By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
One of the most fundamental and central Buddhist teachings is that of interdependence and interconnectiveness. They are the major threads that help weave the fabric for understanding the principle of Dependent Origination (mutual-causality). In the Mahayana Buddhist traditions we might also say Inter-dependent Origination. The other two additional treads for consideration would be the principle teachings of impermanence and anatman (nonself). The Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, uses the words “inter-being” to represent this connectiveness we share with all other Universal expressions. All methods aiming at our realization of an awakened bodymind has its origin in our understanding these Buddhist constructs. This takes all our effort at skillful means to achieve the wisdom necessary to see both our independent-self, and our inter-shared-being that is what we call our Buddha nature. As we begin to merge how we see the world around us with what we see as difference, we also awaken to the reality that this Buddha nature is also Dharma. No distinction.
We must, therefore, learn to see reality as merging these differences and unite them in a seamless fashion that makes their independent form vanish. It is then that we begin to see the “big picture”. Think of it like solving a picture puzzle. All the individual pieces are arrayed in front of us, and each has a different shape, no two are alike. That is the nature of a picture puzzle after all. But the true “nature” of the puzzle is when all the pieces are put together in order to give it meaning. When we fit the pieces together, all those next to the piece being merged fit the way they were meant to be. And when that happens, we no longer see the form of each piece. The form, while having its usefulness, comes into its own when it works with all the other pieces to create a functioning whole. This is what I mean when I say it is empty of form. Or better stated: empty of its individual forms. The individual pieces do not go away, but just become one with the puzzle. But for it to be a picture puzzle, the individual pieces have great value too. In other words, we need to see one reality in two ways, which is the origin of how Siddhartha came to realize difference and unity.
In Zen, when we use the terms “Buddha Nature” or “one mind” we are speaking about the oneness of the Universe. Or about the puzzle, not its peaces. But this one-mind is a collection of many different things, and yet the reality is that it is simply one. We awaken to seeing no distinction or separation within this one reality. We stop seeing the individual pieces of a puzzle, and only see the greater image it shows back to us. But you see, individuality does not disappear, either with each of us humans, or the pieces of the puzzle for that matter. It just means that we do not discriminate between individual form.
A puzzle does not exist outside it’s individual pieces. When understanding interconnectiveness and interdependence it is important to realize that we too are a merging of difference AND unity. So, from one perspective we are an individual self, and on the other hand, we are completely interdependent with all other phenomena for our very existence. As Buddhists we work to understand this contradiction by seeing it from both directions simultaneously as a single reality.
From the very beginning of our existence we experience aloneness, we must go through the birthing process alone. Yes, we have company and share the experience with our mother, but we do not know that yet. While it might “take a village” to raise a child, we live alone and must find out how to manage our connections with others in useful and productive ways, living a life is something that requires our own energy, focus, and determination. No one can do it for us. And when we die we are really alone too. But yet, we can never be completely alone either. There are two aspects of our lives: independence and interdepdendence. It is not a matter of separate aspects of our lives. Our whole life is individual and yet is completely dependent on others for our well being. When we do not learn the value of this lesson, we open ourselves up to much suffering. If we don’t understand and awaken to this reality, we become mentally and physically unhealthy. This is especially a problem in Western cultures, as we place much emphasis on individualism and the notion of a false sense of freedom.
There is a danger interwoven into the potential of a rigorous Zen practice. For some, they try to go beyond seeing the value of their individuality. They work to “become one with the Universe”, because they still have not seen that they have never been separated from it. There is nothing to subtract. Merging with differences and trying to achieve unity IS NOT IT. This is not enlightenment. When we see our individual self we are not enlightened. When we see we are united with all things, we are not enlightened either. Even when we have enlightened moments we must be cautions in understanding what is happening. An ordinary life (samsara) or a liberated life (nirvana) are not two separate realities. With form, or without form, living in delusion or being awakened, is not different as this is the teaching of emptiness. All of this is still thinking. We can not think our way to enlightenment. When we sit zazen we are both an individual and universal. The trick is not to let our egos tell us differently. When Dogen said, “Practice and enlightenment is one,” he is saying that our practice is our own and enlightenment is universal. There is no separation between my awakened state of mind and another’s, but my practice is my own. I can not practice for someone else. My practice is a very personal intentional action, which when done with a clear mind, is manifestation of how the Universe is. So zazen is the merging of difference and unity. When we sit and let go of all thought, we are expressing our own unity with all things. We use the experience of our meditation practice to inform us of how to act “off the cushion.” Meditation is the act in which we realize our universal unity as well as work to realize how we can promote our personal well being, and take both lessons into everyday life situations.