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Just Being Yourself

from a Dharma Talk in Bellingham, August 12, 2004

By Nomon Tim Burnett | Aug 12, 2004
Location: Red Cedar Dharma Hall
In topic: Sangha Voices
When we practice we naturally want to get something. And since there is nothing external or tangible in Zen practice to “get,” it seems that we want to get is to be a different person.


When we practice we naturally want to get something. And since there is nothing external or tangible in Zen practice to “get,” it seems that we want to get is to be a different person.

If we took cooking lessons and learned how to make Pad Thai we could say, after the class, great I now know how to make Pad Thai. We can invite our friends over and make them Pad Thai – we got something. When we take a cooking class we also collect the experience of the class, or at least our idea of the experience of the class. We can describe to our friend over the bowl of noodles what the instructor was like, what the other students said. We now have a new possession – the experience of the cooking class and we can enjoy it and share it and own that possession for a while.

It’s hard to do that with Zen experience although we all try to anyway. My wife and I share pretty much everything with each other and she is particularly good at remembering details and nuances and subtleties of what happens and connecting them to different ideas and things she’s read and other experiences she had years ago. So if my wife were to go to a cooking class we would spend easily the same amount of time as the class took talking about it. She would tell me all about every detail and things it reminded her of and it would be very entertaining and fascinating.

After my first few Zen retreats. I felt like I wasn’t holding up my end of the relationship very well. I would come back from being away from her for a weekend or a week of sitting zazen and there really wouldn’t be much of anything to say about it. During the periods of zazen I would think of an infinite number of interesting and clever things to think about and talk about but once it was all over somehow all of that was gone. All of that stuff bubbled up during the retreat and it was often very hard to stay sitting there as of those ideas, thoughts, and emotions oozed and bubbled and jumped out at me. But once I got home there was really nothing I could think of to say. I usually couldn’t remember much of anything from the dharma talks either, wonderful and inspiring as they usually were at the time I was sitting there listening to them. What I eventually figured out to say was “It was hard, but good.” And she was gracious enough to leave it at that.

We hear again and again the basic and sensible teachings of Zen, of Buddhism. We hear that it really is the best policy to let go of our desires and aversions. We hear that we will be happier, more content, and calmer if we can learn how to just be. Learn to let some of the static and extra angst we bring to the situation of being alive drop away. Just face each moment with acceptance and openness.

These ideas sound great. But then the next moment something happens. The next moment we are reactive, we are angry, we are annoyed, we are impatient, we are not living up to any of these wonderful ideas. And we feel that we’ve failed again. But as we gather some strength and perseverance in doing the practice it doesn’t get us down too badly to fail again, we can bounce back, move on, try again.

But still we carry this idea of failure. This idea of not being quite the person we set out to be in taking on this practice for the years and years and years it seems to take. It’s somehow been 17 or 18 years for me now, and I know many of you have practiced even longer than that. What do we have to show for it? Have we become different people? Have we come calmer or more self-assured or more “zen”. Has it all been worth anything at all?

The great and true teaching of Zen that I noticed myself slipping into another notch more completely lately is the incredibly simple, profound, and deeply helpful fact that this is it. This is it. This is my personality, this is my body, this if my life. Just this life is it. It’s hard to describe the feeling of accepting this a little more deeply. It’s a feeling of settling in a little more, or settling down, or opening up, of ceasing to fight against what is. This is not to say that I don’t keep working on our practice, that I don’t keep working on my conduct, that I don’t intend to keep studying and practicing, but somehow my attitude shifted a little lately. A little away from trying to be someone else, a little more squarely on just being this person. “Just be yourself” our teachers tell us. They mean that in the deep and complete way that is revealed to us as we start to understand our life as a dance in the field of emptiness, not as a daily struggle to grasp something new.

As I work with this teaching, I see that I’ve had a very strong idea that there is something out there that will set me free. Some great poem. Some wonderful idea. Some experience that will totally change everything. If I were just more motivated I would find it. If I read more poetry, if I went to more Zen retreats, maybe I should take up koan study? Maybe I should really get serious about yoga? What about a fasting – how come I never fast anymore? Maybe that would do it. I’m slacking on going out to the wilderness – maybe a long backpack would change everything.

But lately I see a little more clearly that nice as those things are to do, they really is nothing outside that I can grasp that will set me free. That really accepting what is it what will set me free. Or you might say that I am free already. Completely liberated. And lately I feel that just a tiny bit more. Maybe I went up from understanding this with 2% of my being up to 3% or something like that. But that makes it sound like if I do the right stuff I will maybe someday get up to 10% or hey even 15% that would feel really good wouldn’t it! It is a matter of degree on the one hand and on the other hand there are no degrees at all. There is really just this. Just what is.

Really accepting that this is it is liberation. Letting go of trying to be someone else is liberation. You don’t need to apologize anymore. As Norman said last summer you can really trust the fact that it’s not your fault. If you really accept that this is it you don’t need to strive anymore, you don’t need to fight what is. You make effort out of joy, out of curiosity, out of compassion for beings, out of the sheer pleasure of engagement with the world. And when things don’t work out you aren’t thrown, you understand that as part of what this is. You don’t think, “oh there is trouble so I’m going about things the wrong way” rather you understand trouble as part of what this is. You adjust and react to the feedback of the universe but just as adjusting, just as reacting not as someone who has failed.

One way we can understand what we are doing in our Zen practice, then, is emptying out. Gradually clearing out our ideas of grasping and separation. Gradually cleansing ourself of our ideas about accomplishment. Gradually releasing ourselves from this deep compulsion to try so very, very hard to be someone else. This is really it. I hope that you can appreciate the joy and potential of releasing into that deep truth of Buddhism, but please don’t worry about it too much. It’s just an idea after all. Thank you very much.

Nomon Tim Burnett, a long time student of Zoketsu's, is the Resident Priest of the Bellingham Zen Practice Group