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You who arrived complete in the study of not knowing, You who are the flowers bursting forth, revealing your true nature, You who are the voice of the entire suffering world, In the silences between the bells, In the graceful … Continue reading

On the Spot

In Zen practice it’s very common to put people on the spot. For example, when a student is leaving the temple to go to practice somewhere else or to return to a lay life or simply to take an extended rest, there is a “Departing Student Ceremony.”

Scene from "Zen" depicting Dogen as a pilgrim

Typically, the Abbess, Abbott or teacher of the student will thank them for their contribution and ask them a single question. This takes place in the zendo, in front of the entire assembly, who stand at their seats and observe silently. It can be a very poignant exchange, and it’s made more significant by the fact that it takes place in public. Students often express some concern in the days leading up to it. They worry that they won’t find an answer, or that their answer won’t be insightful enough. And yet, this is an activity that is well known throughout the community, as anyone who happens to be in the zendo that morning will witness these events. It doesn’t come as a surprise to the students, and many of the people who have been in residence for years come to appreciate and look forward to these exchanges. It can be a pivotal moment, one which can inform practice for years to come.

In fact, in my own experience, it was during a departing monk ceremony that the seed of a koan was planted. I was leaving San Francisco Zen Center to practice in Japan. My Practice Leader Shosan Vicki Austin asked how I could “eliminate the separation” and I replied with “just this breath.” But, on reflection it occurred to me that there is more to meet than just the breath. So the koan arose, “what is this moment?” It is that which we must meet completely, eliminating the sense of one who breathes and one who observes breathing.

But why the stress? Why do people whose stated intention is to be at ease with their own bodies and minds put each other on the spot like this? I think of it like thumping a melon. You thump it and hear what sound it makes, rather than paying attention to its outward appearance. And when a student is presented with a situation in which they feel some pressure, they learn about how they practice with pressure. That is, they learn whether they’d rather shy away, or burst forth with something funny, or simply stand still when the moment is intense. They may even say something without considering the question or choosing their words, possibly expressing themselves with a minimum of conceptual thought. This is where something other than the ego-self can come forth.

So, in Zen, practice is to put yourself in situations where the immediacy of the moment might allow you to forget yourself, allowing the non-self to be expressed more clearly. At that moment being on the spot is the only place to be.