Wednesday, February 29, 2012

No Bullet Proof Zen

Today is Parinirvana Day, the 15th of February, a day on which millions of people around the world observe the anniversary of the death of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Here at City Center we had a beautiful ceremony, which we do at this time every year, in which we darken the zendo, and light a candle at each person's place, and read the sutra that recounts the Buddha's last days.

The Buddha was a person who had had the most profound of spiritual awakenings. And yet, he was simply a human being, subject to the fundamental condition of impermanence. Like all of us, the Buddha was subject to old age, sickness and death. Yet, this is a day of celebration because the Buddha clearly demonstrated his teaching in his own death. His last words were an encouragement to his students. He said, "All conditioned things are subject to decay. Practice earnestly to awaken." It's such an inspiration to me, because I see the Buddha not as a deity or a superhuman being, but as a person who showed us a path to freedom that we can all walk.

In the sutra that describes the Buddha's last moments it's said that some of his disciples tore at their hair, fell on the ground, and exhibited other extreme states of sorrow at their teacher's death. This is completely understandable. They had given their lives to follow this incredible teacher, and then he was gone. However, it also mentions that "those disciples who had let go of attachments reflected on the impermanence of all things, and wept softly." This is a great lesson, especially for practitioners of Zen. It is a teaching which clearly demonstrates that, even for the most admired practitioners, letting go does not mean not having feelings or not showing our feelings. Rather, the most advanced practitioners of the Buddha's day were those who could gently hold and express their emotions, while acknowledging the inevitability of change.

I'm struck by this because I think that it's easy to make the mistake of hoping that through practice we can become bullet proof.  You might think that if you sit zazen long enough or hard enough that you will have more control over your mind, so you won't have to deal with strong feelings anymore. Or you might think that achieving equanimity means that strong feelings will just stop coming up because your mind will become completely quiet. A few years ago, when I went through the very painful breakup of a relationship, I found that I too had fallen into this trap. I was surprised that it hurt so much and that I found myself crying a lot. Studying that a bit further, I realized that I held a subtle belief that because I had been practicing for a long time, I shouldn't feel so much pain. But that is not what the Buddha taught. The Buddha taught that you can feel the pain but still become completely free of it, free in the midst it, free by being at one with it.

I'm reminded of a time many years ago when my Master, Sekkei Harada Roshi, cried after the death of his dog. Even students who had been studying with him for decades were surprised, and wondered what that was all about. Roshi cried because of the loss of this being who had a companion to him, and he did so quietly and without wishing it to be different.

So let's not fall into the trap of bullet proof Zen, not fall into the trap of believing that zazen or anything else for that matter, will eliminate strong emotion from our lives. Instead, realize that strong feelings can and do happen, and when they do, we can gently accept them and express them and be free of them.

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