Sandra Holmes Dharma Talk: What is Practice?

What is Practice?

by Sandra Jishu Holmes
Talk given to Zen Group at Naropa on Feb. 6, 1993
You’ve just finished the first phase of the “How to Raise an Ox” program where you used the skandhas to ask the question “Who am I?” And you may have begun to feel that your concrete concept of who you are is beginning to break up a bit. You may have begun to experience yourself as not quite so fixed and permanent a concept as you thougt in the beginning. You may have discovered that the I re-creates itself moment after moment with the help of our attachments to our habitual ways of thinking and frames of reference.

The next phase of the “How to Raise and Ox” program is called the “Oars of Practice.” Here we will use the Paramitas as a practice vehicle to study ourselves trying to make a change in our habitual way of being. But first let’s look at the question “What is Practice?” Dogen Zenji tells us the sitting itself is the practice of the Buddhas and that Zazen is practice-enlightenment. In our community in Yonkers, where we are deeply engaged in social action, people often say, “You are doing such wonderful work but how do you fin time for practice?” Again, when we started our bakery as a livelihood for Zen students we spent years asking ourselves the question “What is work-practice?” Is it really practice? Or is it some diabolical thing we’ve dreamed up to keep us from practice? And students would often complain that the work was taking them away from their practice. Once we had established our bakery and started building housing for homeless families, one student said, “Well, I can see that pouring goop over pecans is Zen practice, but Social Action? How can that be practice?”

So what is practice? And if as the Buddha says, we are all intrinsically enlightened just as we are, why practice anyway? The Buddha also said, because of our upside down views we do not realize that we are enlightened. Because of our clinging to our narrow concepts of who we are, we suffer, we cause ourselves pain, and our practice is to free ourselves, to liberate ourselves. To allow the five energy streams of the skandhas to flow into the vast ocean of being.

For the purpose of the second phase of the Ox program we are going to look at practice as “just doing” and break it down into four steps. the first step is recognizing areas of our lives or places in our lives where we feel constricted, where there is a quality of being stuck. Areas where our habitual ways of seeing ourselves does not allow us the freedom to just be wholly present in the moment. In this step we will Set a Practice Goal for ourselves that will help us in our personal growth – to be more present in this very moment. It should be a practice that you want to live with for the duration of this phase of the program. this is not a practice in self-improvement or in getting better. You already are better. You’re the best you just as you are. This is a practice of looking more deeply into who we are. It is a practice of seeing where we are stuck and the quality and characteristics of that stuckness. it is not about success or failure.

The second step is Beginning to Work. Here we recognize three aspects of relationship. It’s a little bit like setting the scene for the practice. So for example, let’s say that I habitually clam up or shut down whenever I’m around people I perceive as smarter or more competent than I am. I might set a practice goal for myself of deliberately contributing to the conversation when I become aware of being around someone who seems too impressive for me to talk to. Now in beginning to work on this goal, I can set the stage so that I say that my practice is to just smile, shake hands and say hello to one scary person a day for one week, then the second week, I could add one question about their work or project. Then the third week I might challenge myself to ask a personal question (like how’s your family, or did you enjoy your holidays) of one scary person a day for a week. In this way I could gradually build up a practice of actually talking about myself or my project or work to one scary person every day. After a few weeks, who knows, I might have trouble finding scary people. Again, the purpose of this practice is not to turn myself from an introvert to an extrovert. It is to begin to look at things and ideas about myself that I hang onto. Maybe that I am not as smart or competent as other people.

Now this practice has three components to it. There is me the doer, there is the action, and there is the object the action is taken upon, or the other. Every time we perform any action at all with the sense of I or me, the sense that I am doing something, we create a karmic debt. Every time I perform an action where I am present, and where I am doing some activity, to, for, or with some other person or object, I have created an unresolved action. I’ve thrown a boomerang which eventually must come back to me. Now we come to the third step. Just Perform the Action, as precisely and completely as you can. Let’s say that your practice was to move a pebble from one side of your desk to the other each day. For most of us there would be very little attachment and angst about performing that practice. We could probably fairly easily and with mindfulness move the pebble from one side of the desk to the other each day without worrying about whether we were doing it right or not, or whether we were worthy of moving it or not. On the other hand, we might get involved in berating ourselves for doing such a silly practice or look around nervously to see if anyone is watching or not. You are an actor in this whole karmic web and the practice is to release yourself from entanglement by performing each action completely, precisely, and thoroughly with no residue. This leads to the fourth step.

In the fourth Sept. you see how your action has Established a Relationship with other – you have affected the entire Indra’s Net. In freeing yourself of your own constrictions you free the entire Indra’s Net of that constriction. You establish a relationship with other where energy can flow freely. And in doing so, self, other, and activity disappear – Kazaam! – no residue.

In a sense its like the three pure precepts:

  1. Cease from evil.
  2. Do good.
  3. Do good for others.

Seeing things as they really are, not good, not evil, not brilliant or dull, simply seeing what is. Not wandering in samsara, not dwelling in nirvana is ceasing from evil. But not judging good or evil, we must act. and in acting, we take all the the accumulated wisdom that we have at the moment, and act from that place. Where we are constricted we act from a constricted place, where we are free we act from a free place. That is doing good. Doing good for others is seeing the suffering we cause ourselves and others. We act with kindness and compassion to relieve that suffering. We embrace that suffering and take care of it.

So practice in this sense is jumping off the hundred foot pole and deliberately deciding to take an action which doesn’t necessarily coincide with our habitual view of ourselves. In doing this practice we discover that although we’ve come to a deeper understanding of ourselves as impermanent (that is having no permanent self-nature), to try to change our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves and acting in a different way is a very difficult undertaking. We came up against tremendous resistance and obstacles. After all our whole ego-structure is build around having a permanent frame of reference. Who we thing we are. Who do you think you are? That’s not in your script!

This is where the Paramitas come in. Paramita literally means gone beyond, gone to the other shore. We could say that Paramita means gone beyond all concepts of reality and morality and just doing. So our practice for this second phase of the Ox program will be just doing. We will be using the Paramitas as our oars of practice. What do I mean by that? The Paramitas were established as the practice of Bodhisattvas. The practices that we use to carry all sentient beings to the other shore. The Paramitas are really a practice of transcending our views and concepts of this shore as the pain of samsara and of the other shore as the bliss of nirvana. It is the practice of not wandering in samsara nor dwelling in nirvana. Act we must, but act wholly and completely, leave no residue. We are going to use the Paramitas to be Bodhisattvas to ourselves while we try to establish this new practice goal in our lives.

The first Paramita is Dana Paramita or generosity. We could look at this as the generosity of being our true selves. A willingness to part with our poverty mentality. A willingness to let go of or give up those parts of ourselves that we cling to as who we are. Generosity is generosity of spirit. The general feeling that you are willing to part with anything that you want to hold on to. So its a willingness to give up this idea about myself that I can’t speak around people who I perceive are brighter or more competent than I am. And here we come right smack up against our clinging to our concepts of who we are. We have a great resistance to letting go of our concepts about ourselves. Giving away our used clothing or giving a quarter to a homeless person on the streets is a lot easier than giving away our ideas of who we are. Hey! Wait a minute! That’s me! I’m still wearing that concept! It fits me perfectly! I need it! It’s me! It’s who I am!

We discover how difficult it is to give up those concepts and here our generosity practice has to include kindness and compassion towards ourselves, to our clinging and grasping. And here is where the other Paramitas of discipline, patience, perseverance, mindfulness, and wisdom come in.

But please remember that the source of the Paramitas, the wellspring of our practice, is zazen. The vast empty space of being unconditionally and intimately present in this very moment. In doing your practice and homework assignments for the Ox program, please do not forget zazen. Start each Ox group meeting with a period of Zazen together. How powerful it is to sit together. What a wonderful gift it is to be able to sit together. I want to thank all of you for your practice and for the opportunity to join you in this weekend of just sitting together.