The practice of zazen, the revolution of the backward step, requires extraordinary trust because it contradicts all we thought we knew. In the beginning, it can even seem crazy. I remember in the early years of my practice I would sit there by myself, practicing the breath day after day, month after month, year after year, and sometimes say, “What is this? What am I doing? What does this have to do with the dharma I’ve read about? How is this a trustworthy response to my yearning?” I couldn’t see it. Not because it wasn’t there, but just because I could not yet see it.
To breathe in without dwelling—this too, is a revolution, the second revolution. Don’t dwell. Come to rest, desist, turn toward, with your whole body and mind, and don’t grasp. Practice as though there’s a fire on top of your head. As though your life depends upon it. Summon this urgency and yet release all expectation. This runs completely counter to all our conditioning, and when we begin to practice, it is inconceivable. And so most of us hear this guidance of having no expectation and think, “Yeah, whatever.” Or, “Okay, I got it, I’m doing it,” and all the while we grasp and expect. Because how could we not? I mean really—how could we not look forward to something? It’s all we know. It is, to a large extent, what we understand life to be.
This is why when Bodhidharma began teaching Huike, his first disciple, he said, “How can you, of your small virtue and self-conceited mind, expect to aspire to this great dharma?” He was preparing him for the difficulties ahead. Huike was a great general who had marched into terrify- ing battles, risking almost everything. He had great courage and bravery in this respect, but could he face himself? This is what Bodhidharma was preparing him for. In this practice I’ve seen many men and women who have faced frightening circumstances and had the odds stacked against them, people who have shown tremendous courage and bravery in many areas of life, yet who crumble when they encounter themselves. To simply face our own mind takes a different kind of courage.
Breathing in, the first revolution. Not dwelling, the second revolution. Then there is breathing out, the third revolution. Prajnatara says, “I don’t get involved in the myriad circumstances when breathing out.” This is being on the busy street, not having left the mountain. In breathing out he is not disturbed, and yet there are the myriad circumstances. To face our lives without “getting involved”—what does this mean? It’s easy to stay mired in the stuff of our life, our responsibilities, connections, relationships, and feel caught. And it’s relatively easy to avoid circumstances—just don’t step forward, don’t answer the phone, don’t volunteer. Cut a neat and narrow path and stay away from it all. There are those who make that choice. But this koan is pointing at the supreme truth, which is not about avoiding complication. What is not getting involved?