How can we live well in the modern world? Is it necessary to retreat to a monastery or can we continue our spiritual practice in the midst of our family lives and careers? This is a theme that Les Kaye, the Abbot of Kannon Do Zen Center in California’s tech hub Silicon Valley, explores in his teachings and in his most recent book, co-written with Teresa Bouza, called ‘A Sense of Something Greater’.
The vision of Zen practice taking shape in North America and throughout the world today is aimed at discovering authenticity in the heart of daily life, to respond creatively to distractions, not by becoming hermits but by staying in society and finding wise and workable solutions to age-old enigmas. Practice includes helping however we can, in whatever situation we find ourselves, without being concerned about image or attainment. We practice with others, not apart. Yet our motivation is the same as in the monks in those faraway times and places. They, and we, understand that career doesn’t mean anything if we’re not living from truth and that status means nothing at all.
Problems arise when we have only a surface understanding of the truth, when our seeing is clouded by delusion, or filtered and interpreted by other people’s opinions that reside in our heads. Zen practice can transform suffering—including the inevitable disappointments and grief—into enthusiasm for life. When we approach the world with a spiritual orientation, everything fits. Everything works together, and whatever we do is helpful. Zazen or sitting meditation is not a technique to become someone or something else. We practice to widen our perspective, to see who we are most deeply, what brings us here to this life and this place. We practice zazen simply to practice zazen, without a reason. There is nothing to attain.
Each of us is a transient, impermanent expression of something much greater than our everyday self. We live on the earth, yet our movements inherently reflect the Universal, the Absolute, the Holy. When we appreciate this point, we reside in the true spirit of “living in the world.” The purpose of Zen is to live without being attached to particular ideas or outcomes, or the innumerable material and emotional investments of everyday life. As our understanding grows, we naturally express our universal nature through our ordinary lives.
It can be helpful for some people to live as hermits or eccentrics, but there’s no need to do so. Finding our way in the midst of ordinary life is a profound practice. Even if we don’t live on the margins like the monk-hermits of old, we can express the same passion for understanding that they had. We each need to find our own way; for some its ordinary, for others its radical. We’re guided by what we feel and see of the true nature of things and engage completely in each thing we do. The stories of the elders tell us that it takes effort, passion, and commitment to develop the quality of nonattachment, “seeing—as Suzuki-roshi said so eloquently and ungrammatically—”things as it is” and actualizing our seeing throughout our lives.