I don't really not believe in attaining enlightenment, do I? Have I convinced myself so well that there's no goal or attainment in my practice that I just proceed blindly just because sitting is what I'm supposed to do?
I just started reading John Daido Loori's The Eight Gates of Zen. It's an interesting read, but a certain passage from his chapter concerning the ten stages of practice really opened my eyes to what was going on.
He uses the Ten Ox Herding Pictures as indicators of the stages of practice, which is more or less what they were intended for. If you're unfamiliar with them here's some wiki info but Jack Daw did a good job summarizing what they mean. It's basically a metaphor using the ox as our true nature and the process of searching for it, finding it, taming it, and letting it go.
But anyway, I get to the part where he talks about the second stage of practice:
During the early phases of practice, many people are seduced by the exotic trappings of the monastic setting - the robes, incense, sounds of bells, feeling of stillness and awe. This novelty and intensity mark a honeymoon period of practice...
In the second stage, the student develops great faith, great doubt, and great determination, the three pillars of sound practice... The grasp of the teachings tends to be very intellectual at this point and the whole thrust of practice has to do with taking that intellectual understanding and making it very personal and intimate.He goes on to use the image of the second picture, that of finding tracks or traces of the ox, to describe how seeing traces, we intellectually perceive the object of our search.
What was most eye opening was the three pillars of sound practice. Until I'd read that I didn't really see what was going on. I had intellectualized the concept of "no goal" to the point of convincing myself the ox didn't really exist. How this happened, I don't know. I hadn't realized I had such faith in what I had learned until doubt showed up, and furthermore hadn't realized I had doubt until the above passage inspired a determination to find out for myself whether or not I believed what I did.
Looking back, there were some signs. My enthusiasm for my practice hadn't waned, but something was stagnant, I didn't feel I was going anywhere. Intellectually I knew this was okay, but deep down something still felt absent. I sat because I felt that was what I was supposed to do, this period was a phase that I was only going to get through if I persevered.
Also, my practice itself came into question. I'd never counted my breaths, it was just too hard. I couldn't tell what constituted a thought worthy of starting over or not and my breaths were so long that I had to hold that number for a while to keep thoughts from sneaking in between. So Dogen's instruction to avoid such practices were somewhat of a relief. It was far easier to watch the thoughts come and go than to create the thought of counting and holding that track. It seemed to go against the purpose of practice.
But I was starting to doubt that decision as my practice seemed to be more full of thoughts than not. I was struggling to keep myself in the present. Maybe I had skipped a step in sharpening my focus.
I had been sitting longer at home, but it didn't seem to matter. Yesterday, sitting at the Zen Center, the second session seemed different though. Thoughts were still there, but there wasn't as much white noise in the background. This morning, armed with whatever sprouted in my brain from that passage, my sitting at home was similar. It felt like it used to as I got about twenty minutes in.
The rest of the section on the second stage discusses how this stage is where the student starts to take the teachings and experiences out of the head and into life, into actualizing the teachings. I see this going on with me, but a lot of it still does exist in my mind. Accidentally I have moments of awareness off the cushion that have a different feeling to them, not good or bad or special just different. It's almost like the planets of my physical action and my mental action align and I objectively witness an eclipse. But the action of noticing it, scares it away.
I feel I find myself at the first base camp of my mountain climb of practice. The walk here has had its difficulties but the view of the mountain has been nice. At this distance, I see the reality of the climb ahead of me, how serious it is. I also see the true need for a teacher, a guide who has climbed this mountain before. My faith was the romantic idea of how wonderful it will be to climb, but now doubt has caused me to rethink it, "Is it worth it? Is it really all that they say it is?" Determination has made its appearance and I'm ready. I've come this far already, I can't just turn around and forget all that I've seen.
So onward I go.