By: Ven. David Xi-Ken Shi
Human beings seem unique in their yearning to find meaning. Dr. Nuland calls it “seeking the spirit and wonder” of this world. In the morning I open my eyes, look in the mirror, and see someone I call myself. I look around and observe space and place and I call that my world. I interact with others and call those my relationships. And into all of this, I attribute meaning: what does this thought, emotion, situation or event mean? How do I interpret that meaning to obtain what I want or think I need right now. Our Buddhist training challenges us to ask the deeper question, the real question: who is this person, what is the reality of this world the best I can become awakened to it, and how do I live my life without creating suffering?
Sometimes when I see a small child I think how wonderful it would be again to not have to worry about putting a roof over my head, or how to feed myself, or will I continue to have good health, or is this neighborhood safe, what is a mortgage, how much is bathroom tissue, or do others like me? That was a time of innocence, of protection, and of being close to a warm and safe source, without the stress over the cost of living a life in the real world. But no longer being a child, we can’t go back. Those days are over. The fact is, we can never return to anything, ever. One moment arises, never to be seen again.
To give up all seeking of past or future, and die to the very self that seeks to return to a more innocent time, is the great challenge of a Buddhist practice. For Buddhists, we can’t be on the path unless we actively seek the dharma, and yet in that very seeking, inevitably we turn away from the our self as we have come to realize it.
It is not possible to return to a previous state of being, the mutual-causal Universe doesn’t work that way. Even now when we return home to our parents, we are no longer treated as a child, hopefully anyway. And this is quite natural. The parent not paying attention to us like they use to has nothing to do with disregard. It has nothing do to with not loving us or lack of interest. It is just that our interaction with them is now in a different moment, with a different set of realities. Our parents have moved on too. From a Zen teaching perspective, an old Zen master might say, “At this point the empty sky’s vanished and the iron mountain has crumbled, there is not an inch of ground to stand on.” In other words, it is a different state of knowing. The forms of each puzzle piece has been changed, and there relationship to each other take on a different meaning, while the image of the puzzle retains its original nature. The ground we use to sand on has vanished, NOW is only how we are in this very moment, and it IS our home.
Each of us have had moments in the past where we have visited a new place, taken on a new activity, or met someone for the first time, and we have experienced that it felt very familiar, even like home, or we have know the person for a long time. What is interesting about these experiences is that we are immediately aware of them. What were we really experiencing? What kind of reality were we experiencing that gave rise to that deep sense like we have when we are at home? What is home? It’s that place where we feel a special relationship with place, as well as those connected to it, including ourselves. It is a place we feel loved.
What our senses do in conjunction with the ego-mind is constantly position the one we call our self in relationship to everything else: I am this, I am not this, I’m like this more than I’m like that. Our senses are particularly active when we are away from our personal space. This is natural. But our personal space is a place where none of this can be found, where the ceaseless positioning of ourselves ceases to occupy our active mind. It is from this space that we venture out and engaged the world around us. When I use the term “personal space”, or “home” now I do not mean a structure or a room. It is not a place to go to, or live in. I am pointing to a different reality that is uniquely a human experience.
At the time of the Buddha’s awakening, he encountered the self that has never been here. In one moment of total practice-realization, when we meet the one who is hard to find, we discover the self who all along, has never been here. The late John Daido Loori Roshi use to say, “…never having been here is the great liberation.” One thing contains everything; everything contains one. But don’t be confused into thinking that this is the result of practice or of some skillful activity. It has nothing to do with metaphysics either. It is an awakened mind before distinction is manifested. Our insight is experienced without using the filters through which we generally view the world around us. As the Heart Sutra says, “…form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form, the same is true of feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.” In other words, 1+2=3 and 1+2=0 are both reflecting reality. One is earth based, and the other is Universal reality. We look for effects that are manifested from unseen causes to inform us of the reality of our world. Only by cultivating wisdom will we see beyond the laminations imposed by natural laws. Our practice is learning to see they are both different and the same at the same time.
In practice we go very deep to let all mental perception drop away to get to the bare reality of how the Universe is. This is why there are so many tools in the Buddhist-toolbox to help us out. When we really work hard to find all the individual expressions of the Universe around us, we discover they are difficult to find. Everything is in a state of change. Nothing remains the same for long. So what gives our life meaning in this every changing world we become awakened to? When the relative world ‘emerges back’ to the great emptiness we speak of, what is that? How do we express this awareness in our practice? In acts of compassion that gives meaning to self and other. It is at this intersection of self and other that compassion arises. We become aware of our “singly shared existence with others”. It reflects a mature understanding of the causal lessons inherent in the Four Nobel Truths.
The word ‘love’ doesn’t arise that much in Buddhist practice. We usually speak in terms of compassion, but real compassion is real love. It is not a love that is bound by feelings, nor is it a love that is devoid of feelings either. It is not sentimental in the sense that it is not attached to or dependent upon feelings. If we only love when we have the feeling of love then that love is limited by our clinging to desired feelings, you see. If you can only help someone if you like that person, or if the way they look appeals to you, or if their need is interesting to you, then you won’t be able to help very many people. That’s the attachment aspect of being driven by our emotions. So what is this notion of real love cleansed of it’s need for clinging and desire?
One way it gets expressed is in the formal teacher-student relationship of Buddhist training. Although it is made clear right from the beginning that the teacher is not one’s friend in the conventional sense, there is a kind of dynamic where the student approaches the teacher as a kind of parent-figure because the teacher is seen as the holder of the knowledge, and thus of power. One of the things I have always valued about the Zen training model is that the teacher does not take power FROM the student, even as the student wants to give it to the teacher in many cases. The teacher meets the student knowing that they are fully capable in awakening to the dharma on their own. Having a teacher acting as a guide insures that the student remains focused in the best direction in order to awaken on their own. Our practice is a journey on a path that is not always well marked. Having an experienced guide is always wise. All skillful means in training and practice arise from this recognition. So the teacher is constantly turning the student back upon their own resources, especially in those moments when the student feels they are done. Buddhist training is never done. It requires dedication to life-long-learning. As the student seeks the dharma outside themselves, the teacher tirelessly turns the student around so they can return home. It is not a place, but a process we become awakened to; a recognition of action and accountability, of taking responsibility. It is only here that all of us realize our ultimate responsibility to everyone and everything. This is the birthplace of the bodhisattva. It is at this stage of our practice that we truly find meaning to our life here in these continuing moments.
In the beginning the student is endlessly restless, and so the teacher and the training hold the student in a small container. Having this container, which is part of the tradition of formal Zen practice, allows us to stop seeking external solutions and begin turning our awareness around upon our own body-mind. It is here we can at last begin to settle down and experience the calm-abiding that emerges from our meditation work. Because, you see, a serious meditation practice is hard work. As a student becomes more stable, which simply means better able to access their own capacity to understand beyond intellectual reasoning, that container becomes larger and the teacher can begin to demand that the student move away from a strict system of training, to one without patterns, based on their own endowed capacity to perfect. This is similar to the training of a musician. In the beginning it is all the student can do to concentrate on mastering their instrument. The music is secondary. The performance characteristics are not important. But once the student has mastered the instrument to the point that it becomes an extension of their body-mind, then serious work can begin in order to express sound as art. It is not about the instrument, it may not even be about the composition, but about our human capacity to communicate beyond language. As students, we learn about our own vast capacity.
Perhaps a more direct way somebody arrives at a clearer understanding of the meaning of life, is through what moves our spiritual energy that powers our ability to experience compassion. It is always there but we can not look with our ordinary eyes, or listen with ordinary ears. We study and meditate to learn the skills that brings this unnamed energy to the surface of our practice. It is at this state of body-mind that all notion of self dissolves.
Vaclav Havel, in his work Venture to the Interior, said this “Life is its own journey, presupposes its own change and movement, and one tries to arrest them at one’s own peril.” Our Buddhist practice is both the journey and the destination. Not everyone is a Buddhist, but everyone is a Buddha. Remember this too, we can not share something we do not have. Our practice is never quite right when we do not share the fruits of our journey. The trick is that we must be wise in that sharing.
As we continue to walk on our path in the beginning of this year, let us all find new ways of sharing our gifts in new and creative ways.
Happy New Year /\