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Reflections on the Evening Gatha

Let me respectfully remind you,

Birth and death are of supreme importance.

Time passes swiftly by and opportunity is lost.

We should all strive to awaken.

Awaken! Take Heed!

Do not squander your life.

I was contemplating the other day about this Gatha and several words in it stood out to me – they are opportunity, strive, awaken, heed and squander.

First, why opportunity? To me that is very simple. We have been given this incredible gift to actually practice. In a sense we are very privileged individuals. Yes, I know many of us face some remarkable challenges in our lives – whether it’s health issues, job frustrations, family problems, and I’m sure you can add to the list. Yet, how privileged we are to just be in this zendo. I look at the world around me and wonder how I would practice if I was a combatant in Ukraine, if I had to survive on a garbage pile in Cairo, if my community was ostracized and destroyed like the Rohingya, if I was drowning as my ramshackle refugee boat was sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, or my home was obliterated by a tornado. How would I practice if I was immersed in tragedies and suffering like those? In my case, probably not very well – I still have a lot of growing up to do, a lot of awakening to do. I guess that is the first noble truth – life is difficult and entails suffering and hardship. Definitionally, we can think of opportunity as a chance to progress or advance. I think of it in our circumstances as a gift – something that we receive freely. Yet, it is a gift with an invitation – to awaken.

However, between opportunity and awaken is the word “strive”. I have to strive, I have to make an effort, I have do something. Probably to Dogen “strive” would have been an important word. Consistently throughout all of his works he admonishes his students to ceaseless practice and training (striving). In fact, his longest fascicle by far in the Shobogenzo is #29 Gyoji, or On Ceaseless Practice. And, as Dogen makes clear through the many stories of Indian and Chinese Masters that he recounts, ‘practice’ does not refer to some fixed agenda but differs in form with each Master, and yet is recognizable as that person’s ceaseless practice. To me this is an important point – our practice, our striving, is unique to each one of us. Here is what he wrote in the introductory comments of the fascicle:

"The Great Way of Buddhas and Ancestors invariably involves unsurpassed ceaseless practice. This practice rolls on in a cyclic manner without interruption. Not a moment’s gap has occurred in Their giving rise to the intention to realize Buddhahood, in Their doing the training and practice, in Their experiencing enlightenment, and in Their realizing nirvana, for the Great Way of ceaseless practice rolls on just like this. As a result, the practice is not done by forcing oneself to do it and it is not done by being forced to do it by someone else: it is a ceaseless practice that is never tainted by forcing. The merits from this ceaseless practice sustain us and sustain others. The underlying principle of this practice is that the whole universe in all ten directions receives the merit of our ceaseless practice. Though others may not recognize it, though we may not recognize it ourselves, still, it is so."

Two things you might notice about Dogen’s “striving” or ceaseless practice is that it is neither forced by ourselves nor forced on us by others. It is just the doing – to my mind, quietly, calmly, and gratefully.

So, we go from opportunity and striving to awaken. Wow – I wonder how many Zen books have been written on that word. One assumption of course has been that we have been asleep, slumbering, dreaming, unaware, ignorant, deluded - and now we are called to wake up. And awakening for Buddha took many years of striving the hard way, of forcing it – and then he began to teach the better way.

I gave a talk a while back on the Satipatthana Sutta (or The Way of Cultivating Mindfulness). The whole Satipatthana Sutta is considered as the direct path to realization. Indeed, it starts like this: "This is the direct path, practitioners, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of nibbana, namely the four ways of establishing mindfulness." The direct path to realization - Realization – I like this word much more than “enlightenment.” Realization has a connotation of real, concrete, immediate, of being genuinely awake. Nothing esoteric or ephemeral, nothing I would term philosophical. - More like understanding or insight. - This is what it is, just real in these immediate circumstances, whatever those may be for each of us and seeing things just as they are.

Melvin McLeod, the editor-in-chief of Lion’s Roar magazine puts it like this : "The path (or in my terms cultivation or awakening) is both immediate and gradual. The immediate part is that the awakened mind is available to us in the present, in ordinary moments like this one. We can experience it right now if we look. The gradual part is that as we diligently (or ceaselessly?) follow the path the Buddha laid out (meditation, wisdom, and right living) the clouds of ignorance will gradually lighten and break up....More and more we see the sun of our true nature – wisdom, love, and joy – shining through, and in these moments suffering ends."

My next word is Heed – or PAY ATTENTION! Be here, be present. How do I take heed? We have had any number of dharma talks about that subject in terms of our meditation practice and I will not really delve much into it today. I am reminded of the story Doshin would tell of practicing sesshins with Muryo Roshi. In the middle of an extended meditation period, Muryo would just shout out to the students – PAY ATTENTION! If that didn’t wake you up, well. Robert Waldinger, Roshi, puts it this way: “The discovery of the large self happens for many of us through the simple meditative practice of being present. We experience a sense of spaciousness and interconnectedness that brings welcome relief from the sufferings of the small self.” Joko Beck adds, “Sitting is the simplest and most direct approach to experiencing life. But the purpose is experiencing life, not sitting.”

Outside of our meditation practice there is still the cultivation of mindfulness – probably a full-time job of paying attention, of experiencing life. I think this aspect of our practice really entails something important and that is taking care, or, again, paying attention to (as you often hear in our zendo) an appropriate response. Not only an appropriate response to others but also an appropriate response to what’s going on within ourselves, what’s going on in our own mind. A simple taking heed, a simple cultivating mindfulness.

Finally, I come to the word squander. I began with opportunity and now end with squander or you could say being wasteful. When we chant, The Identity of Relative and Absolute, we say, "listen those who would pierce this subtle matter – Do not waste your time by night or day.” We each have opportunity; we each have the gift of life and we are here on these cushions or chairs because we realize there is something better. There is something we can become. And we may discover that the becoming is not necessarily what we thought it might be – but rather that an ordinary life well lived is still a gift to the 10 directions – that the whole universe receives the merit of our ceaseless practice. Please, do not squander your life.

In gassho, Zochi


“There is a place...” a poem by Horaku

There is a quiet place

That whispers softly.

A place of welcoming

A rest for the disquiet.

You will have to break open

Risk your cherished beliefs

Of what is

And simply surrender.

It is a place of refuge shadowed by Divinity...

A place for your heart

To relinquish everything.

To speak of your failures

Your hopes & your dreams

Set adrift such burdens

Upon God’s unchanging light.

There is a quiet place

Where love reigns supreme

A place of conquering

Through the mighty power of grace

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