Why Practice?

By Geoff Dawson

A good place to begin is with Shakyamuni Buddha. He started practicing because he recognised the pervasive nature of suffering. Before he started practicing, his was a lifestyle that many upwardly mobile people today would strive to achieve- wealth, position, a beautiful wife, servants, entertainments – a princely life! Yet it didn’t satisfy.

In one sense he was lucky that he had all of this at a relatively young age. Most people strive for a lifetime to achieve wealth, recognition, security, a diversity of interesting experiences, only to find after a mid-life crisis twenty or thirty years on that it was all like fairy floss.

He had it all and recognised its inherent unsatisfactoriness when he still quite young and decided to become downwardly mobile instead. Once he became a dharma practitioner he became accomplished in that as well and became highly acknowledged by his teachers, but that was not it either. He still had to see through the more subtle levels of self-delusion.

In the Zen tradition we also have the story of Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan. He was deeply attached to his loving mother, a concubine of the Emperor, who died when he was about five or six. At her funeral he saw the incense smoke rising into the sky and disappearing into nothingness and it touched him profoundly as he reflected on the impermanence of life. This again led to a lifetime of practice.

However, recognising the pervasive nature of suffering does not in itself necessarily lead to practice. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs or other forms of escape to obliterate the suffering. Others turn to cynicism or even suicide. Some turn to a religion that promises something more worthwhile, like an afterlife or a belief system of fundamental certainty. What makes the difference? Why is one person able to make the leap of faith into the abyss of uncertainty while others only find some false security to cling to, or follow the death wish of annihilation?

It seems that the degree of shock that comes with recognising the suffering and impermanence in life lies at the heart of the motivation to practice. Perhaps those who have been the most profoundly shocked are those that have a deep and abiding motivation to keep practising.

When I speak to friends and students about what first motivated them to practice I find almost inevitably that some kind of loss was the spark that lit their dharma candle. For myself it was when the first girl I fell in love with left me. For others it may be a marriage break up, or the death of someone close, or an accident, losing a job, a fall from grace. Whatever it is, it is usually something where we experienced the impermanence of life in a painful way.

There are different degrees of motivation with which people become interested in the dharma. The Japanese Zen teacher Yasutani Roshi spoke of four categories: Intellectual interest, Relaxation, Mental Health and Awakening.

Intellectual interest leads to reading a lot of books, being up to speed on all the latest authors and new interesting ideas, dabbling in a bit of meditation once or twice perhaps, going to lots of talks by famous teachers, quoting this and that, usually going from one teacher to another or one tradition to another to find constant stimulation for the curious intellectual mind. A good beginning if it leads eventually to practice but a dissatisfying end if it doesn’t as the gap between intellectual understanding and experience widens and widens.

Relaxation is the next step in motivation as it does require a commitment to practice. Meditation will ease suffering to some degree by inducing a relaxation response. However, meditation practiced this way will treat the symptoms but not the cause. It is a self-induced endorphin high. Many people who practice with this motivation often stop practicing once the crisis in their life diminishes or they come up against some kind of unpleasant experience in their meditation practice and there is not enough momentum to stay with the resistance. However some people find stress management as the path to dharma practice as they start to explore more deeply what is the source of stress or distress.

Then there is practising to improve one’s mental health. More dharma practitioners fall into this category than we may recognise. It usually requires a greater commitment than just feeling good. At its basis is an aspiration to find not just a relaxation high but emotional stability as well. Like psychotherapy it requires staying present with difficult painful emotions until there is some kind of accommodation with them.

My teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck, with the wisdom of about thirty years of teaching Western students, has said that many Zen students drop out of practice after about five years, which interestingly enough is about the same time it requires to complete long term psychoanalysis. This is about the time it takes a person in their twenties or thirties, or even forties to achieve some degree of emotional stability in the flux of impermanence. Quite a good effort. But what about those who keep on going once they have achieved this platform of emotional stability or relative equanimity, or who were fortunate enough to acquire it through temperament and good parenting?

This brings us to the forth category of Awakening. Awakening from what? The self-centred dream. There is a motivation for practice that springs not just from the desire to be comfortable within oneself through the ups and downs of life, but arises from compassion as well – the experience of seeing the suffering of others, not just one’s own family, or one’s friends, or one’s own dharma brothers and sisters, but all beings that suffer. This is the practice of the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition is one who forgoes their own full awakening until all beings are awakened as well. I also have a more homely description. – Bodhisattvas are folks with problems, helping other folks with problems. Bodhisattvas keep practicing to become more effective vehicles of the dharma.

In my dharma talks I often half joke with my students, Do you just want to become a psychologist or do you want to become Awakened?

In dharma practice it is important at a beginning stage to understand one’s own psychology, either from a Buddhist psychological perspective or a Western psychological perspective or both but if this is all we aspire to we are still caught in our own little bubble of self preoccupation and scheming to feel good.

A friend recently gave me a recording of a dharma talk by Pema Chodran about why we practice and she begins by saying that many people mistakenly believe that they are practicing in order to feel good. But this is just a conceptual overlay on our experience. If we practice with this attitude our little self is still strategizing. This is very different to just being this moment as it is – and being just this moment is compassions way, as we recite in our practice principals.

Once we have developed some substantial degree of equanimity, the challenge of the life long practitioner is to examine and dissolve the more subtle levels of self-centredness that still exist. A mature practitioner doesn’t ask, “How long will it take before I am awakened? The practice is seen as a journey, not a destination. Neither do they ask, “Why do I practice?” The question becomes irrelevant. There is no attachment to outcome; there is no self-preoccupation with motive. There is no separation between self and practice, just as there is no separation between the dancer and the dance. It would be like asking a bird why it flies, or why a fish swims or a dog barks.

If you ask someone who has a lifelong commitment to practice, why do they practice they would probably reply that they did not know why – and proceed to put out the garbage bin.

Discussing levels of motivation and commitment inevitably brings up issues of comparison or self-recriminations of laziness. To quote Yasutani Roshi again, he was once asked how much sincerity one needed to practice Zen. “He replied ten percent is enough. If we were one hundred percent sincere we would be fully enlightened.”

Sincerity is something that just grows like grass grows if we do the practice. It is a movement from complexity to simplicity, from strategy to no strategy. Of course everyone begins practice and continues practice because we all want to be happy but the movement towards one hundred percent sincerity is the growing realisation that I can’t be completely happy if others are not. My work is not done.

One of the points of practice we often remind ourselves of in the Ordinary Mind Zen School is practicing with resistance. It is resistance to life and resistance to practice that is the source of our suffering. But instead of criticizing ourselves for having it or letting it run our lives, we can bring mindfulness to the very experience of resistance itself.

What happens when we wake up in the morning and we just don’t feel like sitting in meditation? “There are other things that are more important to get done.,” we say, or “I feel a bit irritated or anxious at the moment so I will do it later.” We can run from the resistance or we can sit and experience our irritation or anxiety and feel the body sensation for what it is. This way lack of motivation or resistance, whatever we may call it, becomes grist for the mill.

Ultimately, whether we practice or don’t practice rests with us and comes from within ourselves. No one can make us do it. If we are looking for a teacher to constantly inspire us or motivate us to practice, we will become disillusioned when they inevitably fail. Motivation that comes from the outside will never sustain itself. The motivation for practice comes simply from looking into this present moment as it is and being willing to experience its edge of unsatisfactoriness if that is what is present or seeing its immeasurable wonder and love and joy if that is what is present. There is no practice or motivation for practice outside of this.

At the end of each day of a Zen sesshin there is an evening motivational message that is recited by one of sesshin leaders:

I beg to urge you everyone
Life and death is a grave matter
All things pass quickly away
Each of you must be completely alert
Never neglectful, never indulgent.

If we take this to heart and look into our own experience it is an endless source of motivation in every moment of our everyday lives. I can walk down to the corner store in two different ways. In the first way I can be thinking of all the things I have to do that day, little irritations about this and that, caught up in my own little bubble of thinking and being completely oblivious to my moment to moment experience – or I can walk down to the corner store being present to the act of walking, seeing the trees and gardens and acknowledging other people as they pass by, hearing the sounds of birds and traffic. I know which one is the most fulfilling and satisfying. I don’t need to keep reading about it in a book or have some else tell me.

I ask myself, do I want to waste my precious human life thinking petty thoughts? Do I want to waste my precious human life being stingy, or impatient, or critical of others? The motivational shift from self-centred delusion to the Awakened Life is there in one moment.

Dharma Talks