Why Practice?

Pilgrims at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

I’m giving an introductory dharma talk at Cambridge Zen Center on Thursday, and I think I’d like to say a little more about practice than I did when I gave an intro talk at Open Meadow Zen a couple of months ago. There’s a section titled “Motivations for Practice” in the Kwan Um School’s quarterly magazine, Primary Point. I always check it out to see what drives other people to bow, sit, and chant, and it’s usually a good read. When we’re describing our motivations to others, we tend to take the high road and speak of the grandest ideals at the root of our practice: to end suffering, to stop the Wheel of Karma, to save all sentient beings, and, of course, the perennially “correct” answer, “I sit for you.”

These are all noble ideals, but if I’m honest with myself, I can see that my true motivation for practice shifts from year to year and from day to day. When I came to the practice several years ago, I had a strong desire to end, or at least lessen, my own suffering. This is not an uncommon reason for sitting, or, come to think of it, for doing anything that human beings do. I want to increase the feelings I like, and decrease the feelings I don’t like. This approach is problematic for two reasons: I’m creating “I,” and I’m creating “like” and “dislike.” As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Don’t make ‘I.'” Clearly, then, my reason for sitting must include others; it can’t just be for my own sake. Somewhere along the line, I grabbed hold of this idea of practicing for the sake of all sentient beings. “Now I get it,” I decided. “The purpose of sitting is to become a better person and help others.” This is an improved motivation, but still not so good… Wanting to become a better person, I’m still making “better” and “worse,” still creating opposites.

How’s this for a motivation for practice, then? “To see clearly.” Sure, there’s still some “wanting” there, but considering that I’m starting from a place of ignorance, getting caught up in semantics or waylaid by false ideals like “I should sit for no reason because I’m already enlightened, therefore beyond any continuum of logic” isn’t going to help me get off the ground. (Or “on the ground,” more accurately, because that’s where the cushion is, if you want to get caught up in semantics.)

I think that I’ve come far enough in this practice of zen to realize that I’m a bare beginner… I have no idea what I’m doing. That’s the beauty of formal spiritual practice: I don’t necessarily have to know why I’m doing it at any given moment. All I need to do is to continue my practice as my motivation shifts, as my understanding ebbs and flows. Swami Satyananda said that Kundalini yoga is effective because it’s a physical practice; practitioners needn’t worry about what the mind is doing. He advised students to perform their exercises consistently, and eventually, the mind would settle down. Zen practice has that quality. In 12 Step Recovery parlance, “bring the body and the mind will follow.” The glitch here is that the intellect is the seat of the ego, and the ego always wants the kinds of answers that will substantiate its own existence. Ego always wants to know “why.” Considering again, however, that we approach spiritual discipline from a place of confusion, any practice that makes perfect sense at the outset probably isn’t very valuable.

So, although zen isn’t about belief, there is a leap of faith involved. I need to trust that the practice forms have value, even though it may not be apparent all the time. An appreciation of the importance of all elements of the tradition comes with practice, not before practice. There is, I think, a tendency among American Buddhists to want to modernize practice, to strip down traditions to what is essential. The danger here, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng, is that if we start weeding out parts of the form, we could very well lose something that we didn’t even know was important. So it all stays: the robes, the bells, the incense, the chanting… all the stuff that makes no sense.


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