I recently attended a talk at Fordham University by Roshi Robert Kennedy. A Fordham student asked Roshi, “What’s the biggest obstacle for beginning Zen practitioners?” He answered that at first Zen students are infatuated with the idea of practice and meditate with enthusiasm. Then after a year or two, not so much. They haven’t gotten enlightened and their problems haven’t changed — their practice hits a wall. At this point students focus in on the imperfections of their teacher and other sangha members and wonder if there’s a better practice somewhere else. A lot of Zen students drop out. Those who persist eventually develop a more mature view of practice: Enlightenment is no longer just around the corner — or even if it is — sitting won’t make it happen. As Ma-tsu inquired, “How can polishing a tile make a mirror?” We just do the work — without expectation of gain — because it’s the work of being human.
Roshi’s words resonated because I’d recently completed a teleconferenced Dharma course offered through an on-line organization. The course was fine, but I was struck by the achievement-oriented striving permeating many of the participants’s questions. They’d read about Daniel Ingram’s stages of enlightenment and wanted to know exactly where they were along the path. Some of them despaired because they couldn’t afford to go on long retreats or take time off from work to do so. How would they ever achieve stream-entry? They were in a hurry, and Enlightenment was their destination.
Practicing “like your hair’s on fire” is all well and good — practice needs sincerity and determination. But in practice, as Ayya Khema noted, we’re “being nobody, going nowhere.” Larry Rosenberg says pragmatic Americans want to know the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B, but in meditation we go from Point A to Point A. We stay where we are, over and over. We’re always beginners — no starting practice, no advanced practice — just practice. We’re in it for the long haul.
If we practice in this way, without gaining idea, our practice takes care of itself.
Where are we on the path?
We’re always here.