The hardest lesson Zen has to teach, and the most important one, is that whatever it is we're looking for is not outside ourselves. It's also a widely misunderstood lesson, because it sounds like narcissism to those who don't know much about Zen or Buddhism. After studying it on my own for around fifteen years now, I'm certain it's not about navel-gazing or self-importance. Too bad it's also pretty hard to explain to others! But I can try.
When the people of the world hear it said that the Buddhas transmit the Doctrine of the Mind, they suppose that there is something to be attained or realized apart from Mind, and thereupon they use Mind to seek the Dharma, not knowing that Mind and the object of their search are one. Mind cannot be used to seek something from Mind; for then, after the passing of millions of aeons, the day of success will still not have dawned. Such a method is not to be compared with suddenly eliminating conceptual thought, which is the fundamental Dharma. Suppose a warrior, forgetting that he was already wearing his pearl on his forehead, were to seek for it elsewhere, he could travel the whole world without finding it. But if someone who knew what was wrong were to point it out to him, the warrior would immediately realize that the pearl had been there all the time. So, if you students of the Way are mistaken about your own real Mind, not recognizing that it is the Buddha, you will consequently look for him elsewhere, indulging in various achievements and practices and expecting to attain realization by such graduated practices. But, even after aeons of diligent searching, you will not be able to attain to the Way. These methods cannot be compared to the sudden elimination of conceptual thought, in the certain knowledge that there is nothing at all which has absolute existence, nothing on which to lay hold, nothing on which to rely, nothing in which to abide, nothing subjective or objective. It is by preventing the rise of conceptual thought that you will realize Bodhi; and, when you do, you will just be realizing the Buddha who has always existed in your own Mind! Aeons of striving will prove to be so much wasted effort; just as, when the warrior found his pearl, he merely discovered what had been hanging on his forehead all the time; and just as his finding of it had nothing to do with his efforts to discover it elsewhere. Therefore the Buddha said: ‘I truly attained nothing from complete, unexcelled Enlightenment.' It was for fear that people would not believe this that he drew upon what is seen with the five sorts of vision and spoken with the five kinds of speech. So this quotation is by no means empty talk, but expresses the highest truth.
Most of us think, not entirely wrongly, that whatever it is we need in life is something we have to go find, or create -- in either case, something external to ourselves. Whatever it is, it's Out There Somewhere, whether around the corner at the grocery store or some time off in the future.
I say "not entirely wrongly" because many of the things in our lives we think about this way aren't optional. Over the past year and a half my wife's had to endure multiple surgeries on her eyes to keep from losing vision in one or possibly both of them. That stuff isn't just a mere desire, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm being dismissive of real needs.
But we do need to be conscious of how, especially when you're in some kind of pain or difficult spot, we fall prey to the idea that there's some special thing, some circumstance, some what-have-you that will resolve everything. Or at least resolve this one thing that's looming largest in that moment. When you have a splinter in your toe, all you can think about is the tweezers you need to pull them out. That's not your fault, mind you; that's something all of us have to deal with. It's just that there are other ways of dealing with it than thrashing around and wishing even harder.
If Zen is about anything, it's about the idea that the universe, you included, is bigger than your experiences of dissatisfaction and pain in that universe. The training you perform in Zen is meant to give you a firsthand appreciation of that fact. This doesn't happen immediately, and shouldn't; it's something that has to accrue over years of work.
Buddhism in general, and Zen in particular, are big on the idea of self-reliance -- on training yourself not to be dependent on external phenomena for equanimity. Self-reliance in the Buddhist sense is about finding your own discipline and balance -- and also your own joy and contentment, your own ability to make the best out of both good and bad situations -- but not as a substitute for attempting to improve your own lot and those of others. The point of this stuff is not to become smug and self-satisfied, but to find a way to stand on one's own feet no matter what else is going on, so you can use that to make the lives of others around you better as well.
The problem isn't when we enjoy or relate to things outside of ourselves, but when we assume that our own balance isn't possible without them. It's the If Only formula: if only this were true, if only I had that, everything would be OK. I catch myself in states of mind like this all the time. I'm sure you do, too. Our continued appreciation of life only seems possible when something beyond our control is the way we want it.
Right now, as I type this, there's at least a half-dozen things in my own life I'd like to do something about when I know full well I can't. Some of them are really important. Most of them are nice-to-haves. And I suspect the vast majority of them are things that look and sound like they're really important, but in fact aren't. They sure feel important, though, and sometimes you can't tell at first whether something is important or just feels that way.
A lot of how we deal with life is by how it feels, not by what we think about it. Even the smartest and most educated of us do this, and I'm of the belief the smartest and most educated of us actually have a worse time dealing with it because they fall into the trap of trying to think their way out of things they didn't think themselves into. It took me a long time to deal with this, to really get how the things in my head are just things in my head, and they come and go a lot more freely than we realize. Of all the things I was trying frantically to think my way around, I don't think a single one of them turned out to be of the slightest consequence. It was always other things that turned out to be far more important.
"Just this mind is the Buddha" is a common line in Zen. It means, the awareness that you are bringing to every moment of your life is the greatest treasure you have, the source of your freedom. It's not the things that come in from the outside, whether they're good or bad, fun or annoying, life-enhancing or life-threatening. Those things can be useful, either as boons or object lessons, but the real action is always on the inside.
Also, I know how strange this sounds in a time and place when the conditions of the outside world are crucially important. I don't want to make it sound like we can just flippantly ignore all that. We have to make things better for ourselves and each other; that's not an option anymore. But that work is not by itself going to make us understand ourselves. It can help, but the real work of self-understanding is always a separate job.
Whatever it is you're looking for to "complete" yourself, chances are it's just going to lead you right back to what's inside, where you ought to have been looking all along anyway. You have all the tools for your own liberation right inside you, but you've spent most of your life either ignoring them or downplaying them or drowning then out with noise and irrelevance. Look no further.
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Other Lives Of The Mind