Zen meal service
go back

Everyday Zen - Part 1

written by
Zentatsu Baker Roshi

EVERYDAY ZEN is one of those appealing phrases that attracts us to Zen. It defines ‘Zen’ in our own terms. It gives us the feeling that ‘just what we are doing’ is Zen; that Zen is found in ordinary circumstances, in things ‘just as they are’, and not in special religious practices or primarily in churches and temples; and that Zen is a throughout-the-day practice, not just for Sundays or periods of meditation. This is true! And we should stay with this feeling and focus in our practice during the day. Of course, it is also true that Zen is found in religious practices, in churches and temples, on Sundays, and during periods of meditation. These are also ordinary circumstances.

The key phrases of this description are ‘just what we are doing’ and ‘things just as they are’. Zen is everyday practice if we really can come to ‘be’ just what we are doing. ‘Just’ means only, simply, precisely, justice. It has the feeling of according to the truth, in accord with the absolute, with fundamental law.

‘Everyday Zen’ also gives us the feeling that no effort is needed and that no special practices are needed. ‘No effort’ can be an excuse or a misleading idea, but in the deepest sense, it is true! Although it sounds easy, we are often addicted to ‘effort’ and to adding and subtracting. Still, we are most able to see things just as they are—without adding anything—when we are not making any special effort. For Zen practitioners, the first step is to find ease in our sitting meditation, and then in our breath, and then throughout the day by accepting things, by not separating ourselves from things, and at the same time, by letting go of things. However to actually go through the day with the effortlessness of a relaxed open mind is not easy. It is quite rare. ‘No effort’ is the highest form of practice. Yuanwu calls this “the realm of no mind, no contrived activity, and no concerns.” He says, “You do not establish any views or keep to any mental states; you move with a mighty flow, so that ‘when the wind moves, the grasses bend down.’” (Cleary & Cleary, Zen Letters, Teachings of Yuanwu)

The phrase ‘things just as they are’ calls us to see things and activities in their own terms and at the same time to see things as they rest in our sense fields and in our personal present. The phrase helps to point us at our immediate situation and not at some unusual unattainable quality or being outside this world. Suzuki-roshi used to say that Zen Practice is an arrow pointing—not away from us, but—at our immediate situation and directly at us.

When I first started practicing, I was not long out of college and university and I was reading a lot of philosophy, literature, poetry. There were so many big—and distant—ideas about what life could be. But when I encountered Zen it was a tremendous relief to me to direct myself back to the immediate situation (perhaps forward to the immediate situation), to feel that I could find what I needed right in front of me. When I thought about it—especially in our culture—it was a radical idea: that the resources, teachings, and truths of religion, spiritual life, and philosophy were all right in front of me, built into the immediate situation, into me, and into the relationships of mind, self, and things. Of course, the concepts of contemporary science prepared me to recognize this, to accept the immensity of the immediate.

Certainly all the truths of physics and chemistry and mathematics are right here in this immediate situation. Of course, we have to do certain experiments to come to this certainty. Even the Big Bang, and gravity, and the whirl of the Milky Way are right here. And to come to this knowledge, too, we have to do rigorous and careful observation and analysis. Thus the example of science further instructed me to think that there must be a way to observe, analyze, discover, and experiment with the spiritual and mundane truths of the immediate situations—truths that are both hidden and also hard to see in their obviousness.

It requires a different kind of tool and mind and way viewing than science. Although both are based on the fundamental openness of an inferential heuristic consciousness. When we look at the situation right in front of us, we don’t actually know what it is. No scientist or psychologist or historian can fully explain this room, this space, this situation that I am in now or this person that I am now—and the person you are and the situation you are in right now.

So I sat down! If the truth is here, I will be here as undistracted as possible to see what I can notice. At first it was like looking out a window—or into a window. I could see or feel the window—it took a while to come to that feeling—but I couldn’t really tell what I was seeing. But I could feel something. I could even know it partially, but it was unclear. It was exciting. And it was satisfying enough that I continued. However it was years, fruitful years, before what I was seeing and feeling began to distinguish itself. It took deep changes in view, considerable patience, and the inspiration, steadiness, and example of Suzuki-roshi.

I don’t mean to make this only complex, for the ‘everyday gate’ of Zen is always a patient and simple faith in things ‘just as they are’; and trust enough to keep arriving in the present. This faith opens windows, brings windows into view. Slowly the immensity, inclusiveness, and deep satisfaction of the present opens up, no longer bounded by the past and future. This changes the dynamic of everything, of world, mind, self, and phenomena.

What is everyday anyway? Do we have anything else? Of course, it is the site of all the sutras—where they were created and experienced; it is the site of all the Buddhas—where they lived and matured; it is the site of all enlightenment experiences. Where were the sutras written? By someone sitting in a room, walking in the street, meditating, smiling at children, coming in out of the rain—all these things are the circumstances that the writers of the sutras shared and lived. These are everyday circumstances. What inspired the Buddha? His circumstances, his family, his friendships, his seeing of a beggar, a diseased person, a corpse, the morning star. These are everyday circumstances. Foyan says, “My livelihood is the marrow of all the sages.” And he says, “The whole of time is an event in your own house.” (T Cleary, Instant Zen).

Our everyday situation joined with our living mindbeing is the source of all sutras—where all the sutras arose. Where all the Buddhas realized Enlightenment. Thus the everyday situation contains all sutras, all Enlightenment. Can you discover this mindbeing everyday Zen? Yuanwu again says, “You enter into enlightenment right where you are. You penetrate to the profoundest source. You cultivate this realization until you attain freedom of mind, harboring nothing in your heart. There is no ‘understanding’ to be found, much less ‘not understanding’.” (Zen Letters).

The everyday includes all points of view and the whole of time. The sutras necessarily expound only one or several points of view. This is wonderful and a great source of wisdom, of practices, and of insights. But for enlightenment we need the freedom of all points of view and no points of View. The Buddha did not realize from the sutras, but from the everyday. This is the Buddha point of view. Thus Zen is called the teaching outside the sutras.

We are not just the listener to Buddha’s teaching. We must also be the Buddha, take the Buddha point of View. The Buddha is the one who is the listener to the teachings of all things at once, which is only found in the everyday, the worldbeing at this moment. This is another reason why Zen has no one sutra as the basis of its teaching and practice. The Buddha is the creator of the sutras, not the listener. So to practice Zen we must be able to take the Buddha point of view in the Everyday. This is the practice of Zen, to take the point of view of one who sees the everyday as a sutra.

What is important is—not to see the world as just passively before us, but—to have a tangible experience of being present in the immediate situation and in our own self, mind, and body. The two main practices of Buddhism are the tools of Everyday Zen: mindfulness—bringing our attention to the immediate situation, and meditation—bringing our attention to the mind itself.

Dogen talks about a ‘here-now-mind’. He says the ‘here-now-mind’ is Buddha. And he says strange things like, “when the mind is not other than the chair, then the mind is Buddha.” In these Dogen is pointing at the practice and fruit and transformative process of taking the present situation as the object of contemplation. It takes a little time to discover how to make the immediate situation the object of contemplation.

It means our mind has to be stable enough, mirror like enough, to rest in the present—not comparing, not trying to get out, not thinking of the future. We need to discover that the present is our treasure box, not our prison from which we want to escape into the future. And our mind has to be one-pointed enough to not stray from the immediacy, the possibilities, the fluidity, and the particulars of the present. Just the intention to achieve this stability and one-pointedness of mind brings us a good part of the way to its realization.

When we look closely at anything—our situation, our language, an object—there is a mystery here. It is a mystery that things appear at all, shining vividly, each in its own place. Although Buddhism is of Indian and East Asian origin, ‘English’ is part of our ‘everyday’, so let’s look at the word ‘everyday’. In the root of ‘day’ is ‘dawn’. And ‘every’ is a strange word. It’s both plural and singular. ‘Every day’ means both: all days and each day. ‘Every car’, for example, means all cars and each car. The root of ‘every’ has in it ‘life’, ‘longevity’, ‘eternity’, and ‘vital force’ (Greek, aion) and a recognition that every thing is “endowed with the acme of vital force”; every thing is the ‘form/body’ of a vital force. Thus even the word ‘everyday’ points us deeply into the present as it is dawning, manifested, in every object; and as the present is both all days and this particular day, simultaneously in-time and out-of-time. As I said, there is a mystery here—each thing shining vividly in its own place—and, in this case, our language recognizes this beneath its bland and timeworn surface.

In Buddhism ‘attention’ is a kind of vital force that enrolls us and the world into its timebound and timeless, singularity and plurality. Attention, through mindfulness and meditation, matures into a tangible cohesive presence that both glues and frees the world together. The day and our attention are both a kind of vitality. They turn each other into gifts. When we bring our attention to a situation, to anything, we open an energetic relationship to ourselves, to the thing, and to the overall situation. It’s not exactly understandable, but as you practice bringing attention, it has a catalytic effect. Various things start to happen, to move, to open, and to become more fluid. Everyday mind and your activities begin to have a kind of power and far-reaching consequence, even though all just rests in itself.

Each situation is many things, but it is also an energy that we activate through our presence, our attention, and our intention. This energy is not in the range of thinking. Our thinking mind hardly touches it. For example, when you meet someone, instead of just meeting them—I’m searching for words here— just imagine you are ‘bathing’ in their presence, in their energy. You may even feel the heat of their body when they are near. You will find that it is a real feeling and a feeling that purifies us—this bathing in meeting—in meeting anything, people and objects. I use the word bathing partly because the idea of purification is threatening or narrow to many of us, so let’s just say that we bathe in the presence of each person and each situation. Right now see if you can feel a kind of bathing in the physicality and presence of your immediate situation.

To be continued

move up
By clicking “Accept”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.