Everyone wants answers. We figure answers tell us how to live more happily. Answers let us fix things, while questions are simply problems to be solved with answers. Preferably answers come sooner than later because questions point to limitations in our understanding or ability, and they’re often associated with discomfort.
I think this view of questions is unfortunate, because the process of arousing and engaging questions is where all growth and aliveness occurs. We directly encounter life when we recognize something we don’t know, when we become curious, when we move forward into life even while knowing we don’t have things figured out. It’s well worth the discomfort, but there are many reasons we choose, instead, to stay within the limits of what we’re sure of – or overestimate how far our understanding extends.
Here’s a lovely story illustrating how someone can refuse to overestimate the power and relevance of their answers:
In the documentary “No Ordinary Genius,” Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a story of how he was taught to question things as child. He observed that when he pulled his wagon with a ball in it, the ball would roll to the back of the wagon. When he would stop the wagon, the ball would roll to the front. He asked his father why. His father responded, impressively, with an explanation of the law of physics that states an object in motion stays in motion, or an object at rest stays at rest, unless an outside force acts on it.
Now, most parents would be more than satisfied to have provided such an erudite answer to their child and they’d stop there. Feynman’s father, however, continued. “This tendency is called inertia,” he said, “And no one knows why it’s true.”
Admitting to ourselves that we don’t know something can trigger a sense of inadequacy or panic. To know is to be able to predict and control, to rationalize and explain, to make sense of things. To not know something after the age of 18 is usually seen as a slightly embarrassing situation that we can only hope is temporary. If we admit to others that we don’t know something, they are usually very concerned for us and try either to provide us with an answer or advise us where to find one.
Sometimes we find some good, inspiring answers. That’s great – but considering the universe is infinite, there will always be more questions waiting if we are open to them.
I once had the opportunity to ask my Zen teacher a question in the midst of ceremony that took place in front of a couple hundred people. I asked a question that had been troubling me for some time: “When he was enlightened, the Buddha said he awakened simultaneously with all beings, but how does the Buddha’s awakening benefit beings who do not see what he saw? What about those beings with heavy karma, or in whom the way-seeking mind has not arisen – those who do not experience the relief and joy of his realization?”
I was trembling a little because of how much I cared about this question. To explain it a little further, while I was fully convinced that spiritual practice can result in liberation and peace, I wondered whether such liberation was just a matter of adopting a particular alignment of mind and heart. Is awakening simply being able to see the universe as complete and precious (a view), or is the universe actually complete and precious?
If salvation lies solely in achieving a particular understanding or embracing a particular faith, it will be of limited usefulness in saving the world. We will never manage to convert everybody to the path that has resulted in salvation for us. On the other hand, if beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what – as our saints and sages tell us they do – then there’s hope.
Gyokuko, my kind teacher, answered me with a smile, “How could Buddha-nature not benefit all beings?” (Or something like that, I can’t remember exactly.)
My response: “But…”
Gyokuko asked if I could see our luminous, complete Buddha-nature.
“Yes!” I answered. “But…”
Before I could launch into another explication of my doubt, Gyokuko said, “You do not see It.”
I paused for a split second, ready to keep arguing, but then bowed abruptly in response and with deep sincerity spoke the ceremonial words that end this kind of exchange, “Thank you, great teacher, for your great compassion.” This elicited some laughter from the audience because of the timing.
For a time, Gyokuko’s answer inflamed my ego with a sense of humiliation. “Great,” I thought, “Now everyone knows I don’t know something so fundamental. Many people will assume they know the answer when they actually don’t, just as they might think describing the physical law of inertia actually explains what’s going on when a ball appears to roll when the wagon beneath it moves. They’ll pity me and think they’re more realized than I am.” But at some point I just set aside any concern about what others might think or about how my understanding rates in the world of Zen. Screw it, I thought, the only thing that matters is the truth, and wrestling wholeheartedly with questions is the only way I know to get closer to it.
After the ego-centered moment passed, Gyokuko’s answer brought great hope. If I kept engaging the question, I would see it someday. I would have the direct experience of how beauty, perfection, and love pervade everyone and everything no matter what, and how the deepest truth is not dependent on one’s understanding or faith. I would be able to tap into that in order to help save the world. And if I had never asked the question, my realization might have remained shallow.
Do you realize how many questions there are you don’t really know the answer to? What keeps us from opening our hearts to one another every time we meet? What is the nature of our experience of time? What is it inside us that always knows what is generous and kind? How do we fully face and appreciate the fact that we will die? Is there a time to fight? What is it that allows us to keep participating in destructive and unjust systems? Wholeheartedly engaging any one of these questions could open up a lifetime of discovery and growth.
Don’t be satisfied with half-assed answers. And ultimately all answers are half-assed.
Photo by tracy apps, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/4Exzp5, Some rights reserved
In one of the most famous Zen koans, a monk asks Zen master Joshu whether a dog has buddha nature. According to Buddhist teachings, all beings have – or are – awakened nature. This may be interpreted as saying all beings have the potential to awaken to reality and liberate themselves and others from self-imposed suffering, or that all life wakes up to the truth eventually, so all beings will inevitably become buddhas. It’s a lovely vision in any case.
Joshu answers the monk, “Mu.” This can be translated as “no,” or “nothing,” or just as a negation. The koan asks, “Why did Joshu say mu?”
Now I think I understand why, at least in part. It essentially comes down to this: Zen is not about having faith in ideas, even nice ones.
Over many years of practice, I was overjoyed to develop the deep conviction that all being has, or is, buddha nature. It was deeply healing to become personally convinced that compassion is built into the structure of the physical and moral universe. That we cannnot gain advantage at the expense of others without paying a price, whether we acknowledge it or not. That life, when viewed without the filter of any expectations or views whatsoever is inherently luminous and precious.
How wonderful! After many years of cynicism and despair, I had found a firm foundation of faith from which to operate. I could greet the world with optimism and joy.
Or so I thought. Recently, I have been consciously opening myself back up to grave troubles of the world. I have deliberately expanded my sphere of awareness beyond my personal everyday life – which is more or less peaceful and fortunate – to include climate crisis, environmental devastation, species extinctions, social injustice, senseless violence, and rampant greed.
As I contemplated the unimaginable suffering in the world, I found myself reaching for the faith that has developed through my Zen practice. Somehow, despite everything, everything is ultimately okay. Right? But the specter of doubt began sneaking around the periphery of my mind and heart. Did the sociopathic murderer have buddha nature? Will all beings awaken before all life on earth is destroyed? It began to feel as if I was clinging desperately to my faith in ultimate goodness, and that faith was starting to feel – as much as I hated to admit it – shallow, fragile, and trite.
But then I remembered what it was I really had faith in, which is the practice of dropping all views. With some trepidation I embraced what Zen calls “don’t-know mind.” This mind would perhaps be better called “view-free mind” because it is an interested, curious, open, caring mind (not a mind that shrugs and accepts a limited understanding). As soon as I had let go of my favorite ideas about ultimate goodness, I was liberated and refreshed.
Any conclusions I draw outside of my own experience are views I have developed. Those views may be useful, at times, for making decisions, or for communicating with other people. And they can be inspiring and motivating – I certainly enjoy it when I have a sense that awakening, connection, or compassion runs through all life like a blood vessel. And yet Zen practice is not about hanging on to even the most noble of views.
You see, it doesn’t matter whether all beings have or are buddha nature, or whether the inherent preciousness of the universe is any more “real” than the pervasive delusion of the universe. We can’t actually know these things, and we don’t have to. The only question before each of us is, “What will I do?” To choose the path of compassion and awakening based on our own direct experience of life is the ultimate act of generosity and courage.
As I awaken my own buddha nature and act in the world, I am repeatedly met by buddha nature. It is a lovely and encouraging occurrence. Will I always be met thus? Contemplating that question involves indulging in abstraction, focusing on the future, and, in a subtle way, getting caught in self-concern. After all, isn’t the question actually about whether I am right about buddha nature, or whether I’m wrong and will end up being taken for a fool?
Moving forward with don’t-know, or view-free, mind is to move without defenses. As another Zen master said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If you think of yourself as having a Zen practice, you should regularly ask yourself this question. On the other hand, if the question stresses you out, you’re missing the point of Zen practice.
I am coming to believe that the essence of Zen is learning to embrace paradox. This means learning to fully engage with life even when you encounter a situation where two apparently contradictory things are simultaneously true. In paradox, it’s not that one thing is sometimes true and the opposing thing is true at other times. It’s not that the situation looks a particular way from one vantage point, and looks another way from a different vantage point. In paradox, both things are fully true at exactly the same time.
When you consider how hard you’re practicing, the paradox is this:
- You can always practice harder, and should, and
- Perfect, complete practice is always – and instantly – available to you this very moment.
Let’s examine both sides of this paradox, and then how real practice is about fully actualizing both.
How “hard” you practice makes an enormous difference to your life, and to your ability to be awake for it. Hard practice is about effort and time. Practicing harder means you sit more zazen. It means you devote more time and energy to activities that strengthen your resolve and mindfulness, such as participating with sangha, Zen study, or meditation retreats. Practicing harder means you make sacrifices. You spend your vacation time at a Zen retreat instead of in Hawaii. Instead of sleeping in, you get up and sit. Instead of relaxing in your garden with a lemonade on a hot summer day, you go sit zazen in a stuffy zendo that smells of sweat. Instead of drifting on to a new, more interesting activity when Zen gets a little dull or grueling, you make a commitment to stick it out no matter what.
Hard practice moment by moment means being brutally honest with yourself. Are you being lazy right now? Chances are the answer is, “Yes.” In the context of practice, laziness means “the failure to apply what is wholesome.” At some level you know that you are indulging unhelpful habits or self-concern, but you do it anyway. At some level you know that such-and-such an action would be beneficial, but you don’t bother to do it. We make little excuses to ourselves all day long, pushing deep mindfulness and compassion around the next corner.
It’s not without reason that Zen master Dogen wrote, “Be mindful of the passing of time, and engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire.” Most of us who engage in spiritual practice have the experience, at some time or another, of feeling as if we have momentarily awakened from the dream that is our everyday life. This is a very liberating but disconcerting experience. It’s liberating because you can see how your everyday stresses and concerns are, in a sense, unreal, or not nearly as imperative as you thought. Waking up from the dream is disconcerting because you know you are going to fall asleep again.
Seeing your everyday life as a dream may sound dismissive or judgmental, as if you are concluding that normal human activities are petty and unimportant. That’s not the case. It’s just that when you see things from a greater perspective, priorities get realigned in a radical way.
It may help you understand this process of “waking up” if I use a different metaphor, one offered by an ancient Buddhist text called the Lotus Sutra. In the sutra’s parable of the burning house, a man’s children are playing inside a house that is on fire and full of all kinds of other dangers. He calls to his children, trying to convince them to come outside, but they are so wrapped up in their play that they ignore him. Eventually he persuades them to come out by convincing them even better playthings await them out of doors.
Of course, the parable of the burning house is an analogy for practice. The father is trying to get his children to practice – to let go of their attachment to their playthings and come outside, where a larger perspective will let them see how ephemeral life is. In summary: if we don’t practice hard to wake up, if we don’t let go of our fascination with the stuff of our lives, death will catch us unawares. And: when you look at things from a big perspective, even the most important concerns and projects of our lives appear like playthings. There’s nothing wrong with playthings, or play! But do you want to sacrifice your life for them?
Perfect Practice – Instantly
The parable of the burning house also holds the other side of our paradox about hard practice. The father convinces his children to emerge from the house by enticing them with visions of the wonderful playthings that await them outside. When they come out, what they find is practice. In the very act of leaving the house they have received the greatest reward they could have, and it isn’t another plaything. (The sutra makes the point that you could accuse the father of falsehood, but because this was an act of compassion it was okay for him to embellish the truth.)
Ironically, when we get too concerned about waking up from the dream, getting out of the house, attaining the larger perspective, or knowing that we’re practicing hard enough, we are still letting ourselves be fascinated with playthings. Now we’re after “spiritual” playthings, but they’re still just distractions. We’ll find ourselves lingering at the door of the burning house, deliberating about whether to let go of the toy in our hand in order to go outside and see if there’s something better there. Maybe there is, but maybe we’ll regret letting go of what we have. Or, having momentarily left the house, we’ll find ourselves back inside, returning to our playthings as if we’re addicted to them. Being stuck in the house with the awareness that it’s burning can be even worse that never having seen our life from a larger perspective at all.
This brings us to the other aspect of practice, which is true all along, even as we have to work diligently, spend the time, and make the sacrifices: there is a sense in which practice operates outside of every rule known to humankind. It defies every definition, and is not bounded in space or time. While it doesn’t make any sense that you can practice perfectly, this moment, even after decades of laziness, it’s true. To think that practice is something more than this is delusion. Ultimately, you just put down your toys and come out of the house. It really is that simple.
You know this instantaneous, perfect practice. You know the peace of letting go of self-concern. You know the ease of putting aside all your worries and activities to just be. You know the feeling of deep intimacy with life that can be aroused by an inspirational story, a poem, a piece of music, or a grand, natural vista. If you can drop your playthings, including the spiritual ones that require you to keep track of your laziness, nothing keeps you from leaving the burning house.
And Yet… BOTH Are True at the Same Time
Most of us want to hold on to one side or the other of this paradox about Zen practice. Either we get stuck striving to awaken (or to awaken more, or to be awake more often), or we realize practice is instantly available to us at any time and leave it at that. The latter view is especially tempting. After all, why work so hard when you can just relax and enjoy life, and dip into awakened mind now and then?
The fact is, even though we can leave the burning house at any time, even though we can wake up from the dream of everyday life at any time, we usually don’t. We spend most of our time playing and dreaming, more or less happily. If we practice harder, we strengthen the habit of waking up and getting out.
But once the sincere intention to practice harder arises, we can avoid stress and heartache by keeping in mind the other side of the paradox: by practicing hard we’re just trying to learn how to make the choice to be awake, to take the larger perspective. There is no obstacle to awakening that we are trying to overcome with a good Zen practice resumé. And yet…
 From the essay “Zazen-gi” by Zen Master Dogen, as translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi in Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, North Point Press, 1985
Image courtesy of markuso / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
You can choose to be enlightened this moment. Your enlightenment does not depend on any skill such as the ability to concentrate, the ability to stay in the present moment, or the ability to overcome your attachments.
Perfect Zen meditation, or zazen, is the same thing as enlightenment. The reality of enlightenment can never be completely conveyed in words, but these point toward it: resting in the sufficiency of being. Letting go of the concern for self that leads us to ponder the past and anticipate the future. Existing wholeheartedly in the moment. Open, aware, ready and dignified. Drinking in the truth that is beyond dualisms like good and bad, useful and useless, like and dislike. Coming home to true self-nature.
We don’t practice zazen in order to get enlightened, we practice being enlightened as we practice zazen. How do we do this? Usually we are taught techniques for concentration, or for returning our attention to present. For most of us, it is a struggle to employ these techniques, and we don’t end up feeling very successful at them. A few people may be good at controlling their minds, but then they tend ask, “Is this it?”
It is an unfortunate misunderstanding of zazen, and of Zen practice in general, to think we need to become very skilled at some technique in order to penetrate to the truth and attain enlightenment. This often results in people giving up their practice, or in people thinking that they just don’t have what it takes: they plod along, trying to be satisfied with the small benefits that come along with practice, figuring enlightenment is far beyond their current grasp.
For many of us, it is more helpful to think of trying to convert our hearts, minds and bodies to a willingness to choose enlightenment. To choose enlightenment requires great courage. It requires an experiential understanding that we can let go of our habitual ways of being and thinking, and be supported by reality. It requires that we face our fears, and work with our conditioning. We have to generate the determination and curiosity that lets us take a leap into what we fear will be a void, but which ends up being the fullness of infinite potential.
As we try to sit zazen and be enlightened, we notice all the ways we resist it. We learn to recognize all the ways we avoid, fear, neglect and dismiss reality. There are reasons for all of the things we do. The body, heart and mind are not resisting just to be difficult. They are not simply disobeying the part of us that would like to meditate, concentrate, taste peace, let go, and cultivate insight. They are acting out our delusions and fears while trying to take care of us as best they know how.
Looking at practice this way means that simply trying to return the mind to the present over and over isn’t good enough. It’s not enough to strive to improve a skill, as if enlightenment or “good” zazen is something we can attain if we just try hard enough, for long enough. When we do this we are pitting ourselves against enlightenment, which is contrary to the whole idea of waking up.
Instead, we recognize that we aren’t willing to choose enlightenment yet – but it is essential that we do this without the slightest bit of judgment. It is just what it is. This can be a fruitful way to approach practice if it results in the generation of compassion for ourselves, gentle patience, and a determined curiosity. What is it that keeps us from choosing enlightenment? What is it that keeps us from settling into the sufficiency of being in our zazen? What we are still holding on to? What fears or beliefs keep us grasping after things?
If we notice something that is keeping us from choosing enlightenment, we work with it. Perhaps we are afraid of lack and can work on cultivating generosity in our daily life. Perhaps we believe that if we let go of thinking, our life will get out of control. If so, we can try letting go for a few moments at a time and observe closely how we end up better able to take care of our life. Perhaps we assume that the simplicity of this moment is not worth our attention, and we can examine our concern for the constant gratification of the self’s desires. This kind of work continues for our whole life, even after we have tasted enlightenment, because we want to continue choosing it, more and more often.
Many people will say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” What does this really mean, and what significance do these concepts have in our world?
When people describe themselves as “spiritual” they usually mean that they pay attention to aspects of life beyond our personal physical, emotional and mental concerns. By “spiritual” they refer to intangible things like meaning, universal truths, the nature of existence, or, literally, spirits and deities.
When they say they are “not religious,” on the other hand, people are usually saying that they are not actively involved with any of the human institutions or traditions that have evolved to address spiritual concerns.
There are many reasons people forgo being religious. They may not have found a religion that appealed to them. They may have been hurt by involvement in a religion and subsequently become suspicious of all of them. They may regard spiritual concerns as a very private matter and prefer to investigate and address such things on their own. They may not feel motivated enough to spend the time, energy and money required for active engagement in a religion.
At least many non-religious people will admit to being spiritual. What a shame it is if they don’t! What is a human life lived without attention to aspects of life beyond our personal physical, emotional and mental concerns? Doesn’t a lack of interest in intangible things like meaning, universal truths, the nature of existence, or God result in a small, self-absorbed life?
If many people can’t be bothered with “spirituality,” perhaps part of the problem springs from the way we conceive of it to begin with. When we specify “spiritual,” we usually conceive of a realm separate from our everyday lives – that is, our basic physical, emotional and mental concerns. This “spiritual” realm becomes disembodied and well, frankly, rather ethereal and fruity at times: filled with goodness, light, and anthropomorphized trees. To experience something spiritual comes to mean experiencing something special.
For many people “spiritual” sounds like something too removed from their everyday life, something extra. Their everyday life may be rich and challenging and just fine, thank you very much, so who needs this extra thing called spirituality? Or their everyday life may be troubled but “spirituality” doesn’t seem to offer anything relevant or useful.
What if we conceived differently our human relationship to aspects of life beyond our personal physical, emotional and mental concerns? What if we considered it a human responsibility to become a student of life and to practice diligently throughout our lifetime to get better and better at being human?
Being a human is an amazingly complex experience, an enormous responsibility, and an incredible opportunity. Our capacity to learn and adapt is unlimited. The different ways we can manifest, express ourselves, create, destroy, heal and harm are infinite. We change throughout our lives physically, emotionally and mentally. And yet we commonly hold that someone knows how to be responsible for a human life once they are eighteen years old. Or maybe 21, 25, 30 or 40. If someone doesn’t “have it together” at least by the time they are middle aged we think it’s pretty sad.
What does it mean to get better and better at being a human being? You get to know yourself intimately – your strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. You learn how to best handle yourself, like you would learn to handle a car in order to provide a smooth, efficient, safe ride. You carefully examine and work through your stuck places so you can respond to beings and situations with presence, patience and compassion. You search out and face your deepest fears so they can’t control you from behind or sneak up on you at a vulnerable moment. You take any opportunity you can to explore your relationship to the universe so you continually deepen your understanding about your place in it, and about the nature of existence.
When we practice being human, it is a process without end. Practicing being human can include every aspect of our lives – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or religious. It includes our special feelings and insights, and it includes our annoyance at having to take out the trash. Practicing being human is not optional or extra. It is an ennobling responsibility, and utterly fascinating.
So we needn’t be religious, or even spiritual, according to the usual definitions of these terms. However, let’s not relegate the profound practice of being human only to the spiritual or religious realms. It would greatly benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we embraced the practice of being human like we might embrace a new area of study or a new kind of physical training. “Practice” means to carry out, apply, and to perform repeatedly so as to become proficient. There is no limit to how proficient, even masterful, we can become at being human.
If "koan" was a more widely used and understood word in English, I would have described this blog as "Essays on the Koan of Life." In Zen, a koan is a question, problem or situation that requires (sometimes demands) resolution, but cannot be resolved through reason. According to the Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, "a koan requires a leap to another level of comprehension."
I like the understanding of conundrum as "a logical postulation that evades resolution, an intricate and difficult problem," but feel ambivalent about the more classical definition of the word as a "riddle whose answer is or involves a pun or unexpected twist."1 I do not mean to imply that I think life is a joke. Life has its moments of lightness and humor, but to summarize it as a riddle with a pun for a punchline suggests a sad cynicism with spiritual desperation at its core.
Still, there is a sense in which "a riddle whose answer involves… [an] unexpected twist" is appropriate when we are talking about the Koan of Life. Life offers us countless koans. How do I live each day to the fullest? How do I avoid being paralyzed by fear of illness, loss and death? How do I deal with that co-worker that sets my teeth on edge? Who am I, really? Is there anything in this universe upon which I can rely? When we resolve these koans for ourselves (and yes, it is possible!), inevitably it requires a radical shift in perspective reminiscent of the one required to answer the conundrum, "When is a door not a door?" with "When it is ajar!"
One last note about koans, from E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful:
"G.N.M. Tyrell has put forward the terms 'divergent' and 'convergent' to distinguish problems which cannot be solved by logical reasoning from those that can. Life is being kept going by divergent problems which have to be 'lived'… Convergent problems on the other hand are man's most useful invention… When they are solved, the solution can be written down and passed on to others, who can apply it without needing to reproduce the mental effort necessary to find it. If this were the case with human relations – in family life, economics, politics, education, and so forth – well, I am at a loss how to finish the sentence."
A koan is a divergent problem as faced by an individual, who must live out the answer him or herself.
1 Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conundrum