Practice is Not Separate from Context: Our Daily LIfe and the Ultimate Purpose of Meditation – 2017

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

I have thought very much about the lives of two of the Zen teachers who have influenced me the most. One of the things that I have noticed is the rather particular and extreme historical circumstances in which they found themselves. Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master in the Soto Zen tradition and the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, studied and trained in Japan before, during, and after the second world war. Robert Aitken, an American Zen master, but in a lay Buddhist tradition, found himself interned in Guam and Japan during the second world war. Nonetheless, they were able to pursue their lives, determine their priorities, and pursue their studies and training in Zen Buddhism, and to practice the teachings, regardless of the circumstances they were in. Or was it — because of the circumstances they were in? Or was it — their practice was — the circumstances they were in? 

As a psychologist I see that the clients that come into therapy are dealing with some circumstances in their lives and the conflict, emotions, or distress that those circumstances are causing. Events cause strong emotional responses, and then we struggle to know how to deal with the emotions, as well as how to deal with the events themselves. What helps us to be accepting of our circumstances, to be able to deal with them with strength and calm rather than distress?

I think the answer to that is that we are always, day in and day out, dealing with some context – some particular events and circumstances that are going on at a particular time. The context seems like a large umbrella under which we live our life. Yet, we are not under the events of our life, we are in them. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” the saying goes. And Robert Aitken would probably say, “Exactly!” So in therapy I try to give my clients space and support in exploring their situation. I also try to help my clients figure out the things they need to do to practically deal with their situation, and also give them tools to help them deal with their conflicts, emotions, and distress. But more than that, if they are willing, I help them to learn a practice that will be the same regardless of the circumstances. If they are interested and willing to make an effort, they can learn a practice that is not separate from context, and which will have many rewards in all circumstances throughout their lives.

We may be experiencing the stress of having to move to another city, we may be told that we have lost our job, we may have an argument with our spouse, or a parent may die. Annie Dillard writes in Holy The Firm:

The pain within the millstones’ pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other —for the world and all the productions of extension—is real, vaulting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones’ sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you can get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother, when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone… you reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief, everlasting.

We feel at a loss in our lives sometimes, at a loss with how to deal with conflict, pain, grief, and death. In Zen monateries at the end of each day of retreat, a senior student cries out in a loud and deep voice:

Life and death in a grave matter.
All things pass quickly away.
We must stay completely alert,
Never indulgent, never neglectful.

We wonder how we can deal with our life’s circumstances, how we can endure sometimes, the pain and loss in life.

Actual and specific research has shown that meditation has physical, psychological, behavioral, emotional, and spiritual benefits. Benefits include reducing physical tension, increasing relaxation, slowing heart rate and respiration, increasing the literal health, activity, and structure of the brain, reducing stress and anxiety, reducing depression, reducing obsessive thinking tendencies, and increasing peace of mind. However, regardless of how many benefits are revealed in actual research, these benefits are not the ultimate purpose of meditation.

From classical and Mahayna Buddhist literature around 2,000 years ago, there is an intriguing listing of “The Six Paramitas.” The Paramitas are giving, morality, forbearance, zeal, settled and focused meditation, and wisdom. Later, four more were added: compassionate means, aspiration, spiritual strength, and knowledge. These have been shown throughout Buddhist history to be some of the possible effects of a long term, consistent, and regular meditation practice. Also described in ancient Buddhist literature are “The Four Illimitibles” or The Four Great Wisdoms which are: loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion, and equanimity. But none of these extensive and impressive effects of meditation are the “ultimate purpose” either!

What is considered the ultimate purpose of meditation is termed “realization.” The word realization is complex. Generally speaking, it is a profound event in which one comes to experience in a deep and profound way what is called essential nature, Buddha nature, or as Hui-Neng termed it in “The Sutra of Hui-Neng” – Mind Essence. It is a personal, deep and profound experience of the nature of being. Such an experience and the the insight that results from it, transforms the way we perceive the world, our place in the world, and the way we live our lives.

Robert Aitken points out in The Original Dwelling Place that “Human beings tend to be miserable because they are preoccupied with themselves. When they are free of their self-centeredness, they can find happiness…. We tend to become fixated on the temporal, the mundane, the particular, and the world of being born and dying.” With insight we can perceive and experience the eternal, the unique, the universal, and the impermanent.

In addition to the external contexts of our lives, Robert Aitken points out that another form of context is our internal condition. In Taking The Path of Zen, he states that the preoccupation with one’s condition is a “delusion” in Buddhist terminology. A preoccupation with condition during meditation is a distraction, and rather than quieting the mind, it leads to increased distress. Frustration, irritation, anger, hurt, disappointment, and sadness are all emotions that are conditions that can be considered distractions in meditation. Robert Aitken writes, “These conditions are only superficial waves of the sea of your mind.” In meditation we can let them go and refocus on our breath. Or on the other hand, sometimes the emotion itself becomes our meditation, our practice, and we sit with anger, or with hurt, or sadness. We can accept the emotion and know that that condition and that context are themselves — our very practice.

Thinking, too, is a condition. Judgments, strong opinions, and endless preferences and discriminations in our thinking are also conditions, also part of the context of our practice. Robert Aiken writes, “Your thoughts are the environment of your zazen as much as your room and the TV next door. Sit with those thoughts and don’t let then master you….You are not fundamentally seeking a ‘good condition’ of quiet or avoiding a ‘bad condition’ of noise.” As one becomes experienced in meditation, just as we become experienced in life, these conditions of meditation or the context of our life can be handled with more courage and strength. With practice this perseverance will lead to a kind of serenity, an inner peace, and equanimity.

So what Robert Aitken, as well as most other Buddhist teachers — are expressing to us is that no matter what context we are dealing with — a lost job, a lost relationship, the death of someone we love, a political crisis, or a world war, whatever the circumstances, whatever the condition, our practice is that context, that condition. Robert Aitken teaches that there are four aspects of formal Zen training: meditation, retreat, meeting with a teacher, and Zen community work practice. To others, practice might consist of primarily study and daily meditation. To whatever extent we may determine that we can maintain a practice – the activity of meditation is not separate from context. This means that instead of wishing we could escape our negative experience, we can know that life consists of events, and circumstances, and context, and condition, and our challenge is to work with, but also to accept our life circumstances as they change from day to day.

In a personal conversation, Clark Ratliffe, a Tanto at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, stated that, “One’s life is one’s practice, one’s moment. All of our life is our practice.” To begin such a practice requires a very strong will and determination, study and the determination to learn, and an endless effort and perseverance to actually do meditation. With a daily meditation practice, we can learn to let go of our preoccupations and preferences, but also to be accepting of the way things are. We can learn that there is no other way out, there is no other place to go, as Clark Ratliffe explains. We can learn to sit with, and be in, and accept the contexts and conditions of our life.

Today when I consider our personal concerns and stressful circumstances, and how we have grave concerns about national and international tensions, I think of Robert Aitken. What we can learn through study and practice is that broader life events are the context within which we live our lives. And our emotions and our thought patterns are our internal conditions and contexts.

Robert Aitken writes in the Original Dwelling Place, “As I step outdoors, suddenly a thrush bursts into song in the little milo tree by our front porch. House, garden, memories, and plans completely disappear, and in the incredible silence, she evokes from my heart her lovely voice again and again. This is the “entry into the inconceivable” of song within song, of life within life.”

Robert Aitken writes, “When mu breathes mu, the fragrance of incense is sitting there on your cushion. The sound of the wind in the trees is walking around the zendo in kinhin (walking meditation), and the bark of the dog is prostrating itself before the altar.”

He states, “When we see into the nature of things and make intimate the formless, the timeless, the spiritual, the universal, the world of no-birth and no-death, then we are evolving on the path of full and complete lives.”

Whatever circumstances may form the context of our lives, personal trauma, national tensions, or international strife, we can learn to pursue our lives, determine our priorities, pursue our studies and training in Zen Buddhism if we choose, and practice the teachings as Shunryu Suzuki and Robert Aitken were able to do. We can learn to appreciate the uniqueness of things — the specialness of each thing. We can learn to sometimes forget ourselves, our worries and our preoccupations, and we can remember that at the same time our practice is our context. We can not only practice regardless of the conditions, regardless of the contexts, regardless of the circumstances we are in; our practice is the conditions, the context, and the circumstances. Practice and context — are — one and the same. Practice is not separate from context.

Dogen Zenji states in Fukanzazengi, Shobogenzo:

All you have to do is cease from erudition, withdraw within,
and reflect upon yourself. Should body and mind fall away
naturally, the Buddha Mind will immediately manifest itself.
If you want to find it quickly, you must start at once.