Zen teaching is quite clear… the training is not about “transcending” the self but seeing clearly what the self is, seeing through it, and thus being free of it.
The Buddha’s Awakening
According to the Pali Canon, when Shakyamuni Buddha experienced his great awakening at the age of 35, it did not come about through grueling ascetic practices. Rather, after several years of mortifying his flesh under the guidance of spiritual masters, to the point where he had brought himself close to death, he realized three things: first, he wanted to live, and therefore took nourishment to restore his constitution; second, in spite of all his asceticism, he had come no nearer fulfilling his existential quest; and third, he remembered a time as a child when he had experienced complete happiness, without any special practices at all. Rather than put himself through more deprivation and torture, why couldn’t he just be happy as he had been then? He decided to abandon severe asceticism and instead sit quietly under a banyan tree, and let the memory of that childhood moment guide him.
According to the Pali Canon, the childhood moment in question had happened when as a young boy Siddhartha had been watching a man ploughing. His nanny had left him in the shade of a rose-apple tree at the side of a field, and as the boy saw the plough’s blade cut through the earth, he noticed dozens of insects scurrying for their lives. An overwhelming sadness welled up in him. These little creatures were desperate, and he could feel their pain as if it were his own. Then hard on its heels came an equally overwhelming joy. He suddenly saw that the insects were not just linked to him, but were actually part of him: he and they formed a single phenomenon, a single body, one life. That discovery, of a hidden existence manifesting as all beings, brought effortless joy. It arose spontaneously from his heart.
This moment could surely be labeled a “spiritual experience,” a clear apprehension of the “dharmakaya” or “Dharma-body,” the singularity of all phenomena. Yet it came about through feeling – through tenderness, hurt, compassion, love. The path to the “spiritual” ran through the heart. The heart, the organ of love and pain, was the master-key.
A common view holds that “spiritual practice” is not about feelings: it transcends feelings, it takes us beyond our “small self.” In a way this is true. But if spirituality is only about self-transcendence – about seeing through the story of “me” that we habitually inhabit – then it runs the risk of cutting us loose from that story so we no longer take care of the human wounds of self and other.
We may even become dependent on self-transcendence as a means of avoiding subjective and intersubjective problems. No matter how imaginary the self proves to be, somehow it still needs its healing. If spiritual or transcendent insight doesn’t lead to healing and transformation in our actual daily lives, it is clearly incomplete.
Zen teaching is quite clear on this: the training is not about “transcending” the self but seeing clearly what the self is, seeing through it, and thus being free of it.
In the first paragraph of his essay Genjokoan, Dogen says (to paraphrase): first, we see that all is one; then we see that there is no self; then we drop the whole system of self and world and are liberated. After that, we forget all about “enlightenment,” and let “the flowers fall amid our longings, and the weeds spring up amid our antipathies” – in other words, we lead lives rich in human response, with our hearts wide open. We may see through the self, yet we remain responsible for it.
In the West, Buddhist practice is still very young, just about fifty years old by most counts. Nevertheless, perhaps that is old enough to begin to feel a responsibility to move from a simplistic view of enlightenment as transcendence to a more integrated stance of awakening as embracing the subtleties of living responsibly and responsively within our relationships and communities.
Written by Henry Shukman and originally published in Spring Journal, Vol. 89, Spring 2013