A Conversation with Patricia Phelan


AMH: Pat, I think of enlightenment as the goal of Buddhism, but you speak, to a large extent, about Buddhist practice. Why?

PP: Once, when an American student was visiting Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese priest who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, the student asked why Suzuki Roshi never spoke about enlightenment in his talks. At that time, in the 1960s, most of the books available on Zen were by D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Paul Reps, and they had a lot of material about enlightenment and the enlightenment experience, but little, if any, on how to actually practice. So, in effect, this de-emphasized practice, and enlightenment became the most well-known aspect of Zen in the West. And of course, it was described in very attractive terms as something quite desirable to attain.

Today, there are a number of books about how to get enlightened, often expressing the attitude that getting it will reduce, or do away with, all the little irritating hassles that creep into our daily lives. So, this “enlightenment” is a way not only to become successful but to separate oneself from the irritations everyone else seems to be stuck with.

For example, when you are on the freeway, when there is construction, and it begins to narrow with the warning “left lane ends 1,500 feet, merge right,” my husband heard someone say once that he believed the sign applied to everyone else. This person actually thought that he had the special insight to know that if you wait until the last minute to merge and jump in at the front of the line, it’s much faster, and that people who don’t do that are just not so bright or suckers. But the enlightened person, according to Buddhism, isn’t exempt from following the rules; rather, the enlightened person has the freedom to choose not to react with irritation when others don’t follow the rules.

To go back to my story, Suzuki Roshi’s wife was present, and she replied to the student’s question, saying that Suzuki Roshi didn’t talk about enlightenment because he had never had it. This was her sense of humor, but it’s also indicative of the way enlightenment is downplayed in Soto Zen. The concept of enlightenment isn’t used as a way to advertise or create a market for Zen practice, and whatever enlightenment we may experience cannot be sustained apart from practice.

AMH: So what is the result of practice? Why sit still for so long in zazen?

PP: Real zazen begins when we stop trying to accomplish something, when we give up any hopes and expectations of what we want to experience in zazen or of what we want practice to do for us.

Soto Zen emphasizes daily practice or lifelong practice in which we may have many enlightening experiences, sometimes without knowing it; but enlightenment is not the goal or the finish line in Soto Zen. Our ongoing practice is what is important. Before we know enlightenment, we make our best effort moment by moment, and after we taste our enlightened nature we continue the same practice for all beings. Suzuki Roshi compared practice or practice/enlightenment to going out for a long walk in a heavy mist. When you return, your coat is wet, but you can’t say at what point the coat went from being dry to being wet. Practice works on us in this way. Day after day, breath after breath, we change. But it is hard to locate the point where we can say “before” and “after.” It’s not so much an event as it is a process, one that continues as long as we practice, hopefully as long as we live.

AMH: It sounds as if to practice Buddhism, we have to get rid of our delusions or give up our attachments, including attachment to our ego or “self.” Isn’t this painful?

PP: Giving up our ideas about what we are doing, while we are doing it, frees us of our usual self-referential way of being, so we can be alive with everything. Giving up ideas fundamentally means giving up our idea of who we think we are, which frees us of self-evaluation so we are free from the burden of self or self-consciousness. Self-consciousness, our critical faculty that is continually reviewing how we are doing and how others are seeing us, is what is meant by ego in Buddhism. This sense of self or ego is a very, very old habit—the habit of a wrong view of self placed right smack at the center of our experience. Zen practice works on wearing down our belief in ego which is often viewed as the enemy. Trying to fight it or attack it or control it or master it or punish it is to give this annoying habit too much power.

In practice we get to know the process we go through in dividing ourselves, to know it carefully and thoroughly; and instead of rejecting this process, we bring our full and kind attention to it, embracing it the way we might embrace an annoying cousin who is annoying but still part of the family. Accepting what we don’t like about ourselves takes the self-hate away and the pain that goes with it. Knowing the process intimately that we go through when we divide ourselves, allows us to catch on to it sooner. When we give our undivided attention to this process of judging and comparing, we may suddenly become undivided. This is the transformative power of attention, which just notices without judging or trying to change anything.

AMH: How is consciousness different when we are practicing?

PP: Most of us are conditioned to ignore or push aside our thoughts and mental states, other people, and situations that we find demanding or difficult or even boring; as if by disregarding the elements of our internal and external world that aren’t pleasing, they will go away. Practice involves bringing to consciousness or illuminating what we avoid as well as the process by which we go about avoiding what we don’t like. I think these two are related. Rushing through one activity after another, cramming in as much as possible, sacrificing our state of mind, disregarding what doesn’t appeal to us whether it is an irritating person, a disturbing thought, or some trash on the ground, as we go on our way to get to what we think is important or desirable is how we go about disregarding the natural world, how we justify such things as polluting rivers, clear-cutting forests, and creating long-term radioactive waste.

I used to hear about a logging company that owned land in Northern California with old-growth forest on it, and the company wanted to log it. Some of the trees were fourteen hundred years old; and not only were they fourteen hundred years old, they were not causing any harm. It seems strangely arrogant for humans who are twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years old to be making a decision to end the life of something fourteen hundred years old. This arrogance is based on the view that this matters, but that does not, which is how we turn other people, animals, and things into objects, how we objectify the world. It doesn’t work to sacrifice or repress one part of our life and expect to be fully alive in another part.

A question commonly practiced with in Zen is “Who am I?” We may approach this by examining where we draw the line between self and non-self. Thinking does not provide the way. Observe your actions. Your response will inform you. For example, when you pick up a piece of trash, do you pick it up because the piece of trash is your mind, because you recognize it as yourself, or do you pick it up because you hate seeing trash lying around? Do you leave it where it is to remind others that trash is filling our world, so please be careful? Or are you so consumed by your thoughts and mental activity that you don’t even see the trash before you? In Zen practice, there is no single, right response. The emphasis is being awake to how we create our experience.

A version of this interview appears in
Five Voices, Five Faiths,
edited by Amanda Millay Hughes
© Cowley Publications, 2005

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