Having awakened, the Buddha then says, “I and all beings and the whole great earth have simultaneously attained the Way together.” His realization implicates all beings, and the very earth too. It is relational.
As Buddhist teachings have grown in popularity in the West, it’s only natural that we view them in the light of our own most adjacent fields, religion and psychology, and understand them too as primarily internal. In many ways this is fair enough. In dharma practice we receive instructions on how to meditate; then it is up to us to sit down and learn to follow them. We may meditate in group settings, we may or may not report back to a teacher now and then, but either way it’s up to us privately to find for ourselves the help and growth the trainings can offer. In practice, we fly solo. What matters is our own experience of doing it. Meditation is in large part an examination and transformation of inner experience. Buddhist scripture and commentary offer a wealth of teachings and instructions to be studied, practiced, and mastered by oneself. But this view of practice—or rather, an exclusive allegiance to it—is in key respects actually challenged by Zen Buddhism.
An individualistic perspective on spirituality has tended to skew the ways in which Zen is practiced and presented in the West. But in comparison with other meditation approaches (Buddhist and otherwise) the Zen tradition is striking because it frames spirituality as not being an internal matter.
From its very beginning, which like other Buddhist traditions Zen understands to be the awakening of Shakyamuni Buddha, Zen challenges both the idea that spirituality is individual and that it is interior. In the Pali canon, the Buddha-to-be is said to have sat under the Bodhi tree and undergone a series of inward breakthroughs, which constituted his awakening. He went through the eight meditative states of absorption, he contemplated dependent origination through countless past lives, and he experienced nirvana.
But in Zen’s version of Buddha’s awakening, the crucial event is simply that he looks up from his seat beneath the boughs of the tree and sees the morning star twinkling in the sky. That one glance, that seeing of something familiar outside himself, triggers his great realization. This awakening is not an interior event at all; rather, it is characterized precisely by the elimination of inward and outward altogether.
Having awakened, the Buddha then says, “I and all beings and the whole great earth have simultaneously attained the Way together.” His realization implicates all beings, and the very earth too. It is relational. Ever after, the Zen tradition continues squarely in this mold.
Some 1,600 years after Shakyamuni’s awakening, Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote in a famous passage of his Genjokoan:
To study the self is to forget the self.
…which might sound somewhat interior, except that he goes on:
To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.
There is no interiority here at all. Elsewhere in the same work, Dogen writes,
To carry the self forward is delusion, but that the myriad things carry themselves forward and actualize themselves is awakening.
The awakening of Zen is all-inclusive; it is something in which all things participate.
Stay tuned for part 3, coming soon…
Written by Henry Shukman and originally published as The Meeting: Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality in Tricycle, Spring 2017 .