“Even if there is no one who is interested in such a practice [shikantaza], still the task of a mature priest is to emphasize and teach this.”
Soto Zen Buddhist Association
Guidelines for The Formation of Soto Zen Priests in the West, 2008
A little more on the issue of the Dharma’s relevance. I wrote last time that we should really work to make Buddhism real and relevant in our West – our time and place – but the SZBA line above also expresses an important point.
The line quite beautifully expresses that the wider relevance of Buddhism – other people’s interest or lack of it – is completely extraneous to our core practice. We practice fundamentally for the sake of the Dharma itself, no more and no less. We practice the Dharma simply because we love it, irrespective of whether or not it’s relevant to anyone else. Even if it’s completely irrelevant, we just practice.
It is profound and romantic to suggest that practitioners of the Buddha Way are completely unmoved by whether it speaks to anyone else or not. But it’s a little too heroic, and more than a little incomplete. The fact is, of course, that we vow to practice and preserve the Dharma because we know and trust that it is relevant, that it does have transformative power in this real world of our time and place. We have felt this transformation in our own lives and in the lives of our Sangha. That we will express it no matter who cares is a sideways expression of our faith that someone will care, that it’s worth caring about.
The SZBA is wise to encourage us not to quit just because no one comes to our party, but what they don’t emphasize here is the need to cultivate our confidence that the Dharma is relevant to the crises and excitements of our time. People are interested in learning how to live without chasing gain, how to live in open presence. People are interested in learning how to wholesomely navigate a world that has undermined old dualities. If we can say it in a way they can hear, people are very interested.
If no one seems to be interested, it’s because we aren’t saying it well enough! Rather than heroically and futilely sticking to our high ground, brushing aside the ignorance and spiritual sloth of the masses who just “aren’t interested,” we instead need figure out how to say it better. It’s our problem, not theirs.
We need to energize and insist on the fact that these teachings have broad relevance for our generation and the next. That doesn’t mean we just go ahead teaching the same way though nobody is interested. It means we need to get it together and draw the inspired lines that need to be drawn between “our practice” and “our world.”
I don’t say the SZBA doesn’t understand this, but I think that this point needs to be expressed more actively. Instead of a glum, “we teach though no one cares,” how about saying it something like this:
“If no one seems interested in the Dharma, that doesn’t mean they aren’t! The job of a mature priest is to figure out why people aren’t getting interested in such fundamentally relevant teachings, and to find ways of saying it that inspire people’s interest. The difficult job of a priest is to drop ways of teaching that aren’t interesting to people.”