In Zen we learn to focus on the practical details of our life while maintaining a view that goes beyond self and other, even beyond birth and death. To develop a balance between these two perspectives, it seems best to shift our attention regularly from one to the other until we can hold them both together.
One could say that for addressing the details we need to be mindful and focus, and for addressing the grand vision we need to empty our mind of any special focus and open up. Training in mindfulness is very popular right now, so perhaps it is time to promote “mindlessness.”
In his meditation manuals Dogen Zenji is extremely precise in the details of posture, breath and mental focus, yet he also urges us to drop off body and mind — in other words, to completely forget ourselves and realise our unfathomable Buddha nature. Apparently, one goes with the other.
It is interesting to look at the other training elements in a similar manner. For example, in ritual we follow Soto School directives and these are so meticulous that we may get stuck there and forget their function. But when we really bow, chant and eat the way it is described, we have a rare chance to join all ancestors of past, present and future, and this can give our life a completely new meaning.
The same is true for studying the scriptures. As members of the White Plum, we focus on certain texts more than others; yet these texts seem only to gain in relevance and clarity if we learn to appreciate them against the broad background of Buddhist literature throughout the ages without any sectarian bias.
As for Bodhisattva activity, it is obvious that the vows are highly inspirational, but to towards what? If our actions are not directed precisely at whatever comes to hand, we miss the point. Again, it seems that without the greater picture we cannot really see priorities and get lost in details. On the other hand we can also get lost in the greater picture and forget to take care of what really needs doing at this very moment.
For me, the balance between mindful and mind-empty, between the smaller and the greater picture, has become a very important factor in developing a suitable training curriculum.
It also means, though, that I sometimes get confused when the evening soup looks like the night sky and the night sky looks like the evening soup.