For a number of years I had sort of a love/hate relationship with the Zen tradition. At times the Zen teachings seemed whimsical, humorous, direct and to the point. At other times they seemed so vague and frustrating that I sometimes felt that some of the various Zen teachers were just making stuff up just for the purpose of being confusing and that there actually was no true wisdom behind what they were saying. Boy was I wrong!
When I was learning about Soto Zen at Chuo-ji in Sapporo, Japan one of the other practitioners gave me a copy of something that the Zen monk Kosho Uchiyama wrote. It turns out that Uchiyama Roshi had a master’s degree in western philosophy and seemed to have a good grasp on the way westerners think. So I decided to write him a letter and see if he could answer some questions about things that had been frustrating me trying to understand Buddhism from a western standpoint. Unfortunately when my letter arrived Uchiyama Roshi was gravely ill and could not respond. To my surprise Tom Wright, an American student of Uchiyama Roshi and translator, answered my letter. He informed me of Uchiyama Roshi’s ill health and very graciously sent me a copy of the book “Opening the hand of thought, Approach to Zen” that he had worked with Uchiyama Roshi translating to English. I have since worn out this book going over it again and again and each time finding new things that I missed before. I is certainly a treasured part of my Buddhist library and has played a huge role in the formation of my own Buddhist understanding.
One of the things that struck me when reading Uchiyama Roshis book was that he used the terms “self” and “Self” to refer to what he called our small individual “self” and the all-encompassing Universal “Self”. Please pay very close attention to the use of these two terms in this post. This concept was new to me and I wouldn’t realize the importance and how profound it was until years later. In my opinion underlying all Buddhist scripture and practice is the importance of understanding the nature of our true “Self”. Until we get the small individual “self” out of the way we cannot begin to see reality as it truly is. I believe that it is Enlightenment itself.
You see often when people are first learning about Buddhism they are looking for someone to just tell them the “thing” the “answer” the “gist” of what Buddhism is all about. Because of our (westerners) limited experience with Eastern thought we also tend to have all sorts of false notions about some mystical magical secret that the teachings of the Buddha held. Put this in combination with the McDonalds get it right now culture and we tend to be a very impatient lot who just want the answer! We just want to get to the point! The problem is our understanding of reality is so deluded and clouded by our “it’s all about me perspective” that it is just not that simple for us to get past the small individual self to wake up and understand.
“So people who spend their lives only pursuing happiness in concrete forms cannot help but despair when death comes. That is why all the materialistic pursuits only end in despair in the face of the First Undeniable Reality, that all things die. From this first Undeniable reality, what is it that we have to learn. What is it that we must pursue as undeniable truth? We have to clarify what life and death really are. We have to know clearly just what it means to be alive and what it means to die. In Pureland Buddhism, there is an expression gosho o negau, that is, hope for the next life. The belief is that life opens up after death. But that’s not a very good understanding of the expression. What gosho, or afterlife, refers to is the life that arises when one clarifies this matter of death. It means knowing clearly just what death is, and then really living out one’s life. That is the most important thing we can learn from the First Undeniable Reality.”
Opening the hand of thought, Approach to Zen
The problem we have understanding death is that we do not understand life. The reason we do not understand life is that our understanding is clouded over by our insistence in the validity of our small individual self. Waking up to the truth of our Universal Self our whole perspective towards everything changes. We are no longer looking for satisfaction and what is good for the small individual self we can now have Compassion for all things, because, all things are in fact us!
“In religion when an agent (a medium) of some god or God has spoken suggestively about an invisible real metaphysical realm and has said that there exists such and such a god, or that man has a soul, people assumed it to be true and have acted accordingly. This has been called belief or faith. However in Buddhism the fundamental definition of “belief” does not mean to believe in one’s mind that every person has an individual soul or that God exists outside of the life of the Self.
Belief in Buddhism is not like that. While we are in fact living out the life that pervades everything and goes beyond our individual thoughts, we easily lose sight of this reality of life and become confused and carried away by the ideas of our small, individual self, just like the squashes that got carried away and started fighting. In our Zazen, we let go of thoughts, lower our level of excitement, and become clear and pure in the reality of truly Universal Life. This is the basic meaning of belief. Therefore the very act of doing Zazen is an expression of our belief.
Ordinarily we assume that our self is only this small, individual self and remain unable to imagine that our Self is the very life that pervades all things. We have actually lost sight of reality so much that when we hear about Universal Self, despite the fact that this refers to us, we refuse to recognize it and assume that universal life refers to someone else. However, when we hear that Self is not some other person, that the truth of the Self is that we ourselves are living out the life that pervades all things, we may recognize that it is so.”
Opening the hand of thought, Approach to Zen
When the Zen masters speak of Enlightenment they speak of attaining it, not obtaining it. That is because Enlightenment is not something that we go a get or add it is something that we already have, we only have to realize it. What exactly do we have to realize? The true nature of the Self! In the quote above Uchiyama Roshi makes a reference to the “squashes that got carried away”. This is a reference to an old Zen parable that is truly, what I consider to be, pure Zen. The reason I say that is because it conveys a incredible profound meaning in a story that is presented and a very simple and humorous way. This is one of the paradoxes of Zen. Sometimes when you come across these stories you may chuckle and get a kick out of it but at the same time because it is simple and humorous miss how profound the true meaning really is. So the story goes basically like this:
There were some squashes growing in the garden behind a Zen monastery. They were often arguing about unimportant mundane things and one day ended up getting into a fight and split into two camps. Hearing the squash arguing with each other, the head priest of the temple comes out, and as a way to stop their fighting, teaches them how to do zazen. Once they are doing zazen and their mind settled down, he asks them to put their hands on top of their heads. And when they do, they discover the single vine on which all of them grow and to which they are all connected. The surprised squashes blurt out, “Here we’ve been arguing and fighting with each other when actually we’re all tied together and living just one life.
This simple story points out that the notion of the small individual self is false. That due to our deluded insistence of thinking that way we miss realizing how we are interconnected to everything else. It also points out that if we can wake up to the truth about our universal Self what a better world it would be. There would be no need to kill, fight wars, rob our neighbors, destroy the environment, because it is not “them” or “it” that we are doing this to. We are only hurting our “Self”. As humans unfortunately it is much easier for us to have compassion for ourselves than for others. All we have to realize is who and what we really are and live out our lives accordingly and stop trying to make the world bend to our small individual will. To see and understand reality all we have to do is understand our true Self.
“The flowers blooming in the field do not feel with pride that they would win first prize in a beauty contest; they do not feel that they are in competition with other flowers. The violet does not develop an inferiority complex, thinking, “The roses are big and beautiful, but a little violet like myself is useless.” It doesn’t say with greed and impatience, “I’ve got to become more efficient.” It simply manifests its own life-force with all its might. Of course, if a violet plant cannot produce even a small violet, it is unable to make seeds and continue its line. Never the less, when it does bloom, it does so for no purpose. Just bringing forth flowers is its life. There is a passage in the Lotus Sutra that reads, “All things are the truth in themselves.” In Zen, a similar expression is, “A willow is green, a flower is red.” In short Buddhism as a religious teaching is one simply of manifesting the world of life in which a violet blooms as a violet and a rose as a rose.”
“In the Amida-kyo (Amitayus Sutra) of the Pure Land teachings, paradise is described in this way” “Blue things are blue, red things are red….this is the Pure Land (Paradise).” This point demands our close attention. Without thinking, we imagine how wonderful it would be if blue things could become red, that poor people would be happy if only they could become rich.
Obviously, I don’t in any way mean to imply that it is bad for poor people to become rich. But happiness does not invariably come with wealth, nor unhappiness with poverty. If you fix it in your mind that the materily rich are happy and poor people are unhappy, then when you are poor, you will surly be unhappy. It’s a mistake to hold such a conception.
Although Zazen is prior to the separation of all things, this is not to say that in zazen we lose consciousness; since life is being vigorously manifested, all things are reflected, and it is not losing sight of self here and now. But what it mean to say is that in zazen, although everything is before division or discrimination, there is no loss of self here and now? It means that self here and now is eternity, the whole earth, all sentient beings.”
Kosho Uchiyama – Opening the hand of thought, Approach to Zen
The beauty of coming to this understanding is that it shows we have the power to influence everything in a positive way. If we can understand our true Self it would be a positive force that would literally sweep across the universe. So the Pure Land or paradise is just simply understanding Reality as it truly is.
“Rather what is crucial is magnanimous mind, with which we take the attitude of living straight through whatever reality of life we are presently faced with, In other words, if we fall into hell, then hell itself becomes my life at that time., so I have to live right through it, and if I find myself in heaven, then heaven becomes my life and I have to live right through that.”
“In the same way the flower of my life blossoms when I work to make the flower that is the world, people, and things I now face blossom. And within the blossoming of the flowers of my life, the flowers of all things come to blossom. Likewise, the flower of your life blossoms when you work to enable the flowers now you face to blossom, and therein blooms the flower of universal life.”
Opening the hand of thought, Approach to Zen
So what does all this have to do with Jirika or Tariki? What does it have to do with the divine or God? Who is it that are Buddhist praying to? In reality Uchiyama Roshis idea’s about the small individual self and the Universal Self are not his own. He is just skillfully pointing out something that is a thread through all Buddhist literature. The earliest of the Buddhas teachings on Anatta (Not-self) are pointing out this very same thing. The reason that these ultimate truths need to be pointed at is that when you use just words to express them each individuals understanding of the words clouds the true meaning and the truth is lost. There is no separation Between the Buddha, Buddha nature, the divine, God, the life-force, or whatever, whoever, you want to call it and your Self. By that I mean your Universal Self. They are all one and the same. The very lifeforce that flows in each one of us and everything else is the Universal Self, there is no separation. We are all connected by it with everything else that exists. So to answer the question of who we are praying to, we are praying to our Self! We are the Buddha!
When the Buddha and his original disciples were alive they were all originally Hindu. Hindu’s believe that when “we” (small self) die we (small self) are born again continuously throughout time. They saw this as a terrible thing to be born and have to suffer over and over again. The ultimate salvation would be to find a way to stop this endless cycle of birth and death. This is the puzzle that the Buddha originally set out to solve. What he ended up realizing is that there is no self to be born over and over again. That the idea of the self is a false notion, an illusion, that we all share. “We” are not reincarnated or reborn, there is no “we” no “self” to be reincarnated. The Buddha discovered the concept of rebirth where all that we are made of, physical and mental, already exist and come together in its present form for a period and then dissipate back to where they came. This includes the life force or the Universal Self. There is no life, there is no death. All that we are made of existed before we were born and will exist after “we” are no longer here. So once you understand that the self is just an idea, an illusion, a false notion, the cycle of birth and death is over. The truth is the “self” that we all hold so precious, so dear, so invaluable, is just a thought or an idea. It has no reality.
“All the Buddhas have completed their practice, become one with the Way, and attained enlightenment. How are we to understand the identity of ourselves and the buddhas? The practice of the Buddhas is carried on together with the whole world and all sentient beings. If it is not Universal, it is not the practice of the buddhas. Therefore from the time we first aspire to the Way until we attain Buddhahood must be one with the whole world and all sentient beings.”
Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo: Yuibutsu-yobutsu (“Only Buddha together with Buddha”)