A Path of One's Own

When the Zen master asks, “Can I show you the path?” the proper answer, I imagine, falls somewhere between “yes,” “please,” and “thank you!”

A couple months ago, asked by the head teacher at the Austin Zen Center “Can I show you that path thing?” my response was, “Show me the path?? That’s why I came here!”

My path this past summer involved a two-month trip to Texas, Missouri, and Nebraska, the majority of which I spent in Austin. The centerpiece of this sojourn was a residential period at the Austin Zen Center, the home of my first consistent, shared Zen practice, the place where reading, dabbling, and solitary meditation found fertile ground in ritual and community. Separated from that community the previous year, I wanted a chunk of immersion, a chance to recharge the batteries of my practice and reconnect with friends.

While five weeks of near-daily sitting were marvelous, the ten days I spent living at the center were particularly refreshing and invigorating. In addition to multiplying my daily meditation sessions, I spent a lot more time in work practice. As you may know, Zen centers supplement sitting and walking meditation with periods during which one applies mindfulness to the mundane, daily tasks of cleaning and maintaining the place. The idea is that one should bring the same concentration and close attention to cleaning a toilet, say, as to something lofty, like inner peace or enlightenment.
In keeping with the intensive, retreat-like dynamic of residential practice, these work periods ran an hour and a half each day. And thus it was that I found myself staring at a corner of the extensive grounds, with the head teacher showing me a corner of the walking meditation path. Essentially, he wanted me to construct a bypass, to round off a corner so that the path didn’t come quite so close to the street. “I’d say take it from around here,” he said, as I followed his finger, “to somewhere over there. And maybe put a curve in the middle.”

That was it for instructions. At no time did he ask if I had any experience constructing a walking trail (I didn’t), or if I had even the slightest idea what I was doing (ditto).

It was at this point that a curious thing happened: I didn’t panic. Mind you, part of me really wanted to. Build a path? I don’t know the first thing about building a path. You’re supposed to show me the path, not make me carve out my own! I mean, come on: cleaning bathrooms is one thing—not only have I done that innumerable times, but it’s kind of tough to really mess that up. This, however, was not only easily botched, but the results—good or bad—would be on display for all to see.

And yet, from some corner of my subconscious, an oddly reassuring voice spoke up. I knew where the tools were located; I didn’t need to know their proper names or designated functions. I didn’t know what I was doing, true, but I probably knew enough. Knowing that I had enough time, somehow I trusted that I was capable of doing this thing I didn’t know how to do.

I spent most of that first shift browsing the tool shed and eyeballing the ground intently from several vantage points, trying to discern the latent new path hidden within the ground vegetation. Eventually I started tracing the outlines of my first section, then, once my confidence reached critical mass, I began digging—and adjusting as I went.

Throughout the work periods, questions rose and answered themselves. How to account for the low-hanging branches of a nearby tree? Where would the new path break off from, and merge back into, the existing path? What should I do with the bypassed section? How would I know I was doing it well enough, and how would I know when I was done? Throughout, I did my best to stay present and mindful, pacing, resting and hydrating myself so that I didn’t entirely wilt in the Texas heat.

In retrospect, being told to carve out my own, literal path was the most fitting and hilarious thing that could’ve happened at Zen summer camp. I appreciate manual labor and being outside, and I appreciated the constant opportunities for cultivating mindfulness that residential practice afforded. When every meal, every step, is an invitation to be present, for me that’s like an infusion of vital nutrients. And on top of that, doing well something I never would’ve volunteered for, something I’d had no idea I could do, felt wonderful.

So perhaps not knowing what one’s doing—or rather, realizing and acknowledging that we don’t know what we’re doing, embracing that fact—is central to the Beginner’s Mind which itself is central to Zen practice. In a way, maybe it’s better to be clueless—or, to borrow a phrase my teacher shared near the end of my stay this summer, “unprepared but ready.”

May we all be ready for each moment, unprepared as we'll likely be.

—Bruce Smith

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