Drifting Clouds, Flowing Water
Kyogen Carlson-sensei

This month we are offering a chapter from Kyogen-sensei's book Zen In The American Grain, released by Station Hill Press last December. "Drifting Clouds, Flowing Water" is the third chapter of the second section "In Everyday Life." The book is available at the Center for $9.95, and can also be found at bookstores with a good Asian Religions or Buddhism section. -ed

"Here's a question for you. How can I am manage to practice nonattachment when everything I have is invested in this busi- ness? In this situation everything I have worked for, and that others have worked for too, could be lost tomorrow. Just one false move and we'd all be out of work." I was being asked, in effect, "How can I be responsible in a really tough situation like this if I remain 'unattached,' and don't care about how things turn out?" The man asking this question was one who had had a career working for government agencies and was in the process of starting his own company. It was at that critical, fledgling stage of beginning to take off, but in need of constant care and feeding. The pressures on him were tremendous and unrelenting, for one miscalculation and his savings and life's work could be lost, and that of others as well. But in terms of practice, he was far from alone in this predicament. The specifics of his situation may have been different, but this question is the same one asked by Buddhists for centuries. It has always been the case that responsible people, at home as well as at work, find that others depend upon them, sometimes a great deal. It can seem that every which way they turn there are commitments and responsibilities. In addition, this man was at an age when he could see the many options of youth dropping away. As we recognize this happening, it becomes clear how the choices we make can have profound long term consequences. Therefore, they require very careful consideration. What does nonattachment mean in these situations? And how in the world does nonattachment harmonize with the idea of commitment?

The word for a Buddhist monk in Sino-Japanese is "Unsui," literally "cloud, water." It comes, originally, from the phrase "gyoun-ryusyu", or "drifting clouds, flowing water."1 Neither clouds nor water insist upon any particular form, for they take shape according to conditions. Clouds attach to nothing, and so drift freely across the sky. Water twists and turns on its way down hill in complete accord with the path it must follow. The flowing of the water has the strength to move mountains, while the drifting of the clouds is utterly free. In these qualities we have a perfect description of the Zen mind. Just as clouds cling to nothing, floating free and changing with the wind, acceptance of change is the essence of nonattachment and expresses the perfect freedom of meditation. Flowing water follows its course naturally, without resistance or hesitation. This lack of resistance describes the willingness at the heart of a true commitment to Zen practice, which like water, has the strength to move mountains. To become a monk, an Unsui, requires ordination. By its very nature, ordination means a deep commitment to the form of practice we call Zen Buddhism. It also means a commitment to a teacher, and to a Sangha, or community of fellow trainees. Ordination means a commitment to a life of training in nonattachment, so right from the very beginning, the concepts of nonattachment and commitment are present together in Zen teaching.

What exactly does nonattachment in Zen practice mean? First of all, it does not imply a lack of feeling, or a quietistic unconcern. Basically, nonattachment means all-acceptance with willingness and positivity of mind. All-acceptance means complete willingness to admit that things are exactly as they are. This implies absolutely nothing about whether or not they can or should be changed, but it does mean seeing things clearly. After all, we can't understand something that is right in front of us if we do not first accept that it is. When we see things clearly with an all accepting mind, we stand a much better chance of acting wisely. All-acceptance means to drop the "self," with all its preferences, opinions, and attachments, whenever it arises, remembering our own free, natural mind of meditation.

In the practice of all-acceptance, one of the toughest things to do is to drop attachment to the results of our most carefully planned actions. Because we usually have strong expectations about how our efforts should turn out, we often can't accept the results we actually get. Wisdom will be quickly lost, despite our good intentions, if we are unable to live in nonattachment while in the midst of endeavors we care very much about. Nonattach- ment does not, therefore, mean we can indulge in the selfish "freedom" of dropping responsibility, but rather that we make a vow to drop self-centeredness in the midst of responsible action.

Now what about commitment? Commitment, of course, always implies taking on responsibility. If "resolve" is the effort we bring forth at each moment, commitment is the willingness to keep at something over time. Commitment in Zen practice means to try to do our best in all situations to make our lives an expression of that practice. A job, marriage, family ties, relationship to a Temple, as well as becoming a monk, can all be expressions of practice if we make a commitment to ourselves to make it so. Commitment means a willingness to be relied upon, time and time again, in specific ways. As a parent, spouse, or friend it is in sharing ourselves with others, as in giving and receiving emotional and physical support. As a worker it is in giving our best effort and being part of the team. As a man or woman on the path of Zen, it is in making all actions expressions of that practice. You can make the whole world your monastery, and all living things your Sangha if you are sincere in this. It is through this practice that we come to see the Truth appearing everywhere. Whether or not those around us also practice does not matter if we concentrate hard on making our own lives expressions of practice. It can be done, but it takes real commitment to do it.

While it is true that living and practicing as a monk are different than lay life and practice, some things are not so different as many people think. The entrepreneur with his life savings at stake has no more invested in his enterprise than a monk does in his practice. Some years ago, while still living at the monastery, I faced knee surgery. This was no great matter medically, but with it came the realization that I had no financial resources whatsoever of my own. The monastery could not help me, and I found that I had to seek public assistance. I was just about 30 years old at the time, and I had spent the previous eight years in the monastery. I had worked very hard and learned a great deal, but my rewards were not in the least bit financial. It was then that it occurred to me that with each passing year doors were closing behind me. I realized with great clarity that it is very difficult to consider another career when just about your entire work experience is as a Zen monk. Not that I would ever want to, fortunately, but the seriousness of the decision I made in my early 20's became vividly clear. A monk invests her life in developing selflessness, and she forgoes other things. Yet in a very real sense, she is just as tied to this commitment, if not more so, as a layman is to his career and family. The true freedom of the Unsui, it turns out, is realized when she fully embraces the depth of commitment the life demands, willingly following the course of training without resistance like flowing water. It is definitely not found in a "carefree" nonattachment. It is in this commitment to selflessness that the deepest meaning of Zen training is found, and it is in commitment that the practice of nonattachment has its deepest form.

Nonattachment and commitment meet in willingness. The willingness to accept things as they are, and the willingness to let things go; this is the essence of nonattachment. The willingness to give of ourselves, to be depended upon, and the willingness to keep at a form of practice over time; this is the essence of commitment. Willingness is the mind bright and positive, the will flexible, the ability to bow; what could better sum up Zen practice?

Zen training is sometimes referred to as stillness within activity, and activity within stillness. In compassionate all- acceptance we find the life of Kanzeon Bosatsu:2 stillness, the quiet of meditation, the essence of nonattachment. In responsi- bility we find the life of Fugen Bosatsu: loving action, transcendence of the opposites, the true meaning of commitment. Stillness and activity, nonattachment and commitment, are the clouds and water of the Unsui. Together they lead to the life of Monju, wisdom itself. A life of nonattachment without commitment is like a tree without its roots in the ground. It will grow progressively weaker, so how could this be true freedom? Nonattachment within commitment brings peace of mind when you know that you can bow no matter how things turn out, even should your business fail; for then you can know that you have done your very best. In the life of a Zen trainee, success at the deepest level is found in this willingness to accept all things positive- ly, the willingness to bow, and it is not measured by any external yardstick. You can make your own life an expression of this practice by embracing your many responsibilities within nonattachment. The duties of daily life can be transformed into a commitment to practice if you vow to perform them compassion- ately and with all-acceptance, drop attachment to results, and vow to keep going each day and to do your best for all concerned. This requires the willingness to accept things as they are, and the willingness to be depended upon. It requires keeping the mind bright and positive, the will flexible, and the ability to bow; what could better sum up Zen training?