Sitting Guidelines and the Precepts

Dharma Talk by
Shosan Victoria Austin
President of the San Francisco Zen Center May 19, 2001

Part 2

Today we're in a one-day sitting. There are 86 people sitting all day. We have some guidelines that we're using today to help stay aligned with each other and with our intention. Often we think of these guidelines, or the schedule, as rules, but they aren't. They're ways to develop a stable sitting environment, and a stable internal and external environment, so that we can really deeply realize when we are aligned and when we are not aligned. Then we can realize something of the nature of what we're aligned with, such as the teachings.
I'll just read them. If you're not doing the sitting, they might be interesting anyway. The first one is the schedule. Everybody's sharing a schedule today, and we're actually trying to be in the zendo or at work today just exactly when it says to. For zazen, of course, we're trying to be in the zendo five minutes before it says to, because that's how the signals go. The schedule is something to line ourselves up with, to align ourselves with, and, if we miss part of the schedule or have resistance, to notice what's happening there.

Another thing we're trying to do is to maintain silence. Do you notice how in a day such as today, where we're sitting zazen, everybody shares this tendency to internally comment, or even to externally comment, on what's going on? Like to bump into someone and say, "Oh, excuse me"? Those are habits. So we're trying to let go of some of the habits of speech that we have and to maintain silence. Also we’re maintaining a silence of the eyes, to let the eyes settle instead of looking at people, and we’re trying to avoid social gestures so that we can really focus on what's going on. To acknowledge people, instead of saying, "Hi, how are you doing?" we're using this gesture [puts palms together in gesture of gassho]. This gesture is not a social gesture. It's a gesture that's been used for thousands of years, not just since Buddha, but way before that.

This gesture is called gassho in Japanese, and namaskar or anjali in Sanskrit in India. It basically is bowing to the awake nature of some one or some thing, and it's a way to remember to take refuge. As we pass someone in the hall, that's what we do. We just bow. We're acknowledging them on the deepest possible level. It's as if we're not damning the people we meet with faint praise. Do you know what we mean by not talking to them socially and saying, "Hi, how are you?" We're letting them be exactly who they are and meeting them in the deepest and most fundamental way.

To let go of some of the habits of discursive thought that often lead to speech or to looking around, and so on, we're also taking a day not to do things that promote discursive thought, like reading or writing or speaking, but also checking the watch a lot. We're turning off cell phones today, and any kind of explaining, comparing, or counting, if you notice that in yourself when you're doing the sitting today. If you're not doing the sitting, you might try this for five minutes. Anytime you notice yourself checking the clock, or going out after a sense impression, or comparing something with something else, you might notice, “oh, discursive thought, discursive thought,” and let go of it.

It's a little like swimming upstream, because we're always involved in that kind of activity. Because we have to have something to focus on, if we're not focusing on discursive thought or comparing or judgment or something, let's focus instead on maintaining a sense of mindful rhythm and movement throughout the day. Let’s focus on giving each moment complete attention, doing each thing for its own sake, staying grounded in what's happening today, now. One way to work with that is, if there's an object that you need to relate to, such as a cup, you might try holding it with both hands. Even if you're holding it with one hand, know where the other hand is. Feel that object's weight and temperature, and how wet or dry it is. Actually take the time to be with what we're doing. It's delicious when we do that. It is.

So, we lose it. Moment after moment we lose it. Suzuki Roshi said, "Everything is always falling out of balance against a background of perfect harmony." You know what you do when you lose it, right? People do different things. Some people say, "Oh that didn't matter anyway. That's not important, let's just lose it again." Or some people might say: "You lost it! Bad you! I mean, Me!" [hitting herself] But let's not bother with that today, okay? Instead, just say, "Losing it. Losing it." Then just return to whatever the intention is, and do this in the sitting, also, because you know what distracts us. Coffee. I want coffee. Or, I want something. I know I want something. So we're also doing the practice of just eating and drinking what's offered. There's tea and coffee offered in the dining room all during the sitting. So, instead of going on a searching mission for the perfect thing, we just accept what's given to us. It’s the same with the seat that we have, the person we're sitting next to, and so on.

For the day, renounce everything outside of these practices, not in a killing way but in a nourishing way. Nourishing means that we're nourishing our own capacity for devotion and awakeness by expressing that devotion in this day. Be kind to yourself, because none of these practices is something that we can just jump right into and say, "Oh, I'm going to be completely mindful now, one hundred percent, all day long. That's what I'm going to do, starting now!” Life doesn't work that way. We have to build up to it. As Geeta Iyengar taught me, we can't go forward with the courage that we think we have. We have to build it up through building up physical, emotional, and mental stability in experiencing certain kinds of mistakes. That's how we build ourselves up. So be kind. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to learn bit by bit.

The point of this is that zazen is the union of thoroughly peaceful alignment, an alignment of a thoroughly peaceful and stable body, speech and mind with insight. When we're thoroughly peaceful, stable, and harmonious, we have cultivated the best possible conditions for insight, and when those are yoked (you know “yoga” means “yoke” or “united”), when those are yoked, stability and penetration, that's another way of seeing zazen.

I brought "show and tell" today. Do you see this? [She points to a framed leaf on the altar] It's a leaf. This is a leaf from a Bodhi tree. A Bodhi tree is the tree under which Buddha sat the week before he became a buddha. He was awakened under the Bodhi tree. I just want to tell you the story of this particular leaf. About twenty years ago, somebody came to Zen Center with three seedlings of Bodhi trees that they had brought. They were cuttings, scions, of the actual Bodhi tree in India, the one that Buddha sat under. After Buddha died, one of his followers, King Ashoka, developed Buddhism all over India, and he also taught it to his family. He expressed it as a value within his family. King Ashoka's daughter went around India and actually planted Bodhi trees and set up stupas and monuments to her dad and to Buddha. So the three seedlings were cuttings from trees that King Ashoka's daughter planted to commemorate Buddha's awakening and to honor her father.

Maybe it wasn't twenty years ago. Maybe it was eighteen years ago. I was the work leader at San Francisco Zen Center at that time, and those seedlings came to me because people said: "Oh, we can't take care of those. They're warm climate trees. We can't take care of those. They can't really live outside." I said I'd take care of them. Then a few years later I gave the trees to three different teachers. One to Zentatsu Richard Baker, one to Issan Tommy Dorsey, and one to Sojun Mel Weitsman, and Sojun's lived. This is a leaf from that tree. Sojun is the person from whom I received the authorization to teach. He taught me. Any good that you get from this lecture comes from him and other teachers, and the mistakes are mine.

This quality of taking care of the tree is the quality of aligning the body with the precepts. It's tricky to take care of a Bodhi tree in a place that a Bodhi tree didn't actually grow up. It's difficult to transplant a Bodhi tree, but if you water it not too much and not too little, and if you put it in the right size pot, and if you make sure that it gets the right amount of sunlight, and you like the tree and care for the tree, the tree will live.

Actually, I'll tell you another story. There was a twelve-year-old girl a few years ago. (You may have read this in the Chronicle.) She had 150 beans, magic beans, the same variety. She planted them, fifty in each of three different containers. The first fifty, that was her control group, she just took care of them. She watered them at the right time. She did that with all of them. She watered them at the right time. And she had them in the same kind of pot with the same kind of soil. That's all she did. To the second fifty she said "Good seedlings. Good seedlings. Good seedlings, you're doing just what you're supposed to do. Please grow." And to the last fifty she said, "Bad seedlings. Bad seedlings. Bad beans! Can't you grow faster? What's wrong with you?" There was actually a difference in the height of the three groups of seedlings. The ones she treated nicely grew a half-inch more than the ones she yelled at. Did you read that story in the [San Francisco] Chronicle? It was in the Chronicle so it must be true [laughter].

So, in the practice, I think that most of us don't have to worry about insight today. Let's just worry about the calm and peaceful abiding part of it. Most of us need to look at that part. That's like the soil and the water for our Bodhi seedling. Nourishment, appropriate nourishment of the body, giving the body what it needs: bodies respond well to that. Bodies like rhythm and they like not too much and not too little sleep, and good food that you actually notice and appreciate as you're eating it. Bodies like having the presence of like-minded friends close by, just so you know that, and these are actually the exact conditions in which Buddha's practice of calm stability can grow. You need good resources so that you can actually hear the teaching, and so that, you will be able, in a gentle way, to hear and consider the teaching, and remove and let go of false views of the essentials of practice. You will be able to let go of unwholesome thoughts, unwholesome conceptions, and even neutral ones that aren't so good for practice, such as "Oh, I'm going to be late!" or "I can't do this," –more neutral, anyway, than, "You jerk! I can't stand sitting next to you!"

Other ways to water the seeds of enlightenment are to be satisfied and content with the conditions that we have now, instead of saying, "Oh no, I'm old and I need to be young in order to sit." I need to say, "This is the body I am practicing with, what do you want body? Good body!" Those are conditions for internally and externally nourishing the sprout.
We will practice the precepts in a literal way, so that we really do not kill, we really do not steal. This will make our conditions far less complicated, so there will be a lot fewer distracting things. The precepts, practiced in an ultimate way, directly nourish and feed energy to the sprout of awakening within us. Just let go of and abandon things that are outside of your deepest intention, just for the day.

I could go on for another hour or two, but I won't. I just want you to know that you are my like-minded friends, and that I appreciate your being here today. Whether you're here for the first time or the millionth time, you wouldn't come here if you weren't interested in being awake. Whether this is your first sitting, and you're kind of bumbling around showing pure beginner's mind, or whether this is your millionth sitting, and you're kind of bumbling around expressing a kind of a rote way of doing it, or complete awakening, or whatever, thank you for helping me practice today.

© Copyright Shosan Victoria Austin, 2001

Zen Talks Page Home Page