Tightening the Belt
Exercises in Mindfulness
Learn how to use the small, everyday things, to train a special kind of strength cultivated in Zen practice.
In our Northern hemisphere, September sees the weather change from the heat of summer to the cooler wetter autumn months.
Traditionally, it is also the time of harvest when what was planted earlier in the year is reaped and stored for the austerity of winter. In pre-modern times, without our usual methods of storage or ability to import goods from all over the world, the harvest period was also a time of reckoning.
If it had been a good year, then autumn was met with relief, but not every year was bountiful.
Our ancestors lived closer to the edge which marks the boundary between death and survival, and all over the world and in most times this was a cold, hard reality for many. In our part of the world this is something from which, we have been able to shield ourselves , but now, with world events as they are, a sense of uncertainty and anxiety has returned to us all.
When things are good, the thought of change can cause us to become fearful, and for good reason. Change brings unpredictability and the darkness of the unknown. At such times, it is worth remembering that we are the descendants of those who not only faced great difficulties but who also survived them who and passed down such an ability to us.
In Buddhism this potential is the wisdom of the Heart Buddha or Buddha nature.
At the first five- day sesshin (Zen retreat) I ever attended, there were too many of us for the available accommodation. So, six of us had to camp out in the Zendo (meditation hall). We were given a room below the hall to store our luggage and there were some chairs there so we had our own community room. At a sesshin there is no talking, no reading, no TV, no use of mobile phones (although at that time we did not have them),, - in other words , no distractions. During the day we have nine hours of zazen meditation and all in all it’s pretty tough, both physically and psychologically. But the one thing that we did have plenty of was food. The nuns who looked after us grew their own and were very liberal with their helpings!
One day, after a good lunch, I went into our community room and as I walked in, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone sat down in the corner of the room move quickly to hide something by his side. I, of course, slew round to see what he was up to and at the same time he saw that I was no-one of importance and pulled out a chocolate bar. This he proceeded to eat.
It was one of those moments when you look at someone and know exactly what they are thinking.
“This retreat is very hard, but I can get through it if I allow myself this one treat.” And, sure enough, he had one chocolate bar for each day of the sesshin. I know he was thinking this because at the time I used to smoke cigarettes and this was exactly my own thinking. Just before going into meditation, I would puff away to give me ‘strength’ to go in for the next long sitting. When we were coming to the end of the long sittings, I would console myself away from the pain in my knees by thinking of the reward I would get when I could go and light up again.
When ‘I’ am anxious there is a little voice inside that begins to make bargains. If I can just have my cup of coffee then I can face the morning. If I don’t get a seat on the bus then I can’t face the journey. All of a sudden here are all sorts of self-beliefs that are putting boundaries up between what ‘I’ can do and what ‘I’ can’t do.
And yet, we are the product of those who went before us, those who faced famine, drought, war and pestilence and who survived.
This is not to say that life is not difficult. Life can be very difficult but sometimes ‘I’ think something is impossible when in truth it is just very difficult. However, the strength is already there in the heart. As Master Mumon once said: “The treasures of the house do not come in through the front gate.” What he was saying is that this strength is already inside us, ready to emerge when necessity calls. However, because of our unbelief, we are not aware of it and, if ‘I’ am always allowed to escape and have my own way all the time, such an awareness will not arise.
Hence, in our practice, we keep the heart empty using our daily life practice of giving myself away into what at this moment is being done anyway. When ‘I’ start up with my opinions about what I do or do not feel like doing, I immediately give myself back into what at this moment the circumstances need and do not just give into what I want in the moment.
In addition, we use some restraint and this is where the precepts come in. In speech (whether spoken or written), we make our point politely and without trampling over the speech of others. In restraint of the body, we take care not to be careless or negligent and to stay in touch with the wisdom of the Heart Buddha which informs us as to how to live a good human life which is of service. In the heart we do not actively indulge thoughts of anger or covetousness and strive to hold even strong opinions more lightly and with forbearance.
In this way the inner strength is not squandered through the fires of the passions and the heart remains open and more spacious. In this state the wisdom and strength of the heart can shine through. The explorer Rasmussen once asked an Inuit shaman about the Great Spirit, something similar to what we know as the Heart-Buddha. The shaman told him that the Great Spirit cannot be seen but its voice can be heard in the gales that blow across the ice sheet of the artic circle and can also be heard in the laughter of little children. Rasmussen asked what the voice says? The shaman replied: “Be not afraid of the universe.”
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