September 2016: Patience and Diligence

Zen teaching can sometimes seem ambivalent about energy or effort.  We’re reading Shunryu Suzuki during our Wednesday night service, and more than once we’ve discussed passages where Suzuki seems to say that no effort is needed to practice Zen.

Suzuki is not alone.  The 6th patriarch Huineng made fun of his rival for diligently wiping the mirror of his mind.  Zen master Rinzai says “Just be ordinary with nothing to do.”

But Zen teachers can also speak of effort as a virtue.  Suzuki also says “The most important point in our practice is to have right or perfect effort.”  The Buddha’s dying words are sometimes translated “strive on diligently.” Where does this leave us as practitioners?

The place within ourselves to which Zen points is one without any effort or will in it.  It is complete and perfect just as it is.   But getting to know and trust this place often takes hours, weeks, and years of honest work.  All the masters know this, and most are talking to monks and nuns who have devoted their lives to this work.  The effort these dedicated practitioners give is not simple.  Every day they have to learn to hone their attention, and keep relaxed. They have to learn to be diligent and patient at the same time.

We have to cultivate a sort of patience in our lay practice as well, one that is not defeatist or soporific.  The kind of patience we work with is one that knows the road of practice is long, and it’s ready to walk it one step at a time.

In our zazen practice, the posture represents diligence to me, and breath represents patience.  We sit up straight in our practice – this helps us pay attention.  And we breathe – this helps us relax.  The mix of attention and relaxation is an unusual mix.  Often when we’re attentive, we’re not relaxed – many times we’re sharply goal oriented, we’re stressed.  When we’re relaxed, we’re often not attentive, preferring just to drift, daydream or sleep.  Clear attention and relaxed patience are rare, and for me they feel good together.

The place we’re going is without effort, without desire or will.  But getting there takes effort and desire. It’s one of the many paradoxes of Zen practice.