I've had an opportunity to reflect a bit on my own engaged practice and Global Day of Service activities. In the course of doing so, as we enter the New Year, I started rereading Uchiyama's Opening the Hand of Thought - this is my third time through, and it is like rediscovering an old and new friend at the same time. Reading the book has helped frame my thoughts, and I thought I'd share my observations with you.
One of the objectives we had as a group in designing the Global Day of Service was the hope and expectation that periodic commitments of service to others and/or in the community would gradually blend seamlessly into practice - i.e., that the boundary between the two-week service periods and the "rest of the year" would melt. I've certainly had to commit myself to periods of service to others, often "holding my nose" in the process. Giving an hour (much less a full day) to a food bank was a big deal for me, with my 'busy and important life.' In my practice of Buddhism, I have struggled with the relationship of my small (competitive) self to my large (universal) self.... and still do. The boundaries between self and other seem to be natural terrain features of our personalities.... but so are the seeds of universal, or original self. For me, these seeds lay (very) dormant for a long time.
Uchiyama has helped me frame a couple of observations. As my Zen practice has progressed, I no longer look to my teacher as a "father" figure, or someone who is going to tell me what to do, or give me something to lean on. I have discovered instead the notion that teachers are all around us, and that we practice with "good friends" who help us along the way. We learn from one another, and as Uchiyama's student, Shohaku Okumura observed, Uchiyama
...said that he never faces his disciples: he faces the Buddha and walks in that direction as his own practice. And if I want to practice with him as his disciple, I should also face the Buddha and go in the same direction with my own feet.
Big revelation for me who always saw priests as authoritarian figures - taking responsibility for my own practice. The notion of a good friend sharing the path, its ups and downs, is exhilarating and scary... sometimes we go "off the grid" existentially. That's where groundlessness comes in. So far so good. I still fall into the trap of thinking my practice is better than so-and-so's practice, etc. So the ego still rears its ugly head, more than I care to admit.
Three years after taking the precepts, I am only beginning to understand the vow I have taken to save all sentient beings. It's one of these mission impossible type directives: we could never possibly save all beings. But Uchiyama helped me out with this too...
As Buddhists, this is our vow or life direction. We vow to save all sentient beings so that this self may become even more itself. This is the direction we continuously face.
So in our practice, there is a transformation in the direction we face, from facing the Buddha, to facing ourselves and others - all sentient beings. Well, I faced the Buddha because I needed something to focus on, before I realized there was nothing to face but ourselves.... soon the boundaries between ourselves and others dissolve (they were never there but our minds made it so)... and indeed in facing the Buddha we face all beings. In committing myself to service I am no longer serving others but taking care of life itself... of the universal life force, and that in turn is caring for myself. Service is no longer something I view as separate from my existence, or small self. It is a barometer of the extent to which I am living my vows. When I care for others I am caring for myself. The satisfaction and contentment I have gained from this journey far exceeds any pleasure I derived from a big salary, new car, or big house (and I have none of these any longer). I do however, take my place in the stream of life as it is. No more and no less. What a gift.
And I come back to Uchiyama:
Only when you thoroughly understand this will everything in the world settle as the self pervading all things. As Buddhists, this is our vow or life direction.
I don't pretend to even thoroughly understand just a little bit. But I have had a glance.