March 22, 2018

How to Do Our Best

Last time I promised I would write an article about the meaning of "doing our best". This story might not be very encouraging, but you are probably a very different person, have very different experience and be much more mature than I am now. I have no idea, but I will just tell you what it was for me "to do my best" for twenty five years of my Buddhist practice.

Ever since I began to practice zazen and study the Buddhist philosophy with teachers, I have seldom  felt  happy about who I was and what my situation was. Except a short time after I returned from the US where I began my Buddhist practice. After my return home, which was and still is Prague, the Czech Republic, I felt like I had brought a new life from the US. The direction I got at the Zen center seemed amazing and it worked great for some time. But soon I started to realize that I was slowly and surely returning into a mindset which I would call "something is wrong with me".  I had started to practice Zen in Kwan Um school, which is based on working on koans, helping others more than oneself and practicing hard with others and for others. I thought that I was one of the most impatient and frustrated students. Then I discovered  a book of Dogen's essays and some interpretation of Dogen's teaching and decided to find a teacher who would teach me in that style. I particularly liked the teaching   that satori (in which I was very interested at that time) is not different from zazen and zazen is not different from satori.  Then I tried two different teachers during ten years, but my relationship with them didn't work and I wasn't sure if they could ever help me to realize who I am actually. In the meantime, I was a loser in relationships with women and I felt like one, as a high school teacher. My life, until recently, felt so unsatisfactory and frustrating, that at one point I hit a kind of rock bottom. I felt like I was not able to continue like this. I felt my efforts and the results of these efforts were so stupidly different that it was ridiculous. I tried so hard to practice zazen, to work, to be a good partner, to write about Buddhism on this blog, but about eight years ago I really felt like it was all going nowhere. You may ask: "If you were so desperate and unhappy, how come you were writing such positive and encouraging essays about Buddhist teaching and practice?" Actually, what I was writing was my experience, to some degree, but I was not just one person, I was two people. Although most of the time I felt like a loser, a silly oddball, I did have a kind of area in my life, where I found satisfaction, clarity, joy, hope and happiness. That was whenever I practiced zazen for more than thirty minutes, ideally an hour or more. Of course, you'll find peace and balance in ten minutes of zazen, but to me, in order to feel balanced and clear, I needed more time on the zafu than that. Nobody should imitate others, as you need to find your own pace and time for zazen, it may be ten minutes a day, maybe three hours a day, everyone is different. Just in my case, I always found one hour or so very helpful for writing essays and feeling all right about myself and the world.  But the way I was unhappy most of the time, there was something sick about it. I don't think it is necessary to feel that bad about oneself. But I did. I never had a relaxed relationship with my current teacher Mike Luetchford,  I mean until last year, I would say. I had struggled to find my role and his role in our relationship. For me, it was very difficult to talk to him, which wasn't his fault, I just took him too seriously quite often. That was painful. I did not know who I was supposed to be. I really did not know if I was doing my best and usually I felt I was not doing my best. This situation seemed to be my fate, to be my whole life. It was painful, but at the same time, you know, we humans get used to such things and consider them common or just the way it is. You get used to it and at the same time, don't want to accept it.

Anyway, last year, last winter, I somehow, not sure what events exactly helped me to realize that, but I somehow realized that the way I am, the way I lived and struggled, how I tried hard, as a partner, as a high school teacher, as a writer, as my teacher's student, as a friend, as a son, etc., I just realized that basically, it would, essentially, never be better. The word "essentially" is important here. Your life can always be a bit better or a bit worse, you may become very lucky one day and extremely unlucky another day, but there is something essential that just never changes. And that is important to find. That which never changes. The you, your self, that is always the same. The buddha nature that is never better, worse or different from somebody else's buddha nature. It is like living in an eggshell you can never ever escape, no matter how hard you try... and you cry and you try hard to get out of the eggshell, but to no avail. Actually, you are trying to escape your buddha nature! Because for some reason, the buddha nature seems to be a prison, not freedom. You think that you do not belong to the eggshell, you feel you should live somewhere better, somewhere nicer, more interesting and show others, that you are not just a stupid chicken trapped in that stupid eggshell. You want to go and conquer the world. You want to show them. You want to go and join the free running chickens. You want to be Somebody. Not a loser, not a chicken trapped in an eggshell. But last winter, during a few days, I slowly realized that I could never escape. I can never escape my life, my weaknesses, my gifts, my quirks, my hopes, my dreams, my experience. I found out that the only thing I could do about myself was to accept who I was and try to use this guy like some kind of dough you use to make bread. You hope the dough is good enough and now you have to make it into bread. Bread should be delicious and balanced, but we humans cannot hope to be made into something brilliant. We can only hope to be the bread we are supposed to be. Some people are more brilliant, some people are less brilliant, but the dough is the same for us. So in my case, as I realized that the dough is given and won't change, I wanted to see what can happen, or what kind of bread will be made. As for living in a small eggshell, just as I gave up trying to escape that eggshell, I found freedom within the small and limited space of the eggshell. I realized that when we just relax, accept both the shit and beauty of our lives, the necessary limits, we can breathe freely. It is the same with zazen. Although you may not move much and you just face this boring wall for an hour, or so, once you accept this sitting still in front of the wall, you may begin to feel free. Free, despite the stillness and going nowhere and getting nothing special.

Ever since last winter, to "do one's best" has meant something different from what it meant to me in the past. I am somehow clumsily living in my little eggshell, without much wisdom or brightness.  Maybe I am just finding out who I am. Maybe it is not all so simple and clear and I may become confused about myself again some time in future. I just think that whenever there is an obstacle or pain, you just have to go straight and deal with the situation. Or take painkillers. When you look back, you may feel you could have done better, but this time, you are not so frustrated. You did your best. Next time you will do your best. People won't be impressed. But little do they know how small your eggshell is.

I am sure zazen is something that makes buddhas out of fools, out of simpletons and out of intellectuals. The path of Buddhas is clear and bright. We can always reach out and open the window to let the fresh air of dharma transform the fool we are and make a buddha. We can let this dharma accompany our lives, no matter if we feel horrible about ourselves or more or less OK.  After all the twenty five years I was struggling, I was also a fine person, I hope, but it was difficult for me  to see it. We are all trapped, and at the same time, we can all meet dharma and find our true home in dharma. Time is not that important after all. When or how much later, that is not so important. Can we do something real today? Can we wake up today, just like yesterday, just like cats and dogs and birds? I am sure we all can.

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