Someone recently asked me what I mean when I say “my practice.” This inspired an inquiry into what practice is. What do we practice as Awareness Practitioners?
 
The Buddha taught that it’s possible to end suffering and live in compassion and goodness. That sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it?  But without a way to do that, a process that moves us from where we are to what the Buddha teaches is possible, it remains just that... an idea.
 
Practice moves us from idea to “actuality.”
 
As Martha Graham put it:
 
“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
 
The “perfection desired” in almost all spiritual traditions is the experience of the Unconditional. Both words – perfection and desire -- are “loaded” in the spiritual sense! But let’s explore inviting the “perfection desired” in our tradition.
 
The word Zen originates from an ancient Sanskrit root that means to “see.” Suffering, as the Buddha taught, is a result of ignorance – “avidya,” interpreted in one way to mean an error of sight or an inability to see clearly. Awareness (consciousness, comprehension, recognition, insight, cognizance, realization) could be described as a way of “seeing.” As Zen Awareness Practitioners we train to see and see through what keeps us in an orientation of looking for what’s wrong, what’s not, what’s lacking, what’s unacceptable. As “athletes of Awareness,” we invite the experience of the Unconditional through the practice of accepting the perfection of what IS.
 
Attention on conditioned mind results in and reinforces an orientation of something wrong/not enough. To invite the “perfection desired” we are encouraged to focus on “I choose Unconditional Love.”  If we are wondering at the choice of Unconditional Love for our mantra (a device that stills the mind) these words of William Law may guide us to an answer. “Love is infallible; it has no errors for all errors are a want of love.” If our quest is to “see” perfection, then perhaps Unconditional Love is the lens best suited to never “see errors.” A mantra does not work just because we repeat it. To see through the eyes of love requires nothing short of a transformation of “seeing.”  This is what Zen Awareness Practice offers.
 
Until we come to a spiritual practice, and perhaps even then, we seek the elusive perfection of the Unconditional outside ourselves. Someone or something out there will deliver our happiness on a platter. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh acerbically commented on the obsession with the dream of fulfillment by the perfect other thus:  “We come into this world alone and we leave it alone. You have fallen in love (with someone or something) because you cannot be alone. You were trying to avoid yourself somehow or other. All your activities can be reduced to one single source. The source is that you are afraid of your aloneness. Everything else is just an excuse. The real cause is that you find yourself very alone.”
 
Every conditioned human being experiences this aloneness, this “absence” of something inexplicable. With practice, we learn that a sense of separation is what it “feels like” to be identified with ego, with aloneness. The lesson of practice is that identification with the illusion of a self separate from Life obfuscates the “perfection desired.”
 
Intuitively, we recognize that to be “alone” is to be in intimate relationship with the voices of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. To numb, forget, avoid, escape “me,” we pursue all kinds of distractions including relationships, only to be disappointed over and over again. Seeking the Unconditional while identified with the “self” is an “error of sight.”  We are doomed to remain forever thirsty if we keep looking for water in a mirage. Once we see the mirage for what it is, an “optical illusion,” we have the ability to stop looking for water where we are unlikely to find it.
 
This is perhaps why we begin Practice with the tools to identify the process of self-hate and then dis-identify from it. What  hates itself, that which is always looking for what’s wrong with “me, with “you” with “life,” denies the Unconditional with every breath. It dismisses the perfection of what is with every thought, word and action.
 
It isn’t enough to practice tuning out a hateful voice in the head. We are so programmed to receive negativity and judgment that we have to retrain ourselves to receive encouragement, kindness and compassion. And so we cultivate a relationship with the Mentor. The practice of being in communication with Wisdom, Love and Compassion gradually shifts our orientation from “something wrong/something lacking” with me to feeling accepted for what we are.  The Mentor is our first experience of the Unconditional. No matter what the voices say about who we are and what we have or haven’t done, and how badly we did what we did, we are loved. Self-hate condemns, the Mentor accepts and in the embrace of Unconditional Acceptance we get a glimpse of True Nature, of the conscious compassionate awareness that was obscured by a false identification with “ego.”
 
What can happen with this practice of turning to the Mentor repeatedly is illustrated in this whimsical Zen story.
 
A famous Zen teacher was once asked how she came to Buddhism.
 
“I lost my parents when I was six years old,” she narrated. “I was left in the care of an aunt who was the head cook at a Monastery. Being extremely busy all day, my aunt had no time to give me any attention. On the day I arrived, my aunt took me to the meditation hall and introduced me to the smiling Buddha on the altar. “
 
“This is your friend and mentor,” my aunt said. “Do you see that the Buddha’s hands rest in his lap as a perfect oval? As long as how you are and what you do does not anger the Buddha, his hands will stay that way. If you do something that you feel deserves the Buddha’s forgiveness, you can check the Buddha’s hands. They will no longer make a perfect circle. If you make the Buddha angry, make sure you help someone or assist in the work at the Monastery as a sign of repentance.”
 
The teacher laughingly recalled the many times she had tended flowers or swept the porch or helped in the kitchen to make up for childhood transgressions.
 
“Each time, I would run to check if the Buddha was angry,” she said.” But I never found his hands in anything but a perfect circle.”
 
Many in the audience were appalled at the way the aunt had taken advantage of a young child’s innocence. One man stood up and said, “But it was a stone Buddha! The fingers would never have moved. I don’t approve of using superstitious falsehood to raise children. Didn’t you feel resentment towards your aunt for lying to you and stuffing your head with this nonsense?”
 
The teacher looked at him with compassion. “My aunt would never tell me a falsehood. When I discovered that the Buddha’s fingers never moved, I learned that the Buddha always forgives. No matter what sin or weakness, he was never angry. I came to realize that I didn’t want the Buddha to have to forgive and forgive and forgive. And so I learned to live in a way that he would not need to forgive. It was such a support during subsequent crises and temptations. That’s what my aunt wanted me to learn from the unmoving fingers.” -- adapted from Meetings of Cloth and Stone
by Trevor Leggitt
 
The Mentor is our experience of the Stone Buddha whose fingers are always in a perfect circle. Being in relationship with the Mentor assists us to stop identifying ourselves with that which “needs to be forgiven.” In this radical “circle of acceptance,” we learn to “see” the human being not as the “flawed and worthless self” that stars in the narrative of self-hate but as, in the words of Teresa of Avila, “how God sees us.” We learn to see with the eyes of the Unconditional.
 
As William Blake said: “If the doors of perception are cleansed, we can see everything as it is.” In that clarity of sight, we may on some occasion glance down at our own hands and notice them in the perfect circle of the cosmic mudra. Ah! The joy of attaining the “perfection desired.”
 
Gasshō
Ashwini