It occurred to me this morning that I have not written about zen practice in some time. In some ways, this is an indication of where I am with practice and it might be useful to other people to know about this place.
In practical terms I am sitting regularly every day, sitting sesshin (group meditation intensives) regularly, studying with my teacher through podcasts and other recordings, and I have added brush-work to my practice routine (what you might recognize as Oriental calligraphy). My ethical decisions are guided by the Buddhist precepts and fundamentally by the Bodhisattva's vow, I.e., "I vow to live for the benefit of all sentient beings." I mention this not as some role model to be emulated, but just to provide a window into these parts of my life that are not always visibly apparent. I am certain in the future things will change. They always do.
I am realizing the Truth contained in many of the pithy sayings about and around zen practice that regularly seem confusing and intentionally crafted to obscure or frankly Bullshit something. "Zen is useless" is a good example.
"Using zen" presents a double-bind. Anything that is useful isn't zen. Anything that is a means or method to attain something incorporates the deluded intentions of an abstracted conceptual view. Zen is liberation from such views.
I don't mean to imply that abstracted conceptual views are bad, inferior, stupid, or in any way something to be eschewed. If you didn't nurture and operate within these views you would be unable to get dressed and go to work in the morning, or feed yourself, or care for your family, or any number of things that have intrinsic value to us as social beings.
it is just that operating within these views is something different from seeing things are they really are. A baseball bat is actually mostly empty space (we know this from investigations into quantum physics, which seems to me to be another method for seeing things as they really are), but if you swing it at someone's head, which is also mostly empty space, the collision between these two concepts of empty space is going to appear as if both are actually solid.
Grasping some notion that we somehow are able to transcend the solid appearance of those two objects and cause them to pass through each other harmlessly is delusion. Just because I "get" the reality there conceptually doesn't grant me some special powers to change appearances, regardless of what may in fact actually be possible. If it can be that a baseball bat can swing harmlessly through someone's head it won't happen because someone had a conceptual notion of that coupled to an intention to accomplish it.
That is, we have to deal with appearances. You appear to be real, I appear to be real, but we don't have to confuse appearances with reality. That is, we don't have to grip solidly to the notion that these appearances represent reality any more than we have to believe that when we kill someone in a video game that anything really living actually dies. This background awareness does not change our ability to play the game
For example, I sometimes struggle with being single. My dissatisfaction with this state mostly springs from the notion that things would be better if I had a partner. For many reasons, this is a reasonable notion. Humans seem to do better in pair-bonds for the most part, it's likely I would find regular sexual activity with a partner satisfying, and there are undeniable economic benefits to sharing some resources in the maintenance of a household life in the world in which I live. Also, it seems that married people live longer.
Gripping tightly to this view requires that I dismiss some things I also see as being less relevant. That is, I have to dismiss the real pain and struggle that I see my married friends undergoing in their marriages. I have to dismiss the many satisfactions of the freedom to be the final authority on my living situation, budget, travel plans, etc, etc, etc. To be convinced of the notion that being single is an absolute tragedy I have to abstract a concept from the available facts. Including the notion that a longer life is de facto a better life.
The reality underlying all of this is we are all alone, even in the midst of orgasm with an ideal sex partner we are ultimately undergoing that ecstasy alone. It is only us. There is nothing but singularity. That's reality.
The buddha-dharma teaches that these concepts, while useful, are not real. That is, when I talk about "seeing things as they really are" I am talking about a constant practice of reminding myself that something very different is actually going on than the narrative in my head. The narrative represents my mind's reaction to reality, it is not real itself.
This is why sitting quietly and still while staring at a wall is useful to me. When I settle down my activity to this level, in spite of the fact that mind is as active as ever, perhaps because I am doing so little else, I am able to discern perception from awareness. Perception takes up a lot of space, it seems to be everything there is, but actually there's a space outside of it. This is pure awareness.
As I realize that all of my pain is derived from perception, awareness is indistinguishable from perfect bliss, I find significant comfort in knowing that however solid that baseball bat appears, it is actually mostly empty space. That is, my narrative about what is going on is not what is going on. There's real peace there.
This peace is with you, right now. All that any of us have to do is get out of our way. Christians, Jews and Muslims seem to call this God's love, finding comfort there. Hindus call it something else, Atheists find it in their release from the notion of external metaphysical authority. There is only one Reality, and it is right in front of us at all times.
That's where we are.