By Alex Paul
Not far from where I live is a highway wayside park with a beautiful forest.
On a Spring day I visited the park to take some photographs, hoping to return home with a memory card full of great shots. I wandered through the park, sometimes climbing and crawling to get different views of what I was shooting. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I was covered in poison ivy, and by that point I’d already been scratching parts of my feet and legs, spreading the volatile oil to my hands.
By the next morning, I was covered in itching rashes and blisters. I knew that if I scratched them, it’d get worse. I was able to keep myself from scratching pretty well, but I needed to put up with the constant signals that my body was sending me. The desire to scratch was persistent.
It’s easy to fall into thinking that our Buddhist practice only takes place on the cushion, and not so much the rest of our lives.
We might even know that we need to transform our whole lives, but it still seems like the most important aspect of practice is sitting meditation. A historical Soto Zen Buddhist named Gikai once said: “Dignified manner is the Buddha Dharma; decorum is the essential teaching.” I was jarred when I first read this, and I didn’t understand. How could Buddhist practice be reduced to what sounded like simply “acting nice” or “sitting up straight?”
Once I was covered in poison ivy, I learned what Gikai meant.
We were all born with a body. When we encounter the Dharma and begin to practice it, we tend to think that it’s something we do only with our minds. Eventually we realize that we need to practice with our bodies as well, if we are truly going to transform our lives. We also learn that there is no end to practice. So as human beings practicing the Dharma, if we are committed to the path then we need to take care of both our minds and our bodies at all times. But how do we practice with our bodies?
Being covered in poison ivy, I became very aware of my body and every action I took. If my attention wandered, I would scratch. I needed to be careful in the ways that I stood, sat, walked and laid. Sometimes my clothes or bed sheets would rub against the rashes and blisters. This showed me how important it is how we use our bodies. Our posture is directly related to our state of mind. Chances are that if I’m taking an odd posture, my mind will be unclear. If I’m tapping my foot or playing with my hands, I’m probably distracting myself.
This is why training in forms, such as that done in monasteries, can be so helpful. With all of the rules and procedures, you can’t help revealing yourself to yourself and to others. Once you learned the prescribed ways of being, you begin to notice more easily when you are distracted from or resistant to the present moment. Your bowing might be rushed or your chanting might be weak. It’s tough seeing yourself in these ways, but these are moments when you can deepen your practice by returning to your body and using it.
It’s not as though I suddenly inherited my body once I experienced such itchiness. This body has always been here, and it will continue to be here until I die. This means that it is a never ending opportunity to practice.
Shunryu Suzuki often talked of zazen as an expression of our true nature, our Buddha nature, and he was also fond of saying that practice never ends. So no matter what I’m doing, I have a chance to express our true nature. I can stand and sit and lay firmly, without wavering of my body or mind. Of course both my body and mind do waver, but it is the coming back that is our practice.
This expression has been a way to expand my practice off of the cushion and into all areas of my life. Realizing this opened up my entire life to be practice, anywhere or anytime. Whenever I get lost in delusion, that is usually reflected in my body. Whenever I lose connection with my body, I get lost in delusion. I can practice this way when going to the bathroom, talking to another person or cooking a meal—the chances will never end.
The poison ivy on me eventually faded and healed. It was irritating and painful at times, but it left behind a lesson that opened up what I thought practice can be.
Now in every moment, I can be mindful of how my body is, use it with intention, and use it to express Buddha nature.
Alex Paul is a a counsellor and writer from the prairies of Canada. He practices in the Soto Zen school of Buddhism.
Editor: Dana Gornall/Alicia Wozniak