Putting Down Our Burden

by Rev. Nonin Chowaney
Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center

What a relief to put down our burden, all the baggage we carry with usĖour likes, dislikes, unfinished work, hopes, regretsĖand enter this moment free.

I experienced this during our last one-day sitting. After lunch, I sat down on the recliner in my room with a cup of coffee. I didnít want to be anywhere else. The coffee, the softness of the chairís cushions, the dog hair on the rug, the sunlight streaming in the windowĖit was enough. I felt complete.

Like a mountain climber taking off his pack at the top of the mountain and plopping down in the snow, I felt so relieved to sit down unencumbered, and I felt grateful just to be here, in this small temple in Omaha, in sesshin, sitting zazen, eating simple food with good dharma friends, all in silence. Gratitude welled up and included all my teachers, my parents, all the buddhas and ancestors, all bodhisattvas, all beings who support our lives and make it possible for us to live, to be here, to bloom in this moment. What more is needed?

The poet Charles Bukowski wrote, "Iíve learned to feel good when I feel good." Sitting on the couch, I felt good. And it felt good to feel good. There is enough dissatisfaction and pain in life; we should allow ourselves to feel good whenever possible!

A monk asked Seng Tsían, the third Zen ancestor in China, "What is the path to liberation?" Seng Tsían replied, "Who binds you?" "No one binds me," said the monk. "Why then," asked Seng Tsían, "do you seek liberation?"

Our teaching is that there is nothing to seek. Zazen is an opportunity to enter the present moment in its completeness and simplicity. In a life that has become increasingly complicated, busy, and fragmented, zazen retreats (sesshin) are a great gift, an opportunity to concentrate the mind on the present moment over long periods of time, to engage fully in the practice/realization of awareness, or enlightenment.

I have come to treasure sesshin, to treasure the opportunity to "just sit" and put everything else aside for as long as sesshin lastsĖa day, two days, or seven days. This practice gives us an opportunity to experience the infinite possibilities of our life right in the middle of it.

How often have we heard people say that they have trouble finding the time to sit quietly? What a shame. To people whose hectic lives and large burdens made the practice of zazen difficult and sometimes impossible, my master, Dainin Katagiri, would say, "I feel sorry for you." When I felt complete the other day in my room, I thought of the many people having difficulty in their lives who donít have the opportunity to experience sesshin, and I felt so grateful for this practice, for the opportunity to see, with the inner eye of wisdom, that this moment is perfect exactly as it is, full a complete, beyond positive or negative, beyond good or bad. It just is.

Our teaching, the wisdom of the awakened ones, is that the deepest life of all the Buddhas and ancestors can be completely realized in petting the cat or bowing during morning service. In the words of the 13th century Zen monk/ poet Muso Soseki:

In the real world the pure world

no separation exists

why wait

for another time

and another meeting

the teaching

on Vulture Peak is here today who else

are you looking for

to preserve the Way?

(trans. W.S. Merwin and Soiku Shigematsu)

Who else and where else indeed? Vulture Peak was the place where Shakyamuni Buddha gave his dharma talks 2500 years ago. We create Vulture Peak every time we gather for dharma talks. We create the Buddhadharma in our daily lives. If it doesnít exist here, where can it exist? As ideas in our heads? As words in a book? I donít think so.

In Zen Mind, Beginnerís Mind, ShunryuSuzuki talks about "limiting your activity." By this he meant to "concentrate on what you are doing in this moment." This in itself is awakening, for, in his words, if you "limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can express fully your true nature, which is the Buddha nature," the nature of the fully-liberated ones. When we practice in this way, taking the dog for a walk or reading the morning paper after breakfast becomes Buddha activity, complete, full of wonder and mystery, with nothing lacking; all we have to do is be here in this moment.

I have come to appreciate a simple life. I donít feel like I have to go anywhere or do anything special to be complete. I spent many years chasing after careers, relationships, spectacular states of mind, and "esoteric" teaching; all those desires brought me was frustration, dissatisfaction, and more pain. It wasnít until I met a true Zen master and sat down to look quietly within did a measure of peace and harmony come into my life.

In the words of the old Shaker song, "íTis a gift to be simple, íTis a gift to be free." And where do we finds these gifts? We already have them. All we have to do is realize it. Sit down, calm the mind, and let things be.

Reprinted from Prairie Wind, Vol. 23, Issue 3, Winter 2013.
© Copyright Nonin Chowaney, 2013

Nonin Sensei is the Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center and a disciple of Dainin Katagiri Roshi.

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