“The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.”
Taoism and Zen arose out of ancient Chinese culture, not as religions, but as philosophies of life, yet they both pointed toward true spiritual realization, with Zen being the offspring of Buddhism comingling with Taoism. Both eschewed the rigid identifications and claims of divinely transmitted rules and teachings of religion. Yet, over time, human ego being what it is, these philosophies have taken on many of the trappings of religion, though still far less-so than in the West. Still, beyond any trappings or rituals, the one thing primarily taught in Zen, Taoism and similar Eastern spiritual, often called non-dual, traditions is to pay attention to Life in ways which are profound, subtle and deep, their purpose being to guide us into the living reality of the mystery of Life and to explore a human being’s role within this Great Unfolding. The great Zen teacher, Ikkyu, when asked to impart words on the secret to Zen, simply said, “Attention.” Asked to elaborate, he repeated, “Attention, Attention.” Asked again, the student still being unsure of the meaning of his answer, Ikkyu emphatically said, “Attention, Attention, Attention.”
Attention. To bring focused awareness into the unfolding of Life, moment to moment. This is at the heart of the true spiritual journey, and it is the path of the mystic of any religious/cultural tradition, including Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Each, in the language of their religion and culture, is speaking the same message, only with different words, telling us to pay attention into the present moment with sufficient depth, subtlety, presence, and spaciousness to see miracles unfolding as, around, and through us every moment. Mystics tell us to realize that beyond the illusion of our separateness we are Divine consciousness, not some person looking, and in that trans-egoic perspective, to experience God, or the Divine Source, everywhere. Mystics are all pointing to everyday life as it unfolds, not only in its obvious material manifestation but in its subtleties which go deeper than the material, pointing to the Source of all manifesting through all. This requires exquisite levels of attention, a sort of attention that is not narrow, tense, and contracted, but rather soft, relaxed, outside of time, and without boundary. It requires realizing that we are awareness, the energy of Universal consciousness focused through a human being examining and experiencing Creation unfolding through and all about us.
True spirituality then is in the human inclination to connect and find meaning, and the greater, wider, and more inclusive the circle in this inclination, the greater and deeper the spiritual experience and expression of a person. For many, who profess no religious affiliation, they will refer to Nature or doing good as their religion and this is indeed getting close to true spiritual inclination, for they are describing the experience of connection which occurs for them in Nature or in acts of kindness and generosity where the boundary of their self opens and connects in a manner that is uncommon. This unboundaried sense is not uncommon, however, in young children, and its progressive loss can be seen as children get older and more “sophisticated.” This is why spiritual masters, such as Jesus, advised, “Be like the little children,” and Zen challenges us to “Show your original face,” meaning your consciousness prior to being socialized into a spiritually closed and limited adult.
Whereas religions are often about creating separation and boundary from all that is not within the religion’s teachings and community, true spiritual teaching and experience dissolve such false boundaries. A Zen master, when asked about the nature of ultimate reality, may just stoop down and pick up a stone, or simply point at the questioner, leaving them in puzzlement. Their puzzlement can, however, be resolved if they simply follow Ikkyu’s instruction and bring the very deepest attention possible to the stone or their own existence. Nothing exists separate from everything else, and deep examination will always reveal this truth. God, Ultimate Reality, is everywhere – where else could it be? This is the mystic’s, the spiritual master’s, secret knowledge and experience.
A very important difference between these Eastern philosophical/spiritual traditions and Western religions is that in the Middle East and in the West, true mystics were and are shunted off to the periphery, perhaps even persecuted as heretics, whereas in the Eastern religious traditions, mystics are held as the authority and teachers of what is essential. The most profound of these Eastern traditions, including Zen and Taoism, are often referred to as non-dual philosophies, meaning that their fundamental teaching is always focused upon the inviolable unity and interconnectedness of Life. This places them in a category of human ontological questing quite different from religions which are dualistic, that often teach, in some manner, the “fall” of humanity, the separation of humanity from Ultimate Grace, regainable only through fidelity and orthodoxy to the religion’s teachings.
As many Zen masters have declared, Zen is everyday life; in other words, the realization of ultimate truth and origin is in every manifestation and every function of Life. In all the non-dual traditions, God is everywhere, now. In the words of 13th century Zen master Dogen: “If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” This is what makes true spiritual practice absolutely practical, for it is always and only a search for the truth of every moment and situation.
What is the truth of morality and ethics? What is the truth of right conduct? What is the truth of governance? What is the truth of pleasure and pain? What is the truth of the functioning of the human mind? What is the truth of the nature of existence? What is the truth of washing the dishes or sweeping the floor or going to your job or to school? What makes life situations miserable or joyous? Who are you? What is your purpose? What is the purpose of any human life, of any lifeform? How ought any task be performed? The answer to all these and any question is right here and now – if you know how to look deeply enough, and when you look deeply enough it is realized that we already have and know everything needed to answer these questions and live an optimal human life, for we ARE Life, or the Universe, or God, having a human experience.
This is the secret of the spiritual masters, all their teachings pointing to our getting out of our own way, or more specifically, getting the human ego out of the way of our knowing how to be human, naturally. It’s all maddenly simple – it is about clearing from our lives the endless complicating and personalizing and categorizing and separating and manipulating and chasing after what we want and turning away from what we don’t want while getting caught in the agendas of other people and society. This is what the human ego does when it is mistaken for who we are, as our society and religions teach us. The mystic, the spiritual experience, stands outside all this, and it is maddening and challenging in its simplicity because the ego resists this simplicity, needing things, including spirituality and religion, to be complicated, creating what Zen calls the Gateless Gate, the seemingly impassable barrier that is really only an illusion created by our mind.
Ego will latch on to spirituality, claiming it for itself, teaching it as something pursued outside our daily lives, as rituals creating sometimes peaceful, and sometimes ecstatic, experiences identified with designated “spiritual” masters, retreats or types of experience. Very nice, but what good does this do us in our everyday life? This is why Zen teaches that Ultimate Reality is in everyday life, right where we are – IF we are truly where we are – rather than caught in the swirl of some egoic matrix of ideas and beliefs and behavior patterns more focused on the past and future than this present moment right where we are. It is this stone lying at our feet, the earth beneath us, the sky above us, “the Kingdom of Heaven spread across the land for those with the eyes to see,” the plants and animals and people about us. In the language of Eastern Vedantic traditions, “Thou art That.” What could be more uncomplicated or practical? Yet it is so challenging to conceive, to experience, to live, for those raised within dualistic cultures with dualistic religious instruction. How do we break free of the prison of being “in here” – this body and mind and circumstances we know as “me” – while all else is out there, including God? “Attention!” commands the Zen master or the guru. Right here, right now – pay attention as you have never paid attention and Life will reveal its secrets, So simple, yet so challenging, for we live caught in a world of the mind that is distracted confused, and unsatisfied. This is what Buddhism called “dukkha,” the unnatural suffering humans do to themselves, each other, and the world when they don’t know how to pay attention, when they don’t know who they are. True spirituality is knowing and living who you are. What could be more practical? It is going to the store or to work or relaxing at home or doing chores or at play knowing and being who we truly are, all done with a most uncommon presence and skill for we have learned to get out of our own way. Very practical.