(These won’t be in-depth explications of each chapter – just comments on what in each chapter resonated the most with me and Zen practice.)
In Chapter 1, we got a glimpse of the Buddha just doing, being himself. Unremarkable, and yet by the very nature of its simplicity, shining like a beacon in a struggling world burdened with real and imagined complexities.
In Chapter 2, Subhuti asks the Buddha: “If a noble son or daughter should set forth on the Bodhisattva path, how should they stand, how should they walk, and how should they control their thoughts?”
In other words, maybe: “You’re walking the walk like a boss every day 24/7. I want a piece of that. How do you do it?” Like I used to wonder about Mister Rogers, or random other people throughout my life who seemed to be totally, authentically themselves and yet left no empty wrappers on the ground or other messes to clean up in their wake, no trace behind them.
I remember the tendency for me in the early years of Zen practice was to act Zen. I call it “walking on eggshells,” when I would walk around slowly and carefully, answer people with a smile or a knowing expression and maybe a few choice selected wise words. Eventually, usually within an afternoon, something would happen and I would immediately collapse back into my default reactions of anger, annoyance, worry … it wouldn’t take much to throw me out of “acting Zen,” which is what our daughters would call it when they spotted me doing it.
Perhaps one of the big hints as to how it’s done is in Chapter 1: “… he turned his awareness to what was before him.” No regretting a potentially better past, or restlessly struggling with wanting to get this out of the way and get to the next thing. Just paying attention. It’s so rare to find someone fully paying attention in our society currently, someone who is really listening to you or mowing their yard or washing their dishes or reading a book. Someone just paying full attention to what needs to be done right now, and then the same with the next thing and the thing after that.
Or maybe solving the world’s problems and relieving the suffering of billions of sentient beings isn’t just about paying attention. Maybe that’s a bit glib.
It’s not a bad place to start, though. Which is why, maybe, Zen teachers want us to spend so much time on the cushion, returning to your breath over and over when thoughts or other distractions arise. A simple but highly effective laboratory in paying attention. And perhaps everything flows from that simple exercise. Everything flows from the cushion.
So, mystery solved? And yet the Buddha and Subhuti discuss Subhuti’s question for 30 more chapters. I figure they have their reasons, and it’s likely to be interesting. So I’ll keep going, and turn my awareness to what they put before me.
But Subhuti also did something else important. He had a question. He didn’t think, ‘this is probably too stupid/naive/basic and I don’t want to waste the Buddha’s time.” He had a question, and he asked it. That’s as much a part of being a student as listening, or sitting. Not to think about the asking, but ask. Don’t set the question on a stand, walk around slowly and criticize it. Become your question, become your doubt. Ask with your whole body.
“Always helps to clear the air,” one of our teachers, Dosho Port, said once.
”Lead with the body,” another one of our teachers, Tetsugan Zummach Osho, reminds us.
Like right now. I’m just writing. Trying not to see the writing as something separate on its own, as something that needs editing or shape or a conclusion. Just being writing.