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Why Practice? By Myoyu Haley Voekel

In my first few months of residency at Great Vow, we all went down to Portland to see Harada Roshi give a calligraphy demonstration. It was a very powerful display of art as spontaneous presence. He created large and impressive works that truly seemed to flow directly from the great mystery or emptiness, and to flow through him and onto the blank page.

To close the event, the Zen master laid down his brush and opened the floor to questions. The question, and more importantly, the answer that stood out to me the most went something like this:

I can, when I romantically reminisce about my path into Zen Practice, consider this event my true introduction. Watching Harada Roshi, gracefully move ink across the page, large sheet of paper after large sheet of paper, and with equal elegance and poise, answer the questions of his audience.

What is the same in us?

Maybe his answer will seem obvious to you. Especially to those of you who have sat in this room listening to dharma talks, day after day in sesshin, Sunday after sunday, month after month and year after year.

At the time, his answer filled my trembling heart with hope. I came into practice with a deep and tortured  yearning to lay down this burden of doubt and mistrust and to give my life over to something bigger and more beautiful than my self clinging and fear mongering mind.

Was this it? The power of the beginners mind should not be underestimated. It is a mind that is open and willing and ready.

Blanche Hartmann of San Francisco Zen Center has this to say about the value of “don’t know mind:

Beginner’s mind is Zen practice in action. It is the mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgments and prejudices. Beginner’s mind is just present to explore and observe and see “things as they are.” I think of beginner’s mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. “I wonder what this is? I wonder what that is? I wonder what this means?” Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or a prior judgment, just asking “What is it?”

I was having lunch with Indigo, a small child, at City Center [a Soto Zen practice center in San Francisco]. He saw an object on the table and got very interested in it. He picked it up and started fooling with it: looking at it, putting it in his mouth, and banging the table with it—just engaging with it without any previous idea of what it was. For Indigo, it was just an interesting thing, and it was a delight to him to see what he could do with this thing. You and I would see it and say, “It’s a spoon. It sits there and you use it for soup.” It doesn’t have all the possibilities that he finds in it.

Watching Indigo, you can see the innocence of “What is it?”

Can we look at our lives in such a way? Can we look at all of the aspects of our lives with this mind, just open to seeing what there is to see? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time doing that. I have a lot of habits of mind—I think most of us do. Children begin to lose that innocent quality after a while, and soon they want to be “the one who knows.”

As I Listened to Harada Roshi that day and rested in a truly beginners mind, it was clear to me that his relationship with reality and the beings therein, and my relationship with reality, and the beings therein, was very very different. And because this view that he was so elegantly presenting seemed to not be mired in confusion, doubt and fear, as mine seemed to be, I decided that I would allow him to win me over.

When he spoke my heart leapt and sang a quiet song of devotion to this new way of being. Here was something to trust in.

His answer was simple. The Bodhisattva vow. If you practice with this community long enough this value becomes part of your bones and can often be taken for granted.  At the moment of my first hearing it from him, it was a revolution.

Careful to avoid the intellectual minds desire to dissect, like a crab pulling apart a bit of detritus on the beach, with its large claws and complicated jaws, I tucked this bit of truth into my heart and held it there like a closely guarded secret.

Do not give in to the demands of the mind, allow your heart these precious treasures. The mind will scold and punish the heart but know that your heart along with its tenderness has infinite strength against the minds baffling and unending hungers.

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. An intention that is shared by all beings. So says Harada Roshi.

This is a koan of enormous depth. And to truly live it, outside of the Zendo and into our myriad and complicated lives, can undermine a lifetime of habitual mind movements towards aversion and mistrust. If lived fully, it is a revolutionary shift in relationship with reality as something to defend ourselves against.

It is said that upon his awakening, the first thing the Buddha said was

“ Ah, I now see that all beings, without exception, have the wisdom and compassion of the awakened one’s but because of their delusions and self clinging, they don’t realize it.”

When Hogen asked me to give this talk, he gave me this working title:

“why do we practice, why do we continue to practice and what inspires us to live a life of practice.”

If we begin on the basis that the Bodhisattva vow is at the root of being, then practice is inevitable. Wisdom and compassion are what we are all, without exception, naturally moving towards. Some of us just  have longer and more winding pathways to travel than others.

Some of us have very long and very winding and very treacherous, possibly landmine covered pathways to travel.

In other words, it can be said that we are all doing the very best we can moment to moment, given our respective blend of delusive thinking and life circumstances. We are all doing the best we can, whatever our karmic configurations however confused, to actualize the bodhisattva vow.

So why do we practice? Because all beings, the insolent teenager,  the store clerk who wouldn’t smile, the friend who never returns the books she borrows, each and every member of the Supreme Court, tyrants and warlords, without exception, without exception,  all have the wisdom and compassion of the awakened one’s.

And because of our own delusions and self-clinging, we loose sight, we forget, and because of this forgetting, we suffer.

In that moment of anger and self righteous indignation when I watch my supposed friend eat the last cookie on the tray, probably her second or third, and I haven’t even had one. I am believing I am a separate self. A self that is important and deserves to be right and deserves as many cookies as she wants. And I am forgetting that we are both bodhisattva’s on this beautiful and mysterious path.



Why do we practice? Chozen has used the words “a longing to return home”. Each of us, without exception know the wisdom and compassion of the awakened one’s. The delusions that separate us from this truth separate us from each other and the true nature of reality.

We practice and are inspired to keep practicing by this longing to return home.

In writing this talk I reflected on how the longing for practice was ignited in my own life, childhood and onward and I remembered that as an angst ridden teenager as I read through the stack of prescribed texts dolled out by our public education system, I was particularly moved by Hamet’s passionate and rather desperate soliloquy, to be or not to be. Or do i exists, what does that mean and why should it continue?

Bansho shared that when he was in Japan he had Sanzen with the American Rinzei teacher, Jeff Shore. The first thing Jeff asked was: what is your question?

Here’s what Hamlet had to say: Here is Hamlet’s question

This is one of the most quoted texts in English literature. What is it that we find so alluring? Is it Hamlet so boldly proclaiming what we are to afraid to say aloud?

The Human condition is one of woe and torment. I could drown in the sea of troubles or be torn apart by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We don’t know where we came from or where we are going.

“The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?”

Life and Death are just words, mere place holders but in truth I don’t actually know what they mean.

In the face of this vast unknown, no wonder we decide to get quiet and still. No wonder, with this life enveloped by mystery, we gather together in humbled silence in awe and full of wanting. Full of questions and fearing their answers.

The human condition is simultaneously suffering and hardship and completely miraculous. Form arising from emptiness as the gift of life.

Why do we practice? Because every being, without exception, has the wisdom and compassion of the awakened ones. Every being has this light. It may be small and dim, tucked deep into the recesses of the heart, but nonetheless.

And if we turn towards it, if we gently stoke the embers, this tiny flame can grow into a raging fire that will burn away our afflictive emotions and delusions, at least to the point where we are no longer burdened by them.

So don’t worry about being uncomfortable. Engulfing your obscurations in a ball of fire might sting a bit. But once the flame really gets going is there really any turning back?

Is practice actually a choice?