Note: this post arose in relation to the thread I just posted, "Why do you practice?" and I thought it better to make this into its own thread, so as not to dilute the other thread.
It is so easy to fall into "groupthink" when asked to justify or explain why we do something, but it's so much more fascinating and profound to see what drives us from within ourselves. I think the true answers to these questions of why we practice can only be found in the language of each of our individual lives; I believe when we shape answers to such fundamental questions according to dogma and tropes of a group with which we identify, we are burying the embers of our inner fires in the wet dirt of words and feelings that are not quite our own.
Years ago, a phrase that John Daido Loori used became a koan for me: "Trust yourself." I have returned to this phrase again and again over the years, noting how the way I understand it has shifted. At first, I had a lot of questions about what it meant to trust oneself, especially as the self is so deceptive. But what I understand now is that part of the Great Faith necessary to endure on this path is to be able to respond to and be guided by one's own feelings, instincts, and way of being, which may or may not conform to what others label, enshrine, and institutionalize as "right." Because it is only in looking to and being led by these forces within the self that we can connect to the true aspiration to practice.
I am slowly starting to reconnect with my own drive to practice and I think this drive or motivation is intensely mysterious and fascinating in itself. It brings up questions such as, "What exactly are we, that after the carrot has long fallen off the string, we keep moving forward anyway?" I was struck by something that I recently read in Shohaku Okumura's Living By Vow, commenting on a koan that hits me right where my practice is right now:
This is an inspiring vision of sangha, and one I find to be true, but only in part. I am drawn to the metaphor of the will, or the drive, as fire, spark, or ember. Sometimes, the cold rain of life can put out the flames in us until there are only the tiniest embers left in the ashes. And in times like those, it is only connection with another being or beings with a living inner fire that will rekindle our own fires. This is sangha at its best. And yet, sangha can also have a dampening effect, if we turn to the comfort of group identification and reassurance over the very particular drive, passion, question, or suffering that brought us to practice. In middling times, the identification with a group can be enough to keep us going. But in the most trying times, it is only that inner fire that will keep us going.Baizhang asked Guishan, "Who is it?" and Guishan replied, "It's me, Lingyou (Guishan's dharma name)." Baizhang said, "Would you dig in the firepot to see if there is fire or not?" It was winter and the firepot was their source of heat. Guishan stirred the firepot and said, "No fire." Then Baizhang got up and came over, dug deep into the ashes, and found a tiny ember. He showed it to Lingyou and said, "What is this? Is this not fire?" And Guishan was enlightened.
The fire in this story refers to the fire of the buddha nature. Buddha nature is not something solid or immovable, but rather an energy that motivates us to practice--and not just zazen or Buddhist practice. Buddha-nature is the fire of our life force that enables us to aspire to be better persons, to be more helpful to others, to settle into a healthy way of life, and to practice the Way. It's difficult to find the fire of buddha-nature inside of us, but we must. It's there. We are alive, so we have this force that drives us to practice and to wake up to the reality of life. It may only be an ember, but all of us, without exception, have it. When we practice with others, we gather together small fires. If we try to build a fire in a hibachi or firepot with a single piece of charcoal, it soon dies out. But even one tiny ember, fed with charcoal, becomes a big fire. This is the meaning of sangha. Each one of us has a small fire, which alone, will die out sooner or later. Together we become bigger than ourselves.
I recently watched the movie The Road, which I had been meaning to watch for some time. I was struck by how much it evaded my expectations, based on reviews I had read that it was going to be a bleak "downer" of a movie. I sat expecting something that was going to leave me feeling the hollow grief I felt after watching The Plague Dogs, especially after having experienced how bleak and dark John Hillcoat's other movie The Proposition was. Instead, I was inspired, touched, and moved.
The movie takes place in a very bleak world indeed--one in which some great cataclysm has killed all plant and animal life on Earth, so that nothing grows any more. This has left the remaining humans with the question of how to survive in this barren wasteland. The harsh reality of this world has driven many people to cannibalism, as other humans are the only reliable food source; in this world, if you don't eat other people, you have to rely on endless work and luck to find reserves of canned food, sodas, and other 'leftovers' from the world before, with the high likelihood of starvation or depredation from cannibals as a reward for your efforts.
The father and son who are the central characters in the movie are guided by what the father calls "the fire." He repeatedly encourages his son through the traumatic, harrowing events of their lives by reminding him that they are "carrying the fire." The nature of this "fire" is never plainly spelled out in the movie, but is related to the vow of the father and son not to resort to cannibalism. So I think it is the same fire, the same vow, of which Okumura speaks - the fire of hope and human goodness. The movie shows how something we hope we would all do--refuse to terrorize and kill others to ensure our own comfort and survival--would actually be very difficult in such a world, even for the most morally upright. Much of the movie shows how the son acts to remind his father of the fire when the father loses his way and lets the bleak, exhausting nature of life in this world overwhelm his desire to "carry the fire" and not become one of the "bad guys."
The movie ends on an uncertain note, as it's not clear whether, in the dying world of the movie, humanity can make and keep a foothold, especially a humanity that holds onto "the fire" to do and be good, to help others rather than exploit and hurt them. But what the movie shows so beautifully, and perhaps bleakly, is that even if it was impossible to preserve the fire of human goodness in a world we had reduced to a grave through our endless greed, hatred, and ignorance, it would still be worth refusing to let go of the fire, even in the face of the impossible nature of the effort and the sovereignty of death. I think of another quote from Okumura in Living By Vow:
I think we cannot fully appreciate this until we have held onto "the fire" - Baizhang's ember - through times of great hardship. Because it is only when we have been brought to our knees that we can see past the trivial and into our truest heart. That is one of the things I really enjoyed about The Road - by painting a picture of a world that is so bleak, it shows what really is at stake, and what it can mean - which I think can be lost in the rush of entertainment, convenience, and relative ease that is modern life, in which our actions and efforts can seem so insignificant. (I think this is the draw of many movies and television shows, actually - to be able to vicariously experience the life of a character whose actions mean more than ours seem to mean, and who is capable of what we wish we were capable. The nice thing about The Road is that it plays to this need but also turns it on its head, as there is nothing glamorous about these fragile, vulnerable characters.)There is a contradiction inherent in these [bodhisattva] vows: we vow to do things that are impossible. This means our practice is endless and that we cannot completely fulfill the four vows. Our practice and study are like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, one spoonful at a time. It is certainly a stupid way of life, not a clever one. A clever person cannot be a bodhisattva. We are aiming at something eternal, infinite and absolute. No matter how hard we study, practice, and help other people, there is no end to it all. When we compare our achievement to something infinite, absolute, and eternal, it's like nothing.
Fire, embers - there was a while I thought I had lost mine, because of the lackluster nature of my practice and the rote, uninspired feeling of my daily life. But as those embers start to crackle and build again, I realize - the fact there was even one ember left, after the cold rain put out the fire that sustained the early days of my practice, is testament to the power of that fire. As Ian Astbury (who is interestingly Buddhist-leaning these days, as you can read about in articles like this and this) sings, "Cinder ash becomes a spark, watch your embers turn to flame..."