The first steps in the route of the Zen
First of all, you should ask yourself what is what you are looking for in the practice of Zen. Here you have a story:
“A man had a stall of nuts. People who wanted nuts went to his stall, and this man provided them. But, sometimes, there were some distracted people who asked him for tomatoes or meat, and the man said: no, here, we just have nuts. Vegetables and meat are over there.”
In this Zen centre, we study and practice the teaching that has been transmited by Buddhas and Ancestors through the correct lineage of the Zen Buddhist Transmission, whose main essence is that of discovering and living the true nature of our existence. The heart of this practice is zazen meditation.
Does this mean that in order to practice zazen in a dojo it is necessary to “become a buddhist”? No, it doesn't. This means that in the Zen centre you practice zazen following the teaching of Zen Buddhism, but it is open to everyone who would like to practice zazen respecting the rules and the atmosphere of the place.
The Way of Zen is like a huge ocean of freshwater which can provide water to everyone who needs it. The amount of water that is received depends on the need and the container with which one goes: A big container would receive a lot of water, a small one would receive a little. The container is the attitude we have when practicing and the depth of what we are searching for. Experience has made us see that there exist different motivations when going to practice Zen.
There are those who come just for curiosity, without great interest and no clear notions of what Zen is.
There are also those who wish to learn some technique to relax, in order to “feel better” without reflecting on the causes of their discomfort and tension.
There are others who wish to be integrated in any group of people, have friends, meet people.
Then, there are those who do not feel good with themselves and feel the need of doing something about it, (to satisfy their dissatisfaction, to be happy) but they do not have any right direction and have not reflected enough on what they want or not.
Those who have read books about Zen, who feel intellectually identified with the teaching of Zen and wish to “practice” and then go to practice it with a heavy knowledge of intellectual prejudices, preconceived ideas of categories and concepts.
The ones who arrive at a centre having no basic idea of what Zen is and finding, immediately, that this is their way, though.
Another example is the one of those who have or have not read books about Zen, what they are looking for is a spiritual way through which experimenting some deep inner revolution; some personal transformation which allow them to live according to a truth that they vaguely feel inside themselves, but they do not know how to develop or express it.
Even, those ones who are just looking for the Way of Zen and that is all, having that clear idea since the very beginning.
Every person is different, every one has their own attitude, but the aforementioned ones are the most stereotyped. If the motivation is not correct, it is impossible to continue practicing zazen for a long time. Many people resort to Zen in the same way as they could go to any other spiritual centre, or to varied meditations centres, or psychotherapy centres, or clubs or civic associations, or relax centres, massage and techniques of well-being. They are people who, not having a clearly defined search, could be here today and tomorrow in another place. Furthermore, with the practice of zazen they get the impression of “not getting any profit”. The attitude itself or motivation is, then, an obstacle which stops us to persevere and enter in the heart of Zen.
However, there are other people who get a very good impression of their first sessions of zazen. They perceive something in the atmosphere of the centre which attracts them a lot; they feel identified, broadly speaking, with the silence of zazen and with the teaching they receive. These people decide to go on practicing and go regulary to the centre to practice zazen, even though they could not say well why they like the practice of Zen so much.
Nevertheless, in spite of this attraction to Zen, it is usual that, at the beginning of the practice, some people experiment certain rejections to some aspects of the practice of Zen. Obstacles starts appearing. The overcoming of those obstacles depends on the attitude which the practicant has towards them. In fact, these obstacles are not external or objective, but deeply subjective and are appropriate to cultural, intellectual, emotional and body prejudices of the practicant.
These obstacles are varied and diverse, but they could be summarised in three groups:
1. Body obstacles
2. Intellectual obstacles
3. Emotional obstacles
The first thing most of the beginners confirm is the difficulty, when they start, of the position of zazen. Sometimes, it is even impossible to take the position of zazen and, although it is possible, the fact of being motionless in zazen during a 30 minutes session becomes into a painful experience and almost traumatic.
Pain is one of the first barriers we find when we begin in the practice of zazen. It must be said that pain is the best spiritual counselor, the best friend. Pain is a symptom of our unbalance, a red light that turns on and tells us: “something is going wrong”. It is like a column of smoke which indicates us that somewhere there is some fire. By following the column of smoke, we could get to its origin , the fire, and extinguish it. Thus, one should not demotivate because of the pain. Zazen is not an ascetic practice nor a mortifying one. Zazen itself is not painful. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, pain appears, though.
On the one hand, there is a physiological reality: our tendons, muscles, body structure which are not used to the position of zazen. Zazen is a way of training, oneself's overcoming. There is some body work and this work sometimes produces painful emotions. In any kind of sport it happens the same. Our old body habits are reluctant to dissapear. Although our body, with time and practice, adapts itself to the position of zazen and settles in it comfortably.
On the other hand, the pain has an important psychological and mental component. It hurts me. The “I” is the one who suffers the most. The stronger the conscience of the ego, the more unbearable the pain will be. When the ego-entity begins to calm down and to dissolve, the pain stops being a serious menace and becomes just one more emotion.
Agitated minds suffer more than those which are quiet. It has been proven that when the brain reaches a state of deep calm and serenity, it starts secreting some substance called endorphin, being one of its main functions that of dissolving the acute emotions of pain.
The way to overcome the barrier of pain is to control our mind, drive it to states of peace and serenity, train our body and harmonize our breathing. Patience is fundamental.
When the painful emotions appear, those who go to zazen as a relax or well-being technique give it up quickly. Even though one is really interested in Zen, the difficulty of the position makes them think about desisting.
In fact, everyone can sit in zazen, unless the person has any important physical injury, if one has the needed perseverance and determination.
Zazen is also physical and body training. It deals with the restructuring our muscle arquitecture, modelling our body in order to make it suitable for a deep meditation practice such as zazen. Our body is a living being and, so, adaptable and malleable. It is usual that, being used to lots of mistaken body habits, the position of zazen could be difficult for us at the beginning. Those difficulties dissapear to the extent that we persevere and work. It is not valid saying that the position of zazen is just for Japanese, Chinese and Indians, as they are used to it since their childhood. It is necessary to know that Chinese, Japanese as well as Indians, who have never practiced zazen, have the same problems as western people when being at the beginning of the practice. It should also be known that in the West there are thousands of people who practice zazen regularly and have made of zazen a habitual action in their lives.
The only thing that is required is perseverance and, in the most difficult cases, some stretching exercises before sitting in zazen.
Another obstacle of body kind that appears is the closeness to shapes. In Zen centres, some body behaviours are taught such as gasshô (a greeting with the palms of our hands together), sasshu (both hands in front of our chest to walk and remain still in the upright position), sampai (prostration), etc. In a centre, it is also stipulated the way of entering, leaving, walking, sitting. After zazen, a ceremony is usually performed. Some people have a lot of difficulty when praticing this body behaviour because they are very closed to body shapes, not the ones that are taught in the centre, but the ones they are used to. In the centre, when they make some gestures and behaviours with their body which are not usual, they feel some rejection. This rejection towards that body behaviour of the meditation room is the other side of the coin of the closeness which they feel towards their usual behaviour.
Some people cannot defeat their own fixation, which causes them a huge feeling of embarrassment and rejection making them leave the meditation room. The obstacle has not been defeated.
The only way of defeating it is accepting, without prejudices, the new shapes, adapt to them, experiment them “from inside” going back to the flexible body to learn new patterns of behaviour. When the behaviour in the meditation room is practiced for some months, one begins to discover its deep sense, not an intellectual one, with no need of long verbal explanations. One should never forget that the Way of Zen is not a theory, but a practice; that is, an experience.
The practice of Zen with all our body causes an awakening of our body conscience, a restructuring of our body habits.
As zazen is practiced, one begins to have contact with the teaching of Zen, with the essential principles taught by Buddhas and Patriarchs. These teachings are destined to help us take some fair perspective from which we can conceive our own practice. They help us to understand ourselves. However, it can happen that our points of view do not coincide with those of the teaching, or that some of the aspects of the teaching could seem strange to us and external to what we have usually thought that appears in our mind as an intellectual rejection.
The Way of Zen is not a theory nor an ideology, but an existential practice; that is, an experience. Zen follows the path of the experience. The teaching of Buddhas and Patriachs has as purpose driving us to the experience of our true original nature. It has so an eminent practical character. It is not memorizing principles or dogmas. It is not imposing an ideology, nor indoctrinate, but understanding how we should drive our own practice.
In this process, it is important to take into account the following points:
Firstly, we should listen to the teaching: what is what we have to practice, how, with which mental, body and emotional attitude. That is, to receive the teaching of a true master of Tranmission of Zen , to work with oneself with the objective of becoming a container good for receiving this teaching. To listen a lot; the more, the better. The more teaching we listen to, more exactly we could guide our practice. To listen to the teaching, it is necessary to be next to a master, as it is not just receiving some theoretical principles and objectives, place of some “feel”, of an intuition, of a personal communication from master to disciple. The practicant should work their intellectual and emotional receptiveness, in order to be able to resound with the vibration emited by the master. To do this, it is fundamental to quieten, even if it is just momentarily, our points of view, leave our preconceived ideas and become intellectually receptive to the teachings we are given.
After having listened to the teaching, we should make sure that we have understood it properly, without adding any personal categories. To do this, we should reflect once and again on the received teachings. If we have not understood any point or we are not sure of having understood it well, we should tell our doubts to the master, during a personal interview or during a mondo (an open discussion). Once we are sure of having understood it correctly, we should reflect on the fact that if that teaching is the one that is convenient for us, the one we are searching for, the one we need. In the case that we come to the conclusion that it is not convenient for us, the best thing to do is just not to practice it and leave Zen. However, if we feel that this teaching is the one we need, then, we should go, without further ado, to the practice.
The third step is to practice what we have understood. After the intellectual comprehension, it is essential the total practice with our body and mind. It can also happen, in some cases, that we do not see the need of practicing something, even though its intellectual sense is very clear, and we have received a lot of explanations from the master.
What should we do in these cases? That depends on the confidence each one has in the master and the teaching of Buddhas and Patriarchs. If one has confidence, the practice will be continued, although, momentarily, one does not have a clear perspective of it. Otherwise, the practice will be abandoned. It happens the same with traffic signs which indicate the direction of different cities or how far we are from them. When a traffic sign indicates us the direction of a city, we can see the sign but not the city itself. How can we be sure that that city is located in that direction and distance, if we have never gone there? We cannot be sure, but we trust the people who placed there those signs to help us. Tha same happens in the Way of Zen. Many times, we cannot discern the deep meaning of a teaching or the attitude of a master, but if we trust them and follow their instructions, we ourselves will be able to understand, with time, what we are told. Up to nowadays, there is no one person who has practiced what Buddhas and Ancestors have taught, who has not experimented what Buddhas and Ancestors have experimented.
The fair attitude consists then of widening, more and more, the borders of our intellectual comprehension of the Way of Zen. Sometimes, this can just happen through a brief jump beyond those borders. As it is said in Zen:
“When you arrive at a one thousand-metre cliff, take a step forward.”
Intellectual obstacles can just be dissolved as long as we get rid of our rigid mental categories, our prejudices, our old concepts. It is not overcoming external obstacles, but overcoming ourselves.
Every mental category, concept, notion or prejudice always goes with an emotional baggage which is polarised in the duality closeness/ rejection, love/ hate. Generally and unconsciously, we feel closeness towards what is already known for us, and we automatically reject what is new, what can disrupt our familiar world.
In the practice of Zen, we should observe and be aware of this mental-emotional process, in order not to be a prisoner of it.
The way to Zen cannot be experimented through an emotional duality atraction/ rejection, appetite/ repulsion. We should go further and receive the teaching of Zen as simple and plain as possible, avoiding that our emotional categories act as a filter of this teaching.
With time and a persistent zazen pratice, little by little, our emotional activity will calm down. From a quieter point of view, we could see with greater lucidity the distresses that cause in our mind this uncontrolled emotional activity which makes us hate, reject, be obstinately closed, get angry, etc. It is not cultivating some inhuman coldness, but to bring order and harmony in our emotional impulses, understanding their partiality and diminishing their importance.
The fair attitude
Buddhas, Ancestors and Masters of Transmission of Zen have taught us that in order to overcome the first obstacles and be able to continue going deeper in the Way of Zen, it is necessary to cultivate a fair attitude of the conscience. This fair attitude can be characterised by the following points:
It is a Japanese word which means “no profit”. This is the fundamental teaching of Zen. We should not expect to receive any personal benefit from the practice. We should not look for especific goals when practicing the Dharma of Buddha. We should not practice with a selfish target. Why then practicing? What for? For nothing especial, for nothing. We practice the Dharma of Buddha because we believe that it is the best we can do. Nothing else. The rain falls, the sun shines, the wheat germinates. The rain does not fall to water the fields. It falls because it is its nature. The sun does not shine to make wheat germinate. It shines because its nature is to shine. Wheat does not germinate to feed humans. It germinates because its nature is to germinate. Similarly, we should practice and study the Dharma of Buddha, because our nature drives us to get to know ourselves and understand more and more in a deeper way the fact of our existence in this world. Of course, from this practice-study of the Way a lot of benefits and rewards will arise, but we should not pratice looking for those benefits and rewards. We just have to concentrate here and now on a fair practice. The results will come along.
It is another Japanese Zen expression, which is very important and it is closely related to MUSHOTOKU. It means “to sit, just sit”. When we sit in zazen, we do not sit in order to reach a goal, we do not wait for something especial. We just sit with the same attitude as the rain when it falls, the sun when it shines, or the wheat when it germinates. We just concentrate on the fact of being seated correctly, with a correct body attitude, with the correct breathing and with the correct attitude of our spirit.
We should not think: “ I practice zazen to be enlightened, or to be better, or to acquire magical powers... Zazen is zazen, it is the beginning and the end, it is a completed whole in itself. Zazen is not some meditation technique which is used to reach a target. If we do not have zazen end itself, it becomes into the end. It is just then when we begin to perceive the true dimension of zazen.
SHIKANTAZA is referred to the practice of the seated position, to zazen. This attitude should be extended to every action in our lives. In Zen, we do not work for a salary, or eat for this or that, we do not sleep to be less tired the next day, we do not live to... Working is itself the beginning and the end of an action, it is a complete independent whole of their results. When we eat, we eat. We do not eat for something especial. We eat because in our nature is found the fact of eating. When we sleep, we sleep. We do not sleep for something especial. When we are sleepy, we sleep, that is all. What do we live for? Which is the sense of our lives? Zen answers these questions: The sense of life is living. We live to live. This means that the current moment is not a stopover for the train of time which goes from the past to the future. The present is the present, a unique and complete time itself. Hence, Zen teaches us to live the present instant to its fullest and to discover in it the infinitude of time, or of no-time. That is, when we are doing something (zazen, work, food, sleep), we should concentrate on doing what we are doing, without thinking of the rewards of our action.
It is not possible to practice zazen with a business mentality. Some people say: “All right. I will make an effort to practice zazen, I will go to the centre, I will study and practice the Way. From all this, I expect to earn abundant benefits.” With that attitude, it is not possible to go further. In the end, one gets demoralized because they do not obtain anything tangible nor quantifiable and leaves the practice saying: “Zazen is worthless. It is a waste of time. It is better to dedicate myself to something more gratifying.” This attitude appears, precisely, as a block to make the true zazen appear. When you do not expect anything, then everything appears. Expecting is despairing. When we leave our selfish expectations, the true rewards arise. Shikantaza is to sit, just sitting without expecting anything in return.
Hishiryo is the exact way of thinking during zazen. What should we think about during zazen?, should we think or not during zazen? These are some of the questions that beginners ask themselves. Some people think that zazen is “not-thinking”, that we should keep our minds in a “blank state”. Other people use zazen to think of their personal things, their problems, their projects. Others think that zazen meditation is creating creative thoughts, or positive thoughts, or any other kind of thought. Zazen is none of those things. During zazen, we should “think without thinking”, not thinking by thinking, thinking from the bottom of our no-thought, no-thinking from the bottom of our thinking. What does this mean? Here you have the more usual ways of thinking:
Going from one thought to another is thinking.
Going from one no-thought to another is not thinking.
During zazen, the proces is as follows:
Going from one thought to another no-thought is thinking without thinking.
Going from one no-thought to another thought is not thinking by thinking.
This is the exact way of thinking during zazen.
In the action of thinking, there is some mental continuum made by the uninterrupted concatenation of thoughts. Let's suppose that each dot is one thought and the line of dots is the mental continuum:
This means that the attention is completely focused and trapped by the incessant thoughts which appear in our minds. Sometimes, we would like to stop thinking, but we cannot do it, we do not know how. Thoughts keep our attention trapped. This causes mental pathologies such as neurosis and obsession. The person feels trapped in the vicious cycle of their own thought.
During zazen, when directing our attention to the important points of our body position and breathing, our conscience is released from the tyranny of the obsessive and neurotic thoughts. Through the control of the attention, we learn to get rid of the inopportune thoughts. As we get rid of more and more thoughts, the mental “continuum” begins to break and let catch a sight of empty spaces, that is, no-thought states.
Following the example of the dots:
(...... ......... ......... ............ ...................)
The dots are thoughts. The space gaps, no-thoughts states.
Nevertheless, in Zen, we do not try to reach an absolute state of no-thought. Thinking is a natural activity of humanbeing, the same as eating, sleeping, speaking. Eating a lot, speaking too much, thinking too much is an extreme that should be avoided. No eating, no speaking, no sleeping, no thinking is another extreme that should also be avoided. If we do not eat anything or sleep, our body weakens, fades, falls into some kind of emotional, intellectual and spiritual depression. Thus, what Zen teaches us is the way to balance. This is hishiryo: thinking without thinking, no thinking by thinking. Pink clouds float in the blue sky. The clouds are like thoughts. The blue sky is the state of no-thought. More than thinking, we let our thoughts think themselves.
There is no thinking “I”, there are thoughts that come and go, which go like the clouds in the sky. The clouds do not belong to the scarecrow, it does not mind if they come or go, it does not mind if the sky is cloudy or not. The scarecrow does not have conscience of the “I” or “my”. For that reason, the absence or not of clouds does not bother it. During zazen, we should be similar to the scarecrow.
The master of Zen
The master of Zen is the spiritual friend who helps you discover the essential of yourself, who guides you through the short cuts of your own mind and shows you how to plant in your conscience the seeds of a spiritual realisation, which allows you discover by yourself your true nature.
Here, in Japan, in China, in India, in USA, in Australia, everywhere and always those ones who want to study themselves following the Way of Zen have always looked for a master, a spiritual friend. A master of Zen is like a mountain guide who knows the route because they have gone up and down so many times. It saves you time, helps you in the moments of discouragement and warns you about the difficult passages.
Studying with a master of Zen does not mean to deny your own responsibility in the practice of the Way. The student should practice themselves, following the pieces of advice given by the master. The master is the finger that points at the moon, but it is the student the one who should look at the moon. The student should experiment the teaching of the master, on the contrary, this teaching becomes useless.
The relationship with the master can be approached from two points of view:
a) As a mere practicant. That is, without creating strong personal bonds with them, listening to their teachings and pieces of advice and trying to follow them in the same way as we listen to a professor at the university. The student receives an objective teaching, the technique of the zazen method, the principles of the Buddhism Zen. As they have not created any strong personal bond with the master, the student does not corroborate their comprehension with the master's comprehension, and they are subjected to their own intepretation. This is the same as when a man and a woman start an informal relationship, with no compromise, without rules.
b) As a practicant-disciple. There exists an intimate act where the practicant asks the master to be accepted as a disciple. From that moment on, the relationship starts becoming deeper. The student does not expect a theoretical teaching, but a total education of their emotional, intellectual, existential, etc. potentialities. The relationship master-disciple becomes much closer, deeper, more committed. The disciple accepts that the master will go inside their guts.
There are rules of well-doing, rules of behaviour regarding the relationship master-disciple. The master stops being a master of Zen, their teaching is not just limited to the moments of the practice in the meditation room, but it continues in every circumstance of daily life: in the street, in the pub, at the table, at work, in the break time, etc.
What is important when someone wants to practice with the attitude of the disciple is to cultivate the receptiveness towards the master and remain next to them as much as possible, practicing, working, laughing, crying with them. This way, the spirit of the disciple impregnates naturally, unconsciously of the spirit of the master; both of them become into two communicating channels. If we enter a room impregnated by the scent of a rose, our clothes will impregnate too without knowing why.
In Zen a true master is the one who has received the Transmission of the Dharma from another true master of Zen, who, at the same time, has also received it from another true master of Zen, and, so, going back until arriving at Buddha Shakiamuni. Thus, it is not oneself who proclaims to be a “master of Zen”.
The Buddhist Soto Zen Community has as master of the Dharma his founder Dokushó Villalba, a Zen monk who was ordained by the master Taisen Deshimaru Roshi in 1978. He received the Transmission of the Dharma by the Venerable Master Shuyu Narita Roshi, and, currently, he is the only Spanish master of Zen recognised by the authorities of the Japanese school Soto Zen.
Practicing as it has been shown up to now, one can progress quickly in the Way of Zen. Little by little, imperceptibly, a new personality will start growing. Many of our body, mental and emotional habits will be transformed and, generally, one experiments a true feeling of being reborn. The strict, cowardly and confused attitude of our first days of practice has been left behind.
The practice of zazen and the teaching of our master begin to open us the true world of Buddhas, a new dimension of our existence, a new more satisfactory way of seeing ourselves, the world and the way of connecting with it. We can even feel euphoric after the overcoming of the first obstacles. The old illusory I is being left behind, and we start feeling more and more the new more real I, more authentic, fuller. It is at this moment when some practicants feel some kind of vertigo, the vertigo of doubt.
In spite of the satisfactory results obtained with the practice of zazen, some practicants feel that they are going “too far away” from their familiar world, to which, in any remote place of their unconscious, they are still close.
Moreover, in these moments, one begins to realise that zazen and the Way to Zen are much more than a meditation or relax technique. One begins to sense the true depth of the Way of Zen, that is, their own existence. This depth scares us, the fear a chick has when goes out from their eggshell. They are moments of uncertainty and doubt. Shall I try to go back to the usual world? Shall I go forward?
The vision of the Dharma
This doubt is a natural one, it is even beneficial, if it is lived with an appropriate mental attitude. This doubt is the manifestation that is producing the vision of the Dharma (of the Reality that Zen shows us) and this vision is being compared with the ordinary vision we have had until then.
The vision of the Dharma is the intuitive perception of the three fundamental features of our phenomenal existence. Namely:
1º We live in a fragile and impermanent world.
Nothing lasts, nothing remains. Neither happiness, nor misfortune, neither the good, nor the bad, neither the I, nor the others. We start understanding that we cannot find a true long-lasting satisfaction hanging onto things that, for their own nature, tend to disappear. Friends turn into enemies, the body gets ill, wealth is the cause of many discomforts such as poverty, material comfort ends suffocating us, our relatives get old and die. Ideologies spread out as fire to, right away, succumb spectacularly. Awakening to the impermanence of the world we live in is the awakening to the verification that we will disppear too from the face of the planet. Before this perspective, the desire of honours, reputation, power, comfort, material pleasures, lose great part of their strength. What before motivated us so much, the things we fought for with so much effort, begin to lose their sense. The real verification of the impermanence causes a crisis of the ego, a restructuring of our being in the world, because we start realising that we are not what we thought, that we have been running after ghosts, shadows, mirages. It begins to collapse what we thought to be. The I totters.
2º Questions arise: Who am I?, what is THIS?
We realise that the I is an indefinable, ineffable, nonexistent entity. There is no one I, there are thousands of I. Or the fact that the I is not a fixed and immobile entity, it is not a monolithic personallity, but a process, a trend. A process where there are continuously old Is dying and new ones being born. We feel no longer, exclusively, the father, or the mother, or the child, or the brother or sister, or the husband or wife, or the teacher, or the student, or the good or bad person, or the intelligent or the hopeless, or the leader or the governed, or the boss or the labourer. We no longer identify exclusively with the exceptional functions that we perform in social, familiar and professional life. We begin to understand that the true nature of our existence transcends a lot the roles or “personalities” which we daily play. Inevitably, the question arises: “If I am not exclusively the characters which I play in daily life, who am I?, what is the true I, which includes and transcends the infinite Is which appear and disappear in the trend of my life?, which is the true nature of my existence?”
3º This can be the starting point for a really deep and true spiritual practice.
Experimenting the evidence of the two mentioned aspects, we can understand a bit better the fundamental cause of our suffering and the suffering of other living beings. We suffer because we become attached to an ilusion, an unreal shadow. The ilusion is the manifestation of the fundamental ignorance of the human mind. The ilusion is a mistaken perception, incomplete and distort of the Reality. As we do not perceive the true Reality, humanbeings cannot live in harmony with it. As we do not live in harmony, suffering arises. We suffer due to ignorance.
The suffering Buddhas refer to is not limited to the painful emotions, either body, mental or emotional ones. They refer to, in a wide sense, the continuous insatisfaction we human beings live, the absence of inner calm, inner peace, serenity, deep freedom. The agitated activity of our mind causes us suffering, poverty causes us suffering, wealth too. Even happiness causes us suffering, because when we are happy we are afraid of not being so anymore, we get attached to happiness; and this is suffering. We go here, and we see suffering, we go there, and we see suffering. We stay here, and we see suffering.
This deep, existential suffering cannot be solved or silenced anymore with small solutions, or with narcotics, but just through a deep and exact spiritual practice, which allows us access to the other side of the river of life: the clear vision of the true original nature of our existence.
Here we have the two poles of the doubt: “The Way of Buddha has opened in front of me, and all Buddhas and Patriarchs invite me to go over it. Something inside me wants to do it, but, on the other hand, I am afraid of it. What will happen to me?
I am afraid of not being me anymore, or what I think I am. I am afraid of losing my familiar world that, insatisfactory now though, is the one I know, the one I identify with, the one where I feel more me. On the other hand, I cannot go back, I cannot deny my own experience in the Way of Zen, or the vision which is making way in my mind.”
Some people think: “What will my family and friends say if they know that I have commited to Buddhism Zen?”
The shape that the doubt acquires in this moment varies depending on the person; what is true is that an important dilemma arises. The practicant feels like the protagonist of the following story:
“A person walks through a dessert plain. He/She seems to have plenty of time. He/She stops here and there. He/She looks at the flowers, lies down, stands up. Walks to the North, to the South, wandering aimlessly. Suddenly, he/she hears a horrifying roar at his/her back. He/She spins around and sees, terrified, that it is a horrible beast, half lion, half bull. The beast goes forward, threatening, towards him/her and starts running. He/She runs, runs and runs until exhaustion, but the beast follows him/her closer and closer. He/She runs, runs, runs and bumps into. When he/she bumps into, he/she falls in a bottomless cliff, but he/she is lucky for hanging onto some lianas which came from the wall. He/She hangs onto it with his/her teeth. The beast arrives at the edge of the cliff and, there, it sits waiting. The person looks down and sees with horror that, over there, there is an enormous snake with its mouth wide open, waiting for his/her fall to devour him/her. He/She cannot go up or down, or going back or forward. However, his/her jaw can resist a bit more. At that moment, when he/she realises that over the liana there are two mice. One is white and the other one is black. The white mouse is chewing the liana. The black one is chewing it too. The seconds are counted. Then, a master of Zen appears in a helicopter and asks him/her: “In this moment, what is the most important thing for you?”
What would you answer?
If you have any doubts, continue practicing zazen until the doubt has been dissolved. If you cannot dissolve it, ask for a personal interview with the master.
Doubt is one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. The moment it appears depends on every person: in some of them, it appears after a few days of starting with the practice; others appear after months, or even years, depending on the intensity and depth of each person's practice. The doubt itself could be of different intensity. In Zen, we sometimes talk about the Big Doubt. This Big Doubt appears in the critical moments where the culmination of a process of spiritual maturity is experimented. This Big Doubt is lived as a painful emotional and spiritual pain. It is as if we were walking and, suddenly, the ground opens under our feet. Backwards, we have the “old ground”, forward, we have “the new ground”, and we are in the middle with the abyss under our feet. What can we do?, go forward or backwards? It is precisely at that moment, when those who lack of enough determination and appropriate motivation usually leave the practice of zazen and the Way of Zen. There are also those who, without thinking, intuitively jump to the new land, to the other side.
In Zen, it is said:
Big doubt, Big enlightenment.
Small doubt, small enlightenment.
No doubt, no Enlightenment.
The Big Doubt cannot be solved through the intellect, but through the entirety of our existential being, beyond thought, through a spontaneous and intuitive creation.
The vision of the Three Treasures
The solution to the Big Doubt implies the determination of following the Way of Buddhas and Patriarchs, receiving their teaching, studying and practicing what they studied and practiced. It implies taking Budhha as our spiritual master and source of Inspiration; the Dharma as the Path, the Way, the Teaching to follow; the Sangha as the spiritual Community where to develop our own spiritual aspiration.
Lips, body, heart and spirit then say:
Veneration to Buddha.
Veneration to the Dharma.
Veneration to the Sangha.
To be guided, I go to Buddha.
Be my feet able to walk through the Way of the Awakening.
To be guided, I go to the Dharma
can my body-mind understand the Teaching
and obtain the Great Compassionate Wisdom
vast as the ocean.
To be guided, I go to the Sangha.
Can we all live in harmony
beyond selfish attachments.
This emotional and spiritual attitude is called Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) or entrance in the Trend. It is materialised in the Ceremony of Taking Refuge, which happens several times a year in the Temple Luz Serena, in the presence of the other members of the Community.
A tree has flowers, leaves, branches, trunk and roots. In the Way of Zen, too. Before entering the trend, we just saw the flowers, the leaves and the branches of Zen. We enter the trend, because we realise that these leaves, flowers and branches are hold by a trunk, and that trunk rises over the ground thanks to the strength of its roots. When we realise about this fact, it naturally raises the desire of being connected and rooted in the Way of Zen.
Zen becomes our Way.
The spiritual Way we want to go through.
To guide us in our walk, three stars appear:
The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Written by Dokushô Villalba,15th June 1989.
Revised and made possible,17th January 2012.