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Three Essentials of Zen Practice

Claude Anshin Thomas’ book, Bringing Meditation To Life, is a collection of short, practical Zen teachings. Chapter 10 is titled “Go Deeper Than Enjoyment” and served as the inspiration for a recent dharma talk. Anshin writes:

"Meditation is not about enjoyment. Go deeper than your ideas of enjoyment. Stay with it, stay with the process. Just settle, surrender, let go. Breathe into your abdomen, breathe out. Keep going, and don’t give up. Then you will begin to experience the benefit. Meditation brings you right into contact with your resistance.This is important. Resistance and doubt are an important and valuable part of the process. When you experience these so-called obstacles, just continue to sit and see what unfolds." This paragraph seems very simple, but it actually touches on three important foundations of Zen practice. Thomas talks about them as obstacles to overcome during zazen: the first obstacle to overcome is the idea of enjoyment, and that meditation is not about enjoyment. In other words, if you are using judging mind, and decide zazen is not enjoyable, abandon that idea, and just breathe. The second obstacle he mentions is resistance—he says meditation brings you right into contact with your resistance. Finally, he hints about doubt as the third obstacle —he kind of lumps it in with resistance, and calls both an important and valuable part of the process. He advises us in the last line of the paragraph: When you experience these so-called obstacles, just continue to sit and see what unfolds.

Personally, I don’t see these three so-called obstacles: judgement, doubt, and resistance as obstacles at all. Rather, he seems to be describing what Roshi Philip Kapleau described in his book, “The Three Pillars of Zen” as the Three Essentials of Zen Practice. Those Three Essentials are Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Determination. They can be applied and interpreted in various ways; I saw them as alive in Thomas’ paragraph in the ways I will share with you now, but there are many, many views of the Three Essentials to explore.

The overcoming of enjoyment, or lack thereof, regarding zazen—involves Great Faith. Sitting with pain; sitting with an unruly Monkey Mind; sitting and falling asleep; sitting and just not wanting to sit—calls for Great Faith. Great Faith in what? Great Faith in the tried and trueness of zazen, as demonstrated by all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, Matriarchs and Patriarchs that have gone before us. Remember, they were all human beings, just like us. It’s impossible for me to believe they enjoyed every moment of zazen, or that their minds were always engaged in each moment arising. Maybe they didn’t think about the laundry that needed to be done, or cleaning bathrooms, but I’m sure everyday tasks that were undone as they began sitting haunted them at some point in their practice. But their Great Faith in their teachers, their sangha, and the Dharma kept them going. It also led to the second Essential, Great Doubt. As I said before, Thomas lumps Doubt and resistance together. For the sake of clarity, I’ll just call it Doubt. Great Doubt can only arise in the light of Great Faith. So—you’ve decided to sit, and your mind has settled a bit, and you’re focused on your breath. SO WHAT. The rest of the world is a dumpster fire. Covid, hate, violence, poverty, injustice, human cruelty...the list is endless. And, by the way—the biggest questioning Doubt of all: what happens to me when I die? Who wants to think about all that? Especially when we’re supposed to be engaged in a practice that reveals the so-called “essential Buddha Nature” or the “Oneness of all Being.” We could spiritually bypass it all by just thinking about unicorns, rainbows, and butterflies, but that’s no solution. Great Doubt forces us to look at our practice as reality, in relationship to the wider world. Great Doubt prevents us from being too smug, too self-assured; it prevents us from using our practice to escape rather than engage the world. Great Faith and Great Doubt asks us to (as Thomas says) just continue to sit and see what unfolds. Roshi Kapleau calls that Great Determination. Great Determination allows us to continue practice, no matter what is going on around us. Great Determination is why we sit zazen with our eyes open—shutting out nothing, allowing everything to enter. Great Determination encourages us to practice with, as Roshi Joan Halifax says, “with a strong back and a soft front.” The soft front of Great Determination embraces all that is presented to us: the joy, the horror; difficulty and ease. The strong back of Great Determination provides the courage to never look away, to continue our practice within the world as it really is, not how we would like it to be. What unfolds for you in the midst of your Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Determination? With many bows Geido


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