One part of Zen practice is something called a mondo, which means question-and-answer. In my ten years with Deshimaru Roshi I asked very few questions, only three that I can remember.
One day in Switzerland he spoke of the number of people who had come to practise Zen after losing some earlier faith or other. They had been brought up in some religion or church or faith and been disillusioned or put off by one thing or another, and then they had found Zen and that had become a new faith for them. But I got the impression that these people had always had a faith, so to speak, except that for a time it was without an object. There had been an object of their faith, then no object, then a new object. I was troubled by this, as I had had no religious education to speak of and when I tried to search around among my emotions and what I called my beliefs I couldn’t find anything that seemed to me to answer what I imagined when l thought of the word “faith”. So I wondered if I had joined this practice of Zen under false pretences, if I were in the wrong place.
I made a trip to Paris on purpose to ask him about it one Sunday. I said, “I don’t think I ever had any faith. Is faith necessary?”
He made a joke, and pretended he hadn’t heard, as he often did when he was waiting for an answer to come from inside himself, and then he started to speak. He spoke for several minutes and I have no idea what he said because I was staring at him so hard, concentrating so hard that I couldn’t possibly hear. But at one point he made a gesture, as though he were unreeling something out of himself, out of his abdomen. Later, standing on the platform of the underground train, I realised that I hadn’t heard a word he said and I was very cross with myself. But the gesture, the image remained always.
When, after a few years of Zen practice, something started unreeling out of me, I understood.
Faith is not in the mind only, it is also in the body. It is neither necessary nor unnecessary. It is, and it is in us all. Its object is not so important. There is the cross, or prayer, for some; for us there are the things that we chant and the outer garment we wear. There is the meditation we practise. For those of us who are ordained these are objects of faith and care, things which we protect. But the faith is the unreeling, the life coming out of us, the energy joining the world.
I asked him another question once; his use of the word “spiritual” bothered me because in the society I was brought up in, spiritual meant soulfully sighing, not practical, escaping from the real problems of the real world.
He said, “Spiritual is a word.” Through my practice of Zen meditation I understood that no word is my experience of life or your experience of life. We must not be caught up on words, like sticks leaning against the current of the stream.
‘Religion’ is another word. I am not so interested in what people all over the world have understood by the word “religion” in the past, what they have believed, what wars they have fought, what noble deeds they have done, even what great literature, inspiring poetry they have written, in the name of religion.
What I try to practise is, as my master said, “Religion before religions”. That is, the basic state of being one, in harmony with yourself, other people, your life as it unfolds instant by instant. In that state there may not be what other people would call ‘religion’ – because ‘religion’ only came to exist when we began separating things, inventing something that was not religion.
Am I talking about the One? Many books over the centuries have talked about the One, about all things being, when all is said and done, One. For me, existing and doing moment by moment, breath by breath, there is not even One, and there is nowhere that is not religion.