Sincerity in Practice

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group

London, Ontario


I would like to talk about sincerity in practice today, and I'll begin with a little story. Tung-shan, or Tozan Ryokai, was the founder of Cao-dong (Soto) Zen in China. There is a compilation of his teachings and some biographical information in a work called The Record of Tung-shan. In that work, it is written:

Once, as a child when reading the Heart Sutra with his tutor, he came to the line, “There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.” He immediately felt his face with his hand, then said to his tutor, I have eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, and so on; why does the sutra say they don't exist?”

This took the tutor by surprise, and, recognizing Tung-shan's uniqueness, he said, “I am not capable of being your teacher.”1


The first time I heard this story, I was confused. Why would his tutor say Tung-shan couldn't be his student? Was it because Tung-shan lacked the proper prerequisite knowledge of Buddhist teachings and wasn't worth this teachers time? Was it that the teacher lacked the patience to work with such a student. Why did the teacher feel that the young Tung-shan unique? Was it some sense of Zen-irony in calling the untalented talented and the talented untalented? In any case, we do know that Tung-shan went on to become one of the great teachers of the Tang dynasty and the roots of his practice continues through our practice to this day.


Only much later did it occur to me that this story might have something to do with sincerity in practice. The thing which struck me about Tung-shan's touching his face was a sense of his immediate, concrete, earnestness in wanting to understand how the Sutra could contradict something that was seemingly so self-evident to him. Sincerity in practice has nothing to do with knowledge or lack of knowledge, and his tutor recognized that. Tung-shan wasn't just the sort of student who was going to blindly and disingenuously accept something so that he could regurgitate it on an exam and then forget about it. Tung-shan wanted genuinely engage the Way, and as the Record of Tung-shan tells us, shortly after this incident, he left home and had his head shaved.


This is reminiscent of what Suzuki-roshi talks about in the book Not Always So in referring to sincere practice:

What is sincere practice? When you are not so sincere it is difficult to know, but when you are sincere you cannot accept what is superficial. Only when you become very sincere will you know what it is. It is like appreciating good art.


What is important is not the teaching, but the character or effort of the student. Even to seek for enlightenment means your mind is not big enough. You are not sincere enough because you have some purpose in your study.


So, here Suzuki-roshi is stressing that a sincere student, like Tung-shan in the story just mentioned, does not accept superficial teachings and backhanded explanations. In addition, the sincerity of practice manifests in the character and effort which the student makes. Suzuki-roshi cautions us against having some agenda of attainment in our practice. Sincerity comes from effort for the sake of effort.


Suzuki-roshi refers to Dogen's sincerity as,

Dogen Zenji was monk who wanted to be a sincere disciple of the Buddha, That's all. … his problem was how to be a good disciple from the bottom of his heart and mind. To have this spirit is the most important point.


What does it mean to be sincere? The dictionary definition of sincere is, “earnest, genuine, real, pure, unmixed, free of deceit, hypocrisy, or falseness”. These are the qualities we need to develop in our character and bring to our effort. Sincerity is valued in Zen, but how can we be sincere in our practice without falling into the trap of self-conscious imitation sincerity? That is, trying to be sincere or having the self-conscious purpose or agenda “to be sincere”.


Sincerity, like self-esteem or self-confidence, is an internal quality which can reflect externally. Just as one can't develop self-esteem by simply deciding, “OK, I am a person with good self-esteem”2 or imagining how a person with good self-esteem would feel, and only trying to feel those feelings, sincerity can't be cultivated by a imagining what it would feel like or adopting a view of “I am a sincere practitioner”. Dogen gives a hint where to begin when he says (Shobogenzo-zuimonki, 6-7),


The essential point to be careful about in practicing the Way is casting aside your tendency (from the past) to cling to certain things. If you first change your physical behavior, your mind will be reformed as well. Firstly, carry out what is prescribed to do and avoid what is prohibited in the precepts; then your mind will be reformed of itself.


Dogen is emphasizing the doing and letting the fruit of that effort take care of itself. This is also exactly our effort in zazen. We work with the mind indirectly by focusing on our body. We take it as axiomatic in Soto Zen that an upright posture informs the basis for an upright mind.


The power of this doing to transform our mind and everything associated with mind cannot be underestimated. There is a story that gets told in 12 Step groups which goes like this:

A new member to a group had a resistant attitude about recovery work. To help with his attitude, his sponsor (mentor) told him that he wanted this new member to arrive early to help set up the chairs for the meeting. The new member asked for how long would he have to do this. His sponsor answered, “Until you want to do it.”


This sponsor was using the wise guidance that Dogen offered. Maybe when we start Zen practice, we might feel confused and anxious, and we are focused with what we can get from Zen. But, if we just begin saying “yes” to practice opportunities, then our mind is re-formed by practice, our confusion lessens and our character and effort develop, and our sincerity in our practice increases.


Suzuki-roshi, in his talk on sincere practice advises us to look to teachers as examples. Suzuki-roshi said,

If you want to know what is sincerity, you should have a good teacher, because seeing him you will know what a good teacher is. When you see a sincere person, you will know what sincerity is.


In the book, Nothing is Hidden which is a collection of essays on Dogen's Tenzo Kyōkun, Shundō Aoyama has an essay titled A Monk's Mouth is Like an Oven. In this essay she gives several wonderful examples of sincere practice. Shundō Aoyama ordained in 1948 at the age of 15 and has served as abbess of Senmon Nisōdō since 1976. One year she made a vow to work as tenzo during sesshins at the monastery as an expression of her gratitude. During one sesshin, the oryoki bowls came back to the kitchen and a couple of the bowls still had some food in them. This, as you know if you eat oryoki, is very unusual. She examined the bowls and found there was a dead insect in each of the two bowls. She was shocked. She put a lot of effort into cleaning the vegetables very carefully, but still had missed those two insects. After sesshin she was giving a lecture and apologized to the group during her lecture for her mistake.


There are four qualities which I want to highlight in this story. First, her motivation was gratitude. She wanted to express her gratitude not just by saying “thank-you”, but with an act of service. This gets to Dogen's advice of do the doing first and the mind will be transformed of itself. The second was thoroughness in her activity. Nevertheless, doing something thoroughly doesn't mean everything always comes out OK, but her emphasis is on the activity rather than the result. The third and fourth factors are humility and accountability. She realized that her washing of the greens had come up short and two insects were served in oryoki bowls. As abbess, she could have easily chosen to not address the issue and everybody probably would have been too polite to have said anything. Nevertheless, despite that privilege and deference, during a lecture she apologized to the assembly for her carelessness. Maybe she felt it would have been deceitful to neglect saying something and would have paid the price by undermining the integrity of her own practice.


One of the ways we train at Zen temples is through the use positions. At this point, in 2017, the Forest City Zen Group is still a pretty new group, and we haven't had the need to develop lots of different positions. At the Chapel Hill Zen Center, on the other hand, the positions of ino, and tenzo, as well as the food servers, doans, chidens, flower arrangers are all examples of such practice positions. Working in positions like these can help us investigate sincerity in practice. Dogen Zenji in the Tenzo Kyōkun offers advice on how we should practice in temple positions. He speaks about the three minds, joyful mind (kishin), nurturing mind (roshin), and magnanimous mind (daishin) which anyone working in a temple should adopt when performing their tasks.


Joyful mind is one of gratefulness and buoyancy. When we consider all of the myriad circumstances which brought us to Zen practice and how easily it would have been to go down different paths, such an opportunity is a rare gift. This is our fortunate human birth. When we keep this perspective, an attitude of joy and gratitude can naturally arise in the course of our activities. With joyful mind we put our entire being in our activity.


Nurturing mind is the mind of treating all things as being sacred. For example, picking up a tea cup during practice period tea with two hands, we are engaging nurturing mind. With nurturing mind, we make all things and activities living and vibrant. Dogen advises us to have affectionate caring concern for whatever we are handling. Nurturing mind is bringing our full presence to whatever we are doing in the moment. Personally, I find this the most difficult of the three minds to maintain.


Magnanimous mind or “big” mind is, as Dogen says, “like a mountain, stable and impartial. Exemplifying the ocean, it is tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective.” In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen gives us an example of the attitude which embodies sincere practice:

Do not be negligent and careless just because the materials seem plain, and hesitate to work work more diligently with materials of superior quality. Your attitude toward things should not be contingent upon their quality. A person who is influenced by the quality of a thing or who changes his speech or manner according to to the appearance or position of the people he meets, is not a person working in the Way.


When we are invited to serve in a temple position, this is a really good opportunity to experiment with engaging in that activity with these three minds of practice. Maybe we can only bring the three minds into our activity when we are at the Zen Center, and can't yet translate that into our lives outside of the temple. I think that is OK. The seeds of practice activities we plant today may allow us greater integration with our everyday lives in the future. We can perceive the current limits of our practice with acceptance, compassion, and patience.


So, what can undermine sincere practice? Are we indulging in comparative thinking? Do we think that being a server is less important than being a doan which is, in turn, less important than being ino? All positions have their value and really can't be compared. All are important for creating an environment generally in the temple and particularly during an all day sitting or sesshin which supports practice. No matter what your position is, your effort is a gift to the Sangha. Not just this Sangha either, but a gift to all Sanghas everywhere, past, present, and future.


I think the biggest hindrance to sincerity in practice is when we do activities rooted in as a 20th century Theravadin teacher, Buddhadasa, speaks of it, the disease of “I, me, and mine.” Again, temple positions offer a good way to investigate the difference between fulfilling or inhabiting a role and building an identity around a role or position. When we identify with a role, then we are using it to appropriate a sense of “I, me, and mine” and we somehow use it to build a notion of a self. We begin to think, even at a very subtle level, how this position can somehow benefit “the me.” Whereas, when we fulfill a role, we just do it the best we can without a sense of personal gain or aggrandizement . We simply pick up and drop roles as is appropriate. For example, my teacher invited me to be shuso, or “head monk” for our practice period in 2009. Prior to being shuso, I was the early morning ino. During the practice period, being shuso was my own position in the temple. When that practice period ended, I was no longer shuso. It is like chanting, we don't stick to the last syllable we just chanted, we are already onto the next syllable. If we make a mistake, no problem, already here is the next syllable. Here is an opportunity to practice magnanimous mind, to regard all things impartially, and with joyful mind, throw ourselves into the next activity, and with nurturing mind, try to bring our full presence to that activity.


I am not sure where I first heard this, but I know I heard it when I was Tassajara. In the Suzuki-roshi lineage, we have a tradition of saying 'yes' to what is asked of us in practice. Sincerity in practice begins with this 'yes'. Thank-you.


Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2017


1The Record of Tung-shan, p. 23 translated by William F. Powell, 1986, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu

2Or in the words of the Saturday Night Live character, Stuart Smalley, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."