By observing the workings of the human mind and how it creates suffering, the early Buddhist teachers were very much like psychologists, determined to understand how people create their own suffering through desires and attachment to worldly things. They recognized the ways in which the mind creates feelings of separation by seeing the world in dualistic ways, rather than with a sense of unity and wholeness.
Without relying on dogma or philosophy, but rather on the evidence of their own experience, the ancients wanted to understand the human mind through spiritual eyes. By relying on what they knew to be true through personal evidence, Buddhist teachers can be considered “scientific,” with daily life being the experiment explored in the laboratory of the mind.
From this experience - and the teachings that subsequently arose from it - Buddhism tells us the ways to behave in order to relieve suffering. Through stories and poetic expression, it paints a portrait of how we should orient our state of mind, as in this example from the Dhammapada:
There is no greater happiness
Than the happiness of freedom
From selfish attachments
To wealth and all things worldly
Impermanent and ever-changing
So let us live happily
Freeing ourselves for the anxiety
Of losing all that is ours
And from Dogen’s personal experience, we have:
To learn the Buddhist way is to learn about oneself
To learn about onself is to forget oneself
To forget oneself is to perceive oneself as all things.
Buddhist discourses provide a view of the world without delusion or hindrance, encouraging us to act and live according to the Truth. Those early Buddhists patriarchs were remarkable, their insights about people and relationships amazing, when we consider t how they did not have access to social experiments or to studies that demonstrate how an individual’s history can effect the mind’s view of Reality. They relied entirely on intuition, inherent wisdom, and sharing experiences with each other. For Zen students, absorbing and becoming intimate with the early teachings brings great confidence. When joined with personal practice, they create a strong breeze that reveals spiritual understanding, beyond the screen of appearances and emotional concerns.
In the early days of Buddhism, if someone’s mind was deeply troubled, it was said to be the result of past karma. Today, we seek more objective causes in the role that past experiences have had in creating present suffering. But whether suffering results from the karma of a previous life or from the trauma of our more recent past, Buddhism emphasizes that it is the individual who has full responsibility for regaining clear orientation of mind, and that our delusion is to be overcome by determined study and practice.
Zen does not rely on special techniques. Rather, it emphasizes selfless practice to bring understanding and relieve suffering. Practice starts with slowing down our physical and mental activities. Then it becomes possible to relax body and mind and to learn about oneself. There we have the opportunity to reorient our world view from self to other and discover our inherent sense of reverence.
A key teaching in Buddhism is the three poisons: anger, greed, and delusion. Practice emphasizes letting go of these emotional traps. Today, psychology helps us understand that the three poisons are the result of fear and when we look closely, we can see that fear is the result of not trusting our self. To truly trust our self, we need know who we are, inherently. In order to awaken to our self, it is necessary to recognize the emptiness of our fear. Then we can understand the sanctity of all things and feel reverence for all life. Conversely - before that recognition becomes clear - we can act with reverence, awakening the wisdom of sanctity by acting, speaking, and thinking with a reflective, caring mind. By practicing reverence, mind drops off its anxieties, overcoming the three poisons, preventing arrogance and pride. Then fear dissolves.
The practice of reverence prepares the mind for wholeness and unity; we lose the feeling of separation and we find Nirvana in daily life. We do not need to wait or aspire for a big breakthrough. We simply practice in each moment, taking care of each activity with attention.