During the retreat we had an opportunity to have a personal interview (or even two) with the teacher – formal or informal style – to discuss the practice. The interviews lasted all from 5 minutes to over an hour. The formal interview included bowing to the teacher in gassho and three prostrations (gotai-tochi) upon entering and leaving the room. The student would then sit right in front of the teacher on the zafu, face to face.
Having considered the options – the promise of convenience of the informal interview and the risk of exposing my ego to suffering by doing yet another, new for me ceremony – I saw no other choice but go with the latter. After all, it is precisely by doing the things we have resistance to we become aware of our inhibitions and only then get a chance to work with them. Doing prostrations in complete silence, facing the teacher, slowly, made me feel very self-conscious. I could not help thinking of the cracking sound in my left knee every time I got up on my feet and of how clumsy I must have looked.
One… I heard the desperate buzz of a fly somewhere in the room:
“I heard a fly buzz when I died…”*
or maybe it was me who thought the fly desperate because of my own desperation?
Not that I minded looking clumsy I told myself, I just wanted to offer the teacher the best prostration I could (who could blame me for that?) – more solemn, more soundless, more elegant and graceful than the jokes of prostrations I was doing.
Three… At last!
“It was not death, for I stood up…”*
The next time I went for the interview, instead of pacing the porch while waiting for my turn I started practising prostrations right there on the veranda, offering them to the pines. There was no way around the cracking in the knees unless I was ready to prostrate with streight legs, that is falling forward. Keeping the balance when getting up and making it look as natural as possible kept me busy for a while. When I finally landed on the cusion in front of Reb, flushed and self-conscious, my heart somewhere in the throat, I met his gentle smile and receiving eyes and stayed there for a while, feeling. Suddenly I knew he did not care for my elegant prostrations but would be perfectly content with whatever prostrations I could wholeheartedly offer.
I also wondered how a person in Reb’s position could sympathise with someone obviously suffering for whatever reason (in my case it was me having the idea of what a perfect prostration should be like) and still do not suffer for them, do not make it into his own suffering or embarrassment. I knew he kept seeing the people day after day and for many it was like seeing a therapist – people went to see him with all sorts of problems they felt the need to share with someone. How could one get so close to people and not burn out, losing himself in all this? The answer to the question was the cornerstone of Reb’s teaching thoughout the week: it was all about giving himself to himself and it has nothing to do with our wordly idea of being selfish.
Giving my self to myself
What is it all about then? The idea is hard to grasp intellectually if one is unacquainted with the notion of self in the Buddhist context. Understanding there is no solid self and what I perceive as a self is nothing more than a collection of the aggregates (necessary for us to function in every day life) I realise my self in each and every moment. Just being my self does not leave place for anything else. (Reb’s teacher Suzuki Roshi called that burning oneself out in every activity, with no traces left in his wonderful book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”).
To demonstrate the point Reb used an example from his personal life when his grandchild had wanted Reb to play with him. Reb, who was tired at the moment, said no and explained why. The child persisted and asked again and once again Reb said no. When the child asked for the third time he then felt he was no longer tired and agreed to play with the child. Reb gave his grandchild his tired grandfather a few times but first he had allowed himself to be the tired self that he was at the moment. By doing that, just being himself instead of trying to be someone else – the energetic granddad? the tired- but-ready-to-forget-about-it-for-his-grandchild granddad? – he first of all was honest with himself and the child and secondly, had the opportunity to rest. I wondered of course if the child had sensed that three different granddads gave answers, one at a time, even though there was the same person standing in front of him. (It doesn’t mean of course we have to understand it by way of reason to realise it: children seem to be very generous at giving themselves to themselves and to others yet they never think of it. They know how to be.)
It is important to first of all give myself to myself before giving oneself to others. If I give myself to my partner before I give myself to myself I will be giving not my self but what he ask me for (or what I think he expects of me) and sooner or later start hating the person who keeps getting the self that is not my true self in the moment. I will then wonder who it is he wants. It also means that I have to recognise and accept myself in the moment: cry when I cry (give my tears to my tears), with all my heart but without constructing stories; to be angry when I am angry without taking it into the next meoment, etc.
In the same way I can give others to others and accept my friend’s tears. It is easier to start comforting my friend and ask her not to cry because that would inconvenience me, too (people get uncomfrotable around crying people). Yet if I accept her tears and just let her cry on my shoulder, chances are this is all the person needs in the moment and in the next moment she might feel different.
This is the most difficult practice of them all. It asks of me to stay tuned with the self in the moment and to accept it so it can “overwrite” the preprogrammed ideas of myself I might have (“I don’t do that!”, “I am not that kind of person”, “I wouldn’t do that”, etc.). Being true to my self might not make me popular (as Reb probably was not his grandchild’s favourate granddad when he was honest with the child) with my partner or others but from my experience so far it is extremely liberating. I no longer have to be some other version of my self constrained by my dreams, other’s expectations – all I have to do is… just be!
I now see how being my self is connected with our practice of shikantaza, or just sitting: in zazen, we just sit, and being my self I am doing just that, dropping all ideas of the self I could or should be.
May all beings be happy, healthy and free from suffering!