The Heart of Zen

HeartofZenWhen Shakyamuni Buddha experienced his great awakening at the age of 35, it did not come through grueling ascetic practices. Rather, after several years of mortifying his flesh under the guidance of various 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 like then? So he decided to sit quietly under a banyan tree and let the memory of that childhood moment guide him.

The moment in question happened when as a young boy he had been watching a man ploughing. His nanny had left him in the shade of a rose-apple tree, and as 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. That discovery, of a hidden identity shared by 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, the astonishing fact that all things are in fact one body (something that can be understood only by direct experience). 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.

Yet there is a false but common idea that “spiritual practice” is not about feelings; it transcends feelings, it takes us beyond our “little self.” Spiritual paths address the existential situation of the human being, not their petty woes. 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 “me” and the wounds carried by “me.” The danger is that we may become dependent on self-transcendence as a means of avoiding “me’s” problems. The term “spiritual bypassing,” coined by John Wellwood in the 1980’s – using spiritual practice to avoid our own difficulties and wounds – is a real hazard. However imaginary the self may be, we still relate and act in terms of it. It’s not the end of the story to see that “me” and “me’s world” are both as evanescent and illusory as “moonlight on a drop of a dew” (as Dogen put it). If spiritual or existential insight doesn’t lead to healing and transformation in our actual daily lives, it is clearly incomplete.

The stories of gurus abusing their power, of their devotees giving up responsibility to themselves and their loved ones, are rife. But 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 becoming less convinced and imprisoned by it. In 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 totally 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 responses, with our hearts wide open.

In the West, Buddhist practice is still very young. We are still learning to let it be as deeply personal as it truly is. Years after one master  had an unusually deep awakening, he was once asked what he thought had really happened. His answer was simple: “My heart opened.”

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