Why Do We Practice With Our Eyes Open Instead Of Closed?

There are several schools of meditation in which the eyes are closed, the idea being to turn the awareness inward and shield it from sensory distractions. Sometimes this is called pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. There is even a yogic mudra in which the fingers block the eyes, ears, and nostrils.

But in Zen our direction is to wake up to this world and perceive directly that there is no inside and no outside, that we are not separate from all beings. Zen Master Seung Sahn taught that when we sit everything that we see becomes clear, everything that we hear and smell and taste and touch, every bodily sensation, pleasurable or painful or neutral — all becomes clear. A Buddha is literally someone who is fully awake. Being awake to this world as it actually is naturally gives rise to compassion. So if we sit with our eyes open, our ears open, all our senses open, our minds and our hearts will also open.

Why do we say the four great vows? They seem so impossible.

Here are the four great vows:

 

  1. Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.
  2. Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all.
  3. The teaching are infinite, we vow to learn them all.
  4. The Buddha way is inconceivable, we vow to attain it.

 

Every morning practice at the Zen center begins with the four great vows. My morning home practice always begins with them. I strongly recommend that people start their practice by saying them. They remind us of our direction, that our practice is not about ourselves, that it’s not about our likes and dislikes, that it’s not about feeling better. They remind us that our practice is a lot bigger than our usual idea of our lives.

 

And yes, taken literally they are impossible. That’s the point. There’s no time and place where we can say: okay, got it, done, finished. When the Buddha saw the star and awakened, he didn’t go back to the palace and hang around with his buddies drinking the ancient North Indian equivalent of Bud Light. When the Buddha awakened he realized how much work there was to do and he started doing it. That’s our job too. The four great vows remind us of this.