|What dies, and what doesn't.|
One of life’s most enduring themes has been to find ourselves. The quest begins early, reaches a peak during adolescence and tails off afterward, largely because of frustration. Defining our identities is thus a universal pursuit that rarely culminates in anything real. If it reaches a conclusion, at all, it travels down the road of ego construction and maintenance. More times than not, nothing beyond ever occurs and we process what we think of ourselves in terms of how others see us, from moment to endless ever-changing moment. One moment a “good” self-image; the next a “bad” one. Our sense of who we are dances on the end of a tether like a boat anchored in a turbulent sea. Rather than finding our true, united nature, the quest is driven to enhance our differences. In the words Aśvaghoṣa: “In the all-conserving mind (âlaya-vijñâna) ignorance obtains; and from the non-enlightenment starts that which sees, that which represents, that which apprehends an objective world, and that which constantly particularises. This is called the ego (manas).” But as we shall see, there are two ends of this stick: one end that is emerging and the other end the seed from which the ego grows.
In contemporary terminology, we lust for individuating ourselves at the expense of uniting ourselves. That universal quest to find ourselves is a dance of “inside-the box” futility. From beginning to end this entire process is flawed and based on a moving target dependent upon changing circumstances. All of life is changing and within change, there is no stability, except in the realm of stillness we call the soul—the hidden spirit awaiting discovery.
The quest was of particular importance to me since I never knew my father. The man I thought was my father was a sadistic beast who took pleasure in beating me, laughing all the while. The result on my psyche was devastating and hammered home the final nail in the coffin on my sense of self-worth when mixed with a broken love-affair during my young adult life, and the horrors of two years as a combat Marine fighting in Vietnam to survive by killing innocent people. I was 48 years of age, suicidal and a complete mess when I fled to a Zen monastery. By that time the seeds of disaster, planted in my subconscious had grown and flourished into plants of misery. Had it not been for the loving kindness and guidance of the Rōshi of the monastery I would be long gone and not writing these words. Because of him, I found myself—not the phony one that dances on a string of dependency, but the real one that never changes.
There is no limit to what I didn’t know when I first journeyed to there. I was naïve and uneducated in the ways of Zen. I didn’t understand Japanese. I hadn’t yet read the significant sūtras. I didn’t even understand MU—the koan given me to transform my thinking process. But I did understand one simple metaphor given me by the Rōshi that turned the waters of my consciousness from the clouded filth of my imagination to clarity and self-realization.
I was told that while I was practicing Zazen to silently watch my thoughts, as bubbles arising out of the depths, into and through my conscious awareness and breaking on the surface of the water (e.g., thoughts becoming actualized phenomena—actions): To never attach myself to the bubbles but rather just watch and let them come, one after another, seeing the chains of causation seeping out of my encased memory, connecting, moment by moment my past with my present. And then to take the next step and realize what I was watching were old-movies of a dead past. That I did for months on end. I watched. I cried over the afflictions of my past, I endured the pain until one day there were no more bubbles; just clear water, the “movie” stopped and I was at peace. It was that very practice of Zazen, that when conjoined with all that came before, shattered one part of me and introduced me to the better.
And then the dawn! What I could never see through the clouded waters I could see once they were clear. I was not the despicable person I had been led to believe. I was a never-changing, timeless soul—perfect at the core, encased in a broken body of delusion. When I shared that experience with Rōshi during dokusan, the light of the sun shown through his face and he beamed, “welcome home.” It took me years beyond before I understood what he meant, but forever after that experience, the real me never bobbed again.
I am still encased in that broken vessel which is crumbling faster and faster as I age—and will remain that way until my shell is no longer, but I reached a point in my life when I felt compelled to do what I could to share the wealth of my realization.
Years later, I came upon a story told by The Buddha in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra. I share it to put flesh on the bones of my story: “‘Or perhaps, my friends, you can understand it like this. In a factory, statues of the Buddha are made by pouring liquid gold into moulds made of clay. In order to melt the gold into a liquid it has to be made so hot that the clay moulds become blackened and burnt. But when they have cooled down, the burnt, dirty moulds are broken and inside them the golden statues are revealed in all their beauty. In the same way, if we can break away our nasty feelings of greed and hatred we will find that underneath them, within us, we each have the hidden, perfect qualities of a Buddha, like pure shining gold.’
After finishing his explanations, The Buddha said to all the assembled holy men and women, ‘If you can learn to really understand this teaching, you will have understood one of the most important things that I saw when I became Enlightened, and you will see the way to perfect wisdom.’”
That story is one of nine stories told to his followers near Rajagriha, in a great pavilion in the Sūtra. And rather than clay moulds becoming blackened and burnt, he saw upon his enlightenment a sky filled with beautiful lotus flowers which eventually wilted and died. But when they died a beautiful golden image of a Buddha meditating and radiating beams of light emerged out of the decay.
Like those flowers, “I” died that day (e.g., that broken, filthy jar-image of myself), and out of that broken vessel emerged the true me radiating from the depths of my soul, like light through clear water. Dying flowers; crumbling moulds; bubbles arising from the depths of tragedy—Metaphors all, of equal magnitude. We are all so very different on the outside, yet at the core of our hearts and souls—where it really matters, we are the same; brothers and sisters bound forever together. If you can experience this transitional death of what doesn’t matter and the subsequent birth of what does, you will have entered into the timeless realm of purity, and you will feel “at home.”