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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
buddhadharma| 5 |summer 2006 commentary WHAT IS PRACTICE? As this is “the practitioner’s quarterly,” this is an essential question, of central concern to all of us. Following the way of the Bud- dha, we contemplate the meaning of right mindful- ness, right meditative engagement, which in Shakyamuni’s original teaching is closely linked with right view and right intention. Guiding our practice through self-reflection means genuinely asking ourselves from time to time, what are we doing, and why are we doing it? As practitioners, again and again we dive into the ocean of dharma to deepen our understanding of the most basic ques- tion: what is practice? Near the middle of his classic guide to the sit- ting practice of meditation, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi recounts a version of the tra- ditional story in which a meditation master comes upon a student sitting upright in excellent posture (a famous koan case collected by Dogen). “What are you doing?” the teacher asks. “I’m practicing meditation to attain enlighten- ment, to become a buddha,” the student replies. Perhaps, as with many of us when we feel our practice is going well, this is said with a tinge of righteous pride at the thought of being such a good practitioner, a thoroughly dharmic person. The teacher – spontaneously compassionate in the way of crazy/wise Zen masters – picks up a nearby tile and begins strenuously polishing it. Now it’s the puzzled student’s turn to inquire, “Master, what are you doing?” To which the master replies, “I’m polishing this tile to make a jewel.” “How is it possible to make a tile into a jewel?” the student asks. “How is it possible to become a buddha by practicing meditation?” replies the master. Suzuki Roshi’s comment: “The purpose of practice is not to make a tile a jewel.” Rereading this early one morning, my first thought was, It’s not? What is the purpose of prac- tice, then? Suzuki Roshi answers, “Just continue sitting; that is practice in its true sense. It is not a matter of whether or not it is possible to make a tile a jewel. Just working and living in the world with this understanding is the most important point.” The traditions of the buddhadharma are justly famed for their myriad skillful techniques of spiri- tual practice – from sitting and walking meditation to sutra chanting and visualization, prostration, and the recitation of mantra. Altogether, they represent a vast range of effective means to enter the door of liberation, to fully awaken into com- passionate action. Yet the effectiveness of these methods depends on right understanding, for as is repeatedly emphasized, the right means, grasped wrongly, become poison instead of medicine. This case of polishing the tile is both a warning against spiritual materialism (believing that practices will produce wakefulness), and an encouragement: walking the path, we are “awakening into the wisdom with which we were born.” A jewel is becoming a jewel. To properly understand the various skillful means, it’s crucial that we view them as methods for becoming what we actually are, rather than a tradition-sanctioned set of “spiritual gymnas- tics,” clever manipulations for becoming what we are not. Right practice is based on appreciating the intrinsic wisdom of our fundamental nature. Practicing in order to become what we are not is filled with hope – and hopelessness. It’s like trying to teach a pig to fly – in the end we only disappoint ourselves and frustrate the pig. If our deepest, “inmost request” is to awaken for the benefit of all beings, then walking the path of cultivating wake- fulness is going with the grain of our nature. The difference between these two approaches may seem slight at first, but it’s like the moment of a tipping point – a small increment that pro- duces huge effects, a tiny shift in perception that turns out to matter, in the end, a great deal. How so? Taking this approach of practice as a natural unfolding, our practice can be gentle, fundamen- ➤ continued page 6 why are we meditating? By gaylon ferguson