I know I promised an article about jukai, the precepts ceremony. But someone wrote in with this question and I’d like to try and answer it:

How does one reinvigorate one’s practice after losing the illusions that brought one to practice in the first place? That’s where I’m at now. I originally practiced hoping to get to “some place better than this one,” or at least to be able to “have it all figured out”; I now despair of either one and so I ask myself, “Why sit?” I’m slowly finding my way back to practice, and sitting with sanghas is helping, but when it comes to sitting at home, I continue not to do it for one of many months in a row. I figure that this–getting the ass on the cushion day after day–is your area of expertise, so I ask: what’s the motivation when the old motivations are gone?

This is a tough one. Illusions are inexhaustible, they say, yet we’re supposed to vow to end them all. Illusions about practice are the worst. What this questioner doesn’t say here, but what I’ve heard from her before is that a lot of her disillusionment stems from seeing her teachers as less than perfect. What she wants, like all of us, is perfection. What she’s seeing from her teachers isn’t perfection. So I’d like to address that question first.

In the old days we didn’t know a whole lot about famous people like kings or poets or great spiritual masters. All we would know about a Zen teacher would be that she lives in a temple up in the mountains. We might hear glorious stories from her students or scandalous rumors from those who had left her monastery. But even this information was scarce and what we did hear didn’t amount to a whole lot.

So we invented their lives in our minds. We imagined what they might be like. But the only way to know what was true was to go to the monastery, sit out on the porch for seven days in the snow and sleet until they let you in, work your way up to the point where you could actually have personal contact with the master and then you’d find out what she was like.

By the time you got through all of that you’d have developed a personal relationship. So when you saw the teacher pick her nose, or smelled the fart she silently let out as she sat on the cushion next to you, you’d already be well familiar with a whole lot of other things about her. You’d already know if she was a good teacher or not, and so whatever faults you discovered would be part of a much larger and richer picture of her.

It’s the same as with any friendship. Bob helped you move out of your house, he was there when your dog died, he sat through your daughter’s awful performance as Tevya in a second grade version of Fiddler on the Roof. So what if he doesn’t trim his nose hairs? And that rake he borrowed seven years ago but never gave back? Big deal.

But nowadays it’s harder for famous people to hide the things they want to hide. In the early sixties it was possible for John Lennon’s marriage to be kept secret from the public. By the end of the sixties no one could keep that kind of thing under wraps anymore. We know Richard Baker, Chogyam Trungpa and Dainin Katagiri were evil! We’ve read it in books!!! And that Brad Warner! Oh. My. God.

What you know about any given celebrity — spiritual masters and rock stars alike — is mostly bullshit. It’s all how their image has been manipulated — by themselves, by others, by you. It would be possible to construct a biography of Hitler that was 100% factual and made him look like a saint. And you could construct an equally true biography of Gandhi that made him look like the worst louse that ever walked the earth. You’d just have to carefully choose which facts you included and which you left out.

I spent a lot of one-on-one time with my teachers and that’s how I got to know their character — not through books or blog postings or videos on YouTube. Those tell you next to nothing about a person’s true character. No matter how many of them you read or watch. Whatever picture you have in your mind of people you see on your computer screen is false. Absolutely fictitious. You don’t have a clue.

My first Zen teacher used to eat a couple cloves of raw garlic every day. It was something he did for his health. Who knows where he got the idea? But whenever I spoke to him I could smell it oozing from his pores. It wasn’t an unpleasant odor. But to this day I still associate the scent of raw garlic with Zen. You can’t smell a teacher through a computer screen or the pages of a book. A celebrity teacher can’t eat popcorn with you and watch reruns of The Prisoner on a little black and white TV with a 6 inch screen. A teacher in a book doesn’t lean on your shoulder after falling asleep on the Bullet Train home from Shizuoka. The reasons why you can’t learn Zen from books and the Internet are too many to count. You can get introduced to it from books and the Internet. But it’s no place to study.

What our questioner today has seen has convinced her that there is nothing to this Zen shit, that even after 20+ years of practice its teachers are still not perfect people. So why bother?

And it seems to go even beyond that for her. She despairs that she will never find the answers she seeks – even if she understands those answers won’t make her a perfect person.

I’ll tell you a story about that. One day, at a retreat in Tokei-in, I was talking to Nishijima Roshi. I can’t remember the whole conversation. But I remember I was coming from a place like our questioner. I’d been sitting every day for at least ten years and yet I had no answers. I was about to give it up completely. And I told Nishijima, “I want to know the source of the Universe!”

I don’t recall what words he used. But he told me something like, “You will.”

So I got back on my cushion and sat some more. And several years later his promise came true.

But what really happened at that moment when he said those words to me? An elderly Japanese man told a 30-something American idiot that he could — even with his own idiotic American mind full of punk rock, science fiction movies, Penthouse centerfolds and all the rest – understand the source of everything. And that American idiot believed the old man.

Why did he believe the old man? I’m not sure. I guess it had to do with trust. I knew the old man wouldn’t steer me wrong. By then I knew full well he was no saint. I saw the old man’s students bickering with each other. I saw the old man himself do things I didn’t entirely approve of. I heard him express opinions I could not agree with. I was there when he burped and when he farted. I knew he sometimes – gasp! — fell asleep on his cushion during early morning zazen.

But I trusted him. I knew that whatever else he did, he always told me the truth. And that’s what counted. I knew him more than as a teacher. I knew him as a friend.

Whatever I can be to people on these pages and in my books and suchlike, I can’t be that kind of friend to everyone who reads what I write. I won’t pretend to even try. I hope people enjoy my work, that it motivates them and makes them laugh. But that’s about it.

As far as sitting after having lost your illusions about what sitting will do, there is only one solution. Just sit. That’s all. Use your illusions. Sit with them.

For what it’s worth, I can assure you that if you do this long enough and with sincerity the answers you seek will become abundantly clear.

Sharing is caring! Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg this

174 Responses

Page 4 of 4
  1. Mr. Reee
    Mr. Reee October 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm |

    If I may be so bold, I'd say Buddhism does not offer comfort of any kind. Not in the comfort business.

    A buddhist, however, might say 'go see a doctor' instead of holding a hand or such, because it's all about action and trying to do what needs to be done, without a lot of comment or analysis. In this case, maybe writing down the phone number of a pain specialist might be the way to go?

    Explaining the pain in philosophical terms is likely to do little except annoy.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous October 5, 2009 at 8:54 pm |

    Anon@ 3.24
    mindfulness based stress reduction

  3. Justin
    Justin October 5, 2009 at 10:40 pm |

    Anonymous @ 3:19 PM

    but is there any true human comfort in the Zen tradition?

    mtto said
    In my experience, what Zen can offer your friend is your presence. Don't try to come up with something special to say, just really be with her. That might mean listening, or telling her jokes to distract from the pain, or just being quiet together or something else.

    Based on my own experience with a wife with a sensitive nature and an anxiety condition I completely agree. Just be there, just listen, just understand and care.

    And yes mindfulness based stress reduction may be suitable

  4. Smoggyrob
    Smoggyrob October 5, 2009 at 10:47 pm |

    Hi everyone:

    …what Zen can offer your friend is your presence. [snip] …just really be with her.



  5. hendrik
    hendrik October 6, 2009 at 1:57 am |

    Another thing to look into is food. You may want to experiment a bit, leaving some things out of your diet to see if it makes any difference.

  6. Justin
    Justin October 6, 2009 at 3:38 am |

    I assume also that she has seen medical professionals about this?

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous October 6, 2009 at 5:26 am |


    Thanks for the suggestions so far.

    Do she have doctors? Yes -"She has a gaggle of doctors and physical therapists tending to her body, "

    MBSR is not an understandable term. It takes quite a few lectures to get into the meaning of "mindfulness" alone, much less how it might relieve stress. That is a solution not a comfort.

    "Just really be with her" may be the only comfort. But that is more an instruction for me than a comfort for her.

    Is there nothing to tell her about her situation that is easy to understand and amounts to "good news" if not comfort?

    This all seems so cold and sterile. How can I possibly "save all sentient beings" if I can't talk to them in accessible ways that have a positive impact now (rather than after 20+ years of cold sterile practice)?

  8. hendrik
    hendrik October 6, 2009 at 6:03 am |

    This is how Nishijima Roshi sums it up:

    (1) Don't have intention to overcome pain.
    (2) Don't fear pain emotionally.
    (3) Accept pain as it is.
    (4) Just endure pain at the present moment.

    The article is here.

    Zen is not about spirituality; it's about acting realistically.

    If your friend has chronic pains despite the attentions of a gaggle of doctors maybe she should look elsewhere.

  9. Justin
    Justin October 6, 2009 at 7:00 am |

    Is there nothing to tell her about her situation that is easy to understand and amounts to "good news" if not comfort?

    I think there is a time for reassurance, but what 'good news' could you give her without lying?

    Mindfulness is essentially just paying attention without judgement – if she meditates she'll understand that. But, yes more in-depth work takes some time.

    This all seems so cold and sterile. How can I possibly "save all sentient beings" if I can't talk to them in accessible ways that have a positive impact now (rather than after 20+ years of cold sterile practice)?

    You cannot instantly magic away other people's pain. Just being there for someone makes a real difference.

    In my experience, telling someone to 'just accept it' or coming out with glib Buddhist 'wisdom' can just add anger and frustration to the pain, they may not be in the best state of mind to receive it.

  10. Aaron
    Aaron October 6, 2009 at 7:16 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. gniz
    gniz October 6, 2009 at 7:17 am |

    "This all seems so cold and sterile. How can I possibly "save all sentient beings" if I can't talk to them in accessible ways that have a positive impact now (rather than after 20+ years of cold sterile practice)?"

    Thats the thing, though. Sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do with someone in pain or suffering is to really be there for them, to kind of suffer along with them. Not like a martyr, but as a good friend. Why do you think there are so many support groups, such as cancer support groups and so forth where people who suffer can come together and share in their similar situations? That is comfort. to know that you arent alone.

    Maybe…maybe you can suggest a support group, if there is one that fits the bill–and these days, there probably is.

    But your friend might not want to hear anything. Sometimes, saying "I know you'll get through this" helps–but its situational. It depends on where they are at and what they want. Sometimes you can even ask–what can i do that would help you right now?

    Anyway, there is no magic bullet answer and buddhism wont give you one either, in my opinion. Some jokers will quote useless scripture cuz thats all they know.


  12. gniz
    gniz October 6, 2009 at 7:23 am |

    Also, in my opinion, where buddhism or meditation comes into play is that hopefully its given you the ability to respond fluidly to situations as they arise, not having rigid preconceived notions about what you should say or not say or what is the "thing to do."

    My teacher would respond so fluidly and differently depending on when or how I asked him questions, or came for help…i could never predict his answers or how he might approach a subject.

    There is still no substitute for critical thinking, life experience, and kindness.

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous October 6, 2009 at 8:03 am |

    "Some jokers will quote useless scripture cuz thats all they know."

    Subtly destructive Gniz.. Work in a few shots under the guise of compassion. You are good.

  14. gniz
    gniz October 6, 2009 at 8:09 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. gniz
    gniz October 6, 2009 at 8:10 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous October 6, 2009 at 9:11 am |

    Thanks all for your continued advice. This situation really brings me to wonder how "false" comforting is, or isn't. When I think of all the contemporary Christian services I've attended where very sentimental songs are song. They really do help people feel better. Though they initially may come across as "false" and fairy tales they are no more false, I think, than koans or stories of the Zen patriarchs. To the extent Zen only admits the truth of now experienced without "picking and chosing" it must reject Christian and Zen liturgy equally.

    Perhaps the most compassionate thing I could do as a Buddhist, is to be with her in the moment, and take her to an uplifting Christian service. After all, the mind leads the body. If she can feel the joy that Christians seem to have such a good handle on, maybe she will have real relief in her body too.

    {The above makes me sound like some sort of Christian mole with an alternate agenda. That is not the case. I have experience in both traditions and am truly striving to understand "right action" etc…. in this case}

  17. Thing 1
    Thing 1 October 6, 2009 at 9:15 am |

    Ryokan was cool. He liked to play. I think he knew "joy." I wonder what his advice would be?

  18. Pirooz M. Kalayeh
    Pirooz M. Kalayeh October 6, 2009 at 9:17 am |

    Great post, Brad! Loved it!!

  19. gniz
    gniz October 6, 2009 at 10:38 am |

    Hey, again just my 2 cents. taking her to a christian service might be great–but in my opinion, you should be cautious about taking someone to something or lecturing them or anything that they dont want to do, simply because you have an agenda of helping them.

    I think your heart is in the right place, so ultimately you will do what works–but be careful not to burden your friend with your own psychological needs in this situation.

    You need to find out what your friend most needs, wants, it might be something simple from you. Let go of your own ideas about what helping is and discover what your friend's idea of helping is.

    It will be different for each person and might surprise you.

    Sincerely, Aaron

  20. mtto
    mtto October 6, 2009 at 10:57 am |

    9:11 AM,

    Maybe ask her what she would like to do, instead of deciding for her. One of the difficulties of having medical problems, like chronic pain, is it makes you feel out of control. Trying to fix her like she is a problem will only make it worse. She is not a problem to be solved.

    "Would you like to go to a religious service of your choosing?" instead of "I'm taking you to X to make you feel better."

    Also, it is not true that Zen rejects Zen liturgy. Have you ever been to a Zen service? A lot of convert Buddhists are hesitant to attend traditional Buddhist services. If you are interested in Buddhism, I highly recommend attending services in whatever tradition interests you. Zen isn't just something you read about.

  21. Plaudertasche
    Plaudertasche October 6, 2009 at 11:56 am |

    "How does one reinvigorate one's practice after losing the illusions that brought one to practice in the first place?"
    I love that question! What do you do when you realize this is all an illusion? When our practice got us to realize, there is no Nirvana-Hana baby, right here and now is IT. That sure can be a downer…after all we anticipated some fireworks and fanfares, didn't we?! This is it here, now.I say enjoy it otherwise you miss it(!) Don't sweat to get anywhere…you end up at the same place anyway: here/now. I think the issue is people "sit" "pray" take drugs in order to "get somewhere other then here/now" May be they should asked themselves first of all "what is so wrong with being here and now?"
    I say after you realize what IS, keep doing what makes this ride more enjoyable. I think sitting is a big part of that enhanced enjoyment, so keep doing it. If you want to get somewhere else, keep on spinning your wheels.

  22. Jinzang
    Jinzang October 6, 2009 at 1:03 pm |

    Yes, there's only the here and now. BUT our understanding of the here and now is deficient, clouded over by our false conceptions. Even a couple of years of sitting doesn't change that, it takes time to see through them. We can easily mistake what we understand now to be the end of the path. Ultimately what we understand is that all of samsara and nirvana has a single root.

    Yes, enjoy the here and now, BUT how we understand enjoyment changes as we progress on the path. As long as the enjoyer, the enjoyment, and the thing enjoyed are seen as different, we still don't understand enjoyment.

  23. Dan_Brodribb
    Dan_Brodribb October 6, 2009 at 3:16 pm |

    Say what you will about the comments section here, it's a free-flowing range of topics.

    Keeps me coming back for more.

  24. Plaudertasche
    Plaudertasche October 7, 2009 at 9:27 am |

    You can make your life experience as complicated or simple as you like.
    That is the beauty of your illusion!
    Its all in the level of how much fight you put up 🙂
    The more you resist the more complicated it is. The less you resist, the simpler it is. Try sitting for no reason at all, just for the experience of it, see what a shift that brings in you mind.

Comments are closed.