Someone once asked one of my teachers, “What is the difference between Buddhism and Buddhist practice?” He replied, “Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhist practice is doing the opposite of what you naturally want to do, all the time.”
I had all sorts of reactions to this. The first was “All the time?” The second was to wonder, does this mean that all of my instincts are just, well, bad? The answer to the first: yes, basically. And the answer to the second? No, it isn’t because everything we do is bad. It’s about karma.
Karma is about actions and the results of actions. In the popular imagination, it means payback, that if I do something harmful, an equally (or even more) harmful result will come to me. But it’s not that simple—or that dramatic. In day-to-day life, we experience karma as habits, as ruts. Doing the opposite means finding a way out of those ruts.
I was noticing the other day the way I load the dishwasher. I have a system: I always load the top rack back to front, the lower rack left to right. It’s not a bad system—it seems to work for me, and because it’s “mine,” I don’t have to think about it or re-invent the wheel each time I load dishes. But my teacher, if he saw me, would say, “This time, load the top front to back, the bottom right to left. Next time, load it at random.” The degree to which I resist that advice, the degree to which I feel some little discomfort at changing my system, is the degree to which I have created a rut. It’s karma in action.
Here’s the thing: every single time I load the dishwasher the way I always have, it becomes more difficult to change how I do it. But if I can change direction even once, the rut becomes less shallow. (The danger, of course, is that I just replace the old system with a new one—a new rut. This is a lifelong process.)
You may say that how I do or don’t load a dishwasher is completely unimportant. Fair enough. But a lot of the time, this is what practice looks like—a tiny pivot, a shift that maybe no one else can even see. Most of us probably come to a practice like meditation with the idea that it will change our minds, and changing our minds will naturally then change our behaviors. It will make us better. This kind of teaching asks, why wait? Why wait for your mind to be transformed when we can change our actions this moment? It isn’t about getting it right (even if you’re convinced, deep down, that there’s a correct way to load a dishwasher.) It’s about starting with action. The mind will follow.
Noticing how I do one thing makes me curious about all the other unexamined parts of my life. Do I tense up whenever that coworker opens his mouth, regardless of what he says? Do I feel angry whenever I see the mess on my kids’ floor? (Or: do I prepare myself to feel angry before I even walk in the door?) If the answer is yes, then my patterns are controlling my relationships. How can that be beneficial?
Am I awake, or am I on autopilot?
This can be really simple. When you go to work, do you always take the same route? Tomorrow, go a different way. Do you part your hair on the right? Try the left. Is there a coffee cup in the cupboard that’s “yours”? Use a different one. Switch up these mundane tasks, the things that don’t matter, the activities that are neutral. Those small, seemingly meaningless gestures form the foundation of an intention to examine the unexamined parts of who you are.
We are all stuck, somehow. But we don’t have to be. We just have to notice where our habits are taking us, then turn and walk in the opposite direction.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.