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Practice in the Midst of Activities
Dillon Balmaceda is a Zen Buddhist priest and BA student at DRBU. He has been practicing in the Zen tradition for close to fifteen years at monasteries and temples throughout the US. He was ordained as a Zen priest in 2019 at the San Francisco Zen Center. He enjoys exploring creative ways to practice with others through kitchen work, music, and translations. Creating Sangha and developing character is a focal point of Dillon’s intention and work. The following talk and Q&A with Dillon Balmaceda is from his appearance as the guest at Kalyāṇa Tea on August 20, 2022.
Dillon Balmaceda (DB): Welcome, everyone. Good afternoon. I have a rough idea of what I'd like to talk about this afternoon, but really I'd like us to have a conversation regarding “practice in activity,” which is something that is at the heart of Zen practice. We can say that the activities, like ceremonies and cleaning and having meetings, are an extension of our sitting. We carry forward the spirit that we bring to our cushion into everything else, into the activity of life. And, of course, I think a lot of the groundwork, the foundation, is based on the bodhisattva vow, the aspiration—the aspiration to free all beings so they may dwell in peace. That's a very lofty aspiration. But I'll relate some stories of ancient people, some people that aspired towards the Bodhisattva ideal and actually lived in this way. I'll just mention one of them today, and that’s Layman P’ang.
Some of you may have heard about Layman P’ang. At some point, he realized that he wanted to devote himself to practice and that worldly things, material things, and relationships—these kinds of formalities that we all have were something obstructing his path. So one day, even though he had a family, wife and two children, he decided to put all his belongings on a boat, set them on fire, and push them out in the middle of the ocean. Everything was burned down. As the story goes, the way they survived was by making utensils out of bamboo. And this is what they sold in the market. An amazing story. Apparently, the whole family was enlightened. And each of them died in a very specific way, a very decisive way. If you're ever interested in reading about Layman P’ang and his family, I highly recommend it. I am titling this talk as “practice in the midst of activity.” And again, there is a rough idea, mostly just kind of riffing off of what I'm saying and the things that I find inspiring and also how they relate to my own personal stories.
Practicing in the midst of activity does not mean that we need a special place to practice in. That kind of rocks things a little bit. But stay with me. The heart of cultivation can be aroused, when your attitude, mind, and body are aligned. Alignment means that we're not necessarily bracing ourselves for change or to what may happen next or anticipating any planning towards a particular outcome. We don't have an agenda. We set out an intention and walk the path, so to speak. Throughout the history of Buddhism from India to China to Japan and various other continents, monks, nuns, [and] laypeople have always practiced together intimately. Everyone plays a very particular role in society, and in some Buddhist countries you can still see that—monks are supported by laypeople, and laypeople are supported by the teachings and the dedication of the monks and nuns living as monastics. So, it's a very reciprocal relationship, and everyone plays a particular part. Everyone's playing a vital part in society. Secondly, Shakyamuni Buddha began his life as a family man, left his family, and went on a quest of self exploration, looking into the nature of life.
So as we know, he was born into a wealthy family; he had everything that you can imagine. And as you know, his questions were about trying to understand this life. He sat for six years and ultimately realized enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Well, we may think that he was a special type of person, he had the thirty-two marks of a Superman. But Shakyamuni Buddha, in a sense, is no different from us, actually. He aligned his attitude, body, and mind into his question: “What is the essential nature of life?” And in the midst of that, he sat still while being assaulted by demons. Throughout his time sitting under the Bodhi tree, everything arose, desire, anger, his will kind of wavered at times. But he had such a strong resolve that he saw through it all.
Well, so what chance do we have to understand life more deeply? Why do we find ourselves in this environment? What's the difference between our lives before and now, besides hanging out together? And saying, “Yeah, I understand you, you understand me, we have similar values. I think we can get along pretty well, and every now and then we'll have to argue about something.” It's remarkable to consider, “Okay, so how do we go from here, now.” Now that we find ourselves as a priest, as a monk, as a person that's involved in seeking to understand this life more deeply.
For instance, what does it mean to become a Buddhist monk or home-leaver? One meaning is to cut off all kinds of worldly relations and focus on studying and practicing Buddha’s teachings. But as laypeople, and maybe you've noted already, I'm kind of a layperson. I have a family, and I have work that pays me. I relate to people in their usual ways. I feel I can have different types of conversations with people. So in a sense, you can say that, as laypeople, we can’t really cut off all associations. Right? We still have to have some connection to worldly things. Sometimes it's business, sometimes it's friendships, etc. But another way to understand the meaning of cutting off all associations is not to think that those people and things and affairs are something separate from me. That means we don't divide or compartmentalize our lives depending on what we agree or disagree with. We accept everything as wholly as possible. Which is why the bodhisattva vows says, “I vow to free all beings; beings are numberless, I vow to free them.”
So, a little bit about this cutting off associations in the midst of activities. In a sense, it means to align our attitude, our body and mind to the activity itself. Trusting that we are already connected in a deeper way. It's kind of a trust or faith that we have on the teachings and the relationship we have to everything that we're engaged in. Now clearly, at this point, we have some sense of what the Buddha's teachings are: loving kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, the bodhisattva vow, not to kill, not to steal, not to misuse sexuality, etc. But again, we have to go back to the associations and relationships we have. So how do we understand cutting off in activity? Well, one way we can understand it is for example, when we sit in zazen [meditation], whether that be for five minutes or fifteen minutes, or maybe hours or however long we feel it inspires us. Whatever arises in our mind, really, whatever phenomena arises. Uchiyama Roshi says, we open the hand of thought. It's a very unusual, kind of quirky thing to say. We open the hand of thought, meaning we don’t grip any particular aspect of our lives. When we think, we grip sensations, feelings, or some particular thing that is arising for us. And Uchiyama Roshi said, “Well, we let go, we open the hand of thought. When we sit in meditation quietly, we open the hand of thought, and let go.” So how does that relate to letting go of associations? Practicing letting go is the foundation of our active/practice life. So this is one way that we can interpret letting go or cutting off. But then again, what does that mean? Does that mean that all thoughts have to cease for us. That we enter some kind of state where we're kind of at peace all the time? No, it doesn't mean that. I think that what it means is that when a thought arises—for example, a thought of a flower—arises in our mind before the meaning of a flower… What's the meaning of a flower? We can say, for example, beautiful. Before that arises, we just see the flower in our minds, but then usually what follows is some desire. But we can look at the flower without adding meaning to it; the meaning is very particular and unique to each individual. Everyone will see the flower very differently. But the flower by itself, before the meaning arises, is what we can all share. This is quite remarkable. Right? We all share that flower, and that flower then is beautiful and begins to shed its petals and retires from this life.
So again, I am thinking of something means, grasping that something with thinking. During our meditation, we can empty that by practicing non-grasping, and simply refraining from making it into some particular thing. So we let go, we open the hand of thought. This occurs prior to the information that we add on to it. It is not measurable in terms of meaning. In that condition, the thought disappears and flows like clouds in the sky.
You see the flower blooming, and it's just right. So again, when we have family and work as a member of society, the time we can use to actually practice in this way is really limited. People are so busy, right? There're so many things that I have to do. There're so many people that I need to talk to. That's an obstacle; that's not an obstacle. But, we can align our practice and our attitude to the very basic nature of meeting; when we meet, we can meet each other afresh over and over again. Why? Because the meaning of what I think you are hasn't asserted itself into what you truly are, it hasn't crystalized. Which is why every time we see each other, it can be fresh. The expression that comes before the relationship can be something that can be studied and investigated.
Now, if we think that everything that happens outside of our sitting is misaligned, for example, you may say, “I just want to dedicate myself to quiet time, and I don't want anyone to bother me,” or, “this is exactly what I think things should be like.” Then practice becomes something separate from our lives. Cultivation happens separately. It doesn't sink in. It doesn't sink in or harmonize with everything we do.
But if we see things as part of ourselves, if we see things and experience things as part of my life as they arise, then, in reality, anything that we do, everything that we encounter, everything that we think we are or are not, even those thoughts, are practice, are an opportunity to really connect to the very basic nature of experience. That is, experiencing things before they become something other than what they are. This is not about, “this is the way I want to live”; it's not about right and wrong. It's more like a kind of intimate investigation of everyday activity, a way of practice, an opportunity for practice.
I have more to say, but I think I'll stop there and just open it to questions regarding this thing that I'm calling “practice in the midst of activities.”
Q & A
Q: Just curious about your sort of work or activities where you're trying to accomplish something, setting an intention and seeing where things go. I'm imagining cooking a dish, and perhaps you don't even know what it is. Maybe you have to read from a book. How do you maintain that state?
DB: Just to look at what's coming up for me now. It's a kind of trust that we've read the recipe, this is part of that process. We can trust that the next step will come up. That thought needs conditions to arise. And that thought may arise as a response to a question.
I was just sitting earlier today and thinking about what to share.
And then the next moment I stopped, I realized, “Oh, I kind of went completely off the subject.” And then another thought arose. You know, so it's like there is trust and that I don't have to look for something.
There is such a penetrating experience when I'm seeking something as a particular thing. As if something was wholly itself by itself. Thoughts arising depend on conditions. But, it's not that messy. Meaning, that thought arises out of a question, a response to a question. For example, what are you cooking today? I have no idea what you're going to think or what thought is going to come up in your mind. And I don't think you do either. Maybe you do.
So is there any agency in this process? There is no agency that knows the thought that's going to come up, perhaps. That thought as a response is going to come up from that question. To use a very common question: How's your day? For example, “How's your day” you say, yeah, “I'm doing fine.” It's very automatic, very reactive. But if you pause before the response, this allows that thought to arise interdependent on conditions. It isn't so much dependent on what I think things should be or what I really want to say. So it's a very intimate process. Next time, for example, someone comes to you and says, “How's your day,” pause and see what comes up, really pause and experience a thought arise, and the ground of that thought. We have these very intimate connections all the time, but we skim them in some sense. Again, I want to emphasize that there is not a right and wrong way. This is all an investigation into this together.
Audience: Who influenced you, or is there a turning point on your path?
DB: It's not really who. Maybe we call them circumstances or we can call them challenges, or obstacles, whatever we want to call them. Sometimes we grind our teeth through circumstances. And sometimes there's a kind of an opening that occurs. Like, “Wow, I am familiar with this action, and it always leads me to this.”
In my early twenties (I'm forty now), I traveled with friends throughout the country and played music. I was studying music in college. At some point, I realized I didn't want to do this college thing. So I got on the road, and I was driving with like fifteen guys in a van. Just like, you know, yeah, this is exactly what freedom is like. Who's gonna say don't do that. Sleeping on floors, meeting all kinds of wild people. Punk Rock. Really, really staying in sketchy places. So one of the experiences that I can relate back to your question… When did it click? It wasn't necessarily one thing. It was a combination of things, in my mind that's what they appear to be. Well, at some point, I realized that there was a kind of chaos that was happening around me. Very uncontrollable, very, very wild. I recall one night after playing a show, I was sitting on a recliner with a beer in my hand. Just watching it all unfold. See how ironic this is? I was intoxicated to a certain degree. I wasn't completely off the rocker, though. I was watching this unfold in front of me. Watching people who have no control over themselves. They're throwing bottles against the walls, then they're kind of wrestling each other to the ground. Some guy I remember saying, “Pool! There's a pool!” And he just starts running and he slips halfway there and he slides on his back into the pool. And so I'm sitting there and just contemplating somehow, just contemplating existence itself, as it unfolds. Then I set the beer down, I stopped drinking, and it wasn't a sobering moment. I needed to look at life a little bit more. But that was an instance of time and an experience happening in the middle of activity, this is happening in the middle of impurity. Alright.
Another instance of a kind of an opening, like, “Hmm, this is happening in the midst of activity.” Do you know those chant books that open up and fold like an accordion? It was something like that, you know. It was like all these different pages were opening up, but they were folding back and opening up and folding back, and at first, you can’t make out what they say but actually if you just keep looking at it, you realize you can actually read the pages as they're moving. And so again, I think in the midst of activity, this is happening, so that's one way that I can relate to your question.
Ajahn Kovilo (AK): …In Theravada circles a kind of a limited idea of what meditation can be. This question of practice in daily life comes up. I mean, one answer is just right livelihood. Like once you get a job where you're not like hurting anybody, you're not stealing anything from anybody. And that's good enough. Or then you know, the teacher might give a follow up into that. If you can just come back to your breath for, you know, a couple of minutes in the middle of your day. That's great. But it’s like you're pointing to something even on another level. I'm curious if you can talk about a given practical instruction for how to maintain awareness, some kind of bigger, broader awareness than just being totally absorbed into whatever specific task here you're doing.
DB: Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth century Zen master [who] established the Soto Zen tradition in Japan, went to China because at that time there weren't any teachers that he could actually rely on. He just couldn't find teachers that were teaching an authentic practice. His question was—which I think pertains to your question—his question was, as it says in the recorded sayings, “If everything is Buddha Nature, what is the use of practice? What is the use of going into monasteries and temples?” If everything is enlightenment, you know, the Buddha supposedly, at the moment of his enlightenment, upon seeing the Morning Star, claimed, “At this moment all beings and I awaken together.” Apparently, the text says that he realized that everything is enlightened already. And yet he had to go through six years of hard practice to be able to really hone in on this thing that we call enlightenment. He had to really look into his life and see for himself what it meant. In a way, I can respond to your question by saying that it isn't so much what we're doing as much as it is the attitude that we're bringing to what we're doing. For example, there's a saying in Japan, there's a point when you're drinking sake, and there's a point when the sake is drinking you.
Studying the middle way in the midst of activity. Studying what you are and what your relationships are to things in the midst of activity. Looking into reactions, looking into favorable circumstances that I like or, you know, agree on, looking into them when I'm just being challenged and something becomes somehow solidified. In that process, sometimes you notice something becoming wholly solidified, then from that point,I take what I'm about to say as the right thing. So from that instance of having an alcoholic drink, to seeing the chaos arise and saying, “Wow, this is very interesting. At first it looks like I'm separate from it, like I'm judging it. But I'm in the middle of it. But I'm separate from it, but I'm in the middle of it, but I'm separate from it, but I'm in the middle of it.” That switching back and forth is kind of studying and investigating everything that we think we are and we're not, everything that we agree to be and everything that we're not even conscious of, this means that it hasn't taken form in our mind; it's kind of a sensation. You know, we can have sensations without form. You know, the skandhas are form, sensation, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. There is the level where, actually, our experience is at the level that it hasn't taken form as a thought. And so it is called sensation. So that sensation is already a gripping aspect of the skandhas. This is a grasping skandha. So we look at it, we look at it, we look at that grasping skandha of sensation. Like, what is it? What does it feel like? What is it before it takes meaning, for example. And then you realize that actually if a friend says, “Hey, I'm having a bad day, could you spend some time with me?” And you may disagree with how he spends his time or she spends her time. But you go into that with your friend, knowing though, having some awareness around that process itself. You don't just leap into that, you know exactly what's going to happen. So that arises, maybe it could arise from a place of really deep, deep care. So yeah, I'll stop there, but it's a great question.
Audience: Now you are a father. How does it play in your role as a father when relating to your newborn daughter?
DB: Well, one of my teachers said, “I'm kind of like a layperson: I have a job and have a family, and that association, as long as I'm living, can't be broken.” But there's a way that we can practice non-grasping. When we sit, we let go of all associations. We practice by letting go of associations when we sit, we let go of everything. Anything that grips, so to speak, like this is who I am with these people, family, friends, you know, on and so forth. We let go. There's an intimacy before intimacy, if that makes sense. There's an intimacy before intimacy, meaning in the intimacy of relationships there’s an intimacy that is there before we know it. The intimacy before intimacy is the intimacy of trust and letting go. That intimacy already has everything in it. That intimacy has no bottom. Everything exists in that intimacy. Which is why Uchiyama Roshi says you know, when we sit upright and ungrip our lives, and the particulars of our lives, in that process we learn to open the hand of thought, we learn that there's an intimacy before intimacy that arises intimately within that process. So the form that we see is a level of intimacy. And that's very important. This is why I recognize you. I recognize you (to a different audience member). I recognize you (to another person). And there's also an intimacy of knowing intimately before intimacy, before knowing that you're there. Just knowing that you're there. And through my vow, through the bodhisattva precepts. I hope that my actions take care of you. In that intimacy before intimacy. This is a very Bodhisattva-like activity. In different words, the Avatamsaka sutra speaks of this interconnectedness. It doesn't say intimacy before intimacy, I'm just coming up with that today. But there's an interconnection. There's an interconnectivity before the intimacy of a relationship, which is to say that if my actions are not aligned with the vow, there's potential for interacting in a particular way that is not completely whole. It's tattered. But it is important that we practice with both. We have to practice with both in that intimacy and be intimately engaged in that process.
AK: Just curious. Last semester, when I started reading Mahayana texts, and that was so deep into… Like Theravada, the Pali canon, that's all I read, and not really interested in Mahayana texts. I found it a bit of a shock to start reading a certain text where it seems like it's saying something sometimes seemingly radically different from what I was used to. I'm curious, having a Mahayana background and coming and reading Theravada texts or our classes that we had together, if that was at all shocking, or if it just made total sense to you?
DB: I think that the Theravada tradition is very, very important. I've studied it. One teacher that I've studied Theravada with is Gil Fronsdal. He's an exceptional person, and the way he teaches is remarkable. I've learned from him how to integrate the Theravada teachings into everyday life. He is a family man as well. His demeanor and the way he teaches is very straightforward. The instructions hit the heart every time, that's what it feels like to me. So, I feel like they're very much related [Theravada and Mahayana]. In fact, they're not different in my mind. It's just that I read more text in that particular way that maybe words just come out in a certain way. But I'm really, really happy that I get to actually investigate the Theravada tradition more.
Audience: What gives you joy?
DB: Well, many things, and one of them is just talking about Dharma with people. That's one of them. Also, seeing a fresh being being born has also been remarkable in many ways. It's a teaching on boundless joy. Actually, this boundless joy extends to other people. Within this being, joy is arising within that being, but it's not particular to that being necessarily, but that this being is teaching me that there exists something that is boundless. When I look around, I'm just like, “Well, this too is boundless.” It's allowing for that to happen more and more. Maybe the teaching is that actually there's an opportunity all the time for that. Because when she sees me and I see her, we don't have a filter to see each other through. That's why it’s boundless. Or the experience can be boundless, the potential for boundlessness is there. They say it takes eighteen months for a baby to experience separateness… So when she sees me, she sees me as a part of her. Like there's no separation for her. So, sometimes it's like we're just kind of in the midst of gazing into each other's eyes, and you just kind of get lost. You know, maybe that comes also from this practice of opening the hand of thought and it sometimes happens accidentally. And then she'll look down and then suddenly she'll say “Toe!”
Okay, and then she's pointing at the toe. Well, how did that come up? So, that's another aspect, you know, this kind of experience ripples out. So practice in the midst of activity, some level of trust that we've all met and we're on the path again or whatever that means to you, right? Path, path, path. Stream, stream, stream. Whatever that means, but somehow we're able to talk about these strange things. And, to some degree, we agree. We're just like, Yeah, I don't know what you're saying. But that brings me to it.
Audience: May I ask a question please? Being in a position of subordinates, I feel like how do you avoid feeling limited or are trapped by that? Holding negativity.
DB: It's not so easy. Especially when it's ongoing, and it's kind of relentless in a way, you know. It's not easy. I mean, sometimes, crying helps. Sometimes, I serve tea to it. And sometimes, that doesn't help either.
Yeah. Most of the time it might not. But what I've learned over the years is that when it's so relentless, when there's a pushover and there's a kind of like, I don't know what to do, I've tried everything: I served tea. I’ve offered good chocolate to it. I've tried to get close, tried to understand, and then I've just shut down. I've gotten angry. At some point, I realize that even as I am doing something away from it, I can feel its presence. I just feel that presence—it’s close to me, and I just can't take it.
There's not one way to look at that. But there is a way that we can accept it, accept it even though we do not approve of what's going on, but we accept it. Because what tends to happen from there, when we accept it, even though we don't approve of what's happening, if we accept it, then there's a possibility. There's a possibility or potential for that to shift, and suddenly we're a part of it too. It's not that it's by itself in and of itself. We're playing a part in it. In some ways it's helpful to accept it because it leaves a different impression on how you're feeling. It comes back to how you're doing. At some point, the space or the potential for a different relationship appears.
But you know, sometimes it's creating space, staying away. Just to take care of what we need to take care of, and when we feel we have enough space, we can step into that space again to meet it, because it sounds like it's important. Even though we don't agree with it, it's still important, and then, sometimes just talking it out with friends may help. I hope that kind of got to your question.
Thank you, everyone!