Sunday, January 27, 2013

Spiritual diet

Photo courtesy of flickr user: Martin Cathrae.
Last night my wife and I were talking about diets and cultivating healthier eating habits. Most of the time weight loss strategies fail because people treat their new diet like quick fixes rather than as a healthy way to eat and live. A "diet" for most people is temporary, but there's an entirely different way of understanding the word. In another sense, "diet" simply means what an organism eats. For instance, the diet of a lizard or frog is insects. A monkey doesn't eat bananas for a while until it achieves its desired weight or health level; it eats bananas. Period.

In this way, a true diet, I feel, is a new and healthy way for us to eat: smaller portion sizes, more fruits and vegetables, fewer sweets, plenty of water, etc. As my wife pointed out, that's the way we should be eating all of the time. 

But in our goal-oriented culture, a diet is all too often simply treated as a means to an ends--something we do to lose weight, and once we've accomplished our goal, we abandon it.

The end result, of course, is that eventually we put all of the weight back on because we have failed to enact lasting change. We never transformed our lives.

The same applies to meditation and spiritual practice. Just as patients only go to the doctor when something is wrong, most people only become interested in the spiritual path when something is wrong in their lives.

People come to Zen and meditation for a variety of reasons--to help concentrating, stop worrying, get over a  breakup or divorce. Basically because they are unhappy or have confronted the Buddha's First Noble Truth--life is dissatisfying (dukkha).

But the problem, as you can anticipate, is that most people will quit practicing because eventually their problems or suffering diminishes.

If we treat meditation and spiritual practice--essentially the path to awakening--as a temporary fix, a spiritual diet to be abandoned when our lives sort themselves out, then we have missed the mark entirely.

Dogen Zenji said that practice is enlightenment. I think that he was addressing this tendency--the common human impulse to treat spirituality as a means to an ends. So he short-circuited the whole process by teaching that practice is enlightenment.

Just as a monkey east bananas--not to lose weight, but because that's what a monkey eats--we practice meditation, koans, mindfulness, huatous, not to reach enlightenment, but because that's what Buddhas do.

That's our spiritual diet, our veggies, so to speak--a full-time, lasting commitment to reach our greatest potential as fully awakened, compassionate, and wise beings. In short, to become the Buddhas that we truly are.

As Zen Master Chinul, the great Korean founder of modern Seon (Zen), taught, true spiritual practice begins with enlightenment. What follows is a rich and challenging lifetime of cultivation--in the immortal words of Zen Master Seung Sahn, moment after moment after moment. 

Thank you Jackie for your teaching. Many bows.

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