Transcribed from a talk given August 14, 2007
Each of us, I think, at one time or another, comes to a place in our lives where we feel entirely alone. Each of us finds ourselves in this position of isolation, where we feel entirely cut off from all other people, from the rest of this vast universe. And each of us deals with this, each of us addresses this experience, differently.
In Zen practice it is important to investigate how this experience has arisen. What is it, what activities, what habits do we engage in which lead to this experience of loneliness? The fundamental teaching of Zen is that all things in this vast universe are one. All things in this universe are interconnected through cause and effect. There is no thing that stands alone. There is no thing which stands independent, unrelated to anything else.
Each of us, as we go through our lives, starts off with a very unified experience. As children, when we start off in this life we have a very strong connection. We have a very deep experience of interdependence. Our lives depend on those around us, on our environment, on our mothers and on our fathers. As we begin to grow, as we begin to experience this interdependence, we begin also to develop “self”. We begin to develop consciousness, or an awareness, of our individuality. And we begin to create an identity which we hold as being separate, independent and distinct from all the things around us.
I talk about this fundamental activity of plus and minus, the activity of arising, manifesting, the activity of dissolving, disappearing, melting away. And as we develop as human beings, this activity of manifesting, defining, becoming independent, unique, tends to peak in our teenage years. We become very strong—“I”. We become very powerfully motivated to separate, to become distinct, to define ourselves, to break away, to do my own thing, to be my own person. And I think as parents, as family members, this is a very difficult time, because as parents we feel deeply connected, we feel intimately involved, we feel at-one-with.
I remember my teacher once talking about having children as being one of the easiest, the most straight-forward, ways to come to understand compassion, because in the simple act of having a child, immediately you know what it is to see self as other. My experience of this was to see my own eyes looking back at me from the position of another person. But this activity—unification, diversification—happens over and over again. And as it manifests in a human being, coming into the teenage years, we find a very strong peaking of diversification, a very strong manifestation of “I”. And as parents I think it can be difficult and it can be painful. But it’s important not to fixate.
It’s important not to look at it as if this is the way that it’s always going to be, that our child, who is wanting nothing to do with us, who is saying difficult and painful things, will always be this way. When we look at the rest of our lives, when we look at this fundamental activity, there is plus and there is minus. When plus manifests itself to the utmost, there is only one direction for it to go. As we inhale, we can’t continuously inhale. We can’t endlessly breathe in. When we reach our maximum capacity, when we feel like we’re going to split, and we're in difficulty, distress, because of our inhalation, quite naturally it follows that we exhale.
This activity is the fundamental activity of all things in this vast universe. I’ve said this over and over again. This activity is something that we can witness, something that we can experience, in this simple activity of sitting and breathing. This activity is something that we can witness and experience in every aspect, in every dynamic, in our lives.
Buddhism doesn’t ask us to believe what somebody says. It doesn’t ask us to put our faith in an external object, in an external person, an external force, but asks us to give rise to the wisdom which knows this activity for itself. It asks us to investigate this activity as it manifests in our lives in this very moment. It asks us to develop experience and to rely, to trust, that experience.
So that as we find ourselves in a difficult situation in which two things have polarized—subject and object stand at distance pointing fingers at one another—we don’t fixate that, we don’t accept it or receive it or expect it to remain the same. Through our experience, through our own practice, though our own wisdom, insight, into this activity, we know that it cannot remain the same. Plus turns and does the minus activity, dissolving away. Minus turns and does the plus activity, arising. The distance dissolves.
Each of us has this experience of feeling alone. It’s important to understand that this feeling arises as a function of plus. As we continue to arise, as we continue to insist on our independence, on our separation from all things, this experience of loneliness also arises. In itself it is not problematic. But as we practice, as the activity changes, we must also follow it. As we dissolve, melting away, experiencing unification, one true nature, each of us as we practice, fixates. And we do this over and over again and I think this is a real difficulty for people in Zen practice.
In the beginning, for most people, fixation with plus, with “I”, with separation and loneliness, becomes the primary issue. And there’s a great deal of focus placed on letting go, dissolving away, melting away into unification. As students become more grounded in Zen practice another difficulty arises: which is fixation or attachment to unification. And this situation is almost as difficult, or as problematic, as fixation with “I”, because in this situation we begin to ignore subjective. My teacher once said, “In this situation we must say, ‘oh, sorry’ to our best friend because we just slept with his wife, thinking, ‘well, we are all just one.’”
The difficulty is not in plus, in identification. The difficulty is not in minus, dissolution, or harmony. The difficulty is in our fixation, is in our absolute assertion that things are one way or the other, or that the way things are now is how they should be.
This practice is not one of letting go of the self permanently, executing the self. This practice is not one of egotism, manifesting self. This practice is the realization, the harmonious manifestation, the realization of this fundamental activity of plus and minus. We must understand that this activity, this universe, this moment, is not fixed, it’s not an object, it’s an activity.