Tesshin opened this week’s talk by wishing everyone a happy new year. He also gave the group some special treats to begin the new-year. First, he chanted the Heart Sutra for the group in Japanese, which was quite moving. Secondly, he brought in hearty Japanese noodles for us to try. Tradition has it that in Japanese temples the monks loudly slurp noodles to ring in the new-year. This was a challenge for our western sensibilities where we are taught that it is not polite to slurp! It was quite a site to see a Zen master on the “Mountain Seat” slurping noodles!! Remember, no attachments!!!
Tesshin next asked the group why Zazen is so important. He reminded us that Zazen is NOT “work” we suffer through to reach some distant goal. He likened the modern “Mindfulness” movement in the West to picking up the skill of delaying one’s gratification. Remember the test where children are measured on how long they can refuse a marshmallow or other sweet? Mindfulness is telling us that if we can control our mind, all manner of good things will happen to us some day. Tesshin stated that this gets the relationship backwards! He reminded us that if we ask the wrong question, we get the wrong answer. So we should be asking not why we should do Zazen, but why we are not doing it more. After all, Zazen does not lead to enlightenment – Zazen IS enlightenment!
What does this mean? According to Tesshin, our life is defined by our choices. We must choose to be awake right here and right now. He then described a recent situation in his own life where he was in a bad mood. He was asked, “Why are you so cranky?” Tesshin pointed out that this is not really the right question. Crankiness is not the essence of anyone’s being, after all! The better question is why do you CHOOSE to be cranky right now? This changes the whole perspective and opens up the possibility of deeper introspection. It is the same thing in spirituality? We should not ask, “why am I not enlightened yet?” What we should ask is why am I choosing not to be enlightened right now and right here? Our life is our choices, and Zen is clear – we have everything we need right now. We have our breath, we have our mind, and we have life. All we need to do is make the right choice. One of these choices is Zazen – the state of being awake and open to everything.
Tesshin next recounted a story about his teacher, Ban Roshi. When he was nearing the end of his life, he become very frail and was frequently in the hospital. Attendants would come and keep him company and assist where they could. Towards the end, the attendants said that they could no longer come due to other commitments. At this point the Roshi realized that it was no longer skillful for him to linger and when the attendants came back for the last time, Roshi was still in Zazen posture on his bed, but he had decided to leave his body. Now, this is a common story in Zen, but it clearly raises the possibility of having such control of one’s choices that one can even choose the time and place of one’s end.
So how do we choose to live our lives? Most of us work hard for some future state. This could be for financial security in retirement or for a future enlightenment. Notice that it is always about some other time and place. We forget to focus on the here and now. Zazen reminds us that the NOW is the most critical time. We should make our decisions based on the here and now. Zen is telling us that we can be awake now. The choice to be awake is offered to us in each and every moment. Do not wait for some distant future, grab it right now.