Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Does Spiritual Practice Look Like?

I have a job in corporate America working as a business analyst.  The money is good and the hours are great.  My coworkers are reasonably friendly, and my stress level rarely goes above a six on a scale of one to ten.  In short, I have very little to complain about.

But that doesn't stop me from feeling like my job is interfering with the real work that I should be doing.  Every day, I sit down in my cubicle and begin my daily tasks.  As the day progresses, a feeling of dark discontent grows in my stomach.

Eventually, the feeling in my stomach reaches my brain and becomes a question...  Why am I wasting time responding to email when I should be focused on my spiritual practice?

To be fair, this feeling of discontent isn't new.  I felt the same way when I worked my last mid-level corporate gig, and I responded by quitting my job and going to work on organic farms for eight months.

It was a great experience.  Seriously, you can't spend eight months pulling weeds and shoveling manure each day with out learning some things about yourself.  But I felt like I was hiding from the "real" world, so I came back to conventional society, and traded in my work boots for dress shoes.

But now that I'm here, the only thing I seem to do is reminisce about what life was like on the road.  So I have lived two very different lifestyles as a practicing Zen Buddhist in the span of a year, and neither one of them seemed quite "right".

I'm starting to think that maybe the lifestyle isn't the problem... maybe the problem is me.  

More specifically, maybe the problem is what I think it means to walk a spiritual path. Case in point, when I envision spiritual practice there are two images that come to mind.  The first would involve life in a monastery.  I've always had a deep love for ritual and sacred spaces.

Cloistered environments with long histories and strict rules of conduct have always given me a feeling of safety, and the desire for that feeling has only become stronger as I've aged.  Even as I type this, the idea of waking up every day in a temple that is hundreds of years old and dedicating every waking moment to the practice of the dharma brings a smile to my face.

I have no illusions that it would be an easy life.  All of the stories that I've read paint a picture of hard manual labor, strict adherence to a schedule, and very few creature comforts for people who are novitiates in a temple.  But in this sensory overloaded world of instant gratification and bad reality TV shows I think there is a certain beauty in learning to do without.

The next image that comes to mind involves me living the life of a hermit monk.  Home-leaving is a time honored tradition in many schools of Buddhism.  In fact, one of the things that helped spark my interest in Zen practice was watching the documentary, Amongst White Clouds, and learning about the hermit monk tradition in Zen Buddhism.

The monks in the documentary have almost nothing, but the peacefulness and real happiness that each of them exudes is incredible to see.  I'd gladly trade in my few worldly possessions and live in a hut if I could have what they have. The Chinese poet Li Po did a beautiful job of describing this tradition when he said:

You ask me why I dwell amidst these jade-green hills.
I smile. No words can describe the stillness in my heart.
Peach blossoms drift away upon stream waters
deep with mystery.
For I live in the other world,
the one that lives beyond the whim of men

     Seriously, I can't read that poem without wanting to drop everything, follow Li Po's example, and spend the rest of my life in the mountains.  But here's the catch, I'm not Li Po.  And I can't live his life any more than he can live mine.

Zen teaches us that the Buddha's path is identical to the Buddha's life.  

Our ordinary, everyday existence is our spiritual path whether we want it to be or not.  So when I describe my "ideal" spiritual practice, what I'm really describing is the life I wish I could live.  My fantasies about living in a monastery or retreating to a hermitage are beautiful.  But their beauty comes wrapped in a web of desire.  And desire always leads to despair.  I experience that despair every day when I sit in my cubicle wishing that I could live the life of a monk or a hermit.

Despite my misgivings, I'm beginning to realize that real spiritual practice consists of being content with what life gives me in each passing moment.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's a mistake to lust after the spiritual practice that others enjoy.

Rather, it's better to focus on being a good student of my own spiritual/ life practice and learning everything it has to teach me.  I want life to give me a monastery for my training, but it's given me an office building instead.  What can I learn from that?

I asked to wear robes as part of my practice, but life gave me a shirt and tie instead.  Why did it do that?  I don't know.  Honestly, I have no idea what being a business analyst can teach me about Zen.

But I'm willing to learn, and I'm sure that life has no end of things to teach me

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook

You can also connect with me on Twitter


  1. This is such a great piece! It is very well-written and honest. I have felt/ do feel the same way. Thank you!

    1. I agree with you, Steve. I have a feeling that many of us share these feelings. It's hard to stay on the path when life throws you a lot of curve balls all at once. That's why a cloistered retreat is so appealing to me. But you can't stay in the mountains forever and so we must learn to work with what we have and always strive to do our best.

  2. I just finished listening to Alan Watt's "The Way of Zen" and from what I gathered Zen is the child of Taoism and Buddhism from India. Taoism arose with Confucianism. Confucianism brought structure to the world of work and family. Taoism arose to balance this structure with the spontaneity of "natural" or "no" mind. It seems like Zen still exits somewhere in that place, and satori is when the cramp of the mind trying to grasp itself is released. It doesn't call for the rejection of the physical world. It is teaching us to not be deceived by it. ---- All that to say, everything is a spiritual path depending on how you perceive it.

  3. Your life can be your practice. If you are at your desk working as a business analyst make that effort and the mindfulness of your work your practice. Same goes if you are a barista. Make each cup perfect but with no desire for perfection. When I plane a piece of wood I want to become indistinct from the effort of this one stroke. Some times I am successful and at other times not very. And also, striving for enlightenment or satori and certainly conceptualizing it takes you off the path. Be the bodhisattva that you are by following the dharma.

  4. Hi Alex,

    I just wrote something in our Forum when your post came up for discussion. Unfortunately, it is in a section visible only to our registered members. I hope it is okay if I post here what I wrote. Keep on the good path, it seems you are realizing that it is always under your feet. Gassho, Jundo Cohen


    [I]I'm starting to think that maybe the lifestyle isn't the problem... maybe the problem is me. More specifically, maybe the problem is what I think it means to walk a spiritual path.[/I]

    Yes, I believe that he is finally realizing something.

    Retreat and hermitage and monastery do benefit many, and suit some personality types. But I detect in his writing a bit of Shangri-la idealism about what a monastery is. Do you know that life in a monastery is surprisingly like life in an office, a family or any group of people with work to do?

    Retreats and monasteries are good, even necessary, for most of us from time to time. We all need times to cut loose from the world, turn inward. [B]But do you know that monasteries are just not as necessary today as they have been for 2500 years of Buddhist history? [/B]That is a pretty radical statement I am making. Why? For centuries and centuries, that was really the only living situation in which one could access daily practice, teachers and Sangha community, Buddhist teachings and literature and traditions. Now (here comes another radical statement) many folks in this very Treeleaf Sangha may have some advantages on their spiritual road that even the monks in the Buddha or Dogen's time lacked. [scared] Yes, things were not only peaches and cream in the past, and [B]the situation for lay folks is sometimes better today than it was for monks in the dark ages of centuries past.[/B]

    [QUOTE]In some important ways, sincere lay practitioners today may enjoy better surrounding circumstances for practice than did the average monk in, for example, Dogen's day. Things in the "Golden Age" were not so golden as we too easily romanticize. Most monks back then were half-educated (even in Buddhism), semi-literate (or what passed for literacy in those times), superstition driven, narrow folks who may have understood less about the traditions and teachings they were following ... their history and meaning and depth ... than we now know. The conditions for practice within old temples and monasteries might have been less than ideal, many teachers less than ideal, despite our idealization of the old timers. Studying Sutras by smoky oil lamp, living one's days out in Japan or Tibet while having no real information grasp on China and India and the customs of prior centuries, having often wildly inaccurate information on even the history and authorship of scriptures of Buddhism, living in a world of rumor and magic and misunderstanding (in which all kinds of myths and stories and superstitions were taken as explanations for how the world works), unable to access a modern Buddhist library, or to "Google" a reliable source (emphasis on making sure it is reliable however!) to check some point, or to ask a real expert outside one's limited circle, being beholden to only one teacher at a time (no matter how poor a teacher), with no knowledge of the human brain and some very important discoveries of science ... and after all that effort ... getting sick and dying at the age of 40 from some ordinary fever. (Can you even imagine trying to listen to Dogen Zenji recite "live" a Shobogenzo teaching from way across the room ... without a modern microphone and PA system and "Youtube" to let one replay it all? I suppose many never heard a word!)

    The "Good Old Days" were not necessarily the "Good Old Days".[/QUOTE]

    Anyway, anyone who want to here more pontification on this can read here in this series of essays:
    Knocking Down Monastery Walls[/B]


  5. One would be wise to reduce the excess attachments, sensory overloads, addictions and consumer cravings of living in this modern world ... but one can learn to do so right in the world, without need to permanently move to the mountains and go "off grid." (I recently read that Thoreau was actually only about 10 minutes from a highway, and 30 minutes from town. He had a constant stream of visitors. Maybe not as cut off as one would think, and he had his own worries, distractions and annoyances).

    I wonder if the hermits of "Amongst White Clouds" don't have their own reasons and needs for choosing to live so. Perhaps there spiritual practice needs the quiet, and could not handle the big city? Maybe they don't care for folks? Maybe they have their own social scene on the mountain. Having just returned from India where I so naked mystics walking through the streets and sleeping under trees ... I think it actually not such a bad lifestyle compared to what I see of “ordinary” life there for so many. I am sure that most are there in a hut in the mountains or wandering the roads of India for that is where they find there joy and spiritual happiness ... and that is wonderful for them. People can find their joy and spiritual happiness in many ways, many places, if their eyes are wide.

    As I wrote another time when the topic of monasteries of the past came up ...

    [QUOTE]However, monasteries also presented a lifestyle in the past that was not so uncomfortable ... and actually pretty nice ... compared to general standards in the traditional agricultural and feudal societies of 500 or 2500 years ago. I do not think their life was as hard as one might imagine by the standards of the day. It is not so hard to give up one's car, computer, tv, cell phone and Ipod when ... they don't exist, as they did not in the 13th century! Even the wealthiest people of the day probably lived lives of surprising simplicity given that there was not much choice. (Even all the money and power of the day could not get someone indoor plumbing, lights or heating back then!). The monastery was certainly a better situation ... with regular meals, a roof over one's head, companionship, even the best of medical care of the day ... compared to how the peasants and average folks lived in centuries past. In fact, right outside the door of the monastery was often a world of violence, plague, limited options for education or "social mobility", and a day-to-day struggle just to feed one's family and survive! Compared to that, Sangha life was not unattractive ... and most governments in China, Korea and Japan had to enact strict limits on the number of people allowed to enter the monasteries![/QUOTE]

    At the end of the blog post, the fellow comes to a realization which shows me that he is really getting somewhere (which is right where he is, which is the only place in the universe he ever can be) ...
    Despite my misgivings, I'm beginning to realize that real spiritual practice consists of being content with what life gives me in each passing moment. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's a mistake to lust after the spiritual practice that others enjoy. Rather, it's better to focus on being a good student of my own spiritual/ life practice and learning everything it has to teach me. [/I]

    Keep an eye on that fellow.

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS - I wear my Kesa or Rakusu that can be seen. Sometimes out in the civil world, I wear the Rakusu which cannot be seen with the eye, but which is just as present if the heart is wholesome.

  6. I've worked as a BA for almost as long as I've been a Zen student, close to 10 years. Working with other people and solving problems tends to come with the job. It took me a few years to come from the same day dreams to a more down to earth practice right here at work. The way I see it, you are called to be a bodhisattva to each and every person you meet on this job. You are called to dedicate the merit of each solved problem to the greater good. Sounds like you are on the right path. May you be well.

  7. This is amazing! Your words touched me so much!

  8. I feel in the same way, I ask everyday which lessons is in this.