Tuesday, April 05, 2011


Awakening, or realization of one’s true nature, is basic to Zen. I would like to talk about a few concepts relevant to awakening that lurk in the heart of Zen.

Concept 1. The aim of Zen practice is awakening.

Note I did not say the goal of Zen.

"Goal" implies an end point, a final achievement. When someone accomplishes a goal, such as a Doctorate, they often pop a bottle of champagne or they throw a party. And then they relax and glorify themselves as having “made it,” or else they strive toward a higher goal.

Most mountain climbers struggle to reach the summit of a mountain. Many climbers speak of “conquering” a mountain. When they get to the top they can hardly wait to descend so they can climb another mountain and conquer it, as if it were an enemy.

I once had a friend who referred to ascending a mountain as “a summit assault.” He made the beauty of climbing sound like warfare.

On one of my climbing and hiking trips in New Mexico some of us got into an interesting discussion on being process-oriented or goal-oriented. Goal people are thought of as needing an objective. Process people are happy in the doing; getting there is the greatest part of their pleasure.

In California the Sierra Club has a chapter called The Peak Baggers Section. Its members strain themselves mightily to see who can feel glorified by climbing, the most mountain peaks in the shortest time.

The point, for those people, is to be able to say "I have bagged so many peaks in so many months. Therefore I am a superb climber. You have bagged fewer peaks. Therefore, I am better than you.”

In Zen one works toward awakening—that is, realization of self—calmly, patiently, and steadily. One does not think of an end point, a final achievement. One does not think of a reward or a celebration.

What kind of reward is there in realizing one’s true nature when that true nature is an essential part of one before birth?

Remember the koan that asks what your face was before you were born. One’s face before one was born was no different than it is right now, whatever age one may be. The point of Zen is recognizing that. And that is awakening.

Concept 2. When one is awakened, everyday experiences such as eating, drinking, and carrying on ordinary affairs take on special meaning.

On awakening, daily tasks and functions continue. One continues to teach school, or write a book, or run a business. However, awakening results in one seeing into and really feeling the meaning that lies in these ordinary functions.

One reads, one walks, one feels happy or sad. These incidents do not change, because they are part of life. However, with awakening these common occurrences are lived completely and fully.

As a Zen expression goes, one continues to chop wood and carry water. However, with awakening such acts take on a special meaning.

Chopping or splitting an especially tough chunk of firewood is no longer a chore. It becomes a total physical experience and—most important—a spiritual commitment that begins and ends at the very instant the ax or the splitting maul touches the timber.

One is altogether focused on what is happening right now. Nothing else matters. As in the actions of a samurai swordsman, there is not a moment of hesitation for thought or for decision making. There is only the instant.

So it is with walking or drinking a glass of water. The act is the same as it has always been, only with awakening the act has a special meaning. That special meaning has always existed, only now one is aware of it.

One is aware of everything.

Concept 3. The meaning is not something added.

I want to emphasize this point. The meaning is not something added. It is not an extra. It is not a reward.

The meaning in everyday acts is in being. It is in living completely and fully every second. This is sometimes referred to as “isness.”

Can there be meaning in isness?

D.T. Suzuki mentions that in the view of Zen, isness—or essence—is the meaning. When one sees into it, one sees as clearly as viewing one’s face in a mirror.

An eighth-century pupil of Zen named Ho Koji stated

“I chop wood, I carry water.
“How wondrous, how mysterious!”

Concept 4. As contradictory as it may seem, Zen does not deal in the abstract.

In what I have just said, Zen may seem appallingly conceptual and difficult to understand. This claim is often laid on Zen by those who are unable to free their minds, to let go of traditional thought processes and to open themselves fully.

Zen may seem theoretical, hypothetical, impractical, even impossible. But only to minds that are stiff and accustomed to orthodox thinking.

Zen makes no demands. It requires nothing other than an open mind that is ready for awakening to one’s true nature.

Suzuki Roshi said: “Real awakening is always with you, so there is no need for you to stick to it or even to think about it.”