Does it work?

Dharma Talk given at
Still Mind Zendo, New York City
by Sensei Janet Jiryu Abels

Why are we here in the zendo this evening?  Why do we do this? I think it is an important question for two reasons.  First, just like institutions and organizations, we humans can get lost when an initial impulse becomes muddy, when the original spark, the essence of why we embark in the first place, gets somehow lost in the form.  So we need to re-direct ourselves. And it is also an important question from another point of view.  A new spark, so to speak, may have ignited and we may not yet be aware of it; we may still be clinging to the old way through habit, just as we cling to relationships that are past their times or to jobs that no longer fulfill what they used to fulfill.  So to ask such a question from time to time can be very helpful.

It’s important to remember that we are here in this practice by choice.  All of us are here by choice.  We are not here because of our heritage, we are not here because of our parents, we are not here because of institutions. We are here because of ourselves.   We begin Zen practice by choice.

And we begin with inquiry. Perhaps the fruits of inquiry will be of no interest.  But if they do interest, then the next step is to explore them through practice:  to explore and see what this exploration brings up.  And if the exploration is sustained, then a commitment is made, because commitment, deep commitment, to such exploration is necessary.

So, if we are to commit to Zen, what is the basis for this commitment? “Does it work?” is the answer.  “Does the practice work?”  In her wonderful book Buddha (which I highly recommend for its accessibility and clarity of style), the historian Karen Armstrong makes abundantly clear that this question “Does it work?” is the basis for the Buddha’s exploration into the essence of reality which finally led to his great enlightenment experience.  I would like to read a few sentences from this work:

A person’s theology was a matter of total indifference to the Buddha.  To accept a doctrine on somebody else’s authority was in his eyes an “unskillful” state which could not lead to enlightenment because it was an abdication of personal responsibility.  He saw no virtue to submitting to an official creed.  Faith meant trust that Nirvana existed and a determination to prove it to oneself.  The Buddha always insisted that his disciple test everything he taught them against his own experience and take nothing on hearsay.  A religious idea could all too easily become a mental idol,  one more thing to cling to when the purpose of the Dharma was to help people to let go.  Even his own teachings must be jettisoned once they have done their job.

This point is made over and over.  “Does it work?”  Not, “Do I believe it?”  Not, “Am I doing it right?”  Not, “Am I better than him or her or them?”, but “Does it work?” And, above all, “Does it work for ME?”  That is all that Sakyamuni was interested in.  That is what we ought to be interested in.  So the question is: “Does it work for you?”  Not, “Does it work for your neighbor?”  Not “Does it work for your parents or that institution or this group?”  But: “Does it work for you?”  This is the pragmatic basis of our exploration of Zen, and it is the basis of Zen practice.

Explorers know that they have to continue their exploration when they glimpse something they have never seen before.  How do we then in Zen practice know when we are to continue?  Well, I think it is pretty much the same yard stick as the one used by explorers.  We know it is necessary for us to continue when we see, when we realize something that we have never seen or realized before.  And we realize by being aware. Awareness is the tool.

Awareness of what is going on now.  Awareness of the make-up of our present experience.  That is how we know if our Zen practice works.  Experiential awareness is how we prove it to ourselves.  Am I able to see this person or this situation in a broader way?  Am I moving through this crisis with astonishing calmness?  Am I able to be more open to owning the dark side of myself as it arises in zazen or in my life:  my compulsions, my cravings, my needs, my “bad” feelings?  Am I more present to the “now”; am I letting go; is my universe expanding; and, ultimately, am I facing suffering?  Is this happening in some measure or not?  That is how we know it works or not.

Does it work or not?  We cannot go to our mind for the answers.  To go to the mind to find the answer to the question “does Zen work?” is like asking a corrupt police department to investigate itself.  It can’t be done.  The mind can’t give us an answer because the mind always uses outer sources as a yardstick.  Only “not mind,” only “not knowing,” only our inner sense, our inner connection knows if it works.  And so we must expand our “not mind,” because as long as we try to grasp Zen with our mind, it won’t work.  I see that over and over in teaching newcomers.  People try to grasp Zen with their minds, and it doesn’t work.

And the practice of par excellence of “not mind” is the practice of zazen—sitting meditation.

Dear friends in the Sangha, dear fellow practitioners—it is zazen above all.  It is not the Buddha, it is not the teacher, it is not the dharma talk, it is not the Sangha, it is not Zen, it is not anything.   It is our individual practice of “not mind,” carried out in our commitment to the practice of zazen.  And our commitment to seeing this as of the utmost urgency and importance.

Now, sure, we need the teaching, we need the sangha, we need Zen, we need these tools that are necessary to get us going and to keep us going and to keep us from falling into delusion, but ultimately they are secondary and they are redundant.  It is zazen—just sitting.  And so we must practice zazen above all—if we want to follow the Way.

And the level of zazen that our deepest self, our most honest self knows we must do in following the Way is not a “coasting zazen,” but a deep and committed, on-the-edge-wherever-we-are zazen.  Only when we practice in this way, only then will we know the answer to “Does Zen work?”

And you cannot know any of this with your mind.  It must arise out of yourself.  And when it does, then you will “know”—and you won’t have to believe.

I want to close with another piece from the book Buddha:

The dharma is essentially a method and it stands or falls not by it metaphysical or acuity or its scientific accuracy but by the extent to which it works.  The truths claim to bring suffering to an end, not because people subscribe to a salvistic creed or to certain beliefs but because they adopt the Buddha’s program or way of life.  Over the centuries men and women have indeed found that this regimen has brought them a measure of peace and insight . . .   They have realized that by reaching beyond themselves to a reality that transcends their rational understanding, they, as men and women, become fully human.

For the Buddha this was fact; for him his method worked.

Does it work for you?