Tesshin opened his talk by showing the group a curious looking device. He then proceeded to talk about man’s search for the mythical perpetual motion machine. The universe is boundless so it follows that there must be a super abundance of energy. If this is the case, why does it seem to take so much effort to do anything? Why do we have to work so hard to tap into something which is supposedly unlimited?
Spiritual traditions have pondered this question throughout time. In the west, we talk about the “fall of man.” The story goes that humanity used to have access to unlimited energy with no effort, but then humanity tasted the apple from the tree of knowledge and everything changed. We got evicted from Eden! We now had to expend effort and that was hard! Humanity has been trying to get back into the state of Eden for as long as there has been history. We built machines to substitute for muscle force, but nothing is perfect – the machines create pollution and other negative side effects. Even modern technology is not free of drawbacks. For example, a solar cell may not emit carbon, but its manufacture and eventual disposal is very harmful to the environment.
At this point, Tesshin activated his “interesting device.” It was essentially a set of weights and magnets. While obviously not a perpetual motion machine, it will run for quite a long time. After a few moments, Tesshin suddenly changed the orientation of the machine and all of the parts shot off in different directions. He observed that energy, balance, and moderation are important for the smooth operation of the machine.
So how does this discussion on energy and balance affect and relate to our practice. Tesshin mentioned that It turns out that when people talk about practice, the biggest comment is that it is hard to maintain consistency over time. This should not come as a surprise! Tesshin admitted that even he has his ups and downs with practice. (Something that should hearten all of us when we think we are failures at Zazen!) So how do we keep practice alive when things get difficult? Is there a boundless source of energy which we can tap?
Tesshin asked us to consider the following thought experiment. If you suddenly desired a chocolate bar, how much effort would it be to reach for one in the cupboard. Not much – after all you desire it!! Next, imagine it is 8 pm at night and it is time to sit Zazen. You say to yourself, “I really SHOULD do Zazen now.” How much effort does that take? Tesshin wagered that on certain nights, it probably takes quite a bit! Tesshin mentioned that the science is pretty clear – people have a lot less willpower than they think they do. So how do we generate the will to practice? One answer is to ask yourself what do you most DESIRE. What do you desire more than fame, money, and respect of your peers? The Buddha realized so many years ago that we are all the same thing – and what we really desire is to be free of suffering and to have equanimity. Tesshin reminded us that the Buddha taught that one of the best ways to satisfy that desire is the practice of seated meditation.
Tesshin paused here to let this sink in. DESIRE is the perpetual motion machine – the source of boundless power inside of us which can drive our practice forward. We cannot think our way to enlightenment, equanimity, and happiness. Desire is the necessary force. However, he warned us that we have to use this energy skillfully. Just like the machine, desire without balance causes everything to go flying off in different directions. In our example, at 8 pm “I SHOULD” do Zazen becomes “I DESIRE” to be happy – as such I need to do Zazen to achieve that goal.
Wrapping up, Tesshin again showed the device and compared it to our lives. The magnet is desire and the balance is skillfulness. Our tradition talks a lot about desire being an impediment, but that is normally thought of as desire which is out of balance. Desire pointed at what we really want can be a boundless source of positive energy in our lives.
(Tesshin with his “perpetual motion” machine)