I’m sharing this excerpt from Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen because it struck me as I read it as one of the best descriptions I’ve come across of zen buddhism’s view of the state of being-in-the-world and the purpose for and place of zen practice (sitting meditation) within it. It certainly resonates with my thoughts and experience as of this week, at least.
“The Razor’s Edge”
We human beings all think there is something to accomplish, something to realize, some place we have to get to. And this very illusion, which is born out of having a human mind, is the problem. Life is actually a very simple matter. At any given moment in time we hear, we see, we smell, we touch, we think. In other words there is sensory input; we interpret that input, and everything appears.
When we are embedded in life there is simply seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, thinking (and I don’t mean self-centered thinking). When we live this way there is no problem; there couldn’t be. We are just that. There is life and we are embedded in it; we are not separate from life. We just are what life is because we are being what life is; we hear, we think, we see, we smell, and so on. We are embedded in life and there is no problem; life flows along. There is nothing to realize because when we are life itself, we have no questions about life. But that isn’t the way our lives are—and so we have plenty of questions.
When we aren’t into our personal mischief, life is a seamless whole in which we are so embedded that there is no problem. But we don’t always feel embedded because—while life is just life—when it seems to threaten our personal viewpoint we become upset, and withdraw from it. For instance, something happens that we don’t like, or somebody does something to us we don’t like, or our partner isn’t the way we like: there are a million things that can upset human beings. They are based on the fact that suddenly life isn’t just life (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, thinking) anymore; we have separated ourselves and broken the seamless whole because we feel threatened. Now life is over there, and I am over here thinking about it. I’m not embedded in it anymore; the painful event has happened over there and I want to think about it over here so I can figure a way out of my suffering.
So now we have split life into two divisions—over here and over there. In the Bible this is called “being banished from the Garden of Eden.” The Garden of Eden is a life of unbroken simplicity. We all chance upon it now and then. Sometimes after sesshin this simplicity is very obvious, and for a while we know that life is not a problem.
But most of the time we have an illusion that life over there is presenting us with a problem over here. The seamless unity is split (or seems to be). And so we have a life harried by questions: “Who am I? What is life? How can I fix it so I can feel better?” We seem surrounded by people and events that we must control and fix because we feel separate. When we begin to analyze life, think about it, fuss and worry about it, try to be one with it, we get into all sorts of artificial solutions—when the fact of the matter is that from the very beginning, there is nothing that needs to be solved. But we can’t see this perfect unity because our separateness veils it from us. Our life is perfect? No one believes that!
So there is life in which we truly are embedded (since all that we are is thinking, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and we add on our self-centered thoughts about “how it doesn’t suit me.” Then we no longer can be aware of our unity with life. We’ve added something (our personal reaction) and when we do that, anxiety and tension begin. And we do this addition about every five minutes. Not a pretty picture…
Now what do I mean by the razor’s edge? What we have to do to join together these seemingly separate divisions of life is to walk the razor’s edge; then they come together. But what is the razor’s edge?
Practice is about understanding the razor’s edge and how to work with it. Always we have an illusion of being separate, which we have created. When we’re threatened or when life doesn’t please us, we start worrying, we start thinking about a possible solution. And without exception there is no person who doesn’t do this. We dislike being with life as it is because that can include suffering, and that is not acceptable to us. Whether it’s a serious illness or a minor criticism or being lonely or disappointed—that is not acceptable to us. We have no intention of putting up with that or just being that if we can possibly avoid it. We want to fix the problem, solve it, get rid of it. That is when we need to understand the practice of walking the razor’s edge. The point at which we need to understand it is whenever we begin to be upset (angry, irritated, resentful, jealous).
First, we need to know we’re upset. Many people don’t even know this when it happens. So step number one is, be aware that upset is taking place. When we do zazen and begin to know our minds and our reactions, we begin to be aware that yes, we are upset.
That’s the first step, but it’s not the razor’s edge. We’re still separate, but now we know it. How do we bring our separated life together? To walk the razor’s edge is to do that; we have once again to be what we basically are, which is seeing, touching, hearing, smelling; we have to experience whatever our life is, right this second. If we’re upset we have to experience being upset. If we’re frightened, we have to experience being frightened. If we’re jealous we have to experience being jealous. And such experiencing is physical; it has nothing to do with the thoughts going on about the upset.
When we are experiencing nonverbally we are walking the razor’s edge—we are the present moment. When we walk the edge the agonizing states of separateness are pulled together, and we experience perhaps not happiness but joy. Understanding the razor’s edge (and not just understanding it, but doing it) is what Zen practice is. The reason it’s difficult is that we don’t want to do it. We know we don’t want to do it. We want to escape from it.
If I feel that I’ve been hurt by you, I want to stay with my thoughts about the hurt. I want to increase my separation; it feels good to be consumed by those fiery, self-righteous thoughts. By thinking, I try to avoid feeling the pain. The more sophisticated my practice becomes, the more quickly I see this trap and return to experiencing the pain, the razor’s edge. And where I might once have stayed upset for two years, the upset shrinks to two months, two weeks, two minutes. Eventually I can experience an upset as it happens and stay right on the razor’s edge.
In fact the enlightened life is simply being able to walk that edge all the time. And while I don’t know of anyone who can always do this, certainly after years of practice we can do it much of the time. It is joy to walk that edge.
Still I want to repeat: it is necessary to acknowledge that most of the time we want nothing to do with that edge; we want to stay separate. We want the sterile satisfaction of wallowing in “I am right.” That’s a poor satisfaction, of course, but still we will usually settle for a diminished life rather than experience life as it is when that seems painful and distasteful.
All troublesome relationships at home and work are born of the desire to stay separate. By this strategy we hope to be a separate person who really exists, who is important. When we walk the razor’s edge we’re not important; we’re no-self, embedded in life. This we fear—even though life as no-self is pure joy. Our fear drives us to stay over here in our lonely self-righteousness. The paradox: only in walking the razor’s edge, in experiencing the fear directly, can we know what it is to have no fear.
Now I realize we can’t see this all at once or do it all at once. Sometimes we jump onto the razor’s edge and then hop off, like water dropped on a sizzling frying pan. That may be all we can do at first, and that’s fine. But the more we practice, the more comfortable we become there. We find it’s the only place where we are at peace. So many people come to the Center and say, “I want to be at peace.” Yet there may be little understanding of how peace is to be found. Walking the razor’s edge is it. No one wants to hear that. We want somebody who will take our fear away or promise us happiness. No one wants to hear the truth, and we won’t hear it until we are ready to hear it.
On the razor’s edge, embedded in life, there is no “me” and no “you.” This kind of practice benefits all sentient beings and that, of course, is what Zen practice is about…my life and your life growing in wisdom and compassion.
So I want to encourage you to understand, difficult though it may be. First we have to understand with the intellect: we must know intellectually what practice is. Then we need to develop through practice an acute awareness of when we are separating ourselves from our life. The knowing develops from the base of daily zazen, from many sesshins, and with the effort to remain aware in all encounters from morning till night. Since we are most unwilling to know about the razor’s edge, this wisdom is not going to be presented on a platter to us; we have to earn it. But if we are patient our vision will become clearer and then we will see the jewel of that life, beginning to shine. Of course the jewel is always shining, but it is invisible to those who do not know how to see. To see, we must walk the razor’s edge. We protest, “No! No way! Forget it! It’s a nice title for a book, but I don’t want it in my life.” Is that true? I think not. Basically we do want peace and joy.
STUDENT: Please talk a little more about separation from life.
JOKO: Well, the minute there is a disagreement between ourselves and another person—and we think we’re right—we have separated ourselves. We’re over here and that nasty person is over there and he is “wrong.” When we think this way, we don’t have any interest in that person’s welfare. What we’re interested in is our welfare. So the seamless unity has been broken. For most of us, years of relentless practice are required before we abandon such thinking.
STUDENT: I see that upsets have to do with me not wanting to face what’s going on. But I guess I’m still not clear about why the upset is the separation from life.
JOKO: It isn’t separation if it is nonverbally experienced. But most of the time we refuse to do that. What is it we prefer to do? We prefer to think about our misery. “Why doesn’t he see it my way? Why is he so stupid?” Such thoughts are the separating factor.
STUDENT: Thoughts? Not the avoidance?
JOKO: The thoughts are the avoidance. We wouldn’t think if we weren’t trying to avoid the experience of fear.
STUDENT: You mean the thoughts cause the separation?
JOKO: Not if we are fully aware of the thoughts and know they are just thoughts. It’s when we believe them that the separation occurs. (“A tenth of an inch of difference and heaven and earth are set apart.”) There’s nothing wrong with the thoughts themselves, except when we don’t see their unreality.
STUDENT: Can we react without there being any thoughts?
JOKO: If we react, thoughts are occurring. They may not be obvious to us, but they are there. For instance, if you insult me I won’t react unless I have some thoughts about the insult. But when we begin to judge people as right and wrong we’ve separated ourselves; right and wrong are just thoughts and not the truth.
STUDENT: What you’re describing can sound like being very passive or being a doormat. Could you address that?
JOKO: No, it’s not about being passive at all. We can’t deal intelligently with the issues of life if we are stuck in our thoughts about them. We have to have a view that’s larger than that. Zen practice is about action, but we can’t take adequate action if we believe our thoughts about a situation. We have to see directly what a situation is. It’s always different than our thoughts about it. Can we take intelligent action without really seeing—not what we want to see or what would suit our comfort, but just what’s there? No, I’m definitely not talking about being passive and not taking action.
STUDENT: When I see people who are centered in what’s happening, they act much faster and better than I do. I noticed in the Mother Teresa film that she went right into a disaster area and started to work.
JOKO: Just doing. Just doing. She didn’t stop and ponder, “Should I do this?” She saw what had to be done and did it.
STUDENT: It seems a lot to expect of ourselves just to be on the razor’s edge, because our memories enter into each moment, what’s happened in our life.
JOKO: Memories are thoughts and nearly always selective and biased. We may completely forget the nice things our friend has done if there is one incident that we see as threatening. Practice does expect a great deal of us; but we are just living this moment; we don’t have to live 150,000 moments at once. We are only living one. That’s why I say, “What else do you have to do?—you might as well practice with each moment as not.”
STUDENT: Well, I think the razor’s edge is sort of a boring place. We usually take notice when we have a huge emotional outburst, but when we do the dishes, there’s not much to say. It’s just…
JOKO: Right. If we could just do what there is to be done in every second, there could be no problem; we would be walking the razor’s edge. But when we feel upset, then the razor’s edge seems alien to us because to experience upset is to experience unpleasant bodily sensations. Because they are unpleasant, we can’t see the upset as basically the same life as doing the dishes. Both are utter simplicity.
STUDENT: If we give up our belief in our thoughts, it seems scary—how would we know what to do?
JOKO: We always know what to do if we are in touch with life as it is.
STUDENT: For me the razor’s edge is the experiencing of what the moment is. As I continue practice I find more and more that the simple mundane things of life aren’t as boring to me as they once were. There is sometimes a depth and beauty that I was never aware of.
JOKO: That’s so. Once in a while a student comes in to talk with me, and she is sitting well but she complains, “It’s so boring! I’m just sitting and nothing’s going on. Just hearing the traffic…” But just hearing the traffic is the perfection! The student is asking, “You mean that’s all there is?” Yes, that is all there is. And none of us wants life to be “just that” because then life is not centered on us. It’s just as it is; there is no drama and we like drama. We prefer to “win” in an argument, but if we can’t win, we’d rather lose than not have a drama centered on us. Suzuki Roshi once said, “Don’t be so sure you want to be enlightened. From where you’re looking, it would be awfully dull.” Just doing what you’re doing. No drama.
STUDENT: Isn’t following the breath being on the razor’s edge?
JOKO: Indeed it is. I would probably prefer to say “experiencing the body and the breath.” And I want to add that, in following the breath, it is best not to try to control it (control is dualistic, me controlling something separate from myself), but just to experience the breath as it is: if it is tight, experience tightness; if it is rapid, experience that; if it is high in the chest, experience that. When the experiencing is steady, the breath will gradually become slow, long, and deep. If attachment to thoughts has markedly diminished, the body and breath will eventually relax and the breath will smooth out.
STUDENT: Why is it a bigger upset when the upset is with someone close to me?
JOKO: Because it’s more threatening. If the person who is selling me a pair of shoes announces, “I’m leaving you,” I don’t care, that’s all right with me; I’ll get somebody else to sell me a pair of shoes. But if my husband says, “I’m leaving you,” it’s not in the same ballpark at all.
STUDENT: Is that threat immediate or does it come from a reservoir of unresolved psychological material?
JOKO: Yes, there is a reservoir; but that reservoir is always held in our bodies as contraction in the present moment. When we experience the contraction or tension, we pull up our entire past. Where is our past? It’s right here. There is no past, apart from right now. The past is who we are at this moment. So when we experience that we take care of the past. We don’t have to know all about it.
But how does the razor’s edge relate to enlightenment? Anybody?
STUDENT: It is enlightenment.
JOKO: Yes it is. And none of us can walk it all the time, but our ability to do it vastly increases with years of practice. If it doesn’t then we’re not really practicing.
Let’s finish. But please maintain your awareness as much as you can in every moment of your life. And keep the question with you: right now, am I walking the razor’s edge?