If we’re verifying our selflessness, that feels joyful. If we are establishing ourselves in our conceit and our self-centeredness, we will be increasingly embittered and resentful. Tibetan Buddhism offers the figure of Rudra, a demonic being that arises out of the intense convolution of the ego through spiritual practice—the kind of practice that seperates us from the interdependence of the universe, the antithesis to joy. From that vantage point we’ll see everything that is wrong with the world and right with ourselves. In joy, we’ll see everything that is right with the world and how we can improve ourselves.
Wendell Berry wrote, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Joyfulness is a quality of completeness that becomes available when all the facts have been considered, including the facts of old age, sickness and death, including the fact that we’re destroying this earth. It’s only when all the facts are considered and we’re truly open to reality that joy is possible. If those facts are not considered, then we’re being frivolous.
Zazen as the gate of ease and joy; zazen as joyful; zazen as representing an intrinsic quality of your body, of your mind, of your life. Zazen does not leave you wanting. Even Buddha himself recognized how in making contact with the mind, with its stillness, with all those intrinsic qualities that are available to us, we will experience pleasure and happiness until we reach that sense of the profound joyfulness that arises from selflessness. Early on in practice, we frequently confuse the moments of bliss that we experience for real joy, but those moments of happiness just add to our spiritual mood swings. All of that needs to be let go of. Practice until that deep sense of joy becomes manifest. That joy pertains to zazen, and it is also the easiest way for us to access the other aspects of our practice, such as morality, that are ultimately joyful.
Hence, Chin Niu’s joyful praise on the occasion of the meal. In that instant of taking life, our morality is exposed. We have an opportunity to see the relationship of this life we are taking to the whole of life. There is joyfulness within it, not despite the fact that life is taken, but precisely because life is offered so that we can go on living. We should not take it for granted. And in that moment of taking the meal, there is a deep opportunity to take heed, to actually recognize our presence within the totality of this universe. That food will be converted to life and that life will be lived. It will transform itself into your thoughts, your speech and your action. It will become the karma of your life. What will you offer?
The most direct expression of morality in Zen are the precepts. We’re given the Ten Grave Precepts—but they are the ten joyful precepts, too. In the precepts, there are what we refer to as the affirmative side and the prohibitive side. When we’re talking about our relationship to life, like in the meal that we’re taking, that precept is framed, “Affirm life; do not kill.” There is the “do not kill”—categorically, do not take life. When people start to work with the precepts, we generally encourage them to work with the prohibitive aspect, primarily because it’s containable. It seems like there is enough precision there that you can actually not kill—or not steal, not misuse sexuality, not lie, not cloud the mind.
But then there is the affirmative side, the generative, the creative side of the precept, which says, “Affirm life.” Where does that end? What’s the boundary of that precept? Is there anything that you’re doing, thinking, or speaking that’s not connected to that? What is there that does not affect the aliveness of the world, of an object, of a person, of a gesture? Is it affirming? Is it not? It may seem like this is too much, that we can’t possibly handle that much, but this is precisely the entry point into that joyfulness. That’s where it lives. When we turn our attention to the vastness of our morality, we appreciate that every single thing that we think, say and do has consequences. When we push that boundary outwards it becomes clear to us how much attention we need to give to not killing. This detail, this word.