Effortless Effort

Much as I love reading the New Yorker for learning about new things, intellectual stimulation, and keeping up-to-date with aspects of the news, I was not expecting an article on natural wine to be prompting a blog post.

In it were references to a Gurdjieff community in California (which prompted me to send it on to a friend who had spent time there), and then, at the end, this quote:

“In Zen, they say that the last and the hardest step is to give up the struggle to awaken. Only when you let go of it can you make it—although you don’t want to anymore. It’s a paradox.”

I have not heard that as an exact expression, but it does encapsulate something that has become clearer to me over the years. Norman’s post from yesterday points to this, and  Zenju beautifully summarised a similar notion in one of her books: “It’s not about continuing struggle in order to create a struggle-free life.”

I have material gathered for a talk I would like to give – not the one I will be giving soon – about this, the interplay of effort and non-effort. Yes, as we discussed in my classes on the Bodhisattva Vows, we vow to end desires, but we do need the desire to do that in the first place.

So how to approach this paradox? Or indeed any paradox?

In my years of teaching, I have developed a repertoire of lines that I will trot out when the occasion suits, and I have been known to say that in zen, we eat paradoxes for breakfast. There are a few posts that I came across (searching to see if I had used the above line on here), that illustrate the approach – from Suzuki Roshi, Shohaku Okumura, and Sekkei Harada. Things that we think are different are, on a different level, not.

As so often, Shohaku throws light on this in a most helpful way. This passage from Living By Vow made it very clear to me:

‘The title of this poem, “Sandokai,” is composed of three characters. The first, san (cen in Chinese) means “difference,” “diversity,” “variety.” In this poem it is used as a synonym for ji, which indicates the concrete, phenomenal aspect of our life. The second chararacter, do (tong in Chinese), means “sameness,” “equality,” “commonality.” Here it is used as a synonym of ri, the absolute or ultimate reality of emptiness beyond discrimination. Kai (qi in Chinese) means “promise,” “agreement,” or “tally.” In ancient times when merchants made a contract, they wrote it on a tally (a wooden board), which they then broke into halves. When they actually exchanged goods, they put the two halves of the tally together to confirm th agreement. San-do-kai refers to both aspects of our lives: the concrete, comprised of many specific situations, ideas,  evaluations, and things; and the absolute, based on universality, emptiness, and nondiscrimination. These are like the halves of a tally. These aspects work together as one seamless reality. Hence, “Sandokai” can be translated as the “Merging of Difference and Unity.”‘

At Zen Center we translate Sandokai these days as ‘Harmony of Difference and Equality,’ and as I often say, the different translations can help triangulate a picture for us. The way I see this now, the tally only serves its function when both halves meet. The two parts may seem different to our ordinary eyes, when in reality they are part and parcel. Perhaps, if we let go of the struggle to try to understand how this works, then we will get to experience it in our practice, and in our lives.

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