Of all the Zen texts out there, The Zen Doctrine Of Huang Po holds up most for me thanks to its pithiness and quotability. Most every page (or screenful, or whatever) has at least one good line, sometimes two. As of late there's one sentence I keep returning to, because it embodies all that seems important about this practice: "Your true nature is something never lost to you even in moments of delusion, nor is it gained at the moment of Enlightenment."
I know I've written before about the fundamentally democratic and hopeful (in the "hope as opposed to optimism as Vaclav Havel would put it" sense of the term) nature of Zen. At its core is the idea that everything we are looking for is right in front of us if we could just clam up and remain still long enough to notice it — that the vast majority of our personal miseries are because we cannot, as someone else once put it, sit with ourselves in a room for a few minutes. But all this is something we must discover on our own; we cannot strong-arm others into getting it, and we gain nothing by constructive perverse incentives for getting it (as many mainstream religions seem to do).
The other half of that sentence puzzles people aplenty when they first hear it. If we don't gain anything from enlightenment, what's the point of seeking it? To understand that all our seeking is not a matter of gaining anything or losing anything, but witnessing without prejudice what we actually are. That's why.
I think one of the biggest things that started happening to me with Zen practice was how much more quickly I would say to myself "You're lying," or "You know that's not true," whenever I would find myself groping for a justification about something. But I had to be careful that I didn't extend this kind of vigilance onto others, because there's no point in beating other people up for not being as "spiritually advanced" as you. If the sum total of your spiritual advancement is you can't even be bothered to listen to your mom when she calls and complains about her rheumatism, you probably aren't that advanced anyway. A couple of years ago I hung out in a few online spaces devoted to Buddhism and Zen, but all of them reeked of the kind of annoying, show-offy attitude that some self-consciously "enlightened" people exude. It was impossible to have a down-to-earth discussion with anyone about anything; everyone was too busy throwing around quotes and trying to outsmart each other with koans. I quit and haven't gone back.
Most of us spend our lives in some kind of delusional state or other. And this delusion doesn't need to manifest in some sensational way (remember all those old cliches about mental institutions being populated by so many Napoleons and Jesus Christs?). It's not even big delusions that do most of the damage anyway; it's the accumulation of all the little unchallenged ones. It's that we're willing to lie to ourselves about so many picayune things on top of each other, and not even know it. And when we get awakened to that, it's painful, but then a funny thing happens: you realize the pain of the truth is far better than the numbness, or displaced pain, of any lie.
Zen's idea is that under all this, the truth never stops trying to make itself known, and that you know this and are fully aware of it. And when you own up to yourself and the rest of the world (kind of hard to do one without also doing the other), you haven't actually gained anything. You just now see what was always waiting for you to admit it.
Now, for the longest time, I did wonder: why describe it like this, in terms of nothing being lost or gained? The idea, as I've come to understand it, is that it encourages us to think about it all as egolessly as possible. You don't gain or lose anything because there isn't really a you to gain or lose. There's just this collection of prejudices and perspectives that you call yourself for the sake of convenience, but it's more loosely bound together than we like to admit. And again, that doesn't mean you are free to treat others cavalierly because you "know" there's no there there. Quite the opposite. Treat everyone else decently because odds are they don't and can't know life from that perspective. Most folks do not have the luxury of trying to turn down the volume knob on their ego, so you owe it to them and yourself to turn down the volume on yours.
Most of us do not know ourselves, and this isn't something you can convince people of vis-a-vis themselves. You can't say to them "You don't know yourself, you big dummy!" and have them believe you. All you can do is give them the tools to find out for themselves if they are so inclined, and share your own experiences.
Shortly before I sat down to write all this up, I blundered across some memorabilia I'd saved from earlier periods of my life. When I was much younger, I had, and lost, a whole circle of friends who were great people. It was my fault that I alienated them with my own selfishness and stupidity, and looking at that stuff reminded me of how I'd chased them off. (One of them has a birthday coming up; maybe I'll send them something and a note. I don't know if it'll do anything, but the least I can do is try.)
What's most painful is that every time I did something selfish and stupid to them, I knew it was selfish and stupid. I remember this with absolute clarity. I remember every justification I used to myself before, during, and after what I did. I just didn't care. I thought I would be able to get away with it, because hadn't other people done the same things and gotten away with it? Why couldn't I have some of that? But that was a profound mistake: maybe those other people hadn't, in fact, gotten away with anything after all. I knew all this, even then; all I had to do was admit it. At least I can do that now, and maybe not lose any more friends I really need to keep.
What drew me to Zen, and in time eventually convinced me to engage directly with it and not simply treat it as an intellectual exercise, was how it gave me a way to be honest with myself. It also taught me how to not hide inside honesty, how not to use "honesty" as a deflection or an excuse (as some people do when they are simply cruel). This it does by showing us that we're not what we think we are, that we are not our thoughts or our prejudices or our preferences or our tastes or our reactions. None of that stuff, alone or in combination or all together, is what we really are. And once you do the work that helps make this clear to you, it's less like you're learning a new fact and more like you're seeing how what you've known all along was part of it.
I look back now over everything I wrote here, and it strikes me how I feel like my experiences with Zen are "better late than never". I spent too much of my life in delusion of one kind or another, and even in the middle of all that delusion some very quiet part of me knew what was what. It just never had a chance to speak. Now that I've had some inkling of how to let it speak for itself, I just hope it's not too late.