Nothing You Don't Already Have

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-08-18 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

As best I can reckon, I have been studying Zen for nearly twenty years now. I started when my life was at one of its lowest points in memory, and I have continued my study of it through both good days and bad.  One thing it has made clear to me is how everything I was looking for is right at hand — that it is not a matter of seeking for anything, but seeing what is present most completely. And boy, is that ever easy to misunderstand, especially when you're a creator.

Many people, when faced with insights like these (or at least other people's verbalizations of them), get the wrong idea. It all sounds so passive to them. It sounds like a philosophy of quiescence, of doing nothing and being satisfied with whatever comes along. I was lucky enough to get an introduction to Zen through people who stressed that it was a philosophy of action — that even by doing nothing at all (well, what looked like nothing at all) you could be engaging in a revolution of the mind.

There's a world of difference between "what you seek is actually right here" and "there's no point in looking for it". The former is about realizing outside circumstances are not what will really give us inward freedom. You cannot find lasting freedom from a new car. You can certainly enjoy your car, and take good care of it, etc., but the quest for inner freedom is not going to be satisfied by any car. Every new car becomes an old one the minute we drive it off the lot, and that new-car smell never lasts. The same ultimately goes for anything we derive from the outside.

Digression: I must point out that saying "what you seek is right in front of you" is not the same as "we don't need to make our lives better", and certainly not "there's no point in making society better". We absolutely do need a humane and livable society to have the luxury of being able to find what we seek inside ourselves! I suspect a big part of the reason Zen monasteries existed was to provide an isolated environment where the drama of the outside world had been stripped away (and sometimes replaced with new kinds of drama that often happens in monastic institutions, but that's another story), so that people could do that work undisturbed. But I think the better solution is to make society as a whole amenable to that kind of personalized spiritual exploration, so that we don't get up each other's noses about a particular path — or, worse, try to turn it into something commercial.

Back to the main topic, because I had a thought about an implication of it. If there is no gaining true satisfaction or freedom from external circumstances, does that mean anything we create also ultimately becomes part of those only-external things?

I write books because I feel like they deserve to exist — that there is a hole in the universe shaped like them, and that I'm particularly qualified to fill the holes I see. Once I make them, though, they belong to the rest of the universe (well, copyright laws and such still apply). The process of making them, though, is something that comes from within. Where else is it going to come from? Well, it draws on external things (experiences, other media, etc.), but it can only emerge from some internal process.

Still, the more I thought about it, the more I felt like one implication of "no freedom from external things" was that creativity could not be a part of that process of liberation. Then I realized one isn't liberated by the things we create but by the process of creation. Like I said, when the book's done, it isn't really mine anymore. The process of making the book is where the real freedom can be found.

Maybe this is what some belief systems were trying to get to with the idea of "no salvation through good work" — it's that they were trying to direct attention away from the fruits of actions, and more towards the actions themselves. Buddhism was a lot more successfully explicit about why, I think because it came from a totally different conceptual framework about existence than the Abrahamic traditions. As I am no theologian, all this should be taken with a generous dose of rock salt, but it's one of those things that makes intuitive sense to me.

What I am seeking is something I can only find by taking what lies inside and turning it outwards. I write these books so other people can share in that, even if the audience for that sharing consists of maybe six people. Most sanghas aren't very big either, and maybe are better for it. I do entertain the idea of trying to find wider distribution for my work (the project I'm working on now might actually be a good candidate for it), but I'm not staking the value of the work on the success or failure of that initiative. The real value of the work for me is in doing it well, and doing it sincerely — in using it as a way to embody the intentions I want to have.

"Everything you are looking for is right here" is a democratizing concept. One of the great Zen masters of recent years had a habit of telling his students, "I'm not special, I have nothing you don't already have." "This very Mind is the Buddha," said Huang Po (Huangbo Xiyun). You are it. All that remains is for you to put yourself in motion to discover that fact for yourself. Everything you see here is a testament to how I choose to do that.

Tags: Zen creativity