Gross. Give me my projections back.
I've been jogging a lot lately, and it makes me feel incredible. So I got to thinking: if I have vigorous exercise that makes me feel great, zazen, and a pretty good personal ethical system, do I really need this whole Buddhism thing? What's the use of "Buddhism" if I can be happy without it? I expected this to be a liberating question, but instead, it made me profoundly depressed, because the last ten years of my life-- and especially the last five-- have been utterly devoted to this practice.
But then this morning, in between sleeping and really waking up, I remembered the promise I made to myself when I ordained. The precepts for monastic ordination in Soto Zen Buddhism are the same as the equivalent ceremony for lay people, so there are no specific rules or vows for monks and nuns. However, what that ceremony personally meant to me, what I promised to myself when I shaved my head, was that Buddhism was going to be the focal point of my life.
I didn't vow to wear monastic robes. I didn't vow to shave my head my whole life. I didn't vow to be celibate or live in Japan or be poor or obedient. I didn't even vow to leave home. What I did do was receive the Sixteen Precepts and promise to make dharma practice the center of my life.
As soon as I remembered that, I felt as if something hard inside me had melted. It was an incredible relief, to feel space open up inside of me where before was a kind of closed, hard finality. Recognizing that my promise was about personal commitment-- and not about being perfect, good, or wearing, believing, or thinking anything specific-- gives me incredible freedom to continue practicing. When my promise to myself is about commitment, and not about perfection or a certain type of thinking, then the practice can be alive. It can move, change shape, and grow. It can continue.
When I was at Nisodo, I worked in the kitchen five months out of the year, every summer. The summer Ango is the most difficult Ango because it's the longest, and temperatures in the kitchen can rise to 35 degrees. There are no fans, air conditioning, and the kitchen crew works all day long on their feet. It's grueling, and since you're sleeping in a room with the same five women you work with, personality clashes are inevitable. The second summer I worked in the kitchen, I got in some really horrible, awful, screaming arguments with another nun.
The most important thing in Zen practice is to practice “no self.” Dogen Zenji said, “Even if you sit zazen until the floor breaks, if your zazen is from the ego then all your effort will be in vain.”
I’d like to use the following metaphor of water and ice. Water and ice are the same material, but ice is solid, and if water freezes in a cup you cannot put it into another container. If you try by force, both the cup and the ice will break. But water can be poured into any cup; it can flow through any tiny space. Water does no damage to its container. If you are using water to wash the floor, water becomes dirty in order to make the floor clean.
If you are like ice, then you can make other people turn to ice. Flowers and fish will freeze, too. But if you are like water, fish can live, people can swim, and boats can sail by...
Since we are all imperfect people, we often collide with others. On such occasions, we usually blame the opposite side. But think about it: if one side is like water, there is no conflict at all. If any trouble happens, it’s clear both sides are being like ice. So we can say that if seeing another person’s “ice” makes you realize you are also like ice, you can bow to that other person’s ice as Buddha.
If you do not realize that your selfish “ice” is harder and bigger than someone else’s, I think you cannot learn, or follow the Buddha’s wisdom, and your ice cannot be melted.
At the time, I thought "becoming like water" meant not taking myself so seriously and learning to not be "right" all the time. And of course, this is part of the teaching. But now I see that being "like water" is about much more than just avoiding conflict and arguments.
The word for "Zen trainee" in Japanese is unsui, which means "clouds and water." In the olden days, monks would travel from monastery to monastery with no fixed abode, and so they were thought to be like clouds and water, constantly in flux. "Clouds and water" is about physical transience, but also a kind of mental flexibility. This is the mind I want to have: a mind that keeps moving, that flows.
The mind that gives us space and flexibility to change our shape is a mind like water, and that's the mind I want to have. I don't want to be stuck in one way of being or viewing the world. I want to be in the position that is always moving. When I thought I was "done with Buddhism," the sad and painful part wasn't that I thought Buddhism was insufficient; the pain came from deciding, and knowing with certainty, that I was "done."
I do still want to take back my projections. I don't want to depend on external approval for my sense of self-worth. I want to stand on my own two feet. But I also want to be like water. I need to be like water, because it's too painful to be hard like ice. Can I "listen to myself" and "stand on my own feet" while still being selfless like water?
Actually, I think I can. I can "listen to myself" and still flow like water in the same way that I can hear the sound of a mountain stream. Just because it's flowing and constantly changing doesn't mean it's not there, and that I can't listen to it. And just because it's there doesn't mean it can't keep flowing and flowing and flowing.