Distracting Thoughts

sodo“All you have to do is decide that wherever you are is the best place there is. Once you start comparing one place to another, there’s no end to it.” — Sodo Yokoyama

The late Zen teacher Sodo Yokoyama gave a clear summary of his teaching in a letter to a friend in 1977. This is taken from longer excerpt in the excellent book, Living and Dying in Zazen by Arthur Braverman, which I recommend with enthusiasm. “Zazen” means “just sitting”, and is a Zen word for meditation. “Satori” means a sudden flash of awareness or awakeness; a brief experience of Enlightenment.

“My teacher, the late Sawaki Roshi, often made the following self-evaluation: ‘I am an eternally deluded person. No one is as deluded as I am. I am deluded with gold trimmings. How clear it is to me when I do zazen!’

“What a strange thing this zazen is. When we practice it, distracting ideas, irrelevant thoughts — in short, delusions, which ordinary people are made of, suddenly seem to feel an irresistible temptation to arise and appear on the surface. Then there is a desire to drive these thoughts away, in irresistible desire to which our complete effort is added. Those who don’t do zazen know nothing about this. Why is it that when we practice, deluded thoughts continue to surface one after the other? The reason, which we learn from Zazen, is that each one of us, from prince to beggar, is an ordinary (deluded) person. The attempt to drive these deluded thoughts away — delusion being so much nonsense (interfering with the happiness of oneself and others) — is also something brought home to us through zazen. We tentatively call this zazen that guides us in this way, ‘Buddha’.

“According to this teaching, simply the awareness that you are deluded, which comes from practising zazen, makes you, in reality, a Buddha. It’s zazen that teaches us that we too are deluded, and hence delivers us from this delusion. When we actually practice zazen and look carefully at all the deluded ideas that keep popping up, we realize how ordinary we are and how little we have to be proud of or to brag about; nothing to do other than quietly hide away. This is, after all, what we truly are.

“Satori is being enlightened to the fact that we are deluded. There is then the desire, however small, to stop these deluded acts. That is how ordinary people are saved by zazen. So we realize, beyond a doubt, our ordinariness through our zazen practice, and any departure from zazen (Buddha) will give rise to the inability to deal with these delusions and hence we will lose our way. We can say that the world has gone astray because it can’t deal with its delusions…All the troubles in this world, political, economic and so forth, are created from situations in which the awareness of one’s ordinariness is absent.

“Sawaki Roshi said, ‘Those who are unaware of their ordinariness are from a religious point of view shallow and comical.’

“The devil — that is, illusion — when seen as the devil, can no longer exhibit its powers, and disappears of its own accord.

“Shakyamuni was enlightened beyond all doubt to the fact that he was an ordinary person and became a Buddha. Then he began to live the life of a Buddha. When you realize your ordinariness, you are a Buddha, and when you are a Buddha, no matter how many distracting ideas and irrelevant thoughts appear they are no match for a Buddha and hence no longer remain obstacles. Delusions that no longer obstruct us are called fantasies. The Buddha way — the way of peace — is turning of delusion into fantasies.” — Sodo Yokoyama 1907-1980

Bad News, Good News

“You can buy a ticket, but you can’t pick the destination.” — Ken McLeod

When beginners sit down to meditate, they generally hope for certain experiences: calm, clarity, a sense of well-being, even bliss. There are literally centuries of anecdotal evidence of this, and today we even have direct scientific evidence of the positive results of meditation. But what most people actually experience at first can be quite different from this.

Meditation is the practice of cultivating awareness. As Ken McLeod says, when you decide to become aware, you don’t get to pick what you become aware of. When we begin to notice how our minds actually work, we get the bad news: we are not nearly as consistent as we thought we were. We may see ourselves as kind and reasonable, but we notice thoughts that are cruel and capricious. We may see ourselves as strong and courageous, but we notice vulnerability and fear.

Meditation doesn’t cause these “new” thoughts and feelings to arise: it simply reveals what is already there. What’s there right now is the result of what we’ve done and experienced in the past. Of course we don’t have much influence over this — things are just unfolding according to past events and actions.

The value of meditation is not just the calm states it can sometimes produce (although those are very nice), but fact that it allows enough “space” in the mind for us to see how we’re causing needless suffering for ourselves and others. We do have influence over our future states of mind, because our future state of mind will be a result of what we choose to do from now on. If we stop letting our patterns run our life, things will change. And that’s good news.

“The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What’s going on is very important.” — Thich Nhat Hanh