Excerpted with permission from Idiot's Guides: Zen Living by Domyo Burk
One Big Reality
One of the first things you realize once you get a good look at reality is that a lot of the things you previously thought were real were simply your concepts about the world. It’s kind of like you’ve been wearing a pair of glasses all your life that gave everything a certain hue and were covered with little stars. Naturally, you thought the world was that color, and you probably built your worldview around the constant presence of stars. And now they’re gone!
When you view reality without the filters of your preferences, expectations, and concepts, you notice that it’s your mind that creates the differentiation between things. All along you’ve believed that your mind was doing you a big favor by pointing out distinctions that actually existed, but now you see how conceptual distinctions are just an overlay on reality. Things are complete just as they are, without reference to one another. By its very nature this observation is difficult to explain using words and concepts, but suffice it to say things are not actually separate from each other. You create the separation in your own mind.
Now, obviously the world is populated with things that don’t overlap in space and time: people and objects, places and actions. Zen is not denying any of that, which would be silly. The point is that those objects don’t require any conceptual differentiation to keep them apart. The world does not depend on your mind! This may sound ridiculously obvious, but at some level you think it does.
There’s no reason for there to be a you separate from me unless we need to engage in a practical interaction where such a distinction is useful, such as when we conduct a business transaction (it matters that you are the one paying me). When we pass each other on the street and exchange a smile, there is no need for you versus me. We are simply part of one big reality that manifests in many ways.
Because we are all part of one big reality, you can also say that all beings and things are interdependent. Whatever you do affects my reality, and vice versa. My unique position in the universe is in part characterized by your presence, and because we share a big reality anything each of us does affects the other. This accounts for the fact that at a certain level, your suffering is my suffering, as discussed in the chapter on the precepts.
However, in Zen, interdependence is not a philosophical theory to account for how morality functions, it’s a direct experience you can have. Although when you have it, it’s likely to feel surprisingly familiar. After all, you are part of the big reality whether you feel like it or not.
Bright and Precious
Viewed without the filters of conceptualization, the one big reality you’re part of appears bright, luminous, and precious. There’s no accounting for why this is, it’s just been proven again and again through the personal experiences of people from all kinds of spiritual traditions (as well as people without an identified spiritual practice). The filters with which you habitually view the world darken and limit it, while reality itself, even the ugly parts, is starkly beautiful in a strange, surprising way.
Sometimes you’ll hear this Zen teaching phrased as “things are perfect just as they are,” but to me perfection invites too much comparison, and anything you compare will fall short. I prefer the word “precious” because whether something is seen as precious is entirely up to the beholder, and you can hold something as precious that appears ugly, useless, or meaningless to someone else. Preciousness is about the viewer, not the inherent characteristics of that which is viewed.
I know a man who managed to drop his conceptual filters completely for the first time while looking at a can of tomatoes. Tears ran down his face as he suddenly appreciated how amazing and beautiful this tomato can was. Now, by regular standards there is nothing remarkable about a container of vegetables, but if you let go of any comparisons, any expectations whatsoever, the situation is very different. The entire universe in all its wonder and benevolence manifests right there in whatever is in front of you.
This may sound far-out, but imagine you live on another planet where life is very different from Earth, and a can of tomatoes falls from the sky. Without any earthly context or comparisons, it’s likely to be an object of wonder to you. What are these markings on the outside of the can? Why are there ridges along its sides? How do you open it? Who thought to put mushy red things inside a metal shell?
Eventually this ability to see things in such a direct, fresh way occurs not just in momentary peak experiences, but every day. The shape of a glass, the color of leaves on a tree, the sound of your child’s voice—any of these can suddenly appear to you without a filter, complete and luminous phenomena in and of themselves. From time to time they probably do, you just may not appreciate why.