“To live in Zen is to be human as naturally and without contrivance as a tree is a tree.” – Alan Watts
One of the most profound differences between Western religions and those of the East centers around the concept of faith. While in the West, we are taught to have faith in God, the maker and controller of the world, in the East, there is no God per se as we think of in the West. In the East, there is no sense that the world was created or controlled by an anthropomorphic all-powerful being. Rather, The Supreme Force IS Creation. In the ancient Vedic tradition of India, the fountain out of which Hinduism and Buddhism flowed, The Ultimate Creative force is called “Brahman,” that which underlies all that exists, a sort of cosmic consciousness prior to form which then BECOMES form and pervades all form and is known as “Atman.” In humans, this is the pure Self, the closest concept in the West being the soul, but unlike that of the West, this essence is not a continuation of the egoistic person. This is cosmic consciousness individualized prior to the ego distortion which creates a personal self, what we know of as our in-the-world personal “me.” Brahman manifesting Atman is the unfathomable intelligence that is the balance and miracle which is Life within every manifestation of Creation, everywhere, including, of course, humans. Atman is the perfect intelligence of the Universe manifesting, experiencing itself in the countless ways that IS the world.
Western religions often teach us to live in fear of God’s wrath and judgment and that we must placate and petition this paternalistic projection so that we may find wisdom and courage through Him, and that having faith is to believe God will have compassion, protecting and blessing the believer. In contrast, Eastern belief teaches that faith is a developed capacity which grows through experiencing that the wisdom of Creation is within us. Buddhism teaches, in its particularly rational view, that as one looks at all of Life and the mysterious miracle happening through every tree and bird and every aspect and function of our own biological and conscious existence, we must come to the realization: How could it NOT be that the mysterious force and intelligence of Creation is happening through us? It teaches to have faith in oneself as an expression of this perfection, not the ego personality which the West accentuates, but one’s deepest Self that is Creation expressing itself as a human being. So, in the East there is the equation that each person is both a personal egoic self, immersed in the world of challenge and difficulty along with its blessings and beauty, AND a spiritual or essential Self, the capitalization of the “S” to denote its nature as the Sacred Source of Being that pervades and guides all of Life.
A tree knows how to be a tree because this intelligence of tree-ness is the nature of being a tree. This is what the Universe does. Each manifestation knows how to be itself naturally, down to its microscopic level, guided by the underlying intelligence which directs it in its nature. Thus, it must be realized that the intelligence of human-ness is in the nature of being human. The difference between humans and trees being the unique complex egoic dimension of the human mind which obscures and confuses the natural wisdom of human-ness, but does not so encumber trees, squirrels, fish, birds, dogs, cats, and all the rest of Creation.
It is much more complicated to be a human than it is to be a tree or a squirrel or a dog, and so this egoic, thinking dimension of mind is necessary for humans to maneuver the complicated life of being human. When, however, there is no knowledge of the deeper level of natural Human Beingness to guide us, then being human can become an awful mess, and most of us are to some extent lost in the mess. We stumble along, bluffing that we know how to be human, but all our unease, mental illness, and conflict with each other and with Nature tells us that clearly we do not. This is no doubt why we invent religions and psychologies – to tell us how to be – but the religions and psychologies, devoid of wisdom, are derived by the same divisive, confused, and insecure mind that is the problem, so we are just chasing our tails.
There are, however, wisdom traditions within human culture, existing outside or on the fringes of conventional religions and psychology, to which religions and psychology can look in fulfilling their purpose of providing guidance into being human. Alan Watts knew a great deal about religion and psychology, and he also knew a great deal about wisdom traditions and made great contributions toward offering the possibility of resurrecting wisdom into Western culture. It is ironic that while wisdom traditions are usually associated with religions, and religions can usually trace their original inspiration to wisdom arising out of true spiritual experience, this is so only when we understand “spiritual” to mean connected to the underlying mystery of Creation and its manifestations, having nothing to do with conventional religious dogma and practices. This is the realm of mystics, not conventional religion.
It helps when we realize that Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, the Old Testament Prophets, Muhammad, and other religious original sources all were mystics. Creation spoke through them, for they all had intuited beyond thinking about Life from within religious dogma into Knowing Life. They all realized that Creation spoke through them because they WERE Creation, and as human beings, having minds and voices, could take this silent knowing of the deepest Nature of all that is to speak their insight. This is how they were prophets and wisdom-speakers. They had faith that Creation was happening through them and as them – just as it does a tree, only a tree cannot lose connection with its essence the way humans can – and so the human community needs prophets and wisdom-speakers to remind us of who and what we really are.
Native Americans knew this, and their culture reflected it. A beautiful Native American Creation myth explains the nature of the world and humanity’s place within it by stating that Spirit became the World and all the life within it. The myth goes on to say that the World, however, was unable to know, that is, consciously reflect upon, itself as Spirit, so one more creature was needed that walked in both worlds, and so Spirit became human beings. With this cosmology, all traditional Native Americans were natural mystics. They had faith in Spirit happening through them and through all that is, and this translates through a human mind into wisdom, into knowing how to walk through the world in a sacred manner as human beings. They revered and loved all of Life. They did not use it carelessly, nor lack confidence in their own existence.
And so, faith within the wisdom way is not that an external god is going to take care of you, but rather, faith that as a Being of Creation, we have everything we need to live without confusion, naturally and without contrivance. It isn’t that everything is going to be okay and work the way we want it to, it is that we will be able to meet whatever happens, even the not-okay, in a manner which expresses wisdom, balance, and capacity to cope. This is faith which can be counted on.
American Zen Master, Charlotte Joko Beck, in her Book Everyday Zen, wrote that dealing with all which appears to us as not-okay and getting it to be okay, is in effect, enlightenment. She wrote, “When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be, that’s it (enlightenment).” A person might go blind and, of course, that’s not okay…… until it is. It may take a year, or two years, or three, but for most folks, they turn the fact of blindness into just who they are. There is no separation between the circumstance and their sense of who they are. You might go broke. You might get divorced. Someone you love might die. You might get a chronic debilitating disease. And then, more pertinently, there’s what happens nearly every day – our just not getting our way about something, all the little frustrations and irritations, or perhaps, something REALLY challenging happening. After a certain amount of time, it all becomes okay. You can have faith in this. The only real issue is how long it’s going to take for the separation between your sense of self and the circumstance to be resolved? With really enlightened people, it doesn’t take very long because they have this wisdom, this faith, that whatever happens, they will deal with it and will find their way back to balance. They will make peace with it. This is the faith that you can depend on because you have done it so many times. Whatever happens, you’ll be more or less okay. For the enlightened person, this okay-ness begins to be more than okay; it becomes the comfort and joy of life. It is a faith that fortifies and simplifies.
Consider everything that has “gone wrong” in your life. Consider the most difficult and challenging circumstances you have faced, and realize that here you are, basically okay, despite whatever neurotic tendencies you may have, you’re okay. You’re taking care of business and enjoying what you enjoy. You’re okay. We all have had difficult times and challenges, and for the most part, they made us stronger, more resilient, wiser, perhaps humbler and more appreciative of what goes right and for what is still beautiful in our lives. We handled whatever we had to face. This is what you can have faith in, but we keep forgetting it because ego loves to live in drama and problem. Remembering this is what can give us faith. There is no need to give our mental energy to anticipating what is going to happen, being anxious and afraid. What will happen will happen, and if we live in faith, we will meet it on its own ground and make it our ground. We don’t have to hold on to past mistakes and tragedies as dark places in our sense of self. We can hold such times and circumstances as times when we grew in wisdom, endurance, and resilience, as reassurances and validations that we ARE able to handle this thing called being human. We can begin to settle into being human as naturally and without contrivance as a tree is a tree. Have faith. What you need to handle any circumstance is within you. Even in the midst of challenge, when the challenge can be approached with confidence in our connectedness and our skill, with equanimity and composure, grateful for what is still right and beautiful, this is, in a way, enlightenment – and it is the mark of a person of true faith.