By Aletha Thompson
I have no idea what I’m doing—none.
This isn’t about my journey through Buddhism and how it’s brought me such wisdom and peace. There is no happy ending. There’s just me, questioning my sanity, getting more and more confused, and my teacher giving me answers that are simply more confusing questions with no clarity in sight.
You see, I chose the Zen path. Apparently, I’m supposed to be here, like this.
How did I get here? I fell in love. Somehow, I found the Heart Sutra. I fell in love with its chaos and contradictions. I fell in love with all the “no’s,” and especially, no mind. How can mental processes exist and not exist at the same time? How can there be no path and no enlightenment? And how is all of this supposed to set me free? What the heck am I doing this for then?
I now have a teacher. I’m his only student. Apparently, that’s how traditional Zen is taught. He throws some ideas out. I give great answers back. Then the questions start, and all of those great answers are shot down in a flash. I end up back at the beginning, with no idea of what I’m doing, or what he’s saying. He keeps prodding, and I dig myself in deeper with my answers.
I’ve tried everything. I’ve thought long and hard, researching what he and others have said on the topic, and then written answers that clearly show how well prepared I am. An “innocent” question back from him, like, “Who is writing this?,” destroys all the hard work. I’ve even tried answering his questions with the first thing that pops into my head. Again, more confusing questions back from him.
No matter what I say, I end up completely confused.
After several months of this, I’m beginning to understand that it’s not about knowing, or about confusion.
I’m beginning to get a glimpse of what lies beyond the mind, beyond the knowing, beyond our ideas of reality. I’m beginning to understand that I don’t really need to “know” anything. You can’t get there with your thoughts.
So, where are you going? Nowhere. That’s the beauty of it. Everything is already here. Early on in my studies with him, I wrote, “I’m beginning to understand that my miserable, mundane life is what I’ve been searching for all this time.” Yeah, it’s kind of like that!
But there’s something more. It’s like being outside and hearing the faint strains of a favorite song. It’s on the edge of your hearing, but you just can’t quite make it out. It’s the promise of the Heart Sutra. Beyond what you think of yourself. Beyond what you think of this world. Beyond all of your labels and judgments, and your words that freeze reality into “things,” lies Not Knowing. If you don’t know who you are, if you don’t know what you’re doing, if you don’t know what anything else truly is, then you and everything in your awareness will be set free.
It comes with a cost (besides the obvious one of feeling really stupid). The cost is that all of the stuff that we want to run from, is right here with us. In other words, nothing changes. But also, everything changes. We go throughout our day, doing what we do, getting caught up in our grasping, our desires, our judgments, our joys and our pains, just like before. But woven into all of this is the Not Knowing, and with Not Knowing comes freedom.
What if we could, to steal from the Beatles, Let it be?
What if we could accept this life with all of its suffering, just as it is, and at the same time tune in to that which is beyond words and concepts? What if we gave a little part of our awareness to being in the moment, being in the experience as it unfolds “without ourselves?” Just letting the moment be free to flow and change without any preconceptions of who we are or what the moment is.
The hard part is that Not Knowing can’t be explained through words. So how do we know it’s even there? Because you and I are here, sharing in the experience of this little article together. We are alive. We are here, together in this moment, without a clue as to what we are doing, and free as a bird.
May you all find your way on this wonderful journey. May you find the path to liberation, and being free as a bird!
Aletha is retired and living in Southern California with her family and a lot of animals. She is amazed at, and so very grateful for, all of the events that have led up to this moment, both good and bad. With deep bows to her teacher for his wisdom, compassion, and patience.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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