Spiritual teachings, including those found in Zen, basically assert the following: There is a sense in which everything is okay when life is viewed from a larger perspective. The key to maintaining happiness and peace in our lives is connecting with, or having faith in, the reality of this larger perspective.
All spiritual practices and traditions are essentially about how we face the profoundly unnerving difficulties of human life while maintaining some level of happiness and peace. How do we cope with illness, pain, unbearable loss, poverty, old age, death, violence, and injustice? How do we function with some measure of joy and equanimity? Even when our lives are going well, how do we relieve the underlying stress that comes from knowing our worldly happiness is fragile and ephemeral – that our fortunes can change in an instant, and pain is inevitable?
In theistic traditions, God is beneficent and brings a divine order to the universe. Although humans may lose faith in His love and His divine plan as they struggle with their challenges, this is only because they have gotten caught up in drama at the human scale, and lost the larger perspective. A person of strong theistic faith will find immense strength and relief even in the most horrible of circumstances by reminding themselves that everything is in God’s hands, and therefore fundamentally okay. Although this life may bring great suffering, it’s just a brief period of trial before everlasting life in heaven.
Zen (and Buddhism in general) is a non-theistic spiritual tradition, but we also find solace and strength by recalling a larger perspective. We suffer when we get caught up in the drama of the small self, and caught in the illusion that we’re separate from everything and everyone else. But then we try to remember that everything in the universe is part of one, seamless, luminous reality, and that this reality is lively and miraculous. This our direct, personal experience of reality when we manage to drop all of our conceptual filters – including the one that imagines our self to be separate and inherently existent. Free from any expectations of how things should or shouldn’t be, we are struck with gratitude and awe because this vast play of universal liveliness exists rather than not existing.
The larger perspective, or the spiritual sense in which everything is okay even when our life is falling apart, isn’t easy to explain, understand, attain, or maintain. Unless you’ve experience it for yourself, you may not relate to the idea of finding solace in surrendering to God’s will, or trying to directly experience non-separation from universal liveliness. It may sound like wishful thinking. But once you’ve experienced it, you know the larger perspective reflects a level of reality that in a certain sense is more true than our mundane experience, because the larger perspective includes but transcends the smaller.
What does this mean to our daily life of practice? When we’re struggling, we naturally need to take care of mundane affairs and hope things will improve. If we’re sick we need to see the doctor and work on our health. If we can’t pay our bills, we need to find ways to make money. At the same time, we can find strength and solace in the midst of our activities by recalling the sense in which everything is – and will be – okay, no matter what happens. If our conviction that this is the case isn’t so strong, we can work toward a direct, personal experience of the larger perspective.
Do you realize that zazen is the most profound thing we do? For many of us, zazen becomes a habit we maintain because it benefits our lives, and this is great! However, we’re missing out if we don’t realize – at least occasionally – that zazen is much more than we usually think it is.
First of all, how do we usually think of zazen? We just sit there, trying to be present. When our minds inevitably wander, we “bring them back” to the present by directing our attention to something simple like our breathing, or the sounds we can hear. We put in our time – 10, 20, 30 minutes – and there you have it!
Amazingly, even if we never get a sense that zazen is more than this, it still increases our sanity, peace of mind, and appreciation for our lives (among other things).
However, here’s another way to look at/experience zazen:
We diligently strive for the “sweet spot” between trying to make something happen and tuning out because nothing is happening. Our normal, self-centered way of being has three modes, or ways to relate to whatever it is we encounter:
- I like this or I think it’s going to benefit me, I want more of it!
- I don’t like this or I think it’s going to hurt me, I want it to go away or stop now.
- This is irrelevant to me, I don’t need to pay any attention to it.
Doing – or allowing – zazen (that is, shikantaza, or “just sitting”) directly challenges our normal, self-centered way of being. It asks us to be as alert and attentive as if our hair was on fire (!) even as we give up every single agenda, no matter how subtle. We let go of trying to improve ourselves, understand, feel more calm, gain insight, relax, everything. We even let go of “trying to be awake for each moment of our life” in a kind of greedy way. It’s amazing how pervasive and subtle our agendas are… there’s almost always one lurking below the surface if you look for it.
But then, as we let go of our agendas, we slip into dullness, distraction, or torpor. We’re not trying to get anything or make anything happen, so we check out. Frankly, we don’t even know how to pay attention if there’s no agenda involved! Or maybe it’s that we’ve forgotten how to pay attention if there’s no agenda involved; I like to think we naturally knew how to do this when we were children. We could just sit and be. We could just let time pass without even thinking about how mindful we were being.
It’s not at all easy to find that sweet spot between self-centered effort and self-centered tuning out. That’s part of the whole koan of zazen! We need to keep exploring and experimenting with our own being until we find zazen.
Here’s where zazen gets profound. We assume that if we manage to allow true shikantaza, it will be pretty boring. We’ll just be sitting there. Sure, we want to be awake to our life moment after moment, but how many moments of sitting staring at a wall do you really need? But our assumptions about what zazen will be like are entirely wrong. When we manage to allow zazen – even for a moment – it’s like waking up from a dream.
In a moment of true zazen, we just are. We need nothing else whatsoever to validate our life. None of our agendas need to be fulfilled in order for us to be complete. We notice how our Being interpenetrates the air we breathe, everything around us, everything we perceive, all beings, the planet, reality. There is no one who hears separate from that which is heard, there is only the intimate phenomenon of hearing, which depends on ear, mind, hearer, the heard, air, sound waves, the right timing, and everything that led to all of those things existing.
This is not a far-out, “spiritual” experience, it’s just a moment of simply being. The most profound thing we can do. It’s immensely calming, healing, and connecting. As Zen master Keizan put it, “zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.”
Spiritual longing, like any desire, can cause great distress and be an obstacle in spiritual practice. It also is a great force that can propel us along a difficult path and drive us to investigate the deepest and scariest spiritual questions, so I heartily encourage it.
For about seven long years of my junior Zen training, I was in a pretty much constant state of anguish due to my spiritual longing. These years followed three or four initial “honeymoon” years, when I was thrilled with my discovery of Zen and used it to transform my life. I anticipated being able to continue to “succeed” at Zen the way I had succeeded at many other things, but soon I began to encounter teachings that would not yield to my habitual kind of investigation. I longed to understand what I could not, master what I had not, and be something I was not – at least that I wasn’t yet.
My spiritual longing was aroused by chants like this part of the Hsin Hsin Ming, or Affirming Faith In Mind (by Chinese Zen ancestor Kanchi Sosan), which we would chant daily at the meditation retreats I attended:
The Way is perfect like vast space,
where there’s no lack and no excess.
Our choice to choose and to reject
prevents our seeing this simple truth.
Both striving for the outer world
as well as for the inner void
condemn us to entangled lives.
Just calmly see that all is One
and by themselves false views will go.
Attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity
Remaining in duality,
you’ll never know of unity.
And not to know this unity lets conflict
lead you far astray.
This chant felt like a taunt after several hours of seated meditation during which, for me, there might not have been a single moment when I was not choosing and rejecting, striving and entangled. There was rarely a moment that seemed “perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.” And if there was, it was fleeting and impossible to re-create. I was very familiar with the fact that, as the chant says, “attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity,” but the chant goes on to remind us that “remaining in duality you’ll never know of unity.” Can’t stop activity, but also can’t stop the effort unless you resign yourself to – god forbid – never knowing of unity and letting yourself get led far astray!
The Hsin Hsin Ming was far from the only teaching that aroused my longing while making the object of my longing seem very, very far away. Even the simplest of our chants, Dogen’s instructions for zazen (Fukanzazengi) tells us that if we “take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward,” “body and mind of themselves will drop away, and [our] original face will manifest.” What was my original face? Would I see it only after a dramatic awakening experience? Why couldn’t I get my body and mind to drop away, no matter how hard I tried?
My unrequited spiritual longing led to real despair. Such suffering may seem trite to some people, but then I would guess they have never experienced it. I wrote poems during this period of angst which I have saved in order to help me remember what it was like. Here’s one:
On the day of my deepest desperation,
there is not the slightest sympathy
in the gleaming yellow of the daffodils.
They simply wait
for my return.
To me, life seemed bleak and pointless. I had lost my taste for everything, so there was no distraction or solace to be found. I was on the outside looking in, separated from my original face, from unity, from the One, from Buddha-nature, from those who knew.
I remember the brilliance of the daffodils in the spring sunshine, beaming despite my suffering. The daffodils and Zen masters seemed to murmur together about the great mystery of life, just out of my hearing. They all looked down on me in pity, saying to each other, “Oh, it is so obvious, doesn’t she see it?”
For each of us our deepest spiritual longing takes a different form or attaches itself to different words, and this can also change over time. I wanted to know I was fundamentally OK – acceptable, worthy, lovable. At times I longed to be able to speak and act freely and spontaneously, as my “true self,” free from the constraint of self-consciousness. I also craved understanding. I wanted to know for myself what the masters were talking about.
And yet I kept on, because my longing was greater than my despair:
Even after all the effort,
the grief is not gone.
Having tried everything,
having mastered nothing,
there is no hope even
for temporary relief. And no one else can help.
(Consumed as they are by their own struggles, or,
their encouragements echoing,
across the abyss
that separates sanity from despair.)
And yet it seems there is some shred of faith left:
on an aimless barefoot walk in the cold rain,
careless of broken glass
and unyielding pavement,
stooping to pick up two fallen camellias,
cradling pink rain-dropped petals
all the way home,
finding a shallow glass dish
and filling it with water,
setting the camellias afloat in it –
The terrible irony of spiritual teachings that arouse spiritual longing is that the Buddha’s first teaching is that craving is the very cause of dissatisfaction! But while it may seem relatively straightforward that we should let go of our desire for worldly things like fame, wealth and pleasure, how can we awaken if we let go of our desire to awaken? Should we really just give up our desire for liberation and enlightenment?
The answer is a paradoxical “yes” and “no” – typical of Zen. “Yes,” because to realize what the Zen masters are talking about, we have to let go of any idea, let alone any hope, of enlightenment. “No,” because until we understand what the Zen masters are talking about, we don’t know what it means to let go of any idea of enlightenment. There is no use in pretending to be enlightened before we are. It doesn’t help to anticipate the final answer and try to avoid going through the process to get there. Ideally we don’t give up our longing until we are truly satisfied; this keeps us motivated, searching and practicing.
After all, Zen Master Dogen made an incredibly arduous and dangerous trip to China in the 1200’s because of his spiritual longing. He wasn’t fully satisfied with the Buddhist teachings and practices he encountered in Japan, so he traveled to China where he encountered Soto Zen and achieved the understanding he longed for. Later he wrote, “Why leave the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep you stumble past what is directly in front of you.” This sounds very wise, but hindsight is 20/20. I sometimes wonder whether Dogen didn’t hear a teaching exactly like that from one of his Buddhist teachers before he left for China, but nevertheless had to make the trip to truly understand it.
If you will indulge me, another poem from my years of junior training to remind me how I felt:
Is an aspiration still an aspiration
when you stop believing you can attain it,
when you stop believing it can be attained?
Just one of billions –
a number beyond imagining –
and full of rot,
sainthood recedes like a puddle of water
in a hot pan.
I, for one,
had soup for lunch,
stooped to caress a cat on the sidewalk,
and drew easier breath
under the yellow-garland cottonwoods
on the riverbank.
What have I to do with saints? their
insight and perfection,
their principles and influence?
And yet, I’m not ready to fold up
in my stacks of linens
or drown in my dishwater.
Those sages agitate my living
like a mosquito near my pillow in the night.
I keep going forward,
more and more hopeless but
unable to ignore that sound.
Before we awaken to our true nature, our spiritual work is like polishing a tile to make a mirror. This image comes from an ancient Zen story about the interaction between a Zen teacher, Nangaku, and his student, Baso. Baso had been sitting constantly in zazen for ten years. In his fascicle called Kokyo (translated by Nishijima and Cross), Dogen writes, “We can imagine what it is like in [Baso’s] thatched hut on a rainy night. There is no mention of him letting up on a cold floor sealed in by snow.” Can you imagine this kind of dedication fueled by anything other than longing?
Nangaku went to visit Baso and asked him, “What is the aim of sitting in Zazen?”
Baso answered, “The aim of sitting in Zazen is to become a Buddha.”
Nangaku then picked up a roof tile and started rubbing it against a rock. Baso asked him what he was doing. Nangaku replied, “I am polishing a tile.”
Baso asked, “What is the use of polishing a tile?”
Nangaku said, “I am polishing it into a mirror.”
Baso asked, “How can polishing a tile make it into a mirror?”
Nangaku answered, “How can sitting Zazen make you into a Buddha?”
At one level this story points at the folly of our efforts in spiritual practice, when we are still stumbling past what is directly in front of us. Sometimes people in practice have some idea about what the result of practice will be, and when the master sets them to polishing a tile they figure he knows what he’s talking about and they earnestly and busily go to work. Some time later when they are getting frustrated, they think the master has made a fool of them and they get angry. They may even think they have solved the riddle of Zen practice by saying, “Forget this tile-polishing! There’s nothing to get, I had it all along, and the test was just to see how long I would go about this foolish business.” But this is not a real answer. This may make a person’s life easier, but it won’t really satisfy their spiritual longing.
At deeper level, earnestly and diligently polishing a tile is sacred activity even if you can’t make a mirror out of it. In his compassion Dogen writes:
“For several hundred years, since ancient times, most people interpreting this story – great matter that it is – have thought that Nangaku was simply spurring Baso on. That is not necessarily so… the making of mirrors through the polishing of tiles has been dwelt in and retained in the bones and marrow of eternal buddhas; and, this being so, the eternal mirror exists having been made from a tile… Tiles are not dirty; we just polish a tile as a tile. In this state, the virtue of making a mirror is realized, and this just the effort of Buddhist [ancestors].” (Kokyo, translated by Nishijima and Cross)
When we just polish a tile as a tile – when we just sit zazen – ironically our goal is realized. But this is not easy. Most of the time we keep on sitting zazen in order to become a buddha, which is a mistake, but there is no way to correct that mistake without continuing to sit zazen.
The mistake is that we are looking somewhere else for the object of our longing. We can’t help it, it’s the habit of a lifetime or more. Even looking within ourselves for the answer doesn’t help, because even that is actually still looking somewhere else. We have to stop any looking whatsoever. When someone asks you to show your original face you cannot hesitate for an instant, wondering where it is or whether you can manage to show it. It is not that you find your original face and hang onto it for such occasions, holding it up with confidence and saying, here it is! Rather, it is that you are no longer tempted leave your reality to look for the answer. It is just you meeting the challenge before you, bare and undefended. And what is this, if not your original face?
Although we need to stop looking, we should not stop longing. This is just giving up. Our heart needs to filled to the brim with longing as we finally stop looking. Usually we can only do this when we have spent a great deal of time and energy desperately rubbing a tile, and we finally give up out of sheer exhaustion.
how many anguished hours have I spent
gazing into the heavens,
longing for your bright secret? All the while bound
to the low and heavy earth
with the weight of my passion?
You are beaming with relief
like a proud parent
as I make the daring leap, call out:
How wonderful that we ended up
in the same night sky!