Last night I visited a couple friends out in Woodland Hills which is way off in the hinterlands of the Los Angeles area, in the famed Valley (as in Valley Girls). So anyway, when I was driving home, I turned on the radio and that show Love Line was on. The guest was Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame.
So, Chong is talking about his recent arrest for having put his likeness on a bong. The host asked something like, “Do you have any regrets?” or one of those type of questions. And Tommy answered, “No. You only learn from your mistakes. You never learn anything from your successes.”
I thought that was a pretty brilliant line. It’s particularly applicable to what I’ve been ranting about here lately. Most people, when they do some kind of meditative practice like Zazen, hope to be successful at it. And while our friends in Scientology and others guarantee their techniques will bring success, a decent Zen teacher never promises anything of the sort. In fact, if you take the Buddhist view on what Tommy Chong said, it could be that the real definition of success is any experience from which you don’t learn anything valuable.
When we define an experience as having been successful, what we mean is that we envisioned a particular outcome we’d like to achieve, we made our efforts in that direction, and in the end we got something like what we wanted. A couple months ago, I bought a Billiken Godzilla model, I followed the instructions and voila! I now have the completed model sitting on my chest of drawers. The arms aren’t quite flush to the body and the paint job I did on the teeth isn’t exactly as I’d hoped. But I’m pretty satisfied that I successfully completed the project.
That particular model of success works in a lot of situations. But it isn’t applicable at all to Zen practice. It’s a real shame when people do apply it to Zen, and a whoooooole lot of people do, because it completely misses the point of the practice. It may be that the times you feel least successful in your sittings are the most valuable while the times that Zazen feels successful are times when you’ve gone wrong in the practice.
What you are doing in Zazen is quietly and carefully studying whatever happens to be going on at the very moment of your practice. And by “studying” I don’t mean intellectually considering it. You study yourself by allowing yourself to be exactly as you are without any consideration. Consideration can only get in the way. It’s a distraction. Even considering your breath is a distraction from practice. Any effort you make to become calm, clear, Enlightened, Awakened, have an “Opening experience” or whatever you call it, is just a distraction from real practice.