New Year’s Resolutions
The New Year is often a time when we take stock of our life and resolve to make changes. As students of Zen, we often plan to sit more, attend more sesshins, etc. This is certainly a fine resolution, but what is this “practice” we intend to do more of? We can make resolutions to practice, and even follow through on them, but if our understanding of practice is unclear, then we won’t realize the full benefit of our efforts. So, what is our practice?
There are many descriptions of practice. To appreciate what practice is, as taught by Joshu Sasaki Roshi, we must first understand some of the distinctive teachings of Tathagata Zen.
The foundation of Buddhism is the teaching of complete unity. This is the Dharmakaya, or Absolute, and everything is embraced within the Dharmakaya. This unity is complete; in the Dharmakaya there are no men, women, gods, or devils. Everything is complete unity – emptiness or zero. This is the true self and only reality.
Another cornerstone teaching of Buddhism is impermanence, everything is always changing. This is also true of the Dharmakaya; it does not remain absolute, but divides itself into the two primal activities, Tathagata – Tathaagata, expansion/contraction or plus/minus. These activities separate and then reunite, realizing a new Dharmakaya.
The separation of plus and minus gives rise to the three worlds of human experience: past, future, and present. This can also be expressed as the three components of human experience, subject, object, and distance. These three worlds are also impermanent. When expansion and contraction reunite, then subject, object, and distance disappear, and the complete unity of Dharmakaya is again manifest. This cycle of the Dharmakaya dividing and reuniting is the fundamental dharma activity from which everything arises and to which everything returns.
A moment of human experience begins with the separation of plus and minus; this same moment ends with the unification of plus and minus. Tathagata Zen teaching is very precise about this activity, and understanding it usually requires years of careful practice under the guidance of a skilled teacher. However, even without complete understanding, we can distill the essential points of the teaching as a guide to our daily practice.
In each moment of human experience there is a subject, an object, and distance. The subject is expansion, moving out from the center of our experience to interact with the world around it. The object is contraction, the situation – people, things, and events – which come together as our experience of the world around us.
Between subject and object, there is distance. Because subject and object are separate, we notice and experience people and things. The distance between subject and object is the union of minute amounts of plus and minus, in equal proportions. This distance is zero, which is what happens when plus and minus unite, but the union is incomplete. Roshi calls it “incomplete zero.” This incomplete-zero is the arena in which self-consciousness arises: “I am hot (or cold), this is good (or bad), I like this,” etc. This self-conscious space, together with the subject, is normally what we consider to be our self. In common terms, we interpret experience as the interaction of self and world.
If we are to understand the teaching of Tathagata Zen we must learn to recognize and distinguish these three elements of experience. Each component manifests differently: subject expands, object contracts, and distance is self-aware. Our true self is Dharmakaya, which is selfless. Our personal self is a limited, momentary manifestation within the three worlds. When we attach to our personal self we miss seeing our total self, and we act in a limited self-serving way rather than realizing completion.
It is easy to attach to our personal self. We enjoy certain experiences and want them to continue or repeat. We dislike other experiences and want to avoid or eliminate them. However, dharma activity moves freely and spontaneously; there is no attachment. When we attach to our limited understanding of self, we are fighting against the natural flow of dharma, which only results in frustration and unhappiness.
The distance between subject and object is always conditional. It arises because plus and minus separate. It is self-conscious, but is filled with subject and object activities and conditioned by them. Our mood or sense of things is the interaction of our subjective sense with our perception of our surroundings. The independent self which we value so highly in our society is a mirage.
Every component of human experience is transient; there is nothing that is fixed or enduring. Each moment the subject, object, and distance that arise and disappear are different from the previous moment. The only constant is the cycle of dharma activity. We are powerless to delay or prevent dharma activity; even the content of our consciousness is conditioned. We are never in full control of the circumstances of our life. What, then, are we to do if we want peace in our lives?
First of all, we must stop our blind allegiance to personal self. Self-attachment is counter to the selfless spontaneity of dharma activity. It can never bring enduring peace and happiness. The culmination of each moment is the reunification of subject and object. We will find peace only when we realize this meeting of subject and object.
Between subject and object is distance, filled with our self-conscious desires, emotions, values, interpretations, etc. As long as we affirm our self-conscious content we will miss the reunification of subject and object. However, the nature of distance is zero. The key is neither to affirm nor deny our content, but manifest our true nature – zero. If we manifest our true nature, then distance disappears. This cannot be realized as long as we attach to our personal self.
We must dissolve the distance between subject and object – manifest our true nature – to realize the inevitable meeting of subject and object. This is the practice of every moment – dissolve the distance. Whether we are dancing with our partner, taking out the garbage, or tying our shoes, we must let go of our self-attaching mind, manifest our true nature, and realize the meeting of subject and object.
So, if you make one practice resolution this year, make this one: to dissolve the distance. Peace, clarity, compassion, and wisdom are all realized in the true meeting of subject and object.