Following are transcriptions of some short talks I've given at Empty Gate Zen Center:
There was once a "Parliament of the World's Religions" in Chicago, and many religious leaders were invited - Catholics, pagans, Black Muslims, Hindus, witches, and on and on. One of the things they did was try to draft a statement of principles; they wanted to tell the world, "These are the fundamental truths that spiritual people accept." They had a terribly hard time, of course. It's difficult for human beings, spiritual or otherwise, to agree on anything.
Our teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, was there. Even though he's been a Zen Master for over 40 years, he didn't contribute a word to the statement of principles. He just encouraged everyone to sit together silently (he didn't use the word "meditation"), which they eventually agreed to do for 10 minutes.
This is Zen practice, putting aside our different ideas and opinions, and just acting in this moment. If more people could learn to just do something together, even something as simple as sitting silently, then we wouldn't create so many problems for the world.
Formal Zen practice includes sitting, chanting, bowing, and other things that may look like a religion. But it's not at all necessary to consider these actions special, spiritual, or holy. They're opportunities to let go of my ideas, my opinions, mymy situation, I, my, me ... and just do it. At a Zen center, there's a schedule telling us what it's time to do (7pm: sitting; 7:30pm: chanting, etc.). In ordinary life, we often don't have a schedule, but we can keep the same mind - clearly perceiving each moment, and doing whatever that situation calls for.
Years ago, Dae Soen Sa Nim wrote a letter to the Pope, suggesting that he call a meeting of the world's spiritual leaders. When they arrived in Rome, there'd be a hot tub that they could all sit in together. Next, they'd share a meal. And after that, everybody would go home - all without saying a single word.
When religious people come together, they're wearing different costumes. Monks in Korea wear grey, Indian swamis wear orange, the Pope has his white robes, and so on. But to take a hot tub, you take off your clothes, so that would be one step towards putting aside different ideas. And when we eat, our likes and dislikes appear very strongly. So eating the same meal with other people is another way to practice letting go of our opinions.
People who want to make a formal commitment to practicing Zen go through what's called a precepts ceremony, and after the ceremony they get a certificate that includes this poem:
Good and evil have no self-nature Holy and unholy are empty names In front of the door is the land of stillness and light Spring comes, the grass grows by itself.The first two lines mean: let go of whatever ideas and opinions you're holding. In the third line, "the door" is the senses, so this line means that whatever you perceive at this moment is Truth. Finally, the last line means: whatever it's time to do, just do it.
There are endless tricks, and every trick works ... sometimes. I'd see people on hot streaks, winning constantly for an hour or more, and their expressions seemed to say, "I've finally got it all figured out! I'll never have to work again!" I knew that before long this type of thinking would get them into deep, deep trouble, so it was sad to watch.
People who start a religious or spiritual practice tend to have minds like these gamblers. We think, "There must be a way to avoid the suffering that everyone seems to experience; how can I beat the system?"
Also, the world is filled with spiritual teachers anxious to tell you their ways to beat the system. They say, "If you follow me and my way, you'll get all sorts of good feelings inside and good situations outside; if not now, then in the future. My way will grant you benefits infinitely greater than the effort you put into it."
In other words, they teach the possibility of getting good stuff that you don't earn, and don't deserve. This is a beautiful idea, and it's given beautiful names, such as "God's grace," etc. I've noticed that the largest crowds seem to form around those teachers who say that small efforts can bring big rewards.
In our school, the teaching different. Dae Soen Sa Nim says, "Big effort, big attainment. Small effort, small attainment. No effort, no attainment." How can someone considered a great teacher get away with promising so little? He also says, "Understanding cannot help you." This means that life offers no tricks or shortcuts; and if you really understand that there are no shortcuts, even that's not a shortcut.
Maybe it sounds awful to give up such beautiful hopes. But when you completely give up hope, you're left with something extraordinary: a clear view of the present moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What are you doing right now? That's much better than hope.
There's a story about this in a Carlos Castaneda book. Carlos is walking with don Juan and stops for a moment to tie his shoe. Just then, a boulder falls from the cliffs above and crashes to the ground a few feet ahead. "My God!" Carlos says. "If I hadn't had to tie my shoe, that would have killed us!"
"That's true," replies don Juan. "And maybe someday you'll stop to tie your shoe, and because you stop a boulder will kill you. You don't know when the boulder will fall, so the most important thing for you to do is to tie your shoe impeccably."