In the Zen tradition, we mark the Buddha’s awakening on December 8. Many Zen practitioners attend a retreat (sesshin) in the week prior, called Rohatsu. It’s a lot of meditation, a lot of stillness, a lot of quiet. It takes some determination even to attend, and it takes resolve to see it through.
This models Siddhartha’s own resolve when he sat down beneath the Bodhi tree. When he sat down, he had decided that he would not stand up again until he had reached complete awakening, until he had solved the matter of life and death. He would wake up, or he would die trying.
I feel challenged by this. I can attend Rohatsu; I can make that gesture of imitating what Siddhartha did. Any of us can. But can I bring that same resolve?
I’ve heard people say that Zen practice is essentially training in not moving. That can have a lot of different levels to it. In meditation, first of all, we physically don’t move—our nose might itch, or our legs might ache, but we stay where we are. In a retreat, that decision not to move can run counter to every instinct we have. Why shouldn’t I scratch my nose? Why shouldn’t I get up and stretch? Why shouldn’t I just go home?
We also learn, through sitting, how to stay where we are in our minds. We have a memory of something, fantasize about something, wonder about something, and as we do, we lose sight of what we’re doing—the posture, the breath, the room itself. We go somewhere else. But then we remember: I’m here, doing this. And when we do, we zoom back into place. We feel our lungs moving, we notice the straightness of our backs, we smell the room. Then we start to drift again, then we remember and return. We’re always remembering, always returning. And though it’s never easy, it does get easier.
In these ways, through sitting down, we learn how not to budge. It’s enough on its own, but we should notice this can also be applied in the world—not moving, it turns out, is a big part of taking a stand. When we stand up against injustice, or when we stand up for others, what we’re saying is that we will not move. Whatever it is, it stops here, right here, where we are. And though it’s not so hard to feel that resolve in the moment, it’s pretty extraordinary to see it through. Most of us, in time, move.
What makes the difference? How did Siddhartha find that place in his heart where he knew his resolve was unshakeable? I don’t know, but I know he got there by seeing the suffering of the world and being touched by it. He saw sickness, old age, and death, and instead of going numb, he let himself feel it all and be shaken by it. He put up no resistance. So while his resolve might look like steely determination, a stance of him against the world, in fact, it was an act of softness, of vulnerability, of allowing himself to be raw in the face of others’ pain. It wasn’t that he was so tough; he just reached a point where he knew there was nowhere else for him to go. In sitting down, he took his stand.
How much suffering do we have to witness to find that same still point? How exposed do we have to be before we stop looking for a way not to feel responsible for what we see around us? I don’t know. But as we celebrate the Buddha’s awakening, we should also take the opportunity to notice that what got him to that place—it hasn’t changed. He drew his line in the sand. Will we?
Siddhartha sat down and said he wouldn’t get up again until he had resolved the question of suffering for all. How far do we have to be pushed to find a similar resolve? How much suffering do we need to see?
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 Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.