Do you know that you are Nature? – Zen koan
When I teach, I often will challenge students with koans. Koans are statements or questions meant to awaken insight into an entirely new perspective on the experience of being human. One of my favorites is: “Do you know that you are Nature?” I will often follow this by exhorting, “What else could you be!” Then I will explain, “I am not interested in whether there is an intellectual understanding of this, I want to know – Do you know it? To know is not an intellectual understanding. It is a feeling state. I want to know, Can you feel that you are Nature.”
Two words in the title of this column, “Awakening” and “Nature,” are at the heart of Zen. All of Buddhism is directed at “awakening” a human into their full potential, and into the realization that at the heart of that potential is the balance, harmony and unity of Nature. Buddhism diagnoses as the cause for human emotional suffering the grasping after identity, security and happiness in human egoism, our abstracting mental capacity to separate, organize and prioritize the entire world as it relates to our separate self. And it prescribes as the cure the “awakening” into the knowing of our “deepest nature,” into the realization of the ground of our fundamental Beingness.
The needs of our separate egoic self, seeking security, not only for the physical organism, but also for our psychological safety and significance, are endless. Awakening into the truth of who we are is the realization that beyond organismic needs, our Being needs nothing. We are. Nothing else is needed. Nature is like this, but not civilized human beings. Nature is whole and complete just as it is. There is no anxiety in Nature. Even in dying of starvation, a bird or bear does not worry itself about whether it has led a significant life, whether it accomplished all it wanted, will it be remembered well, does anybody care.
The dilemma of humanity is that it has forgotten that in addition to being civilized, we are also Nature. The implications of this are at the core of the strife and turmoil that fills human history both for individuals and societies. Today, the implications are more critical than ever as we face individual psychological insecurity and collective social and ecological crisis. Buddhism, and particularly Zen, teaches us to awaken into the paradoxical condition of being human. We are civilized Human Beings emerging within Nature. As we strive to master the conditions of our lives, it must be remembered that we can never master our human egoism or have sustainable civilizations as long as we have lost touch with the Beingness of our Nature.
Another way of addressing this is that human egoic mind and the cultures and societies that the human egoic mind has created are fundamentally dualistic. Dualism means that every experience is divided into separate parts. Every experience is of the experiencer here, and that which is experienced over there. There is no inherent harmony, connectedness or unity. As a self-aware civilized human, our primary experience is of being alone in the vastness of a universe made up of separate parts, often in antagonism, competition and violence with each other.
From this perspective, we look at Nature, and see it as dangerous, where everything lives off of the demise of everything else. Nature is something to be conquered and then tamed to our purposes, and we have been so successful that we have even conquered, that is tamed, civilized and forgotten our own nature within. We look at each other and see either competitors for significance and success, or resources for our enhancement and pleasure. Significance, acquisition and power become our coinage for security and happiness. Sometimes, the significance and acquisition seem to be helpful. Very often, the significance and the acquisitions, and particularly the power, are very transient, fickle and unstable. True to Nature, however, there never is total taming, and the outbreaks of our suppressed natural forces can be devastating. In any case, even the best of acquisitions do not bring any lasting security or happiness. As the Buddha pointed out, impermanence is in the nature of forms. And death is the fate for even the luckiest among us, often, ignominiously accompanied by old age, infirmity and the sufferings of illness.
This is the human dilemma. In such a world, where is my safety and significance? Knowing no other way, we keep upping the ante in the world of form. More for me and mine is the unspoken guide of modern human existence. Individuals, groups and societies keep grabbing for more, taking from those “others” that are our competitors. All around us, both human and non-human denizens and manifestations of Nature are looked upon as merely resources. How much is enough? There is never enough.
The anxiety, anger, cynicism, selfishness, shallow consumerism, boredom, ambition, aggressive competitiveness, quest for stimulation, and even despair that come with this way of life have become the norm. We grab for happiness that is fleeting and precarious, mistaking it for well-being. We always need more and more and more of what we think will bring our fulfillment, all the while, pushing away and fleeing from all that we think will detract from us. Our individual and communal lives leave much to be desired. Meanwhile, as a consequence of lifestyles of selfish consumerism, the damage to humanity’s home, this planet, is approaching catastrophic and irreversible consequences and the environments we occupy are less and less nurturing to our souls hungry for the harmony of Nature.
What to do? There is only a remembering.
“Do you know that you are Nature?”
And what is Nature? It is everything. It is the Universe unfolding as a single, unbroken field of energy that is also infinite in its forms. Nature is the unbroken web of these forms: animal, plant, rock, human, sky, water, fire, in which individual forms arise and pass, arise and pass, arise into form and pass out of form, are born and die, consume and are consumed in an endless dance of Life. This is Nature. This is the Universe. This is not dualistic. Forms come and go. The unbroken field of energy that is Nature does not. Forms only change within the web that is Nature, that is Life.
Pre-civilized and mystical civilized cultures, including Buddhist culture, know that the Universe is form and consciousness. Modern civilized culture does not, even though modern quantum physics is discovering that at the most elemental level, all form and its underlying energy contains consciousness and unity. But this discovery remains intellectual. It is not yet known; it is not felt. Excepting for mystics, not since humans left the forests where we lived within Nature has this been known. We must evolve, bringing to our civilization this remembering, going forward braced with this wisdom from our forgotten past.
Forms come and go. Consciousness does not. It is only manifested from form to form. It is in the energy that morphs from form to form, and it is in the unity of all the energy, the great quantum whole. Humans in civilization, still holding the dim memory of this quantum consciousness, place it outside themselves; as in our dualism everything that is not our small self must be outside, and we call it God and create religions. Buddhists call it the Big Self, Big Mind, the Buddha or awakened Self, and it is not out there. It is within and all around. It is the Nature of Life that humans are within, that we humans are.
I look at Buddhism as an ancient time capsule from an era when civilizations were emerging into their full dominance over and separation from Nature. It is a warning, a guide and a message of hope. It is a diagnosis and a prescription for humanity to heal itself of this rupture. Its prescription is meditation and mindfulness, becoming aware of awareness as the essence of who we are beneath the insecure seeking and clinging of the ever-turbulent egoic mind. It guides us to awakening, to remembering, our true Nature and the true Nature of existence where there is no anxiety. It points to the end of destructive grasping where wise, compassionate, joyous and sane living begins – even within civilization.
Look into the sky. Listen to a mountain stream. Feel a cool breeze and the warmth of the sun and know – I am of this. Experience your own breathing. Be in deep presence with another human, and feel Nature in union. Be aware of awareness, and know this is who I am and this is my place. Nature is my place. Nature is my nature. Meditation is for the purpose of penetrating the veil of separateness to experience the net of unity. It awakens us to know our deepest Nature, not just when sitting in silence, but when in the world, vibrantly awake and engaged, mindful that the unifying background to all our activity is life and Nature.
To find yourself, you must stop running around trying to get somewhere, trying to be somebody. You are already in, are and at the most important of places – your life in Nature. Stop and breathe. Listen to the silence within and all around, find the silence beneath the turbulent noise of self in the world. Find the stillness that is dynamic and penetrates all movement. There you will find yourself, your true Nature. Then, you can engage the world, its circumstances, its civilization, and you will not get lost. You will know who you are and what needs doing.
Take a brisk walk in the sunshine, a slow walk in the woods, break into a spontaneous dance of nature, cultivate a garden, contemplate a flower, sing like a bird, become still like snow falling in the night, even hug a tree. Love being alive and love the life around you. Love the life in others. Smile at and hug them too. Engage your human world and its responsibilities with a deep knowing of your own wild and wise nature. Revere and save the woodlands, wetlands, meadows, tundra, glaciers, lakes, rivers and oceans. Revere and save the animals. Revere and save the planet. Revere and save yourself and others. Revere and help save humanity. There is no one else you need to be. There is nowhere else you need to go. You are home.