PZI Teacher Archives

The Nobility of Having a Practice


It’s not so hard to realize that practice is immediately beneficial. But there’s a deeper thing: meditation is a way to befriend your life and befriend reality. Some days just seem harder than others, right? And you come home and think, Oh, god. Practice is a good thing then. Practice, practice, practice.

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Practice, the nobility of practice, is the topic today. And we’ll see how we do with that, eh?

The beginning of practice

I think that the beginning of practice is always to feel what’s happening—feel what’s here, feel the time—without prejudice about the time, without objecting to the time. Feeling what’s here. 

So, the beginning of practice is to feel the time. I let other things fall away; I don’t fight things off, if I can, unless it’s a desperate situation. It’s that the here-ness starts to take over—the here-ness of life. And so, I’m here. Then I’m here again. Then I’m more here, you know. And there’s not really “more.” If we’re here, we’re just here. And what I was two seconds ago doesn’t really matter. 

The nobility of practice. The great Japanese teacher Hakuin Ekaku said,

If you do zazen even once, it wipes away beginningless crimes.

True practice

The thing about meditation—the thing about true practice—is the idea that suddenly you’re beyond success and failure and honor and disgrace—all those things. If you do zazen even once… That’s what we’re doing now. We’re doing that once; wiping away everything, every difficulty, every reverse we’ve ever had, every failure we’ve ever had, every shame we’ve ever had, every guilt we’ve ever had. We can’t even hold on to our triumphs because they limit us—we’re not here because they are there. We always start by showing up here.

I suppose when I very first started meditating, it was a bit like going to church. I thought, God, I’ve got to behave and get improved and it’ll be good for me. But it was a bit of a struggle. And at some stage, the whole thing became friendly.

Practice is a friend and meditation’s a friend, and any time that I give to the practice, it will be returned to me. I won’t really lose that time. Because gaining and losing is not part of the equation.

[rings bell]

So, here we are. Now, I suppose, you could notice:

What are the qualities of here-ness?
What’s the
here of meditation for you?
What is it to feel the time? 

Befriending practice

At some stage, there’s this tremendous sweetness that starts to come over me in meditation. I suppose that when I began meditation, I wanted to be clear and wise and things like that. When the sweetness appeared, I kept brushing it aside. It’s like the Buddhist archetypes: Manjushri is the wisdom figure who sees the emptiness of all human striving and all human achievement and all human failure, and all that. And then Guanyin just loves it all. I kept pushing it aside. I thought, That’s not it. I’m feeling very loving … that can’t be it. 

But what I notice is that we befriend our practice. A path, in fact, saves your life if you’re in a really difficult situation.

Like, if you’re trying to do something hard at work, you’ve got a difficulty in your family, somebody you love is suffering or you’re suffering, then you realize the practice is immediately beneficial. It’s not so hard to realize that. Even marsupials from Australia can realize that Oh, yeah, meditation might help. But there’s a deeper thing: meditation is a way to befriend your life and befriend reality. Things do kind of stick to us during the day—some days just seem harder than others, right? And you come home and think, Oh, god. Practice is a good thing then.

Practice, practice, practice.

And, in a way, it’s alright to just feel it. Like right now, just feel it—feel what you’ve got: this is what you have. For your whole life, right now is what’s right now. What we have right now? That’s it. And it’s infinite. 

Enjoy yourself

One of the Tibetan teachers used to say, “Enjoy yourself.” And I think that’s kind of a nice thing. That’s what meditation is, it’s enjoy yourself. Then, you realize that the things that I do to enjoy myself are alright, but they’re often a faint shadow. The universe is full when we’re really here and we show up here. Enjoy yourself.

So, I’m thinking about how we pass on the Way, and some time ago, I read something during a ceremony about that. This is from Martin Amis, who just died. I don’t actually enjoy his novels, but probably his best thing was something he wrote about his own life. His father was a famous, brilliant, sacred monster, and he’s got this rather charming thing about the enjoyableness of the vastness of life. [reads]

“Dad?” (This was my older son Louis, then aged eleven.)

My dad would have said, “Yeeeess?”—with a dip in it, to signal mild but invariable disapproval. I once asked him why he did this and he said, “Well, I’m already here, aren’t I?” For him, the “Dad-Yes?” interlude was a clear redundancy, because we were in the same room together and established as having some kind of conversation, however desultory (and unenlivening, from his point of view). I saw what he meant, but five minutes later, I would find myself saying, “Dad?” And then I would brace myself for an especially vehement affirmative. I was a teenager before I broke the habit. Children need a beat of time to secure attention while the thought is framed.

So, he’s a novelist too. He understands the creative process.

This is from Kingsley Amis, his father, writing about him. [reads]

“How big’s the boat that’s taking us to Portugal?”
“I don’t know, really. Pretty big, I should think.”
“As big as a killer whale?”
“What? Oh, yes, easily.”
“As big as a blue whale?”
“Yes, of course, as big as any kind of whale.”
“Yes, much bigger.”
“How much bigger?”
“Never you mind how much bigger. Just bigger is all I can tell you.” 

There is a break and the discussion resumes:

“If two tigers jumped on a blue whale, could they kill it?”
“Ah, but that couldn’t happen, you see. If the whale was in the sea, the tigers would drown straight away, and if the whale was …”
“But supposing they did jump on the whale.”
“Oh, god. Well, I suppose the tigers would kill the whale eventually, but it’d take a long time.”
“How long would it take one tiger?”
“Even longer. Now I’m not answering any more questions about whales or tigers.”
“Oh, what is it now, David?”
“If two sea-serpents …”

How well I remember those vastly stimulating chats. My tigers weren’t just ordinary tigers, either: they were saber-toothed tigers. And the gladiatorial bouts I dreamed up were far more elaborate: If two boa constrictors, four barracuda, three anacondas and a giant squid …

So, we’re always in it, you know, and there’s that sense of enjoying yourself, and play. It’s always just there if you’ll allow it. Maybe I don’t have a good reason for reading that, except that I really liked it.

The ox doesn’t go away

There’s this famous piece by an old Chinese teacher who was a student of somebody called Guishan, who was one of the legendary old masters: 

I lived with Guishan for more than thirty years. I ate Guishan’s food, I shat Guishan’s shit, but I didn’t study Guishan’s Zen. All I did was look after an ox. If he got off the road, I dragged him back; if he trampled the grain in other people’s fields, I trained him more harshly. For a long time he was so pitiful, at the mercy of everyone’s words.

That’s an interesting thing—he’s at the mercy of everyone’s words. It’s one of the primary delusions, I think, what other people think of us.

For a long time he was pitiful, at the mercy of everyone’s words. Now he is changed into the white ox on the bare ground, always in front of my face. All day long he clearly reveals himself; even if I chase him he doesn’t go away.

There’s something there about the friendliness of practice. I think that getting the degree of effort in practice right is a tricky thing because when you’re truly here, there’s nothing else happening. There’s no you outside of here trying to get here, or any of that stuff—you’re just here. And as he said, the ox won’t go away. “All day long it’s in front of my face.” It’s kind of beautiful. All day long, in front of my face. So, that’s kind of a nice thing.

Training the ox

The other thing I want to say is about training the ox. When I first started meditating, I realized that it might help my very busy mind. Counting your breaths was something that some Zen teachers would teach you to do at first. So, you count your breaths—and then people would get obsessed: “Do I count the inbreath and the outbreath, or just the outbreath, or just the inbreath?” And it was like, “you have two sea serpents …”—just count your breath! 

I decided, Well, I better establish some territory here. So I decided to arbitrarily count something. I tried everything, of course, but decided to count the outbreath. So, “one, two …” like that. It’s slightly calming but then I’d find myself saying, “thirty-one …” I was supposed to count to ten and start again. The now long-dead roshi in LA, Maezumi, said, “Well, sometimes I don’t even get to one.” 

So, the idea of being tolerant was important. Tolerant of here-ness. Because even when you feel like you’re not doing your practice very well, part of your practice is tolerating your being and the being of now. It’s a tremendously important part of it. And you can tell that with the Amis discussion about the kid, too. “How big is the boat that’s taking us to Portugal?”

The fundamental koans go,

What is the light? Ordinary mind is the Way.

The koan No is used a lot. Just No. Which, in a way, means you’re not getting involved with all the thoughts that are pulling at you. “How many? How many sea serpents?” No. So, the meditation is something else to do, a way to be here without whatever it is the mind thinks it’s following.

Effort in meditation

So, what I want to do is meditate a bit now. 

You’ll find that there’s an interesting thing about effort [in meditation], the force of effort. Because if you don’t ever make the effort to sit down and meditate, it’s pretty hard to meditate. And on the other hand, if you don’t ever let yourself get here, you’re practicing to “get somewhere,” and you’re never there. So, part of it is noticing that, Oh, actually, I can relax. I’m here. And being honorable about that, too. Here I am. And you can probably feel it right now if you just look inside. 

This is the ancient teaching, and there’s never been any other one in Zen, really.

If you just look inside right now—not tomorrow, not yesterday, but right now—you’ll notice, Oh, there isn’t a flaw, there isn’t a problem. There’s nothing really wrong. Just feel that and feel the expansiveness. There’s nothing wrong with your life. And anything you thought might be wrong, well—you’re here. You’re in it. You’ll make your way through. You’ll make your way across the stream on the stepping-stones. You’ll make your way.

[rings bell]

Someone sent me a note saying, “I can’t tell if the cry of that hawk is here or there.” Which I suppose is saying, “I can’t tell if it’s here or here.” So, yeah, it’s always here.

No good reason

There’s usually a reason we practice and then, after a while, we transcend that. It’s like love in that sense. We can think that we love a person because of X and Y and Z, but actually, we just love them. You’re allowed to not have a good reason. In fact, that’s a truer thing, isn’t it? Some things are hard, and some things are easy and appealing.  But in another way, it’s just here—life is just here, meditation is just here. What’s going on with you is just here. And it’s a marvelous thing to have.

I was involved with various turmoils in the outer world—political lobbying and things. It was pretty crazy. And I realized that if I meditated every day, the outer world didn’t get less crazy, but I got less crazy. Or, I wasn’t so contaminated by it, you know. And that was kind of a nice thing to discover. Then I noticed that, gradually, there was a kind of purification that does go on in meditation, where you’ll notice your dreams change. As you get deeper in, your dreams change. If your dreams are nightmarish, then that’s something going on in your life and your dreams are having a conversation with you about it. But it’s not like your whole life is that, you know, because you have a meditation practice. And even if you’re in pain, or whatever it is, it’s okay. Even if you have great grief or something like that, it’s okay.

And I think that thing about not being at the mercy of everyone’s words is important, that we stop trying to control what other people are thinking. If we’re salespeople, we’re always trying to do that, anyway. You are thinking, This is the best car and you want to buy it right now, or my whatever-it-is that I’m selling. But we can tell, in some way, we get free of the manipulations. We’re just here. So that’s part of the purification. It’s not that we don’t care about things, but we’re freer. We’re not always grasping and not so worried that other people don’t approve of us—all those things. It’s a marvelous thing, actually.

Meditation and non-meditation

I think the other thing I want to say is about the difference between meditation and non-meditation—it will be real but it will be smaller. So that whatever you’re learning in meditation might be with you anyway. The cry of the hawk that was mentioned, the sound of the traffic, and whatever is in you, in the thoughts and feelings that come up. You don’t have to get rid of the thoughts and feelings in a true practice. They just run through. And the universe runs through us. There’s a great old sutra that says,

Don’t raise delusive thoughts. If you’ve raised delusive thoughts, don’t get rid of them.

You don’t have to play whack a mole, either. So, it’s alright, you know. It’s, Ahh, this, this—and you’re free inside anything. I think that’s an important thing to know about.

I have a couple of poems here. This is a guy called N. Scott Momaday. He did the horse songs and To Walk in Beauty and things like that. This is The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee. He’s a great Native American writer. And this is just an itinerary, in a way. No, not an itinerary—a Homeric list. It’s about the simplicity and beauty of the world. I thought, Well there’s kind of a practice element here, so I’ll read it to you. [reads]

The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the luster of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star.

I am the farthest star. The impossibility of these things is so wonderful. It’s like, “What if two sea serpents …”

I am the cold of dawn
I am the roaring of the rain

Isn’t that wonderful? The roaring of the rain goes through us.

I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things

You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

All the things that come to us, we are. We can’t separate ourselves from the rain or the child that jumps into our arms in the morning, or anything, really.

Tess Beasley, do you have anything you want to say?

Being entered by life

Tess: The thread that keeps coming up throughout is this: What is it when the ox doesn’t go away anymore? I think you were saying how meditation kind of starts to seep into everything. I’ve been thinking today that Well, the deeper the practice gets, it seems like everything starts to become a practice, in a way. Like, I have an old cat who doesn’t like to eat as much anymore. But if you brush him and pet him while he eats, then he thinks that’s pretty great. So, that becomes a practice. 

And earlier this spring, we planted a bunch of very young trees—they kind of populate the skyline. But we didn’t really think it through, and they’re quite far from the house, and it’s very dry. Now, several times a week, I have to get these big five-gallon buckets and trudge up and down. It would be so easy to think, Oh, god, now I have to go get the buckets and I have to …

But, being outside for what now is like an hour, hour-and-a-half, just sort of tending to all these plants and ensuring they get water, and seeing how they’re doing and if little caterpillars are bothering them, and feeling the ache in my shoulders, and feeling how if I relax my body when I carry the buckets, then I actually don’t need to work nearly as hard as I think I do … it all becomes this sort of inclusion and way of being entered by life and way of becoming part of my surroundings. 

And everything starts to feel like that. Hashing a business issue with someone becomes part of a practice. Like everything just becomes part of practice. So, the nobility of that, I suppose. Thanks.

John: Yeah, it’s interesting. When hashing out a business issue and deciding, you know, what’s going on here and feeling your way through. That’s it too, and it’s marvelous. It’s the creative work, you know?

Jon Joseph, do you have anything to say about practice?

Not being snobbish

Jon: You had mentioned the chockablock—you know, the acceptance of whatever’s going on at the moment, while you’re sitting. And I remember you told a friend one time, whom you were sitting with in his zendo—and a garbage truck goes by and he kind of got upset because he wanted the perfect situation—you said, “Don’t be snobbish about sounds.” 

One time, I was going to have a Saturday sitting with a group of people and I got a call the night before that the hall we were going to meet in, there was going to be some chainsaw work in the basement just below where we were sitting. And it was supposed to start about the same time we were sitting. I thought, Well, maybe I should call everybody and tell them. And I decided not to. So, we start sitting, and every moment for the next two hours, I’m expecting to hear this chainsaw light up—and chainsaw light up, and chainsaw light up … and it didn’t. They didn’t do the chainsaw work. So, it was not being snobbish about no sounds.

John: We used to sit in a place—some of us remember, Jon would be one of them—that was an old blues club originally, then became a synagogue, but it was right on the square in Cotati. I accidentally scheduled a one-day when they had an accordion festival there. Accordions are loud anyway, but amplified, it was so great. And the twentieth rendition of Lady of Spain … after a while, it was just, Oh, we’re sitting in the middle of accordion, you know. So, it was alright; it was kind of wonderful, actually. I still remember that.


Bathed in uncertainty

Allison: I was thinking about the white ox and the part where you were saying we’re no longer thrown about by other people’s words. And how in sitting, in practice, that also means not being thrown about by my own words, by my own ideas about what I should or shouldn’t be doing or what should or shouldn’t be happening or have happened. 

And that feeling of being able to tolerate, in the widest possible sense, the uncertainty of not just what might happen in my life in the future—but in practice I notice it just gets closer and closer in, that feeling of uncertainty, until it’s permeating every particle in the universe now. 

And it’s like the whole universe, the carpet, the trees outside—it’s all filled with a kind of humming space of living uncertainty. So that the moment I’m in right now is bathed in this sort of wave of uncertainty. And when I think of stepping off the hundred-foot pole … It’s not so much being able to tolerate my thoughts or what other people think, it’s even stranger to be able to tolerate the uncertainty of the moment I’m in.

Day before yesterday, my sister sent me a whole folder of photographs that she discovered, of a trip that we had taken six years ago. We took our eight-nine-year-old mother to Hawaii, where she’d just been longing to go back to, and where she’d lived for some portions of her life. And everyone was telling us, “Don’t take her, don’t take her. It’s crazy.” We had to sign all these release forms from the place where she was living. 

And so, we get into this marvelous hotel at Diamond Head with a view of the Pacific. They had these fabulous restaurants there. And my mother, she has this thing where she would not ever, in your entire life, tell you what she wanted to eat. So you’d go to a restaurant—it was sort of a game of chicken—where she’d always ask you, “Well, what are you getting?” You’d be looking at the menu and you wouldn’t look up. And you just couldn’t tell her because as soon as you said, “Oh, I’m getting the mahi-mahi,” she’d say, “Oh, that’s what I want. I want the mahi-mahi.” She just couldn’t bear not to orient to what other people were thinking. 

So, we’d go to these restaurants, and my sister and I would make a plan beforehand. “Don’t say what you’re going to eat. You promise you won’t say what you’re going to eat? We want mom to get what she wants to eat.” And so we’d sit there, and our mother would try it again. You know, she’d sort of put out these little lures and dangle them. And my sister literally could not bear it at some point. And she’d say, “Well, I think the eggs would be good for you this morning because they have a lot of protein.” And I’d just say, “Arghh!”

So, it’s that being able to tolerate the uncertainty in the moment. Being able to tolerate not knowing where this is going to go. Maybe it’ll take an hour and a half for us to place our order. That’s okay.

John: Very good. I’m having the extra hot kimchee.

Nicola? I was thinking of you when I was reading the thing about the Amises.

Nicola: Yes, indeed. Yeah, I really enjoy that book. I’m not very good at reading his other books. I’m with you there. And I really loved this koan with the white ox—the description of how he tries to control it and tell it not to trample on other people’s crops and things. And then it just doesn’t go away. That’s kind of the feeling in the heart that one has of, All I have is the ox, just there. You’re not controlling it anymore and it’s gone into something kind of loving that has nothing to do with manipulation. So, yeah, I really enjoy having him around, this person.

John: Very good. Thank you.



Jesse: Yeah … you caught me in the middle of making a list. In the middle of the meditation, I started making this list of … I don’t know what happened. The question about the idea, What is practice? came up and it was kind of a free association about it. What is it for me? I have a thing, that I really love teaching, and that it’s a practice. 

Then I hear about other people doing, like, I don’t know— David Weinstein told me about somebody who’s doing a really intensive Tibetan practice right now. And I thought, Shouldn’t I be doing more intensive practice? I was thinking back on all the times when I was doing really intensive practice, and I kind of miss that. But also, I just keep finding myself not doing it—not meditating for hours a day. I don’t know. So, I’m kind of exploring that in myself and in my new life in Hawaii.

And, I think that part of my practice is discovering what is important to me, objectively. What just arises, what shows itself to be important. Like, I keep being drawn to doing yard work. I’ve never, ever cared about yard work, ever, in my life. But there’s something about the discipline and the connection to the land and all these things that keep drawing me out there. So, I have this list of what’s important to me. 

What are these various practices in my life that are starting to pop up as important? Meditation practice, creativity practice, the practice of connecting with others, the practice of learning new things. I think I’ve always seen them as tied to some sort of moral thing, before: “Well, you should connect with other people because that’s good.” But I actually found myself wanting to do that, which is strange. I’d typically like to just be in my cave, staring at the wall for nine years. 

A lot is going on inside my mind right now. I’ve got some post-it notes over here and then a small notepad and then a larger notepad. The words are all sort of flying around.

And the last thing is the big question of, Where does my practice not reach? Where do I not allow my practice to show up in my life? Like, in certain connections with people? My connection with my son right now is a place where I get disconnected from my practice or I forget my practice or I get bowled over by something. And not that I think that needs to be any different, but that’s interesting. What is that? What is it that blocks that kind of consciousness from flowing into those moments? I don’t know. There you go.

John: List-making. Yes. A list is a succession of now.

[rings bell]

Now it is a white ox on the bare ground and even if I tell it to, it won’t go away.

There’s one of the old mythical stories about the Buddha who sent his assistant out to find something that wasn’t medicine. And he came back and said he couldn’t find anything that wasn’t medicine. It’s the same koan, really.

The white ox on the bare ground won’t go away even if I tell it to.

[Michael Wilding plays saxophone]

And now it is the white ox on the bare ground and it won’t go away, even if I tell it to.

This. This. This. The mysterious opening of our lives when we pay attention. It’s always here. No matter what nutty experiments we’ve done with our lives, the white ox won’t go away, even if we tell it to.


Beyond our striving

Here’s a rather subtle poem about paying attention. If we’re really paying attention, our hands do things for us. They do things like catch a ball before we’ve thought about catching a ball, things like that.

This is Gerald Stern. It’s called My Hand: 

I put my hand in a baby shepherd’s mouth (he means the dog,) and watched him whine with pleasure. I’ve seen him roll on his back with his white stomach facing the sun and paw helplessly. I think he is full of some form of love. Something Dante would have pitied as he moved from heaven to heaven. Something akin to the drowned buttercup or the red woodpecker swinging on his bag of fat. There would be a crease at the corner of Dante’s eye, a roundness in his cheek that is for that animal alone. A tiny sign interrupting his climbing and his falling, his concentration on justice and liberation

A tiny sign indicating that there’s something beyond our concentration on rising and falling and justice and liberation and all those things. Beyond our striving, I suppose.

And the last one is for a friend of mine who’s a tree. Why be prejudiced, I say? This is called, Asking the Apricot Tree: 

At dawn, still awake,
I asked the apricot tree
Did you dream last night?

You know, it’s such a joy to be here. I just want to say that it’s lovely to see your beautiful faces. Some of you are old friends here, I see. So, thank you. 

Yeah, thank you for coming.


Sunday Zen Dharma Talk
June 11, 2023
John Tarrant

Listen to the Original Audio