There is a story about an atheist rabbi. An atheist Jewish boy is sent to talk to him. The boy observes that the atheist rabbi spends an entire morning praying and attending to other temple practices. Finally, the rabbi turns to the kid and asks him why he is there. The boy explains he was sent to the rabbi because he too does not believe in God. The boy asks the rabbi why he prays and cares for the temple as he does since he doesn’t even believe in God. The rabbi exclaims, “you don’t think I’m going to give up the practice.”
Today, as we were reading Dogen and I simultaneously thought about the rabbi, I realized that “what” like ”why” is the wrong question. A much easier question, and probably the one that the person wanted to know, is “what does a Buddhist do”?
It is an important tenet of Buddhism that things of empty of an inherent essence. If you took a chair apart, molecule by molecule, you’d never get to “chair.” The chariness of a chair is something we add to a certain configuration of material substances. So Buddhism itself is really empty as well of any essence which makes it kind of a sacrilege to explain (some might certainly disagree here).
But what does a Buddhist do? That, on the surface, is easier to explain. Buddhists might focus a little more when doing everyday tasks. They might sit. They might chant. They might read the sutras of Buddha and/or his followers.
In a recent workshop, I took at Dharma Rain in Portland, Oregon, 20 or so of us were asked about the practices in our temples. We found that actually, our practices varied tremendously, and we had very few practices in common. Still, we would say that we share a similar path. 20 artists might do the same in describing their practice. One uses their voice to sing, one uses a camera, one paints, one pots, etc. But they still have a common practice.
Yesterday I reached for some silverware in a dirty pan in the sink and didn’t realize that our very sharp kitchen knife was in there too. I cut my finger and started screaming at my wife for leaving the knife in the sink. I realized later that I should have looked before I leaped, and my sizzling electrodes were the results of not sitting for a few days. I could have looked at my bleeding finger with curiosity and appreciated the beautiful color of my blood.
Today I went to Target on the way to the temple to get some laundry soap for my wife. It was an unfamiliar Target. I finally found the soap, but could not remember how to get out of the store. I was too embarrassed to ask, so I decided to walk the perimeter of the store and eventually I’d find my way out the door to the cushion. Finally, after passing three sides of the store, I found the cash registers and the exit doors. Again, a sign that my focus was lacking. Fortunately, I remembered where my car was parked and made it to the temple in one piece.