A wave on the ocean has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death. But the wave is empty. The wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self. A wave is a form which has been made possible thanks to the existence of wind and water. If a wave only sees its form, with its beginning and end, it will be afraid of birth and death. But if the wave sees that it is water, identifies itself with water, then it will be emancipated from birth and death. Each wave is born and it is going to die, but the wave is free of birth and death.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Zen challenges us to empty our experience of separate self to realize our infinite connectedness and fullness. Like the wave, our mortal existence has a beginning, duration, and qualities that are caused by conditions much like how the weather affects the waves, and then ends. Does it, like the wave, however, all lead to new beginning? Can we feel that we are never not an expression of that which is unchanging, much like the waves are never not the water? Can we intuit that for us, as for all life, the eternal constant is the Universe-as-Beingness within which and, as which, we manifest? Can we know that we are the wave and the water, that we are a form made possible by infinite Beingness out of which we arise and to which we return like the wave and the water?
To only see, hear, touch, and think of the world as separate objects is not enough. It haunts us with an unquenchable insecurity. We are compelled to seek more and more significance of some, any sort. It causes us to fear our ending. In the Buddhist context, it is suffering – the inescapable feeling that something is missing causing us to cling and grasp for more. Like the peak and trough of the wave, this insecurity pushes us between frothy action and depressed inaction. We cannot see that our true creativity is, like the oceans, the vast quiet source of life itself. A natural instinct to manifest and create is a wonderful expression of the creative Universe happening through us, but a need to make more of our separate self out of insecurity concerning our essential meaning and worth is tragic. No peace can be found in it.
No wonder we are drawn to sit by the sea. As the waves and surf come and go, the sleeping memory of who we are deeper than what comes and goes sometimes awakens. We are drawn to sit by the vast and deep nature of the sea that never comes and goes, and with it comes some sense of comfort, ease and peace. We can sit for hours watching the rolling waves, sensing that what lies beneath resonates with that which is our deepest core.
Often we go to the sea for what we call a vacation – a get-away from our hurried and stressful lives. Struggling in the choppiness of the waves of contemporary life, going up, going down, going up, going down, we have no sense of that which, even in the midst of the stormiest of times, is deeper, calmer, constant, and peaceful. We have no knowing that as the wave is always the water, we are always the vastness and constancy of awareness, that which is witness to the storm or tranquility on the surface of our lives. We do not know how to take ourselves deeper to where the flowing currents of calm and peace are the natural environment of our essence.
To breathe the moment as it is, to feel, hear, and see the moment, not only in its surface manifestation, but in the underlying currents of consciousness out of which what is felt, heard, seen, and even thought arises – this is awareness. This is the vast sea of our existence without beginning and without end. The awareness that experiences you sitting reading this column is the same awareness that experiences every occurrence of your day. It is the constant presence in your life, just as the sea is the constant presence for every wave upon it. So too, we must ponder, as every moment is a wave on the sea of your life, could it not also be true that the span of your life is but a wave on the sea of eternity?
Not only are the seas of our planet vast and connected, creating one true encircling sea having no beginning or end, the action of evaporation transmutes the water into clouds that then releases as rain that refills the seas creating an endless cycle. And so too, there is deep within us, an intuition of the endless transmutation of form within infinite consciousness that gives rise to the universal intuition of deity and afterlife. We are born with this sense of infinite intelligence and life beyond our individuality. It is archetypal, universal to every culture, but rather than it being the beautiful principle that unifies humanity and its world, human ego creates dogma and religions that separate us and set us against our inner and environmental nature. This is suffering.
We live afraid of life and death. We are afraid our life and death will not be significant. We struggle to give our life and death significance. With this fear, our lives become tossed about by stormy waves, and we long for peaceful waters, when the peace we seek is always present – only deeper than we know how to go. Zen asks us to stop struggling against drowning in the waves and learn to enter the depths where, empty of the insecure separate self, we cannot drown.
Zen asks us to realize our face before we were conceived – a realization not to be believed because it is said by those we consider holy – but because we already know it. It is a knowing realized when we learn to go beneath the choppy waves of our surface existence to explore the clear, peaceful currents of deep consciousness in the most profound of meditations. Here we can find the face eternal, not with nose and mouth, but the smile of galaxies in the dance of the cosmos. This is Buddha’s smile, the smile he promised is within us all. This smile is the morning sunrise, the song of the birds, a baby’s smile, given without discrimination. It heals suffering.
Perhaps the awareness that is the unchanging witness to a person’s life can be said to experience birth and death but is not born and does not die. Rather, it exists as the eternal consciousness that is the primordial essence of awareness. To enter the quiet, deep stillness of the ocean of consciousness, aware of awareness, and sit watching the passing forms in the mind called thoughts, emotions and sensations, no matter how stormy, as they appear and pass like waves, is the genius of meditation. Awareness is felt as our true unchanging and deep compassionate presence and we can intuit that our existence, like the water of the sea and waves and clouds and rain, is endless.
Be not afraid. Breathe and know the breath of life, sink into the quiet currents and know the life that continues beyond the breath in the peaceful stillness of awakened awareness carried along, wave after wave, moment after moment, that is ultimately one moment, called eternity.
“If you are the wave and you become one with the water, looking at the world with the eyes of water, then you are not afraid of going up, going down, going up, going down… I have seen people die very peacefully, with a smile, because they see that birth and death are only waves on the surface of the ocean.” – Thich Nhat Hanh