Friday. 5.50 am. Alarm. A gigantic struggle in bed just to get up. A cup of tea, cooled rapidly with lots of cold milk. A banana. Tooth brush and shave. Cold air. A sluggish uphill bike ride for 30 minutes. A shower in the lab building. Change of clothes. 7 am. Darkness in the zendo before sunrise. Dong-Katsu-Dong of the bell. Verse of Atonement. Then – one hour of silence.
Many Sangha members talk about the ‘amazing and strong energy’ that comes from sitting together. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really feel this mysterious ‘energy’ as such. What I do notice – confirmed once again during the Rohatsu – is that sitting together makes sitting easier. Truly, this must be the very reason why we take refuge in the Sangha, one that I am increasingly grateful for. As long as I go over the initial hurdle of getting to the zendo in time, there is the promise that other people will sit with/for me for one hour. The rest is pretty much automatic, as I will be far too ashamed to walk away from the zafu mid-sitting, and I will be too far away from my warm bed to fall back asleep. Of course, there is the added advantage that, once I sit, I actually really like it.
However, despite the peace, happiness and serenity that zazen gives me, daily sitting does not always happen easily. The fact that in any given week it usually takes me two failures (Wednesdays and Thursdays) before I finally make it to the morning zendo on Fridays is ample evidence. Some weeks I fail to make it at all. In order to combat this difficulty with torpor, especially on the non-zendo days, I have some other ‘external willpower generators’. There are mobile phone apps: one reminds me that when it is time for me to sit, and even dispenses little congratulatory messages like ‘well done, keep it up!’ when I log the completed sessions. Another tells me whether I am on track for daily zazen, and the duration of each session. This one also dispenses ‘stars’ for performing my goals consistently everyday. These make me feel like I am a primary school child again, gleeful for getting ‘well done’ stamps from teachers. While such approval-seeking behaviour (from a machine, no less!) undoubtedly sounds silly, a Korean proverb suggests, “Small compliments can make even the largest of whales dance.” A third app on my laptop in the office reminds me to have a break and ‘breathe’ for 5 minutes every hour. I don’t quite understand how it works, but having an altar to offer incense to and light candles on also really helps and works surprisingly well. And of course, there is the morning zen – good for at least once per week! Last but not least, we now have Juta’s WhatsApp virtual zendo as well.
If this all sounds like conditioning oneself, that’s because it is. One of the apps mentioned above is in fact categorised as a ‘habit tracker’. What is habit if not conditioning? But then again, isn’t our practice geared towards becoming free from all conditioning??
Nevertheless, HyunGak, one of Master SeungSahn’s Dharma successors, once said, “Buddhism works by repetitive training.” Tenshin Roshi is quoted to have said, “To cook potatoes, keep the water boiling constantly instead of stopping and starting.” Finally, our very own Dr Joe asserts that, for him, “the day can become s—ty pretty f—ing quickly without morning zazen.” I am also aware that certain habits and conditioning help me brush my teeth, drive my car, do my job, and even put my bottom on the cushion. (Whether conditioning is involved during the actual zazen is more debatable, but it is not a debate that I am interested in.)
In my teenage years, before a violin tutorial, I once asked my music teacher if he had a nail clipper. I fully expected him to say no. Surely everyone clips her fingernails in the privacy of her home! While I cannot remember clearly, perhaps I had even been nefariously anticipating that I would use my long fingernails as an excuse to skip playing violin altogether that day. To my surprise, however, the teacher produced a nail clipper from his desk drawer and handed it over to me. He added with a cheerful smile, “Anything to keep you going, Woo!”
Despite our teachings and vows of putting an end to all desires, acceptance and letting go, I have long made my peace with the many paradoxes in our tradition, including ‘striving without striving’ or, in this case, ‘getting conditioned so that we can be free in all conditioning’. Indeed, anything to keep you going. Anything.