A Zen’s-Eye View: The paradox of Zen training

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In the last three or four columns, I’ve been presenting some pretty profound ideas about what life actually is, and I’m I thinking that some of my readers could be feeling perplexed. I’ve been writing about first paragraph in 13th Century Zen master Eihei Dogen’s essay, “Mountains and Rivers Sutra”, where he lays out his vision of reality. Dogen was a well-intentioned philosopher, poet and spiritual teacher. He wrote this essay to help us awaken from the dream of self-centredness and see a vision of reality that can free us from suffering. But the real question is, “How can I let his vision inform my daily life?”

The answer is easy. “Meditate in the morning, walk mindfully, be of service to others, eat your lunch, do the dishes, take a rest, meditate in the evening, be helpful, laugh when something is funny, cry when it’s sad, take a bath, get dressed, have children, see them grow up, see them have children, watch them grow up, die.” In other words, live an ordinary life but with extraordinary awareness.

To ask “How can I let this vision inform my life?” is to ask a great question because all the activities that I just described are, in a way, not doing anything special. We usually think that “doing something” means to get it done, to fix something, to make something different from what it is. We so often operate on the assumption that something is wrong with our lives, that we need to do something about us. But what I just described is nothing more than a simple life lived moment by moment, without stress.

But there is a paradox here. In order to reach this stress-free state, we have to struggle to drop our conditioned views. We have been conditioned to think that as humans, we have to fix something, master something or accomplish something. This conditioning that something is essentially wrong with us is very deep, but if we want to live the Zen life, we have to drop that idea.

So, on the one hand, Zen practice is easy. In fact, it is the easiest thing in the world. Once we have let go of our conditioning, practice is satisfying and effortless. But we have to make a huge effort to reach the place where we can appreciate our lives on that level. Reading and studying the profound teachings of Zen master Dogen is interesting, but the only way to truly understand him is to live them. It takes discipline, effort and a regular meditation practice.

Suggested practice: Set up a place in your home where you can begin a regular meditation practice. First thing in the morning and last thing before you go to bed, meditate for 20 minutes. To insure that your meditation practice is as effective as it could be, meditate at the zendo at least once a week to hear the teachings. Make every activity in your daily life a meditation practice.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Sakura-ji, Creston’s zendo. This column is part of a long essay on an essay by 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen and is inspired by the teaching of Norman Fishcher. For more information, Minogue can be reached at 250-428-6500, and previous columns are available at www.zenwords.net.