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How Important Is It to Study Buddhist Teachings?
The Sangha Jewel: Community as a Medicine for Modern Ills

You don’t need to improve one iota, change anything about yourself, or obtain anything you don’t already have, in order to fulfill the Buddha Way and directly experience the ultimate goal of Zen. You don’t have to lose weight, overcome your anxiety or depression, deepen your compassion, end your addictions, or improve your relationships. You don’t have to understand Buddhism, master the art of meditation, or experience special insights. No need to perfect your morality, generosity, mindfulness, self-discipline,[1] or become any more responsible or capable than you already are. Without a single improvement, without the addition of a single thing, this very moment you can awaken.

The nature of awakening is terribly (wonderfully?) ironic. It’s not about gaining or experiencing anything you don’t already have. It’s about realizing the indescribable preciousness of exactly the way things are – exactly the way you are – right here and now.

This can be difficult to grasp or accept, because of the doubt we feel about ourselves. This is fundamental doubt. It’s not just concern about whether you’re up to a particular task or challenge, it’s doubting that you have a rightful place on this planet, that you’re fundamentally worthy and lovable, that when your life is over it will have been well-spent, that you’re an indispensable part of the incredible beauty and wonder of this universe. Few of us are entirely free of this fundamental self-doubt! This is why 9th-century Chan master Lin-chi (or Rinzai) said:

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[2]

What is this self we’re supposed to have faith in? In some ways it doesn’t even make any sense to call it a “self,” at least in the sense that a self is conceived of as an inherently existing, independent, unique entity separate from all that is not-self. In Zen, sometimes we say our true self is no-self, in that all the ways we usually define self are illusions. Personality, history, habits, opinions, intentions, and accomplishments are irrelevant to our true self-nature, which is aliveness itself. We call it “self” because this particular, temporary, unique package of aliveness that we are is an active, conscious agent – creating order out of chaos, seeking ease and happiness, learning, growing, and drawn toward reunion with the greater reality of which we are a part.

What about our small, conditional self? When we awaken in a Zen sense, we then see clearly how our small self nature – our individuality, if you will – doesn’t in any way defile or obstruct our true self-nature. In fact, although our true nature, our buddha-nature, is luminous and completely unobstructed by the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives, that buddha-nature has no manifestation other than in the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives.

Our particular, peculiar manifestation in this life becomes our vehicle, our gift, and our learning experience. How can we make best use of who we are? How can we unravel our karmic knots and move more freely? How can we more fully enact the fact that our true self-nature is everyone’s self-nature, and we’re all part of something greater? What more can we learn? What have we not yet seen? The ways we can grow are infinite, and as long as we’re in a human body we will experience greed, hate, and delusion in some measure. This is why Shunryu Suzuki roshi famously said, ““Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”[3]

When we know our fundamental worthiness doesn’t depend on the outcome, our daily practice to improve ourselves can be done more lightly – even with joy.

(Want to read more on this topic? Read or listen to Domyo’s podcast episode on it: click here.)

Watson, Burton (Translator). The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[1] It is essential to work on this as well, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
[2] Watson, pg. 23
[3] Suzuki is widely quoted as saying this on the internet, but I couldn’t find any references to a book in which this quote can be found. If you know, email me!

How Important Is It to Study Buddhist Teachings?
The Sangha Jewel: Community as a Medicine for Modern Ills