As a novice, I feel it is a good opportunity to take a step back and figure out where I am. In my readings and meditations, I sometimes try to put my finger on what exactly Buddhism is to me. Let me tell you, that definition has changed quite a bit over the last few years which brings me to this: I'm not sure how it has changed. I know where I am now but I'm not sure where I was before this. It's strange and I feel like it would be useful to know what is the same and what has changed. In that vein, I decided that it would be a good idea for me to put this question to myself and write it down so that I can look at it again later as a sort of starting point. So, here we go, time to point at the moon.
So what is Buddhism to me? Well, there are a number of ways to tackle this question and I am going to take some time to go through a few of them. This is in no particular order or by no means exhaustive. The first thing I thought of when I asked myself what is Buddhism is this. All of you, this space, the smell of incense, sitting on cushions, practicing meditation as best we can. Buddhism to me is in some sense, an intentional community of people who are trying to figure out what life is all about… together. Not one of us here is spiritually alone and I think that’s important.
Buddhism is also an Identity to me. I am a Buddhist. It is different from being a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. It is an identity that has meaning and provides me an existential anchor in which to operate in the world. It's also a way to understand how the world works. I often joke about the Buddha being a jerk for pointing out the four noble truths but I also believe him to be correct in his assertions. Just to be clear, the simple version is that there is suffering, there is a cause to suffering, there is a cure for suffering, that cure is the eightfold path. I know that the devil is in the details but I really do try to live my life in such a way that honors the four noble truths. Sometimes I am better at it than others, but I try.
Being Buddhist is a source of pride. I'm proud of what I believe and how it causes me to act. That sentence is I think the yardstick of how to gauge one's beliefs and if one actually believes in something. Does it cause you to act differently? Does it make you treat people differently? Does it inspire you to become a better person?
And then Buddhism is sometimes a sense of guilt for me. I am Buddhist, but am I good Buddhist? Do I meditate enough? Or correctly? I snapped at someone or treated someone like they were less than… oh no, I generated bad karma…wait I was worried about the karma and not the other person…more bad karma. I better generate some good karma. Wait does trying to generate good karma simply for the reason of counteracting bad karma really generate good karma? How does karma even work?
Yeah, Buddhism is like that for me sometimes. It can be a walking stick, keeping me steady on difficult terrain and it can also be the stick I use to beat myself with when I feel I have transgressed. It sounds harsh, but I think it should be that way. When you say you believe in something, it has consequences or its meaningless. A religious or spiritual belief cannot be just something that comforts you and makes you feel better. It also has to hold you accountable when you violate its tenants or when you act with ill will or hatred toward another being. Just to be clear, YOUR beliefs hold YOU accountable. Don’t use your stick to beat others. That’s not very Buddhist.
Buddhism is also intrinsic to my vocation. I am a Buddhist chaplain. I am fortunate enough to be able to practice compassion and empathy and get paid for it. Suckers, I would probably have done it for free. But rolled into this is a responsibility to use my spiritual authority honestly and with integrity. I am the only Buddhist most people know. Most of you are probably the only Buddhists at your jobs, in your circle of friends, or your family. In this way, you are also the example against which Buddhism will be judged by your non-buddhist peers. Your thoughts, words, and actions represent this community and this spiritual tradition. Don't take this responsibility to seriously, but don’t take it for granted either.
Finally, I want to speak to the heart of Buddhism for me. When I point at the moon, what am I trying to describe? Where am I trying to get to with all of this? What's the goal?
Now, I know, good Buddhists don't have goals for meditation or sitting. Shikentaza means "just sitting". Nothing else. Bah. Rigorous self honesty means I probably shouldn't lie to all of you and I don't want you all lying to yourselves either. When I sit down on this cushion, I am practicing toward a goal. There is somewhere I want to get to, a state of mind I am trying to achieve, a way of being that I am trying to make me more often than I am able to manifest now.
I am not sure if what to call this thing that fascinates me at this point in my spiritual journey. A concept, a way of being, a person I want to be. I don't know but it calls to me. It was first conveyed to me via a chapter in T. P. Kasulis' book Zen Action, Zen Person. Kasulis is writing about Dogen and a passage from the Shobogenzo called Genjokoan. This phrase has been translated as Actualizing the fundamental point, The presence of objective reality, the individuality of things manifesting themselves equally, or Presence itself as a Koan. My favorite is "the presence of things as they are".
This is a difficult thing to explain and I don't know that I can adequately do it. I do know that trying to helps me to understand it better and that’s kind of what dharma talks and being a novice is all about.
I will give a more extensive dharma talk on this in the future, the thing that I think is the moon is getting to a place Kasulis calls without thinking. He contrasts this against thinking and not thinking. Long story short, it’s a state of mind that happens pre-reflectively. It is being present to things, emotions, events, just as they are, before we assign value or descriptions or names or concepts. It happens before I-thou, me-it, subject-object before things become relational. In a sense, it’s a way of being in the world that is non-dual, not separate, and totally grounded in the interdependent absolute experience of the right now.
Let me take a step back for a second. We often talk about the difference between reacting and responding. As reality unfolds we think about it. We attach meaning, we interpret, we assess, we figure things out. As soon as we begin to think about a thing, we are no longer present, we are reacting to what we are thinking about an event instead of being present as the event unfolds. This is where attachment and aversion arise. This is where the ego asserts that it is apart and separate from others. Dogen proposes that there is a way to be in the world pre-reflectively, without thinking about it, and from this we respond to and with it instead of reacting against of a picture of reality that we are creating.
Our thoughts about events are not the events. Our thoughts about objects are not objects. An example of this Alan Watts uses is that no person has ever had their thirst quenched by the word water or the thought of water. Also, the term water is a concept. It is not the thing as it is. It’s a descriptor that puts us one step away, out of the moment, one step behind being present in the right here, right now.
Another way that I have thought about it is to use dancing as a metaphor. As soon, as you try to dance, you have already lost. Believe me, I am a terrible dancer. I am a terrible dancer because I think about it. I try to dance instead of just dancing. As soon as I think about dancing, I am no longer dancing, I am reacting to the music, reacting to my concept of what dancing should be, reacting to what people think about my dancing.
However, there have been times where I have been able to let all that go. My body moves with the music and is not separate from it. The division between my body and the music disappears and there is only unobstructed, unaware, unfolding of the two together. I still am a terrible dancer, but I am authentically dancing and that my friends, is magic.
So to sum it all up. I am a Buddhist and this is what it means to me: I am trying to dance more. I hope that for all of you too.