This practice is sometimes called shikantaza, or just sitting. "Just sitting" sounds simple, doesn't it? Yet, most of us sitting here with distraction, confusion, pain, don't experience our sitting as simple at all. To JUST do something - to do it wholeheartedly, totally present in the experience of doing it - has become something of a Zen cliche - one that has infiltrated the culture of NIKE ads - JUST do it - &¬ Nancy Reagan's anti-drug slogan - JUST say No. But even the athletes who are capable of JUST doing it on the field, don't seem to have an easy time of JUST saying no when it comes to drugs. Most of us are that way - able to stay focused and present in some aspects of our lives, but easily distracted and defensive in many other realms. So we practice by paying attention to our areas of resistance, the boundaries of our willingness to pay attention. Just sitting isn't passive, it includes this active, vigilant attention. And how we follow the zendo rules, how meticulous or careless we are with the details of zendo procedure, is one measure of how well we bring this attention off our cushion into our everyday life - which in the end is the whole point of our practice.
Just sitting is simple the way just living your life is simple. And when you are genuinely willing to simply face anything and everything comes up in your life, then you are entitled to say that "just sitting" is a simple practice.
I'd like to tell you a story about my Christmas vacation. I spent the week down on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, in an inn that once a mansion belonging to the Carnegie family. Actually at one time there were three mansions on the island, all built around the turn of the century and mostly used as vacation homes and hunting lodges for the Carnegie family and their friends a for a few weeks a year. One mansion is now in ruins, burnt down it was said by a neighbor who one of the Carnegies took a shot at in a dispute over poaching. When the millionaires came back the next season, they found the house burned down. A second mansion was given as a wedding present to a 19 year son. He either got bored with it, or something, because he moved away and left it boarded up, slowly falling into another ruin. But something different happened to the third mansion. One of the Carnegie granddaughters actually decided to live in it year round and take care of it. So finally someone really took responsibility for this inheritance, but it was still open and available to a few people. But as the family fortune was divided into smaller and smaller pieces, going to all these generations of Carnegie's descendants, by now the family can't afford to keep the mansion as private house any more and its been opened up as an Inn. And paradoxically it means that it both is being cared for better than ever, and is being put to use for the benefit of more and more people than ever.
It takes an enormous amount of work to keep a place like that running. And now the family works along side their employees, doing repairs, taking care of guests, whatever needs to be done.
I'm telling this story because I think that our lives are like this - we've this magnificent inheritance but it takes constant effort and responsibility to take care of it, put it to use for others and finally pass it along to the next generation. Someone who fully is able to feel at home in and responsible for the whole of life we would call a Buddha.
In a narrower sense, this Zen practice is another kind of inheritance we've been given and that we're responsible for, to maintain and pass on. Perhaps here in this little room it feels like we're only taking responsibility for a very small corner of the whole mansion, but really our responsibility extends to the whole thing, to all of practice, to all of life.
Most of the time we preoccupied with the very necessary but very mundane chores of maintenance - like counting breaths, labeling thoughts, doing all the basic emotional work on ourselves that keeps our practice in good repair. But we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture, that we're all heirs to a wonderful fortune, and that our mansion is a quite marvelous place, here for all of us to enjoy. All too often, we realize just how marvelous it is only after we've let two out of three mansions fall into ruin, after we've squandered so much of our precious time.