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.