Lecture by F.Nakagawa Roshi on September 8th, 2008
Today is the eighth day of this sesshin. The day after tomorrow, on the tenth day, it will finished. Ten days are a good bit of time. But I want to add, that two weeks were even better, and if possible a whole month or three months. This would then be a complete practice period as it was already practised in Buddha’s time. In India they have the rainy season. Because they could not wander then, monks and nuns stayed at a special place during the rainy season and practised together for 90 days, called “ango” in Japanese. This tradition came later on to China. There, it is the winter season when they cannot wander. The Chinese introduced the winter ango for this reason, later on even a summer ango, that is two training periods per year. During these seasons the monks and nuns had to stay in the monastery. If one of them was encountered outside the monastery during these times, people were wondering: is this really a monk, a nun?
Sadly, the training periods both in China and Japan have lost more and more of their original content, they have developed into formalism over time, a mere ritual. In our times, the classical ango has almost disappeared apart from some small monasteries in Japan and the USA.
Ango training meant originally: getting up at 2 am and going to sleep at 10 pm for ninety days, that is less than four hours of sleep per night. On top of that there was only one meal per day. Buddha called this kind of practice ‘to go the middle way’. Things were different back the. People led a much harder life, not only monks but also peasants, fishermen and merchants. Despite of that strenuous practice, Buddha lived to an age of 80 years. This was extraordinary in those time. Today it is nothing special, people live a lot longer on average than in earlier times. Has the quality of life improved though?
Sawaki Kodo Roshi, who belonged to the generation of my grandfather, had revived this kind of practice. He got up with his collegues at 2 am and went to sleep at 10 pm. To be precise: he did not lie down, he slept while sitting, in Zazen posture. Every now and then he fell over on to the floor. I have tried this practice myself, in the mill in Allgäu. It is only poassible to do if one gets used to it slowly. Above all you need a very strong spiritual desire, a strong will and a good physical condition, balanced food and of course a regular daily routine. Everything has to be right.
Once there was a report on television about this training in a Japanese Rinzai monastery. At the beginning of the Rohatsu sesshin they removed their futons and beds. The monks slept then on their cushions. It was also the only Kyosaku free time, i.e. the monks were not hit with the Kyosaku when they slept while sitting. One could see some younger monks, students who had just come from universities in the big cities, who were not used to this kind of sesshin, or the monks life for taht matter. They fell constantly asleep during the sesshin, even during the day. It was hard for them.
One has to be used to such practice. Only when everything fits together, eating, sitting, working, daily routine, one can reach a state of mind where life is joyful and easy. I have understood through my own experience that such a training is not ascetic, even though it looks like it.
In any case, monks had to be very healthy back then. They wandered around a lot, China is big. They hat to walk thousands of kilometres to see a master. Some did not make it. There is a dialogue conveyed, that Tozan-Zenji had with a dying monk. When the monk asked where he would go after he died, Master Tozan answered: “You will go where the mulberry tree grows.” That means simply: you will be enterred there under this tree. This answer is so simple, so dry. Life back then meant, much more directly than today, to be always prepared to die. Wandering around meant not only to walk thousands of miles but to constantly risk your life, it was always about life and death. How could anyone see a master if he weren’t prepared to seriously risk his life? “Every day is a good day” means really: “Every day a matter of life and death.”
Compared to that, our lives today are very temperate, very protected. We take it for granted that we are alive. That is why we sometimes can hardly feel life in its entire reality. This is big disadvantage. We should really very consciously be aware of and get back what we really need. That is why we turn down the light when we sit in the morning and in the evening, food is kept plain and we do not use many extras when preparing it.
We think Asia and Africa are poor. But there is an advantage to that. People live more with nature. We should awaken the fundamental force of life within us again, otherwise we can’t feel anymore that we are really here.
Usually, when a difficulty arises, for instance an illness, we react with thoughts and emotions. Maybe we regret not having adequate insurance. Such a reaction is inappropriate und superfluous, it is a very limited reaction. We cannot accept the difficulty, all we do is complain about ourselves and others.
Zazen is not a practice that brings peace. All people have difficulties in their lives. Whoever does not have a problem is either a saint or a fool. There are also foolish saints. Actually, a saint could appear to be a fool because he does not care about worldly things – just like a fool.
We are living in a so-called civilised world. When we practice Zazen we should always be aware that our situation could change any time. We should be ready for that. A marriage, for instance, is like health insurance: health insurance doesn’t protect us from illness and a prenuptial doesn’t protect us from changes in the relationship. There is no security at all. Life always brings something new, in relationships and for ourselves. Society today looks like it would always be stable. That is of course not true. When we calm down and reflect on life within ourselves, we can see that.
Peace means to practice peace. It begins with making peace with and within ourselves, to deal with our pain and injuries and transform the related emotions. If we then still see the fault in others, we will never be at peace, because others, whom we see as the culprits, will always appear before us.
If we had to walk without shoes on all kinds of ground it would soon be very painful, we could hurt ourselves. If we wear good, solid shoes, we can wander tolerably wherever we like. These solid shoes are like our rigid and stable practice. The past is not only something we are clearly conscious of. As we become calmer, many things and stories start to surface from the unconscious. We have to try and deal with these stories. To do that, we need to be willing to do that. This willingness is very important, because only then can our mind deal with our history in a truly wholesome way.
Sometimes we get a feeling, as if we already had been here at this or another place. There people who seem to know that very precisely. Such things are not talked about in the original Buddha teachings. This also includes questions about how the world was created or how it would end. Because in India people have often talked about reincarnation and similar topics, that we don’t know anything about, Buddha only taught how we are now, what makes our lives here and now. That doesn’t mean there is no past. Whatever we need to know in this very moment, will be given to us if our heart is receptive. Whatever we learn this way can only be a small snippet and never the whole. This self-reflecting truth is the core of the practice of a student.
“Sitting long and getting tired”. If I can feel that clearly, if I as a human being am fully aware of that then there is no exaggeration. It is also clear, that there are no regrets and no expectations. Everything has been completed, I am as I am, that, for instance, I receive a cup of tea now. In this very moment we practise the origin of life.
And so is our shared eating practice. There is no life without food. We practice together the origin of life in the form of eating practice. We form two groups. One group serves the food, the other receives it. The one receiving the food gives only a tiny sign: thank you, it is enough. The receiving are being served. The ones who serve feel good because they can serve others in this shared practice. A sacred community forms and we can feel the origin of life. Also the room in which we sit is holy, spiritually pure. There are no ego-wishes, no ego-expectations, no ego-arrogance, no ego-hatred. Everyone practising here, respects himself and the others, meets the others with an open heart. This sacred force is present in all, everyone is wholesome and the room in which we practise reflects in a healing way on the practitioners. This is how the origin of life affects every single one.
This should actually be the basis of life in a community. What else could there be? Ego-centred and profit oriented craving? They only lead to hatred and dissatisfaction because there is never enough, compared to others. This is the cause of all suffering. We consciously practise the cause of suffering, which means we clarify the cause. We learn how to be peaceful with ourselves and through that meet others in a wholesome way. This is the basis of life inyour family, in your relationships and in society. It leads to: “Every day is a good day”.