Lay Practice: A Dharma Talk

Posted by on Nov 13, 2014 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Lay Practice: A Dharma Talk

By Lee Shields

We are together involved in a great movement that is very personal to each of us, and is also playing out in countries around the world as we speak. Each of us is experimenting with the adaptation of an ancient monastic tradition to our busy lay lives. Even those of us who live or have lived in retreat settings for periods of time I suspect adapt in the interface with our modern world. Speaking for myself, I have no doubt already that this practice of silent meditation, whether done formally on a cushion here together, at home alone or with family, or in the act of doing my job and while speaking, enriches me. But when Madelon and I met to talk about what to bring as a focus for today’s Zenkai, we also recognized we are doing something difficult, and each of us has our own methods and wisdom that we might share together.  Perhaps others will benefit by what you have found works for you.

To set a context for the discussion, I wanted to start by sharing a few stories that light the topic from various sides. The first was at an event I attended in Ann Arbor in the mid 1980’s at a Korean Buddhist center. It was billed as world conference on Buddhism, and it was attended by teachers of various traditions who presented, and others like me just present. Robert Aitken was there presenting, dressed in clothes such as we all wear regularly, along with monks and nuns in black robes, and colorful robes of orange, and saffron. There were Americans who spoke without accent, and accents from throughout Asia. As Aiken Roshi spoke, a man in colorful robes rose to ask a question. He began respectfully, saying he recognized that Aitken Roshi was a genuine teacher, but that this practice is so difficult in any circumstances, and even when done as a full-time monastic, isn’t Aitken Roshi misleading his students by presenting a lay practice as viable?

This of course provoked a passionate discussion that went on for some time – perhaps “debate” would be a better descriptor. Robert Aitken responded first, explaining his experience from the Sanbō Kyōdan tradition and that of Diamond Sangha, across continents and decades. Others from Vipassana traditions spoke in agreement with the original question, saying that for true depth, one needed to dedicate one’s life as a monastic. One from the audience stood and said simply that whether monastic or lay, what was central was embodying the experience of the Buddha. Many nodded, murmured agreement, and voiced support as he sat down. Another orange-robed man immediately stood and said, “Yes, that is where our path begins…” and he sat down amidst more murmurs of support. And so passed maybe 10 or 15 minutes until Aitken Roshi spoke again, maybe for the 3 or 4th time in response, this time to say, “You may be right, lay practice is difficult. It is an experiment, and in 100 years or two we will know how it worked.” With that, all were satisfied and discussion ended.

I remember that discussion for the illustration of the challenge in which we are all engaged, developing our lay practices together and alone. It is also true that our tradition includes many wonderful stories of lay practitioners who carried the experience of the Buddha to us here today. I also remember the discussion for how it was resolved. It wasn’t through Aitken Roshi’s first, or second, or I think even third comment that it ended. He, like the rest of us, was listening, thinking, and trying things. His final comment that provided the turning word reminds me of Dogen’s words that I spoke earlier this morning.

If you study giving closely, you see that to accept a body and to give up the body are both giving. Making a living and producing things can be nothing other than giving. To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons, are also acts of giving.

Aitken Roshi gave up lay practice to accept lay practice, without investment in persuading or being right. Yet there was no doubt that he would continue the experiment fervently, teaching lay students. Producing Buddhas, and producing software, and producing poems, can be nothing other than giving. Will the outcome be successful or futile? How is that relevant when giving oneself to producing just this thing?

Of course, there are pitfalls of lay practice. It is easy to become engaged in checking email, Facebook, managing affairs, caring for others, and miss the opportunity now to laugh and wonder. But there are also pitfalls to monastic practice, stories of which also frequent our ancient tradition. Here is one I stumbled upon long ago and had to search to find again.

There was an old woman who supported a hermit. For twenty years she always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him. One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?”

The hermit responded, An old tree on a cold cliff; Midwinter – no warmth.

The girl went back and told this to the old woman. The woman said, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.

Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans Case one hundred, fifty-four Translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner

We can use our practice to shut out, to limit, and deny what is true. It is tempting to practice to avoid the inconvenience of our humanity, with all of the incumbent emotions. We can strive for the empty sky, but if done at the expense of what is right here, then we give up our vitality. I wonder in reading the story of the hermit whether his answer of an old tree on a cold cliff was a cry for help.

I told a story about the difficulty of lay practice, and another about the difficulty of monastic practice Let me add one more story, before asking for your thoughts about this great experiment of ours. I heard this while living in a monastic setting; it was told by a very irreverent head monk.

In the tradition of a particular monastery, silence was maintained. but for one occasion. When an abbot died and a new one took his place, the new abbot would speak to the assembly of monks. As one abbot had his chance to speak, he addressed all saying, “Brothers, I love oatmeal.”

Twenty years passed and he died. A new abbot rose and said, “Brothers. I hate oatmeal.”

Another twenty years passed, and the next abbot said the assembly, “Brothers, I can’t stand all this bickering!”

I’d have to say hearing this in the context of living in a monastic community for a time it stuck with me because it carried something true to my experience. Monastic or lay, we can be confident in our ability to participate in the same love and aversions, engagements and avoidances. In either setting with others, we can count on rubbing against each other to show us where our minds are closed, and when we leap to protect our hearts. Such times also awake our vitality, and humanity. It was in the strong feelings and tension in Ann Arbor that Aitken Roshi was pushed to find the response that was inclusive of himself, his perspective, and of others in the room. Without that tension, the day would not have been memorable or instructive.

Here is another reading, this time from Christian tradition that captured some of what is constant between monastic and lay lives. This one is from Practicing the Presence of God, a biographical account of Brother Lawrence, a lay brother in a Carmelite monastary in Paris in the 1600’s.

The same thing was true of his work in the kitchen, for which he had a naturally strong avaersion; having accustomed himself to doing everything there for the love of God and asking His grace to do his work, he found he had become quite proficient in his culinary chores during the fifteen years he had worked in the kitchen.

That he was now in the shoe repair shop and was very happy there but that he was ready to leave this position as he had previous ones, glad to do a task, however small, for the love of God.

That for him the tiime of prayer was no different from any other time, that he retired to pray when Father Prior tolm him to do so, but that he neighter desired nor asked for this since his most absorbing work did not divert him from God.

He was a lay man in a monastic setting. By which category should we understand him? He performed lay duties as a consistently devoted practice. Again, how do we understand him? Whether lay or monastic, one way I put words to the intention we bring to our practice in this room, is that of a free mind. With a free mind, we are not deceived by others, and can eat when hungry and sleep when tired. To choose lay practice in order to distract ourselves at the expense of freedom would be to lose the recognition of an experience available to us. To choose a dedicated practice, residential or not, in order to avoid fully opening to others around us, is also to limit our opportunity to recognize freedom.

For most of us here, though not all, I think the question isn’t whether our practice will be lay or monastic – we’ve made that choice. Either way, fundamental and practical choices remain, though. In the practical, there are choices and strategies, sitting at set times, and trade-offs for practice versus other ways of participating in the world.

In the fundamental, there is just this practice, this breath as we sit, this step as we walk, and this curse at the morning alarm clock. Not only is there no need for more or less, but no possibility of more or less. Looking no further, just speaking and listening to you.

On that note, I’d like to stop and give others a chance to speak about your experiments in lay practice…

This dharma talk was originally given by Lee Shields at a Three Treasures Sangha Zazenkai on November 9, 2014. To which Madelon Bolling added:

Thank you for the story of the old woman and the monk. Clearly this old lady and the famed anonymous teahouse ladies were laypeople. And the stories always acknowledge in one way or another that these laywomen got the better of monks and hermits through proper use of their well developed dharma eye.

The anonymous women were/are true teachers in our heritage. We laypersons dare to follow in their footsteps. Part of the challenge is the very fact that the laypersons’ stories were not passed on except by implication when their lives crossed paths with monks. Layman Pang is an exception–largely because he was outrageously exceptional. How about the ordinary, unexceptional folks who didn’t abandon the family and burn belongings; who went to work every day, changed diapers, chopped cabbage, did the laundry, fed the cat (rather than slicing him to make a point)…?