Two blogs that I follow have been going back and forth on the matter of something that Zen Master Seung Sahn referred to as "hard training." Hard training consists of long retreats with demanding schedules, periods of residential training with daily practice requirements, bringing formal practice and, informally, a conscious effort to practice in every moment of daily life.
He also warned students about "hero mind" (yeo hung shim).
Zen mind is clear mind, always clear mind. Clear mind means, everyday mind is Truth. Cold water is cold. Hot water is hot. Not special. So, somebody thinks, "I want to experience difficult practicing." Then O.K. But if they always keep difficult practicing, that is making something. If you make something, if you are attached to something, then that thing hinders you, and you cannot get complete freedom. Maybe you will get freedom from some things, but not perfectly complete freedom. Then what is perfectly complete? Don't hold "I," "my," "me." Then you see; then you hear -- everything is perfectly complete. Not special.
This, coming from a guy who did a famously severe, long solo retreat when he was a young monk.
How much is too much? What is extreme? Was the recent death that took place at a three-year intensive retreat in the U.S. an example of pushing practice to extremes? How do we know? Didn't Buddha push it to extremes before he found "the middle way?" What about the legend of Bodhidharma, sitting and facing a cave wall in Sorim for all those years? Or his student, allegedly cutting off his arm and handing it to Bodhidharma to prove his seriousness?
In a couple of recent posts, Nathan explored the notion of macho zen and examined the sexist dimension of this. Mumon of Notes in Samsara declined the gender critique and offered a contemporary rinzai view of bringing what I would call ardor to meeting every moment of our life completely. He had still more to say in a subsequent post. Worth quoting: "you can't say 'how much is right' without addressing areas from which motivation comes."
So what is "training" in Zen? What is training if "ordinary mind is the way?" There is no glib answer to this.
Where does the motivation come from? What are the ideas we hold about practice, and how much of them are other people's ideas about "how to practice" that we have swallowed? Sexist conditioning, for example, is a bunch of inherited ideas. A lot of our ideas about "what Buddhism means" also come from other people we decided were authoritative.
Zen Master Seung Sahn said that "hero mind" (or call it macho zen) is a kind of desire. Whether it is an image we are trying to live up to, or whether it's more about making a certain kind of impression on people around us, it is practice deferred: we are still playing the game. Why?
So if we address motivation honestly, "how hard is hard enough for practice" reduces to "why practice?"
I haven't tried particularly strenuous retreats myself. On our typical zen retreat schedule (of 3 to 90 days at a time), I haven't pushed especially "hard." I don't stay up all night doing extra sitting, don't do extra ascetic practices, don't fast -- things I've seen some other people do. On the other hand, I've tried to show up very consistently and single-mindedly for every moment of the retreat. Sleep time, sleep. Bowing time, do it. Sitting time, plunk. Service time, bow. Nothing heroic or special.
Outside of formal retreats, I have experimented with additional practices, or simply gone for periods of consistent extra formal practice (prostrations, chanting, and sitting). One time at Cambridge Zen Center, I joined Myo Ji Sunim in doing 1,000 prostrations over a period of three hours. Giving instructions, she said, "When I hit this stick, go down. I hit stick again, come up. If you are thinking, this is not possible. If you are not thinking, no problem." The warning was right on. Had I simply listened to that in a dharma talk, I would have laughed and nodded as if I understood something. Tasting the experience and seeing how true that warning was, on the other hand, was intimate and instructive -- helpful for this guy, but not special or virtuous. Virtuous? Shit. Doing 1,000 prostrations is stupid. But this kind of stupidity might help a person see something useful.
So try a little hard training. Push a little. As Bobby has said more than once, go to your limit and then do a little more. See what happens. But if you're congratulating yourself about any of it, little has changed: there is still a persistent "I" that wants something from practicing.
And the "I" and the wanting are the problem. And of course it leads to injury and tragedy. Which brings us back to practice.
[Image: Go drink tea.]