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.