practicing through the dryness

Listen to this spiritual talk. You may download, but please do not repost.


The late leader of the Montreal Zen Center, Albert Low (who, by the way, declined to use the honorific “Roshi”), published a book in 2013 titled, What More Do You Want? Zen Questions, Zen Answers. This book is quite a rich read; in it, the author accepts questions from his students and presents his written answers to those questions. I’d like to read one of these question-and-answer entries, which strikes me as particularly pertinent tonight, the week before next weekend’s sesshin at Mercy Center.

Some of you may relate to this question, as well. The question reads: “I must confess I sometimes find the practice very boring.” Here is Albert Low’s answer:

“St. John of the Cross talks about those who, ‘when they get a glimpse of this concrete and perfect life of the spirit – which manifests itself in the complete absence of all sweetness in aridity, distaste and in the many trials that are the true spiritual cross – they flee from it as if from death.’ You can say that practice is boring, but that already is a negative judgment; you can also look upon it as a stay in the desert of the soul. We rely very heavily on imagination and illusion to maintain a sense of interest in life and peace in ourselves. But these, like weeds, stifle the growth of what has been called the Golden Flower. When one lets the weeds die and the land lay [sic] fallow for a while it all seems to be dry and lifeless. But, out of this very dryness, life can flourish anew – not this time in an artificial way but in a vital, real way.”

By “a stay in the desert of the soul,” I think he means a proof against dying in the dark night of the soul. By “the Golden Flower,” I think he means what the Great Vows call “the way of enlightenment.” This is the absolute unity – the communion with all that is – that we seek when we undertake Zen practice, or indeed any spiritual practice. True Nature. Essential Nature. Buddha Nature. Tao. God.

So, in this teaching, Albert Low is encouraging his students – and himself, I imagine – to keep on doing zazen practice, even when it seems dry and lifeless. This happens to us all from time to time. We sit on our cushions or in our chairs, and we wonder what we’re doing there and why we’re doing it, whatever “it” is. It’s like playing scales on a musical instrument: the notes are there, but they don’t seem to be making any music. Scales are inherently uninteresting; they’re boring. Yuck!!

Well, to hold out for an answer to why we’re doing it is to defy the truth of our being. It’s like stamping our feet and yelling to high heaven, “Who am I? What is Life? Give me the answer or I’ll just quit this stupid practice!” And then we snort and scowl and go faithfully back to our cushions or our chairs. And we sit. And the teacher kindly assures us that “out of this very dryness, life can flourish anew.”

Maybe we get to go on retreat to sit with others and refresh ourselves in our practice. Maybe we have a sitting group that helps us stick with it. Maybe we’re just too stubborn to quit, to give up. Whatever we have, we just put aside our negative judgment (that practice is boring) and just keep on keeping on. As we’re doing right now. As I trust we’ll continue to do.

Thank you for your commitment.