A Crack in Everything


Wall, Oakland

Recently I’ve been re-learning how to be doshi, the priest who leads service at a zen temple. Re-learning because when I practice on my own, I don’t do service. And because the forms of service vary from temple to temple. So the ones I learned at Tassajara and at my teacher’s temple, Sanshinji, are different from those at my current temple.

I remember a class at San Francisco Zen Center, where students often discussed “the forms” and how much they mattered — when and how we bow, ring a bell, chant certain verses. The visiting speaker was a bishop of the Pure Land school. When someone asked about the forms — i.e., do we really have to do these things the way they supposedly did them in Japan in the 13th century? — he said, “Well, first you have to remember that someone made all this up.”

Somehow this simple and obvious statement triggered an explosion in my mind that still reverberates today. Like many other students, I’d been trying very hard to get the forms “right,” while wondering why exactly it mattered to do so. I’d noticed senior teachers flash angry looks at students who rang the bell at the wrong time or in the wrong way, and I felt their reaction said more about the teacher’s practice than their student’s, that an error so small could disturb their equanimity. Yet I didn’t want to be the student who disturbed it, either.

Linda Ruth Cutts, leading a practice period at Tassajara, said: “Please don’t use the practice of zen to reinforce your pre-existing psychological conditioning.” In other words, if you’re a perfectionist, don’t use the forms as a weapon to beat yourself.

Even more fundamentally, don’t use the practice for anything at all. As soon as you use it, you lose it. This is the meaning of Dogen’s “no gaining idea” and “just sit”. An agenda beyond the action itself corrupts the action. The zen understanding of a pure act is something done for its own sake alone. Precious few of our actions are taken in this spirit, although we would enjoy our lives more if they were.

Because we do most things to get (or avoid) something, it’s natural to bring this gaining (or escaping) mind to spiritual practice. But the whole point of practice is to free oneself of this mind. So it’s ironic to find myself on the cushion spending zazen in a state of high anxiety about the service that will follow, and whether I will do things “right”.

This “right” is problematic in itself. First, because someone just made these things up a long time ago. Second, because people have interpreted them differently since then. I learned to do this Sunday service from a disciple of the temple’s abbot, and I took careful notes.

The next time, I watched the abbot himself do the service, and some things were different from what his disciple did. So I changed my notes. A week later, I watched the abbot do the service again, and he did a few things differently from the week before. What to do now? Change my notes again? Ask the teacher which time he was “right” and which “wrong”? Not appealing.

Some people view zen forms as a kind of mindfulness exercise, because they force you to pay attention. But the question is, what are you paying attention to? To how you look or sound as you do them? To what other people might be thinking? To the expression on your teacher’s face? To your karmic need to do things “perfectly” so you can justify your existence on this planet?

All these concerns are centered on yourself as a performer, which makes what you’re doing a performance. But spiritual practice shouldn’t be a performance. Neither should life. It could be an offering, whole-hearted and heartfelt. A gift with no room for how you look or what you think people think. A gift that really has nothing to do with you at all, but is a pure action, done for itself, in devotion to something, maybe these things: the truth (dharma), the realization of the truth (buddha), and the intimate and infinite interdependence of all things (sangha).

As zen priest Leonard Cohen sang:

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything;
That’s how the light gets in.



7 thoughts on “A Crack in Everything

  1. I do zazen along for many years because no shanga, in Montréal, where I want to go. Like Suzuki Roshi said, “If you dont have a master do what you can.” I just want to let you know that your two last posts are very helpfull for me.
    Don’t said it, but now, I do zazen on a chair.
    Thank you
    Guy Laurendeau , Oka Québec

    • I’m glad that the posts are helping you in your solitary practice! I too practiced alone for a long time, as did many of the priests in my lineage, including Dogen himself! And books can be very good teachers, as is life. If you want to, sometime you could try reaching out to see if anyone is interested in sitting with you. You don’t need a teacher to have a sangha.

      • Good morning,
        I began slowly, 35 years ago, with “Zen mind, beginner mind”. I was going at Montreal Zen Center for three years but, for many reasons, I decide to practice alone and this choice was the good one. But, sometimes, the lonelyness is more difficult to support and it is very interesting and helpfull, for a lonely old guy, to see the thinking and understanding of other people who are walking on their path.
        At the beginning, without the web, it was quite difficult to find french and english books on zen at Montreal. One day, I see Okumura Roshi on a post of SFZC and I go look to Amazon. It was amazing to see the number of traductions he did and that are available on Amazon. I began with Opening the Hand of Thought (I know Uchiyama Roshi at this time) and I realize, like you said, that it is possible to have support by many masters, on your path, when you read Okumura Roshi traductions and is books Realizing Genjo Koan.

        Have a nice day

  2. interesting that you should take my favorite phrase from LC! ……it’s been my mantra for understanding the beauty of things, moments, other beings, just as they are rather than how they ‘should’ be.

    good to have your wisdom at hand! take care,


    • Very interesting for understanding other beings and to accept the cracks on my wall just as they are rather then how they SHOULD be.
      Have a nice day

  3. Bravo! Practice is from the heart, not from an outdated book of rules. It should also be open to the physical abilities of each practitioner. The bottom line is do you want a robot directing your practice or do you want the sincerity of each practitioner regardless of gender, age or physical dexterity.


    • Thank you, Joshu! I really hope there are not too many robots out there directing people’s practice. That would be weird. Your point about physical abilities is well taken. Our teacher once thought that sitting in a chair wasn’t zazen. Until he had to sit in a chair. Dogen said practice is “standing, walking, sitting, lying down.” All the time. Any position.

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