Reaching with Effort – Being with No Effort – A Talk by Leland Shields

Posted by on Aug 11, 2019 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Reaching with Effort – Being with No Effort – A Talk by Leland Shields

Lin-Chi was sleeping in the [Monks] Hall. Huang-po came in, and seeing him struck the front plank [of the sitting platform] with his staff. Lin-chi lifted his head, and seeing it was Huang-po, went back to sleep.
Huang-po again struck the front plank, and went to the upper part of the Hall. Seeing the head monk sitting in meditation, he said: “That youngster down in the lower part of the Hall is sitting in meditation; what’re you doing here, cooking up wild fancies!”

“What’s this old man up to?” said the head monk. Huang-po struck the front plank once more and left.

(The Record of Lin-Chi, Ruth F Sasaki, p. 54)

I regularly read about and hear personally of Zen students pondering the important question as to how we apply ourselves, to practice, but also to anything. I don’t separate myself from that pondering either. All the more reason to hold this story of Lin-chi dearly. It is not an old story; you and I can readily find ourselves herein.

We have Lin-Chi expressing his self and his practice by sleeping, even in the face of the authority of his own teacher. For Lin-Chi at that moment, his practice was without effort or goal, simple and complete by sleeping when tired. At the same time the head monk presented his self and his practice with diligence, and he too was able to hold his own clarity in the face of the authority of his teacher. The head monk practiced with effort yet did not react with defensiveness when criticized as he may have if his effort was motivated by adding what he lacked or fixing what was broken in himself. As I write this, I confess, I could not in good conscience label either Lin-Chi or the head monk as acting with effort, or no effort.

Before speaking too many words about effort and no-effort, let me offer an analogy in our use of our bodies. Some years ago I joined a Yoga class with Denise Benitez on Capitol Hill. She had us stand, which first seemed easy to do without effort or tension. I stood as I always did, then while following her guidance to let my arms fall to my sides. As you listen today, please indulge me as you sit, by following along with your own body adjustments for her next suggestions. She then asked us all to try lowering our chin a little and tucking it back to see if that was more natural for our bodies, whether we could do so using less muscular control and greater comfort. “Are there muscles in your face that are active that you don’t need right now? How about your shoulders?” she continued, “are you holding them up? Can they be released to gravity?” Can you straighten your upper back and open your breathing without hyper-extending your lower back? She added some instructions that we cannot do sitting as well, like checking that our weight was even on both feet, and more on our heels than toes. I was as moved by this, the simplest pose we had performed that day, as I was by any pose we had executed. I first stood with what I believed was no effort (that is thoughtlessly) and realized my effort was so habitual it was invisible to me – hunching forward my shoulders a little and leaning forward on my toes. With prompting I brought attention, which can seem like effort, though attention need only imply the release of preconceptions such that what is already there becomes apparent. With this attention, my body was freer, less constrained and more comfortable. What then can I say is effort and what is no effort?

Bring this home to sitting today in this hall. When a period begins with the striking of three bells, eyes downcast, breathing, we have the luxurious opportunity to recognize what is. Breath fills and expands the diaphragm. Breath releases like air leaving a balloon. Conveniently responding to our autonomic nervous system, our bodies will repeat this activity, engaging the necessary diaphragm muscles, without the need for word, thought, or determination. I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial yet. Which is why breath is a wonderful focus of zazen. Our breath unambiguously IS, it is fine without our suggestions or assistance. If you are still listening to me then it is reliably happening for you. What wonderful practice to attend to our ceaseless breath without interference due to our attendance. Inherent in the practice is to attend without interference. A friend of mine wryly commented to me one time that when doing meditation, and for some hours after, he sometimes forgot how to breathe.

And that is why it is so helpful to do breath meditation. It is no different in hearing THIS sound; our ears need no assistance from word or thought.

Our breath, this sound, Mu, are already here, inseparable. No effort, word or thought is necessary, we cannot help but be engaged. Though we may not recognize our engagement. So is that “effort” we use to restore recognition? Yes, there is a use of that word, “effort,” that fits. Merriam Webster defines effort as the “conscious exertion of power or work.” I do consciously apply myself to writing these words, and consciously release all words to allow fingers to type and discover how I might present something.

Lin-chi presented by sleeping. The head monk by diligence. Huang-Po by striking the sitting platform. In the practice hall, effort is conscious intention to doing less. Attention rides the inhale, and wafts out with the exhale, should it come next. I normally think the manner in which we apply ourselves outside the hall is more complicated, but Lin-chi and the head monk have shown that to be wrong. Even in the unambiguous practice of meditation, sleeping can be it; diligence can be it. Just as we may respond to the cries of the world in addressing gun violence can be it. And working at a desk in an office can be it. But which “it” is it, and how do we do it?

Let me offer two additional passages from The Record of Lin-Chi.

“Nowadays he who studies Buddha-dharma must seek true insight. Gaining true insight, [s]he is not affected by birth and death, but freely goes or stays. [S]He need not seek that which is excellent – that which is excellent will come of itself. . . Do you want to know the [Matriarch] Patriarch-Buddha? [S]He is none other than you who stand before me listening to my discourse. Since you students lack faith in yourself, you run around seeking something outside.”

(The Record of Lin-Chi, Ruth F Sasaki, p. 7)

Then later in the same book, Lin-chi is quoted as saying this:

Followers of the Way, [s]he who is a renouncer of home must study the Way. . .It is not that I understood from the moment I was born of my mother, but that after exhaustive investigation and grinding discipline, in an instant I knew of myself.”

(The Record of Lin-Chi, Ruth F Sasaki, p 24-25)

In the first passage Lin-chi pounds the earth to point here, simply here. In the second he reminds us to look here, exhaustively remember to look here, simply here. I am grateful to him in both passages for also reminding us that there is truly something here that warrants our attention. Breathing this breath is indeed worth it.

Both passages also say the same thing. Whether in grinding discipline or asleep, if you want to know the Buddha, he or she is none other than the one now listening to my talk. When fully trusting yourself, myself, what is the nature of effort that arises? Exhaustive investigation can come like breath, like rain falling in torrents and in drizzles. Though falling rain involves power and work, there is no stopping it. It becomes effort, conscious, only if there is a thought that it should fall.

How do we focus our effort? On the one hand Lin-Chi seems to suggest we need not seek that which is excellent, but should instead allow it to come of itself. On the second he tells us that the very insight that led him to his views came only through exhaustive investigation and grinding discipline. The underlying question here is as old as the Buddha-dharma. In one recorded story of a musician asking the Buddha how he should focus his mind during meditation. The Buddha asked in turn how the musician tuned his string instrument. The musician replied, “Not too tight, not too loose. The Buddha then said, “That is how you should focus your mind.”

I do not mean to be dismissive of the difficulty we all have in discernment of concretely choosing on a given day to sleep, or to sit; to respond to the cries of the world, or to rejuvenate. The question is real and important. Even this turning towards is difficult with ambivalence, ambiguity, and by our own caring passionately about each of the choices. Practice is important. Caring for one’s self or another is important. In strict Jewish law that prohibits any work on the Sabbath that is creative or exercises control, exceptions are made for saving life.

Turning towards can include all of what we find in our lives. If I knew of objective principles to offer I would do so. I would love to have some for myself, honestly. I fear that any principles offered would surely distract us from looking right here for a response, lead us astray from noticing all that is available in guidance through the scent of lunch cooking, planes flying, and how each of us occasionally miss a word while chanting.

When in the pursuit of the worthiest of endeavors, I regularly hear followers of Zen, and others, invoke the word, “discipline,” with the implied severity of a strict, or overly strict parent. Loving intention can be bundled with criticism, and measures of worthiness. Too often this manner of discipline brings a cyclic dynamic of focused effort, then rebellious refusal. The rebellious refusal too is a fitting response to the harshness antithetical to the simple effort, simple discipline of attendance. Any judgement of the effort or lack of effort, is seeking outside, is a distraction from attention. When words like “lazy,” arise in your mind beware. Flogging ourselves to effort fosters a dispiriting path.

When my thirst for a path first arose, I tried many things before finding a home in the graceful aesthetic of Zen, where I was not asked to hold any belief or way of thinking. One of the Hindu based groups I tried included periods in which other practitioners shared their experiences of the fruits of the path. I believe the intent was to motivate us to practice without the need for flogging ourselves. Similarly, I don’t generally extend myself to difficult hikes that end at a strip mine or garbage dump. I also wouldn’t likely hike miles along a strip mine to see a gorgeous lake; there are other hikes. But I might. Ideally, I pick the hike that appeals to me for the hike along the way, not just for the end point.

I have read about Zen groups that publicly celebrated enlightenment of individuals, perhaps to provide motivation to others. I’m glad that is not our way here. I fear celebration makes an object of an experience that distracts from the fruits I most appreciate, release of the urge to run around seeking something outside, and instead sit right here, and speak to you. I suspect all in this room have your own motivation to practice or you wouldn’t be here, and your own recollection of a time when you stopped running around looking for something more, something else. When we sit together our mutual presence reinforces for each other that we have reason to attend here, here. For this period, and perhaps the next, and the next. While your body is here, allow yourself to do nothing more; just breathing, hearing, mu-ing is fine.

While at it, serving yourself some soup at lunch is fine too!

Effortlessness is like hearing your name and turning towards the sound, even while much else is going on. At that moment, there is a recognition to which we respond.

An old colleague of mine named Eddie made his own bows and arrows for bow hunting. He was so committed to minimizing the suffering of the deer he hunted, he went three years of hunting many weeks a year without shooting an arrow, waiting to be sure he had a clean shot. He also practiced his skill diligently and generally could hit a target with multiple arrows falling within a small diameter ring on the target. He told me about a day he finished making a new bow and took it out to practice shooting at the target on the back of his barn. He shot a number of arrows that fell in a circle of an arm’s spread apart. He told me that it occurred to him, “I’m shooting like it’s my old bow,” and the next group of arrows fell in a small circle again. He was shocked at the immediacy of the change. I was surprised by the clear example of how preconception inhibits our ability to see and interact with our environment. With the falling away of ideas of his old bow, Eddie could interact with the bow in his hand.

Also important, is that none of this would have made been noticed if he hadn’t diligently practiced with his old bow. Musicians, anyone learning to dance, or to speak a language know the importance of practice. Zazen is not different. Zazen and each of these disciplines call for our release of preconceptions about how much, how often we should practice, for how long, and with what motivation. Deciding to practice zazen is zazen. Giving ourselves over to zazen is zazen. Each arrow is Buddha. Though I don’t wish to impugn arrows with my last sentence. Each arrow is arrow. Buddha has no business getting between us and the roar of a passing airplane. Diligence in listening to the roar has no business getting between us and roar. Diligence is necessary in letting Buddha, practice, and diligence fall away.

In Zazen, preconception and distraction is not so evident, but the practice outside of content of the tasks, provides for us the wonderful chance to shoot arrow of attention after arrow, letting our bodies learn. I presume there is only so much theory helpful in using a bow, a tennis racket, any tool. After that, we give over to play, swing, sit. In giving over, Buddha falls away, bow falls away, no one remains to attend, and there is nothing left to attend to.

I’ve talked today about practice, Zen, Buddha – but Zen is not unique; the same message is found through the world. Effort/no-effort from the Christian mystic tradition of Meister Eckhart sounds like this:

Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden. But whoever seeks for God without ways will find him as he is in himself, and that man will live with the Son and he is life itself. If anyone went on for a thousand years asking of life: “Why are you living?” life, if it could answer, would only say: “I live that I may live.” That is because life lives without asking why it is itself living. If anyone asked a truthful man who works out of his own ground: “Why are you performing your works?” and if he were to give a straight answer, he would only say, “I work so that I may work.”

“I work so that I may work,” an elegant expression of simple attendance. Eckhart has his own way to reference effortless effort in saying “seeking without ways,” simply, without the tools and concepts that “ways” imply. We can bring fierce practice when motivation is fierce, sleepy practice when fatigued. We can cultivate motivation to a point, when needed. Attending to practice is always holding a new bow in your hand. In closing, I want to reiterate a personal message; it’s worth it.