"You think that you can only establish true practice after you attain enlightenment, but it is not so. True practice is established in delusion, in frustration. If you make some mistake, that is where to establish your practice. There is no other place for you to establish your practice." - Suzuki Roshi
I've always been a good student. One of those pupils who listens attentively, studies assiduously, tries very hard to "get it right". When entering into my sangha, I paid close attention to the forms the practice took, the proper way to open a shrine, light the candles, sit on one's cushion, ring the gong and so on. These forms exist for a reason - they help to create a strong container for the mind to practice in. Strong forms are conducive to deeper meditation. Strong forms create a wide corral for our minds to roam in and then settle. Strong forms can also rub away at the ego like fine sand paper, smoothing out all the quirky ways we like to exert our "selves" into any situation. When related to with an attitude of openness and curiosity, they can really show us where we get stuck, where our hang ups are, what triggers us - in other words, they can be a wonderful antidote to ego.
We have been taking our boys to a famous zendo the last couple of months. They run a very established and wonderful dharma program for children and teens, and after years of wanting to attend, we have succeeded finally in showing up, dragging reluctant, sleepy, children out of bed at a very early hour on a Sunday in order to travel an hour and half into the mountains to participate. The boys enjoy it. Except when they don't. This past weekend was the Buddha's Birthday, and they participated in a wonderful puppet show relating the story of "Sticky Hair" and (in this case) "Princess Five Weapons". The children performed it for the sangha, after first participating in the beginning portion of the celebratory practice, where they offered flowers and water to the Buddha with the full sangha present.
I would like to report that the boys all behaved appropriately in the zendo, that they "followed the forms": standing still behind their cushions, being respectful of the space, joyfully making their offerings, excitedly performing the play. That would have been easy, right? What actually happened was, yes, my eldest behaved appropriately while in the zendo. My younger two sat on the meditation cushions at various times, rolled around on them a bit, poked eachother, pulled some sibling hair, reluctantly offered flowers, and proclaimed at various moments in a loud whisper, that they were BORED. Towards the end of what was a genuinely beautiful ceremony, my youngest pulled me out of the shrine room on the verge of tears, cranky and hungry.
Prior to the play performance, there were several run throughs. All three of my boys at one point or another during the next two hours of run throughs (yes, that is a LOT for small kids), QUIT THE SHOW. As a former actress, I had to fight my urge to admonish them that one DOES NOT SIMPLY QUIT THE SHOW DURING THE FINAL DRESS. My three year old demanded rice crackers for going onstage. My eldest broke down because his 7 year old brother had gum and he did not. My 7 year old was upset when one of the puppets he had been rehearsing with was given to another boy without a role. Much frustration was experienced by all.
They weren't the only children having a roller coaster of a day. When it was finally time for the puppet show to be performed, all my boys rallied, although my three year old insisted I move his puppet for him, rice crackers or no. Not all of the other children did, though. A couple sat out, their individual disappointments not salved. The show went on. The sangha was delighted. The children all smiles (I think). It was all perfectly imperfect.
Isn't that all it ever is, though? Perfectly imperfect? We might have illusions of perfection before having children. We certainly have an easier time performing a task for instance, cleaning a room, completing a thought, sitting in the proper way on our meditation cushion and respecting the forms of a zendo. Children quickly show us how it's all been a bit of a charade though. When have things truly gone completely to plan? We clean the floor and discover the scratch in the veneer. Empty the sink of dishes and catch sight of the chipped plate. Paint the room and see where water has made a small, corrosive pocket. Get the job and discover our manager is unkind, the tasks unreasonable, the coworker a bit weird. Sit silently in zendo and accidentally allow a loud fart to escape. Trip over our feet during walking meditation. Children, because of their energy, authenticity, chaos, show us immediately how silly the entire enterprise of "getting things right" is.
So how do we react to the inevitable mistake? Do we find ourselves getting really uptight? Letting the frustration build and control us? Do we feel shame? Do we rebel? Do we laugh and move on? Do we make it into our practice, as Suzuki Roshi admonishes us to? The zendo is a kind place. The forms are very very strong there. Which is why the chaotic energy of children can be welcomed into it on the Buddha's birthday and allowed to play. Which is why we can notice when our back stiffens and our fingers wag at a child poking his brother. Which is why we can notice tears coming to our eyes when our three year old pulls us out, and sit, and breathe and open to what lies beneath those tears - a longing. A longing not for perfection, but for touching space. That is the irony of tight forms - they create a vast space. But only if we relax within them. Only if we can let go and accept things as they are. Sitting on a hard wooden bench, a wiggly, nursing toddler in my lap, watching the sangha complete their prostrations and chants, I let go. There was the space. There was the practice. There was the perfectly imperfect. All of it. The wiggling kids, the yawning parents, the contained sangha, the wooden Buddhas, bathed in water spooned gently over them by small, sticky hands. All of it. All of it.