I recently met with a student (via Zoom, of course) who was recovering from the coronavirus. With a wool hat pulled over his head and half his face, with blanket wrap-around, looking really weak, he told me about being sick. He had all the now common symptoms – fever, muscle ache, cough and breathing difficulties.
“Never felt anything like this,” he said.
“And then there was my reaction,” he confessed. After several years of regular secular mindfulness practice and about a year of Zen, he’d hoped that he might be sick with more aplomb. “Am I doing something wrong?”
And seem to imply, “Shouldn’t practicing Zen save me from losing my shit when I’m sick?”
Our practice is preparation for difficulty. We sit upright through it all, open the breath body, receive and embody the dharma in walking, sitting, standing, and lying down. We study the dharma and do our best to apply it to the nitty gritty details of daily life. We take up a key word from a kōan, like “mu,” and be it through and through. We engage with others to make the dharma a lived, communal reality. Some of us even become skilled “ceremony technicians.”
Shouldn’t all that make us serene and equanimous in the face of coronavirus? Or whatever?
That “should” is the problem.
“Should” separates us from what’s really happening and inserts an alternate reality that isn’t fully in alignment with the moment with all its grim details, emotional upwelling, and radiance. In other words, all our past and twisted karma.
No matter how skillful we’ve become at any technique, it will not save us in the present unless we apply it in the present. When sick, what is the practice then?
Just be sick through and through. Cough, cough. Gasp, gasp.
How to do it? Soften. Turn the light around into whatever is arising, including fear, terror, pain, or panic. It has little to do with posture or a particular type of breathing. Sure, sitting upright and breathing from the belly might make the work a bit easier. But when sick, curled up in the fetal position and sucking in whatever breath we can might be the fitting way to receive and actualize it.
As Dogen put it in “Awesome Presence of Active Buddha,” “In the steadfastness of thorough investigation, all phenomena are the unadorned clarity of mind.”
This is to embody the key word kōan of this sucky moment. This is the practice of identity action, the awesome presence of active buddha. And herein lies freedom – freedom to be exactly as you are with the 10,000 things.
Lest you think this is just my whacky idea, I cite this:
Déshān was not well. A monk asked, “Is there someone who does not get sick?”
Déshān said, “There is.”
The monk said, “Who does not get sick?”
Déshān said, “Ouch, ouch!”
Déshān continued, “You extend your hands to the sky and chase after echoes, exhausting mind body. Wake up from the dream and realize it was not. In the end, what is there to do?”
Once Déshān was done talking he sat peacefully and passed away.
To paraphrase: Will my practice save me from the 10,000 sufferings?
Be it without remainder, not as an idea or dogma, but as the moment-to-moment living reality.
Ouch! Ouch! Shiver! Shiver! Gasp! Gasp!
And when the time comes to die, just die.