As the head of the meditation hall, I’m often asked, What do the forms mean? And my answer is always the same: They don’t mean anything. They’re just a mirror.
Despite rumors to the contrary, those arcane, exasperating forms aren’t designed to make us look stupid or incompetent. They are designed to make us deal directly and viscerally with not knowing. Our culture hinges on competence (or at least the appearance thereof). And it is imperative in Buddhist practice to examine our habits around lookin’ good -- the careful crafting of appearance, and the equally-careful management of others’ perceptions of our appearance, is otherwise known as suffering. It’s exhausting, it’s unsustainable, and it’s the opposite of Right View (though unfortunately the word “right” can make us think there is a correct appearance to strive for in meditation, as if enlightenment hinged on good make-up).
Suzuki-roshi observed that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. Expertise is an excellent boundary system. Being right leaves no room to connect. Our advice can simply be followed with no need for discussion. To paraphrase Lung-tan’s summation: “If your defenses are impervious, no one can get in [to mess up your look-good].”
But there’s more to his quote:
“If your defenses are impervious, no one can get in … and you can’t get out.”
So, the forms of practice, endlessly byzantine, are actually nothing more (nor less) than the keys to the jail. They help us crash headlong into our habits, moment after moment, until at some point we tire of the endless collision between our appearance and our true nature, one fixed, the other open to myriad possibilities.
And at that point, we realize that we have a choice of what looks back at us from the mirrors of practice, especially the mirrors that are other people. As with all mirrors, it is pointless to try to manage the reflection. Instead of putting on our best face, we can reveal our original face, one that is willing to see and reflect everything around it as a witness, a companion, a friend.
Or as the Buddha said, “I see who you are. You’re me.”