drown in delusions of grandeur).  But if we just do it, whatever it is—with all the flailing, human energy we can bring to that work—then that offering is complete. Nothing is lacking.

2. Authentic practice is expressed physically, moment by moment; that is, it is not purely internal or mental.

Zen practice, put very simply, is the practice of giving everything, in every moment, in every action (A student of mine once offered this definition: “Realizing the whole moment, in every moment, knowing it’s going to change.” Also true, and a beautiful way of putting it.). I think most people readily agree that practice should carry beyond just sitting in zazen, but what does that really look like?

Often, I think people misinterpret “continuous practice” to mean that they should be thinking Zen-like thoughts all the time, or that they should be doing mental exercises to cultivate compassion, or that they should be “mindful.”  But if Zen is the practice of giving everything (I suppose there are many who would disagree with that simple definition)—if that’s the case—then when we walk, we give everything to walking.  We invest ourselves in it completely.  When we speak, we speak to the very best of our ability.  When we sit, we sit as well as we can.  In shikantaza we learn this very directly, to just sit as a complete activity, to be still actively, with every cell in our bodies.  It’s the total activity of sitting still.  But too often, when we try to bring zazen into the rest of the day, we imagine that what we’re bringing is a mindset, a kind of lens on the world.  But it’s simpler than that:  It’s the total activity of this moment.

I have known people (monk and lay) who express buddhadharma in the way they read a book, or in the way they step out of a car.  But just a few.  I have also known exalted Zen teachers (in Japan and around the world) who, for all their rank and training, still teach only with words. Those are too many to count.

To take it upon oneself to sit, stand, walk, lie down, dress, speak, listen, eat, breathe as a living expression of buddhadharma is a radically impersonal act, one which is probably born from an experience of impersonal training. This is not walking around like one’s image of a Zen person, putting on one’s roshi face and saying deep things all the time–it’s getting oneself out of the way so that when you walk, walking is your complete expression.

This action, whatever it is (answering the phone, washing the dishes, walking to the mailbox, bowing), is the climax of our lives—everything we have learned and experienced and thought up to now has been leading to this moment, and is expressing itself in this moment.  We only have this moment once, and in this moment, this action is all we have—the rest is just a story.  This action is our expression.  If we invest ourselves, then this action is the full expression of itself, of living practice. It is the selfless offering of all we can offer.  It is the realization of the moment.  It is the fulfillment of vow.

I believe this is something we can recognize in others, and in ourselves.  It is palpable. It does not look the same on any two individuals, but still, we can know it. For me, this kind of expression—which I forget and remember, forget and remember, countless times a day—is at the very center of the center of what it means to bring zazen into daily life, to do “continuous practice.”

(Thank you, Dosho, for the generous invitation to write about these things.)

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  • http://fromtheloneoak.blogspot.com David Clark

    Koun,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking posts. I especially appreciate your remarks to the effect of “the practice of giving everything, in every moment, in every action.” I had a kind of funny moment some weeks ago when I found myself totally immersed-in and enjoying the act of washing the morning dishes. For over twenty years of married life, I selfishly let my wife do all these cleanup chores while I went and did “something more important” (Did I mention that my wife is a saint?”.

    One morning, inspired by the old “wash your bowl” story, I picked up a dishrag and started doing the darned things myself. To my surprise, after a brief period of “getting over it”, I found that I actually liked the paying close attention to every dish and glass, cleaning every work surface and getting every object back in its’ place for the next meal. Ha! What a joke on myself! It is now my daily practice. Old dogs can definitely learn new tricks, and this is one lesson I have been happy to learn.

    “Everything we have learned and experienced and thought up to now has been leading to this moment, and is expressing itself in this moment.” How true! Washing those dishes or taking out the trash are as important as anything else I may set my hands to. It is so liberating to realize this and just be free to act as needed.

    Thank you for your efforts on our behalf.

    David

  • http://www.oxherding.com Barry Briggs

    Before I read this essay – which is quite insightful and rich – I asked myself the question, “Okay, Barry, what is authentic practice?”

    And the top-of-mind, before-thinking answer was, “Authentic practice is the one you do every day without hesitation.”

    I thought that was a pretty interesting formulation, but it fails an important test, which is: What is the *direction* of the practice?

    That is, does practice serve primarily my “own” interests, or do I practice primarily for the benefit of all beings?

    For those of us who practice within the broad Mahayana tradition, if our practice does not move toward the cessation of suffering for all beings, it’s probably not authentic.

  • Jen Gessert

    Forget & remember, forget & remember….
    ahhh yes!
    I increasingly find my running being my practice. There are a good percentage of my runs now that have nothing whatsoever to do with marathon training. It is the form that seems to me as arbitrary as sitting as a vehicle to practice the exact principles of zazen.
    I hope that isn’t overly self-serving or too much a liberty on my part (i.e. “making it up”), but I do feel that running could have easily been the original form of zazen, not sitting, and that it’s contrived nature (it is NOT convenient!!) still allows it to qualify as “authentic”.
    Thank you for your very interesting and thought- provoking words.

    • kounfranz

      Jinsen,

      It’s wonderful to see your name here. Thank you for jumping in!

      Personally, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the form of zazen “arbitrary”–I think it’s a brilliant design (and no accident that it’s been the definitive yoga posture for millennia), largely due to its radical minimalism. But I do think–and you and I have talked about this, maybe even the first time we met–that serious athletes often recognize something very familiar when they first come to zazen, both in the physical awareness of it and in the depth of repetition. That’s a huge insight, one that can make zazen practice seem obvious rather than bewildering.

      Gassho,
      -koun

      • Weasel Tracks

        Thank you for an article I will likely often refer to!

        Running: I long ago wondered why it isn’t included in the Four Positions. Perhaps it is just that it is so obviously meditative, it need not be included.

    • isa

      i used to run. i miss running. now i can’t. i walk. with a lot of stopping to catch my breath.

  • Oreb

    Impersonal … only walking … seeing beyond the narrative … Lots of control there. That wild fox might sneak up from behind and bite. Which seems to happen alot in zen centers.

    It’s interesting how the koans show those chinese guys playing freely, holding on or letting go. Like Layman Pang and his daughter:

    Mr. Pang was selling baskets. Coming down off a bridge with his arms full, he stumbled and fell. When his grownup daughter saw this, she ran up and threw herself down on the ground beside him.
    “What are you doing?” cried Mr. Pang.
    “I saw you fall to the ground, so I’m helping,“ she replied.
    “It’s a good thing no one was looking,“ remarked Mr. Pang.

    Impersonal, only walking, beyond, holding position of Father (or Daughter)? More like hi dad! Total interaction, fluid, no positions but presence, openness and love.

    Thanks for the discussions, it’s generous and something that really needs to happen

    • Desiree

      I think I’m not supposed to have favorites, but this family is mine. This is the first time I’ve heard this parable. Thanks!

    • kounfranz

      Oreb-

      I’m curious to hear more about what you mean by “That wild fox might sneak up from behind and bite. Which seems to happen alot in zen centers.” What does that look like, in your experience?

      Gassho,
      -koun

  • http://arielpork.blogspot.com Austin Keith

    Koun,

    The words authentic and impersonal have given me great pause over the last day or so. I woke up this morning and had to look at your post again!

    Authentic reminds me of something that doesn’t exist. For example, I remember reading something Katagiri Roshi said, like “For 30 years I’ve strived to practice Shikantaza the way Dogen practiced, and then I realized that it doesn’t exist.”

    I lived in a temple once where our founder’s book was called The Way of True Zen and we all tried to practice that, and in trying, we met projection after projection; the projection of my teacher’s Japanese teacher, the projection of our Ino’s projection of what he thought our teacher wanted. What resulted was something very frail. It was pretty, but surface, and this was all an attempt to make it authentic and impersonal.

    And with the getting up and singing, I think sometimes so but not always so. The chanting, the bowing, the sitting, dokusan- these seem like containers we put our very personal selves into, that actually they’re not separate, that without them we wouldn’t really get below the surface of who we think we are.

    The word impersonal seems close to non-self in your blog, so please correct me.
    Dogen Zenji said to study the Buddha way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things. It seems like the order is important and it’s not just forgetting the self. What do you think?

    • kounfranz

      Austin-

      It’s my understanding that when Dogen says, “to study the Buddha way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things,” he’s describing equivalency rather than a sequence. That is, it’s not A->B->C; instead it’s A=B=C (=A). It works in any configuration: To forget the self is to study the Buddha Way, to be actualized by the myriad things is to study the self. Does that feel useful?

      “Impersonal” can be one way of talking about no-self, certainly. But here, my intention is simpler–just to say that in the practice of this moment, the action I perform is both larger than my own personal story, and also (at its heart) not about me (that is, not about reinforcing my own narrative, or not about maintaining my comfort zones, or not about bringing about some personal benefit). It’s just this, and that’s enough.

      Gassho,
      -koun

      • isa

        i dunno the right words but some teachers by their very gusto enliven everything. soen roshi’s accent is so bad i don’t understand anything he says, someone said to me. and to this day, what said is so clear it enlivens me. “of course we ask the patriarchs for their help” in a teisho about individual responsibility. my teacher cried like a baby when he was disappointed by someone he loved deeply. thank you.

  • Desiree

    Personal
    5 Theology: existing as a self-aware entity, not as an abstraction or an impersonal force

    http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/impersonal
    ||

  • http://arielpork.blogspot.com Austin Keith

    Dear Koun,

    What a great new big question for me to chew on! How do I go about investigating whether Dogen meant sequential or equivalency?

    P.S I can’t believe I didn’t come visit when I lived in Clam Gulch/ Carribou hills around 06.

    Thank you,
    Austin

  • Diane Kyonin Wyss

    As I experience that I “know” less my life becomes being a gently cupped hand; neither holding onto nor pushing away. I think “giving up” is about acceptance of each moment and being curious about it.
    I so appreciate your thoughts and am grateful for you sharing your thoughts.
    With hands palm to palm
    Kyonin

  • PD Poole

    My experience with zen began in the mid 70′s……at the Cambridge Zen Center….then sitting alone for a number of years…then sitting with the Dallas Zen Center…now about to begin sitting at a local zendo i discovered by sheer accident! I took my time and read your talk with great interest…”authentic zen” practice to me is sitting without the smell of coffee…without the cacophany of the alarm…without any concept of then -now….just the depth of the sitting, and finally letting that drop away as well. My wife tells me I am a 7th degree black sash in blithering…Gassho…and my humble thanks for this teaching Koun

  • Yue

    “This action, whatever it is (answering the phone, washing the dishes, walking to the mailbox, bowing), is the climax of our lives—everything we have learned and experienced and thought up to now has been leading to this moment…It is the selfless offering of all we can offer.”

    Damn.

  • http://arielpork.blogspot.com Austin Keith

    Dear Koun,

    Is studying the self like seeing that mountains are mountains? Is forgetting the self like seeing that mountains are not mountains? Is being actualized returning to mountains are mountains?

    I just wonder if studying the self is steeped in knowing conventional truth, while forgetting the self is universal, and being actualized might be seeing that the two truths are not separate…

    Still completely unsure!

    Gassho,
    Austin

  • dez
  • Raj

    Thank you for the nice post. Actions become authentic when you recognise the common thing in every encounter. Actions become authentic when you know your true part in every story. Sitting is a nice thing. Authentic when your heart is in it.Thank you.

  • Raj

    Mr.Koun’s statement that authentic practice is personal as well as impersonal is profound. You cannot ignore the stuff you are. To do it that way is simulation. To end it there is to end it as a personal trip. The impersonality of the practice comes from its immediacy. To its real purpose to end suffering and the causes of suffering in every sphere. It is an ongoing process to greater responsibilities and greater freedom. When you practise, a hungry ghost somewhere has to rejoice. Thank you.


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