Packing up books invariably means reading books, or at least portions of them. This morning, in between loads of laundry, I packed half of my poetry bookshelves. I delayed packing two books, Norman Fischer’s Opening to You and John Stevens’ selected translations of Ryokan, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf. I’m thinking of trying to incorporate some of Fischer’s interpretations of the Psalms and some of my favorite Ryokan poems into my devotional and prayer practice in the next couple of months, so I didn’t want to pack them quite yet. Spring, in addition to its immediate wellspring of good weather and fresh growth, is the season of thinking ahead to the summer—and the summer retreat season, which for me often means thinking ahead to what daily practices I want to commit to for the three months. I’m rarely on full, formal retreat, only twice in ten years as a matter of fact; but my spiritual life now revolves around the twice-yearly summer and winter retreats as surely as it does around the daily activities of morning chanting and meditation sessions. For a couple of years I’ve committed to some form of additional daily practice during the retreat season, either alone or with others, that is often very personal and shaped around the needs of the people committing for that season. The three-month commitment has been a wonderful way to create a spiritual practice more specifically addressing whatever difficulties or needs might be present at the time. Although the commitments are always shaped within the general framework of Mahayana practice and especially Korean forms and texts, we’ve write our own aspirations (發願文) and chosen different practices. In those, there’s plenty of room to express what we are honestly seeking in our practice and move outside of the usual, but tired, religious phrases.
Professionals of all stripes can be hesitant to admit when they themselves aren’t faring too well in a given field, or work to hide their own failings therein. The doctor who admonishes patients to sleep and exercise more but gets only 5 or 6 hours a night and doesn’t have time for a jog; the counselor urging patience to a client has had it up to here with her own work or home life and is ready to tear her hair out; the rabbi or pastor or teacher who speaks with such enthusiasm and commitment for a particular path and practice to her congregation is herself mired in acedia and wandering a spiritual desert, no end in sight. When I start thinking ahead to what prayers and practices I need, I usually first have to come to grips with what I feel is lacking in my own practice, or where I feel stuck and dry. I serve a student sangha and participate in another sangha extended throughout the Northeast, and I spend a fair amount of my time encouraging and teaching basic practices and fundamental attitudes and approaches. I teach mindfulness of breath as it integrates into Zen meditation, and I follow the set routine of the Dharma Center where I live and help lead daily practice. And yet, even though I’ve been publicly espousing these practices, this spring I had to admit that mindfulness of breath isn’t working particularly well for me right now and the daily routine of the Center has gone stale, very stale.
There’s good teaching and strong practice in not expecting anything special from daily meditation, chanting, or ritual. Everything, eventually, becomes comfortable and routine, and at some point becomes insipid and tasteless. No matter how amazing a practice was when you began, eventually it loses its shine. The-grass-is-always-greener syndrome led me at one point during seminary in Korea to think about jumping ship completely back to Tibetan Buddhism, not out of any strong ideological conviction but, honestly, out of boredom with the training I’d been immersed in for years. I didn’t see it that way at the time, of course. I was fairly convinced that there were good reasons to engage in Tibetan-style practices again and reboot my approach to Dharma from a Tibetan perspective. I didn’t make the switch, though, because when I was honest, I knew I’d already seriously committed to Korean Buddhism. Another reason was because there really weren’t any resources in a rural Korean nuns’ seminary to explore anything other than Korean Buddhism. By the time I had the kind of freedom and access to other resources to potentially study and practice another tradition, I’d come to see my urge to change primary practices as symptomatic of a basic human habit toward itchy, bored dissatisfaction rather than an indication of a real problem with the Korean tradition.
In coming to terms with the dryness in my practice and my need for something else, I also have to come to terms with the reality of boredom in all things. No matter how I switch it up, I won’t outrun boredom. Acknowledging that boredom, though, doesn’t mean not working to invigorate a practice that’s gone dry. Once, on a seminary magazine assignment to interview Hae Guk Kun Sunim, a senior monk in the Korean Jogye Order known for his intense devotion to Zen practice (in particular the hwa-du method), one of our interviewers asked him what he did when he felt himself lacking inspiration in his sitting practice. He said, “When I can’t get anywhere with sitting, I go to the Buddha Hall and I do prostrations or I chant. You must have faith in your practice! If you chant, your faith rises again.” The student-nuns were surprised. The divide between “Zen” practice and “devotional” practices is, at least in theory, somewhat contentiously maintained by both sides. Zen practitioners hold that Zen is complete in and of itself and sniff at devotional practices as lesser activities, and those who chant bluster that chanting is as efficacious as sitting in bringing about realization, and unlike sitting Zen, it also simultaneously inspires others and is an accessible doorway to the Dharma. In reality, almost all monastics I knew, including myself, had done stints of both chanting and sitting, and many nuns in my seminary who wanted to go on to sit in the Zen halls also enthusiastically engaged in kido practices of some kind, either sutra recitation, prostrations, reciting mantras or the names of the Buddhas, or copying out sutras. Hae Guk Kun Sunim’s response simply pointed out what we all understood in our experience: a well-rounded practice must be balanced, in the long run, between a variety of practices that pull together into a whole. There are times when you need to just tough it out and stick to the commitment to sit, or chant, or bow; and then there are seasons when you need to try a new approach in order to keep yourself practicing.
I think that which practices are pulled in are personal and can’t be dictated formulaically. The texts that Hae Guk Kun Sunim chants when he needs to re-inspire himself to practice are probably not the texts I would chose. Language informs some of those differences; I mix Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, and English texts and prayers together in a way that would probably look messy, and be incomprehensible, to Hae Guk Kun Sunim. But it works for me. I’m also pretty sure he and I have very different understandings of what constitutes connecting with the sacred, shaped by culture. I read in a biography of St. Teresa of Avila one time that, although she was a faithful Catholic, her prayer life was heavily shaped by the (obscured) Jewish heritage of her family, and that Teresa the Catholic mystic prayed like a Jew. I often feel like I’m a Buddhist who prays like a Christian, seeking a personal relationship to the Divine. I was raised in churches that preached personal connection with Jesus Christ as being at the heart of salvation, and I absorbed into my spiritual personality an intense desire for personal connection even if I didn’t have a Christian faith. I may interpret Fischer’s Psalms through a Dharmic lens, but I’m emotionally responding to the I-Thou relationship in them in a way that no amount of non-duality or non-self can obscure or erase. And I love how Ryokan lets the world touch him, wanting to drape a coat on a pine tree dripping in the rain, or addressing the unspeakable tragedy of children dying not with pat religious cliches, but with a sense of profound and inconsolable loss and sorrow. That speaks to me, partly because it sets “faith” aside and lets in all that we can’t know or explain. I need room for the human and the emotional in my practice, and I need poetry and psalms and texts from outside the strict lines of “Buddhist” literature because they move me and make me responsive again to the sacred in the world. I can’t live on sutras and breath alone, at least not if I want to be a whole-hearted practitioner.
Ehi means “Come” in Sanskrit. The Buddha’s initial ordination was to simply say to someone, “Come,” and at that word he or she became a monastic student of the Buddha. Moving beyond the emphasis on monastic ordination implied in the textual use of the word, I like to think of it as a kind of invitation to enter into the Dharma again in a vital, connected, and living way. In order to hear the ever-present invitation, though, I have to realize when I’m in need of reconnection. Boredom, in the acute sense of acedia, is a sure sign that I’ve disconnected.
Setting books in boxes this morning, riffling through old favorites and wistfully thumbing ones I haven’t been able to read yet, it was timely that just as I’ve become aware of a disconnect, I’d find a few things that re-opened the invitation to connect. Ehi, ehi, the entire season seems to say, sunlight coming in through the window, and the lines I underlined in Fischer’s book the first time I read it speaking to me, again:
Because I call
For you are fitting
Because I am small
You enlarge me
For you are gracious
You hear my song
You have always been a refuge to me
Before the mountains, before the earth, before the world
From endlessness to endlessness
You turn me around