In this practice you need to be ruthless with yourself. That’s not as bad as it sounds. You have to be willing to look at what’s going on, to not pretend that nothing is going on, and have the guts to see it. You also need the determination to do something about it, because all of that stuff is what’s in your way. That’s your karma, your cause and effect. It’s what’s going to be twirling around your head, as you’re sitting and as you’re going through your life, as you try to be with others, live and enjoy your life, and realize yourself.
So you need to look at it, and for that you need courage. Most of us, at least for a very long time, defend against seeing it. It’s not just that we don’t want others to see it, we also don’t want to see it ourselves, because it might make us feel bad. Feeling bad is not a disease. If, for instance, you see that you lack willpower and you feel bad about that, that’s ok. Just don’t go on a whining jag about it. If you see that you tend to give your power away and work to please others, that doesn’t mean you’re bad. Seeing these small things is what will eventually stop your headaches.
This practice needs to be really real. I used to study Kung Fu, and I did well because I had no talent whatsoever. I was not big or heavy, and I didn’t have a lot of athletic prowess. But I did have a wonderful teacher who had faith in me and who saw that I had fast limbs, so he taught me to hit fast. In a sense, that’s always how you learn, you need to find a teacher that can lead you from the front like that. Your responsibility is to look at what you’re putting in the way.
My teacher had encouraged me every year to test for rank. He videoed us and made us look at ourselves, and I wish I could do that with my students. It was a humbling experience.
One time, we sat watching a video of me together.
“I look like a lummox,” I said.
“Well, you did lose weight,” he said.
“Well, you look better.”
“Yeah, but I’m not doing any better. ”
He didn’t say anything.
But I kept at it, and I found out something about studying like that, that even if you don’t have any talent, if you have the determination to keep going you will easily surpass people who had more talent to begin with. That’s the secret of excellence. It’s just you, straight ahead, straight ahead.
Finally I got better, and even became an assistant instructor. For this teacher however, the better you got the more he tortured you. His classes were always two hours, and during the humid summers in New York he’d close the windows so there was no air. Because I was an advanced student I had to fight before the class and after the class, so that added another hour of full-out aerobic activity. One time I was fighting with someone after class, already three hours into it without much rest. We stopped for a second and I went over to the side, leaned on the wall and wiped the sweat off my forehead. He saw me do that and came over to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “Do you think this is a country club?” Then he turned around and walked away.
He taught me something I will never forget, which is that if you’re going to practice, practice.
There’s an old Zen saying, “If you’re going to sit, sit. If you’re going to stand, stand. Above all, don’t wobble.” For some of you, that means don’t whine either.
We’re traveling on this river that is our life. Where does the river go? It doesn’t go anywhere, sorry. Time passes and you die. You row, row, row, and you’re dead. Bernie Roshi said that the first American gatha is, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” We use that same knowledge with rowing the river. You’re not going anywhere.
The first illusion that you can get rid of is that you’re immortal. You’re not. You’re just here for a while, passing through. The being of a person who’s just passing through is different than the being of someone who will be here forever. To accept that you’re just passing through, through this river of dreams, is to begin to embrace it. Can you embrace it?
Everything that happens here happens in a dream, in a bubble. Our minds reduce it to something less than a miracle, but everything that happens here is a miracle. Every breath you take is a miracle, every house, every tree. Life and death is a miracle. No one understands it.
After you travel for a while, you might stop worrying about going anywhere and begin wondering what you should do. What else is there to do but to check out the river, swim in it? Strangely enough, when the life-death story that you’ll be here forever starts to dissipate, traveling on the river can become kind of fun. For the first time, you are there, the only place you will ever be, called here, now.
You sit around and watch the waves. To see these waves is to see beyond the colors they have. The waves you have to see are the ones beyond description. They have no yesterday, today, or tomorrow. This wave is just that wave. This wave is not the wave that came from that wave. This moment is just this moment, the next moment is just the next moment. In this way, you reincarnate millions of times, moment to moment. You reincarnate again and again to the same place, the place that has no colors, the place that has no time.
The other place that has time, life, and death — rowing to get somewhere — is in thought. When you sit and forget yesterday, today, tomorrow, you forget to try to get anywhere. You forget to check on how you’re doing. You’re a traveller in the beautiful, colorless wave. Right now there’s no colors out there. It’s gorgeous, and no-one can describe it.
Daniel Doen Silberberg, Roshi, is a Zen teacher, author and founder of Lost Coin Zen, Inc., an international non-profit Zen training organization based in San Francisco. Roshi received Zen transmission in the White Plum Lineage in 2006 and Inka in 2015, after 35 years of traditional practice with three Zen teachers. Prior to that he spent 15 years studying with Fourth Way teachers and received permission to teach Fourth Way groups. Doen’s teaching is focused on creating a meaningful practice for students who live thoroughly modern lives with families, relationships and careers, but who also have a strong desire to practice The Way.