Acceptance and Effort
This morning I'd like to talk about the dialectic between acceptance and effort. Usually our focus here is on the side of acceptance: we simply watch and label our thoughts; we sit and experience our body and mind just as it is. We say there is "no gain" and no goal in the way we practice. The quintessential expression of this attitude is the saying, "We don't sit in order to become Buddhas; we sit because we are Buddhas." Now the danger inherent in this way of talking is that we become complacent: if we're already Buddhas, why practice so hard? We are tempted to let our practice drift into a comfortable place, with a comfortable level of commitment, and use "no gain" as a rationalization for not pushing ourselves. Now if we're really honest with ourselves, we'll admit a lot of the time we don't feel like Buddhas and that we're practicing out of habit, rather than because we're functioning as the Buddhas of this place. That honesty can propel us to dig deeper. But all too often we let ourselves drift.
Imagine someone who wants to learn Italian and who goes to a local Italian restaurant every week. Pretty soon, she gets familiar with the menu and can recognize the names of everything on the menu. And so she imagines she knows Italian! Then one day the waiter hands her a newspaper and then she realizes she only recognizes a few words and doesn't understand the grammar at all. Now she knows she has some studying to do. She takes a class at the New School and becomes able at last to hold a simple conversation with the waiter and make out what the newspaper headlines are saying, and again, she gets to a place where she thinks she knows Italian. Then one day, someone hands her Dante!
Realizing what you don't know can be one way to spur effort. That's one reason I like to give a talk on koans during sesshin - I want to expose you to some Dante (!) and give you all a taste of just how much there is to learn.
When Shunryu Suzuki talked about "beginner's mind" he meant a mind that was wide open to learn, a mind uncluttered by pre-conceived opinions. But all too often real beginners' minds are full of ideas about what they think they should learn, how hard it should be and what they expect to get out of it. I remember when I was a college student, I read a whole shelf of books by Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki and thought I knew something about Zen. So the first time somebody showed me "Zen Mind. Beginner's Mind" I thought I don't need to read that, I'm not a beginner!
To really practice like a Buddha, we need to practice in a way that totally engages who and what we are. We discover that practice and effort are intrinsic to what we are. Accepting who we are means accepting the effort that it takes to be who we are. We accept our capacity for practice; we accept what needs to be done all around us; we accept the effort that it takes to get the job done. When we no longer experience any conflict between acceptance and effort, we can speak of no-effort, a state where there is no separation between our selves and our functioning. No sense of should or should not is necessary to propel us along. Without acceptance, practice becomes an endless treadmill of self-improvement. Without effort, practice becomes complacent: a vehicle for rationalization and denial. We must be clear about who we are and what we know and don't know. To fully accept that state of affairs allows us to be beginning Buddhas, to genuinely have a beginner's mind. Then we will spontaneously make the effort it takes to learn Italian well enough to read Dante - that is, the effort to learn to function to the utmost of our capabilities.