Don’t make up standards on your own. -- Sekito Kisan

Don’t make up standards on your own. -- Sekito Kisan
by Jamie Howell

I have been studying Zen Buddhism for forty years or so. I keep making the same mistakes. Chief among those mistakes is the inability to walk the middle way in terms of my practice. Again and again, I resolved to practice on a schedule that was designed to mimic the arduous schedule of a hermit while not compromising my life as a househholder with a wife and four children, a businessman managing dozens of people, an amateur athlete training for soccer tournaments or olympic distance triathlons, and a contributing member of society serving on non-profit boards and as a children’s soccer coach. Sometimes, I would succeed. 

One year I managed to sit Zazen at least an hour a day and bow 108 times daily as well as sit two sesshins and a half dozen one day sittings. I ended up the next January with repeated bouts of flu and bronchial infections and so angry and burned out that I walked away from Zen pracitce and triathlon training for six months. Dairyu Michael Wenger had to use very skillful means to coax me back to practice.

At the other extreme, I spent times in waddling in deep hedonism, not sitting Zazen at all, touching all the points in a samsaric dream. I ate, drank, cavorted, then had to cope with inevitable disasters of illness, psychological damage to self and others all leading to self-loathing and guilt.

Finally, in the winter of my life, I have managed to begin an arc closer to the middle way. I am not prepared to say how much of this revelation (or revolution) is due to practice, how much is due to old age and the gradual withdrawal of testosterone, and how much to the patient guidance of my teacher, Dairyu Michael Wenger. Some of each, I expect. But I am becoming more content in and with my practice.

Still the problem remains as to what expectations to have of myself and, then, how to implement those expectations. As I appreciate that life’s winter has brought a contented and joyful practice, I am also experiencing the bitter fruit of a old age - orthopedic challenges, difficulty in fighting off infections, and chronic disease. Those and the responsibilities of a patriarch of an ever increasing family pull me away from a fixed idea of practice.

So where to turn? How do I tell if I am being too easy or too hard on myself? My answer is to stop listening to a false inner voice and seek the counsel of others. It may take a congress of voices - my teacher, my spouse, my children, my students, my peers, my own voice, ones that know me intimately and that will fearlessly share with me - to provide me the advice, the answers to keep me from falling in one extreme or the other. It is when only my singular voice, the voice full of gaining ideas, is heard that I get in trouble.

It is also very important to be generous. Holding my own practice and guarding it vigilantly is a form of greed and a denial of the Mahayana way.

I continue on. I continue to make many of the same mistakes and, as I do so, watch self manifest itself in condemnation or congratulations. And I smile. But when I listen and trust in Buddha’s voice manifested by the people that I love, then the wind of the Buddhas house brings forth the gold of the earth and the fragrance of the cream of the long river