Buddhanature Dogen Zenji Rinzai Buddhadharma Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat

Trust Practice, Practice Trust

When we truly give ourselves over to practice, explains Roko Sherry Chayat, we let go of our dependence on outcomes and begin to trust just being what we are, buddhanature, revealed right here, right now, in this very body and place.

By Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

When we truly give ourselves over to practice, explains Roko Sherry Chayat, we let go of our dependence on outcomes and begin to trust just being what we are, buddhanature, revealed right here, right now, in this very body and place.

The genius of what the Buddha taught is that waking up does not depend upon his or anyone else’s realization. It does not rely upon a belief system, dogma, or doctrine. He encouraged us to find out for ourselves about the true nature of reality, which is dependent upon nothing whatsoever.

Master Rinzai says, “If your faith is insufficient, you will keep on wandering in confusion. No matter what the circumstances, you will be controlled and led around by others. You will not find freedom. …Because you don’t have enough confidence in yourselves, you search outwardly.”

Typically we think of self-confidence as affirming and asserting the ego. Is this what Master Rinzai means? Who is the self of this self-confidence? Certainly it’s not that separate self in which we do believe, much to our discredit—that concocted separate self that leads us to yearn after wholeness, which results in our being led around by others and to our searching outwardly. The only way we can have true self-confidence is to drop believing in something or someone, especially the fiction of a separate self. We must recognize the ways in which we impede our buddhanature, the ways in which we put all our energy into systems that support the fiction of an ego-entity, or a “separated individuality,” as the Diamond Sutra puts it. We must simply give our entire being over to buddhanature.

There are so many books being written about the Buddha way these days, and of course we can be inspired by something that resonates with our own intuitive understanding. But the compulsion to own every Buddhist title is no different from any other addiction, and is based on a deep lack of confidence. What can we read in someone else’s writings that can really free us? Can we be freed by another’s experience? What about the wind? The wind is unbound. No binding, right? No slipcase, no volume, no page number. The wind is always coming and going, but we are too busy rushing around searching for it to experience it! Searching outwardly, lacking self-confidence—this is a lack of faith, or trust.

The word faith, like the word belief, has troublesome connotations. What does it imply? All belief systems demand faith in someone, or something. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha warns about holding onto anything whatsoever, saying, “This Dharma is like a raft. The Buddha teaching must be relinquished. How much more so misteaching!” and, also, “In case anyone says that the Tathagata realized Supreme Enlightenment, I tell you truly, Subhuti, that there is no formula by which Buddha realized it. The basis of the Tathagata’s realization of Supreme Enlightenment is wholly beyond; it is neither real nor unreal. Therefore I say that the whole realm of formulations is not really such; it is just called realm of formulations.”

How do we realize the great faith that is beyond that realm of formulations? Perhaps the word trust carries less of the connotative quandary. Trust in what? That very question is the essence of trust. Trust in what? This. What is this? As long as we answer with a question, we’re OK.

Answers shut us down; they shut down our inquiring spirit. In order to get through our complicated, demanding, challenging lives, we feel we need to find solutions to our problems; we’ve been taught that problems must be solved. So this practice, from the beginning, is going counter to everything we’ve been trained to do. We can’t just sit down and ignore this fact. We have to see the brainwashing for what it is. Whether we are working on a koan or following our breath or just listening or just sitting, we cannot do it unless we realize the extent to which we have been programmed to search for the answer outside ourselves. When we do see this, we can put energy into the slow, relentless process of letting go, of deconstructing, of deconditioning.

Then we can realize that confidence in ourselves means confidence in the breeze, confidence in the sunlight, in the snowflakes, in the birds, in the mosquitoes—confidence in the fact that we are not apart from anything; we are not alien. We are not a separated individuality. We are the mosquito; we are the breeze. To have confidence in ourselves is to have confidence in this. This is trust. No matter what we can possibly do in this short and fleeting life, without trust we are stuck being the traffic cop, trying to make everything go our way, according to our one-sided and self-deluded views.

To have confidence in ourselves requires that we fully testify to what Master Hakuin says in The Song of Zazen: “Sentient beings are primarily all buddhas.” Fundamentally, each one of us is a buddha! Have faith in THIS.

Recently at the Zen Center of Syracuse we had a purification empowerment given by a wonderful Tibetan lama in the Gelugpa tradition, Lopsang Jinpa Rinpoche. The ceremony began with the dropping away of the bundle of karmic conditioning and negativity we firmly believe in—what we ordinarily mean by the self. Then we could enter into what we call emptiness, mu, nothing whatsoever, no trace, the sound of one hand, This. But calling it anything, of course, is adding something. So we dropped body, dropped mind, and then, step by step, took refuge in Buddha, dharma, sangha. We purified our hearts through confession of all our ancient, twisted karma—even the most minutely subtle, accrued karmic stickiness. Looking unflinchingly at the ways in which we perpetuate our greed, our anger, and our delusion, and with deep, deep, strong intention, we purified it all.

This entry into the empowerment ceremony was, of course, exactly what we do in our own Zen tradition, if we are truly engaging in the chanting we do at morning service. A misunderstanding of such a ceremony, and indeed of our own morning service, is that it is something that happens to us, that we just sit there and recite sutras and thus we become better human beings. Well, maybe so! Certainly doing that even in the most passive manner is more helpful than many things we might be doing during that hour! But to really participate in the transformation that is being offered requires our great effort.

Again, there is the chance for misunderstanding when we hear the word effort. What is meant by “great effort”, or “great determination”? It means no gaining idea—no dependence upon outcome—just purely throwing ourselves away and entering into the vibrant experience of chanting and silence. As Rinpoche said, and as our wonderful Zen teachers have told us over and over throughout the centuries, if you strive for something, if you try to become Buddha, you push that unformulated realm away. Just effort. Just deep motivation for the happiness of all beings. Just liberative intention.

There are many, many ways to practice. We have a tendency to think that one way, one language, one culture, or one particular set of instructions is better than the others. I have been training in Rinzai Zen for many years, and the more I sit, the more deeply grateful I am for my own tradition, and simultaneously, for all manifestations of Buddha’s teachings throughout space and time. To invite lamas to give an empowerment ceremony in our zendo does not mean that we find our Rinzai Zen way insufficient in any way—quite the opposite. To enter into the Buddha’s teachings fully and directly as they come to us, with gratitude, is to drop the compulsion to categorize that comes from suspicious mind: the anxiety-burdened, opinion-encrusted mind that refuses to trust in what the present moment brings, just as it is.

There’s an important distinction between suspicious mind and great doubt. Suspicious mind is the product of an unexamined assumption that everything can be understood and explained if we just find the right diagrams, the correct formulae, and keep narrowing things down to the most minute parts of quarks. It’s what we’ve inherited from the Age of Reason, also called the Age of Enlightenment, which of course brought miraculous scientific breakthroughs, but also, in its abhorrence of anything it deemed superstitious, a kind of spiritual breakdown. Now we’re living in the Age of Post-Enlightenment, to play on the term Post-Modernism. Scientists have found that the further they go, the more they don’t know; physics has arrived at the doorstep of great doubt, the heart of Buddha’s teachings: no realm of formulations.

Suspicious mind is locked-up mind; dogmatic mind is also captive mind. So many problems occur because we have some limited view of how things should be, of what we need, of what practice is. But this looking for what we need keeps us from receiving what is always being given.

When we offer ourselves, when we truly give ourselves to our practice, we experience empowerment, simultaneously of ourselves and all beings. And we realize that this is just the beginning, the entryway to real daily practice, which is to be awake to every moment of our precious lives. At every moment, as we know, we are offered the opportunity to be lazy, to fall into old habits, to be held hostage by the illusion of a separate self with all its attendant requirements and defense systems. It takes a lot of work, doesn’t it? There’s no scenic overlook.

Faith is generated out of assiduous practice. Practice flows naturally from faith. Trust practice; practice trust. It is not a matter of following one or another school of Zen or Vajrayana or Theravada—it’s just being what we are, this buddhanature, revealing right here, right now, in this very body, this very place.

Dogen Zenji, in one of my favorite passages from the Shobogenzo, “Life-Death” (translated by my teacher, Eido T. Shimano Roshi), said: “Free body-mind and abandon it. Throw yourself into the house of the Buddha. Let him initiate you and simply follow him effortlessly, without anxiety. Then, you can be free from samsara and become a Buddha.”

Throw yourself into the house of the Buddha! Whenever something comes up in your life—some circumstance that brings inner cries of “I can’t! I’m afraid! I don’t know what to do!”—immediately throw yourself into the house of the Buddha. This is effortless effort. “Let him initiate you.” Where is this initiation coming from? Buddha is not somewhere else outside the difficult circumstance. Right here, in the midst of samsara, is Buddha, initiating us all. “Simply follow him effortlessly, without anxiety. Then, you can be free from samsara and become a Buddha.” This is empowerment! Then you are no longer enslaved by what you thought reality was. Then you understand Hakuin’s “Sentient beings are primarily all buddhas,” are all beings, all phenomena, right here, right now! You simply are a true buddha.

Next Dogen asks, “Can anyone resist doing so?” And you may be thinking, “Yeah, me,” because you are so well trained in the suspicious mind of the Age of Reason! So then he tells us, there is a very easy way to become a buddha:

      Refrain from all evil.


      Don’t cling to samsara.


      Have deep compassion for all beings.


      Show a reverential heart toward elders.


      Be kind to the young.


      Don’t dislike the myriad things.


      Keep your mind free of desire, judgment, and anxiety.


      Then, you will be called a Buddha.


    Seek no more.


Quotations from Rinzai are from The Book of Rinzai: The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Rinzai, by Eido T. Shimano Roshi (The Zen Studies Society, 2005). Selections from the Diamond Sutra are from Three Sutras for Chanting and Recitation (The Zen Studies Society, 2001). The quotation from Dogen is from “Life-Death,” in Shobogenzo, translated from the Japanese and annotated by Eido T. Shimano Roshi and Charles Vacher (Encre Marine, 1999).

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat is the Abbot of the Zen Studies Society.