The one thing about Zen and Buddhism that most stood out for me, once I found out about it, was the idea that everyone's already enlightened and just doesn't know it yet. As Pema Chödrön put it, "we are never separated from enlightenment. Even at the times we feel most stuck, we are never alienated from the awakened state."
Everyone has it right for the taking and the asking; it's just that we've lived most of our lives not knowing how to look for it. We think we have to look for it by finding something out there that will finish the puzzle, as it were -- an experience, an idea, another person, what have you. But nothing out there finishes the puzzle the way finding the missing bit inside yourself does, the bit you've always overlooked.
The idea that we're each fundamentally complete -- even when we don't feel one bit like it -- is a tough one for people to swallow. It also seems to contradict some other tenets of Buddhism, like the idea that no thing exists by itself but only as the embodiment of a relationship or a process. I had trouble getting that one to square up with the idea that we're innately whole, until I realized it means our fundamental completion comes from recognizing this self-existence as a process and not a thing. Zen is about teaching yourself to not see yourself as a self -- and not as a complete replacement for one's viewing equipment, but as a powerful new adjunct to what's there by default.
My wife had eye surgery a while back. She's always had bad vision, ever since she was a kid, and one of the things the surgery afforded her was the chance to get corrective lenses implanted in her eyes. It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it. For the first time in her life she had 20/20 vision! The only downside was that it was 20/20 vision for everything from a distance of about one meter to infinity. She now needs to use readers for close-up vision, because her eyes can't focus that close anymore. But the readers don't replace her vision entirely; they just provide her with a way to augment it when it's useful.
Being able to see through yourself isn't some self-deprecating abnegation, or a clever sophist trick. It's a useful way to not kid yourself about what's really going on -- or, at the very least, kid yourself less. And it's something we all have to some degree; some of us just have it more than others, and others of us need to work to have it. But it's always there in some form, and I think that's because there's something about the very nature of the sentient experience in the universe that makes it possible to always have it.
The other thing that I find most significant about this insight is that there is no way for someone else to give it to you, in the same way someone could impart knowledge or artifacts. It has to be developed from within, in a personalized way. It's as subjective an experience as there is. The most anyone else can do is provide you with some shared techniques for developing the insight. Not all that different from other things, when I think about it: your math teacher can explain quadratics to you, but you're the one that still has to take the final exam. Unless you cheat, in which case you haven't learned anything except how to game the system.
Belief systems and practice paths all hold something in esteem above and beyond the profane world -- the idea that the goodies, as it were, are off in some other life or another realm or what have you, and that we poor schlubs down here on grubby old earth suffer and get whatever leavings we can beg for. Buddhism is about the idea that we're suffering precisely because we keep thinking all the good stuff is actually out there somewhere else. But it's not; it's just that for the vast majority of human history, we've acted like that's the case, and haven't looked as deeply as we should into this.
When I was younger, I had a worldview I've described as that of a "confused radical utopian". Of that worldview only one element has survived: the idea that whatever it is we need, or want, or are looking for, it's all right here under our noses, and it belongs to all of us equally. Nobody has a monopoly on it, nobody alone knows how to obtain it or dole it out. It only looks that way because of how we're not in the habit, as a society, of giving each of us space on our own to find it in a way that's entirely ours, and then turn it outwards. So we get tricked into thinking it's someone else who has the goods, and that only they can provide it. That they are somehow the Elect and we are not, and that the gateway to the world of the Elect has a tollbooth in front of it.* Cue that moment in Killing Joke's "Money Isn't Our God", when Jaz exults about the sunset and waves and fresh air and shouts "All these things are mine!" And everyone else's, too.
* "Someone's going to have to go back for a shitload of dimes!"
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Other Lives Of The Mind