Back in the 1920s, when I was maybe eight or ten years old, and living in New Jersey where the winters are cold, we had a furnace in our house that burned coal. It was a big event on the block when the coal truck rolled up and all this stuff poured down the coal chute into the coal bin. I learned that there are two kinds of coal: one was called anthracite or hard coal, and the other was lignite, soft coal. My father told me about the difference in the way those two kinds of coal burned. Anthracite burns cleanly, leaving little ash. Lignite leaves lots of ash. When we burned lignite, the cellar became covered with soot and some of it got upstairs into the living room.
What does this have to do with our practice? Practice is about breaking our exclusive identification with ourselves. This process has sometimes been called purifying the mind. To “purify the mind” doesn’t mean that you become holy or other than you are; it means to strip away that which keeps a person—or furnace—from functioning best. The furnace functions best with hard coal. But unfortunately what we’re full of is soft coal. There’s a saying in the Bible: “He is like a refiner’s fire.” It’s a common analogy, found in other religions as well. To sit in meditation is to be in the middle of a refining fire. Eido Roshi said once, “This meditation hall is not a peaceful haven, but a furnace room for the combustion of our egoistic delusions.” A meditation hall is not a place for bliss and relaxation, but a furnace room for the combustion of our egoistic delusions. What tools do we need to use? Only one. We’ve all heard of it, yet we use it very seldom. It’s called attention.
Attention is the cutting, burning sword, and our practice is to use that sword as much as we can. None of us is very willing to use it; but when we do—even for a few minutes—some cutting and burning take place. All practice aims to increase our ability to be attentive, not just in meditation but in every moment of our life.