Please enjoy an excerpt from the new book, See For Your Self: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation. The book offers young people a guide to mindfulness that will help them experience a deeper connection with life and the present moment.
The author, who is 23, graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara, and describes his spiritual journey from family troubles, reliance on material comforts, and substance abuse to self-awareness and a deeper relationship with nature through his three years of Zen meditation practice. Dianda feels that a book about Zen by a young person whose life has been transformed by meditation has the potential to appeal to young people throughout the world who are dissatisfied with societies that focus on individual wealth instead of the deep and vast individual Self.
Blow Down the Walls
A Zen koan says, “If you turn things around,
you are like the Buddha.”
The koan is straightforward and direct: turn things around, be Buddhas. Within the now, there is nothing standing in our way. An awakened individual, a Buddha, a master turns things around until there is simply nothing left—no borders, no sense of direction or distinction between east and west, not even a mental map to use as a tool to formulate ideas about who we think we are and what we should do.[i]
There are no walls or obstructions to block the flow of what naturally comes and what naturally goes, rather, all that remains is wide-open space. Turning things around flips our mental fortresses upside down and allows us to enter into an entirely new way of living. That is the heart of this koan. Some can invert their entire lives in an instant, embracing space and all things as one. And others, like me, root into practice and turn over the myriad internal walls one at a time.
I remember sitting with “turn things around” out on the bluffs by Santa Barbara. The monarch butterflies were on their annual migration up the coast meandering through the Eucalyptus trees, landing on sun-dipped branches and dodging spider webs. Their lives played out in this way among the shifting breeze, and so did the life I was experiencing. Under the same sun, cancer scares, car accidents, financial troubles, laughter, the Golden Gate Bridge, foggy mornings and starry nights, dirty dishes, football games, and my thoughts unfolded along the path: the substances and the moments comprising this migration or journey on which I had somehow embarked.
Nothing had changed, life was still made of calming sun streaks and challenging, sticky webs, and I was increasingly here to greet the inexhaustible fluctuations between the two, while learning to seize up less. There was a quality, an intimacy growing that I could only experience through my Self. Attempting to convey my experience to others manifested in the form of evocative words and slicing hand gestures—missing the mark, yet refreshing and humorous at times.[ii]
Falling down on the ground, standing up again, pausing a little longer each time, to notice, to see my inner Self in the endless ripples and countless reflections.
I also remember speaking to an elder Zen teacher over green tea and Mexican cuisine (a prototypical California-style meal) about his more than thirty years of Zen practice. He said, “The real question is, what will you do when the man raises his middle finger, or the woman is screaming? Where is your Zen practice then?” He smiled, with a look of seriousness. The aromas, the sound of dishes clattering and people chatting, melded with his words and gave them a texture of sorts, a practical significance that went hand-in-hand with what it means to live mindfully.
There was life in these words, an echoing that reverberated throughout the room and harkened back to ancient times. His question is a deeply Buddhist one—where is your practice when times are hard, when suddenly you meet a giant, over-powering wave? For me, and for the sake of this book, turning things around and transforming into the ocean seemed like an appropriate answer. When we can take a contentious, seething moment or an unrelenting desire and invert it on itself, then this is Buddha’s practice.
The elderly Zen teacher’s words continue to ring out today, too, emanating from the brown table on which I write, the flock of parrots that has made its home a few blocks from mine, and the truck climbing up the steep grade below the fire escape. There wasn’t a perfect answer for the teacher’s words at that moment, only a spontaneous nod, an acceptance of not having the answers and being comfortable with that. Challenges will come, and so will middle fingers, but Buddha’s practice remains Buddha’s practice. Inhabiting the now and remaining centered through what comes is turning things around.
I notice how the sum of my narrow perspectives forms the comfortable walls within which I enclose myself, causing me to lose touch with what is here. When I attempt to turn things around within my mind, I work to blow down the walls and step into fresh, open space, allowing life to unfold just as it is. And this is what I ask you to look into, to attempt, when the time comes or when it just feels right. Each maneuver, each crumbling of our barriers brings us closer to a clear vision of reality and the selfless, balanced characteristics that come with such a view. This represents the ultimate freedom – one that is necessary for a transformation of heart and mind.
The Vision: The Self— complete consciousness in the now
The Way: Turning in and cultivating a daily practice
The Mantra: Mindfulness, awareness, and acceptance of what is
The whole purpose behind the words within this text lies in the seemingly mundane, self-help-style title, see for your Self. It is a mirror for us to examine ourselves, to witness the ‘who’ you and I have created, and to begin tearing down the images and projections we have made about the world we move through. As I said in the Preface, there is no teacher here, just the beginning of a conversation, and the imparting of something that may or may not push you, the reader, into a different kind of experience, a brand new arena of consciousness. Going into meditation, looking into other Zen works, and expanding our horizons opens up our inner avenues for a soulful and spiritual change.
Come back six months from now and look at some of the chapters. If you have practiced witnessing, your interpretations of the words expressed here might be different and fresh. Maybe the text will have become dull and your interpretations will crunch right through my words! Or maybe you will find new meaning in a line that seemed as ordinary as a wisp of cloud. If you are sincere in your practice, you move on, and if you gaze deeply into the nature of life with an increasingly quieted mind, you deepen. Life, and all the ordinary moments it comprises, becomes more and more beautiful and you become increasingly here to reap the benefits of experiencing life just as it is.
No matter what we go through, we must always remain open. A path can lose its power and its ability to renew and refresh when we become blind followers. Any form of mindfulness is a wonderful framework, but at some point along the road, we must be courageous enough to claim our own sovereignty, to realize the Self and then to move beyond the framework. It is not something to fear, but something to rejoice in. This is the essence of turning the light of our consciousness inwards.[iii]
Remember, the Buddha was represented or symbolized by footprints for hundreds of years before he was finally shaped into a statue for worship.[iv] Remember, too, when a Zen master famously proclaimed, “Kill the Buddha!” that the goal of practice is to realize your Self, not to emulate someone other than You! Not to do or be anything else. We follow the framework for years. We continue to practice as a way of life, meditating and remaining mindful and aware each and every day. But in the end, we must take ownership of our paths, when we fall down, when we stand up, when we are walking, and when we are sitting on the groundless ground.[v]
Buddha referred to himself as a physician not a philosopher. He doesn’t tell us about what light or emptiness is, he helps us see it on our own. Then he moves on and leaves us to our own devices. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha (Tathagata) told his most faithful disciple, Subhuti:
“What do you think, Subhuti, does it occur to a Tathagata, ‘by me have beings been set free?’ Not thus should you see it Subhuti! And why? There is not any being whom the Tathagata has set free. Those who by my form did see me, and those who followed me by voice, wrong were the efforts they engaged in.”
We are already free, sentient, conscious beings. It is our true nature. In his words, the Buddha does not come as our savior or as a forgiving God. He comes to tell us what we are missing for ourselves; what we cannot see or experience through the glossy haze we perpetuate. There is nothing to gain, nothing to understand, just an essence to realize and actualize.[vi]
Buddha is telling us not to imitate him our whole lives, because to do so is to miss the mark completely.[vii] We must be the ones to transcend teaching, to free ourselves through the direct experience of turning things around on our own, moment after moment. It is just a matter of whether or not we are willing to wake from our dream of separateness and see reality as it is in the now.[viii] That is the view of Buddhas—who we are—and it comes through the practice of unpeeling and unpeeling and unpeeling the layers of ego. I am still unpeeling, going through what feels right, what feels wrong and what feels completely upside down. I trudge through the mud and muck, too, of old, painful abuses and current conflicts, but I can feel the texture on my toes. This is intriguing, and just as much a part of my path as any other precious moment.
It is empowering to know that we are our own doors, our own individual passageways to freedom. But that is not always enough. Waking up and walking through is just the beginning. Continuing down our roads becomes our way of being in this world, but not to be totally of it—not to be tossed about by the waves coming forward and then receding into the background. There is a fine balance between the pure words of all the Buddhas and the day-to-day things that challenge us. The path is learning to find that balance.
Each step brings more consciousness. Each moment is another gem to touch and experience. We are taking matters into our own hands, bringing the light of awareness to the world and ourselves wherever we go. Whether it is on the meditation cushion or emanating from the latte, the keys for our growing awareness abound. We are slowly transcending the dream and grounding into reality. We are learning to be here each and every moment in life, and that is a gift—the gift. We are learning to touch others, to reach down into our inner Self, and care for the earth on which we tread every moment. And one day, something clicks. We may look at a tree covered in light and laugh at such a simple, profound sight—laughing and laughing our way into the night.[ix]
Blow down the walls and see for your Self.
Editor: Thaddeus Haas