TOMMY CHONG

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.

27 Responses

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  1. JustKeith
    JustKeith August 24, 2006 at 1:27 pm | |

    Thanks for this, Brad. It reminds me of what Shunryu Suzuki said in ZMBM about the different types of horses. We all want to be the best horses when it comes to Zen but he said that perhaps it’s the worst horses that actually learn and grow the most.

    It flys in the face of “common sense” but perhaps we shouldn’t strive to be the best horses.

  2. Justin
    Justin August 24, 2006 at 2:01 pm | |

    That particular model of success works in a lot of situations. But it isn’t applicable at all to Zen practice.

    What is the point of getting rid of dualistic good/bad or success/failure thinking in your Zen practice if you don’t get rid of it in the rest of your life? Surely Zen isn’t just something we do while we sit on a cushion?

  3. Reckless
    Reckless August 24, 2006 at 2:14 pm | |

    “What is the point of getting rid of dualistic good/bad or success/failure thinking in your Zen practice if you don’t get rid of it in the rest of your life? Surely Zen isn’t just something we do while we sit on a cushion?”

    Its hard to take that nondual approach off the zen cushion because we take intelectual consideration in to the things we do.

    Zazen is a non-intellectual practice.

  4. cromanyak
    cromanyak August 24, 2006 at 5:02 pm | |

    Thanks Brad! I’m gonna try real hard not to consder things next time I do Zazen, and hopefully it will make me feel very good.

  5. Jinzang
    Jinzang August 24, 2006 at 5:03 pm | |

    What is the point of getting rid of dualistic good/bad or success/failure thinking in your Zen practice if you don’t get rid of it in the rest of your life? Surely Zen isn’t just something we do while we sit on a cushion?

    Well, sure. You need to see though success and failure in daily life as well. But it’s easy to make a pretense of being unattached, beyond it all, and so on. Until you see the nub of the issue through your practice, there’s no way you won’t be attached. It’s better not to act as if you aren’t when you are.

    One Zen teacher said, “The biggest problem I have with my students is they try to be good instead of trying to be open.” What I understand this to mean is don’t put so much effort into trying to behave in a certain way, put the effort into seeing how you behave, because that seeing is what’s going to transform you.

  6. V.
    V. August 24, 2006 at 5:04 pm | |

    I feel much better about being such a fuck up.

  7. Lone Wolf
    Lone Wolf August 24, 2006 at 8:40 pm | |

    This is helpful advice. Because I start school soon, and in orientation I realize school is alot about being successful and thinking. So what I am understanding is that when I’m doing Zazen it’s time to not do anything but sit, and not be successful, just observe without consideration. But when it comes to projects like school and building Godzilla models, it’s okay to think and make effort to be successful. Anyone agree or disagree?

    I enjoyed your comment cromanyak.

  8. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe August 25, 2006 at 1:16 am | |

    Brad:
    ” 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.”

    Nicely put.

    Oxeye:
    “it’s okay to think and make effort to be successful.”

    Yes, for most thinks.

    But in Zen the object is to just BE. To JUST Sit. Whatever you are at that momemnt, to just be that.

  9. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise August 25, 2006 at 10:09 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise August 25, 2006 at 10:19 am | |

    Once again,
    in many more words,
    Brad has told us to sit down and shut up.
    I am glad he is so good at it.

    Thanks

  11. cromanyak
    cromanyak August 25, 2006 at 4:39 pm | |

    I noticed something kinda interesting today. When I first started praticing Zazen I really want to get enlightnment and really believed that one day I would, but now when I catch myself thinking that way it just reminds me that I need more Zazen.

  12. Wildman
    Wildman August 26, 2006 at 6:26 am | |

    Couple of things..

    I just moved house this week and was trying out my new spot for zazen. While I was sat staring at the wall I noticed in the grain left by the paint roller the word “ego” which made me chuckle.

    It was very small and I doubt I could find it again even though my cushion hasnt moved, just thought I’d share that.

    Also I find now after zazen in full lotus my right ankle is sore as hell and stays tender all day, anyone got any tips on how to reduce this? I’m only 27 so its not old age or anything. Should I stretch out first ?

    Cheers

  13. Reckless
    Reckless August 26, 2006 at 9:21 am | |

    Thanks Brad, this post meant alot to me and my practice.

  14. Reckless
    Reckless August 26, 2006 at 9:21 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. Reckless
    Reckless August 26, 2006 at 9:21 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. Reckless
    Reckless August 26, 2006 at 9:22 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  17. Momentarilysane
    Momentarilysane August 27, 2006 at 9:54 pm | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. Momentarilysane
    Momentarilysane August 27, 2006 at 9:55 pm | |

    I’m currently trying really hard to stop thinking about the fact that I am trying to NOT think about how I am thinking about not thinking, while sitting… only ever so rarely does it truly fade, this thinking, and there is no time, no focus, no thought – just sitting, breathing, the buzz of it all. Arrrgh! Frustration!

  19. JasonDL
    JasonDL August 31, 2006 at 6:35 am | |

    I seem to have read this at just the rioght time. ive been feeling like im not having much success sitting zazen recently, almost like I was more successful when ifirst started than now. Reading this helped a lot, thanks brad.

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  26. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 16, 2014 at 6:32 pm | |

    Yes indeed.

    I’d say that I have spent (and will spend) too much time wondering if I’m doing this sitting stuff right.

    At this point I am convinced one of the most useful moments of my sit is when I look at the clock and realize that there are still “n” minutes left to sit, “n” being some number greater than the minutes that I want to sit.

    The resulting disappointment (damn I was hoping I was done already) is always a jolt to the system and part of the downward spiral of accomplishment that is zen.

    If you’re happy with your practice you must be doing something wrong :-)

    Cheers.

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