“The clarification of life and death—this is Buddhism’s most important concern.” — Dogen
Zen is not just a matter of sitting ourselves down on the “seat of enlightenment” …and hoping for the best.
The following message was recently sent round a Sanbo Zen sangha by its founding teacher (who happens to be over 90) about one of the members who had recently died:
Thank you for the notice of [so and so’s] most recent move. Good for her! Let us not grieve, but rather rejoice, we will all sit again together someplace sometime. Until then keep Mu-ing!
I mostly want to share this message because of its clear-sightedness about that “recent move.”
This clarity is the fruit of many years of guided practice. Wouldn’t we all like to have such confidence about the “move” that awaits us all? We can. And according to Bassui Zenji, that is the raison d’être of Zen: “If you would free yourself from the sufferings of birth-and-death, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is none other than the realization of our own minds. Now, what is this mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born… So it is called ‘one’s face before one’s parents were born.’”
Dogen said: “The clarification of life and death—this is Buddhism’s most important concern.” In discussing this statement, Yamada Koun Roshi says:
Clarification” refers to seeing things clearly for what they are. … What form do life and death reveal to us when we see them clearly in enlightenment? The answer is that the content of life and death is totally empty; their true form is no form.
Whatever romantic or idealized hopes we may have to the contrary, Zen is not just a matter of sitting ourselves down on the “seat of enlightenment” (the zafu or chair) and hoping for the best. It is that, but only given a certain set of conditions, which all boil down to being guided, pointed in a certain direction, having our course “corrected” time and again by our teachers. A plane heading for a destination spends most of its time off course, as its navigation equipment continually corrects its direction, only to have it veer off and get corrected again, and again. Our path of Zen training is similar.
According to traditional Zen, we follow the path with the “three treasures” to guide us – the example of Buddha himself before us, the Teaching offered in teisho and one-on-one guidance in dokusan, as conveyed by our teachers, and by joining as and when we can with the Sangha of fellow travelers.
Of course for some of us these conditions may not be so easy to meet, given logistical or temperamental challenges. But today in the age of instant virtual communication, perhaps the former can generally be overcome. The latter may be harder to navigate. Legacies of childhood difficulties with people in authority, for example, may leave us suspicious of anyone with any kind of authority, however limited, or however helpful they might be for us, and that can be a serious obstacle to entering a situation of personal guidance. Therapy may help here. Or we can just try taking some small, patient, careful steps with a teacher and see how it goes. With any luck, the feelings associated with authority can gently be released.
But whatever kind of release we may have to do, this process is eternal. We see it enshrined in the many koan cases where masters check one another, and check themselves, in an ever-unfolding process, as unlimited clarity and unlimited kindness bloom ever more freely and fully, to the point where the “great matter” is no longer about life and death.
Image: Nature-See, by Antranias CC0 Public Domain, from pixabay.com