"What Buddha was before his insight was the same as what he was afterward, of course. But everything had fundamentally changed, not only in his apperception of it, but curcially, in his actions based upon his new identity."
Who, where, what, when, and why we are; and how we can live with not knowing.
Siddhartha Gautama sat down one day under the Bodhi tree some 2500 years ago and counting. He was at the end of his rope, and in humility, admitting that with all his vaunted intellect and training (not to mention inborn talent or reputed prior lifetimes of awakening), he did not really know what he really needed to know. He is said to have resolved to solve the problem of suffering in life, or to die trying.
Fortunately, he did not die in the physical sense, but instead “died on the cushion.” He survived the experience, and went on to teach others his approach to meditation. We are all beneficiaries of his compassion in doing so. It was not for himself that he shared his insight with others, but for their sake, instead. His was the first Bodhisattva vow.
Now we are facing not the same, but a situation similar, to what he did. Plus, of course, all the appurtenances of modernity that have accrued in the two-and-a-half millennia since. We should not be confused, however, that the basic rules of the sentient existence game have changed. Aging, sickness and death still trump whatever advances in the hard and soft sciences we may enjoy today.
That we all share in common this inevitable transition (Buddhism does not consider it an “end”) would, one would think, foster a compassionate embrace of all life, as being of the self, rather than of the other. However, those who have not resolved their own situation with regards to suffering tend to take it out on others, as if it is someone’s fault. Thus, we witness endless, unnecessary suffering—inflicted by ourselves upon ourselves, as well as on others—in addition to the natural and unavoidable suffering of aging, sickness and death. This latter class of suffering should be understood in the sense of allowing, rather than unnecessary. We allow change to take place, as we have little choice in the matter.
When we approach this conundrum on the cushion, in meditation, we have an opportunity to regard it with some dispassion. Suffering really doesn’t matter so much, if it is universal. It would be truly unfair if only some of us were subject to the laws of biology, and others were able to opt out; owing to their advantages, for example, in controlling great wealth. To some extent this imbalance in global society is true, the evidence for which being the rampant, inhumane harvesting and oppression of sentient beings for food purposes; as well as oppressing other human beings for purposes of domination, or even genocide.
You have to wonder what kind of thoughts run through the minds of these flagrant despots—who have spent their whole lives, futilely subjugating others to their will—only to succumb, finally, to the ravages of age. It must be much like a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum, when it does not get what it wants.
Any schadenfreude regarding the richly deserved comeuppance of others, if that is what we feel, will not last for long, however. We are all subject to the same rules and regulations as any other living creature. Inequality comes down to a question of “So what?” when we find ourselves at the end of our life’s journey. Even the popular meme of checking off our bucket list, to see if we have lived a “successful” life, begins to look a bit ridiculous in the context of what might have been—as opposed to what actually is—the ultimate meaning of our lives.
So, what to do? It occurred to me, that beyond Zen’s direct approach—of surrendering to this ultimate finality in our worldview, actualized in zazen—we might find a way to think about it dispassionately, by employing the so-called five W’s of traditional journalism. As explained on Wikipedia, the five consist of questions a reporter considers in filing a story:
• Who was involved?
• What happened?
• When did it take place?
• Why did that happen?
Some authors add a sixth question, how to the list:
• How did it happen?
Each question should have a factual answer — facts necessary to include for a report to be considered complete. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no".
Note that last comment: none of these can be answered by a simple yes or no. This becomes more and more obvious when we consider these dimensions of the story from a Zen perspective: they take on a new and deeper meaning. Let’s consider them one at a time.
First of all, who is it that is asking the question? Framing the question as a who, already implies the answer as a person. Which suggests a self, or soul, which Zen calls into question from the get-go. We can all provide a glib answer to this question quite easily – with our name, for example, as if that tells who we really are. If you happen to be a woman, and get married, even your family name changes. Some keep their family name and hyphenate their married name, as a way of reinforcing their prenuptial identity. In Zen, you are given a new “dharma” name when you undergo initiation (Jukai).
If we want to define who we are, there is a whole wheelbarrow of labels we can throw at it, like genetics, race, sex and gender, plus ancestry, and other traits that we may summon up. A whole industry has grown up in tracing the latter, presumably taking advantage of online databases. By virtue of which we are treated to ads, featuring entertaining stories of customers who, to their delight, discover they are not of the lineage they presumed, but of some other lineage, being more Scottish than German, for example. The question still remains, So what? Is this really determinative as to who, or what, we are?
But when we consider Zen’s reductionist analysis of the self into an amalgamation of the Skandhas—form, feeling, thought, impulse and consciousness; and the Six Senses—the who of things disintegrates. Like disassembling a chariot, an analogy attributed to Buddha. Once the vehicle is lying there, in hundreds or thousands of parts scattered on the ground, where is the chariot?
Who was Siddhartha Gautama, when he sat down under the tree? Who was Buddha, when he arose? If we are to understand, and embrace, the first-person testimony recorded in the Teachings, IT was no longer Siddhartha. It had the same appearance, but its innate self-awareness had changed, on a fundamental plain. It was no longer a “who.”
What Buddha was before his insight was the same as what he was afterward, of course. But everything had fundamentally changed, not only in his apperception of it, but crucially, in his actions based upon his new identity. The many attributes of personality that had defined Siddhartha—prince of the Shakya clan; thirty-three years of age; Caucasian (though that designation had likely not been identified at that time); scion of the warrior caste; six-foot two, eyes not blue; et cetera—no longer counted. for any meaningful level of identity. They had become mere circumstance, the karmic consequences of: “In this life save the body; it is the fruit of many lives” from Zen Master Lung-Ya, as quoted by Master Dogen in Dogen’s Vow (J. Eiheikosohotsuganmon).
On a social level, of course, he still looked like Siddhartha, though the five ascetics he had been training with apparently noticed a distinct difference. When they asked him what he was, or what he had become, he said he was “fully awake”: the meaning of “Buddha,” the fully-awakened one.
So, what he had become was awake. Meaning what he had been, up until this point, was by definition, asleep. Yet he was walking around, apparently awake enough to take care of business; and astute enough to pursue a deeper awakening. This is what is sometimes referred to as buddha seeking Buddha. We are not following our personal intention in practicing Zen; we are following a deeper impulse, the aspiration to waking up completely.
This inchoate motive is held to be innate in all human beings, however pitifully unaware they may be of its presence. It is analogous to Shopenhauer’s analysis of sexual attraction being not the manifestation of a personal desire, but following the mandate of the species. Opposites attract, but only for the sake of the prospective child to be born from the union. Now you tell me. If only we had known this in our extended adolescence, when hormones were raging out of our control, where might we be today?
What was Buddha, after all? Buddha was necessarily the same what as was Siddhartha. But an undeniable transformation had taken place, in an eternal moment in time. What Siddhartha was, woke up to the reality of what he had always been, from the beginning. And the usual labels were now woefully inadequate, to name the truth of the matter. Huineng’s “What is it that thus comes?” elicits: “To name it would be to miss the mark.”
The question of where we are at any given moment moves us—out of the uncomfortable zone of considering what we actually are—onto the slippery slope of theoretical speculation. Harkening back to Einstein’s thought experiments, the ones that resulted in his theories of relativity. They might be considered mere idle speculations, had they not ended in a bang! – the exclamation point of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WWII. And, later—as if the A-bomb was not a big enough bang for the buck—the hydrogen bomb. You can separate the men from the boys by the size of their toys, as we say.
Be that as it may, as we like to say before moving on to what is hopefully not a non-sequitur: where we are at this moment is worth considering from a less-than-conventional point of view. (Note that in mentioning the where of things we cannot sensibly leave out the when, as these doppelgangers come always-and-only paired together, but never separately: when we say “where” we are simultaneously saying “when.”) Zen moves us into a zone more like the perspective of Mr. Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in his musings around Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. Thus we reenter aboriginal spacetime through one of its infinite back doors, so to speak.
If we want to name where we are, there is another whole bundle of concepts we can throw at it, much like those we conjure in defining who we are. We are in America; living in the South; or the Midwest. We are in Atlanta, Georgia; or Halifax, Nova Scotia, or on the road in between. We are on the planet Earth; in orbit; or on the moon. Soon, we may be on Mars. We are denizens of the solar system; the Milky Way galaxy; in some outlier galactic cluster of the Universe, of which there are billions, and billions, and billions, as Carl Sagan would say. If he were still here to say it.
Yet, where each of these locations is, at the moment, is changing moment-by-moment; moving in an endless dance that makes us more and more dizzy and disoriented, the more we know, and so can think, about its whirligig movements. Where you were when you started reading, or where I was when I started writing, this essay, is not where we are now. We will never be “there” again. An old friend used to say, “The most important thing about my background, is that it is different from my foreground.”
Further, I am here, and you are there. We are not at all in the same place. Point zero, on my vertical spatial axis, is the center of my spine and nervous system, and yours is yours. As Matsuoka Roshi used to say, “Your enlightenment is yours, and mine is mine; you can’t get mine, and I can’t get yours.” Same with our personal worlds, and worldviews. Where we are, turns out to be when, who, and what, we are, as well.
Where was Buddha at the time of his great enlightenment? He was exactly where he had always been. There is only one place to be, after all.
There is a famous phrase in Zen: If not now, when? In other words, if you are ever going to solve this universal koan—the “hard problem” in philosophy, psychology, as well as physics—when are you going to do so? There is no time to waste. On the other hand, when and if you do solve it, it will be “now.” For the first time, you will move into real time, by definition real space. Or, according to Eihei Dogen, real being; real existence (Uji):
Time is already just Existence, and all Existence is Time…We should learn it as the twelve hours of today…We can never measure how long and distant or how short and pressing twelve hours is; at the same time, we call it “twelve hours.”
Substitute our current twenty-four hour standard for the twelve of Dogen’s time, and you will see that the great genius of Zen is pointing out that we do not know real time, even though we think we can measure it. He goes on to clarify further:
The leaving and coming of the directions and traces [of Time] are clear, and so people do not doubt it. They do not doubt it, but that does not mean that they know it.
We are sure of our grasp of time, because it is a matter of conventional social agreement; and we do not examine it closely for the contradictions inherent between the concept and the reality. We do not doubt our own misconceptions, which evolve with time:
The doubts which living beings, by our nature, have about every thing and every fact that we do not know, are not consistent; therefore our past history of doubt does not always exactly match our doubt now. We can say that for the present, however, that doubt is nothing other than Time. We put our self in order, and see [the resulting state] as the whole Universe. Each individual and each object in this whole Universe should be glimpsed as individual moments of time.
When we put our self in order, through zazen, we enter into real time. In this space there is room for doubt. Further contrasting our view of reality with reality itself:
The view of the common man today, and the causes and conditions of [that] view, are what the common man experiences but are not the common man’s Reality. It is just that Reality, for the present, has made a common man into its causes and conditions.
Experience, in other words, needs a healthy dose of air quotes around it. Elsewhere, in Genjokoan, he makes the point that “Life must be the bird; life must be the fish.” Life is being us, in time. This is one answer to the what, as well as to the who. Life is the who.
When did Buddha become buddha? He had never not been buddha. Neither have you. There is only one time, though it is both granular and whole simultaneously. It is the “eternal moment” that Matsuoka Roshi pointed to as the reality of space-being-time. “You are not it but in truth it is you” (Hokyo Zammai).
I always insist, when asked, that in Zen, we do not attempt to answer the why questions. They abide in the arena of philosophy and speculation: interesting and entertaining, perhaps, but not germane to a realistic approach to meeting and penetrating the koan of everyday life (Genjo-koan), which is the home turf of Zen.
Buddha was less than sanguine regarding specious speculation in general, and in particular when it comes to the crucial causes and conditions of existence. Ruminations on why things are as they are tend to devolve into beliefs: usually comforting—but unfortunately self-fulfilling—prophesies that cut off, rather than encourage, exploration of the unknown.
For a child, the endless regress of why questions about reality is understandable. Once they learn the power of “why,” they use it to badger mom or dad mercilessly, in an interrogation relentlessly revealing the fact that we obviously do not know the why of any of it.
Even the most assiduous reporter soon realizes the hopeless futility of trying to determine why, finally, somebody did something stupid. The well-worn “motive” for the latest mass killing, for example. It is not that there is not an underlying motive; it is just that it really does not matter. Especially if the perp is also a casualty, and if we cannot, or will not, do anything to act on the elusive motive, once determined.
Why do we practice Zen? is perhaps the more relevant question than, say, WHY DOES IT ALL EXIST? Or any one of the other fatuous why questions that we may entertain, as an adult who should know better. Because it does, that’s why.
Why did Siddhartha do what he did? After engaging in mindless gratification of the senses, followed by equally mindless mortification of the body—both based on theoretical contemporaneous constructs speculating as to how to achieve the highest good—he gave up. Not that he had an alternative; he had tried everything known to his peers at that time, and nothing had worked. Thus the Middle Way was conceived. Or discovered.
So it is easy to understand why he called it quits. It is less accessible to mine the reason why he just simply sat down, as his last act. Or why it worked. The only way we can determine whether it actually worked—or still works, or not—is to do so ourselves. All the secondary reporting—whether from Buddha himself, or his followers—is of no avail. Unless it results in your finding out for yourself.
How is the operative question, the one we can do something about, and teach others. We cannot teach the what: the actual realization of insight; nor predict when and where it may occur. We certainly cannot explain the why. And the who is what we question in zazen. But we can talk about, and refine, the how. This is what we do in transmitting Zen. The stupid-simple instructions on the posture, breath and attention are all that is needed. A word to the wise should be sufficient. If they are not wise, or stubbornly resistant, “You can talk all day and never make them understand,” as Matsuoka Roshi would often say.
The refinement of the how is what we work with in the sciences as well as in art and design. In Zen, it consists of translating the ancient and arcane into the accessible. Our challenge in propagating the practice—the “excellent method” of zazen—is to make it make sense, upon initial consideration, to those seekers who are sincerely looking for the Way in their life. By the same token, if they are not all that sincere, it is not our fault, and a waste of time to try to convince anyone enamored of their own misunderstanding. As the motto on the Zen center states, “Those who come here are welcomed; those who leave are not pursued.” (Thank you, Sokei-an)
We are not engaged in a crusade to persuade or convince others, as are so many of the many movements afoot these days. Zen is the immovable mountain, to which Muhammud must come, in humility. But we must also have humility, about how we go about the process of letting people know where and when the mountain is. We do not expect the mere pursuit of genuine Zen practice to magically make its presence known.
This is why we expend a great deal of time and energy toward making space and time available for folks to practice. And why we make a good-faith effort to let them know. Dana, generosity, is providing an environment conducive to sitting upright in self-fulfilling Samadhi, or silent illumination. Though nothing is silent about it - silence is like thunder. All this falls within the category of how, and is built-into the proposition from the beginning.
How did Buddha come to terms with his self-estrangement from reality? How did he then manage to resolve the koan of everyday life? How did it affect his worldview, which he had fine-tuned over his entire life, most especially the six years on the road? How did it happen that he awoke at about the same age that Christ was crucified? How did he go about establishing the harmonious community without alienating the contemporary culture? How do we now do the same? The many how questions are obviously most pertinent to our quest.
So get up and make your bed, that’s what. As Navy Seal Admiral McRaven recommends in his now-famous (thanks to POTUS) commencement speech to the students of the University of Texas, Austin. Close to the same place where as the Austin Zen Center, I did my ango (practice period) as shuso (head monk) in the when of the summer of 2007. Make your bed, even though it makes no sense, in any logical way.
Master Nyojo (C. Rujing), Dogen’s final teacher in China, was said to have taken a vow to leave his bed every day, like a pair of old shoes. Of course, his bed was probably a thin cot (futon) on the floor, not a space-age mattress and exotic bedframe. But old shoes are often the most comfortable, as illustrated by the reputedly true story of the princess who had to wear a new pair of shoes every day. She cried because the new shoes hurt her feet, but she could never wear yesterday’s shoes, even though they were more comfortable, ever again. The progenitor for Imelda Marcos. Enforced wretched excess is no fun.
Then show up—at work; at the gym; at school; or on that trip to a client or family for the holidays—for all the ostensible reasons that we do the things we do every day. But keep in mind that the foreground reasons are just that. There is a larger reason, looming in the background. Minding the relative rationale, as well as the absolute—the ordinary versus the deeper meaning—simultaneously. It may become more obvious what the real reasons for being actually are, in your life; or that they are, finally, unknowable. Which is worth knowing. The reality floats somewhere between the one and the other, and may not be apparent. In this way we begin to actualize Master Dogen’s reminder of the subtlety of realization (Genjokoan):
[But] the boundary of realization is not distinct for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddhadharma.
Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge or is grasped by your consciousness.
Although actualized immediately the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.
Leaving the bed behind like a pair of old shoes—after making it—illustrates the paradigm of leaving behind our old ideas, each time we enter into Zen meditation. Including, most especially, those about Zen itself, and what we expect to happen in zazen. Then carrying that attitude adjustment into daily life, we have an opportunity to read between the lines of our daily experience, to see the deeper or larger meaning behind the relatively trivial, and even petty, associations that we harbor for the passing pageantry of our own life.
The mirror of Zen reflects the good, bad, and the ugly with equal dispassion. We did not create this life—this life created us. We do not know what we are, let alone what anything else really is, at base. Let alone knowing who, where, or when, with any absolute certainty. In spite of our seemingly firm grip on scientific knowledge—of how things got to be the way they are—we really have no idea why. It is better to live with this gaping mystery, than to engage in futile attempts to explain it away. This is the Don’t-Know-Mind of Zen. Enjoy, and be thankful.