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Stages of Practice

Lecture by Sojun Mel Weitsman,
April 4, 1981

Reprinted from the Newsletter of the Berkeley Zen Center

One can talk about stages of practice in many different ways. Usually, we don’t talk about any stages. Basically, we say our practice is not a practice of stages. So if we know that our practice is not the practice of step-by-step stages, then we can talk about stages without creating a problem. In Mahayana practice, according to the Avatamsaka Sutra there are fifty-two stages of practice and each one of these is laid out very systematically. Someone once made ten ox herding pictures and those are very useful as a means to talk about practice. Suzuki Roshi simplified it when he talked about three stages of practice. So it depends on how we want to describe something. The way he describes it, the first stage is characterized by the difficulties and procedures that arise when we begin to practice—which may take many years. The second stage is some kind of accomplishment, some actual attainment of calm and settled mind. And the third stage of practice is very much like the first stage again, although you’re not trying to accomplish anything in particular and you just go along with things; but your going along with things helps everyone.
Someone not long ago said that one thing all of us have in common in our practice is resistance. I thought that was a very poignant thing to say. A strong characteristic of the first stage is resistance. The second stage of practice is characterized by no resistance. That’s a kind of a dividing line between the first stage and the second stage. I think that you can tell which stage you’re in.

There is almost always some resistance in the first stage. Even if we don’t want to have resistance, or even if we think we don’t have it, usually it’s there. We call it by various names: one is stubborn ego; another is self-centeredness. Other names are fear, aversion, and clinging. In the first of the ten ox herding pictures, the student is looking for the way and sees traces of the ox, maybe footprints. In the second picture the student is catching a glimpse: We see this practice. We sit zazen. The third picture is where we’re actually engaged: the ox is very difficult to handle. Even as we really become engaged, the ox wants to go its own way. This is characteristic of our life. We want to go our own way, and engaging in practice is like tethering ourselves. Practice starts with engagement. Actually staying with something and limiting ourselves—this is where our trouble begins.

In New York there’s a wonderful fourteenth century tapestry that hangs in the Cloisters, showing a unicorn within a circular fence. The whole scene is very beautiful. In the center there is a tree. The tree is a tethering post. For the young unicorn, there has to be some protection or limitation. The limitation of the fence is the field of practice. If the unicorn sees something outside of the fence that’s very attractive, it may get some desire it wants to pursue. But since the fence is there, it can’t really leave so it turns its attention back onto the field. In Zen the symbol is the ox (water buffalo actually) rather than the unicorn of western tradition. The ox is very strong-willed, so it takes a lot of determination just to get a hold of the ox. Most of us spend a lot of time in the stage of "before tethering," just getting hold of the ox before tying it to the post. Sometimes, just as we get the tether around the post the ox sees some wonderful flower in the field and bounds away. We don’t really want to stifle the ox’s spirit, but there is a need to provide a concentrated environment relatively free of distractions in which to nurture and encourage one in this first stage.

So, for us, our practice of zazen, together with mindfulness in daily life is the tether, and our limited field of activity is the fence. This is the first stage of practice, to actually put ourselves in that position. Up to a certain point we are led in our practice, but when we can let go of the tether, when we can untie the rope and the ox stays willingly within the field, we have that self motivation that comes with the confidence of the second stage. When we know our own deep mind, motivation will come from within rather than from outside. We can call that "settled mind," or "tranquil mind," where we’re not thrown off by waves on the surface of the mind.

When our consciousness is really bottomless and we feel bottomless support, that’s called samadhi—being in touch with our bottomless nature. It means we don’t rest in some idea or level of ideas, but there’s an opening, that goes all the way through. It’s like a bamboo tube which has sections, and each section is divided by a membrane. Dogen describes our consciousness like this—as segmented levels of understanding. When our understanding is no longer segmented, but goes all the way through, our consciousness rests in samadhi, or in whole being. Support is limitless. In the second stage we have that confidence and our mind is calm and we’re not thrown so much by every wave that comes along, but one can take pleasure in riding them.

The third stage is when we no longer remain in some special quiet place but just allow ourselves to return to the first stage of involvement with circumstances as they appear, putting our self in a position that is not necessarily ideal, but riding with difficult circumstances in the world and sharing those difficulties. This is the hardest part, because when we get to the point where we really feel secure, we must be willing to let go. This is the stage where resistance rises again. The first stage is pure because we’re struggling and putting forth our beginner’s effort. The first stage is really a stage of effort—hard effort—and it is a foundation for the second stage. The second stage is a manifestation of the first stage and grows out of it. Maybe that’s a better way to describe it. Without abandoning the effort and purity of the first stage, the second stage is a maturing of the first stage—and the third stage is the maturity growing out of the second stage.

So all three stages are really there together and we don’t usually talk about leaving one and entering another. It’s more like seeing practice from three different perspectives. In the first stage, there are always traces of the second stage and the third stage, and in order to have progress, there has to be some day-to-day continuity. This is the basis of the power of practice.

The stubbornness of resistance is the same stubbornness it takes to practice. The result is proportional to the effort. Resistance is, of course, natural, and as well as being a problem, it’s the problem that it’s necessary to have. We must be able to use resistance. You have to accept the discipline eventually, but you also have to question it: to question it at the same time that you practice it. If you just stand outside of the practice and question it, you’re not being fair to yourself or the practice. It doesn’t work. But to practice and to question at the same time means that you’re sincerely engaged. Not to just stand outside and throw rocks, but to be part of things will show your sincerity. So if you actually get in there and engage along with your doubt, then you have some opportunity for your strong spirit to arise. You oscillate until finally you reconcile it with yourself. Doubt is not a bad thing—it provides a balance to faith and helps give it direction. So it’s OK to have doubts.

Even if you don’t have doubts you have difficulty. Resistance doesn’t necessarily come from doubt but also from the undecided directions of our lives. Even to make a little shift can bring up difficulties. Some of us are very flexible, so a shift is not much of a problem. Some of us are not so flexible, and even a little shift in the direction of our life causes a big problem. We can’t make some generalization about how to practice. Every person who practices is in a different situation. So we have to be able to determine how to practice, given the situation that we’re in. One way to practice is to give up everything and go to some practice place. Given the difficulties of that, we have to practice in the place we find ourselves, and if we do that sincerely, that’s true practice. Then our daily life becomes the field of practice. Our daily life situation becomes the form of practice. And of course that’s often a difficult thing for us to grasp.

So you come home from work and you may just want to sit down and relax a little bit. You open the door and there’s all this stuff coming at you, your children are yelling and screaming and one of them is sick. How do you practice in that situation? That situation is actually the form of your practice at that moment. If you’re in the first stage of practice you might react to the situation and get lost. If you have some experience, if you’re in the second stage, you’re still reacting to the situation, but maybe you start thinking about it and try to figure out how to respond.

There’s a difference between reacting and responding. Reacting is when you lose yourself in the situation and get stuck, or you get pushed off balance by what you face. In responding the situation is completely taken in and there’s no polarization for you to get stuck in; you take the space to respond from a deeper level. This is a very important part of how we practice, how we take care of a situation either by reacting or responding. When we are caught in reacting, it’s easy to lose our composure and difficult to bring harmony to the situation. In responding, we accept the other side of the situation so that ‘I’ and the situation become one. I can respond appropriately from that completeness because I’m not separate from the situation and defensive posturing need not come into play.

This is the field of our practice. It’s very difficult and it needs our constant attention. We know something about our practice by observing whether we’re reacting or responding to life situations. Sometimes I catch myself reacting, but when I realize that I’m reacting to the situation, that’s mindfulness of practice. It’s wonderful if we can always respond, but much of the time we find ourselves reacting. If we know that’s what we’re doing, we have mindfulness of practice, and then we have the opportunity to respond instead of react. So it is important to have mindfulness of our life of practice at all times.

Sojun Mel Weitsman, 1997

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