How do we come to practice Zen, and what pulls us to continue? Zen is relatively new to North America, first coming at the end of the 19th century, and really taking root in the 1960’s. Over the years I’ve seen many people express interest in Zen Buddhism, but few actually settle down to make a commitment to the practice, to a teacher, or have the desire to be a teacher. Most people just check it out – they sit with a teacher or community briefly, or more likely read something about it online or in a book – and then, based on that short interaction, develop their understanding of Zen.
This way of relating to Zen is neither good nor bad. However, it can be problematic if we associate Zen with a particular experience. For example, many may confuse the “Enlightenment” of Zen to a physical/emotional/mental experience. In other words, Zen leads one to feel a certain way.
Looking to get a certain feeling or mental state is problematic because, in my experience with practice, Zen only helps us to look more closely at how we are actually feeling in this moment, without trying to manipulate our mental or feeling state. While there are some ways of practicing that can be used to change our state of mind, these are secondary practices because no state of mind can be maintained indefinitely. The Buddha experienced a whole range of states of mind prior to his enlightenment but rejected them as unhelpful to leading to the end of suffering because none of them lasted. If we view Zen as a means to experience something such as a particular feeling state, then we are bound to be disappointed or frustrated with Zen. If, however, we allow for the multiplicity of feeling states to be present when they are present – neither rejecting them nor trying to get them back when they are gone – then we are opening ourselves to our inherent wisdom and compassion. Another way to say this is that with practice we are learning to soften into the moment as it is, rather than to fight against it or manipulate it into something we want it to be.
Dai-En Roshi – the teacher I trained in residence with for 15 years – often taught that there are three doorways or gates to practice. Only one of these gateways has to do exclusively with one’s experience or mental/physical/emotional state in the present moment. The other two may include an experience, but are based on reflection of the past – including a past state of mind – and they can lead to a more solid grounding in Zen.
The first entrance way to Zen is the doorway of repentance. I don’t particularly like the word “repentance” for reasons I will discuss below. Perhaps a better word would be “remorse.” Feel free to substitute “remorse” for “repentance” if the word “remorse” rings true for you. I’ll use the word “repentance” here because it is the word my teacher chose to use.
Repentance is not easy to talk about because it brings up feelings of shame and regret, feelings we’d rather not think or dwell on. Yet the function of repentance is to help us be lighter and freer. In the West, we generally think of repentance in terms of something that an individual did wrong. However, in Zen it not only includes one’s own private actions, but can include the actions of an entire community.
For example, an individual from the United States may repent because of the collective actions of the U.S. government in its decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Regardless of what some may think about this kind of repentance it is one of the reasons why many western Zen priests turned to Japanese Zen and embraced it. They felt remorse for the actions of our government. One could argue that the dropping of the bomb was necessary to end the war. This and other arguments have been made to justify this action and to make us feel better. However, our conscience is still there reminding us about this tragedy. Much has been written on the aftermath of the bomb, so I won’t go into it here. The point is that our conscience keeps nagging at our society. Who is not worried on some level about the threat of a nuclear missile dropping somewhere on the United States?
Another example of collective repentance is the Canadian government’s apology to the Indigenous people of its land. You can find the details of this apology here. In this case, the entire government – not just one individual – made an act of repentance for wrongs committed. This is within the spirit of repentance in Buddhism. It doesn’t have to be limited to an individual feeling remorse. It can be a whole society.
Moreover, repentance need not be confined to one lifetime. It can include the actions of one’s ancestors. We or our ancestors do/did something we regret and we realize we need to make amends for our actions. Our ancestors can be included in our repentance because they are part of who we are today. If we want to understand the present, it’s helpful to look into the past – even before you were born. There is a Zen Koan that asks, “What is your face before your parents were born?” Our present moment has been influenced by the deep past – even before our parents were born. While they may not have been repentant while they were alive, we can repent on their behalf, or really as them, because we are their continuation via DNA. They are in our blood. Our repentance is their repentance.
Having a sincere heart that wishes to right something that was done wrong in the past is what brings a person through the doorway of Zen practice. Repentance is meant to be very grounding for an individual and a community. It’s meant to pave the way for a change in action in the present and in future moments. However, repentance can carry baggage for many people in the West because of its negative emphasis in some Christian schools of thought. There is a strong idea in some Christian denominations of the sinful state of a human being. No matter what one does, one remains a perpetual sinner in the eyes of God. While I respect Christians who practice their faith in this way, this kind of practice stems from a worldview that teaches that we are born with Original Sin. While there is nothing wrong with the belief in Original Sin if this helps you to be a better person, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this belief is not universal to all people or religions, and is not a part of Buddhist belief.
Buddhism does not teach about Original Sin. It maintains that at our most foundational level we are Buddha – fully enlightened. We just don’t always manifest that enlightenment, or enlightened activity – activity that leads to the end of suffering.
Distinguishing, therefore, between healthy repentance and unhealthy repentance is important. In Zen, we need not beat ourselves up for doing something wrong. Acknowledging a mistake and making reparations is sufficient. We need only feel shame or guilt to the degree that it inspires us to make personal and/or social change for the better. Guilt can be the fuel needed to make change possible. It can keep us on the path and, ideally, it can serve to keep our mind serene – not anxious. It is intended to bring about our inherent wisdom and compassion. If anxiety accompanies guilt or shame – and it sticks around for a long time – it’s only because sufficient reparations have not yet been made. Whole societies can feel the anxiety they have not repented for. Until sufficient reparations, for example, are made to the Black community in the United States, there will remain an underlying anxiety that all Americans will feel – for many the source of that anxiety will remain unconscious – that has as its base our history of slavery. The turn toward repentance is there to help us to act differently in the present moment.
Repentance, moreover, is not a one-time act but a way of life. Repentance and bowing I see as synonyms. In Japan, people bow often – whether they consider themselves Buddhist or not. Bowing is a way of offering respect to another person. It’s also a way of demonstrating humility, that we just cannot comprehend all of the mysteries of life. Bowing, paradoxically, is a way to move us closer to those mysteries, to befriend them, and to acknowledge our limitations and the need to take care of our relationships in the present moment. While in the West we don’t have the tradition of bowing the way the Japanese do, we can either practice it when we think of it, and we can also do “inward” bows where an outward bow may not be socially appropriate.
There is nothing more physically and mentally satisfying than a full prostration. Dai-En Roshi often spoke of bowing being like the way a milkshake is made. Things need to be flipped upside down for it to be properly mixed and taste right. Just like a milkshake, we take what’s on the lowest part of ourselves and lift it to the highest part. We take what is the highest part of ourselves and bring it down to the lowest part of ourselves. We are reminded of our connection to the Earth when we bow. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Bowing helps us let go of our arrogance. None of us will live forever. This is meant to be a reminder not to hold on with such a tight grip to things that are impermanent. Bowing helps to lighten us up, as does repentance. We don’t have to hold on to defending ourselves, or trying to be better than we are.
Growing up Catholic the confessional was a part of my religious practice. I can remember sharing my sins with a priest and then being told to do something such as to pray a rosary, and then my sins would be absolved. While I know that not everyone resonates with this practice, and that some have even be harmed by it, the intention is to lift the burdens of our past wrong deeds. I admire this practice very much to this day. Buddhism does not have the equivalent of confessing to a priest. However, there is a ceremony held every full moon where the community of monks in training gathers together to recite the Buddhist precepts and to reflect on whether they have practiced them sufficiently. The idea is to measure ourselves against the precepts and to see how we may improve our lives.
Baby steps are a good beginning. We need all the help we can get to make change real. Relying on a teacher and a community to support us can be a blessing. The teacher and the community, too, are not perfect! Neither is the Buddha or past Zen Masters. They are full of their own regrets and mistakes. They have just made a commitment to change and to manifest their deepest wisdom and compassion. Knowing that a teacher and community is not perfect is meant to encourage one’s own practice because, if even a Buddha screwed up in the past, it means that anyone, no matter what they have done, is capable of changing for the better – even the most hardened criminal. Zen Master Dogen said that when one turns to the Buddhas in repentance, one never fails to burn away the karma of past evil deeds. Repentance actually helps us to change the course of our karma. We can change. We are not condemned to repeat our mistakes indefinitely.
But you don’t need to turn to the Buddhas. You can turn to God if that’s what you believe in. You can turn to Jesus. Or perhaps you can simply repent without turning to anyone or anything in particular. The bottom line is that when we repent, we can solicit the help of others, spiritual beings or otherwise. It is this repentance that opens the door to practice.
I realize that the word “repentance” may still taste sour to many people, even after my explanation of the differences in nuance from a Buddhist perspective. If this gateway to Zen practice doesn’t work, there is another doorway: impermanence. Stay tuned for part 2.
Zen Master Dogen writes:
The power of the merit that results from repenting…
Saves and purifies us.
This merit encourages the growth of unobstructed faith and effort.
When faith appears, it transforms both self and other, and its benefits
Extend to beings both sentient and insentient.