In daily human life we are always encountering some problem, contradiction, or confusion. So very naturally we want to escape from problems and find a better way of living. Seeking a calm mind, we study philosophy, psychology, religion, even physics and mathematics, believing they can show us who we are and what the meaning of life is.
We study, we choose certain ideas, and then we try to depend on them to help us build up a peaceful life. Unfortunately, life is very difficult to understand only through ideas. No matter how long you study, there is still some problem that leaves you in confusion. There is always a question left behind: what shall I do?
If you try to answer this question through Western philosophy, you find it tends to be divided into two types: rationalism (understanding human life through intellectual thought) and empiricism (understanding life through sense experience). But depending on philosophical ideas to tell you how to live can drive your life toward doubt or pessimism.
For instance, if you try to live on the basis of empiricism, then your way of life is already based on rationalism—you are depending on an idea created by your intellectual process, which tells you this is the right way to live. When you realize how shaky this is, you have doubts about empiricism, philosophy, or any ideas, and you don’t know what to depend on. You don’t trust anything.
But there is one thing that you can trust in: right here is a man or a woman who is called by your name. Before you have doubt or pessimism, you are already here. You exist right in the middle of reality, which means your life is fully alive right now.
We are human beings—we cannot destroy our thinking process. So we should think. You can use science, philosophy, and psychology to understand your individual life in a certain way, but whatever you understand in that way is not something true that you can depend on. Something true you can depend on is something you have to do. To really understand the meaning of life, we have to go beyond thinking and experience the vast scale of life directly, with our own body and mind.
Related: Practicing Zazen Meditation
To know who you really are, all you have to do is just be in reality as it really is. There you discover the natural state of your existence and realize the ultimate principle of existence called dharma. Then, under all circumstances, whatever happens in life, you can depend on your real self.
Usually we depend only on the small self we see from our egoistic telescope. We are constantly trying to build up our egoistic self according to our culture, customs, education, and knowledge. Your small self is always trying to get something or escape from something. It is always making a noise: I care or I don’t care, I like myself very much or I am a bad boy. Some particular fact comes up and makes your thinking sway to the right and then to the left, just like a pendulum. But whatever you think, still there is a question left behind: what shall I do? Day after day, that question is the final situation you have to face.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught us how to approach this question: instead of paying attention only to ideas, we also have to pay attention to the real state of our existence. We have to pay attention to the whole reality of human life. How? That is spiritual practice.
Zen teaches the simplest way of spiritual practice: just sit. But “just sit” doesn’t mean to sit passively; it is sitting based on deepening both your intellectual and experiential understanding of your existence. So after you study, accept that your life is already present in the big scale of reality. Then let’s pay attention to the reality of where you are. That is the meditation practice called zazen.
If you practice zazen in the zendo [meditation hall], many beings are there with you. Everything is coming up like spring water oozing from the ground, accommodating to circumstances that are constantly changing from moment to moment. You, the other practitioners, your cushions, the sounds of cars going by outside, and birds singing—all are living together in peace and harmony at this one time and place. So all you have to do is just sit down on your cushion and accept the natural state of your existence, including all the beings that coexist with you right now.
But if you experience pain when you are sitting zazen, what should you do? Should you just accept pain as it is, ignoring an intellectual understanding of where the pain comes from? No, it’s not enough. You have to understand what the pain is and learn how to take care of your pain intellectually. Still, if you take care of your pain intellectually, will you be free from pain? No, pain is still there. So finally you ask: what should I do? Should I escape from pain or stay with it?
Related: Finding Our Essence of Mind
All you have to do is the actual practice of facing your pain and moving toward the pain. Be with it, be in it, and be on it. When you move toward the pain, your action simultaneously deepens your life. Deepening means you approach the lively energy of life at the core of your being.
When you manifest simplicity in life like this, you experience a sublime serenity and tranquility. Then, within this tranquility, with one step you realize a profound state of being that is completely beyond any kind of idea. It enables you to be present with calmness, humility, and stability. At that time, you can experience pain directly and take care of it intellectually, without attaching to either empiricism or rationalism. Whatever problem you are facing, if you have this attitude toward your situation, you can take care of it with a calm mind.
From The Light That Shines through Infinity by Dainin Katagiri © 2017 by Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
[This story was first published in 2017]