The Rat Race: Tassajara Dispatch #2

Jiryu’s latest letter from the mountains:

What is integration of practice?

At Tassajara, the earnest Zen students are in sesshin and the whole valley is locked in silence.  The silence is deepened, punctuated by the roaring creek, the crickets, blue jays and even the occasional shriek of a little boy.  How loud real silence is!

This is an extreme practice.  All external goals or worldly ambitions are cut off.  With no outlet, there is only space for true nature.  Only what it is to be alive, itself.  Only breath and body and consciousness.

I value this cocoon, this womb of practice.  But I’m clear too that it isn’t a stopping point, much less an ending point.  It’s maybe one half of a life.

I remember many years ago on my parents’ first visit to Tassajara, we drove up the road together to see the sunset from a ridge.  Marveling, feeling even complete in the shadows of bright reds and orange, I said something like, “This is it, a human life.  You see a few beautiful sunsets, that’s all.”

I was new to practice, filled with “Zen,” so it was left to my Dad to add, “. . . and build a few houses . . .”

It doesn’t take too long at Tassajara to realize that as nourishing and even as fulfilling as a sunset is, there is indeed more to a human life.  We see sunsets, but we build houses, too.  We’re not just eyes, but also hands.  While fundamentally we live only to meet this silence again and again, there is in fact more to do: something to build or to make or to serve in the world of noise.

I’m more clear than ever that I need to know how to step from the silence (of ten minutes or ten years) into the “rat race.”  I need to find a way to do this that elevates both, that integrates.  That’s what I’m exploring.

A short couple of days out of this three-month retreat recently put me back in full touch with the rat race.  The dizzying flurry of errands and demands, of diapers and dinner and meetings and bed.  I could feel my mind sharpen and change—get what I need.  Where is the money?  Where is the baby?  Where is lunch?  Where is success?  Drive the car.  Email.  Plan.  Succeed.

The rat race is fueled by the push to succeed—from buying toilet paper to making a career, the big and the little rat mazes are all only mazes because there is cheese at the end.

Succeed!  Get cheese!

But within that drive there is, when I can stop and notice, an underlying anxiety and a different kind of longing.  This is the longing—the “Way-seeking Mind”—that pushes me to practice.  It brings me to the zendo, to the cushion, to the sesshin or practice period.

But silence to noise, stillness to busyness, zazen to work, isn’t necessarily integration—it’s oscillation.  So we talk about “balance” as though if we could get the mix right, we’d achieve integration.  But integration is more than just the right rate of back and forth.

When I’m caught in my large or small goals, caught in the rat race, I can feel that my practice is out of reach.  I have to wait it out—make “rat race”-type plans for the next chance at zazen, the next meeting with my teacher, the next retreat.  Sure, those are good things to do, and certainly they are part of a process of integration, but what’s most important is to be able to get in some awareness, some space, some wisdom, at that precise moment of dis-ease or disharmony or confusion or construction.  I don’t want to just schedule my next “practice time,” I want to touch and to know my true and vast life in this moment.

And I can do this by just making a small inward shift, somewhere deep and barely conscious or somewhere nearer to the surface, a shift away from my immediate goal and into the actuality of the present.

The rat race doesn’t obstruct my practice, doesn’t block the Buddhadharma.  To paraphrase Dogen Zenji, for someone on the path, there is no rat race—maze and cheese or not, it’s all just flowers of true Buddhadharma.  It’s all just opportunity to take a backwards step.  Without leaving our home in the rat race, we can know that who and what we are is boundlessly bigger than that.  We can know the immensity of the ordinary.

I may be a rat running through a maze, and that’s fine and right—it’s what rats do in mazes.  The point is that I can dare to remember, to hold somewhere dear in my heart or my belly, that the point of my life isn’t actually my running, my cleverness, or my successes at cheese, but rather my living ratness, right now, in its inconceivable vastness and inconceivable value.

That, to me, is real integration.


6 thoughts on “The Rat Race: Tassajara Dispatch #2

  1. I’m reminded of two pictures I’ve seen of Sisyphus. In one picture there is a man pushing a boulder up a hill. In another man and boulder are not separate.

    When you feel like a rat the maze appears. When you don’t feel like a rat it disappears. Maybe it’s just a case of finding out what kind of rat you are. Rats who run mazes get better at it. Do they enjoy it?

    Zen is also a maze in which to run. It’s not an escape from the rat race, merely a different rate race.

    This rat seems born to run in mazes. The only question is which maze? And that’s not really a question. The maze has built the rat. The rat has built the maze.

    To be a rat is to be a rat. It’s not qualified. To see a purpose is to not see the maze. To see no purpose is to not see the maze.

    Today it was fun to kick leaves with bare toes. Tomorrow it’s work. Two days. Two mazes. Both natural ratness for this rat.

  2. Silence to shrieking, black robes to blue jeans, zafus to car seats, to quote Rumi “it’s all praise, and it’s all good”.

    I last night came across a commencement address given by David Foster Wallace in 2005… Coincidentally or not, his thesis seems to bring up for me things directly relevant to JMRB’s recent transmission from tranquil Tassajara.

    With the assistance of Mr. Wallace and Jiryu I’d like to point to the experience that (rather than “the fact that”) it’s a choice of what to do with thought… A choice that is realized by all manner of persons in all circumstances.
    From a poem I wrote several years ago:
    The choice for hope exists wherever the opportunity for choice exists, which is conveniently a constantly occurring circumstance.

    When I’m starting to feel like I stink of Zen—like right now for example—I need some liberation to get me back to reality… (reality?) My karma, whatever… Balance? I didn’t ask for this mental shift, I’m just being pulled along with and/or by karma from that which stinks to that which doesn’t stink according to my deeply conditioned nose… I’ll swing back again probably in a couple of hours when I’ll light the incense and drop my head to the floor nine times…
    And make a cognitive decision that that is what I am doing in order to vindicate that I am able to make personal choices in my life; to establish for the sake of my ego that I have “my life”…
    Funny shit, huh?
    What I think one way or the other is not a help for changing the direction of the swinging of the pendulum.
    Is there balance? Is there choice? Is there the choice to have a choice?
    Maybe this is elementary, but it is a constant negotiation. Jiryu’s coming back to the rat race was oddly reminiscent of Wallace’s example of standing in line at the supermarket at the end of a long day surrounded by people you’d rather not be surrounded by… It is then that the capability to make the choice is most pressing…

    I appreciate this notion of the fulcrum of practice, the fundamental question of practice being a consistent choice of what we can do with thought, what we can do with our natural “default setting” as Wallace calls it in order to choose to not be controlled by it and subsequently be available to give more fully our attention, our compassion to ourselves and all beings that we come into contact with.

    Jiryu’s question/discernment/rejection of balance is poignant… There is no balance in one sense because there is no balance I (small self) can ultimately achieve… Balance seems to be just as much something that happens to us as much as we are something that brings it into being. Push and pull, of it’s (big self) own accord, wave crash and recede, rinse and repeat, “have a cup of tea”, smile and good night with much love!

  3. Re the Wallace speech referenced above: If anyone elects to listen, Part 2 is where it gets juicy. I only posted part one, but the link to part two magically appears at the close of part one in typical YouTube fashion. Still amazed by the internet….

  4. Pingback: Balance | emptysquare

  5. “But silence to noise, stillness to busyness, zazen to work, isn’t necessarily integration—it’s oscillation. So we talk about “balance” as though if we could get the mix right, we’d achieve integration. But integration is more than just the right rate of back and forth.”

    Thanks for this Jiryu – your description of oscillation and integration captures something I’ve been observing with some confusion probably since I started practising. At this point in my life the longing for more formal solitary practice is intense, as are the rewards of staying with the reflections I can only see in relationship to the “other half of life”. Perhaps it’s all the same longing, to know the ending of suffering. I know I do better, live more kindly, when I surround myself in lay life with as many reminders as I can of the life I want to be living. I would like to feel less divided. Your post is really helpful, thanks again for it. Bless.

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