In daily human life we are always encountering some problem, contradiction, or confusion. So very naturally we want to escape from problems and find a better way of living. Seeking a calm mind, we study philosophy, psychology, religion, even physics and mathematics, believing they can show us who we are and what the meaning of life is.
We study, we choose certain ideas, and then we try to depend on them to help us build up a peaceful life. Unfortunately, life is very difficult to understand only through ideas. No matter how long you study, there is still some problem that leaves you in confusion. There is always a question left behind: what shall I do?
If you try to answer this question through Western philosophy, you find it tends to be divided into two types: rationalism (understanding human life through intellectual thought) and empiricism (understanding life through sense experience). But depending on philosophical ideas to tell you how to live can drive your life toward doubt or pessimism.
For instance, if you try to live on the basis of empiricism, then your way of life is already based on rationalism—you are depending on an idea created by your intellectual process, which tells you this is the right way to live. When you realize how shaky this is, you have doubts about empiricism, philosophy, or any ideas, and you don’t know what to depend on. You don’t trust anything.
But there is one thing that you can trust in: right here is a man or a woman who is called by your name. Before you have doubt or pessimism, you are already here. You exist right in the middle of reality, which means your life is fully alive right now.
We are human beings—we cannot destroy our thinking process. So we should think. You can use science, philosophy, and psychology to understand your individual life in a certain way, but whatever you understand in that way is not something true that you can depend on. Something true you can depend on is something you have to do. To really understand the meaning of life, we have to go beyond thinking and experience the vast scale of life directly, with our own body and mind.
Trusting the Self
Zen Buddhism is not a philosophy like rationalism or empiricism; Zen is actual life. But when you study Zen, sometimes it may seem that Zen denies the value of intellectual understanding and depends only on direct experience.
For example, I’m always telling people how they can learn the meaning of zazen meditation, but they won’t actually know what zazen is until they experience it. So after I talk, finally I have to say, “Please sit down and practice zazen.” Or I can explain what water is, but to understand water, you have to drink it. So I say, “Please drink a cup of water.” But then people immediately think Zen means: don’t think—just sit, just drink! That is not Zen. If you live like this, your life is hippie style.
In San Francisco in the 1960s there were many young people called hippies. One day I came across a hippie-style Zen student on a train and asked him where he was heading for. He said, “I don’t know; I just rely on my feet.” Well, that way of life seems to be freedom, but I don’t think it is freedom. It is confusion.
If you live in that way, maybe it’s because you think it’s not necessary to make any effort to deepen your life or build up your life for your future or for the sake of future generations. Maybe you say, “I don’t have to care about the future; all I have to do is just be present right here, right now.” But actually you cannot live like that. You cannot control your life according to ideas of caring or not caring. Life is completely beyond that.
During the Second World War, I was a high school boy sent to the southern part of Japan to be an airplane mechanic in the army. The situation there was terrible and always changing very rapidly. If you think about it, even a little bit, you realize there is a chance you will have to die. So I didn’t think about the past or the future; every day I just thought, “I don’t care.” In other words, I didn’t know where I was heading.
Then one day I heard an airplane drop a big bomb. Immediately I jumped into a hole and chanted the name of Amitabha Buddha, asking for help. In that very moment I did not actually live according to “I don’t care.” When the bomb came, I tried to save my life. So what is my life? My life is my life, but my life is also something more. It is something broad, something vast and alive beyond my narrow, egoistic ideas. This is the real reality of my existence. That’s really wonderful!
In San Francisco, when I asked the student I met on the train where he was heading, he said, “I don’t know. I just rely on my feet.” This is not a good answer. I often say: when the morning comes, just get up. But that “just get up” doesn’t mean you get up ignoring your future, your hope, your destination. If you don’t have a destination, you cannot just get up. Of course you can get up in the ordinary way, but if you want to go deep into your life and learn who you really are, you should have a destination. You should know where you are heading. If so, where you are heading?
Know where you are heading but don’t attach to your destination. If you are riding on a train, just be intimate with the train, with yourself, the other passengers, and all the circumstances around you. Then the big scale of self appears. Big self is very quiet. But if I ask where you are heading, you can say, “I am going to the zendo.” That’s enough. Why do you get up in the morning? “I want to do zazen.” Saying “I want to do zazen” is not an idea; it is vivid activity. You accept the feeling of sleepiness, you accept your emotions that are creating lots of complaints, and then you just get up. That’s enough. This is Zen practice. It’s a very simple practice.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you do, your life is already present in real reality. That is your real self, your true self. To realize this truth, all you have to do is take care of your small, noisy self with your big, quiet self. Then, at that time, your life is very calm, and you can get up in the morning with stability and imperturbability.
Your real self is always with you. You cannot escape it. Finally this real self is the only thing that you can trust in. If you want to learn what human life really is and know the truth of Buddha’s teachings, there is no other way than starting to learn what that self is. This one thing that you can depend on is something you have to research; you have to understand what it is. So instead of seeing your life only through your narrow egoistic telescope, constantly keep your eyes open to seeing with a broader perspective, even if you don’t understand it exactly.
To fully understand human life, you have to go deep into you and see human life more deeply. The depth of life is your destination, but don’t attach to it. Just constantly try to deepen your life. This is spiritual life. Through spiritual practice you can deepen your life. You can really know what is at the bottom of human life. That is the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha and the emphasis of Zen Buddhism. So let’s learn who we are.
From The Light That Shines through Infinity by Dainin Katagiri © 2017 by Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
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