This is an example in everyday life of the application of standards. I further assume that this is a standard for the crews that paint those lines. There are reasons for standards. It has to do with people’s capabilities, with their ability to perform and to learn.
Matsuoka Roshi often said that the Zen person has no difficulty following the sidewalks. What he meant by that, I think, is that conformance to trivial aspects of society are not really worth the trouble to resist. And if we are bogged down in that level of non-conformity, we will not have the time, energy, or awareness to avoid conforming in much more restricting or damaging ways.
Another aspect of conforming to reality—whether or not we consider society to reflect reality remains the opinion of the individual, I suppose — is revealed by a daily routine. In taking my early morning walk before dawn, I live in the city, where the sidewalks are often not dependable; they have damage, holes and cracks. Where the streets may have the occasional pothole, they are generally more dependable, in terms of the surface. So I prefer to walk in the street.
I walk near the gutter, along the side of the street, toward the direction that traffic would be coming, facing me, for reasons of safety, but for another reason that is germane to this point. The main reason for walking on the left side of the street is that, owing to an accident early in my life, one leg was injured. It collapsed under me while the other broke through the rotted floor of a hayloft in a barn near Pawpaw, Michigan. Apparently this did some permanent damage, in that one leg is shorter than another, by about a half inch, which I only recently found out about.
Rather than wear a lift, a small prosthetic plug in the heel of one shoe, I resolved that I would try to minimize this difference through therapy, such as putting the leg in traction occasionally. Walking on the left side of the road puts less stress on the imbalance of the legs, which I can feel at the end of the walk in the form of less wear on the hip. If I walk on a relatively flat surface, such as the sidewalk, I can feel more stress afterwards. And if I walk on the right side of the street, where most people do, and the surface slopes from high on the left, down to the right, into the gutter, it places even more stress on the left hip joint. So moving to the left gutter for my morning walk is an accommodation to the facts of reality—the nature of the physical body, the aging process.
This is another reason why we have standards. That is, depending on time-of-life circumstances, our ability to perform, as our ability to learn, obviously changes. And so some standards, such as sitting in meditation, in the preferred lotus posture, the cross-legged posture, cannot forever be maintained. As people age, they are no longer able to sit that way. They no longer have the flexibility in their legs to cross them into a full-lotus or half-lotus posture, nor even to kneel in a seiza posture, a kneeling posture, even assisted by a bench. And so they often move to a chair and sit in the upright posture with their feet on the floor. Generally, this is what happens. And of course, there are those who sustain an injury at an earlier age that limits flexibility in the lower extremities.
There are many well-known Zen masters who have experienced this in their later age. So it is not merely a matter of not being trained, or not understanding the efficacy of the lotus sitting posture in zazen. This may be the meaning of the legend that Bodhidharma sat in Zen until his legs fell off. Some of the most advanced practitioners of Zen in recent generations have come to this point in their sixties, or later in their life. But they don’t give up. They adopt a new standard, sitting on a chair or in some such modified fashion that works for them and allows them to continue practicing zazen, even though it is not conforming to the ideal standard of the lotus posture for the legs.
In my case, fortunately, for whatever reason, I am still able, at my age, to sit in the lotus posture, for which I am grateful. Not the full lotus for any length of time, but the quarter- or half-lotus, the Burmese style, and so on. I can no longer kneel fully, however. So I have not yet had to make too great an accommodation to aging. But sure enough, sooner or later, this body will no longer be able to conform to the more highly valued standard that is sitting zazen in the lotus posture.