Tesshin opened his talk this week pondering on how we can proceed on the Bodhisattva path in the middle of so many challenges. The days are now getting shorter and colder and Covid is forcing us to self-isolate again. It is a natural reaction to pull in a bit and ‘hibernate.’ Needless to say, this is not what we want to do! So, how can we be empowered and happy and balanced in our training during this challenging time?
Tesshin mentioned that a Zen minister friend of his has a simple recipe for this exact situation. Basically, it consists of three ingredients:
Bearing Witness: This is the act of being able to sit with equanimity and without judgement. This step encourages us to take in all the aspects of the world, both positive and negative.
Tesshin noted, that if we don’t have a practice, it is so easy to become overwhelmed with everything going on. The cup is full – there is no capacity to grow and help others. Tesshin mentioned that this is the point of our work on the cushion. We need to calm the mind so that we can open up and see what really “is” without the ego constantly judging, categorizing, and forming detailed plans. The challenge is to simply experience everything directly and authentically.
Taking Care: This is the step of actually taking action in the world.
Zen has often been criticized as being a wholly theoretical practice. This is actually incorrect! Once we have actually experienced the world impartially, we have the chance to take the “skillful” or correct action. The main point here is that with a clear and stable mind, our decision-making process is much more robust. Decisions are less governed by emotion or stories from our past, rather they are grounded in a clear understanding of the present situation in front of us.
Make the World a Better Place: What are the guiding principles driving action?
Properly apprehending reality and having clear decision-making processes is not enough. What is the goal of right-action? Zen teaches the importance of all sentient beings and that the alleviation of suffering must be our highest aim. How do you make the voice of universal compassion heard? Can you go out into the real world and actually change karma? This is something we should ask every day. It is important to remember that the laws of karma are not always obvious. What may seem like a small act of kindness will echo through reality with the sound of thunder due to how karma works.
Tesshin next related this to a situation in his own life. He started a book called “Caste” which about race relations in America. He wondered out loud how he could “bear witness” to something deeply disturbing like this with everything else going on in his life. It is not enough to simply read a book and acknowledge facts. One must read, understand, and take affirmative steps to change karma. This is a tall order! Tesshin admitted he was overwhelmed even though he has a strong practice. Part of the Bodhisattva way is understanding yourself as you really are in this moment! Tesshin admitted that right now he could not even properly bear witness to this work. The best and most clearheaded decision was to shift to “self-care” in order to recharge. How can you change karma when your own life situation is demanding immediate attention? The Buddhist tradition and many other spiritual traditions remind us of this fact. Universal compassion includes the self. You too are a sentient being. This is part of bearing witness to reality with absolute authenticity and then making skillful decisions.
Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us that, first and foremost, a strong and consistent practice is key to happiness. This is because it allows the mind to settle which allows us to see reality and properly bear witness. Once we have that, we can apply universal compassion to actually start improving the karma of the world which is not a bad goal for us to take into this period of time.