Zen is not some kind of excitement,
but concentration on our usual everyday routine.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki-roshi follows this compelling insight with his description of how we humans become lost when caught up in excitement and the overwhelming busyness of daily life. In 1969, a year before the book was published, I experienced this truth face to face, still new to Zen practice, consumed with the many questions of the newcomer.
In the fall of that year, I attended a ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center, followed by an informal lunch where we sat side by side at long tables in the dining room. Finding myself sitting across from Suzuki-roshi, I felt a rush of anticipation, immediately thinking: “Here is a chance to ask my questions!” Not wanting to seem anxious or intrusive, I waited for eye contact to occur by chance. But Suzuki-roshi did not look up; his eyes and his attention remained solely on the food placed before him. Remaining silent, I observed how attentively he picked up his bowl, how he embraced the simple meal with care.
My eagerness to ask questions went into remission; my compulsion to speak evaporated. I kept my awareness on the mindful way he handled his utensils and bowls and, by contrast, how I handled mine. The quiet meal ended with the sound of clappers and a short chant. We bowed, our eyes met across the table, and we greeted each other, spoke for a few moments and parted. I no longer felt the need to ask a question. From that time, I knew I wanted to live with such simplicity and ease, not caught up in eagerness for stimulation and attention.
We come to practice because we want to live truthfully, without guile, to know the fundamental truth at the heart of our lives, beyond complexities. We want to see life with clarity, in its most simple terms, so that there is no confusion, no need to speculate a meaning. Yet our ever-active, analytical mind can easily lose the quality of simplicity.
Continuous, consistent practice enables us to see our impulses and desires, to recognize our ego in action, how it protects the image of a made-up self. Zazen practice trains the mind to suspend the frantic currents of mental activity, to see life with humility, to quiet our insistence on emotional arousal.
Establishing Zen practice in the United States faces a number of challenges, including how our modern way of life continually creates multiple energies and how it uses and is used by them. In today’s world, we are attracted to excitement, inspired by high energy, demanded of us as expressions of creativity and leadership in industry, sports, entertainment, and politics, necessary to achieve personal and social goals.
So our mission at Kannon Do is faced with a challenge: how can our quiet, contemplative, selfless practice penetrate the walls of the never-at-rest, ambitious, goal-oriented world we live in? As we explore this vital question, little by little we gain understanding. It is not a short-term project; there is no guarantee of success any time soon, but the way the world is going the effort is necessary.
Buddhists and Zen practitioners understand how we are led astray by the pursuit of goals and success, how we compromise with the truth. And we understand that trying to outwit life is futile. We practice so that we can feel alive by seeing and living the truth, not by ego-fueled concerns derived from personal ambition.
In the flower sermon sutra, disciples assemble to listen to a talk by the Buddha. Remaining silent, he holds up a flower. The monks do not understand his gesture, except Mahakashapa, who smiles, and so becomes the Buddha’s successor. Suzuki-roshi’s way inspires us by quiet confidence and simplicity, rather than high energies. Enlightenment —the truth — is simple, close at hand. Let’s be careful not to chase it away with complexity.
Abbot of Kannon Do