By John Lee Pendall
There’s a boundless sea that can’t evaporate; there’s a blazing fire that can’t be extinguished. What happens when they meet?
We get this (gestures broadly). We get the mind, which sees, hears and knows, but can’t be seen, heard or known. Try as we might, the most we get for our efforts is an empty bucket full of empty words. The mind isn’t something we can know or understand—we can only intuit it while looking at the things it reveals. We’re always embodying it, but it malfunctions when it’s held back by self-consciousness and self-deceit.
This is Zen; I’m not sure what all these other scalawags are going on about.
“Clear your mind, be the moment, and let go of the past and future.” That’s story time. We’re all adults here, and adults get right to the heart of the matter without dancing around it.
Zen’s core message is counter-intuitive, and it seems to challenge Buddhist doctrine. It’s, “Cut off the finger, and stop chasing the moon,” because the moon is just the mind that’s reading this. The mind that shines on everything without picking and choosing. If there’s pain, we’re aware of pain; if there’s pleasure, we’re aware of pleasure. It doesn’t matter whether we like what we see or not, we still see it all the same.
We get so wrapped up in the things that come and go on our screens, that we forget the light that brings them to life.
All the teachings and methods, whether they’re helpful or harmful, all depend on the mind. Our job, as Zennists, is to awaken to this truth right now. When we do, we function as if we’re all part of a whole, like neurons sparking each other in one brain. When we read the old dialogues between teachers and students, that’s what we’re seeing: two people, One Mind. Two cells, one body.
That’s also why skillful teachers could smell bullshit from a mile away.
It’s important that we don’t practice with an “ideal self” in mind. When we live and practice that way, we end up perpetuating the cycles that caused all this pain to begin with. That’s like if one of those cells tried breaking away from the body to do its own thing. Not only does that spell certain death for the cell, but it causes the whole body to malfunction. All we can do is trust that we’re already where we need to be. That isn’t easy, and it can even be terrifying, but it’s the direct path that takes us from Samsara to nirvana in less than a breath (because they’re not-two).
I’m certainly not the person I wanted to be, but honestly, I can’t even really remember who that was. Skipping along in a daze, my head full of arbitrary Buddhist knowledge; I went from flower to flower like a hungry hummingbird until WHAM, I flew right into a fucking window.
Then, upside down and riddled with aches, I saw that the flowers weren’t doing anything to satisfy my hunger because they were all paper-mache. The realization that all those flowers were fake was enough for me to perch on a tree and rest.
Rest is the real flower. But, sitting in this tree, totally devoid of the nurture side of nature-nurture, I stumbled on a shocking fact: I’m my parents.
I’m as horny and scrappy as my father, and as loving and patient as my mother. I’m my musically inclined great uncle, my anxious and artistic aunt, and my quiet grandfather. Fire and water, joy and sorrow. There’s no room for me in me. I’m a summary of all the steps that my blood has taken to get to where it is.
I didn’t want to be my parents—I wanted to be independent. This isn’t the deep, transcendent nature I was looking for. But, at the same time, it is. Because the mind is emptiness, it isn’t a thing. It’s transmitted from person to person, and it’s the principle behind that transmission. Consciousness is like an STD, passed from one aggregation of matter to another, and—at the root–it’s all the same.
We don’t get to pick who we are; we don’t get to decide which form mind takes. Our job is to let it be as it is, and then—whatever form it takes—it fits in place.
Looking back, I’ve always been like this, I just tried so hard to force another version of me to life. I ran from conflict, and I guarded my heart. I was so preoccupied with trying to manipulate myself and the world into perfect versions of themselves, that I was blind to the way things were. And that’s okay, striving is part of it too. If it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be possible to strive, would it?
I tried putting out that fire. Failing that, I tried evaporating the water. For 32 years I bounced back and forth between those perspectives, never wondering what would happen if I just let them be. Because, as we pay attention, as we focus on all things that happen without intention, it becomes clear that the mind is unintentional as well.
It might seem like I’m choosing the words I’m writing, but who chose to have the urge to write them?
Intention and volition are the foundation of selfhood, and selfhood is the bedrock of suffering. In pointing out how volition is involuntary, Zen raises a middle finger to everything we thought we were. Practice points out that who we thought we were was just that: a thought, and even thoughts appear and disappear without a self.
The “leap of faith” that practice asks for, is that we trust that emptiness will make us the best possible versions of ourselves if we let it. There’s room for everyone, even feisty scrappers with bleeding hearts. So instead of trying to use meditation and mindfulness to change ourselves, our mission is to see that we’re only interested in practice because practice is part of our true nature.
It’s in our blood somehow, passed down through the generations. Something in the unique intermingling of our genes made us open to it, made us question our nurture, our conditioning.
Some animals fare well in zoos; others don’t. Contemplatives are the ones who don’t.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".