Peace of Mind

Kodo Sawaki said, “You lack peace of mind because you’re running after an idea of total peace of mind. That’s backwards. Be attentive to your mind in each moment, no matter how unpeaceful it might seem to be. Great peace of mind is realized only in the practice within this unpeaceful mind. Real peace of mind only exists within unpeaceful mind. It arises out of the interplay between peaceful and unpeaceful mind.”

Kodo Sawaki was my teacher Gudo Nishijima’s first Zen teacher. 

I don’t know if it’s good or bad for me to add my own comments to what Sawaki Roshi said. It’s perfect as it is. Nevertheless, I will add some imperfections.

When I started doing zazen, peace of mind was one of the things I wanted to achieve. And so, when doing zazen, I would keep referencing an idea of what I imagined peace of mind felt like. Then I’d compare my own state to that idea. Of course, my actual state of mind always fell short of the peaceful state I imagined, which led to a lot of frustration and feeling like I was doing zazen all wrong.

Or else I’d attempt to force myself into a state that resembled what I thought peace of mind would feel like. I found a few ways to kind of stop thoughts. But those seemed to work like when you bend a hose to keep the water from coming out. As soon as you unbend the hose, the water comes out twice as forcefully. That’s what happened with my thoughts whenever I relaxed the tight mental grip I had on them. They all came rushing out and I got soaked.

“You lack peace of mind,” says Sawaki Roshi, “because you’re running after an idea of total peace of mind.” Your idea of peace of mind gets in the way of actual peace of mind. I couldn’t see the peace that was already there because I kept focusing on my idea of peace. I kept insisting to myself that I was not at peace.

“Be attentive to your mind in each moment, no matter how unpeaceful it might seem to be,” he says. Don’t worry about the fact that your real state of mind doesn’t match what you think a mind at peace should feel like. Just stick with what is actually there.

“Great peace of mind is realized only in the practice within this unpeaceful mind,” he says. The peace you seek is already there. Peace and silence is the ground upon which your noisy unpeaceful mind rests. It’s there underneath all of the noise. And it’s far bigger than the noise, the way that the planet Earth is much bigger than you who are sitting on it.

Noise can never compete with silence. It tries to. You may even get fooled into thinking it has succeeded. But the silence that surrounds the noise is infinite. The noise is just a small disturbance within the infinity of silence, like a stormy planet floating in infinite space. “Real peace of mind only exists within unpeaceful mind,” Sawaki Roshi says.

 “It (peace of mind) arises out of the interplay between peaceful and unpeaceful mind,” he says. This almost sounds contradictory. But it’s not. Your unpeaceful mind is actually one small part of the peace you’re seeking. I once thought unpeaceful mind and peaceful mind were two different things. It was a shock to discover that they were two sides of the very same thing.

Kobun Chino, my first Zen teacher’s teacher, said, “The only special technique is total self-acceptance, with one’s total self—the total self-acceptance of where you are, your birth, the world, the whole thing. Otherwise, you cannot sit, even for one minute.”

That’s hard to do. Total self-acceptance may be the most difficult part of Zen practice. It only takes about three minutes to teach someone how to do zazen, but it takes decades for the practice to mature. This is because we resist accepting ourselves. We always want to be better. And maybe in a lot of ways we really can improve ourselves. 

Self-improvement may come as a nice by-product of the practice of zazen. But zazen is not for self-improvement. It is for self-acceptance. Once you accept what you are, you can begin to make changes. Before that, any change you try to make is based on a false idea.

Stop seeking peace of mind. Look directly at the peace of mind you already have.


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October 8, 2019 7:00pm LIVE Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen Podcast at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland Cleveland Heights, Ohio

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