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Stones in a Stream

Part Eight  in a Series of Talks on the Soto Zen Practice of Shikantaza:

Stones in a Stream

I live in the Western Catskill Mountains in New York State right by the Upper Delaware River where one can find beautifully polished river stones in the flowing waters. The process of becoming a river stone exemplifies the Zen notion of mushotoku or practicing with “no gaining mind.” We are all “stones in a stream,” our surfaces slowly being polished and smoothed out as we continue to sit. This is one of the many paradoxes one encounters in Zen teachings. That is, we sit with no gaining mind, letting go of expectations, goals, wishes, desires for something special to happen, and in this simple ordinariness something does shift. Sometimes, the shift is dramatic and feels life changing. Sometimes the shifts are extremely subtle and barely perceptible. Often, we only realize these shifts in retrospect as we spontaneously respond differently to a challenging situation than to how we might have habitually reacted to such situations in the past. These experiences can be quite surprising and life affirming.

The thing is that the stones didn’t go into the river with the intention to become smooth and polished and the river did not flow over the stones with the intention of polishing them. But, over time, they did become polished and smooth and then became identified as “river stones.” I have three on the altar in my Dokusan room representing the Buddha. During the persecution of Buddhism in China, we are told that Zen survived the best because of the absence of ritual and ritual items such as statues. However, practitioners acknowledged their commitment to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the three gems, by the practice of piling three stones vertically.

            Stones in the stream serves as a good metaphor for shikantaza practice. We are stones just sitting still in the stream of infinite becoming of ongoing constantly changing perceptual experiences without reacting. We hear sounds on the busy street outside the zendo. We notice the rising and falling of feelings, memories, wishes, fantasies, or concerns. Sometimes we become aware of the breath, of the body, the posture, and physical sensations. There is an ongoing mix of internal and external perceptual experiences. Through all of these experiences, we simply sit without grasping and without pushing away. The disjunctions of the many melt into the harmony of the one as unitive experiences shift into the perceptual foreground and disjunctions slip into the background as we continue to sit without reacting. Just like stones that sit on the soft riverbed we simply sit on our cushions. Over time, we soften. Each time an old painful memory or present concern emerges our response changes slightly. Initial reactions driven by greed, envy, lust, hate or aggression transform. They exemplify our sense of separateness, distinctions and alienation from our fellow human beings and the planet at large. Through extended and deep practice they transform into responses emerging out of wisdom and compassion and express the realization of our commonality, togetherness and unity; that we are all connected. Sometimes, the changes are not what we thought of or what we might have been looking for and they catch us by surprise. Here is an example:

My New York City apartment where I maintain a small zendo for our Realizational Studies group is on one of the busiest streets in New York City. It is an exit street for the Queens – Midtown Tunnel. The street gets especially busy during the early morning and evening rush hours. The sounds can be quite jarring: engines revving, radios blaring, horns honking expressing the rage, frustration, anxiety and impatience of the drivers.

At times, I react, my impatience, annoyance, and distraction turning to rage accompanied by violent fantasies such as dropping a brick from my fifth floor window and delighting in the view of a smashed windshield! However, with continued sitting, my perceptual orientation shifts into the unitive. All of the sounds seem to fall into place like a seamless whole; one harmonic symphony of sound mixed with moments of silence; as if held by a core background of silence.

In emptiness everything arises and returns to silence. But this deeper silence of infinite becoming, the “ease and joy” that Dōgen speaks of, only reveals itself when we stop valuing one and devaluing the other; when we “avoid picking and choosing.” In other words, maintaining Bodhicitta, the intention to witness the rising, coming into form and fading away of all experience without judgment, attachment, grasping or aversion and pushing away. I feel calm and notice that the next horn honk serves as a signal that I have somehow drifted out of the present along some seductive reverie and I return to the basic fact of sitting with a sense of peace and gratitude for the signal.

Next Part: Polishing a Tile: Link

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