Nowhere to go

This is the transcript of a talk I gave for the Zenways Sangha on the 27th of November 2022

I am very glad to be talking this evening, 27th of November. In 3 days, on the 30th of November, it would have been my mother’s birthday, she would have been 74. She died at the end of September this year. 

In this talk, this evening, I want to talk about my experience with difficult circumstances and Zen practice. Hopefully this can be of some help to all of us as I believe that our practice can ‘flourish’ when we are to face difficult situations.

One thing that I realised earlier on about Zen practice is that the practice is a 24/7 affair. We are invited to practice in all circumstances, all situations and in every moment of our life. Of course, there is what we consider our formal practice, Zazen, sitting meditation, Kinhin, walking meditation, Koan practice, Dyad practice but then we have our life experiences. We have our breakfast to make, we have our dishes to wash, we have our jobs, our families, our holidays, our beautiful experiences and, we also have challenging experiences. In each of this moment, we can deepen our practice, we can go to the source of all things, we can see clearly the impermanence of all things and we can clearly see where suffering stems from.

Practicing Zen is to practice being with things as they are, it is to see that there is nowhere to go but to remain with things as these are. We could tell that one of the elements of the practice consists of training ourselves to align totally with the reality of the present moment, totally. No split, no separation. In actual fact, we are already aligned with the reality of the present moment, whether that is what we might consider a pleasant experience or an unpleasant experience. However, the mind can easily create a split and fight against what is. Hence, our suffering. Once again, with the practice, we get to see very clearly that there is nowhere to go, the only thing we can do is to wholeheartedly participate to life as it happens, moment after moment. In that total participation, suffering disappears and life as it is simply… happens…. appears, unfiltered by likes and dislikes. 

Traditionally in Italy, when a person dies, we keep the body of the deceased person in the house until the day of the funeral. So, my mother’s body was in the house for 2 days before the actual function. In those two days I happened to stand for long periods of time in front of my mother’s dead body inside the coffin. The same person I was talking to just the day before, just few hours before, in fact. As I was standing there, in front of my dead mother, I could not help it but observing myself… my mind, going back and forth from disbelief, non-acceptance, wanting things to be different than they were……. to truly be present with the situation as it was…… which, of course, included my sadness, my disbelief, my wanting things to be different than they were. However, I just did my best not to get caught in any of these different emotions. Emotions were there, I offered them space to arise, I did my best not to run away from them or pretended that they were not there. What I found very helpful in those moments, was to stay with the physicality of these emotions, how they felt in my body rather than in my mind. 

In those days, but of course, even in these days, I felt very fortunate to have Zen in my life, to have something else to stand on, some other perspective. Not a fixed perspective, but a clear seeing into the source of all things, the impermanence of all things. A clear seeing into this impossibility to grasp things, to manipulate things, to distract myself in many different ways so that I don’t have to face a reality which I find unpleasant or difficult to accept. 

Zen practice continues under all circumstances and it can really help us in those difficult ones, at least, that is what it did for me. There is not a moment when I can say….. “ok, I am going to stop practising now”, or “I am going to separate myself from reality now, I will carry on when circumstances are ‘better”….. No, that is just not possible! We happen to live the life we happen to live; we happen to experience the experiences that we happen to experience, we can’t just pick and choose. As we stop trying separating ourselves from the reality we have in front of us, we stop suffering! The essence of our practice is about not picking and choosing, it is about seeing each moment as different but at the same time as being the same, whole and complete. The way to find this is not difficult when we stop picking and choosing, when we stop try to grasp something to make it ours. This includes Zen itself, not trying to grasp Zen either. Clearly seeing the practice itself for what it is, a method, a practice, a series of teachings, a direction towards “grasping” the ungraspable.

Moments of difficulties can be very conducive to our practice, to align to reality and find that place where things are ok. Seeing where suffering stems from and developing that skilful quality of not being tossed around by circumstances. Once again, what seemed to help was to remain with the physicality of the moment, how it felt in the body. 

The Buddha says this very clearly in the first and the second Noble Truth, life is suffering and that suffering, we create it by ourselves by not accepting things as they are. That, of course, doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t do anything to change ugly circumstances in our life, when we can, not at all. It simply means that fighting against the reality of things as they are happening…. not accepting them, create suffering! When I was standing in front of my mother dead body, it was definitely not easy to accept things as they were but, I clearly knew that I had to accept that wholeheartedly, I had to just rest in the reality of that moment, I was that moment, there was not a single thing I could do to change that. 

The Buddha says in the 3rd Noble Truth that suffering ends when we stop wanting things differently than they are, when we become very intimate with the causes of suffering. When we see the cause of our suffering clearly, we are giving ourselves a chance to meet the place where there is no suffering. Recognising suffering when it appears, becoming familiar with our impulses, thoughts, delusions and where these can lead towards. In that recognition there is the cultivation of our virtues. The recognition of both, our Buddha Nature and our delusions and seeing clearly how delusions can easily turn into our main source of suffering.  

The Buddha offered the eightfold path to develop understanding, wisdom and good skilful acting. In addition to that, Zen offers the teachings of all the ancestors and, luckily for us, the teachings and guidance of Shinzan Roshi and Daizan Roshi. The teaching helps to heal the split or sense of separation that we might experience in life. Daizan many times says, ‘this sense of little me against the big universe out there’. In reality, there is not a little me and the big universe, rather, there is what we consider this big One universe, this big bundle of active energy, this One organism which we are simply part of. However, to our eyes and perceptions, that might appear to be separated and can create the illusion of life and death.

Of course, I have no doubts about my mother’s death, the person I was talking to just a couple of months ago is no longer alive. However, with her passing I started contemplating the question, what is really life and death? Is it so clear-cut as it appears to be? Can this simple question about life and death help us to find the place where there is no suffering? Can I rest in a place where I can clearly see that my mother died and, at the same time, didn’t die? Well, the contemplation continues….

Sorry about the theme of this evening talk but I thought it was a good opportunity for me to remember my mum just 3 days before her birthday. Also, hopefully, by talking about my experience, I have reminded all of us that difficult circumstances are a very fertile ground for our own practice towards clear seeing, towards liberating ourselves from our ‘grasping’ mind. 

Now, we are going to do some walking and some sitting together. We could use this time to notice how things just arise and pass, just appear and disappear, how each moment is truly complete as it is regardless of what our mind is trying to convince us of. Thoughts are born and then they die, experiences are constantly being born and die, moment to moment. Let’s just try to do our best to stay with these elements being born and die without being tossed around or distracted by them. Just observing, just staying with things as they are, moment after moment. It is all in this noticing and in our patience, determination, resilience to stay just with it, undistracted, solid and soft at the same time. And, perhaps, when feeling distracted or tossed about by all of that, just simply coming back to the physicality of this present moment, simply resting in the sensations of the body. That will help to settle our mind again and will help us to go back to simply observing, noticing, becoming intimately aware of the causes of our suffering.