Where do you think you’re headed? Where would you like to be headed? To understand Zen practice, first we have to be honest about where we think we are.
In his “Eight Awakenings of Great Beings,” Dogen takes up “diligent effort” as the fourth awakening. He says diligent effort is “to engage ceaselessly in wholesome practices.” We could pause here to examine what wholesome practices are, but I don’t think we need to—part of the point is that you already know. If you’re honest, you know.
Later in the same passage, Dogen describes diligent effort like this: “It is like a thread of water piercing through a rock by constantly dripping.” A lot rides on understanding this—if we do, we understand much of what’s at the center of the Zen tradition. If we don’t, then we miss a lot.
In this image of water and rock, what is the water’s agenda? It’s easy to misread this—it can sound as if there’s a goal here to pierce through the rock. And that’s natural. We want to imagine that there’s a goal out there, something we’re trying to accomplish. When we take a step, we imagine it’s taking us somewhere, to a destination. But a step is complete. We step forward because that’s the way we’re facing. Our destination is simply where our foot lands—the rest, our idea of where we’re headed, is a fantasy.
We want to believe that practice is cumulative. But a moment of sitting still is complete, just as a drop of water is complete. Water’s only agenda is gravity; it has nothing to prove, nothing to finish. And the rock? The rock is part of this too. Its only agenda is to stay still in the face of it, to allow itself to be changed by the world. It doesn’t need to be pierced through. It isn’t waiting to be what it should be.
If you really, really want to quantify your practice, don’t ask how often you sit, or for how many minutes each time, or for how many years. Instead, ask how many times you’ve come back from somewhere else, both while you’re meditating and when you’re not. That’s what this practice is—returning to here, not going there. When we sit, we drift away, notice, and bring ourselves back to this posture. When we’re walking, we come back to where our feet are, from wherever our mind has taken us.
Zen practice is never giving up on this, while completely giving up on that. So, we commit to what we’re doing now. It can be small. It doesn’t have to be a piece in a bigger puzzle. It doesn’t have to point over there.
Wholesome activities are not that exciting. Most of them are small acts of giving, or maybe of restraint. They’re a choice, and in that choice is a decision to commit to this, to return to the thing you already know. Wholesome activity is coming back to what you are doing now and doing it. You walk down your street and see that your neighbor’s garbage has fallen over, so you pick it up—not because that act is important but because it’s the thing that’s here, where you are. No one will notice you doing it, and at the end of your days, no one will know it happened. There will be no gold star.
This is maturity—seeing what is right in front of you and taking care of it. No music, no applause, just ceaseless engagement in wholesome activities.
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.