Perhaps some of you were in the audience last night to hear Gary Snyder. It was an opportunity to be reminded of what it was like to try to practice Zen forty years ago. Needless to say there were no American Zen teachers & no shelves of Zen books in every neighborhood bookstore. In order to practice Snyder first studied Chinese and Japanese, and then having no money, worked on a freighter to get to Japan. There he studied with a teacher who knew no English and had to struggle continuously to try to understand what was being said in daisan, and so forth. So we should be very grateful for this opportunity to practice, realizing that probably none of us, myself included, would have been able to overcome the obstacles that were in the way of that generation of students. The only real obstacle you all have to deal with every week is to make sure to get here on time, before the doors are closed at 10 AM. And every week, without fail, one or two people manage to get locked out, for one perfectly good reason or another that I get to listen to later in the week.
Of course, Zen practice is supposed to be difficult, and full of obstacles, though the real obstacles in the end are the ones inside of us. What after all is a "difficulty?" Something that our usual habits, ways of looking at things & coping are not prepared to handle. And that is precisely what were here to look at. When we bump into something that feels like an obstacle, we need to ask ourselves, what picture of our own capabilities, or our fragilities, makes us feel "I can't handle THAT." What is it that we expect from ourselves, or from life, that the obstacle is bumping into? Perhaps we have a picture of how easy something should be, or what effort is "reasonable," what we assume we should have to learn or deal with. And practice certainly keeps pushing at the barriers we all have of how much effort we're willing to make, how much physical or emotional pain we're willing to face. But Life doesn't stop and ask us , "Are you sure you can handle this? Is this too much for you to bear?"
Often the obstacle turns out to be nothing but this sort of picture we have of how we ought to be able to handle ourselves in the midst of difficulty. Can we bear to be out of control, or lose our equanimity, or be filled with fear or confusion? Accepting that all these reactions may simply be unavoidable can be a terrible blow to our self-image. And yet the willingness simply to go through an experience is ultimately the only way through what we call an obstacle.
So when difficulties appear in your practice, please be sure to look at your picture of who is having the difficulty.