Just Sit Down
One of my favorite Zen stories concerns a monk who is tired of the rigors of monastic practice and wants out of the monastery. He goes to the teacher and this dialogue ensues:
“I can’t take this anymore. I want out.”
The master said, “Okay, then leave.”
He started for the door, and the master said, “That’s not your door.”
“Oh. Sorry.” The fellow looked around and spotted another door. As he headed for it, the master said, “That’s not your door.”
“Oh!” He looked around for another door, and as he headed for that one, the master said, “That’s not your door!”
Bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said, “What do you mean? There’s no other door. You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by.”
“If there’s no door you can leave by,” said the master, “then sit down.”
The master isn’t playing games with the monk. The master is pointing to something deeper, something basic about our lives: there’s no way out. Though the monk could leave the monastery, he can’t leave his life. He can’t always avoid what he finds unpleasant; nor can he always have what he finds pleasant. Life, inevitably presents us with things we don’t like as well as things we do. Dogen says, “Flowers fall amid our longing; weeds flourish in our loathing.”
There are no doors, no exits out of Reality. Years ago, I remember there was a musical called “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.’’ I also remember someone saying, “There are no timeouts in the universe.” There are times all of us would like to “get off” the world or take a timeout. But life simply doesn’t work that way. As the title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”
If you lose your job, at that moment, there you are. If you’re stuck in traffic, there you are. Whatever is happening is happening. The present moment is as it is. You can’t change it or escape from it, no matter what you do. Reb Anderson says, “Once we realize that there is no alternative to the present moment, we are on the path to Buddhahood.”
Reality is stubbornly before us no matter how much we want out, no matter how wealthy or powerful we are, no matter what level of spiritual development we attain. If you recall the life of the Buddha, on his search for a way out of suffering, he studied with many of the teachers of the day and achieved very high spiritual states. But those didn’t satisfy him. No matter what lofty spiritual realms he visited, he always came back to the suffering of his life. Wherever you go, there you are.
Of course, our minds are such that we try very hard to escape. We distract ourselves with TV, the internet, video games; our minds go over and over situations, regretting what we wished we hadn’t done, worrying about what will happen, and on and on. We have this belief that somehow, some way, we can “beat the odds” and win the jackpot of a trouble-free life.
But just like the monk in the story, we cannot leave. Ultimately, we are still faced with the realities of our lives. No matter how hard we try to avoid them, we are still faced with life’s ups and downs. Moment to moment we are in our lives.
Besides, do we ever really know whether what happens is good or bad? If we lose our job, might we get a better one? If a spouse leaves us, might we start to develop our independence? There’s a well-known story about a farmer which speaks to this point: [story of farmer and neighbor]
We project futures—either positive ones or negative ones—and believe in our own projections. So, we will either worry about or joyfully anticipate something that may or may not happen.
Recently, I had a door handle come off my car. I took it to my auto repair people and they fixed it. When I got it back, however, the automated locking system no longer worked. When I discovered this problem, it was too late to go back to the repair place. This gave me a whole evening to fret. What had the repair people done? Had they broken something? Would they take responsibility? Would it cost me a fortune to get it fixed? I did my best to let go of these worries.
The next day I took the car back in. They discovered the problem: a blown fuse. They fixed it for free.
My guess would be that nine out of ten times, what we worry about or fear never comes to be.
So, if we can’t escape what is, what are we to do? We should just sit down. “Sit down” can refer to sitting meditation, zazen. So the teacher is telling the monk to continue his practice. And what is our practice? Paying attention. When we do zazen, we follow our breath and let thoughts and feelings come and go. When we forget our breath, we come back to it, return to awareness. Or we might do the practice of shikan taza, just sitting, coming back time and again to awareness. Literally, just sitting.
Zazen, is stopping and taking an honest look at what’s going on in our minds without avoidance, grasping, or judgment. But zazen isn’t limited to the cushion. Dogen says, “Sanzen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.” Practice means paying attention, being mindful every moment whether we’re sitting, standing, lying down, talking, working at our job. Just as in formal sitting, when we get lost in thought, we come back to whatever we’re doing whether it’s washing the dishes, talking to a friend, solving a problem—we just return. In fact, what we call “practice” is not some technique, an overlay on top of our lives; it’s actually living our lives fully and wholly.
Our usual way of living—believing our thoughts are reality—is actually putting an overlay on our lives. We miss experiencing what is in front of us and, without even being aware of it, we overlay our thoughts and feelings, our likes and dislikes on top of actual experience.
We’re always in a struggle with experience because we always want it to be a certain way, our way. This struggle is what the Buddha called “dukkha”, basic dissatisfaction, suffering, the First Noble Truth. What would it be like to let go of all our defenses and just be with what is?
What if you believed you had a pet unicorn and you imagined having it on a leash and taking it around town with you? What if you showed it off to people? How would people react? Some might go along with the illusion to humor you or get rid of you. Others might deny there was a unicorn or even make fun of you. How would you react? You might get angry, hurt, perhaps even seek revenge on others who you saw as offending you. In any case, it would be a constant struggle.
This is how it is with us. We all take around our imaginary unicorns and want them to be accepted. How would seeing through this illusion feel? Would you be relieved?
On the other hand, what we really “have” (actually are), we fail to recognize or we think is unreal—our buddha nature. We all already are whole and sane and clear. We lack nothing. But we ignore this wholeness and continue to go with our pet unicorns.
Consider the story of Enyadatta:
Enyadatta was a princess. One day–for unexplained reasons–she didn’t see her head in the mirror. She panicked and ran around crying “I’ve lost my head! I’ve lost my head!” Her friends were afraid she would harm herself, so they took her and tied her to a pillar in her house. They spoke to her, trying to convince her that her head was there. Enyadatta half-believed them and began to calm down. Finally, one friend gave her a clout on the head saying, “There’s your head!” Enyadatta was overjoyed and ran around proclaiming, “I have a head! I have a head.”
It’s crazy to think we don’t have a head. It’s crazy to think we don’t have a buddha-nature. We must have some sense of this or we wouldn’t stick with the practice at all. Doing formal zazen, we can more easily touch into this, return to our True Selves and begin to truly see.
How would it look to drop our war with life? Karen Maezen Miller says every war is with ourselves and advises us to “lose all wars,” drop our defenses, let the world in. Rather than feel defenseless and frightened, we would realize that we and the world are not separate. We would realize that we “Interare”, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, with all beings. Dogen tells us that,
To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be confirmed by all beings.
“Confirmed by all beings.” We change from believing ourselves as separate walled off beings—we are in “here”; everything else is “out there”—to seeing that we live the life of all beings. Our minds and our hearts open up; there’s no longer any reason to close them. It would be as if we lived our lives in a house shuttered from sunlight, afraid to open the shutters or even believing that we weren’t able to. Then, one day, the shutters open and the sun streams in; we hear birds sing and see the leaves flutter in the breeze. We realize that there’s never been shutters or even a house at all. What joy and contentment we would feel!
Of course, this doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be times that would be painful. All is impermanent. We and our loved ones are subject to old age, sickness, and death. Things will go very badly for us at times. But if we truly see, we recognize that the hard times as well as the good times will pass, but our True Selves remain.
A story about the Zen ancestor Hakuin is a wonderful example of awakened action in the midst of difficulty:
Hakuin, was a Zen teacher known for his purity. The parents of a girl living nearby found that the girl was pregnant. They demanded to know who the father was. The girl named Hakuin. The angry parents sought out Hakuin and berated him. His only reply was “Is that so?”
When the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin to care for. By this time he had lost his reputation. Nonetheless, he took good care of the child. After a year, the girl finally confessed that the father was actually a young man who worked in the fish market.
The parents went to Hakuin, apologized and took the child back. All Hakuin said was “Is that so?”
Hakuin didn’t hesitate to take the baby even though he knew that the girl was lying and that his reputation would suffer. Not only does he take the child, but takes good care of it. Equally, when the girl confesses, he readily yields the child. He never argues or shows resentment. His mind is clear and his heart is open. All he says is, “Is that so?”, merely recognizing the situation without judging or criticizing. There’s no indication that Hakuin suffered from his situation. The story suggests he was peaceful, content. Would we be so open-hearted?
All Hakuin was doing was just sitting down in the situation. Just being present. This is all that is required of us. Just sit down. In actuality, we are always “just sitting.” Life seems to be whirling around us at all times. From the point of view of our usual reality, relative reality, that is indeed what is happening. But from the point of view of our True Selves, nothing ever changes. Everything is always “thus”. We are always “at rest.” “Everywhere you go, there you are.”
Nonetheless, we are required to act. Not acting is just another action. But when we act, we should act out of mindfulness not out of self-centered motivations. We will no doubt do so imperfectly. But we need to make the effort. Right Effort, part of the Eight-fold Path, is ultimately the effort to be awake moment to moment to moment. To act out of awakeness is to act out of the Whole, rather than out of our partial views.
If there’s an accident scene and the parties are giving testimony to the police, the people driving the cars will only have a partial view. If someone, however, saw the accident unfold from a distance above, they would be able to give a view that would take in the whole picture.
Simple practices help us on our path. Sitting meditation is basic. It is a wonderful opportunity to do nothing but pay attention and to find out what that means. Karen Maezen Miller calls it the courage to do nothing.
But the Buddha, in the Eightfold Path, also prescribes Right Action, Speech, and Livelihood. I decided, a few years ago, to make a point of really listening to whoever was speaking to me. Right listening is part of Right Speech. When I listen, I make the effort to just listen. All sorts of replies, judgments arise, but I try to come back to what that person is saying. Isn’t it as rude to not pay attention to someone in your mind as it is to interrupt or stare at your smart phone?
I have also found the practice of mindful eating beneficial. When you eat, just eat. Attend to the tastes, smells, textures, sight of the food you are taking in. In our sangha , we have a silent, mindful meal about once a month. Food never tasted so good.
Those are just two specific practices, I have especially worked on. But whatever I do, I try to be mindful. I fail more often than I succeed, but I go on making the effort. Some days I feel an ease with whatever or whoever shows up. I feel as if I am operating out of an open, compassionate place. Other days, I can feel down and have a hard time seeing beyond my gloom. I know that the darkness will pass, but find it difficult to stay with it. Either way, it’s my life and I have to just sit down in it.
This may sound like a kind of resignation: “Yes, that’s the way it is. I have to go through it.” But, in fact, great happiness and peace arise when we face our lives and cease from torturing ourselves by trying to get things the way we want them. Thich Nhat Hanh says we “have more than enough conditions to be happy.” We have the blue sky and clouds, green leaves, flowers, the white cover of snow in winter; we have the wonder of our bodies functioning so beautifully without our conscious effort; we have our breath, that slender thread that keeps us alive.
The Buddha told the parable of the man being chased by a tiger. The man comes to a cliff and has to swing down holding onto a vine to prevent himself from falling. Below he sees another tiger; two mice gnaw away the vine that he’s holding to. He sees a luscious strawberry within reach. He plucks the strawberry. How good it tasted.
So, no matter where you are and what you’re doing, just sit down. Just be present to what is. Likes, dislikes, judgments, fears will arise. Recognize them for what they are: phantoms, clouds passing in a windy sky. Forget about finding a way out. It’s never your door. Once you realize that, you will never leave your seat.
I’d like to close with a poem by Katagiri Roshi that speaks to this kind of effort:
From my human eyes,
I feel it’s really impossible to become a Buddha.
But this “I”, regarding what the Buddha does,
Vows to practice,
To be resolute,
And tells myself, “Yes, I will.”
Just practice right here and now,
And achieve continuity,
This is living in vow.
Herein is one’s peaceful life found.