Zen practice is difficult, especially when it collides with my belief that I’m not good enough (or similar wording). In the West this is expressed as ‘self-loathing’ and ‘low self-image.’ I say West because the Dalai Lama, a man steeped in Western and Tibetan culture, once remarked that such anxieties as pretty much unknown among Asian people. The reasons for our negative navel-gazing are many and I immediately think of the devastating message a (Roman Catholic) child receives at birth: you’re a sinner!
From there, parents, school teachers, priests, and apprentice masters all chanted from the same hymn sheet, each adding lines based on their own suffering and misguided assumptions. Being a good student (i.e. not wishing to offend), I believed every word they tossed my way. As someone said: We’re all born as princes and princesses. Our upbringing transforms us into frogs. We then spend the rest of our days trying to recover our original nature. Our birthright.
In Zen this is called our ‘Buddha Nature” or ‘True Self.’ Many are drawn to Zen because it teaches that we’re neither sinner nor saints. We simply are. Sometimes we make mistakes, other times we act ‘unskilfully,’ much of the time we’re not even awake. But always we are Buddha Nature. I continue to struggle with that notion; years of conditioning as being viewing myself as unworthy is hard to dissolve. Naturally and unsuccessfully I’ve spent most waking hours (and many night mares) looking to others to rescue, repair, and love me.
Zen tells us to stop looking ‘out there’ for salvation and happiness. In one of the many teaching stories, the monk asked, “What is the path”? and the master replied, “Everyday life is the path.” And in another tale, the master asks “Where are you going? to which the monk replied “On pilgrimage.” “Where to?” the master demanded. “I don’t know” the students confessed. “Not knowing,” the master told him, “is most intimate.”
Most intimate — most crucial, most important, most personal. Each of us already knows where to go and what to do and what to let go of. The answer to all our longing rests within. Not with a god, a spiritual teacher, or the next self-help book. All serve a purpose and may point the way, but ultimately its being present in our daily experience — on the meditation cushion and off — that will lead us home.
photo by Ryushin at Great Vow Zen Monastery