Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.
If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?
– Dogen Zenji 13th Century
A fundamental Zen question concerning enlightenment is, “If not now, when? If not here, where?” As far as Buddhism is concerned, the here and now is the only gateway to spiritual realization, and that realization is nothing more than the realization of the truth of who you are at the deepest level. In Buddhism, the concept that roughly equals the concept of Heaven is called Nirvana, which translates as “extinguishing ignorance;” put another way, it is the truth of the way things are. It is not another metaphysical realm for after-life, it is the quality of realization one has of this life. Hell is called Samsara, which translates as “ignorance” or “illusion.” Its literal meaning is: “wandering about in the cycle of ignorance.” These are states of mind, ways of experiencing our existence. It is about this life, here and now, not some future state beyond this life, and it is about this moment, just as it is. The Heaven of spiritual realization is not meant to be in some great ritualistic catharsis or idyllic retreat quite separate from everyday life. It is everyday life, or not at all.
Yet, I speak with so many people, including those who consider themselves Buddhist or inspired by Buddhism who tell me stories of their spiritual journeying, of beautiful retreats they have experienced and of mesmerizing teachers they sought out who took them to deeply moving experiences, and as they tell their stories, I sense the same anxious, distracted person I knew them to be before the marvelous spiritual experience they are now recalling. There is nothing wrong, and much that is wonderful and valuable about such experiences, but what value do they actually have if, as seems so often the case, there seems to be very little residual effect of this seeking that translates and continues into the here and now of these people’s lives? They still seem to be “wandering.”
“In wholeheartedness of presence the Buddha is realized.” – Dainin Katagiri – 20th century
“There is one person we must meet… it is the true self.” – Sekkei Harada – 20th century
Over and over Buddhist masters and teachers point to the realization of true Self in the rising of the present moment in awareness, in the rising of the present moment as awareness, yet it seems to be a barred gate for most people, no matter how many times they hear it. Our cultural training into seeking and looking for the “peak experience” as the path to fulfillment and meaning in life is so strong that it seems very difficult for many to get beyond collecting words and experiences of wisdom as the sum of their spiritual path. It is very difficult to realize that the masters are talking about experiencing any moment, no matter how mundane, perhaps the more mundane the better, as the gateway to Self-realization, as the moment arising in awareness, as awareness.
“This moment, what is lacking?” – Rinzai – 9th C.
Yet, our ongoing consciousness continues to be scanning the moment with a low-level dissatisfaction, as if something is lacking, leaning forward, so-to-speak, into the next moment and beyond, attempting to get to somewhere other than where we already are. It’s not that our consciousness tells us that the next moment will be better; it’s just that we are caught in a conditioning that tells us that this moment can’t be it. We must be going somewhere with our lives, otherwise, like a shark that must keep swimming to breathe, we will lose all meaning and importance. Onward! Like a donkey chasing a carrot tied to a stick in front of them, we keep looking to the future for our realization – in the next accomplishment, relationship, personal enhancement or security, in a retreat, experience, or from the next teacher.
The contemporary master, Eckhart Tolle, has a most provocative teaching that instructs us that enlightenment is in “renunciation of our need to get to the next moment.” The choice of the word “renunciation” is most subtle and helpful. Renunciation means to release allegiance, to no longer find or be searching for our identity in something, as in renouncing a religious or political affiliation, and so it is with our relationship with time and the future, in anticipation of experiences that will fulfill us. We look to find ourselves, to complete ourselves, in time, in the future. The very core of Zen instruction is to renounce this attempt to be “somebody” through some activity, accomplishment or experience yet to be achieved. Renounce this compulsion, and discover – I am here.
“An oak tree is an oak tree. That is all an oak tree needs to do. If an oak tree is less than an oak tree, we will all be in trouble… We can learn a lot from an oak tree.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The problem with human beings is that we don’t know how to relax into our human beingness, emphasis on “beingness.” The species designation “human being” is a most perfect capture of the dilemma, the paradox of our species. “Human” designates the uniqueness of the species with its capacity for abstracting itself out of Nature into artificial structures of society and into ideas about life. This creates the barrier to grasping that we are life, every bit as much as any plant or animal. Being, however, is the sharing of essential nature with all of Nature. To be human is certainly quite complicated. To be, on the other hand, simply is. And we are both.
The genius of Buddhism is in its recommendation to balance our humanity and our beingness as the “right” way to live. After all, Buddhism is also known as “The Middle Way.” Without real grounding in our beingness – which is this moment, just as it is, infinite and perfect – our human doing will always be inadequate to fulfill our need for an unshakeable sense of place in the world, and after all, isn’t that the itch we cannot scratch? Where do I belong? What is the significance of my life, of me?
When we place ourselves at the center of the experience, as the center of the experience, separate from what we believe to be all else, we are caught in our human side, and as Buddhism teaches, we are then prone to much suffering. This is samsara, the wandering in circles of ignorance. We cannot see and experience the connectedness of life that we are within, the infinite connected circles of Being.
Rather, Buddhism suggests, allow the experience to be the center of you, see the moment arising as what it is – a field of consciousness, this moment, no separation. Realize – the space of the moment does not separate – it connects. The phenomenon of the moment is what we are. Nothing more is needed. No other time holds the secret. This is it! Our place in the Universe is right where we are, just as we are. Ignorance is extinguished. Nirvana opens. Look about you. See the moment arising. Where does it arise? It arises in consciousness, in awareness as the absolute Here. When does it arise? Now! Know this as your irreducible Self.
With this as our foundational sense of self, we can be a human being as effortlessly as an oak tree is an oak tree. For we, and the oak tree, and the bird on the wing, and the oceans, and the mountains, and the atoms and the galaxies are all the Universe. Right here and now. Nothing more is needed. This is what it means to be awake in the truth. You, “in wholehearted presence” is all that is needed to discover the truth of who you are – both the vastness of existence itself, and this human being manifesting in this moment in space and time that is your life and circumstances.
Breathe, smile, relax. Now go do something – something wise, skillful and compassionate, something simple or genius, serious or silly. Sit on your porch, go for a walk, go to work, go to the grocery store, say hello to the next person you pass. Look into the infinite sky. Commune with a bird in a tree. Dance a jig. Go to a retreat, a workshop, a pilgrimage, find a teacher. Enjoy, learn, be inspired. Just know, what you search for you already have and are. Maybe this next experience will open that realization, will open the gate of Now.