Awakening: a Zen Perspective at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century

Awakening: a Zen Perspective at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century December 28, 2017

birds of heaven



Not long ago a younger colleague, a Zen teacher whom I admire, asked me what I mean when I use that word “awakening.” It has become something of a challenge for me to try and express this thing, or, really, not exactly a “thing,” this moment, this perspective, this stance within this passing world in a way that might be useful to people.

And so I’ve made a commitment to preach a sermon to a crowd of Unitarian Universalists where I try to express this moment, this perspective, this stance within this passing world in a way a well-educated secularly inclined person might find helpful.

That sermon is due to be preached this coming Sunday.

Right off I’ve found my heart and mind racing in a hundred directions. So, I thought I might put some of these thoughts and feelings down here on my blog. And, see what is left when I am forced to fit it all into an eighteen minute, more or less, but not a lot more nor less, sermon…

So, first, context. I have to admit, my Buddhism doesn’t really begin with the wondrous Gautama Siddhartha or even the texts that have come to be the canon of Buddhism. But rather what has formed my spiritual life, comes out of some things that happened when that ancient, powerful, and highly speculative Indian Buddhism came to China. There it encountered an equally ancient and powerful culture, but one that was vastly more concerned with what is practical than for the more speculative Indian Buddhists.

The core message that traveled from India to China held that we live with a profound and pervasive suffering. And this hurt within us arises because we grasp after things as if they were permanent, when in fact they have no essence at all, and are in fact moments created out of multiple causes, and will inevitably come apart. But, also, and this is spiritual message: that there is a peace that passes all understanding, which we can find, that ends the hurt.

How these cultures dealt differently with the matter of suffering and its cessation, while both still considering themselves Buddhist, is particularly important to me. Indian Buddhism taught that while there is no essence to a person, there nonetheless was some central thing if only a bundle of consequences that traveled from one body to another.

Chinese Buddhism, however, inherited a whole different idea of what a person was, that each of us are composed of many things, and that at death those many things return to their various natural places, and with that shifting the locus of hope in this one, passing life. Not to say that Chinese Buddhism didn’t embrace the language of transmigration. But there was and remains a cultural ambiguity about many lives or one that one can find throughout the tropes and images of Zen.

Seeing through the illusion of permanence and to the reality of a wildly interdependent and boundless web as our existential reality is the Zen project. And my project. This is awakening and the awakened life.

But, of course, our ways to that liberating insight are always flavored by our culture. The illusion of separation is the problem in both stories, the Indian and the Chinese. And while the Chinese version accommodates the Indian, it never abandons its practical this-worldly perspective. And, me, I find the Chinese story aligns with my own modern, or is that post-modern, or probably some other variation on the great Western theme with its own momentary name, that our shot is in this life.

Our contemporary “liberal” or some prefer the term “secular” Buddhisms are on occasion dismissed as tainted by modernity or even worse materialism when one or another of us expresses doubt or sometimes outright disbelief in rebirth and karma narrowly defined as those intentions that trigger rebirths. And some among us, I’m sure, are simply materialists for whom Zen Buddhist practices are psychological devices that mitigate the inevitable hurt that comes with being alive and knowing we will die.

But while it is helpful to people, this “materialistic” Buddhism and its mitigations of various psychological hurts are not my Zen Buddhism. My Zen has a different goal than the mitigation of suffering. Somewhere around the beginning of the twelfth century the Chan master Huanglong Wuxin asked the question. “If you do not deliver this present human body in this lifetime, then, in what lifetime will you have a chance to deliver this human body?” Here, we’re less about many lives or one. Instead we cut to the chase.

And so the story in the West ever since the rise of the Enlightenment is one of minute inspection into the world at hand, putting our confidence in observation and out of observation with controlled experiment. And in that world our story becomes one of genetics and experiences, a great play of causes and effects and more causes and effects that come together in a moment as “me.” And in a moment it will be gone, like a shift in the wind.

Me, I find this a lovely story. And, frankly, I find it more resonant with reality I experience than either the story of a link of lives repeating over and over the ills and opportunities, or, even the Chinese story with its various pre-scientific elements gathered for a moment. Although, my experience is a lot more like the Chinese one. But, knowing there are two stories pointing to the same possibility, I see no problem with how that possibility comes with a third story, the story of my people just as much as was the case for those earlier stories. But, that’s not the end of the story.

My Zen, while liberal and rational and which is more than hesitant about claims to a multitude of lives, is, nonetheless all about that question of awakening as something considerably more than a materialist psychological calming within a sea of anxiety. Of course the way does help psychologically. However, we are also the product of many conditions and circumstances, multiply caused, and seeing through does not end those conditions and circumstances. If you are an anxious person, or an angry person, while seeing through is helpful, the anxiety and the anger are still to be dealt with. No doubt a lifetime occupation.

So, while awakening includes that psychological aspect, which is at best gradual, the Buddhist project is also about much more, something that can best be distinguished from psychological. Let’s call it spiritual. That story of permanence which is the alternative to our various ways of telling how we are in fact not is the great heart hurt. And its resolution is something other than the various wounds of our psychological makeup.

I believe the great project to be about a liberation that has informed people from Shakyamuni down to our own day. This great awakening has both gradual and sudden aspects. But its winning is the cessation of fear for our lives and the lives of those we love. It is seeing past the conventions we use to separate ourselves out from each other, without denying their utility and place within our consciousness, but in the same moment opening us to a larger truth, which we are in touch with in greater or lesser degree at various moments, but which once found cannot be lost. It is the Western Paradise, it is Heaven, and it is here. It is found shallowly, and deeply, but like a sip of water or a bucket of water, it is at heart the same experience.

The method is simplicity itself. As our teacher Sengcan sang to us, “The great way is not difficult. You only need to not get caught up in picking and choosing.” When we let go of our desires and resentments, when we let go of our knowing, we find it was always right here, the heart of our hearts. This may sound like some essence, but it isn’t. It is emptiness, it is openness, it is boundlessness. It is our great freedom.

It was found in India. It was found again in China. In each case given the flavor of the indigenous culture, but at the heart of the matter, the discovery is the same great truth. Going out into the world with empty hands. Forgetting. Opening. Just this, just this, revealing how even within our binding as earthly beings, we are at the very same time boundless. Taking up the plow with empty hands, putting on clothes made of emptiness.

And. And it is here to be discovered in America, and Europe, and everywhere else on this globe that human beings walk. Waiting for us to find it and give it our own color, our own flavor, our own style most appropriate to our time and place.

What it is, however we chose to call it, is our great inheritance, the healing of the great hurt.

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