October 8, 2005

Expressing Our True Self through Everyday Life Actions

This text is inspired by roshi Nishijima's (Kodo Sawaki's disciple) explanation of Dogen's philosophy. Until I found out about roshi Nishijima's teaching, it was difficult to read Dogen to me. I mostly understood only modern Zen masters explaining Dogen. ANyway, I hope the text is not just useless imitation of real Zen masters' teaching, but something based on my own experience, as well.

Most people are interested in materialistic matters. They want to eat, drink, sleep, want money or sex, then they have to buy a coffin, etc. This is the materialistic aspect of our lives. Of course, to reduce life to this level has nothing to do with wisdom or compassion.

Some people notice that life is not only materialistic and they look for wisdom, love, heaven, God. Some people start religions, create Gods, then the Gods create people who created Gods and other interesting things happen according to their religions. These people talk about hope, heaven or enlightenment, satori and how to attain it. They sometimes do nothing else than sit on the ground, without eating, drinking, and just pursue their idealistic goals. So this is the idealistic aspect of our life. To reduce our life to idealism, only to seek nirvana, heaven, higher level, ignoring the materialistic aspect, is not very wise after all...

So when people occasionally find out that idealism only leads to dreamlike living ignoring the basic needs of our body, they may look for a true teacher - someone who can solve the dualistic issue or dispute over materialism versus idealism. Some teachers hit people with a stick or they shout something. When we ask about enlightenment, they shout or hit us, when we ask about wisdom, they shout or hit us.

What is all this shouting and hitting about? It’s called action. A sudden action cuts away our idealistic thinking. It's a wake up call. Now, not all Zen masters use shouts and hits. Soto masters say, “Just sit”. But they don't want us to sit only to continue our idealistic mental party. So they say, “Just sit and concentrate on the present moment. Check your posture”. Like that Zen masters of this tradition help us cut off our idealistic way of thinking by making us concentrate on the present moment. Rather than shouting and hitting things, they recommend pursuing our everyday tasks with clear, simple mind.

They teach us to follow an ordinary daily regime, including zazen practice, so that we return to our normal, essential self. When you wake up practicing zazen in the present, you see through the mad cloud of your mind that you called “me” just a while ago and now you can be your true self again. Buddha is just a word. Satori is yet another word. It is everyday life that really matters. So zazen is not something special that is separate from our everyday life. Zazen is the basis of our everyday life, like a spine – it holds our everyday life together. But zazen is also one of the things we do. Another ordinary thing we do over and over again.

I’d like to say something more about action because it is action that wakes up our true self over and over again. For example - we have to eat - eating, no matter if we are materialists or idealists, we experience eating. So action can trigger our own experience of our true self - IF and only IF we forget both sides – materialism and idealism and JUST eat. Most people imagine something loud and quick, when they hear the word “action”. But every moment of our ordinary life is something enormous – as this place has really no limits - and incredibly quick, so every moment of our ordinary life is an extremely important action we have to take. So action is a tool that helps us wake up. But it is also awakening itself. Buddha Way means that a tool is not different from the aim. People usually do things in order to get something. Most Buddhists believe that certain kind of practice leads to enlightenment. But if we reach under the superficial understanding of Buddha’s teaching and reach the essence of Buddha’s teaching, we find out, that the wisdom that we have been looking for with such determination, is not so far away. We can find out that our very mind here and now is not different from the ultimate wisdom. In other words, our very mind here and now is basically the only source of wisdom we can ever find. But wisdom, according to Buddha Way, is not something to be looked for. It is something to be expressed here and now. So instead of looking for enlightenment, we express enlightenment through the most ordinary things we do every day. As there is nothing special outside our everyday experience, it is not necessary to practice in order to find something essential or understand something essential. If we truly believe in Buddha Way, we have no doubt that we are no separate from Buddha Way. So we practice only to practice, we eat only to eat, we drink only to drink and we sleep only to sleep. People who practice zazen to attain enlightenment are fooled, while people who practice zazen only to practice zazen are Buddhas. But it is important that this Buddha Way is expressed not only in zazen, but also in everything we do. There is no idealistic hunger for satori, nor materialistic hunger for luxury or abundance of sex. No worries about being rich or poor in the future, no worries about being stupid or enlightened in the future. Here and now there is no fear and no frustration.

There is a famous koan or we might also call it a conversation between Joshu and his disciple.

The disciple asks: What is the deepest truth?

Joshu replies: Have you had breakfast?

Joshu draws his disciple's idealistic mind to the every day reality. Somebody could object that Joshu's philosophy is completely materialistic. Isn't food a materialistic matter, after all? But Joshu doesn't stress the importance of every day life to reduce the every day life to materialistic matters. He doesn't want his disciple to ignore matters of wisdom and compassion. Instead he wants his disciple to express wisdom and compassion right away through his everyday activity. So Joshu is teaching us that through action here and now we cut off dualistic thinking, cut through the dilema of materialism versus idealism and become one with reality here and now.

Of course, action is not enough. There are millions of very active people in the world who have no idea what they are or what reality is. They make phone calls, play golf, go surfing, do business, work in factories, banks, drive cars, shoot, talk, yell, push buttons, and yet are not able to solve the ever-present problem of human beings - what are we doing here, why and how come we make each other so desperate so often? We could say that Buddhist attitude to this problem, to the problem of suffering and happiness, ignorance and wisdom, is represented exactly in Joshu's answer: Have you had breakfast yet?

In the world of ignorant people who only care about results and profits, Joshu's comment is nothing than a practical, materialistic remark. But in the context with his student's idealistic views, Joshu's answer is cutting through the madness of human mind. He is aware of sincere effort of his disciple and has no doubt that he didn't come to him to make money or become a fat guy. So he tells him to care about ordinary matters. When a sincere person who cares about well being of others eats breakfast, such a person expresses wisdom and compassion and fulfills the ideal of Buddha's teaching.

October 7, 2005

Do We Need Enlightenment?

When we just sit and concentrate on our posture, we come back to the present moment –naturally, without having to check if it is satori or not. People always check and compare, but true satori is where there is no need to compare - so everyone has it even before thinking about it. Once you are one with reality, you are perfectly happy and perfectly open and true. Everyone is like that essentially, but most people prefer ideas to experience, ideals to real experience. People think that zazen is a tool to get them somewhere where they have not been yet, but zazen is exactly the place where you are here and now and will never ever get us anywhere else.

Authentic teachers practice zazen not as something special or added to their already complete human experience, but as something that is their complete human experience. Zazen for them is not something they used to do to become enlightened, nor something that is shown to others like a statue or a picture. To them, zazen is reality itself, the truth itself and in it they are not separate from others, nor separate from the present moment. In zazen they express what is real and let go of foolish ideas.

People look for answers in all kinds of books, but the answer they are looking for is their own experience here and now. There is no other answer. There are lots of specific answers, but the ultimate question and the ultimate answer is expressed in our human experience here at this moment. To study Buddhism as literature is really important. To study Buddha’s teaching is really important. To study Dogen is really important. But the more we understand this teaching, the more emphasis we put on our every day life.

Most people can’t find satisfaction being themselves here and now, so they imitate other people and compare themselves to others. They want to be wiser, more experienced or more successful. They count the number of their kenshos and number of their disciples. Or they count the number of years they spent never attaining enlightenment. “I have been practicing for 20 years and still don’t understand anything.” It is pitiful, because these people carry the key to their true self all the time, never bothering to use it. It is as if they were saying: “I am not I! As I am not myself, what am I supposed to do?” I would say: “Don’t believe that you are your ideas.” People identify themselves with foolish ideas. They say: “I am not enlightened.” These people believe they are actually NOT enlightened, as if it was not an empty, useless idea. Other people believe they ARE enlightened, again, confusing silly ideas with reality. It is difficult to realize that our ideas, no matter how great or stupid, are not our true self. Descartes said: I think, thus I am. But Buddha might comment: I am, although I think. In other words, despite innumerable silly thoughts that occur in our minds, we are essentially living Buddhas. We do what we are, no matter if we realize it or not. We really are what we are, despite our silly ideas that we call “I”.

Somebody asked: Is there or isn't there a point in Soto Zen where you don't need to practice Zazen anymore?

My answer is: Is there or isn't there a point in our life where you don't need to be yourself anymore?

Is Buddha’s teaching confusing? It is only confusing when we pay attention to separate ideas and ignore reality. Once we stop paying attention to distracted thoughts, we realize the real thing is the real moment, expressing the real thing without having to follow anybody's ideas including these.

Of course, zazen does make a difference to what is going on in our foolish mind. But it does not make a difference to the essence. That is why Dogen taught that zazen is satori. Because sitting here and now is not different from being a real person. When we are foolish after zazen, we are still a real person - we just can't appreciate it. So our problem is not that we are not enlightened. Our problem is that we can't appreciate the reality of our own existence; hence we don't appreciate our own buddhahood. What is going on now? The washing machine is doing its job without expecting me to say, “You are great!”