One of the zen stories most often cited by my Zen Master was “Vastness, Not Holiness”. He would often speak of his experiences back country skiing as an activity that drives this story home. It was standing in the midst of the vast mountains that he experienced kensho.
In the story, Bodhidharma (the barbarian monk from the West who brought Zen to China) met with Emperor Wu. Their exchange went something like this:
Wu: I’ve built hundreds of Buddhist temples and made Buddhism the official religion. What merit have I accumulated?
Bodhidharma: No merit.
Wu: What then is the holy buddhist teaching?
Bodhidharma: Vastness, not holiness.
Wu: Who are you to be saying such things?
Bodhidharma: I don’t know.
And with that Bodhidharma left the capital and went to Shaolin temple to sit in a cave for nine years.
This story encapsulates the difference between Buddhism as a religion versus Buddhism as a practice. There are a lot of people who go to the temple to pray, they make donations, and live according to lay or monk precepts — and they have no realization, no liberation. They are running around in hopes of accumulating merits, in hopes of burning off bad karma. They think that enlightenment is somehow a real thing that can be grabbed in their hands instead of the hands themselves.
“If a Zen student is sufficiently alive, he can practice the Way in the simplest activities of daily life.”
– A First Zen Reader