Having arrived from Asia within the past generation, Zen and Buddhism are still new enough in the West to be considered other-worldly phenomena, remarkable concepts and unusual activities outside the ordinary, like a meteor shower. When we first read and listen to the teachings of these ancient traditions and spiritual practices, we are drawn by intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn more about their view of the world that promises to light up our lives. We are attracted to what appears to be mystical qualities that, were we to explore them, might unlock the mysteries of the spiritual world, providing us personal enlightenment. However exciting as they may be, these pursuits can only take us a small part of the way in our efforts to understand Reality and the truth of our own life. Eventually we realize that we must go beyond the intellectual and the mystical, beyond words, and engage in the practice itself.
In the early 1960’s, a young man sought out Suzuki-roshi in San Francisco.
“I want to know about Zen. Can you teach me?” “We sit in meditation at five thirty each morning. You can join us,” Suzuki-roshi answered.
Six months later, the young man came again to Suzuki-roshi.
“I have been coming to meditation for six months and you haven’t yet told me anything about Zen.” “We also sit in the evening,” was the reply.
When we are new to Zen practice, we believe that it will provide us with something wonderful, something outside of our self, something extraordinary that has been absent in our lives. Yet after we have practiced, with regularity, for a time, we perceive that there is nothing external to be obtained from Zen practice, that we already have it, have always had it, only do not recognize it. And we also realize that it is not special or unique to our individual self: it is universal, shared by everyone and everything. This understanding is accompanied by a sense of well-being and freedom. Increasingly, we let go of trying to attain something special, learning instead to experience satisfaction and fulfillment in the ordinary activities of our daily lives: eating, sweeping, cooking, cleaning the toilet, being with other people, listening to or giving a presentation at work, answering the telephone. This is the secret of Zen practice and of life. The world’s ordinariness is the expression of the Dharma, or Truth. By not recognizing or accepting this simple point, we make our lives quite complicated.
The vast majority of people view their lives through an artificial prism of self-orientation. They worry that they do not get what they want, put their minds in turmoil by striving to gain fame and affirmation, become anxious when problems arise, and ask, “Why do I have to suffer?” We think and feel this way when we are convinced of our own importance, when we see our self as a prince or a princess. And like royalty, we act as if the world is conspired against us when our desires are unmet. However, when we let go of the notion of our own imagined importance, we feel fulfilled in our ordinary activities. There is no longer anyone “important” to defend or fight for and we are free to engage playfully in our everyday world. This kind of understanding is not intellectual; it is the wisdom of our own experience and of a fluid mind that observes the way things are.
In Zen practice, the problem of self-importance and personal ambition is transformed into the peace and confidence that comes with humility. We understand and we accept that no one of us is more special than anyone else. Each of us has his or her own skills, talents, history, imperfections, and concerns. In our discriminating mind, these characteristics usually make us feel separate from one another. Yet being ordinary, shared, human qualities, they actually unite us when we do not make judgements. So when we approach each moment of our life as a beginner - without an agenda - we do not feel pressure to prove our specialness through a continual, lifelong process of acquisition. We start each day as a novice, with anticipation, recognizing that no one is an expert at being alive. On the other hand, holding on to a feeling of importance or expertise creates an expectation that the world will acknowledge, respect, and praise us. When that doesn’t not happen, we become angry at the world for holding back what we deserve and so create our own suffering.
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Tara Tulku, put it this way,
“The intensity of our sorrow will be in direct proportion to the intensity of our feeling that I am important’”
As we practice and learn to do things with a mind of non-attachment, that is, without desire for material or emotional payoff, our “doing” - performing physical labor, creating art, solving a problem, relating with people - will naturally express the highest quality that we are capable of providing. And we will find satisfaction in everything we do. So rather than create problems of “specialness, ” we are wise to find our true self in ordinariness and selflessness. Our inherent enlightenment is expressed when there are no strings attached to what we do.