“Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature… We must exist right here, right now. When we express our true nature, we are human beings, when we do not, we do not know who we are… To be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.“ – Shunryu Suzuki
To the contemporary person Zen is most certainly a mysterious philosophy and set of practices, but ultimately its purpose is meant to focus us into awakening into, as Zen Master Suzuki said, our true human nature, into what Buddhism also refers to as our true self. This is why when studying Zen, the student is often urged to meditate upon the great Zen question, called a koan, which asks, “Who are you?” That the question is being asked implies, as Suzuki states, that we are prone to NOT know who we are. Here, we are getting to the very root of Buddhism, for the most important teaching in Buddhism points us to realize that we human beings, in all of Nature, are uniquely confused about who, or more precisely, what we are, and this confusion leads to psychological suffering of a sort unknown amongst all non-human life. This is what Buddhism calls dukkha, usually translated as “suffering.”
At first, we may be inclined to protest this assertion, believing we do know, at least in the broadest sense, who and what we are and consider ourselves and act as superior to non-human life. We know that as human beings we have some sense that our purpose is to actualize ourselves, make our mark, form families, circles of associations, and societies, be productive, develop technology, and shape Nature to our will, and this differentiates us as human, separating us from animal and plant life which live simply within and at the mercy of Nature. And here, we bump right into the core of the problem of human beings. We forget that we ARE nature and, in our attempts to control nature, to make life safer for ourselves, we are, in truth, making life far more confusing for ourselves, far less safe for all non-human life, and, as we are discovering now with the effects of dramatic climate change caused by human technology, we are eventually making life more hazardous even for ourselves and our societies. We have forgotten who we are at the most fundamental level and with this forgetting arises the entire array of human psychological, social, and environmental ills. It could be said that all the excessive violence we have perpetuated upon each other and on the planet throughout history, continuing today, has at its root this forgetting that we live best and sanest when we live within the basic laws of Nature.
Mistakenly, in answer to this unease, this suffering, this problem-making, we look to our sciences, our politics, our religions, our material world, to pursuing pleasure and running away from discomfort, even to our ability to deny and rationalize away these problems, but this just has us running in circles, chasing our tails, looking for answers in the very pursuits and capacities which cause the problem. How are we then to solve this conundrum, this human dilemma? What is the way to being human that does not make a mess of our lives and the world? Suzuki gives us a clue by saying that to be a true human being is to be a Buddha, but this only confuses us more, hearing nothing but inscrutableness.
We must enter into the challenging realm of Zen koanic language, realizing that the descriptor of “Buddha” as used here is not speaking of the historic figure Siddhartha Gautama from whom the philosophy/psychology/religion Buddhism flows but is referring to the translation of the Sanskrit word buddha as an “awakened” being, a being for whom there is no confusion as to who and what they are, who knows their nature is and must be within Nature. A Buddha knows they are expressions of Nature just as surely as a tree or a squirrel, yet with capacities far beyond a tree or a squirrel. A Buddha knows that to use these extraordinary human capacities to negate their root in Nature will have a terrible karmic consequence not only for themselves psychologically, but for all humanity and for all of life. Suzuki is telling us that to be truly human is to know, to feel, to live and function within the knowing of our connectedness within the natural world, our own true nature being rooted in the totality and the dynamics of Nature. It is to be awake to our own truest and most natural self as Life, the Universe expressing itself as a human being, asserting itself with no more confusion than a tree expresses its tree-ness, or a squirrel its squirrel-ness.
And so, “Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature” and with this realization the great Zen question, “who are you?” is ultimately answered koanically, yet undeniably truthfully, as “nobody.” In the profound insightful presence accomplished through deep meditation we realize that our truest self transcends our personality and our ego, our personal history, our name and heritage, our affiliations and functions. In the silent space of luminous awareness, we can SEE how our mind functions and realize that when we are in touch with what is truest, we are not perceiving and acting through this idea of “me” which has complex socio-psychological origins, but rather as this-moment-as-consciousness happening through a human being manifesting at an intersection of space and time called Now. We see that all that is of the ego-personality is added on beyond this luminous sense of self-as-consciousness. We can realize that the egoic personality is a faculty that we HAVE that both serves us and complicates our lives. We have a body and a mind and a personality and circumstances and circles of associations and attachments, but all these from a Zen perspective are just the tools, language, and context that this silent consciousness has to express a human life in this moment, “right here, right now.”
Zen directs us to a simple truth that lies hidden within a mistaken assumption. When we assume that we are the activity of our mind – our thoughts and emotions – Zen asks: as you are aware of this mental activity, who is it that is aware? And if there is awareness of the activity and experience of mind, and the activity can to a certain degree be directed by this silent agency, then who in truth are you, the activity of the mind or the silent realm that directs and witnesses it? Zen challenges us to discover our original mind of Being which precedes all the contents that have as their origin this complex socio-psychological matrix, to discover our true self as the silent, intelligent awareness that has no name, no identity, no program, and thus, is “nobody” right here, right now.
To realize this profound truth, to awaken into our deepest level of experience, Zen provides a methodology through zazen meditation to guide us to the awakened awareness in which we can observe our neurotic-self-ego-mind to the end of realizing that we are not that neurotic personality. We can begin to see that our wayward and sometimes troublesome minds are but thoughts ABOUT who we are that have been conditioned into us by family, society, personal trauma, and experiences. Slowly it begins to dawn upon us that at the very core of our being we are the awareness which observes the workings of the mind, we are the mental energy of awareness which is completely free of the neurotic conditioning. Then through applying the insights of meditation through mindful awareness of any and all of our actions and experiences, we begin to sense hidden capacities within us for conscious living that can direct our mental, interpersonal, and physical action in the world with extraordinary precision, grace, and skill, without guile or self-consciousness. We learn how to get out of our own way to BE the action of the moment, expressing our natural personality unclouded by egoic anxiety and ambition.
What Zen does not do, that which is the realm of western psychotherapies, is direct us to explore the contents and misperceptions of the ego-mind, understanding that this only tends to reinforce identification with the contents of the mind. Rather, Zen sidesteps around this tangle by guiding us to realizing that as awareness, we are essentially free of this tangle. We discover that to abide in nobody-ness is the essence of sanity. It is calm and serene, both precise and vast in its view of existence. It is wise. It is compassionate because it is heart-centered rather than head-centered. It engages with the social world of other’s egos from that calm, centered, wise, and compassionate heart-mind, engaging the ego and its realm of thoughts for utilitarian purposes, while emotion gives depth and color to our humanity.
The ego-mind will continue to chatter with its distortions and fears about whether “I” am good enough, about who likes or dislikes “me” and with its resentments about how others are or are not sensitive enough to “my” needs or are even “out to get me.” The momentum of these stories is carried in our very neural pathways – only now, we can see them in both a dispassionate and compassionate manner with the eye of our essential awareness and let them pass. We do not try to expunge ego-mind. No, what is needed is to learn the healthy role of ego in our total mental field and to bring it into balance as a faculty for engaging the world. Just as our hands are a faculty for engaging the world, so too is this ego dimension of mind. And since in psychologically and socially engaging the world the ego-mind seems to need an identity to build its sense of self around, in Zen, we allow the person of “nobody” to wield the faculties of mind and body while recognizing and sharing our personal name and roles to assist others in orienting to us. We are consciousness, the same consciousness that sends the roots of a tree to seek water and nourishment and its leaves to turn to the sun, the consciousness that sends a squirrel scampering through the trees doing its squirrel’s life. Consciousness beats our hearts, it breathes us, it regulates ten thousand processes through this body, and it will direct our thinking and emotional mind in natural ways if we only allow it – if we get out of our own way. To let the ego-mind run the mind is a clumsy redundancy which only balls us up and makes us unnatural, so we must learn to have faith in the silent intelligence of consciousness, the pervading consciousness that we exist within as fish exist within the sea. Trust the silent mind which can feel the rhythm of the breath and Life without comment, without distraction, and let it guide the mind to its insights, commentary, creativity, and action unfettered by cleverness, guile, and self-absorption. We are consciousness which HAS a human life with which to build civilizations, yes, as long as we do not lose our connection with our true nature in Nature. This is the balanced Way of Zen, the way of a natural human being, the way of a Buddha, a human being evolving in the Great Unfolding.