I remember when I first started meditating, I felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights. The light shone brightly on all my inadequacies, and I was appalled at how I behaved towards others. I felt like such a wretch, and for many years the motivation behind my practice was to become a better person. After some time this motivation started to fall away. In recent times, it has been coming back, and I am really encouraged by hearing other sangha members asking the same question.
Looking at this from the safety of my comfy zafu it seems that the question is fundamentally flawed. To become a better person presumes an end result, like eventually I could become some kind of Buddhist saint. Even worse, the question seems to assume that this is not enough. After all, how can we add anything extra to this moment? Can I become any more me? Hopefully, our Zazen helps us to see that we are good enough just as we are.
Maybe we have realized this for ourselves, but how do we live our lives in this way? I know for myself that such a lofty position cannot be held for long without leaving Caroline in tears. How many of you have come home after a blissful sesshin, only to begin arguing with friends or family who were driving you crazy (or was it the other way around)? The words of our dear friend Shunryu Suzuki cut right to the core of our practice here: “Each of you is perfect as you are…and you can use a little improvement”.
How do we know that our practice is going well? Our actions vividly show the fact. When Robert Aitken was asked about why so-called senior students were still mean and competitive he replied “Oh, they mustn’t be doing zazen properly”. Our dharma ancestor Yamada Roshi said “the purpose of zen is the perfection of character”. I take that as an injunction for living the practice: don’t leave your zen behind on the cushion!
Shakyamuni Buddha realised that we have no essential substance, we live only briefly, and we are reliant on one another. This realisation inspired compassion in the Buddha, so he left his seat under the Bodhi tree and shared his realisation with others. His conduct during his life is an example of his realisation, and started a journey of compassion that continues into our own lives. How can we ever repay the kindness of our ancestors, near and far?
I’ve heard it said that ethics are downplayed in zen. I hope this is not the case. Zen practice should be ethical to the bones. True practice is to practice the precepts: renounce all evil, practice all good, save the many beings. These precepts are inspired by the realisation of our ancestors. As our own true nature unfolds, the precepts must also be inspired by our own realisation, to be made intimate.
That doesn’t mean we become saints upon hearing the sound of raindrops for the first time. Upon uniting with those raindrops we start to become truly honest. We start to take responsibility for our lives, and in doing so the lives of others. Just as we return to the breath in zazen, we vow to continue to practice, and we continue to practice.
So, after all of this suffering though pain in my knees and back have I become a better person? I really hope so, but I do find that the more I practice, the more I realise how much improvement is necessary. Sometimes my actions are OK, sometimes they are not. If I’m honest, I find I am guided by what feels right, and what feels bad. Both need to be felt in the guts.
With this attitude, I find I can take Wu-men’s words as my own: “a thousand mistakes, ten thousand mistakes”. An honest practice will vividly reveal all our errors, and they can be allowed into the ground of being together with the flowing stream, the sound of the crickets, fingers and toes. Acknowledging our mistakes also help us to see more clearly, as we allow a little more of our conceptual selves to be let go. Mistakes help our practice by bringing the precepts, and us, alive.