Living A Meaningful Life
“Todays, post-modern Zen Buddhism in the West must be about groundedness in practice (training) and service – Neither a Self-Improvement Program nor a personal Wellness path.”
– Joan Halifax, Roshi
One day the Buddha found himself challenged by seekers with numerous inquiries about heaven and earth. After listening for a period of time he replied, “What I teach is suffering; the cause of suffering; cessation from suffering, and the path which leads to cessation from suffering.” What was important in his reply was not necessarily the content of his answer but rather the context. He expressed a “single minded devotion” which characterized his commitment to “liberating all beings from suffering and its cause” which was for him as it must be for each of us, a lifetime dedication to learn, to grow, and to opening our hearts and minds to change, to be transformed, and to awaken from our lifetime delusional view of ourselves and our place in the world.
Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of the Upaya Zen Center words, define The Way of Zen and the meaning and purpose of a “zen center” or “community”. Zen is not intended to be a “self-improvement program”; a zendo is not a “wellness center” but rather, a unique and exclusive conducive environment for “awakening from the cause of suffering”. We understand that, “Cause” to be “A lifetime attachment, rooted in ignorance, to ego-delusion.” We begin with the ground for our efforts, “All sentient beings are Buddha (Enlightened)”. There is no need for “self-improvement”. No need to become “more, better, or different”. While the results of “training and practice” may be a sense of self-improvement and certainly well-being, these are byproducts. The ultimate results of Zen training are for more deeply profound and transformational, “Incomparable, and All Pervasive”.
While there are different ways each of us approach training and practice in our everyday lives, according to our everyday place in the world, the context is the same, which traditionally is modeled by the Sangha – the Circle of both Lay and Ordained Monks. There is a saying which hangs over the zendo kitchen sink at Pine Wind: “Zen monks wash their own bowls.” These words speak to the “first rule” for both the monk and lay practitioner of Zen: “personal responsibility”. We begin like the Buddha with a “single-minded” devotion first, to “liberate myself from the cause of our own personal suffering or discontentment”. It is through my attachments that, I am the source of my own suffering and, only I can be the solution to my own suffering or discontentment. The “gateway” toward transformation and real freedom is “personal responsibility”. Standing on my two feet, I declare my devotion to “liberate myself from my discontentment, which informs my view of myself and the world around me, so that all sentient beings may be free of sorrow and suffering and its causes”.
Next the “second rule,” “You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.”
“The Great Way is clear except for those who have preferences.” I am often asked my opinion on what our society lacks these days. I am convinced that most people are loving, try to be kind, have some level of empathy for the less fortunate including, a genuine sense of responsibility to do what is right and just. What is lacking is an understanding of how best to cultivate growth and sustainability of “Right Character” or one’s “Humanity”. For this, “You must have a code that you live by.” The monk lives by, and strives to nurture real “integrity”: “A strict adherence to a particular way of being.” Zen is a “Way of Being” in the world, well honed over centuries, repeatedly proven to achieve the desired results. We have the Way, we have the Means, what is lacking is “Integrity”. What our modern society lacks is a real sense of “Integrity,” a real and essential commitment to live by a code which cultivates the ground for and nurtures our “Humanity”.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – We find it with another.” Human-Beings are, and The Way of Zen is, “Relational” by nature. “Community” is the “third rule”. Since 1985 the following quote has been the definition of “community” in The Zen Society: “Community is the spirit, the guiding light, whereby people come together to fulfill a purpose, to help others fulfill their purpose, and to take care of one another.” A long time ago I learned that, “Relationship is the battleground for Enlightenment.” Community is where we are supported by others, empowered and encouraged by others and, challenged as well to rise to our very best expression of our “true self”. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows its unique capacity to move us along the path toward “self-discovery” and, toward a real understanding of “The meaning of life”. We need other’s to find ourselves, we need a code to guide us along the way, and we need a real and sustainable desire to stay on the Path in, “Good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till the end of our days”.
Meditation, Contemplation, and Benevolent Service is what we call Zen Training – The Way of Zen. Meditation is understood to be primary, day to day, engagement in “silent observation” and “disciplined attention” to the breath and the coming and going of thoughts, mental formations, and bodily sensations. One takes a neutral position of an observer, adding nothing, taking nothing away, just sitting, breathing, observing. Without goals or any particular expectations, just sitting, taking whatever one gets, and creating the space for one’s life and the life of the Universe to present itself to be received, to be embraced, to be held, without conditions. Zen Meditation is an act of faith. Faith that all beings including the meditator are Buddha’s, enlightened before and at the moment they took to the cushion. That the space I occupy, my immediate environment, the space which surrounds my immediate environment, the Earth, the Heavens, the Planets, and the Stars, all Dharma’s, are Enlightened. That what rises is Enlightened. That what comes and what goes, is Enlightened. To “just sit” is real faith, a firm conviction that in the final reckoning, “All is Well.” This is not some ideal we strive to live by, it is the ground for our practice and training. Neither is it a form of “spiritual bypassing” or “denial” that there is work to be done. But without “Real Faith” and the Act of Faith which regularly engaging “serene meditation” is, the work always proves to be self-serving, appeasing ego, or futile.
Contemplation is the realization and actualization of our True-Identity or “True-Nature”. Contemplation is beyond concepts, and apprehends the true nature of The Universe, which is whole and complete, and forever becoming more of what it already is. Each of us are “Parts of The Whole called by us Universe”; therefore contemplation apprehends my true nature, and the true nature of all sentient beings. Contemplation is “Communication at the deepest level,” and “Communication at the deepest level is not communication, it is communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech and beyond concept.” The monk stops each day to reflect to contemplate his or her place in the Universe, intentionally aligning and balancing his or her points-of-view to the Reality called by us Universe. Apart from this daily practice their can be no “communion,” no “community,” no “awakening”. “Contemplation is the highest and most paradoxical form of self realization…”
Benevolent Service is a hallmark of Authentic Spirituality and Zen practice and training. It is the “full self-expression” of our True-Nature. The dictionary defines “benevolence” as: “A desire to do good to others. The quality of being well meaning; kindness.” Benevolent Service is not just the act of “doing good to others,” which often is forced, but rather a state of consciousness, an attitude, a conviction that, “My life’s meaning and purpose is, to live my life as a benefit to others.” Speaking of his own life as a monk, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote, “My Religion is Kindness.” While the monk may train in isolation, “In the world but not of it,” he or she trains to be in the world as a benefit for the world. The “Monastic Spirit” manifested in the life of the monk, is a “Light shining in the darkened corners of the World.”
“May I become at all times both now and forever: A Protector for those without Protection; A Guide for those who have lost their way; A Ship for those with oceans to cross; A Sanctuary for those in danger; A Lamp for those without light; A Place of Refuge for those who lack Shelter, and A Servant to All in Need.”
– The Monks Vow
We share a common meaning and purpose for our lives, both the monk and the layperson. I have repeatedly defined that to be: “To live my life authentically and, as a benefit for others.” While each of us realize and actualize that purpose in different ways according to our place in the world and, our level of awareness, the context is the same for each of us:
“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something….
I am free to choose what that something is, and the something I have chosen is my faith. Now, my faith goes beyond theology and religion and requires considerable work and effort. My faith demands-this is not optional-my faith demands I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.” – Jimmy Carter
I Love You,