White Wind Zen Community

A Community practising and teaching Dogen’s Zen since 1985

Dealing With the Demon

by Ven. Jinmyo Renge sensei

Dainen-ji, July 28, 2007

I'd like to begin with a folktale that Anzan Hoshin roshi sometimes tells:

Once upon a time a man went to the market place. There were many stalls displaying goods such as baskets, tea bowls, sandals, and so on but the man thought he saw something very strange. One merchant seemed to have an oni, a demon, sitting on his table. The man hurried over to take a closer look and saw that it was actually a demon.

The man asked the merchant, "What the...?"

The merchant said, "Oh, yes. It really is a demon, sir. Observe the horns, the fangs, the knotted muscles and grimacing face. He's very very strong and can cause a great deal of, er, mischief. However, his great energy can be put into constructive rather than destructive purposes, sir. All that one need do is to give him a schedule. Tell him when to go to sleep, when to get up, when to wash and have breakfast, when to work and what tasks to do and how long they should take, when to rest and so on. It's quite simple, really. You just have to make sure that you do this every day because situations always change."

The man asked, "And you're selling this demon."

The merchant said, "Ah, yes, sir. That is indeed the purpose of my setting up this humble shop after all, isn't it?"

So after some haggling the man purchased the demon from the merchant and led him to his home. At first his wife and children were appalled and frightened but they all soon became rather fond of the demon despite his hideous appearance and having him bathe a few times a day and rub sandalwood powder on his various armpits took care of the stench more or less. The demon took over all of the housework and so the man's wife was pleased. Soon, the demon was not only doing the gardening, but tutoring the children and the children loved him. In a few days the demon was running the man's weaving business. The family now all had time to play together and enjoy the day and go for picnics and whatnot.

The man began to have time to write poetry and spend time with friends playing Go and drinking sake. Unfortunately, most of his friends had to work so he had to mainly see them at night. One evening he went to an inn with his friends and had quite a nice meal and settled in for a night of Go and pleasant conversation. The moon was particularly beautiful that night and he and his friends wrote renka, a series of linked verses, about it. Flask after flask of sake came and went and the night began to lighten into dawn and the man began to think of a verse when a sudden realization struck him. "Oh, lads, you know I've completely forgotten about my old demon and setting him up for the day. What mischief the silly old thing might get into without its schedule."

So he pushed off from the table and began to make his way through the streets. The early morning air was sweet, but just a bit too sweet. Actually, it was sickly sweet. Over the roof tops he saw a great plume of smoke. The man broke into a run. As he came around a corner his house came into view. Or what was left of it. There was a bit of one wall left standing amidst the flames and ruins and atop the wall was perched the demon, grilling the man's wife and children on spits.

The moral of the story: Doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done is important.

The story features a demon, and at first we might assume that the devil symbolizes self-image. After all, self-image is the source of all the ways we become confused and create suffering for ourselves and others. But the demon does not represent self-image because self-image is not a "thing" or some kind of entity. While the effects of self-image can be demonic, the other characters in the story as just as much a portrayal of self-image as the demon - the man who bought the demon, the merchant who sold it to him and so on are all self-image.

No, it's a story about energy - how we use our energy. The whole bodymind is energy but there are limits to the amount of energy we have. And so we need to use it well. If we do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, then stuff gets done and we can do it well. If we don't do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, then things are left undone, or partially finished, or badly done and then have to be redone, often over and over again. Really, unless something is done thoroughly and completely, it is not only undone but often creates further complexity that has to be dealt with.

If we don't put energy to good use, it tends to fold down on itself. We fold down on ourselves and limit our capacity to be responsive to our lives. The more that we take care of things, the more responsive we are, the easier taking care of things and responding becomes. The more we internalize attention and mutter to ourselves about how hard it is, about how much we don't want to do this or that, the more we procrastinate, the more difficult it becomes.

It's not that different from staring at a dirty glass on a table, thinking "I should go wash that glass, but I don't feel like it. But I know I should take care of it." You can sit there thinking "I should go wash that glass", for as long as you like, but nothing will happen until you actually get up off the chair, pick up the glass and walk to the sink. Then something happens.

The same thing applies to practice. Talking to yourself about your practice is not the same thing as actually doing the practice. You can sit on the couch thinking "I should go sit" for hours, but until you stand up and put one foot in front of the other to walk to the zafu, nothing is happening.

Being able to tell the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing something is obviously very, very important and yet somehow this is often not clear for people. We can create the impression for ourselves that we are very busy, that everything requires so much effort, is so difficult, when really all we are doing is nattering to ourselves. If we put just a fraction of the energy we put into propagating states into simply doing what needs to be done, our lives would be very different.

The most important characteristic of a Zen student is follow-through. Disaster ensued for the man who bought the demon because he did not follow through. Much of the difficulty people experience in their lives is due to simply not following through.

And this is why the schedule of the monastery is so important. It is relentless and it insists that we follow through. Day after day, we do soji and samu and we sit and all of this is scheduled. It doesn't matter whether we "feel like" doing soji, whether we "feel like" doing samu, whether we "feel like" sitting. When it is time to do soji, we do it. When it is time to do samu, we do it. And when it is time to sit, we sit. When Eihei Dogen zenji established Eihei-ji, it was for the purpose of creating an environment in which monastics could engage in continuous intensive practice, both on the cushion and off the cushion. And this is also why the Roshi established Dainen-ji. For monastics, everything is scheduled: sitting, samu, food preparation, corresponding with students, practice interviews, daisan, dokusan, presenting workshops and Dharma Assemblies, transcription -- everything we do from the time we get up while it is still dark outside until we go to sleep -- all of these activities are scheduled. And the schedule continues seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, year in and year out.

The Roshi said in a recent teisho something to the effect that some people think that Zen is about "going with the flow and letting it all hang out. Which of course, creates an awful mess. In actuality, Zen is about cleaning up after all of the people who let it all hang out." And so before every sitting we wash the floors of the practice rooms, clean all of the zafu and zabuton, prepare incense bowls and candles, clean hallways and washrooms and ready the monastery for the arrival of the students who wish to participate in the discipline of Zen training. The word "discipline", Roshi reminds us, has the same root as "disciple" and so we say that "discipline" means "the willingness to learn". And one of the first things we need to learn is to follow through.

This is why all students who receive instruction through the monastery have a committed sitting schedule. Everyone in this room was once a preliminary student and will remember having been instructed to sit a minimum of once a week, on the same day and at the same time and you had to do this consistently for a period of perhaps six weeks before you could apply as a student. Why did it have to be on the same day each week? Because if you couldn't sit for 30 minutes on the same day each week, there would have been no way you would have followed through to come to the monastery once a week to attend sittings. Why did it have to be at the same time each week? Because if you couldn't be punctual about doing your sitting, you wouldn't be punctual about arriving at the monastery on time for sittings.

All associate students who wish to eventually apply as general students are required to sit every day for 30 minutes for a period of approximately three months before they can apply as a general student. Why? Because if you can't sit every day for a three-month period, you're not going to be able to sustain that schedule in the future. And for those who live in Ottawa, without that kind of follow-through you would not be able to attend at least two sittings at the monastery each week.

And as to practicing as a probationary formal student or formal student - as the Roshi has said many times, studying directly with a Teacher is not about forming a relationship based upon personal likes and dislikes. It is about practising the schedule. It is about following through.

Following through is something we need to learn because we so easily default to habitual patterns. And so every facet of our practice, including monastic training posts, is about learning to follow through.

Many years ago, I was assigned to the daily cleaning of an antique offering table which was used to display ikebana, or arrangements of flowers and branches that the Roshi had created. Three white stones of varying sizes lay next to the ikebana and these were arranged in a particular way. My job was to remove everything from the black lacquered table, dust it, and then put it all back in exactly as I'd found it. And I was also to top up the ikebana with water when needed and remove any dead leaves from it. Well, one evening during a seven-day O-sesshin, I was facing the wall in zazen. The round had just begun and the Roshi got up to announce dokusan for students. I heard his footsteps as he walked to the ikebana and though I couldn't see him I knew he was doing something with the arrangement. He then walked around the room to where I was sitting, paused, and then a shower of dead leaves fell on me. He said "When you let the ikebana wither, you let your life wither".

Everything that we do or don't do matters. It all has an effect. It affects us directly and it affects everyone around us.

Now, sometimes you will find that you just don't feel good and it's more difficult to do what you need to do. So, in that case you need to be practical. Not self-indulgent, but practical. We are big on self-indulgence. I'll give you a little example of this.

I am now 54 years old, and in my 54 years I've seen a lot of changes. One change that has been very noticeable to me is the attitude toward the common cold. It used to be that if we had a cold, we did all of the stuff that we normally did. We went to work or school, put in a full day and simply blew our noses a lot. A flu was something different. Having the flu basically meant that you were leaking from both ends. Then a strain of flu appeared which confused us all by mimicking the symptoms of the common cold and people began calling in sick more frequently. Then over time, if one came down with a simple head cold, that became justification for taking time off work. In more recent years we've taken this one step further with the popularization of the word "preventative". Now, at the slightest sniffle, many people will decide that they can't exert themselves because they have to stay home as a preventative measure, in case they get a cold. Or their cold gets worse.

Another area in which we can be very self-indulgent concerns sleep. People sometimes want to sleep 10 or twelve hours a day because they fear that if they don't they won't be in "prime condition".

I have something to say about all of this and it's very simple: You are never, ever, going to feel the way you did when you were sixteen, so stop thinking there is something wrong that you don't. Bodyminds are made of meat. The fact that you can see and hear and smell and taste and feel is astonishing, but nonetheless it's all made of meat and it often doesn't feel particularly good. That does not need to stop you from exerting yourself. It simply means that this is how things are and you need to do your best with how things are. You will never again feel as you did when you were sixteen. It doesn't matter how much sleep you get, how much bran you eat, how much you work out, how you wear your hair or where you spend your vacation. You will never feel like that again. If you sleep six hours a night, you'll want seven. If you sleep 8 hours a night, you'll want 10. If you sleep 10 hours a night, you'll want twelve.

I am not saying that you shouldn't take care of yourself if you are ill or are very tired. Far from it. No, what I am talking about is the difference between being practical and coddling oneself with feeling tones. When you coddle yourself, you curdle yourself.

So how do we deal with the demon? By not making deals with it. When it is time to get up out of bed, then get up out of bed. If you are going to go back to sleep, know that this is something you have made a considered decision about. Don't lie there, bartering with yourself. When it's time to sit zazen, sit zazen. Don't debate with yourself as to whether you feel like it or not. When it's time to do the dishes, do the dishes. Right now, open to reality. It's simple. Simplicity cuts through our entanglement in hope and fear and opens us to the richness of reality.

Have a good morning.