I’d like to say a few words about the fundamental understanding of the spiritual path and meditation practice. Some of you have been practicing for a while and probably have heard this several times already, but it bears repeating and is also an introduction to the profoundness of the meditative insight and the spiritual way of life.
When you are doing anything in life, there are always two of you, so to speak. There is the one who thinks “I am walking, I am sitting, I am chanting.” And there is also a deeper self which most people are not aware of—the self that knows this. When you are walking, when you are going to the supermarket or going to the movies, you think “I am going, I am going, I am going.” You don’t realize that every step that your body takes has something that is knowing that your body is taking that step. For every breath that you take, the breathing activity does not know that it is breathing. There is a knower of the breathing activity.
This body that is walking and breathing is walking a path. This body that walks and breathes and talks is walking on a trail, and the name of that trail is “Birth, growth, old age, decay, and death.” That is the trail that every one of us is walking. One may think “Now I’m going to college, now I’m going to a career, now I’m going to be a famous writer, a famous musician.” This is all part of the path. You are walking down the path, and you come to college thinking “Oh, this is the time to be stressed out, this is the time to meet people.” Then you go into a career: “Oh, this is the time when I am supposed to be fulfilled.” Then you come to a place called retirement, the golden years, so that when you are seventy-five years old, you can hit a little round ball on the grass.
This is the path that life is. It is not that you achieve anything—nothing is permanent, you are always moving, and all the time something deeper than that is within you. True self, or the God, or the Kingdom of Heaven is within you. And what the Kingdom of Heaven does, what the God does, is to be aware of you. God is the pure knowing.
“Birth, growth, old age, decay, and death.” That is the trail that every one of us is walking.
If you take up a meditation practice, what you are trying to become aware of is that your mind is identifying itself as the body, and says “This is what I am; I am David, I am Sue.” The mind, which is identifying itself as the body, is going to be informed that it actually exists in another mode as well, which is the awareness of the body. The practice is essential and very simple. The reason it is simple is that it does not require the thinking activity.
When you come into the meditation hall—and as your practice deepens, this includes anything that happens in life, not just in the meditation hall—things are precise and simple, very straightforward. You don’t have a choice of how you take your tea or how your body is postured. Even if you have your cell phone in your pocket, you cannot text. This is called the nontexting posture. It was not always called the nontexting posture, but nowadays it might be called the nontexting posture. The mind cannot control the body, saying “Let’s go here, let’s go there, I want to do this, I want to do that, what do I do now?” The mantra of the thinking activity is “What’s next?” That is its mode of operation; it cannot rest in the present moment. When it rests, it dissolves, and in that dissolution, in that moment, the mind awakens to its original luminosity, which had been obscured by thinking.
The practice is, when you walk, be aware of walking. When you are sitting here, use your will to make contact with the body, instead of to converse about it. There is a term in our tradition called the sword of wisdom. You learn to exercise the sword of wisdom, so that wisdom changes the object you are experiencing from the mental gossip to the physical body—that is the wisdom practice. When you are walking and you are daydreaming about this and that, wisdom says “No, come back to walking.” That walking is now your mode of existence, you are existing currently in the present moment. You are aware of walking, and the awareness that you did not know existed before starts to come within range of your own experience.
I am now old. I am at the end of the walk. And once upon a time, I had a good basketball jump shot. When I was younger—was that “me,” or is “me” the old guy? And if you say it is the same guy, what is the same, what part is the same? Not a single cell, not a single nerve, not a single synapse. There is no connection, but there is a chain of causation. If you take an apple seed, plant it in the ground, water it, and watch it become a tree, is the seed the same as the tree? No. Is it different from the tree? One can’t even answer a question like that, it doesn’t make sense. There are no words to describe the conditions of being of anything.
There is something constant through all these years, and that is the light that is illuminating you. Once you enter the spiritual path, your life is no longer about fulfilling your individuality, that is an impossible thing. Your individuality is a journey from a womb to a coffin. Regardless of how much money you have, regardless of how much fame you have, regardless of how accomplished you are as an athlete or a musician, this is the path. Spiritual wisdom says that if you make that individuality into something very important, you will have difficulty with its inevitable disintegration. You will fear it, because you have thought, “What I am is now disappearing.”
There is within you that which is beyond birth and death, beyond success and failure. It just knows that you are, and it is. When you come into the zendo and make a bow, know that this is not the place where individuality is important, this is a place where individuality is humbled. “Whenever I associate with others may I view myself as the lowest of all.” Very different from teachings at the university and the college, or teachings in the office where you are under the pressure of being rated, and your worth is based on performance. No, as a performer you are impermanent, don’t make a fuss. Before you have to exit stage left, you should realize that within you is that which is eternal, which is unaffected, which is present within all things as the core of their being, and which is pure spirit, completely nonmaterial.
There is something constant through all these years, and that is the light that is illuminating you.
How do you become aware of the inner illumination? How do you become aware that there is a deeper knower? The path will always be in the present moment. It will always be when “I” stops, when the mind stops. Society devalues moments of stopping. But these are actually the great moments. When the thinking mind is not present, the song of a bird is wonderful, and something smiles on you—the basic simplicity. You experience the all-pervading goodness of your own being when it is not being tormented by the obsession with personal affairs.
For those of you who are beginning the practice, when breathing in, be aware of breathing in; putting on your coat, be aware of putting on your coat; putting on your shoes, be aware. And smile at how pleasant it is when your existence is that simple. You have not been put here to be judged or to prove your self-worth. Your self-worth is that you exist. You have already fulfilled your purpose for being here by hearing a bird or seeing a snowflake. That miraculous activity is your fulfillment—please do not miss it.
From A Temporary Affair: Talks on Awakening and Zen by David Radin. Reprinted by permission of Monkfish Book Publishing Company (2022) Rhinebeck, New York.