May 28, 2023
Michael O'Neill

Faith in the Practice


Zen practice can’t stop bad things from happening to us but it can help us face them. Michael O’Neill concludes his experience of dealing with disappointment and loss.



We might feel that when we experience bad times that the practice is not working, not doing its job in shielding us from life’s woes. We might imagine that as Buddhists, perhaps even of long standing, that we should not be troubled by the ups and downs of outrageous fortune. The practice is not there to make us emotionally dead and not feel pain or loss. If anything, we learn to feel things more deeply, more fully, more honestly. We have to admit our attachment to that idea or hope no matter how foolish it may seem now, or how reluctantly we have to admit to holding it in the first place. We have to work with the material we have, ourselves. We are constantly reminded in Torei Enji’s “The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp” to look in the place where our own feet stand. We are invited to live a life free from our addictions to put away our mental toys. To do this we must have faith in the practice. Buddhism, almost uniquely, in the religions of the world encourages us to doubt, not to take the teachings as real because of authority, venerability or even if they seem to make sense. But we have to trust that all this effort is taking us somewhere. But we also have to abandon any sense of what that somewhere might be.  

The Dharma often seems to work like a meeting with your older self. It comes back in time to tell you maybe what you already know, but are struggling to accept. Once you hear it said, you know that you will learn to live with it. It might take some time, but the roots of our addictions go deep and they are not removed in one go. And like weeds they grow back. The Dharma is the reassuring voice that gives us the courage and the strength to keep going.

I realized how lucky I was to have an abandoned garden to work in. Not just in the sense of having occupational therapy to distract myself, but also to have a task that I could really give my self into all day, every day. I could literally work through feelings as they arose in the body. I found that this was as helpful and as necessary as reading the works of Master Torei, or rather it was an essential part of understanding those works. The heart/mind like a garden needs constant attention. I am beginning to believe them more and more when the old master talk about breaking bones in the practice. It is hard work and there is no rest.

It is a cliché to say “never waste a good crisis” but in this case it feels true to life. It is not that I have arrived at a “happy ending” as I read some comforting words. It is more that it was good to be reminded of the ceaseless nature of the struggle with the passions, that there is no achievement along the way in the practice. If we are lost at sea, we keep swimming, not necessarily with the promise of dry land and a beautiful island at the end but because, swim we must. Faith in the practice is trusting that the water will keep us afloat as long as we keep trying.

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