The other day just before going into the meditation hall, I was standing on a busy street corner waiting for my daughter Nicole's puppy to do what she is supposed to do -- and I was in full robes. It struck me how strange it can be when East meets West. The robes that many of us wear must look pretty strange to newcomers. Our bows and offering of incense may even look silly. And our chanting is weird. We often chant in a foreign tongue, usually Japanese, but we also throw in Sanskrit here and there. A person attending one of our Soto Zen services for the first time might well wonder why Westerners today would choose to become involved with such a peculiar practice with such ancient roots.
Are we simply trying to act Buddhist, or is the living Dharma still maintained somehow in these ancient rituals? This is a fair and important question to ask.
Although Zen Buddhism didn't become strongly established in America until the 1960s, the practice has since gone through many changes. In fact, the way we Westerners practice Zen is nearly unrecognizable to a monk from Japan. Something as simple as the way we sit when we listen to a teisho or dharma talk -- facing the speaker -- would be unheard of in Japan, where they listen while facing the wall in zazen (sitting meditation). Practice would never be as informal as it is here. So even though Western Zen is very young, our practice already looks quite different from traditional Zen.
Zen teachers in the West are struggling with the question of how much change can be introduced without risk of losing the living essence of the Dharma. Each one of us must accept the responsibility of bringing Zen into our culture in a way that seems right. One of the beauties of Zen always has been its ability to adapt to new situations, to fill any container into which it is poured. Western culture is the new pot that is being filled by Zen -- and for everyone, whether we're a teacher or a beginning student, our body is a container for the practice. Zen will fill this container perfectly.
We have a beautiful Zen tradition of eating meals together in meditative silence. Special bowls are used for these meals, and the largest is called oryoki. In the time of the Buddha, monks carried one large bowl when they begged for food, and this is the basis of the oryoki bowl used today. Oryoki is a Japanese word that means "contains just the right amount." On a deeper level it means that this very body-mind, your body-mind, is also oryoki, the Buddha bowl itself.
Your life is the Buddha bowl, and the food of your life is everything that happens, even things of which you're not aware. Our awareness of life is very limited -- we really see only the tip of the iceberg -- and yet this life always contains just the right amount. Whatever happens in your life is the teaching, is Dharma. When we see our lives in that way, nothing that happens can be taken as accidental.
When he talked about the path of spiritual development and how to find lasting peace, the Buddha urged his disciples to focus on the root of the problem and not to be distracted by the leaves and branches. Actually the root of the problem isn't so easy to see. It's just too obvious. This doesn't mean that we Westerners are especially stupid or blind; even Shakyamuni Buddha found seeing the cause of suffering difficult. The Buddha spent years in training and went through many ordeals before making his discovery: the root cause of our suffering is ignorance -- seeing ourselves as separate and incomplete. This is delusion, and it leads to desire -- wanting, craving, and clinging. The wanting itself is the cause of our suffering.
We may already have some understanding of how ignorance leads to our discontentedness and neediness. Still, because of our conditioning, we all encounter resistance to waking up. It seems like it should be simple: if my ignorance is caused by staying in the dark, then all I need to do is lift my head, shift my view; just turn around. But what does that mean -- to turn around? Buddha taught that we need to change the way we usually see the world -- the perspective that I am here and everything else is out there. If I've never seen the world in any other way, then of course, I will believe that I see the world as it really is, that I see reality. To try to shift the way we perceive things simply doesn't occur to us.