Being Present

Friday, April 9, 2010

It is very good to be back in Chicago, sitting with all of you, at the Temple this morning. I am really struck by the strength of the practice, the strength that we gain by sitting together.

Our practice is about being aware, being present. We have senses, we have smell, sight, taste, feeling, hearing and we also have thoughts that emerge. And I am distinguishing thought from thinking about a thought. An idea spontaneously comes up; this is what I am referring to as thought. So all of the senses and our mind bring objects, whether it is a smell, a sight, or an idea pops up. Just being aware of these objects that arise, this is what being present is all about. This is what zazen practice is all about. Just being aware of whatever comes up from moment to moment. This is what we are practicing.

Zazen is about observing what is happening right now. I know that sometimes that seems too simple. Many things come up in the mind, many objects, and we are constantly battered about throughout the day. And when we are on the cushion, the monkey mind can be churning about, analyzing, packaging, evaluating, you know, on and on. The egocentric monkey mind is always making sure everything is OK with the ego. Objects arise, and we are aware of them, and then they begin to trigger the thinking process. We begin to think about these objects. We begin to analyze. We are upset by them, we become emotional. This thinking process is extra. And the more we think about these objects that arise and analyze and ponder, package, say this is good this is bad, the more we become isolated. In Buddhist thinking, this is how we become isolated from the unity that all life is part of.

Looking at the Buddhist model of consciousness can be very informative here. From this model's perspective there are eight basic levels of consciousness for the human being. The first six are our senses and thought. We smell, taste, touch, hear, see, and we are aware of arising thoughts. This is exactly how we are aware and conscious of our environment, the world. The eighth level of consciousness is called alaya-vijnana. This eighth level of consciousness, or storehouse consciousness, is where karmic seed-essence information from our senses is stored. This level of individual consciousness is in oneness with all things, and in oneness with pure consciousness. This is what we call Big Mind in Buddhist terms.

The communication between objects that arise from our first six levels of consciousness and alaya-vijnana is the function of the seventh level of consciousness called manas. Manas communicates what is being perceived by our senses and thought up to the eighth level. Manas is the messenger that transports this information to our higher level of consciousness. The problem is that in the human being this manas, which we also call ego, is very developed. It too often gets caught up and thinks that it is the big consciousness, it is the boss. Manas will do a lot of things based on what is coming from the first 6 levels of consciousness and will package it, and will interpret it. Inherently there is nothing wrong with manas or ego as long as it just conducts its normal purpose of just passing the information of pure awareness, of exactly what is happening right now and just being aware of it and not always spinning a yarn a tale about everything that is going on.

I think that this is a very interesting model. All things are beings, have being-ness. If you look at anything, a rock, very closely you will see that at the molecular level, at the atomic level, there is tremendous activity, there is tremendous awareness. According to this model animals also have these levels of consciousness; they have an ego or manas, which is not as developed and it just passes the message up. No self-centeredness. Other beings don't have all the same senses so their perception is different, but, never the less, the basic foundation that we perceive our environment is true for all things. It is very unique with the human being that we dabble too much and play around and get lost in this interpretation of the environment and communication to higher consciousness. If you just see, if you just look at the way things are, everything is fine.

Another view of this model is to think of an ocean and the waves on the ocean. The tip and surface of the wave are the senses and thought, manas is at the middle of the wave and alaya-vijnana is at the base of the wave that connects to the ocean. You can see how the wave can get the ideas that it is unique and separate from all of life but in short order becomes one with the ocean. So this is our dilemma. Objects of awareness and thoughts just bubble up and we think we are the thoughts and then our thoughts define us. And we do not recognize that thoughts just bubble up. It is OK as long as we don’t get hung up in them. We get caught and we don’t see the unity of all things we only see the individuality in our world.

So the more we are able to just be aware of objects that arise, let them pass and just stay present, the more we affirm our inherent oneness with everything. You know, we could have this as a koan. "Am I aware, am I present?" relative to my present circumstances or am I daydreaming about the past or the future. Practice having this sense that we are checking ourselves from moment to moment. "Am I present?" this is the central question in zazen practice.

Inherently our thinking process is self-centered. This is inherent. To understand this deeply is very illuminating. But the more we get caught up in thinking about things, the more you can see that this self-centeredness comes in and the more we become isolated. You know, it is me against the world. As we practice zazen and learn to just let go of that secondary thinking process the more we become one with, big mind, universal awareness. We become one with all things and all conflict diminishes and falls away. We are able just to live each moment fully, completely, without worrying about the next moment, without having a stain or being tainted from the last moment. Just live as completely and fully as we can each moment this is Zen practice.

Zazen, our seated meditation, is how we study this reality about the mind, and our awareness, and train to be fully aware of the present. We sit daily at home. We come to the Temple, and enjoy the enthusiasm and reaffirm our practice with the enthusiasm that we all share and we all feel as we sit together. It is very important though that we are not satisfied with just what transpires on the cushion. We must always cultivate being present. As we find ourselves, engaged in thinking, incessant thinking, be aware of this and use your Zen training, whereever you are whatever you are doing, to come back to the present. The more we cultivate this, on the cushion or off the cushion, the more we affirm our completeness our unity with all things. And very simply we let go of self-centeredness and the conflict which that brings upon us.

So just continue to use the breath as the main foundation for your practice. Understand the thinking mind. Be aware that objects will arise in the mind, you have no control of this and this is natural. Thoughts will come into the mind you have no control over them they will just arise. Smells will just arise, sights will just arise, all kind of thoughts may come up in the mind, and you have no control. This is the natural condition of the human being. The only thing we have control over is how we respond. If we just see, observe and accept and stay present, this is the essence of our Zen practice. However, the more we struggle with these objects that arise, this is the seed, and this is the foundation, of all problems. When an object arises and we are not at one with that object, we struggle with it and so the struggle of life manifests. So we are looking deeply at ourselves in this practice. We are looking deeply at the present moment and, as much as possible, being fully present. Continue to maintain this presence, or come back to the present if our awareness wanders. This will strengthen our power of awareness. Let go of this clinging to objects that arise and just be one with everything that comes up in your practice.

Through our zazen practice we are allowed to just be. Higher consciousness is just about fully being one with all things, one with the universe, one with nature. The more we can practice this as much as possible, always, always keep this in mind. If you find there is confusion, anger, always come back to the present and know that this is the ego spinning this yarn, this tale. And let that wake you up. Whether you are on the cushion or throughout the day, stay as present and engaged with just what is being experienced as possible. This is our practice, our Zen practice. Not just on the cushion. Cushion practice, is the foundation, this is the root, which teaches us how to be aware. But we must utilize that awareness always, work on cultivating presence always.

So continue to be aware of the breathing, keep letting go of any monkey mind activity, and just dive into your zazen, the practice of being present.