Don’t Expect Applause

I have been a member of Treeleaf online sangha for around 18 months now. The first year was tremendously exciting, with much to learn about Sōtō Zen, the novelty of online zazenkai and the flurry of Ango, Rohatsu and then Jukai. Now practice has become more mundane, settling into a routine, much the same as anything else does. Part of me yearns for that excitement of newness but, as a sangha member said recently, tides change and we need to learn to shift with them.

One thing I have been noticing in myself recently is a tendency to look for encouragement on my sangha forum, especially from the two teachers, and, conversely, become disheartened if the opposite happens. Is a sign of mature practice? I don’t think so.

One of the slogans of Tibetan lojong (mind training) practice is Don’t Expect Applause. This means that our practice needs to be enough in and of itself and we should not expect friend, family or even teachers and sangha to congratulate us for sitting, chanting, attending zazenkai or participating in global service days. These are things we do because we feel drawn to, not for the expectation of a reward or approval. Do we expect kudos in life for paying our taxes, putting out our waste or driving safely?


A koan from Dogen’s Shōbōgenzō Sambyakusoku comes to mind of a teacher visiting two hermits:

Zhaozhou called on a hermit and said “Are you there? Are you there?”
The hermit held up his fist.
Zhaozhou hit him.

Later Zhazhou called on another hermit and said “Are you there? Are you there?”
The hermit held up his fist.
Zhaozhou bowed.


Is there a difference in the holding up of the fists or just in Zhaozhou’s reaction? For me, this koan warns of becoming overly attached to the approval of a teacher and taking his or her reaction as all important. Of course, there is a good reason we work with a teacher as their experience and knowledge is greater than our own and we should rightly take account of their assessments. However, if we become dependent on that, and even seeking out their approval, we miss the mark and fail to gain the confidence in our own practice.

It is right that a student should seek out the help of a teacher when they need to and also for the teacher to step in when they feel a student needs putting right. However, once practice has gone beyond initial stages, we pretty much know what we are doing and just get on with it. Anxieties will doubtless arise but these usually fall away without needing to seek advice and learning to deal with those is part of practice itself. I do not know but imagine that even Zen teachers experience anxiety and self-doubt from time to time.

So, back to the cushion and life as it is. The sun is shining and being alive is applause enough.

Without fanfare
leaves unfurl on
the old oak.

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