Is Zen About Exerting Oneself To The Point Of Tears?

It is a common misunderstanding to think that Zen practice is so effortful that one must exert oneself to the point of tears. This is not so, yet it is is understandable.

Chan (Chinese Zen) masters have, especially in the work entitled The Chan Whip, impressed upon their students the need to remain vigilant at all times. For what could be more important, what more urgent than realizing, right here and now, one’s Buddha nature? The stories we read, the exchanges we come across, the antics we’ve heard about: are these not signs that Rinzai Zen is trying to get you to whip yourself until you “break through” and recognize your “primal face”?

Not exactly. To help us see this, let me distinguish between “life-urgency” and “resting into being.” A true Zen teacher is indeed seeking to tighten the screw on you until you vividly experience the life-urgency of the path of enlightenment: you need to feel, at each moment, the Great Matter of Birth and Death. Never forget it. Keep it within oneself when walking and while defecating.

So much for life-urgency.

While in a seated position and indeed while walking, however, the Zen student is invited to let himself sink, or rest, completely into being. The more the one seeks, the more one sees that one is going the wrong way. For what is the ground of being but precisely what is beneath one’s seat, one’s thighs, one’s feet? Can that ground ever move? Yes and no: wherever I go, it goes while itself going nowhere. And if I stop resisting it?

I think we can now see that Zen is not about manful, muscular determination. Rather, the sense of resolve, which flows out of life-urgency, won’t let you drop or let go of what has been most real yet also still elusive. You can’t escape what is here for you, within you, and this inescapability we call “the koan.” And yet, that resolve must be sweetened so that it can melt, more and more, into subtler and subtler manifestations of being. Effortless grace. Complete surrender. Seamless letting go. QED.