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Stability & Pilgrimage

There are two poles of our practice that we can represent on the one hand by the idea or the vow of stability, and on the other, the notion of pilgrimage. In simple terms, we might say it's the tension between, "This is it," and "Not yet, not yet." So those two positions seem simple in themselves; I think they're actually hard to really grasp, and harder to integrate. The notion of stability or the vow of stability, can be very literal in a formal monastic sense. A monk may take a vow not to leave the order or the monastery without permission of the abbot, and give up all choice or voluntary movement, and give that over to the authority of another person, eliminating the ordinary freedoms and choices that we take for granted. And in that formal sense, there's a resolve to say, this is it, this is the place where I will live and practice and die, on this ground. In some sense you could say it's analogous to a Buddha, after many years of wandering and practicing and cultivating an ascetic discipline deciding to sit down under the bodhi tree and simply not get up until the great matter is settled once and for all. This will be the spot, this is the time when it will be settled. And when we make a vow of stability or a commitment to a particular practice, a particular lineage, a particular center or a teacher, we do so with the sense that well, this is the spot where I'm going to have to settle it all once and for all, and we don't do that because we've necessarily decided that this place, or this teacher is the best in the whole world and the most ideal, but we simply say, well, this is my time, this is my place, this is when I'm going to have to do it. In the same way that we accept the particularities of our own history, our own body, our own personality, not just with its limitations but its specificity that we're ready to say I  truly accept that and surrender to the fact that I am this and not that. I have this life, not some other life. This is my history, this is my promise, this is where I find myself. I can't exchange that history for another just as I can't exchange my head for another. And we merely resolve to fully occupy the life that we have, and we say, this is it. And when we wholeheartedly, completely, embrace this, we may have the experience that the content of our life is not what is crucial but it's that non-separation, the wholeheartedness, wholehearted acceptance of my being right here right now that makes the difference.

Now the dilemma or the pitfall at that pole of practice, of that realization, is to get drawn in to the idea that the content of this center or that teacher or your own particular realization is the point, and we say, this is it, and we start thinking the myth, with its specificity, is the point - my teacher is the one enlightened master of the whole world - such an evil place - my realization is the real authentic thing. We get hung up on the content of this and we think we've got something, we think we've found it, right? There's a line of D.H. Lawrence's that I quoted in my book where he said, if you try to nail down the meaning of a novel you either kill the novel or, if the novel is good one, the novel gets up and runs away with the nail.

I think we're always in danger of trying to nail down our practice, giving some content to this, this way of doing things, this place, this teacher, this insight, this is it, right? that's the nail, when we give it any content whatsoever. The Buddha dharma is empty; it has no fixed permanent nature  or existence or content. One way or another we're always trying to nail it down. And we convert the notion of stability or acceptance into clinging to some particular content. And so we need the corrective of the dialectic of the other poles, the pole of pilgrimage or the pole of not yet, not yet. And the point of that is precisely to wipe away whatever content we think is it, to run away with the nail.

The dilemma with that pole of experience, of not yet,  not yet is that we become spiritual hungry ghosts, that we deny the truth of stability and think there's always more to learn, there's always another teacher, there's always another book to read, there's always something more that I haven't gotten, and we end up chasing the horizon. See, the point of pilgrimage which in a traditional setting was going around testing your insight with one one teacher after another, is not to go get something from all these different teachers, but in a sense to lose something each time, to let go of any fixed notion you have of what it is and let yourself be open to this other manifestation of the dharma. Whatever you think it is nails it down and kills it. We go around and look, we listen to others and let ourselves constantly be open to a different expression, different manifestation. I think the whole evolution of zen in America, Buddhism in the west, has been to keep the dharma in that kind of flux where no one place can exactly reproduce the forms and the culture of the origins of our practice whether in Japan or China or India, and anytime you think the content of it is what's crucial somehow we have to do it differently here from how it was done originally. We can't live the life of Dogen in medieval Japan but we can preserve some practices but we can't be medieval Japanese.

 Now we 're more inclined to use books and tapes, the internet as our pilgrimage to expose ourselves to all sorts of different teachings without taking a thousand mile long literal hike to China to go meet another teacher. It's fine to do all that if we use it to keep our mind open and flexible, to keep moving the nail, to keep ourselves from saying, my little group is the only one that really knows what practice is. It's a big world; practice manifests in a thousand forms. But it's just poison if you use it as way to feed the hungry ghost. What's the next book, what's the next tape? what's the next teacher? Then you have an endless moving target.

But somehow we have to bring those two together. In the end, as dharma talk

There are two poles of our practice that we can represent on the one hand by the idea or the vow of stability, and on the other, the notion of pilgrimage. In simple terms, we might say it's the tension between, "This is it," and "Not yet, not yet." So those two positions seem simple in themselves; I think they're actually hard to really grasp, and harder to integrate. The notion of stability or the vow of stability, can be very literal in a formal monastic sense. A monk may take a vow not to leave the order or the monastery without permission of the abbot, and give up all choice or voluntary movement, and give that over to the authority of another person, eliminating the ordinary freedoms and choices that we take for granted. And in that formal sense, there's a resolve to say, this is it, this is the place where I will live and practice and die, on this ground. In some sense you could say it's analogous to a Buddha, after many years of wandering and practicing and cultivating an ascetic discipline deciding to sit down under the bodhi tree and simply not get up until the great matter is settled once and for all. This will be the spot, this is the time when it will be settled. And when we make a vow of stability or a commitment to a particular practice, a particular lineage, a particular center or a teacher, we do so with the sense that well, this is the spot where I'm going to have to settle it all once and for all, and we don't do that because we've necessarily decided that this place, or this teacher is the best in the whole world and the most ideal, but we simply say, well, this is my time, this is my place, this is when I'm going to have to do it. In the same way that we accept the particularities of our own history, our own body, our own personality, not just with its limitations but its specificity that we say I  truly accept that and surrender to the fact that I am this and not that. I have this life, not some other life. This is my history, this is my promise, this is where I find myself. I can't exchange that history for another just as I can't exchange my head for another. And we merely resolve to fully occupy the life that we have, and we say, this is it. And when we wholeheartedly, completely, embrace this, we may have the experience that the content of our life is not what is crucial but it's that non-separation, the wholeheartedness, wholehearted acceptance of my being right here right now that makes the difference.

Now the dilemma or the pitfall at that pole of practice, of that realization, is to get drawn in to the idea that the content of this center or that teacher or your own particular realization is the point, and we say, this is it, and we start thinking the myth, with its specificity, is the point - my teacher is the one enlightened master of the whole world - such an evil place - my realization is the real authentic thing. We get hung up on the content of this and we think we've got something, we think we've found it, right? There's a line of D.H. Lawrence's that I quoted in my book where he said, if you try to nail down the meaning of a novel you either kill the novel or, if the novel is good one, the novel gets up and runs away with the nail.

I think we're always in danger of trying to nail down our practice, giving some content to this, this way of doing things, this place, this teacher, this insight, this is it, right? that's the nail, when we give it any content whatsoever. The Buddha dharma is empty; it has no fixed permanent nature  or existence or content. One way or another we're always trying to nail it down. And we convert the notion of stability or acceptance into clinging to some particular content. And so we need the corrective of the dialectic of the other poles, the pole of pilgrimage or the pole of not yet, not yet. And the point of that is precisely to wipe away whatever content we think is it, to run away with the nail.
The dilemma with that pole of experience, of not yet,  not yet is that we become spiritual hungry ghosts, that we deny the truth of stability and think there's always more to learn, there's always another teacher, there's always another book to read, there's always something more that I haven't gotten, and we end up chasing the horizon. See, the point of pilgrimage which in a traditional setting was going around testing your insight with one one teacher after another, is not to go get something from all these different teachers, but in a sense to lose something each time, to let go of any fixed notion you have of what it is and let yourself be open to this other manifestation of the dharma. Whatever you think it is nails it down and kills it. We go around and look, we listen to others and let ourselves constantly be open to a different expression, different manifestation. I think the whole evolution of zen in America, Buddhism in the west, has been to keep the dharma in that kind of flux where no one place can exactly reproduce the forms and the culture of the origins of our practice whether in Japan or China or India, and anytime you think the content of it is what's crucial somehow we have to do it differently here from how it was done originally. We can't live the life of Dogen in medieval Japan but we can preserve some practices but we can't be medieval Japanese.

 Now we 're more inclined to use books and tapes, the internet as our pilgrimage to expose ourselves to all sorts of different teachings without taking a thousand mile long literal hike to China to go meet another teacher. It's fine to do all that if we use it to keep our mind open and flexible, to keep moving the nail, to keep ourselves from saying, my little group is the only one that really knows what practice is. It's a big world; practice manifests in a thousand forms. But it's just poison if you use it as way to feed the hungry ghost. What's the next book, what's the next tape? what's the next teacher? Then you have an endless moving target.

But somehow we have to bring those two together. In the end, as Bob Dylan says, "Strap yourself to the tree with roots, you ain't going nowhere."