What are the benefits of practice?

Here we begin a series of posts by sangha members; What are the benefits of practice and how do you know or measure what these are?

How do you measure whether this practice is beneficial for you? by Woo Young Yang

Measurements are important. Some scientists even suggest that, at least in science, if something is not measured it is as good as non-existent. Likewise, in any endeavour, measuring the progress enables one to re-assess the efficacy and the direction of one’s efforts in trying to achieve the goal. However, in a tradition riddled with paradoxes, herein lies yet another one: although Buddhism and Zen emphasise the importance of non-attachment and not clinging, measuring the benefit of the Zen practice inevitably creates another form of attachment and clinging. i.e. “I want to get benefits from Zen.”

Just like many other people, it was my garden-variety suffering that motivated me to follow the path of Zen. My primary goal therefore has been achieving some degree of peace and calm. The secondary goal has been to accomplish a workable level of competence in zazen, so that it can be utilized to achieve the primary goal. Naturally, achievement of these goals is how benefits are measured in my practice. Have I succeeded? On some level, yes – I can now sit for up to an hour without too much pain. On good days, I can even maintain focus on my breathing without stray thoughts or just sit in peace for ‘reasonable’ stretches of time during zazen. However, I am not sure if this means that I have succeeded in achieving my primary goal, too.

After some time of relative peace and calm, I have recently been under quite a lot of stress. As the stress level mounted, I found that it became more and more difficult to just sit. Even when I did manage to eventually put my arse on the cushion, the quality of zazen became chaotic and not at all peaceful. Concentration became more and more difficult. Precisely in times like this, my sense of achievement regarding the primary and secondary goals raises its head and whispers, “Your zazen is not working any more! You have lost it! You are not doing it properly!” In ‘measurement’ terms, the score takes a nosedive.

In a conventional sense, there is no point in taking measurements if they are not to be used for some decision making, such as “no problems detected – stay the course” or “problems detected – remedial actions advised.” Continuing in the above scenario, I therefore engaged accordingly in a series of remedial actions: “Concentrate harder on breathing”, or “Calm down – stay away from the three poisons”, or “Focus on the present and not on your mental commentary”, or even a very enlightened “Stop being silly – you already know that all these are empty!” Predictably, these actions only further exacerbate the situation, as the commentaries in the form of remedial actions give rise to further commentaries on the initial remedial actions in the name of ‘feedback’. The chain reaction of commentaries perpetuates, and the interventions that were originally intended to reduce the commentaries in fact result in producing even more. Resentment keeps building up. Now I am not only upset at the everyday life stressful situations, but also at the problems in the so-called ‘spiritual endeavour’. “I try so hard, but the measurement score keeps dropping! I am so disappointed!” The thin facade of calm and peace to which I have been clinging is shattered, and I am back where I started with my suffering, and perhaps even more suffering than when I started.

Could it be that the previous peace and calm in daily life that I thought came from my Zen practice in fact had nothing to do with my ‘spirituality’, but they were due to an alignment of fortunate conditions and coincidences? However, I feel that drawing a simple binary conclusion in this careless manner defeats the objective here. I am not interested in condemning Zen as a useless practice based on a sloppy retrospective analysis, or instead condemning myself for ‘not doing it properly’ for some post hoc justification of Zen. I don’t think I practise to validate Zen or to punish myself. An alternative analysis of the situation would be to consider whether the objectives of measurements were chosen incorrectly. Be that as it may, that conjecture does not quite feel right either. After all, didn’t Shakamuni Buddha himself say in his Four Noble Truths that the purpose of this practice is to relieve suffering and find peace? If then… what… what???

As I started with a paradox, I think it will be fitting to finish with some more paradoxes. A recommendation for the practice that I remember from a Dharma talk some time ago is to “strive strive-less-ly.” It has been a koan for me for some time. Needless to say, I am still working on it. These days I think I might work on it for my entire life! As a goal-and-result-orientated person, this prospect of working on something for my entire life might have upset me before. “I want this achievement in that period of time! Better still, I want it NOW! I need to stick to the plan! Move on to the next goal!” On bad days, the prospect still upsets me! However, a wise friend of mine who is a devoted amateur violinist once told me, “I know I will never become a world class violinist, but that means there will always be room for improvement for me. Isn’t that exciting?”

To conclude: finally I don’t know how I measure whether this practice is beneficial to me. It is difficult for me anyway as a relative novice to say how I measure such things, as my practice and understanding of Zen is constantly going through changes all the time for me to develop reliable ‘criteria’ as such. Therefore, while it might be frustrating for the scientists among the Sangha members to hear this, at this stage I can only be fairly vague and say, “I just sort of look at it… and try different things. I don’t know. I gave up measuring. I don’t go anywhere with my practice… but that does not mean that I am not trying either.” It certainly shocks me that I of all people am saying these things now. Alternatively, it always comes back to the very basics: let go, and be aware, with bare attention, with nothing added on top – not even the measurements. Finally, one last paradox: in a manner of speaking, I measure the benefit of this practice by how regularly I manage to sit in zazen, regardless of whether they are ‘good zazens or bad zazens’, regardless of whether I necessarily feel like sitting or not, and even regardless of what my sense of wellbeing is in general. (Paradoxically, sometimes it helps. Obviously, sometimes it does not.) Although zazen initially featured as a secondary goal and a tool, now the benefit of my practice is measured not by the result that the tool yields but rather just how often I use the tool. On second thoughts, Master Dogen might approve of this method of measurement.

Oh, I really don’t know. The paradoxes never seem to end in Zen.