Practice that is dependent upon others is not genuine practice. By practice, here we mean primarily the hard work of Zen meditation, or zazen. That is, if one's practice depends upon the presence of others for support in the social or psychological sense, and one is not able or inclined to sit in meditation alone, one's practice is not mature, not genuine.
Of course, we are dependent upon others, even when we sit alone. This is acknowledged in the meal chant recited at most Zen centers, including the line: "We reflect on the 52 efforts that brought us this food, and consider how it comes to us." Especially today, we in the USA are overly dependent upon a long and complex network of people, organizations and machines that produce, package, and ship the food that appears on our table. The steps in that chain, and the efforts that bring us our food, surely surpass 52 by a considerable amount.
But, like Bodhidharma, we should be able to practice alone, in a cave. Even when we sit with a group, we are essentially practicing alone. An old Buddha said that you must do three fundamental stages in Zen yourself: renunciation, awakening, and clarification. He pointed out that that no one else can do them for you. This is why I say that Zen is the ultimate in DIY (do-it-yourself).
The first is self-renunciation. Now this does not mean renouncing in the negative or critical sense that one must reject and turn away from one's normal life, and the trappings that go with it. No one has to become a monk or a nun in order to actualize genuine practice. It also does not mean that in Zen, we completely reject the idea of a self, and so attempt to negate it. But we ourselves must find what renunciation really means.
The self that we challenge in Zen is the constructed, or artificial, self. But we do not deny that there is a true self. So self-renunciation does not mean either of these things. It does not mean that one must leave behind family, hearth and home, and go into isolation as a monastic. It does not mean that we take the nihilistic view that we do not exist.
It does mean that we regard the self-evidently selfish nature of the so-called self — with its obsession with pleasure-seeking, its aversion to suffering, and consequent attachments to the comforts of lifestyle — with some skepticism. Even if we don't do so intentionally, eventually most people eventually come to be disenchanted with, or even estranged from, those very possessions, relationships, and values that at one time may have constituted their world view and grasp of their position within it.
This often constitutes a crisis, sometimes in mid-life, sometimes earlier or later, depending on the spiritual maturity of the individual. Which is dependent upon merit accumulated from past lives, according to classical Buddhism. In other words, self-renunciation simply means seeing through this apparent reality to its basis, which is emptiness. Not void, or devoid of meaning, but emptiness, the dynamic principle of how things exist. According to Buddhism, all form exists by virtue of its innate emptiness.
The second, self-awakening, points to the fact that — however much we revere our teacher, and the recorded teachings of Buddhism, as representing the truth to the extent that it can be captured in words — we cannot depend upon our teacher, even Shakyamuni Buddha himself, to awaken us. Even with the help of an enlightened Master, when we awaken to Bodhimind, the event is not dependent upon that person. Although a teacher who not only has it but has the use of it may offer a turning word or gesture (J. wato) that helps to trigger the event.
The third, self-clarification, indicates that even profound spiritual awakening may not be clear in its meaning and implications. Insight into the fundamental nature of things may not be self-explanatory. In this regard, a teacher who has been there, done that may be of some help. Buddha, who had no teacher to turn to following his great experience, turned to meditation for greater and deeper clarification. He returned to sitting again and again, apparently every day for the rest of his life, which lasted about 50 years, according to the story. He also taught his followers, and anyone who has taught anything knows that the first time you have to teach something — even if it is second-nature to yourself — is the first time you really have to begin clarifying it, for yourself as well as for others. So for the rest of his life, Buddha continued practicing and working with others in the social context of the original Order of monks and nuns to clarify The Great Matter.
But his practice was not dependent upon those who followed him. His meditation, which we believe was the same as Zen meditation, or zazen, was his method of self-clarification, as it is for us today.
One morning when I woke up the alarm clock had not worked, because there had been an electrical storm during the night, and the power had been interrupted. In a bit of a panic, worrying that the Sangha might be let down, I hurried to get to the Zen center. It turned out that this was co-incident with the daylight savings time change, so I wasn't late after all. But it did point our some things about our inter-dependency, real and imagined.
First, that we are so dependent upon so many people we will never even know, in this extended village we inhabit. The crews who maintain the power grid, and repair the lines when they are damaged, are legion; and in some cases their heroic efforts on our behalf the stuff of legend.
On the other hand, our abject dependence upon the blessings of Edison and others has led to an alienation from reality that can be quite discomfiting. When we find ourselves without power for a long enough time, a unique disorientation sets in. If it goes on long enough, it sometimes reaches a turning point, where we begin to enjoy it — the lack of power, the silence, the dark — the stillness that has been enforced upon us. We seek out this kind of quiet solitude when we go camping, or engage in other intentional experiments in isolation, including Zen retreat.
The other truism this incident highlighted, in great relief, for me, is my sense that others are dependent upon myself, or my presence, for their practice. Whether this should be attributed to my inflated sense of self-importance, ego, or other such analysis I will leave to the experts. I tend to experience it as a sense of duty, commitment, or responsibility. But in retrospect, find it quite laughable that the premise I apply to my own practice, I assume does not apply to others. That is, the contradictory attitude that my practice is not dependent upon them, but theirs is so dependent upon me.
In my defense, others are not the same as me, and their practice is not the same as mine. Especially newcomers, and sometimes longer-term practitioners in the midst of a life-crisis, are understandably somewhat dependent upon more senior members of the Sangha, especially Disciples and Priests, including myself. One way in which this is true is that we, the latter, after all, form the manifestation of Zen practice in a formal setting. If we do not show up, on time, what example are we setting?
It is also true that they are dependent upon us to make sure the doors are open, the lights on, and that all aspects of the practice-place environment are fine-tuned to support their efforts. But we should not take this to the extreme, to say that their spiritual practice is our responsibility. At most, we are responsible for not getting in their way.
Then that morning, when I gave a talk, it occurred to me that the very fact that we engage in a dharma dialog is an illustration of our inter-dependency. And, again, we might have some confusion as to how that dependency works. Are all those listening to the speaker dependent upon that person for the depth of their understanding, even the quality of their experience? Sometimes this seems to be the undercurrent, especially when the speaker is a revered teacher, such as HH the Dalai Lama. I witnessed him reduced to imploring an audience of 4,000-plus devotees to understand and accept him as just a simple monk. His point is that their dependency upon him, a form of worship, is the very thing that will get in the way of their own insight. It is a form of celebrity-worship at its worst extreme.
On the other hand, the speaker is certainly dependent upon the audience in order to be the teacher. This is as obvious as the separation of the actors and audience at a theater, enforced by the stage and proscenium. I am certainly not Sensei at home, or at the store.
And it is also true, I think, that sometimes when I give a talk, or lead a discussion about Dharma, I may, as Master Dogen wondered, may be simply creating more "flowers in the air" (delusions). It may also be so that some in the audience are confused, distracted, or downright dismayed or discouraged by what I have to say, or that I seem to feel the need to say anything in the first place.
Dependency, and inter-dependency, is not a bad thing, per se. But when it becomes a form of co-dependency, the relationship between the parties is beginning to interfere with, and confuse, the all-important focus on the fundamental relationship of self-to-other that is the central dilemma in Zen. That there is no separation of self and other is easy to say, but to experience the truth that that construction is pointing to is a different story.
When our meditation becomes zazen, posture, breath and attention all come together in a unified way. Which implies that, heretofore, they were working against each other. When zazen becomes shikantaza, there is no longer any separation, even of self and other. Thus there can be no separation of mind and body, subject and object. Our practice has then become objectless, and so no longer can even be considered a form of meditation. If there is no object, there can be no subject, either. If there is no other, there can be no self.
So at this juncture, while we understand that there is, indeed, still self and other, if there ever were such, we have transcended what that used to mean. While a student needs a teacher in order to even be a student, and a teacher needs students in order to even be a teacher — in any pragmatic, transactional meaning of the terms — to assert that they need each other in terms of the fundamental workings of Zen, and especially of zazen, is a step too far. We don't need no stinking teachers (see the Lotus Sutra), and we teachers certainly don't need students. Zen is not a co-dependent relationship. It is interdependent.
During that morning's Dharma talk, sirens of fire engines, police vehicles, possibly ambulances, could be heard in the distance. Occasionally, we hear the plaintive whistle of a train, which for some reason resonates deeply with me from my childhood. While we are peacefully sitting in the zendo, others are frantically rushing about, often at great danger to themselves, to put out fires, rescue victims, prevent crime, and to ship those food products that we consume at our dinner tables. In the background, and at all hours of the day and night, when the rest of us may be sleeping soundly, or sitting in zazen, someone, somewhere, is looking out for us. It is also true that at any time, day or night, someone, somewhere, is sitting in meditation. So we can never really sit alone. We merely rejoin the larger Sangha when we do sit.
But usually, when we sit with others, we think we are not alone. And when we sit alone, we think that we are not sitting with others. Actually, when we sit with others, we are alone. Sometimes, we feel even more alone when we are with others. And when we sit alone, we are not. If nothing else, we are accompanied by the billions of microscopic organisms to which our body is host. And upon which we are dependent for our life.
Another form of dependency, more personal than social, is our dependency upon body/mind. In the Repentance verse we chant:
All my past and harmful karma
Born from beginningless greed hate and delusion
Through body speech and mind
I now fully avow
This indicates that even the karmic actions we have taken in the past, and the consequences thereof in the present, come through this body, mouth (speech) and mind. Because body and mind are co-arisen — or interdependent, according to Buddhism — mind arises out of body, and body arises out of mind. So, though we tend to take responsibility for the nature (lust in the heart), and even the existence, of our thoughts (I think therefore I am); we do not also assume full responsibility for the existence of our body. We give that over to God, on the religious end of the spectrum, and to chance, on the materialist end.
Wherever we land, philosophically, on that scale, we recognize that not all aspects of our physical existence are by our design, nor are they under our control. So, for example, our dependency upon DNA, and other circumstances of our birth, are not something we can do a lot about. So it is presumptive to take responsibility, or authorship, for them. Thus, most of the cravings to which we are subject are simply the inevitable result of being born as a human being. We are not really dependent upon a certain diet, for instance, but our diet definitely affects the other dimensions of our health and wellbeing.
Of course, according to Buddhism, being born as a human being is not a net negative, as some of the discussion so far may seem to imply, but a golden opportunity. One not to be frittered away in endless pursuit of pleasure, or pointless speculation about the meaning of it all. The Zen community is ostensibly a group of like-minded people. We are like-minded insofar as the underlying motive for being part of the Sangha is this pursuit of the Dharma, the compassionate teaching. It is not compassionate simply because it includes Sangha, however. Fundamentally, Buddhist compassion is an operating principle of existence. The universe suffers us to exist, and we suffer along with existence. The Zen community helps us to remember this focus of our practice, the buddha- or Zen-mind, in the midst of the weltering confusion of the larger community, which is largely oriented toward distracting us away from Zen-mind.
In conclusion, we should develop a Zen practice which, while inclusive of others, is not dependent upon them for the actualization of our own practice. We form communities of all sorts for mutual support, and a Zen community is no exception. But support is not dependency. We do not do things in lockstep fashion. We follow standards that allow for individual flexibility and improvisation. Our protocols are more like a chart, or chord progression, that a jazz band improvises upon, than a score that an orchestra follows to faithfully replicate the composer's intent. We agree upon certain elements such as timing of our sitting sessions, so that individuals are free to not have to think about that.
Another aspect of dependency that aft gangs agley in Zen communities is that kind of clinging dependency upon credentials, status, approval, et cetera. These, along with the other dependencies discussed above, all represent the kinds of causes and conditions that make our life what it is. Some we are born into, then heaped on top of those are the ones imposed by family, friends, mentors, and the society at large. Our practice of Zen is not to reject these complex and constricting dependencies and inter-dependencies outright, but to practice independence in the midst of them. This is true renunciation. As Matsuoka Roshi once said, the Zen person has no problem following the sidewalks.