Becoming a “professional” human

This is the transcript of a talk I gave for the Zenways Sangha on Sunday 28th of August 2022

In the last few weeks, I have been revisiting a couple of books I had first read some time ago. The first one is Wild Ivy – The spiritual autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. The second one is The undying lamp of Zen – The testament of Zen Master Torei. A passage in the first book inspired this talk this evening. The practice of Zen requires three essentials: a great root of faith, a feeling of great doubt, and a great, burning aspiration… The most important of the three is the great, burning aspiration. It goes on to say, what is a great burning aspiration? The intense arousing of the mind in fearless determination to move forward to deliverance. 

As I moved on to read the second book, The undying lamp of Zen, I came across a passage which is pretty much on the same wavelength as the first one. Torei is talking about Zen practice here: vowing never to give up until you attain penetrating insight into essential nature; vowing to remain sunk forever rather than entertain a single thought of retreat; vowing to go to hell rather than be deluded by popular teachings…. Vowing not to give up without penetrating progressive transcendence. 

This evening, in this talk, I want to talk about these very elements: aspiration, determination, vowing, never to give up and how these elements are, in my own understanding and experience, fundamental in our practice.  

In my youth, I was an aspiring professional cyclist and I knew very well what was required to have, in Hakuin’s words,the determination to move forward to deliverance. Many hours of training and practising were employed towards that goal. After all, a professional cyclist is a person who has developed certain skills which allow them to perform at a certain level in a more natural way compared to a person who doesn’t dedicate the same amount of time to train and practise. Professional cyclists or runners or people practicing any other sport professionally have not developed supernatural powers, they have developed, through practice and training, skills which allow them to perform as best as they can in their sport.

Now, I can see a parallel here with our practice as Zen practitioners, in many different ways. As far as I know, Zen practice doesn’t develop supernatural powers in us, however, it can help practitioners to be more skilful when it comes to act or perform as humans. For example, acting in ways that do not cause suffering for oneself and for other people. Or, seeing things as they really are, rather than as we wish they were and act accordingly to this clear seeing. 

So, how can we become, or aspire to become “professional” humans? Of course, “professional” here is intended as the best possible me that I can possibly be and not some sort of imaginary and special person created by the imagination of my own mind. Let’s see how these elements: aspiration, determination, vowing, never to give up can help us in this.

If you have heard talks from our teachers Shinzan and Daizan, most likely you have heard them saying that the fundamental priority of our practice is Kensho. Kensho is to know our true self. Clearly seeing one’s true nature. In the passage from Torei I read, Torei says: vowing never to give up until you attain penetrating insight into essential nature. Of course, once we have clearly seen that, we are less likely to act selfishly. Once we have seen that our true nature pervades all things, we, I guess, are more likely to act in such ways that benefit all sentient beings rather than just me, just us. We clearly see that all is interconnected, no separate and what I do, say, think has an effect on everyone/everything else. 

So, Kensho is very important but how to realise that? The elements mentioned earlier, aspiration, determination and vowing play a very important role in this, they are the energy igniting the whole process of awakening and the energy that maintains that process alive.  

You remember, Hakuin said: The intense arousing of the mind in fearless determination to move forward to deliverance. That determination is very important, that total aspiration to work towards becoming a better human, a useful human. 

I am sure that you have heard Daizan giving instructions for Zazen, for sitting meditation. Body upright and relaxed, first you might want to use the breath to settle the mind, to anchor your awareness but then, little by little you can just rest and relax in this open awareness whilst allowing thoughts, memories, sensations, feelings to arise and pass. Doing our very best not to get caught in the elements arising, not to engage with these elements, just stay with things as they are without getting involved. A simple practice but not an easy one, especially if we don’t set a strong intention, we don’t have that determination, we don’t vow to ourselves to do our very best to just sit whilst things keep arising and pass. And, I see why Hakuin calls it fearless determination. At times, and here I can very well speak of my own experience, the stuff that comes up can be scary. Stuff that I could easily feel totally ashamed to share with others. Stuff that would definitely not make me proud of myself. Or, certain emotions can be scary. Some of them, it seems they can pull us into a very dark place. And, of course, that strong resolution, that strong intention, determination, that aspiration to clearly see the reality of things in front of us and not being pulled in by this mental stuff plays a very fundamental part in our practice as we want to develop more skilful ways to act as humans. 

More and more, we learn to engage with what is really in front of us rather than being pulled in by our distracting and, in some cases destructive mental activities. We clearly see the nature of our own mind and how to best deal with it. You remember what Torei said? vowing to remain sunk forever rather than entertain a single thought of retreat. We are learning not to be controlled by our own mind but, of course, being able to use the vast potential of our own mind to act as best as we can in each and every moment. That is the potential benefit we can obtain from Zazen to move forward to deliverance and potentially realise our true self and clearly see our true nature.

However, Zazen, sitting meditation, is only one of the practices we do, it is one dimension of this multi-facets Zen practice. Along with Zazen, we can practice Do-Zen, moving Zen. In other words, bringing the physical and the mental elements together, harmoniously. Of course, when there is no split in us, when we bring the physical and the mental together, there is no split, no separation with anything else.  

In Zen practice, a key element to practice this no-separation is nari-kiru. I believe that the literal translation is to become cut off or, as I like to think of it, becoming completely. In my own understanding and the way I practice nari-kiru is to cut off all the useless, dualistic, lazy, opinionated thinking and just be 100% the action I am performing. When I am out cycling, I do my very best to be 100% cycling, not giving way to idle thoughts, stories, fantasies, speculations popping into my head but simply just cycling. In that moment, I am being cycling, no matter what is going on in my mind, no matter how I feel, what I think, what I did in the past on my bike, what I wished I did on my bike and so on. I am being cycling as total as I can be in the present moment. Of course, I do fail many times, and many times I need to remind myself of my own practice, of cutting off useless thoughts, of being completely what I am doing. I need to constantly remind myself to come back again and again

from the persistent delusion of the mind. That is our practice and can be easily applied to anything we do. Cycling is just an example but it could be driving, walking, talking, listening, washing dishes. What happens when we are totally the action we are doing, when we totally cut off the idle thinking, the mental stories, the speculations, the anticipations and so on. What are we really when that happens? When the mental activity is not at the forefront and only the action we are performing is left? Again, I want to repeat this once again because I believe that it is the most powerful energy in our practice. This energy as clearly pointed out by Zen Master Hakuin and Zen Master Torei is our determination, it is the great burning aspiration, the vowing to clearly know our true nature and to taste no-separation. This determination, this burning aspiration is what can facilitate our realisation, our own awakening which in turns can inspire our actualisation, acting as best as we can as a human being, as a human who acts to benefit all, to benefit everyone and everything. 

Perhaps, now, whilst practising walking and sitting mediation, let’s see if we can connect with this aspiration. Connect with the intention to see clearly what we really are, to clearly see what our true nature is and to understand the nature of our own mind. Having the determination and perhaps to vow to ourselves that we are going to sit with things as they are, no matter what. Relaxed, with gentleness, compassion towards ourselves and what might arise and fearlessly, as Hakuin is encouraging us to do.