Sandra Holmes Dharma Talk: Every Day Life


Every Day Life

by Sandra Jishu Holmes
Talk given to Zen Group at Naropa during the years 1993-1995

Last week the question came up of how we can take this practice of awareness, or paying attention that we are developing while we’re doing sitting meditation, into our lives after the bell rings. Usually the first thing that we learn in our meditation practice is just how active our monkey minds really are. Sometimes when people begin meditating, they are astonished when they discover just how active their minds are. It’s the first time they’ve actually stopped to look at the activity of their minds.

With all the good intentions in the world, to focus on our breathing we find ourselves deeply engrossed in a train of thought or our thoughts are wildly jumping around like monkeys from branch to branch. No matter how many times it happens, our practice is to simply bring ourselves back to our breathing or whatever practice our teacher has given us. If it takes all our effort and diligence to do this while we are sitting quietly focusing our whole attention on it, what hope is there for us once there are as many external distractions as there are internal ones?

There is a writing by Dogen-Zenji called KAJO, which is translated as everyday life. In it he says that “among the Buddha patriarchs, drinking tea and eating rice is everyday life.” and he also says “The golden, wonderful body of the Buddha is just the daily life of wearing clothes and eating rice, and for that reason, I bow to you.”

The Zen Master Ta’an of Ch’ung-ching Hall, in Fu country, once addressed the monks in the Dharma hall: “For thirty years I lived on Mt. Wei, and during that time I ate the monastery’s rice and gave it back to the latrine. I did not learn the Zen of Master Wei-shan. All I did was raise a water buffalo. When he wandered from the path into the grass, I pulled him back; when he ran amuck in someone’s garden, I chastised him with a whip. Now he has been tame for some time. Unfortunately, he used to pay too much attention to what people said, but now, he has become a pure white domesticated bull. He is always in front of me, wherever I am, dazzling white all day long, and even if I try to drive him away, he will not go.”

Ta’an patiently practiced eating rice and going to the latrine for thirty years. He didn’t learn anyone else’s Zen. All he did was raise a water buffalo. All he did was become aware of his true Self. When he started minding other people’s business or listening to other people’s Zen he would drag himself back to just watching his own true nature. After 30 years of practice he can now say that his buffalo is pure white, he has completely become one with his true nature, even if he tries to become distracted and forgetful he cannot. He just eats rice and goes to the latrine. Of course in Zen, practice does not end with taming the Ox. The Ox must be completely forgotten. Completely forgotten, one just eats rice and goes to the latrine. It is an endless practice.

We all know with our rational minds, that we have nothing but our present lives, here and now, as we live them from moment to moment. And we all seek for happiness, which is after all our True Nature. One response to this is to eat, drink, and be merry. to do everything we can to maximize our pleasure and to minimize our pain and discomfort. The Zen Patriarchs live out the moments of their lives by drinking tea and eating rice, by fully entering into each moment without reservation. Without picking and choosing. We however, carefully choose what we will fully enter into, and carefully avoid those situations which our self-imposed limitations have told us will be uncomfortable, painful, or frightening.

There are several ways that we numb ourselves out or deaden ourselves to our experience of this moment. One is by discounting it. Drinking tea and eating rice may be drinking orange juice and eating oatmeal for us or coke and potato chips, it doesn’t matter. We consider the event so ordinary that it doesn’t require our full attention. In doing so we kill our lives. It’s only when we eat in a fancy French restaurant that we need to savor each exquisite bite after another. And then we become addicted to these highs or extraordinary experiences. We are always looking for the next rush, the next time when all the circumstances are just right so that we can really savor the moment. Some of us are addicted to the high of a new love affair and can’t tolerate the ordinariness and hard work of an ongoing relationship. The advertisers have caught on, they are aware of our obsession with highs. But can we actually bring it to our everyday experience. It ain’t so easy. It takes discipline and practice.

Dogen Zenji said that drinking tea and eating rice is the way of the patriarchs. paying attention to the minute, insignificant aspects of our lives is the Way of the Patriarchs.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an 18th century French Jesuit, taught the sacredness of the present moment. He was the Spiritual Director of a convent of nuns in the city of Nancy and he once wrote to them (and I paraphrase). “You seek enlightenment and it lies in everything that happens to you — your suffering, your actions, your impulses are the mysteries under which the Way reveals itself to you. But it will never disclose itself in the shape of that exalted image to which you so vainly cling.”

While waiting for an exalted or transcendent experience, we kill our lives by not paying attention to drinking tea and eating rice. While making our beds in the morning we are planning the rest of our day. We drive to work or school and are totally unconscious about how we got there.

mosquito bites
impatient boss
going to the latrine

The Buddha Way reveals itself in the unfolding of each moment. Each moment offers us the opportunity to be fully awake. Like beads on a string, the mala of our lives.

Another way we kill our life is by knowing. By knowing in advance how a situation should be handled or what this person or event is about. We are so encumbered and blinded by our concepts that we take the life out of the moment. Did you know that grade school teachers can determine the outcome of their students by their preconceived expectations? Even before kindergarten children are tracked and their fate is determined. There was a study done where children were arbitrarily selected and labeled as bright. At the same time several teachers were chosen at random and were told that they were especially gifted teachers. They were told that because of this they were being given a special class of very bright children. These children, although they were statistically no different from the other children in the school vastly excelled their age group in learning. At the end of the experiment the teachers were told that their children were in fact no different in IQ or any other learning parameters than the other children in the school and that they had been chosen at random. The teachers were shocked but then attributed the results to the fact that they were gifted teachers. Then the Principal told them that they too had been chosen at random. We are deeply conditioned by our preconceived ideas. We place limits on ourselves by our ideas of what we can and can’t do, all the time.

I am very green as a meditation instructor and I am often looking for answers rather than having to face the uncertainty of not-knowing. Having to face the moment with bare attention not knowing what to expect or how I will respond. I am especially nervous about private interviews where I think I’m supposed to have all the answers. And a couple of times I’ve thought, “Oh! now I know. I’ll just tell everybody to go back to their breathing or go deeper into their experience or some such thing.” Even if that’s the answer, its not the answer, if you know what I mean, because any prepackaged answer is a dead answer. It comes about as a result of my desire to control the situation, to know what to do. It’s too scary to just be there. Alive to any possibility. Not having any answers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t prepare. For example, when you have a test to take you study. And while you’re studying, you just study. You become one with the studying — no separation, see? And when you take the test, you just take the test. Don’t get caught up in thinking “Oh, if only I’d studied harder or differently. Just take the test and be completely one with test taking at that moment.

Showering, getting dressed, going to work, chatting with friends, buying groceries, mowing the lawn, feeding the cat. These are the opportunities moment by moment that invite us to be truly alive. And yet, how much of the time can we do it? We all have singular instances where we have experienced that total absorption in what we were doing, and they are singular by their very rarity. It takes arduous practice to just do one thing after another. To just be present in the moment. It takes a lifetime of practice. We have to be constantly pulling the buffalo out of the grass. We all know the experience of one-pointedness. It’s like the robin in the grass listening for the worm. It’s like the single-minded attention of the cat stalking a mouse. Sesshin is translated one-mind. It gives us the opportunity to practice just being single-minded for two days or seven days or however long it is. To be totally absorbed in whatever we are doing is to be single-minded. To be totally absorbed in whatever we are doing is to actualize the Buddha Way. So when we do zazen we just do zazen. When we make the bed, we just make the bed. When we drink coke, we just drink coke. So what is it like to be enlightened? It is to drink tea and eat rice. It is to perform every act with total commitment and absorption. Not shrinking from the unpleasant and not clinging to the pleasant. Just moment after moment taking care of life as it presents itself. On the surface there doesn’t appear to be any difference. But in fact the activity has been transformed into practice-enlightenment.

Why is it so hard? Because we do cling to our pleasant experiences and resist our unpleasant experiences. I will give you a very simple assignment which will reveal a lot to you about this. Each day for one week, write down one pleasant experience and one unpleasant experience and then write down your experience of it at the moment it occurred and notice whether you were aware of pleasant or unpleasant feelings at the time of the experience. Then notice what your thoughts about the experience are as you write about it. You may be surprised at how little you are aware of in the moment it is happening to you, and how much you are trying to figure out how to repeat those pleasant experiences and how to avoid those unpleasant experiences when you reflect on it. And how much certain story lines from your preconceived notions come up.

I’d like to close by reading you the first section of the Diamond Sutra. This is a beautiful profound little sutra. It’s my favorite. It opens with a prologue, like the opera Paggliaci. The prologue really tells the whole sutra in a couple of sentences, and is a beautiful description of practice-enlightenment.

“Thus have I heard. upon a time Buddha sojourned in Anathapindika’s Park by Shravasti with a great company of bhikshus, even twelve hundred and fifty.

“One day, at the time for breaking fast, the World-Honored One put on his robes, and carrying his bowl made his way into the great city of Shravasti to beg for his food. In the midst of the city he begged from door to door according to the rule. This done, he returned to his retreat and took his meal. When he had finished he put away his robe and begging bowl, washed his feet, arranged his seat, and sat down.”

Why does such a sublime sutra start with such a humble description of the everyday life of the Buddha? If you look into it, it is the Buddha himself drinking tea and eating rice. His enlightenment is expressed in putting on his robe, going into the city and begging for food according to the rules, taking his meal, removing his robe, washing his feet, arranging his seat and sitting down. The Buddha himself expressed his enlightenment in carrying out the humblest of everyday tasks. All you need to do is completely surrender yourself to what happens to you moment by moment. deCaussade said that all that is necessary for this surrender is total being in the present moment in which the self, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.

And how do we go about totally being present in the moment? There are no answers. At least there are no live answers. The answer is in the question. How do I bring my practice to this moment? And this moment? And this moment? This takes continuous practice. We can never stop and say now I’ve made it. Each moment brings the question “How do I bring my practice to this moment?”