“Already we are the Buddha. There’s just no doubt about that. How could we be anything else? We’re all right here now. Where else could we be? But the point is to realize clearly what that means; this total oneness; this total harmony; and to be able to express that in our lives. That’s what takes endless work and training. It takes guts. It’s not easy. It takes real devotion to ourselves and to other people.” – Charlotte Joko Beck
When learning meditation, a very helpful instruction is to “sit like a Buddha.” If this instruction can be fully realized everything a person needs to know about enlightenment will make itself known. But most people don’t get it; they continue to sit like themselves. And that’s OK. Buddhas appear when they are ready. Zen Master Shibayana was known to say, “This Buddha that you all want to see, this Buddha is very shy. It’s hard to get him to come out and show himself.” The purpose of meditation and Buddhist teaching is to coax this shy one out.
Amongst Western psychotherapies, a few are based on a premise that is really quite Buddhist. In some fashion or other, the psychologies of Carl Rogers, Carl Jung, the Gestaltists, and Abraham Maslow all hold that there is a completely healthy, wise and spiritual person within everyone, but it is buried under so much muck of social and psychological conditioning that it is very difficult to call this core healthy person out to be realized in the world. We just don’t believe this person is there.
The only person we truly believe in as who we are is the neurotic personality of “me,” and there is nothing shy about this one. This one is quite bold and tenacious, even if, as in some cases, it employs the face of being anxious and weak. Among the great variety of people, the neurotic self or personality comes in an infinite variety of faces from the timid and depressed to the criminally narcissistic and everything in between. In every case, it is a gross distortion of human potential. The word “personality” comes from the ancient Greek “persona,” from the masks worn by actors in the classical Greek theater, and what it represents in us is just as false as those masks, and it holds on even when it professes to want to change, be sane, be spiritual or find enlightenment. It is who was conditioned into us by parents, culture and society, and we believe in it absolutely; even when we realize the problems it creates for us. To get beyond it “takes guts. It’s not easy. It takes real devotion to ourselves and to other people.”
While the psychotherapies of Rogers (the real self), Jung (the individuated self), Gestalt (the authentic self), and Maslow (the self-actualized self) theoretically do draw on a “true self” model, the methodology of these therapies really don’t seem to have the means to access, to make real, to bring forth this true, sane and natural “self” in a reliable manner. While the theories use language and make reference to a healthy individual within each person, they remain bound within the cult of ego that marks Western culture and psychology. When the problem is ego-centeredness, as Buddhism realizes, the problem cannot be effectively confronted by a psychology that does not see ego-centeredness as the problem.
The perspective and techniques of these psychotherapies typically fall short of the task they have set for themselves. The evocation of the “true self’ becomes particularly problematic when the psychotherapists are themselves not convincing examples of healthy ego-transcendence, and, truthfully, few are. We need to see for ourselves. We need to see examples of ego-transcendence, and this is specifically the path of the Buddhist teacher. We also need to experience our own capacity to stand as witness to the pull of egocentricity, and to realize that this witnessing awareness is completely free of neurosis and is who we are. This is our Buddha within, whose vision we find through wrestling with Buddhist koans and practicing meditation and mindfulness.
What these Western therapies are missing is a truly trans-egoic vision of human potential and the koan and meditation training that is necessary to illuminate and strengthen the capacity for trans-egoic experience. The problem with these psychologies is that they remain enmeshed within Western notions of the ego’s preeminence in the human psyche. Buddhism, and its several thousand years of Dharma (the Way of Awakening, or simply, Reality) is a psychology that truly can take us beneath, through and beyond ego identification to freedom from the ego-masks, into, as Buddhism calls it, our “true” or “Buddha” nature.
The teaching is startlingly direct and profound. As Zen koans might ask: “What in your experience is never masked?” Or, the traditional, “Show me your original face.” Allow direct, authentic, uncorrupted experience of the present moment, as if you were absolutely fresh in the world like an infant, only now, not as a helpless, dependent, unskilled infant, but rather as a fully independent and mature human possessing sophisticated and subtle physical and mental skills with which to engage the world, now realizing it is our conditioned habits of body and mind that comprise our mask, our neurosis.
“The contours of your neurosis are the same as the contours of your awareness.” – Fritz Perls
We experience the world through a limited and distorted lens of conditioned personality. The mask not only limits our vision of the environment of the moment, it also distorts what information is coming in (and certainly what is going out – the “actor’s” role). Buddhism teaches us to take the mask off, to both receive and transmit an undistorted reality, to expand the contours of awareness toward an equally ever-expanding realization of the full potential of Human Beingness, thereby dissolving our neurosis. Beneath the mask, we discover, is a Buddha, an awakened being, and with this realization, we increasingly become a person capable of functioning within the limited perspective of our social and cultural life circumstances from an increasingly expansive and enlightened perspective with our ultimate frame of reference as the unlimited Universe, now free of convention while in the midst of convention.
This awakening can begin when you sit like a Buddha – in your chair or on your cushion – AND – in the Universe – Creation unfolding all around you. “Buddha,” awareness uncontaminated by conditioning, can then slowly, gradually illustrate to you how you keep falling back into the neurotic and limited mask of an ego-self, and how in the purity of the moment-in-awareness you can expand the contours of awareness, growing your experience and expression, into fuller non-neurotic reality.
Realize in your sitting, with awareness tuned into your breathing, into your sitting, into whatever arises in your mind, into the gradual realization of a vast spaciousness beneath the cramped activity of your mind out of which the activity arises, realize that awareness is who you are. Meet your Buddha.
This realization is not, however, easy. The ego-self’s hold is incredibly tenacious. You may sit for years. You will, as a dedicated meditator, probably make significant gains in physical and mental health, in reducing stress, in gaining insight into your neurotic self, but still, you will not quite grasp what this is really leading to. Then (and for some who are truly ready, it may not take years), what Buddhists call “the mental hinge” will begin to turn, the “Gateless Gate” will open. You will see what, who, has been sitting there all along. The Buddha-within begins to emerge as another Buddha-in-the-world.
One day, you will be able to look at a statue or picture of a meditating Buddha and realize you are looking at a mirror of your true self. You will likewise, be able to look in a mirror and see a Buddha. You will look at everyone and see Buddhas hiding. Then, you might enjoy a slight compassionate laugh at how obvious it is. All there is to do is just stand up – in the Universe. All there is to do is shake off your cramped actor’s mask and costume, and go about your ordinary life. Only now, you find you are increasingly able to walk the world awake, far less neurotic, with a lighter step, an easier gate, and perhaps, with that same kind, compassionate, ironic smile for everyone you meet that is the mark of all Buddhas, having realized, “Already we are the Buddha.”