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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 11 50 very little, but as we go on, it could become much more if we choose to really practice rather than cling to results. It’s not about an answer. It’s about the question keeping practice alive. gEoffrEy shugEN arNold: Each of our traditions has forms, rituals, and liturgies. In Zen, they are strongly emphasized. There’s a formal way of taking meals, of walking, of carrying oneself, there’s a formal way of doing almost everything. The student is immersed in so much tradition that it’s very easy, if not inevitable, to just step into the flow of all this and think it’s going to automatically do something to you. But, as Elizabeth said, we can very easily be traveling through all of that and be just as lost as we ever were. What seems so important in the beginning—showing up on time, staying on the cushion, dealing with physical pain or tiredness—is just the part of the iceberg we glimpse above the water. But it’s the subtle fabric of the mind, the nonmaterial aspects of spirit and motivation and all the habits of mind, that are the real stuff of retreat. A teacher can help us to penetrate to that, but it is up to us to notice whether we are actually getting to depth. That’s an ongoing process, because we’re really quite adept at fooling ourselves, even when we have the best of intentions. guy arMstroNg: On that same point, I’d like to ask Elizabeth what you do or ask yourself to find out if your practice is just routine or if it’s really alive. ElizabEth Mattis-NaMgyEl: I find it very helpful to simply ask myself, “Am I practicing?” Since we become familiar with the quality of struggle and grasping, and the free and courageous quality of being with the mind, it becomes easier to discern whether we were there or not. When I am engaged, I feel the freedom of it. I don’t mean “liberation” as some highfalutin thing we have to attain, but as a moment of bodhichitta, the difference between focusing on myself and the feeling of kind- ness and love for others. One of the beauties of retreat is being able to clearly discern that. Even though I had a diligent daily practice, I’m not sure I really knew what it meant to practice. guy arMstroNg: I’ve been working with a suggestion from a Burmese teacher named Sayadaw U Tejaniya. He says to ask, “Is there greed, aversion, or delusion in the mind at this moment?” It’s all about how I’m relating to my experience in the moment. He says there’s greed present if you want some- thing else to be happening, there’s aversion present if you want something to stop happening, and there’s delusion present if you’re not in touch with what’s happening. I often use that question, and if the answer comes back, “No, I don’t really see greed, I don’t really see aversion, I don’t really see delusion,” then I tend to run through the seven factors of enlightenment and see which of the positive qualities are alive and function- ing in the mind at that moment, because if greed, aversion, and delusion aren’t really so strong, then some of the factors of awakening are going to be there. Once we get somewhat comfortable in doing the physical schedule, the hard part is staying alive to what’s happening in the mind—and that involves a lot of investigation, inquiry, and deep listening. buddhadharMa: If we engage in that kind of deep inquiry, could retreat become so threatening to our central reference point that we freak out? How do you avoid becoming danger- ously unstable and terrified in retreat? gEoffrEy shugEN arNold: In sesshin, we do everything together throughout the day. In our community, it could be from fifty to a hundred people. We wake up together, enter the zendo together, have breakfast together, and work together. We’re doing everything together, but there’s silence and no eye con- tact. Within this deep solitude is a real experience of sangha, which provides a grounding so that you don’t become freaked out or spacey. There’s a constant emphasis on going very deep and forgetting the self entirely, yet there’s daily contact with the teacher. The teacher can see what the student is doing. As a teacher, you may look out at one hundred buddhas sitting in the meditation hall, but when you meet them one on one, you realize everybody is not doing the same thing, and some aren’t even practicing. If somebody is getting into trouble, throwing themselves into a pit, you can help them. There is a tension between trying to maintain the integrity of retreat as a cloistered environment and yet acknowledging that most practitioners these days are lay practitioners with families and other obligations. —Geoffrey Shugen Arnold ➤ Photo DaviD Busch