Living in Spirit

What you perceive as a dense physical structure called the body, which is subject to disease, old age, and death, is not ultimately real – is not you.  It is a misperception of your essential reality that is beyond birth and death, and is due to the limitations of your mind… The body that you can see and touch is only a thin illusory veil.  Underneath it lies the invisible inner body, the doorway into Being, into Life unmanifested.  Through the inner body, you are inseparably connected to this manifested One Life – birthless, deathless, eternally present.  Through the inner body, you are forever with God… The key (to awakening) is to be in a state of permanent connectedness with the inner body – to feel it at all times.  – Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now)

Who, what are we?  The great question Zen continually asks is: “Who are you?”  According to Tolle, we are Life unmanifested continually manifesting.  Let’s pause right here for a moment.  This is quite a statement even before we get into Tolle’s elaboration.  Tolle uses the capitalization of the word “Life” to point to That which is much deeper than what we usually describe as “life,” the comings and goings, circumstances, and activities of the usual and everyday. Similarly, I capitalize “That” to point beyond the common and everyday into the Eternal, capitalizing “Eternal,” and so on, until Tolle uses the word “God.”  This is what spirituality really is, isn’t it, the questions that dance around us concerning “who, what am I?” “What is this life?” and “What is God?”  We want to know and to feel some sense of connection of our mortal self with the Immortal, with Creation. 

In Eastern religions, and in all mystical traditions, self, life, and God are all One, and so there is no confusion.  However, our Western religions, as usually practiced, lost the sense of this infinite connection long, long ago – the sense of the Divine living through and all around us.  This is not to say this sense of God living through us and through all the world was not there in the beginnings and in the mystical practice of Western religions.  This is what Jesus meant when he declared the Father and the Son are One.  His teachings were meant to awaken the sense of the Holy Spirit living through us and everything. The plain truth, however, is that Christianity became much too politicized a social institution almost from the beginning to retain its mystical origin in any truly felt sense for the common persons who identified as Christian.  It might be an important insight for Christians who refer to Jesus as “Savior” and as “the Light coming into the world,” to see “Savior” as meaning much the same as Siddhartha Gautama being named “Buddha” – which means “the awakened one.” Jesus, too, intended to awaken people, and in their awakening be saved from their suffering.  Both were mystics and teachers whose message was to bring the light of spiritual connection back into the ossified religions of their time. 

Similarly, both Judaism and Islam have clear pronunciations in their origins and through their mystics that, just as Asia’s Taoism states that “the Tao that can be named is not the Tao,” Moses inquiring “who are you?” of the burning bush, was answered, “That which cannot be named.”  And who/what was it that answered Moses?  All mystical traditions will say it was God, the Spirit, that moves through us and through all.  It was That which whispers to us from within at a level deeper than the rational mind that requires names and our usual sense of “me-in-the-world.”  To be truly spiritual, to live in Spirit, is to know the “One Life – birthless, deathless, eternally present.”  What moved through that bush, through Moses, through Jesus, and moves through you and me, through every speck and particle of this world is the dimension of what Tolle is calling “Being,” “Life unmanifested.” It is Spirit.  It is God.  It is Mystery.

It is the unfortunate fact about religions that as they become social institutions they lose the sense of the Divine happening through us and through all Creation, and the religions of the West became institutions of their societies nearly from their beginnings, and as such, instruments of political and social power.  God had to be made human-like, but all-powerful, the Creator, the judge, the rewarder, and punisher.  The language of religion was made to reflect the feudal order with aristocracy and priesthood as intermediaries above the common person, petitioning saints and angels and God above them, conflating both divine and temporal authority as “Lord.”  Religion became belief in and obedience to dogma and faith imposed by clergy.  That’s not how it was intended.  The politically incorrect Gospel of Thomas has Jesus pronouncing that the Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land for those with the eyes to see, implying that The Holy Spirit is not confined to any temple or church, its authority invested in kings and clergy, but is what moves through us and through all that is.  It is free, everywhere, here and now. 

Christians talk about Soul and Spirit – yet always the question remains whether it is it FELT and KNOWN.  It is certainly not when it is as some hysteria, talking in tongues, shouting Halleluiah! and certainly not in singing solemn hymns or bowing heads in prayer while petitioning an anthropomorphic God. All this is carryover of the European medieval culture that shaped Christianity as it is known and practiced today in the churches that are centerpieces of community life, of the social education of our culture.  It is echoes of when the church ruled over people’s lives like a despot, this theological authoritarianism even continuing today in fundamentalist religious sects.  It is important to remember it was those Pharisees of old Israel, powerful and wealthy religious authoritarians who stood in judgment, hand-in-hand with repressive political leaders, commanding what people were to believe and do that triggered Jesus’s anger.  His purpose was to bring a religion of Spirit while teaching that, just as he experienced himself, all were children, that is, extensions and manifestations of God, with the authority of Truth permeating our very Being.

None of this is to disparage those many churches, temples, and mosques, or their parishioners, who make a community and practice of worship based in ethical living and quiet gathering to allow some deeper inner stirring of connection with The Divine to awaken in them.  They play an important part in civil society and bring some measure of comfort and solace.  It’s just that the mystics from within these traditions would all advise that if we seek a true and deep spiritual connection that carries with us everywhere, that quiets and clears the drama and noise from our everyday life as well as from our mind, we must seek this place within…. and then extend it without… until within and without become one.  We must find and live this peace everywhere – even in the most challenging of circumstances, for it is only this felt sense, this living sense of ethics and spiritual connection, that will carry us through even the most challenging of circumstances.

Tolle is challenging – can you feel this?  Can you have faith that is based in your own knowing and experience of the Spirit within and everywhere around?  This is a kind of faith that few people in our contemporary world have. Tolle tells us that our problem is in “a misperception of your essential reality that is beyond birth and death, and is due to the limitations of your mind.”  Tolle is pointing to the Infinite which can be experienced and accessed THROUGH the finite you, which includes your mind, meaning the ego-mind, the sense of “me,” a personality with opinions and beliefs, quirks of thought and emotion and behavior. This is the dimension of mind that THINKS about the Eternal, may yearn for it, but cannot feel it.  The spiritual paradox is: the mind which cannot understand the Eternal still is of it.

The feeling state of spirituality happens from a deeper dimension than ego-mind.  It happens from what Tolle refers to as the dimension of Being (what is perfectly helpful to refer to as Soul, in a sense, the mind of Spirit) which transcends our separateness and mortality.  And this spirit-mind does not happen out of the brain in our head; rather, it pervades our entire being, our body, mind, and all that is.  Our bodies and our minds, for one who is “awake,” are experienced as faculties of Spirit to connect with and know itself incarnated as all the world.  Many a mystic has answered the question of “who are we?” by saying we are God, Spirit, or the Universe happening through a human being.  We and the world were not created by God, rather we and the world ARE Creation, God, happening everywhere.  This can be felt, and so, known, “if you have the eyes to see,” and the ears to hear, and the intuitive sense to feel the energy of Being, of Spirit, everywhere, connecting everything, giving this world the dynamism of mortal life arising out of the immortal.

So, Tolle tells us: The body that you can see and touch is only a thin illusory veil.  Underneath it lies the invisible inner body, the doorway into Being, into Life unmanifested.  Through the inner body, you are inseparably connected to this manifested One Life – birthless, deathless, eternally present.  Through the inner body, you are forever with God.”  Tolle is telling us to look within for the light of Spirit that opens our lives into peace, compassion, and wisdom.  And Tolle is telling us that we can feel and experience this truth, through our inner energy body which is “life unmanifested” becoming a manifested life.  In the East, this Spirit energy is well known, referred to in various languages as what the Chinese call “chi.”  It is what inspired George Lucas to build his Star Wars galaxy around the idea of the underlying energy of all things called “The Force,” described by Obi Wan Kenobi as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”  In the Star Wars galaxy, the dark and light sides of The Force battle each other, yet there is a spiritual implication that this battle will find resolution and harmony in union.  So too, for our galaxy. This is a good way to describe every human’s relationship with spirituality.  We seek to bring the light of Spirit into the darkness of our material existence, and this is what Tolle is pointing us toward, as do all true spiritual traditions.  We search for a pure human experience that has us in harmony with ourselves, with others, and with all the world, and Tolle tells us it can be achieved by “being in a state of permanent connectedness with the inner body – to feel it at all times” –  not just within ourselves, for it flows through not only us, but through all things.  It is an underlying dynamic field of intelligence that beats our hearts and brings forth the great diversity of life and creates the perfect balance and flow that is nature and all the Universe.  In the Vedic tradition of ancient India, this knowing is referred to as “Tat Tvam Asi” –  “Thou art That.”  True spiritual practice is the awakening of the knowing, feeling and living, that we and everyone and everything are always also Spirit.  God is happening through us – look within and all around and know this.

Looking and Seeing

“The true purpose of Zen is to see things as they are.” – “Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars you see. You are one with everything.”– Shunryū Suzuki (20th century Zen master)

In all mystical spiritual traditions there is a great emphasis made about the difference between “looking” and “seeing.”  Here we are in our lives, and we use our sense of sight constantly, but a valid question to ask is: are we merely looking or are we seeing?  Right now, you are reading this article using your visual sense.  You are looking at these words and they are registering some meaning in your mind that may be inspiring to you or may be interesting or may be boring or may be nonsensical from your point of view.  It is certainly my hope that you will be able to see what I am attempting to communicate, that is, to understand at a level deeper than merely comprehending the literal meaning of the words.  It is my hope that you will do more than look at this writing.  It is always my hope that readers will see deeper than my use of words, articulate or clumsy as they may be, to see what the words are, to use a phrase common in Zen, pointing toward, to realize very important truths concerning the human condition and potential which the words are pointing toward.  To look only at the words and let your mind react in its usual way to the words does not necessarily get you to what I am attempting to point to as I write.  I’m inviting you to look deeply to see what I am pointing toward with these words, to see the space of meaning around and behind the words.

In the same way, you can look up from reading these words and look about you, viewing the area in which you are as you read this.  The question from a Zen perspective is, are you SEEING what you are looking at?  There is, most likely, a lamp.  There may be one or more plants.  There are probably pictures.  There, through the window, may well be trees, and the sky, along with whatever else appears in the space you are viewing this moment.  Is it all so familiar as to make no particular impression upon you?  It may be that because you are being directed to look, you may look with a bit more care, and there may be some sense of identification with and appreciation for what you are viewing.  If so, you are beginning to see.  A Zen master might well then say: “Look deeper.”  Really SEE the lamp, the pictures, the plants.  Looking through the window, really SEE the trees, the sky, and whatever else may be there.  This instruction urges you to stop looking with your usual mind to see with your heart.  See with your soul.

Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would famously hold up a book and ask: “What is this?”  To answer, “A book” would draw the instruction to look deeper.  Eventually, he would say, “Do you not see a tree?” and there would be recognition, “Oh yes.”  Then he would say something along the lines of: “Do you not see the earth, and the sun, and the rain that made the tree possible? Do you not see those who labored to fell the tree and mill the tree and rend it into pulp and process the pulp into paper? Do you not see the author who through this book is sharing their insights and views?  Do you not see the editor, the publisher, the printer, and the bookseller?  Do you not see the many who have read this book? Do you not see all the many, many processes and interrelationships that go into this book?”  He was pointing to the fact that the entire universe in its infinite interrelationships go into a book – and into every other phenomenon, when we go deeper than looking, to see.  Continuing, it could be asked if you can see this book someday falling apart, its binding broken and its pages yellowing, sent off to be recycled or to the trash heap where it will decompose into earth which may be the bed of soil for a seed to fall into, and with sun and rain become a tree again?

Few people really see the world.  Rather, mostly people look at the world in a utilitarian fashion that tells us where we are, what’s going on, and what not to bump into while setting up the mind to like or dislike or be indifferent to what is registering in vision.  We are looking and listening and feeling as is needed to negotiate our way through the schedule of our day in the manner we are accustomed to.  We are generally reinforcing ideas we already have about what we encounter.  Whether we really understand what is registering with our senses, whether we appreciate the uniqueness and purpose of what is registering, whether we relate deeply, seeing the many dimensions and relationships necessary for anything to exist, the fleeting impermanence of all things, and the infinite universe that brings forth all things – all this requires more than looking.  To experience the miracles around us all the time requires seeing.

Seeing is engaging the senses to connect with life all around and within us.  When seeing, we are not only receptively looking, we are also engaging the pathway of sight to project our sense of self through consciousness to connect with whatever is the focus of our sight – to be the clouds or the stars.  The same is true with sound and scent and taste and body sensations as well as our intuitive and proprioceptive senses.  To see is to enter into both the material and the mystical existence of all things.  It is the ability to see a thing in its many levels of organization, from the microscopic sub-atomic up into the many relationships which exist around and in support of this thing, continuing up to the macroscopic view of all things, including ourselves, as expressions of the Universe.  To see is to recognize the mystery of life, the energy of life which moves through all things, connecting all things.  To see is to recognize the sacred in all things.  For the mystic, from any religious tradition or no religious tradition at all, there is a sense of God or the Universe happening THROUGH all things, including ourselves and everyone and everything we encounter.  In Sanskrit, this is expressed as Tat Tvam Asi – Thou art That – the experience of identification with everything – when we truly see.

It could be said that Buddhism is a training program in seeing.  As the word “awakening” is associated with Buddhism, to experience Buddhism is to realize it is about waking up to see that which we have been too shallow to see so that we might feel truly alive as we stumble along engrossed in our own small dramas and judgments about life, just looking, just glancing at life.  Buddhism calls this not feeling fully alive dukkha, a word which translates roughly as suffering or dissatisfaction.  And it is true, as Buddhism teaches, that we suffer because we are ignorant, and we are ignorant because we do not see, and when we do not see we do not truly understand the World or ourselves or our place within and as an expression of the World.  Then our life has a kind of an emptiness we experience as anxiety, as depression, anger, and boredom.  We try to fill this hole with more drama and possessions, but it does not satisfy.

The Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel taught that to “sin” was to “miss the mark” of being truly alive, using the original meaning of the word “sin,” and that the root of this sinning was our being in “denial of the sublime wonder of life.”  He was saying that when we only look at life, seeing only what we expect, only what we are used to, we are missing the sublime wonder, the sacred miracle, that is life.  To use another of his favorite phrasings, life must be seen with the eyes of “radical amazement” lest we live from a shallowness that leads to the callousness and self-centeredness out of which all our “sins,” our transgressions, arise.  Heschel is telling us to wake up and SEE.

So much of the pain and the suffering of the world is caused by people not seeing.  We are looking all the time – looking for happiness, looking out for trouble, looking for what we like and dislike.  In all this looking we are failing to see that our happiness is dependent on honoring life-as-it-is in its totality, in seeing that my happiness is linked to your happiness, my security to your security, encompassing everyone and everything.  We are ruining our planet chasing after our specialness and comfort, indulging our greed and violence, not seeing that we exist within a miracle built on the harmony of all life that even includes insects, rainstorms, cold in the winter, the smart and the simple, the safe and the dangerous, the gaudily beautiful and the simply plain, those who are like us and those who are different.  Can we see how precious this life is and how precious every element is within it?  It is as Heschel taught, the root of sin, of our defiling ourselves, each other, and nature, arises from our failure to see the sublime wonder that is everywhere.  Jesus said the kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land for those with the eyes to SEE.  Yes, we ARE one with the clouds and the sun and the stars, and with each other, and all life, and the seeing of this is what Heaven means. 13th century Zen Master Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, wrote: “Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.”  Do you understand what he is saying?  Before opening ourselves to the art of seeing, we see what we are accustomed to seeing, what everyone sees. It is all quite ordinary.  Then, when entering into the mystic arts, one can get lost in the dimensions beyond the usual, seeing what everyone else does not see and come to feel above the ordinary world.  When fully matured, however, when “awakened,” we see both the spiritual and the ordinary and know them to be the same.  And mountains are mountains, and waters are waters, and animals are animals, and trees are trees, and people are people, and the Earth is the Earth, AND they are also sublimely wonderful mysteries never to be used or abused, never taken for granted, ignored, or looked over.  Do you see?  I ask you not to just agree or disagree intellectually with what I am saying.  Please stop your ordinary way of looking to go deeper and deeper and deeper – until you see.

Meditation on Living in Tao

Do not move from the posture you are in.  Scan your body with awareness to see if your energies are in balance.  Feel the imbalances. 

Close your eyes – experience the mental posture you are in.  Feel your body and mind out of balance – caught in some egoic posture, contracted into the mental image you habitually carry of yourself.  Take note – This is who you act like but is not your True Self.

Experience your body/mind circle of consciousness like a Yin-Yang circle – but it is probably not centered and balanced.  The Yin-Yang is not static – it is like a kaleidoscope of the Yin-Yang in motion – what does yours look like?  Is it centered, silent, balanced or chaotic and imbalanced?

Hold your dynamic Yin-Yang circle kaleidoscope image in awareness while you bring your body into line – Sit like Buddha, like Lao Tzu, aligning between Heaven and Earth.  Note any changes in your Yin-Yang Circle as the meditation proceeds.

Bring awareness to your breathing – note whether it is easy and deep, natural – and bring your breathing into a natural rhythm, easy and deep without exaggeration, just naturally full.

With each exhalation, allow a release of physical tensions, deeper and deeper into relaxed, yet alert presence as you feel the sensations of your body sitting and breathing.  With each inhalation, greater calm clarity of awareness is accessed.

Bring awareness to your dynamic Yin-Yang circle as you sit and breath in relaxed, alert, balance.

Realize yourself at the center of the Yin-Yang circle, sitting like Lao Tzu, breathing mystically, realizing the Universe coming into the realm of form through you.

With your breathing and your intention, bring the dynamic Yin-Yang circle into the perfect harmony and balance that is the classic Yin-Yang image, only dynamic – spinning slowly, morphing changes in the configuration of the Yin and the Yang – visualize images of your life within it – superimposed upon the symbol of Yin and Yang – experience where there is imbalance and swirl it all into balance.

Remember the little bit of Yin within Yang and Yang within Yin.  Feel the harmonizing of opposites within yourself.  Feminine and masculine, light and dark, spiritual and material, wisdom and knowledge, compassionate empathy and realistic acceptance, social inclination and the hermit. Sit at the center, the Universe streaming through you, out of the Yin-Yang circle, see a new image of yourself spinning into existence, one of balance, grace, wisdom, and effectiveness.  Stillness giving rise to action, anchored in the energy of Earth, inspired by the energy of Heaven, a natural human being living in Tao.  Sit for a while with this image becoming clearer and stronger.

Here We Are

“Here we are.”  All of Zen, Taoism and any true mystical spiritual tradition comes down to what consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle chose as the title his first book: “The Power of Now.”  Here we are – in the here-and-now, in what can be seen, heard, touched, felt, and in such directness, understood.  We cannot be any where or when else.  Can you really get this, feel this, know this? This truth really experienced begins to free us from psychological pain and from spiritual confusion.  It begins to open the power of our originally clear and sane mind.

Yet typically, we do not live this way, for where we are is mostly in our confused and anxious minds, in a kind of virtual reality.  We are living in our schedules, speculations, fantasies, discomforts, regrets, victories, fears, and desires.  Our here-and-now is distracted by constant wanderings into there-and-then and what-if.  In all creation, only humans have the capacity to live as if not in the absolute immediacy of the real here-and-now, and what seems to be true is that with the advance of human civilization, the ability to live fully in the absolute here-and-now continually decreases. 

Pre-civilized humans lived almost entirely in the absolute here-and-now, in their physical senses and silent intuitive capacity.  They were in touch with nature and felt a mystical unfolding and interconnection with all life, and very interestingly there is no evidence of neurotic mental illness among such humans as they can be encountered in the few remaining remote uncivilized corners of the Earth – in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and Pacific Oceana.  On the other hand, it can be fairly emphatically stated that modern humans have a very tenuous connection with the present moment, living instead mostly in their minds, in stories of their past and desires and fears for the future, the present moment only a transit point between.  And mental illness is rampant.   

When indigenous North American people encountered Europeans of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – high-functioning, “normal” people – it was quite obvious to the natives that these people were crazy.  It was quite obvious that these conquering, questing people lived in their heads and not where their feet touched the ground, in the true natural reality of here-and-now, and that they were exceedingly dangerous. It was quite obvious that while stupefyingly powerful with inventions and weapons and writing and governments and intention to conquer rather than live with nature, that these humans were crazy.  They tore down a world that had existed in harmony for thousands of years to place upon the land a civilization that in a short few hundred years has brought the land and its own culture to the edge of collapse.  By the 20th century, these crazy murderous European/American people had completely destroyed the sane and balanced world of the native people and imposed a violent, unbalanced representation of their own unbalanced minds.  Do I go too far in calling our world violent and unbalanced?  I do not think so.

Today, many, many people, while being productive and loving and generally appreciative of life, are prone to anxiety, tension, anger, and depression, and engage in the subtle and blatant violence of competition and acquisition with each other and anyone and anything that crosses their path.  Most are in some form of constant state of argument with each other and even with themselves.  They seem obsessed with acquiring while showing very little appreciation for what they have.  Such people seem to be caught in the dimension of mind that thinks obsessively and shows a very unhealthy tendency to emotional excess with very little familiarity with the dimension of mind that is silent, peaceful, and wise.  Our culture teaches us to make most everything about ourselves, and it is not unfair to say that most folks seem quite unhappy even when professing to being happy.  Our unbalanced violence expresses itself every day in subtle ways, seeking to win, creating or being losers, while the news is filled with the out-of-control violence that debases our society.

Yet, it is very important to realize that despite all of us modern humans being so crazy, some more than others, there IS a completely sane person inside each of us.  Buddhism, among other mystical traditions, tells us there remains this basic human being within us who is much more like an indigenous person, and teaches us to be in harmony with the nature of the world and our own nature, knowing the two to be one.  We are still natives.  We are native to this planet and this universe.  We belong within a great unfolding of cosmic existence.  This planet within this universe is our home.  This is a simple truth, yet we show very little recognition of this knowing, a knowing that was the stabilizing touchstone of the lives of indigenous people and of mystics throughout the ages. 

We have lost our way.  We normal civilized people live predominantly inside the dimension of our minds known as ego that is, in effect, an artificial intelligence made up of thoughts, of social and psychological programming, that very much puts us at odds with our own and universal nature.  We have lost connection and identification with the dimension of mind that precedes the programming of our civilized conditioning, and it drives us crazy.  This original mind, as Buddhism calls it, knows itself as nature, the universe happening through a human-being just as the universe happens through all plants and animals and even mountains and rivers, rocks, and sky, and oceans. 

Buddhism teaches that when we can see and experience in ourselves this unconditioned purity of consciousness – its peacefulness, its clarity, wisdom, and sanity – and how it is blocked by the shell of our ego, we can make peace with ourselves and shift our sense of self from within this crazy ego into the clarity of awareness that is our original state of consciousness.  We can then begin to soften the hard shell of ego and bring ego into its proper role and dimension in the wholeness of our mind.  We can let go of our conditioning and of our ego as our identity, allowing awareness to shine forth increasingly as who we are.  Then and only then can we truly bring this same understanding and acceptance to others, allowing that they too are prisoners of conditioning.  

This is what Buddhism means by compassion.  Empathy can arise.  Tolerance can arise.  Gentleness can arise.  And so too, will appropriate boundaries arise – for you don’t let one who is acting crazy just run wild – boundaries are gently set and firmly held while the original person beneath the crazy is called forth with our love and acceptance.  While compassion is a profoundly emotional experience that leads to tenderness, empathy, and love, even to joy, it begins as a profoundly rational understanding that we are all the victims and prisoners of our social and psychological conditioning.  Here and now is where and when we are.  See this, feel this, know this, be this.  Here we are – both our crazy and our completely sane selves wrapped together.  We have been trained by an unbalanced culture to be crazy and dissatisfied, and we behave accordingly.  But it does not have to be so.  Have compassion for yourself so that you can truly begin to have compassion for others and for all of Creation.

The 9th century founder of the Rinzai school of Zen, Linji, famously queried: “This moment, what is lacking?” – and clearly, in the universe, there is nothing lacking, by the nature of the universe being everything.  It is perfect and complete as it is.  Buddhism calls this Dharma.  Taoism calls it Tao.  Both terms translate into English as “The Way.”  We live within The Way of the universe.  Here we are.  Can you breathe into this, allowing your silent mind to come forth in its knowing that we are an expression of the universe with the same clarity that was the basis of indigenous people’s way of life?  Here we are, complete, whole, and sane, just as is all in this universe.  Can you relax into this truth, letting your craziness become mere whispers in the field of your mind, no longer strong enough to catch and hold you – just passing stories of someone you no longer are.   Buddhism calls us to awaken and reconnect with this sane and natural mind through Dharma study, meditation, and mindfulness to reclaim our natural sanity and sense of kinship and interdependence with each other and all of life. With this realization our egoic mind can pull back from its insecure insistence on running our lives, untangle its crazy thoughts, better manage its emotions, and find its natural role and function as a mental faculty for engaging the world, now doing so skillfully, wisely, and compassionately.  It is in the balancing of our inventive, striving egoic-mind with our now strengthened, long-neglected, clear, natural, wise, and compassionate mind, the mind of awareness that exists completely in the here-and-now, that we can begin to build sane, balanced, and productive personal lives.  Then, together, we can build a new sane, balanced, and productive human society on this planet just as did the indigenous people who preceded us.  Only now, the technological inventiveness that is the hallmark of our civilization can be in the service of the balance of life rather than our unbalanced questing for power and dominance that has been and is, yes, driving us all quite crazy while destroying our world.

Silence, Stillness, Vastness, Peace

“When both body and mind are at peace, all things appear as they are: perfect, complete, lacking nothing.”                – Dogen (13th Century)                                                                                

Driven by the insecurity that comes with living in our contemporary world, we all seek one thing even if we do not know it and our hectic lifestyles do not reflect it: we seek peace.  Even in the most driven and ambitious of people, what they are really after is that moment of peace that comes after some achievement, the release of the chronic tension of living a modern life, because for a moment, what has been chased is achieved and there is felt release.  Ah…..  The smile comes on the face, a moment of the body relaxing, a thought of “Yes.”  Just for a moment – then, back into the fray, the sense of peace gone, as the seeking, for exactly what, we do not know – the next accomplishment, problem overcome, or desire fulfilled, returns.  It is the anxious routine of our lives.  

Everyone wants to feel peace within themselves, but nothing in our social conditioning affirms this – quite the opposite.  We are told to accomplish something with our lives, to be somebody, to take care of business, to do what a “good” or “successful” or “cool” or “devout” or “manly” or “womanly” or whatever person is supposed to do.  It drives us all quite crazy, but unless we’re driven crazy to a degree that causes big problems, we, and those around us, pay very little attention to how crazy we’ve become.  We push on. 

What if real peace were possible?  Not the peace of the grave, or the peace of the hermit who escapes the world, but a peace that pervaded the everyday and normal routine of our lives.  All the mystical spiritual traditions from around the world point to this peace, and they all say it is within everyone, but that it is buried under a mind in motion, a commotion of thoughts and emotions.  The mystical traditions tell us that there is a deeper being within us than our troubled, seeking minds; some call it the soul, the modern consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it Being, Eastern traditions call it the Self or original Self, Buddhism calls it the Buddha (awakened) self or mind.  This is the dimension of who we originally and fundamentally are, and it is characterized by peace, wisdom, and compassion.  It dwells within us in silence, in stillness, and in a sense of vastness within the totality of existence, all very different from how we live our contemporary lives. 

The Buddhist mystical tradition of Zen makes a great point of telling us that our true purpose is to return to our original or natural mind, the mind we were born with, the mind before we were conditioned by an anxious, materialistic society to be anxious materialistic people.  Recognizing that to be free of this anxiety seems impossible to the person imbedded within the hurry of everyday life, Zen recognizes the need for pointers, road signs that can get us on our way, and it points us towards silence, something most of us have no real notion of or much tolerance for, as the gateway to this Nirvana.  It tells us that to follow this path will be difficult, the pull back to the path of distraction and commotion is so very strong, but that with each step along the path the truth of the possibility of peace becomes increasingly evident. 

Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.” – Thich Nhat Hanh 

This is the challenge to any person who has felt the dissatisfaction, what Buddhism calls dukkha, suffering, that comes with the soul whispering to us that there must be more than the hurry and the anxiety, anger, and depressions, small and large, that come with living our striving lives.  The challenge is, how do we find our way through the commotion of our mind and our circumstances to silence, to stillness, to vastness, to peace, for it is there we will find “the peace that surpasseth understanding” pointed to in the Bible. 

How do we enter into silence?  Where is silence?  You must come to realize that it is ever-present.  Beneath and between all the noise of the world and our minds is silence, but you must move away from the deafening noise and listen very carefully.  You must listen with your soul.  It is even present visually when you look with your soul, and it is present as a feeling state when you feel into your body and into the world with your soul.  Listening, seeing, feeling with the everyday mind does not get you there.  You must listen, see, and feel with your soul, where the Universe comes into being through us.  You must listen with the silent mind beneath the noisy mind of your little self, your ego-self, the “me” that sits inside this body thinking itself alone in the world, always striving to make the connections and accomplishments that will give fleeting moments of peace and happiness but is at a loss as how to live there with any constancy.  

We must learn how to deliberately access the silence and stillness that are readily available, but since we are focused on the noise both around us and in our heads, we do not recognize this.  Our ego-self lives in the noise and in the difficulties and victories, in the commotion, so silence is a precious gift that we thoughtlessly pollute.  Like air and water, silence, this most precious of resources, needed for the mind and its health every bit as much as air and water are needed by the body, is overlooked precisely because it is hidden beneath all the noise of life.  We do not realize its incalculable value to our mental and spiritual health because our egoistic, materialistic society does not recognize this.  Like the air and water and land that are everywhere and that we take for granted and so thoughtlessly contaminate, so too it is with the silence and stillness beneath and all around the noise and commotion.  We actually avoid noticing the silence; we are afraid of it.  We taint the occurrence of silence with our compulsive thinking.  If the world is not making noise, our mind is. 

We live in a noisy society.  We are noisy people, and it is very important to recognize this is not so with all people.  Mystics are not noisy.  Indigenous people were not noisy.  There is a story I remember hearing long ago of a Native American chief, sometime in the early 1800’s, going to Washington D.C. to negotiate a treaty with the American government.  In this story, upon returning from his time in Washington, he expressed fear that the city had been so noisy that he had been damaged, that he would never be able to “dream” again.  To a Native person, this is a disaster, for the dreaming referred to here is not of the sleep variety, but the ability to enter into the world beneath the obvious material, time-bound, linear structure of our physical senses and our egoic mind into what, in the context of Native Americans, would be called the Spirit World.  It is to walk in the silence, stillness, and vastness of what to them is the real world hidden beneath the world of appearances.  This is what Zen calls Ultimate Reality, the world we enter into through our intuitive sense, the sense of the silent mind.  It is the world of unity out of which the world of things, mental and physical, arises.  It is the place of wisdom and insight, of Knowing, of connection, and it is where our true Self abides, and it is where our truly spiritual and psychologically healthy self resides.  To lose this connection is the greatest of tragedies to an aboriginal person.  To civilized people, the whole concept is mumbo jumbo.  We don’t know how to be without noise. 

Many people get very uneasy around silence.  Our entire society is an environment of hyper-stimulation, visual and auditory.  If the Native chief feared that his soul had been deafened by the noise of an early 19th century American city, imagine what his experience would be today.  Are our souls being deafened by noise, visual and auditory?  I think, tragically, yes.  Many people, identified only with the noise in the world and in their mind, have no sense of a deeper self, nor of a deeper reality to the world than the loud material, commercial, high-intensity, chaotic world around them and the neurotic cacophony of their minds.  Silence is quite foreign.  Their entire sense of self is in this noise and its internal mental equivalent of sensations, thoughts, and emotions.  We are dulled by the noise, requiring the intensity be turned up to hold our attention.  We are an attention-deficit-disordered society and a significant level of this deficit in individuals is considered normal, causing only extreme cases to be considered a psychological disorder.  We scan through life with only the highest level of stimulation catching and holding our interest. We are quite numb to the subtle and the quiet. 

A famous story in Zen has an ardent student walking through a mountain forest with their teacher.  The student is a fountain of questions, asking for clarification on the Buddhist sutras, on the philosophy, teachings, and practices of Zen.  He exclaims, “I am sorry, Teacher, I am trying, but I just cannot figure out how or where to enter into Zen!”  To this the master replies, “Do you hear that mountain stream?”………  This stops the student.  The mountain stream is a far distance from where they are, and with all his earnest walking, thinking, and talking, the student had not heard it.  So, he stops walking and listens, but he still cannot hear it, and tells the teacher so.  The teacher then instructs him, “listen more closely.”  Now, calling forth his Zen mindfulness training, the student becomes quite still, bringing relaxed alert awareness to his breathing and to his body as he reaches with his consciousness into the acoustical space of the moment.  Completely grounded into the moment, all preoccupation with himself and his questions suspended, he begins to hear not only the obvious sounds around him – the wind rustling the leaves and the call of an occasional bird – all heard with deeper clarity and depth, with a sense of resonance and connection, the sounds, paradoxically, both distinct and flowing into each other – he also begins to hear the silence within which these sounds are occurring.  He hears the space between and behind the sounds even as they flowed into a unity, and with this, more distant and fainter sounds begin to reach his consciousness.  And then…..  “Oh yes, now I hear the stream – so faint, so far away – but yes – I hear it now.”  He was listening with his soul.  Listening into silence.  And the teacher instructed him: “Enter into Zen from there.”

Evil in the World

“What is evil? Killing is evil, lying is evil, slandering is evil, abuse is evil, gossip is evil, envy is evil, hatred is evil, to cling to false doctrine is evil; all these things are evil. And what is the root of evil? Desire is the root of evil; illusion is the root of evil.”  – Gautama Buddha

“The healthy person does not torture others, generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” – Carl Jung

As this is being written, great malevolent evil is unleashed in Ukraine.  The werewolf of madness runs amok. It is not the only incidence of great evil in the world right now, but it is the worst and with the terrible potential to spread into a planetary catastrophe.   This military onslaught with weapons of terrible destruction and individual actions of unspeakable cruelty are wantonly assaulting a people for the purpose of terror, done with intention, and it is its intentionality that separates this true malevolent evil from the ordinary evil of mere thoughtless violence. 

I see violence as a uniquely human phenomenon.  In Nature, there is the dynamic and balance of birth and death, creation and destruction.  It is the energy and circle of life giving way to sustain and create life.  I reserve the use of the idea of violence to humans, for there is a kind of destructive and harmful action generated by humans that does not occur elsewhere in Nature.  Humans become violent for purposes and deficiencies of their specifically human egos, and violence is about the imposition of some ego-agenda that results in injury in some way, including to ourselves.  This may be intended; it may be reflexive.  It may be physical; it may be psychological.  It is when physical or psychological violence is done with intention and callousness that it begins to be evil.   When it is done on a great scale and with truly malevolent intention and terrible, widespread harm, it is morphing into terrible great evil.

Evil is a particularly poisonous expression of the human ego’s insatiable need to compete, possess, dominate, control, use, and consume for its own aggrandizement.  In Ukraine this evil has exploded as the expression of Russian dictator Putin’s psychopathy against a neighboring state that at various times in history has shared nationhood with Russia.  Putin, like a violent shunned spouse, seems to believe that if he cannot own this former partner, he will see her dead, or at the very least, horribly punished and terrorized for the offense of her rejection.  This is evil, whether expressed through an international criminal despot against another nation or a single hateful individual against another.

This magnitude of evil is certainly not new.  One of Putin’s predecessors, Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was responsible for the deaths of at least four million Ukrainians by starvation in response to their urge toward independence in the 1930’s.  Stalin likewise is held guilty of the deaths of upwards of twenty million Soviet citizens during his bloody, paranoid reign.  Adolph Hitler and Pol Pot stand among the mega-murderers of the 20th century in a litany of mass murderers and genocidalists throughout human history scarred with the slaughter of innocents for greed, for power, for religion, and for perverted ideas of glory.  Even we in the United States are not innocent, being guilty of the genocide of one race of people and the enslavement and subsequent prejudicial ill-treatment of another.  Evil on the mass scale haunts human history.  Genghis Khan’s hordes murdered of over 40 million people, roughly 10% of the world’s population at the time.  Rome enslaved and murdered tens of millions during its reign.  Putin is now joining history’s parade of monsters.

Yes, evil is in the world, from these vast scales down dimension through dimension of degree, into small scale, ubiquitous acts of violence – as local and individual as the spouse or child abuser living down the street, as subtle as a parent or teacher shaming a child or teaching bigotry.  Evil is with us and always has been.

And there is another level of evil, which is not conscious or deliberate, and it infects all of human society.  It can be found in the tendency to bigotry and the insatiable greed and callousness of modern commerce that is leading to global warming threatening to upend human civilization while bringing extinction to species after species.  It goes on unnoticed as the industrial farming and slaughter of animals in conditions of terrible cruelty and the poison runoff of our megafarms and industries.  It exists in an economy based in exploitation, of a wealthy class built upon the poverty of others, on deceit at the basis of marketing and politics.  Wherever egos are scheming to gain some advantage over others, some manipulative control, some profit, or some elevation of itself at the expense of others, this is violence, and it is evil.

Some level of violence and evil could be said to be behind a great deal of human expression and action.  It is certainly in shaming and in bigotry of any kind.  It is in stealing and cheating, lying, and manipulating.  It is in physical and psychological violence; it is in sexual assault, abuse, predation, and exploitation. Importantly, we are so acclimated to violence and evil that it is imperative that we look ever more closely at our interactions and commerce to see the everyday violence to which we have become desensitized.  Just where does that meat on our plate come from and what experience did a conscious being suffer for it to get there?  Where does the plastic we throw away go and to what consequence?  What do you think is the effect of a busy parent ignoring their child until the child does something the parent considers wrong and then punishing and belittling the child?  What consequence will there be to politicians inventing cultural wedge issues to gain power while the serious issues concerning how to build a fair and enduring society go ignored or even ridiculed?  There is subtle violence in just the everyday common put-downs, dismissals, judging, prejudices, and ego competition amongst people.  On and on, cruelty, insensitivity, exploitation.  You see? 

Our human society is filled with small and great evils.  History and literature are filled with the drama of evil….. And it is likewise filled with human goodness confronting and overcoming evil.  This interplay of good and evil could be said to be the hallmark of human social evolution.  As I said, a great deal of human expression can be viewed as motivated by violence and evil, but so much more of human motivation and expression is based in goodness, in the intention to do good, and herein is the driving dynamic of human social, intellectual and spiritual evolution and the promise of salvation.  As Jung said, torturers are but passing on their tortured selves.  To recognize this and work to bring about an end to torture, to violence, every place and in every way that we can brings about a lessening of the propensity to violence and evil, to torture, in the world.  Evil in the world is not a reason for despair.  Rather, it is a call for goodness to rise.

Buddhism teaches us that greed, anger, and ignorance are the origin of evil, and so, it teaches that generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, and the wisdom of karma are needed to counteract and displace evil with goodness.  Karma is the cosmic law telling us that everything happens because of conditions bringing forth what happens.  After WWI, the victorious Allies imposed draconian punishment upon a defeated Germany, further traumatizing a nation that had already been traumatized by the war.  Historians generally agree that the conditions for the rise of fascism, Hitler and WWII were contained in the terms of Germany’s surrender written into the Treaty of Versailles.  After WWII, the only great nation to escape horrible destruction was the United States, which through the wisdom and compassion of the Marshall Plan, rebuilt not only our allies, but Germany and Japan, welcoming them into the community of democracies.  The shift from despotic nationalistic militarism and racial intolerance that marked Germany and Japan before the war into the models for democracy and tolerance that they became is an example of wisdom and goodness transforming ignorance and evil.

The one country that shifted from ally to enemy immediately after WWII was Soviet Russia, and none of the benevolence of the Marshall plan was extended to it – rather, the Marshall Plan, along with the creation of NATO, had as one of its goals the isolation of Russia from the world community.  And so, the world moved into a new polarization of authoritarian communist nations in conflict with democratic capitalist nations.  The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was hailed as a great victory for democracy and the West, but virtually no attention was given as to how to bring Russia into the modern democratic world.  This huge nuclear armed country was largely left on its own to create a functioning capitalist democracy, and few countries exceed the experience of Russia and the Russian people as both victims and perpetrators of great evil.  Now, Buddhism warns that karma would indicate that if the conditioning of a people for despotism and cruelty is strong, and there is no history of functioning democracy, wise and compassionate new conditions would need to be fostered for democracy to take hold.  No such attention was given to Russia and in result Russia seems to have reverted to despotism, imperiling today not only its immediate neighbor, Ukraine, but possibly beyond.  Certainly, for the people of Russia, a new era of abusive despotism seems at hand.  The Western nations would do well to recognize the greed, anger, and ignorance of our own social, political, and economic systems which fail to see the world’s dangers and suffering for what and why they are.  Evil is in the world, and it will require deliberate application of intentional wisdom, generosity, and compassion to counter it if we are to successfully navigate through and beyond the threats our modern world presents.  Good and evil are in their ageless interplay, and when Buddhism calls upon us to awaken, it is goodness, compassion and wisdom that is being called upon to step up.  Not only Ukraine’s future is at stake, but so is Russia’s, ours, and all the world.