A Zen’s-Eye View: Practice the five strengths

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The five strengths are instructions on how to live. Every single one of them requires the application of joyful exertion, the antidote to laziness. The first strength is strong determination. This isn’t some vague idea; it’s a specific daily practice that connects determination with joy, relaxation, and trust. When you wake up in the morning, cultivate a bright mind. Say aloud, “I wonder what’s going to happen today. I wonder what opportunities will turn up so I can practice kindness. This may be the day I realize enlightenment. Today is a good day to live.”

The next strength is familiarization. Familiarization means that releasing self-cherishing no longer feels foreign; instead, our spontaneous reactions to events and people arise from generosity and kindness. We talk about enlightenment as if it is a big accomplishment, but it’s nothing special. It is simply relaxing and appreciating who we already are. Familiarization means we don’t have to search any further than our own meditation, and we know it.

The third strength is cultivating the seeds of joy, kindness, patience and wisdom. These qualities make up Buddha nature and are already in us. Buddha nature isn’t like a heart transplant that we get from somewhere else. It lives inside us at birth and before, and can be awakened through practice. The third strength comes from knowing, without a doubt, that the seeds of joy and kindness are already within, and that with nurture they will sprout and become visible above the ground. Zen practice is about softening and relaxing into our innate Buddha nature. It is also about seeing clearly. None of that implies searching. Searching for happiness prevents us from finding it.

The fourth strength is called reproach. This one requires self-talk with ego, “Self-cherishing, you’ve done nothing but cause me problems for ages. Give me a break. I’m not buying it anymore.” This approach can be a problem for those who can’t distinguish between their essential nature and their egos. Just don’t be so hardheaded that self-talk increases self-criticism. Self-criticism is never helpful. Reproach can also be very powerful when we remind ourselves to work for the happiness of others in our own words. We can teach ourselves to notice before we say or do something harmful, flash awareness ahead to the rest of our lives and ask ourselves what we want our lives to contribute.

The fifth strength, aspiration, is also a powerful tool. The notion of aspiration is simply that we daily voice our intention to train to realize enlightenment. Aspiration is a way to empower ourselves. In fact, Zen practice is all about self-empowerment — not so we can get what we want, but so we can work for the happiness of others.

Practice suggestion: For the next two weeks, pay attention to how you decide to spend each day. How much of your activity is intentional? Choose a day and try to set an intention to practice mindfulness and loving-kindness under all conditions.

This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.