Finding your place in zen practice

Segments from a dharma talk given by Martine Palmiter, dharma holder in One Heart Sangha, from Winter sesshin January 2019, starting with a koan from The HIdden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five centuries of awakened women.

“Crying in despair, an earnest student asked her teacher, Seisho Maylie Scott, “I’ve worked so hard to transform this crippling loneliness. I can neither shake it nor live with it. Can you help me?” Holding the student in a steady gaze and offering her confident smile, Maylie ended the conversation with “Please don’t ever think anything is out of place.”

We all struggle with feelings of sadness, anger, tension and stress that seems to lodge in our hearts, our throats, our stomach. Sometimes, even sitting with it cannot dislodge it, like a hot iron ball stuck, it won’t go away. When we sit zazen quietly, you can really allow these feelings to have some freedom, unpleasant as they are, and feel confident that your practice can reveal something to you.

We can lose our place in practice, our ground, our peace, in life.

Our Soto founder Eihei Dogen wrote about our “place”—Actualizing the Fundamental Point he called it—Genjo Koan.

“When you find the place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way in this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. For this path, this way, this place is neither big nor small, neither yourself or others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. The reality of all things is thus. To attain one thing is to penetrate one thing, to meet one practice is to sustain one practice. For this, there is a place and a path.”

Roshi Genpo Merzel: “A subtle undercurrent can persist in our practice, one that we need to rout out eventually. It is the drive to find something to hold on to, something that will make us more secure in the midst of change. It can take many years of practice to see that seeking is the reason we cannot find what we are looking for. Giving up seeking is extremely difficult, but an essential step. The small mind wants grasping, wanting, searching, looking. Continuous seeking is wired in us. We look for answers but do we find peace?”

Roshi Robert Kennedy: “Zen is life itself, and the teacher turns the student away from any answer to life, any safe harbor, or any package to wrap up and take home…Zen however teaches us the vital importance of educating our own vision. There is no one to imitate, there is no time but now, there is no path but our own. …For a Zen student, imitation will never bring him to the fundamental point. If a student imitates another’s path, she will never find her own. The student must go deeper until she experiences insight for herself once and for all. The truth is that she cannot imitate. In one moment of insight, the student will find she is rooted forever in emptiness (boundlessness), and …is destined to be unique and free forever.”

Nothing is out of place.