February 11, 2020
Zen Comes from the Deep Silence of the Universe
Zen doesn't mean that we "just" see things as they are. A monk asked: "What is the Buddhist truth?" And Joshu answered: "A cypress tree in the yard." So I could logically say: "There's a glass of Port on the table". So I'm a buddha because I can see it clearly. But Zen isn't that primitive. Let's have a look at the problem.
When children are small, parents accompany them around the country and say: "This is a sparrow. This is an aspen tree. And there's a stack over there." But no child in the world has been awakened by objective learning about the things around them. "A cypress tree in the yard" is not a lesson for a child. A cypress tree in the yard - grasped completely - is not only what we see in front of us, but also the deep truth of the universe that is invisible to our eyes. Imagine that a cypress tree in the yard would be a mere phenomenon, an object of our sight or touch. But the universe is not just what we see or hear. The truth is not just what we perceive with our senses, let alone what we understand by reason. Therefore, the truth cannot be recognized simply by reading books or attending lectures. And it is not possible to recognize it by looking at something or by listening to something, either. The Buddhist truth transcends objective and subjective, yet there is experience of it, when the division of subject and object drop. So the truth cannot be recognized by simply observing things in nature and saying, oh, that's beautiful. A Chinese Zen master said that if you want to know the deepest truth of Buddhism, listen to the sound of the creek in the valley. But he didn't mean that only that sound was the truth that the Buddha found. Anyone who hasn't lost hearing can hear the sound of the creek. But not many people can forget themselves while listening to it. When we forget ourselves and the creek as two separate things, then there's awakening, which is expressed by the sound of the creek itself.
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by all sorts of things. I walked around the world like a lunatic. What's this? What's that over there? I saw this witch and the devil over there. Sometimes an angel. But was I able to see Dharma? No. My life was just a dream. Of course, it was a dream based on reality, but subjectively it was dreaming and dreaming. I remember riding a bike, it was nothing like the way I feel when riding a bike these days. So having eyes or ears is not the same as waking up. Indeed, the Buddha discovered the secret he called dharma. When in his fingers he turned the flower on Vulture Peak, Mahakashyapa smiled. Were the others blind? From this story we can see that it was not enough to see the flower Buddha held in his fingers. Everybody saw the flower but only one person smiled. Only Mahakasyapa penetrated the essence of Buddha's simple action. So Buddha said to him: "You alone understood". Although there is dharma, for example in the form of a flower turned in the fingers, we do not understand it because it cannot be understood by reason. We can't see the dharma, because our eyes alone can't see the dharma. We can't hear the dharma, because our ears alone can't hear it. And yet dharma is here.
In order to know the meaning of turning a flower in Buddha's fingers, which is dharma itself, we have to stop seeing things two-dimensionally, that is, divided by subject and object, myself and the other... me versus the flower. Me versus the teacher. But the teacher tells us - put down these two-dimensional glasses. The truth is not just what is seen outside, objectively. The truth necessarily contains the inner dimension, the "spirit", the unknown. At the same time, the truth is obvious. It is as it is, and cannot be captured by words, understood by reason, yet it is there. If it wasn't, clear and bright as the most precious jewel, there would be no Buddhism and no buddhas and ancestors. While words or senses can awaken us to the truth, in that awakening itself reason shuts up - we are stunned in a way - and the senses are no longer just a subjective experience. We have to realize that the secret of the flower that the Buddha turned in his fingers is not a secret in the sense that only the Buddha or an enlightened person knows it. The secret is also the brightest thing in the world.
So called suchness in Zen is not simply to see or do something. To wake up is to reach for and pull from the deepest depths of the universe that which is paradoxically right here. And it is bright and clear. A cypress tree in the yard comes out from its own essence. If not, then it's just a subject of botany research. How meaningful is to see a beautiful rose, when we do not see how deep and pure is its essence? Shunryu Suzuki told his students that "it is very important to believe in nothingness of all things". Nothingness. From this "nothing" or clear essence everything arises. When I say "the universe", it is very misleading because most people imagine that I am talking about an astronomic object. But in Buddhism the universe is understood as the original emptiness of all things and a simple flower here and now at the same time.
So if a Zen person does not understand the origin of things, then they won't treat things as infinitely valuable. They won't treat themselves as infinitely valuable appearance in the midst of the universe. I don't mean we should go crazy and bow in front of every piece of junk and bow to ourselves every morning and call ourselves perfectly holy. I mean we often forget how infinitely valuable the universe itself is, and all its parts. And we, and all the parts of the universe, are not divided, originally. So to treat a piece of junk as if it was our own hand is necessary and to treat our hands as if it was junk or dust is also important. So we are all very important, and all our body parts are important, but at the same time, everything in the universe has basically the same value. From this understanding we don't have to see ourselves as absolutely different from others or better or worse than others. We should just see how we could help.
There is dirt and evil and injustice in the world. And there are a lot of things we want to get rid of. From an annoying mosquito to an Islamic terrorist. Of course there is suffering and misery in the world. But where did these things come from? The universe is originally perfect. So they cannot be from the universal storehouse. Misery and suffering came with the broken mind of a civilized person, several thousand years ago. This person, He began to distinguish and began to choose what he wanted and what he did not want. So he began stealing, originally a free, natural savage, started to see differences between good and bad, expensive and cheap, this person started to steal, kill, wage wars, but also build walls, temples and amazing cities. This person began to boast or humiliate himself or herself. They began to start a career or fall down to the bottom of the society. There was nothing like this before. Although wolves form a pack with a strict hierarchy, they do not have an opinion. The wolf that is at the bottom of the pack does not dream about becoming alpha. They are perfectly content where they are and what they are. Unlike animals, our civilized person could think and learn to find the truth and meaning of life, but usually could not see the original brightness and purity of all things. This newly educated person couldn't understand that the scent of grass was as precious as a well crafted diamond. That an old stray dog was as important as the most powerful emperor in the world.
In this world, which we do not understand at all in its depth and complexity, no one is equal to anyone. But in this world, permeated with the purity of Dharma, the last villain deserves the same attention as a wise preacher. The smallest fly deserves the same attention as the tallest building in the world. People can do huge things. Fly to the moon. Study bacteria. They're interested in everything. And often very, very honestly. But almost nobody cares about the true meaning of all things - where they all came from. Christians believe in Christ. Christ, as he is not a person only, but a God, is perfect. Christ, because having the perfect wisdom beyond thinking of civilized people, makes no distinction between a fly and a king, between a cripple and an emperor. Because he understands the origin of things with his whole being. So he tells people - go back to God. That is, go back to where you came from. Go back to the essential principle. Kodo Sawaki said that practicing zazen is not a task, as we have to return to our mother's womb. To return to God, according to Christianity, is the most important meaning of one's life. For Sawaki, it seems practicing zazen was the most important thing. So we can notice this urgent suggestion about where we should go if we don't want to spend our life in a cinema.
But the place where we meet God, or return to our mother's womb, is not necessarily a beautiful garden or a pebble beach with pristine clear water or a thousand-year-old temple. The place where we encounter our essential principle, is necessarily partly in our heart and partly in external things, but these two have to become one. So we who are interested in Zen have to go beyond the limits of reason, the limits of words, and the limits of ourselves - this silly, limited Roman or whatever your name is - to reach the essential principle and meaning of things. Only there can we find the dharma of past buddhas and ancestors. Before we get there, we may intellectually understand Dharma, but our heart won't be its true home. At the same time, now when we do not close the gates of the heart and accept the bright quality of the universe, and have this transcendental experience, and completely forget ourselves, we have replaced our limited self with the awakened self, because we have discovered which was only partly grasped before. It is not possible to go someplace where dharma does not exist, but it is possible to cover our eyes and ears and heart with some kind of personal hallucination. What Christians call a grave sin is in Zen a kind of raging self which has lost touch with dharma.
So a Zen person must overcome the limits of self, the limits of things, and penetrate the essence. Similarly, a pious Christian is not so pious unless they understand that all things and people belong to God, come from God and return to God. And this is not only an academic task. We must go to the origin of things with our hearts and show our connection with our everyday actions. It is not enough to lie down on the most beautiful natural beach in the world and breath out with relief and pleasure. We have to take this beach with us to the bank and the cemetery and indeed to our own grave. Then it made sense to lie on it. If you look at your wife's hand, you might find it ordinary. But do you know where that hand came from? When we understand how the whole being is originally innocent and pure, we will kiss this hand for hours and hours. And then we'll realize that it's not just her hand, it's all her body, but then we'll realize it's also a table and a garden and the woods on the horizon. A flock of ducks. Everyone can appreciate what is obviously beautiful. When we are in the theater, houses and trees appear like a miracle from the darkness of the backstage. Stunning. But that's exactly how things appear in the universe. They come from the backstage of universal architecture and we spit and step on them. Or make them our idols. We will bow to these stones and offer sacrifice. Christians reject idols. Zen says - everything is originally pure. I remember a few years ago, many years after I started practicing zazen, walking in nature I was puzzled why the obvious beauty of the river, the trees, the clouds did not satisfy me. People want to travel to distant countries, lie down on a hot pebble beach, let the sea tickle their bare feet, touch crabs and shells ... because like that they return to the innocence once lost. But this return doesn't make much sense if we're not able to find it in our own study ...
It is therefore necessary to notice both the transcendental, mysterious aspect of things as well as their present, immanent form. When we let go of everything, in the mountains or in a quiet room in the middle of a busy city, we should really enjoy those moments. A Christian will think of Christ for a while. But if we are "just" Zen people, we should practice these moments every day .... and not fall asleep intoxicated by dreams about exotic holidays while actually having exotic holidays. Zen is realized only after someone hits us in order to awaken us from the transcendental dizziness. Not from silence to that annoying, complaining, rigid self, but from silence to the true, free, ineffable self. When we practice zazen, no one has to kick us, because our knees hurt or we have a toothache. That is awakening. But then we have to realize how important it is that our knees hurt or teeth ache. That is a clear sign that we are still alive and this here and now is not a dream, it is dharma. Awakened from dreaming about Buddhist ideas, out of silence of zazen, awakened by the bodily functions, we face the dharma.