“When you become you, Zen becomes Zen. When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings.” – Shunryu Suzuki
People ask me if I’m a Buddhist. My writing and my teaching contain a lot of references to Buddhist masters, philosophy and meditation, so people expect me to be a Buddhist. I always answer that I am not a religious Buddhist, but I believe Buddhist philosophy and psychology are the best insight into the human condition and the best path to psychological and spiritual health ever conceived. Actually, from my take on Buddhism, it doesn’t seem particularly Buddhist to attach ourselves to any religion – even Buddhism. Buddhism is about waking up to a natural sanity and spirituality inherent in every person. That is all. So, I’m not interested in being a Buddhist. I am interested in what Buddhism says about me being me – at one with my surroundings. “When you become you, Zen becomes Zen.” I’d just as soon leave it at that.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, a young prince from the kingdom of Sakya in India, named Siddhartha Gautama, set out to understand and overcome human suffering. After leaving his sheltered and luxurious life, he spent time as an ascetic, totally rejecting any association or identification with society and convention, totally rejecting even the most meager of human comforts. But he did not find what he was looking for. He could not find the answers he sought in either his princely life of unlimited comfort, nor in the ascetic path of rejecting comfort. So, in unwavering determination, he sat to meditate on the nature of human existence. He focused his mind with illuminating single-pointedness and experienced an awakening, and his quest was answered. Siddhartha became known as “Buddha”, meaning “awakened one”. So to understand Buddhism, you have to know that it means the study and practice of waking up.
This awakening teaches that happiness and suffering are mental states to be mastered, that a “middle way,” of life, neither materialistic nor ascetic is best for this practice, and the core teaching is traditionally passed on to us as the “Four Noble Truths.” It says that to be human is to experience a unique kind of suffering caused by being attached to, identified with and grasping after the aspect of the human mind that is built around a storyline of “me,” past, present and future, that wants to control life, wants life to be the way we want and emotionally need it to be. We suffer because we want everlasting life with everlasting satisfaction, but, of course, it isn’t to be had. Life keeps being unsatisfactory. We can never completely get what we want. We can never be completely free of what we don’t want. We experience loss, hurt, anxiety, anger, frustration and failure. We get sick, we get old, and eventually, we die. So, we suffer.
The teaching goes on to say there is a way out of this suffering through learning to understand this grasping nature of the mind and by releasing our identification with it, to discover a deeper, completely wise and compassionate dimension of mind. Put more psychologically, Siddhartha uncovered the human ego, and the mesmerizing hold it has on humans as the source of suffering. In his intense meditation, he saw the truth of who he was, the nature of the human condition, and how humans become out of harmony with life. He then prescribed how to restore the harmony.
He saw that, in truth, he was, we all are, awareness – that it wasn’t just Siddhartha, with all his ideas about how things ought to be, that sat meditating. He saw that it was awareness that sat – with the body and mind of Siddhartha – but was beyond any identification. Awareness was witness to all the ideas, thoughts and emotions that flowed through his mind, but these contents of the mind couldn’t be the limit of who he was because they all came and went, and so could only be a very superficial dimension of self. He realized that he must be, we all must be, at our essence, awareness – that which does not come and go. He realized, beneath the noise of mind, an immensity of quiet and stillness, and that this dimension and the Universe are one, far beyond reactivity, complaint and suffering. He realized that things are what they are, and that when he was truly who he was, he and the circumstances – whatever they were – were one, and there is no suffering in this.
To “awaken” means we realize we live in two dimensions, both an egoic personal dimension, inside our historical story, where events and circumstances need to be dealt with, and also, we exist in the ultimate or spiritual dimension where everything is just what it is – what, in fact, it has to be – because all the conditions of existence have led to it. “When you are you (both dimensions of you), you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings.” You are both active in the personal dimension – seeking to shape events and circumstances as you see are needed – and you accept that, in a macroscopic perspective, all circumstances are perfect just as they are, even the difficult and tragic ones. You wake up into the truth of the paradoxical circumstance of Human Beingness.
You “become one with your surroundings” and you are not only the personal you, you are also the ultimate you, an aspect of the Universe unfolding. You can do what needs doing; live a relatively normal social life, even fight injustice – while being largely immune to insults to your person and unwarranted attacks on your point of view. Failure is a nonsensical concept. There is only what you do and how it turns out. You can shape your life towards meaning, comfort and happiness while dealing with the problems of your life without being caught up in believing that if things do not turn out the way you want them to that it will be a catastrophe. Both the personal and ultimate worlds are present for you, and the ultimate begins shaping the personal towards ever deepening enlightened compassionate living.
So, as the Buddha said that to be human is to experience suffering, and this suffering is caused by what we attach ourselves to, does this mean to attach ourselves to nothing? No. Remember, the teaching is that to be human is to experience this suffering, and we are, and the Buddha was, quite human. (There is a statue of the Buddha weeping that I am particularly fond of.) No, I believe the teaching is reminding us that the quality of our humanity is in the choices for attachment that we make.
If you dedicate your attachment to love, simplicity, wisdom, compassion, justice and peace, these will be the meaning of life for you. Injury to, and assaults on, these valued states-of-being are worthy of your tears, even your anger, and certainly your action – but still, you do not have to suffer – if suffering means you feel diminished and defeated, thrust into reactive negative emotion. There is no fear of feeling and expressing sadness or measured and appropriate anger, or of confronting destructive behavior in others. On the other hand, if you allow your attachment to be in getting your way, indulging your ego, to exceptionalism for yourself and those you identify with, in vanity and materialism, you will inevitably cause and experience much suffering and reactive negative emotion, and it will detract from your humanity and the totality of humanity in the world.
This capacity for enlightened living does not, however, come about by intellectual understanding alone. To awaken requires that, just as Siddhartha, we strengthen and focus our skill for illuminating awareness, that we penetrate the hypnotic hold that our egoic mind and its extension, human society and culture, have on us and become free of it. We must wake up! There is the world as you experience it, and the world as it is. Do you know the difference? Do you know how they are connected and where there is disconnect? Can you bring about their harmony? Meditation will help you discover the clarity of awareness that sees and knows. “When you are you… you become one with your surroundings.” This is Zen. AND – the end of unnecessary suffering.