Transcribed from a talk given Tuesday January 19, 2010. To hear the podcast of this talk click HERE.
From the moment that we're born, we begin to engage in a habit, in a way of viewing the world that consistently and predictably brings us to suffer. From the moment that we're born we begin to search for, to seek, to grasp for something that is stable, something that is lasting, something that is permanent, something to hold onto. And from the very moment that we're born - in fact the very moment that we're born we experience that our life is not this way. Our life is not stable. Life is not lasting. Environments change. Circumstances change. Experiences change.
From the moment that we are born we go from this wonderful warm environment in which all of our needs are being met, into this completely chaotic world that we all live in. It's cold, so we crave for warmth. We want things to be as they should be, but no matter how much relief we find, even when we are swaddled, eventually things change. We start to feel pains in the body. We start to feel hunger. So we want that difficulty to go away. So we blindly reach around in search until we find our mother's breast and we eat. Ahh, finally completion, satisfaction, fulfilment. But no sooner is our stomach filled then suddenly we find that oh… maybe our stomachs aren't quite ready for that and ohh, I'm having this pain in my stomach and now that nice full belly is something that I just want out! Ohh! And about the time where we feel like we couldn't possibly want anything more than to be empty - finally, we get some relief. (pooping sound) Ohh, complete...full. But wait...that dry, soft, feeling against our body doesn't feel so soft and dry anymore. Now it's wet and smelly. Ohh, all I want is to just be away from that. If I could just return to that dry soft feeling. Well then suddenly of course the blanket it is taken away, the diaper is removed and we find ourselves back at point one - cold. I wish I could be warm again.
This cycle that starts from the moment that we're born, continues throughout our lives without fail. Our desires transform in their external manifestation. The environment that we care for, that we long for, that we chase after, changes. Maybe it changes from being a nice fleecy blanket with a nice kind of satiny edge and it becomes an apartment or it becomes a house or it becomes a house on a particular street in a particular neighborhood. Maybe our desire for food changes from our mother's milk to McDonald's hamburgers, to maybe some kind of five-star cuisine. Maybe our desire for clothing changes from a dry diaper to really nice designer clothes. But nonetheless, this practice of pressing ourselves away from what we're finding unpleasant and pursuing with all of our desire that which we think will provide us with lasting completion, lasting satisfaction, is something that we engage in from the moment that we're born.
So people come to Zen practice and they bring problems with them, and they say oh I've become so materialistic, and if I could only just get this job, or if I could only find the right partner, or if only I could make the right kind of money, or if only I could have this kind of spiritual experience I would be happy. I would be satisfied. I would be complete. And every time we find that we reach this situation where we come to completion in whatever act we are pursuing, whenever we find that we are finally relieved of the terrible situation that we are fleeing from, we find that satisfaction does not stay, does not endure. It breaks apart. So people will come to practice and say, I want to find freedom from this chasing, from this fleeing. In Buddhism classically, these two motivations are called craving and aversion and according to the Buddha's four noble truths they are the very root of human anguish, suffering, dukkha as it's called.
The thing that's very important to realize when we take up practice is that this activity, this habit that we have, gaining some insight into it, becoming aware of its presence in your life is often the motivation for people to practice. People say, ‘you know I keep noticing myself doing this and I'm just never satisfied and it's a real problem and I need to do something about it.’ This is so important. But what we have to come to realize when we start practice is that this is not something new. Just because we have awakened to our habit, it's not something that's just started. We have to fully respect that this habit, this way of approaching our lives began the moment we were born and every act, every activity, every behavior that we've ever engaged in, in our life is a mutation, is a manifestation, is a repetition of the very habit that started the moment we were born. I'm cold. I'm hungry. I've got gas. I'm wet. I'm cold. I'm hungry. I've got gas. We repeat this ritualistically, over and over and over and over throughout our lives and we come up with brilliant coping mechanisms. Human beings are gifted with this tremendous mind that creates infinite possibilities on how to create, to posit possible solutions to this fundamental issue of dissatisfaction with the transience of life.
As we go through our lives, each of us is faced with innumerable variables. It's not possible for two of us to come across the same variables in our lives even if we're born at the same moment, even if we have the same parent, even if we grow up in the same house or on the same street or in the same country. As a result, together with the wonder of this wonderful human mind, each of us figures out different combinations for coping with this fundamental instability, insubstantiality, impermanence in a word. Each of us runs these same habits because they have worked in the past. They have offered us some hope, some direction towards finding something that lasts, finding something that offers completion, finding something where we can be satisfied. These habits, we kind of pull them together and having pulled them together, having become familiar and comfortable with running particular habits in response to particular emotional or physical sensations, we start to identify this. It's easier to run familiar programs than it is to constantly be coming up with new ways of approaching the basic impermanence of life as we experience it.
In Buddhism we understand these packages, these collections of habits as character, or as what we like to call in the West, personality. There is nothing wrong with character. There is nothing wrong with personality. It's impossible for us to arise in this world and not create this collection of habits and behaviors in response to the fundamental instability, impermanence of the activity of life. Then another thing happens. Having become so familiar, having become so comfortable, having become so tired of coming up with new ways to respond to the vicissitudes of life, we begin to identify with those habits. We begin to take the infinite possible ways of responding to situations as they arise and whittle them down to just a few. We begin to identify with our character and we begin to take that character as being something itself that is real, that is lasting, that is permanent, that stands outside of the experiences themselves. In Buddhism when we use the term ‘ego’, when we use the term ‘self’, when we use the term ‘I am’, what we're referring to, is this habit or this practice of taking this collection of habits, behaviors, attitudes, preferences as a collection imbued with permanence, with substantiality.
When we start practice, the first step, the first thing that we're engaged in as we sit, as we take up this posture, bringing the body fully into this moment as it is completely and to bring our awareness into this moment completely and to bring all the senses into this moment just as it is completely and to observe what's happening in this moment. Having made this assumption, having made this leap to accepting unconditionally, this idea of selfhood, of permanence, of ‘I am’, we then begin to walk around in the world viewing it from the idea that we have this thing called a ‘self’, that we are this thing called the ‘self’, which operates in a fundamentally different reality than everything else that we come across. We begin to view the world itself, to view experience as relating, as affecting, as impacting positively or negatively this thing that we call a ‘self’. And so suddenly, we begin to look at all of our circumstances, all of our situations as being something which is of benefit to my ‘self’, which will improve my ‘self’, which will increase my ‘self’ and these are the things that we try to grasp. Or, we see things that are of detriment, of damage. They will harm my ‘self’. They will diminish my ‘self’. They will deplete my ‘self’ and we run from those things.
So the first practice that we engage in, is to have a good, long, honest, hard, look at this thing that we call ‘self’, that we take as being solid, fixed and permanent and to ask, to question, to investigate. Is it so? It doesn't take very long to start. It doesn't take a genius to deconstruct this notion, this concept, this idea that there is something within us, there is something about us that is lasting fixed and permanent. The more we look, the more we find something that we have hope will demonstrate these qualities, the faster it slips through our fingers. It's certainly not our thoughts. It's certainly not our feelings, our hopes, our aspirations, our beliefs, our physical bodies. In none of these things, is there anywhere we can find something that is lasting fixed and permanent.
This is tough, because it's not just a philosophical, a conceptual practice. When we're engaged in a community, when we're engaged in a practice, a formal practice where we can observe ourselves, observe others, and willingly be observed, we are put into a situation where we say, okay, bearing in mind that we can find no thing about ourselves that is lasting, fixed and permanent, how do we go forward? How do we conduct ourselves? How do we make relationship with the world around us? This is why having a community of practice is of such tremendous importance. This realization, the fundamental emptiness of this concept of self is devastating because it is through this assumption that we view the world, that we have built our lives and our relationships and our careers. It is through this idea that ‘I am!”, that we see the world. To drop this away is to have the carpet pulled out from under us. We must find a new way to live. Uncovering, discovering and manifesting this new way to live is practice. Practice is the reason that we're here. So, that's all I'm going to say tonight. My greatest hope is that you'll take what I said tonight and seriously consider it and go forward into a life of practice.