In taking up Zen Buddhism, we find that the life of the Buddha is our own life. Not only Shakyamuni’s life, but the lives of all the succeeding teachers in our lineage are our own lives. As Wu-men Hui-k’ai has said, in true Zen practice our very eyebrows are tangled with those of our ancestral teachers, and we see with their eyes and hear with their ears. This is not because we copy them, or change to be like them. I might explain Wu-men’s words by saying that in finding our own true nature, we find the true nature of all things, which the old teachers so clearly showed in their words and actions. But the authentic experience of identity is intimate beyond explanation. And it’s not only with old teachers that we find complete intimacy. The Chinese thrush sings in my heart and gray clouds gather in the empty sky of my mind. All things are my teacher.

On the Zen path, we seek for ourselves the experience of Shakyamuni. However, we do not owe fundamental allegiance to him, but to ourselves and to our environment. If it could be shown that Shakyamuni never lived, the myth of his life would be our guide. In fact it is better to acknowledge at the outset that myths and religious archetypes guide us, just as they do every religious person. The myth of the Buddha is my own myth.

Thus, it is essential at the beginning of practice to acknowledge that the path is personal and intimate. It is no good to examine it from a distance as if it were someone else’s. You must walk it for yourself. In this spirit, you invest yourself in your practice, confident of your heritage, and train earnestly side by side with your sisters and brothers. It is this engagement that brings peace and realization.  ♦

From Taking the Path of Zen, by Robert Aitken, © 1982 by Diamond Sangha. Reprinted with permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

A student said,
“I compare myself to other students
and feel inadequate.
“I haven’t read anything about Buddhism.”
“Oh! That’s the best way to come to practice.”
Suzuki Roshi answered.

It was my first sesshin and,
before the first day was over, I was convinced
I couldn’t make it.
My husband’s turn for dokusan came that afternoon.
He asked Suzuki Roshi to see me instead.
“This is all a mistake,” I told Roshi.
“I can’t do this; I just came to be with my husband.”
“There is no mistake,” he insisted.
“You may leave, of course, but there’s no place to go.”

Suzuki Roshi said during a talk
that some of us wanted to be Zen masters,
and that this was very foolish.
He said that he wished he was like us, just starting out.
“Maybe you think you are green apples
hanging on a tree,
waiting to ripen so that you can be Buddhas,” he said,
“but I think you are already ripe,
perfect Buddhas now, ready to be picked.”

—from To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki © 2001 by David Chadwick. Reprinted with permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.