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Just Being Yourself

By: Nomon Tim Burnett | 08/12/2004
Location: Red Cedar Dharma Hall
In Topics: 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

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

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