Who are we really? 

We’re not anyone in particular. Every moment, in response to the conditions in front of us, another person, the sky, the flowers, we are created again. That’s who we are: our relationship in this moment. Yes, of course, conventionally, we all have identities, commitments, loves, hates, and preferences. No one avoids that, and we wouldn’t want to. But that’s not all of who we are. That’s the point of Zen practice and, I think, of all spiritual practice: to get in touch with the person that we are beyond the person that we seem to be. 

We don’t really ever come to that understanding and realization by ourselves. In Zen practice, it is understood that we enact this wisdom in our connection to one another. It’s our dharma relations, renewed moment by moment as we meet each thing and each person, that bring us to the truth and a kind of awakening within and beyond our suffering.

When you think about Zen stories, this is how they work. They’re not talks given by wise teachers; they’re encounters between people. Every Zen story is the story of a meeting. It’s the story of a relationship—and, as we see from these stories, not necessarily conventional notions of relationships in which we’re fulfilling each other’s needs, but a more profound sense of our connection to one another.

Zen practice is itself a together practice. We’re always sitting together side by side. In a classical Zen sesshin [retreat], we sit together, walk together, eat together, work together, chant together, and bow together until we become one body. As we continue our practice and understand more, we realize this—that the separate person we are is a conventional person and that we’re also a person beyond that person. That is why our practice is all about compassion, not only in the sense that I am compassionate for you but also in the sense that I am you. My compassion is not me being a nice guy. My compassion is me realizing who I am and knowing that having a heart of love for all creatures, all beings, even a blade of grass, is true to who and what I am. Michael Jackson sang a long time ago, “We are the world. We are the people.” We are the world, and we are the people. That’s why we love one another: because we are one another, and there’s no other way but to love one another.

There’s a beautiful Zen story about compassion. Yunyan, a Chan master, asks Daowu, his student, “How come the bodhisattva of compassion has so many hands and eyes?” Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is depicted as having infinite hands and infinite heads with infinite pairs of eyes. 

Daowu says, “It’s just like reaching back for your pillow in the night,” which we all do. In the night, we somehow feel that the pillow needs to be different, so without thinking about it, without even saying to ourselves, “I think I’ll reach back for my pillow,” we just reach back. It’s automatic. 

Yunyan says, “Oh, I understand.”

Daowu replies, “What do you understand?”

Yunyan says, “There are hands and eyes all over the body.”

Daowu says, “Well, that’s 80 percent.”

Yunyan says, “Well, what do you say, elder brother?”

Daowu says, “The whole body is nothing but hands and eyes.”

Our whole life and all parts of it, every moment of it, and all of existence is nothing but compassion and love. We don’t need to produce compassion. We already are compassion. All we need to do is wake up to who and what we are, and then naturally, we’re going to have a heart of love not only in actions that appear to be compassionate but all the time: picking up an object with compassion, walking from one room to another with compassion, and, of course, caring for one another with love.

I’ll close with these three points. First, our separate selves are not all we are. We honor them, but we learn in practice to go beyond them. Second, we always practice together. Even when we’re sitting alone, we’re practicing together. Third, we love this world and we love this life and we’re always trying to help in everything we do.

Adapted from Norman Fischer’s Dharma Talk, “When You Greet Me I Bow: Relationship, Emptiness, Activism

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