Throughout the life of my practice, I have been and continue to be curious about this, so essentially I don’t believe what I just wrote – I’m still looking into it. I keep trying to find something that I connect to or uphold as a belief, but I have yet to do so. It’s simply the nature and spirit of the practice: take in what the ancestors teach, come to know it well, see how it informs and affects the living of life, and keep looking into it; notice how I see the world based upon my experiences of it, become aware of my biases and habits of thought and action, see how they inform and affect the living of life, and keep looking into it; notice how life itself shows up, partnering with and filtered through the above, see how it appears to be through the living of it, and keep looking into it. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly have ideas and assumptions about myself and others and the world, yet I recognize them for what they are: ideas and assumptions. At the bottom of it all is an acknowledgement that I don’t know the way things really are.
Acknowledging and embracing this not knowing is a significant feature of Zen. Mind you, it is not an aloof, uninterested, shrug-of-the-shoulders approach to life. Quite the contrary. It is a deeply engaged and profoundly curious approach, a willingness to endlessly endeavor to discover what is, released from any expectation or requirement of ever actually finding out. It’s a realistic and pragmatic approach, connecting us with the ever-changing uncertainty of life itself, something to be cultivated, which nourishes us in return.
Several years ago during a retreat, looking into this same territory himself, one of my teachers proposed that “meditation is good” could be a core belief in Zen. It’s what he found through his own experience. I found the same through mine. What’s more, the word Zen means meditation and it is the foundation of the practice, so there’s that. I couldn’t disagree, and much to my dismay it appeared he had indeed found a belief in Zen. But I kept looking into it, curious and wondering. It didn’t take too long for things to begin unravelling:
Yes, meditation seems to be good, but that depends upon one’s definition of good. Usually it’s something positive, light, enjoyable. What happens in meditation isn’t always good in that sense, though. Sometimes it can be quite challenging, difficult, harrowing even. Yet going through that darker, heavier stuff does tend to be good overall and worthwhile to work through. So in that sense one could say meditation is good. But perhaps saying meditation is beneficial would be better, as that can include both positive and negative happenings. But it’s not always beneficial. It can churn up things that aren’t ready to be churned up, so you might have to take a break from it for a time and maybe seek some additional support. But had you not meditated, that stuff might not have come up, and those were some important issues to address so…meditation is good in that it helps bring up things that might have remained stagnant otherwise. Perhaps I could say meditation helps things happen. But wait…those things are already there and are already happening. Meditation simply allows me to notice what’s going on, by making time to be still, be quiet, pay attention. Ah, that sounds good: meditation helps one notice what is happening. That’s fairly universal and objective, beyond being good or bad or any of that, and something I could say I believe in when it comes to meditation.
And yet I would not say such a thing, which points to the crux of the matter: I don’t need to believe that meditation helps me notice what is happening because I experience it directly each time I meditate. Upholding it as a belief begins to solidify what is fluid and dynamic. It could lead me to see it as a given and take it for granted. I might also add value to this belief, promote and protect it, and perhaps even try to convince others of its validity and worth, all of which would serve to disconnect me from the live happening of it to an extent. I’d rather stay connected to that live happening, knowing it for what it is, again and again.
To illustrate this from another angle I’ll take up something that is seen as a general tenet (more or less) of Buddhism and Zen: karma. “Certainly, you believe in karma, right?” someone might ask. “Yes and no…heavier on the no,” I’d reply. The yes of it is yes, I believe that there is something called karma. To break it down some, at its root karma means action or activity, more specifically the nature of cause-and-effect, simply meaning when something happens, something else happens as a result. That’s the essence of karma, and where I find there is no need to believe in it. I directly know and experience the happening of cause-and-effect on a daily basis: I flip the switch, the light turns on; I put food in the bowl, cats come eat; clouds clear, the sun comes out, snow melts; someone snaps at me, I snap back…or I take a breath and speak calmly while explaining myself, the person responds a certain way based on how I responded, and on from there we go. Nothing at all to believe in here.
The no of it applies more as we enter the realm of good and bad karma, assigning value to it, making it more tangible as an idea, talking about being bound by karma and promoting ideas of how to release ourselves from its grip, assuring ourselves that karma is going to catch up with a certain someone (hopefully sooner than later, and hopefully we’ll be there to witness it). Sure, negative actions tend to have negative consequences and positive actions tend to have positive consequences, but things don’t always work this way. Sometimes I think I am doing good for another and end up creating difficulties, and other times I am certain I have caused harm to another, then that person ends up thanking me. Yes, it is worthwhile to have ideas of what will be helpful and what will be harmful and to let them guide me along, yet it seems more important to pay attention to what effect results from offering what I offer, then to allow that effect to become the cause for what I offer next. Rather than act upon reality based upon a belief of what our actions will cultivate and where they will lead, it seems better to stay connected to the live happening of it (you may be noticing a theme here), and to notice and take part in the continual unfolding of cause-and-effect directly.
I’d like to play with the notion of good and bad karma a little more, and show what a tangled web such ideas can weave. I once attended a lecture by a Western scholar of Tibetan Buddhism who was talking on the topic of good and bad karma. Speaking in general terms, he explained that good karma is generated when we do things for others and bad karma is generated when we act primarily for ourselves, the idea being that one can experience liberation by increasing good karma and decreasing bad karma. I wondered, if I am working for others to generate good karma so I can be liberated, would I not then be generating bad karma because I am ultimately working for myself? While the above is a useful formula and practice for being less self-focused and more altruistic, which overall tends to be a good approach to living, to solidify it into a belief of this leading to that takes the life out of it some, stifles it, and in the end it simply does not compute. I’d say liberation comes about by dropping notions of good and bad and the idea that one’s actions are leading anywhere in particular, and instead abiding deeply in the essence of karma/cause-and-effect: offering what you offer, paying attention, noticing the results, responding to them in appropriate measure, offering what you offer as a result, paying attention, responding…
I’ve been singling out karma here, but with anything that may be viewed as dogma or a tenet in Zen practice, there is the encouragement to not take it as being true yet don’t dismiss it, either. Inquire into it, be curious, explore and see what arises to meet you. This approach is consistently encouraged, supported and nourished by all the ancestors of this tradition, going back to the historical Buddha. Sure, they left behind teachings and writings and ideas of how things are, but they are offered in the spirit of: This is what I’ve found to be so in my lifetime. Don’t take it to actually be so but please consider it and look into it. Notice your own experience and hold it up to these teachings, and hold these teachings up to your own experience. Notice what reality itself shows you. Invite these teachings, your experience and reality to mingle together, notice how they meet, notice how they diverge. See how it is for you, in your life, in the world in which you are now living, and keep looking.
Running beneath these specific examples above, supporting and encouraging such curiosity and inquiry, is the not knowing I mentioned earlier on: a willingness to be uncertain and not attempt to resolve the discomfort that comes with this uncertainty by arriving at an answer, but instead allowing the energy of this discomfort to be motivation for continual exploration. Not knowing is a seminal virtue in Zen. Again, something to be cultivated and nourished and appreciated, as illustrated in this exchange:
Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going from here?”
Fayan said, “I’m on pilgrimage.”
“What sort of thing is pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not knowing is most intimate.”*
And the virtue of not knowing isn’t limited to the realm of Zen or Eastern thought, either. I’m reminded of the Socratic Paradox – I know one thing: that I know nothing. – and this story that shows it being put into practice:
Socrates used to walk around Athens telling his students, “You must know yourselves.”
Someone once asked him, “Do you know yourself?”
Socrates said, “No. But I understand this not-knowing.”**
What it comes down to is that it’s simply a more realistic approach to living. There is an openness and fluidity in this not knowing that connects and harmonizes with the openness and fluidity of life. In short, life is uncertain – why not meet it with our own uncertainty, coupled with a deeply engaged curiosity? Not only does this prove useful in our day-to-day doings and beings, it is also useful in the bigger picture of humankind’s steadfast search for (along with veracious claims to have found) the absolute truth.
Journeying along throughout the weave of provisional and absolute truth, I need not believe anything offered about myself, the world or existence as a whole, whether it comes through teachings from religious traditions, is reflected by my society and culture, is told to me by family and friends, or is encountered through my personal experience. I need only look into what is before me. If a truth is absolute and eternal, then it will show itself every time I look, so it is not necessary to establish or uphold a belief about it. Likewise, if a truth is provisional (keep in mind, a mountain is just as provisional as a mayfly, it’s simply that their specific manifestations of this provisionality endure for quite different spans of time), it may show up consistently for a while but will eventually change and fade away, so it’s good to keep looking and notice this. On the other hand, if I am holding onto a truth that is provisional, I might miss the truth that is appearing in front of me, or dismiss it because it doesn’t match up to my expectations or what I believe to be true. All in all, what it comes down to is being in touch with the live happening and ever-present manifestation of truth, and not restricting or confining it with ideas and words and what have you.
Still, given all this, one may wonder: is there an ultimate, absolute truth? As I see it these days, my response is yes, but we can never know it, and by know I mean define, capture or articulate it. We can’t know it, but we can be it. That’s a sentiment I’m stealing from the Tao Te Ching, one of those texts and teachings that I keep looking into over the years, and that keeps resonating deeply with my experience of living and being in the world. I’ll share the entire verse from which it comes below, which states more succinctly (albeit enigmatically) what I’ve been rattling on about here. In fact, this spirit is woven into the Tao Te Ching as a whole, the text beginning with a statement that anything one can say or know about the Tao is not the Tao, followed by an additional eighty chapters of saying what it isn’t…and not saying what it isn’t.
After all, what’s a person to do? We have words and they help convey meaning, so let’s put them to use. While doing so, though, perhaps we can understand this saying and not saying, this knowing and not knowing…and keep looking.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 14
Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped.
Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.
Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.
Stephen Mitchell, trans.
*from Acequias & Gates by Joan Sutherland
**from Dropping Ashes on the Buddha by Seung Sahn