Two Zen Paths to Freedom.
Oftentimes we separate our lives into individual, disjointed pieces:
adventurous journeys, mundane tasks, bar stories, boredom, grief, languid dispositions, ups and downs and moments of unabated excitement.
There is sitting on the couch followed by a Homeric-style journey across the city or up a mountain where strangers, internal fantasies and animals are encountered, and then there is the return, only to be followed by another trek into something different and new. And yet, lying down, finishing the proposal, or soothing a loved one, is part of the one life that is here. Removing our ideas of odysseys and battles and stepping into the now, creates a possibility to enjoy the one great flow as it is.
The whole of life—this life—is the journey.
Moving through our daily experience is part of an overall oneness. The heavy coffee mug, the funeral, a dog’s wagging tail and the feeling of snow against our finger-tips in winter, are moments within a flowing existence that don’t need to be compartmentalized or broken into pieces. There remain impasses, darkness, uneasiness, troubles and deep-seeded doubts, but these instances of contentiousness and pain are intimately part of the one journey too, and thus hold their own kind of weight, their own brilliant and unique chasms of depth to be explored and delved into as they appear or leap out of nowhere.
I often smile at my own puppy-like reaction to something bizarre or uncomfortable, and then it all comes back to me:
Standing up in the midst of infinity, looking around and having no idea what to do in the face of adversity… is living.
Embracing the unknown as well as the rough or slick ground that comes with it, and learning to stand up through intimately knowing the oneness, could make for an intriguing path to walk upon.
Zen Master Dogen said, “If you fall on the ground, stand up by the ground…Stand up by emptiness.”
Dogen’s ground represents all things and thus all the things we can walk and fall upon. The robin’s call, a broken window or a persistent regret, are part of the fundamental ground of this life. If there is mindfulness during these moments then there is openness, and openness leads to an utter acceptance of what is here, now. Using the experience of the ground—the unfolding nature of life—as a way of deepening ourselves could represent an open-ended opportunity to experience a kind of intimacy with life. When we fall down we have a chance to feel the ground’s muddy texture, to roll around on it, and witness the sinuous nature of the darker moments, bringing about a chance to shift our minds and our perception of the world that surrounds us.
While on the ground we can witness our own minds too, watching them spin and wriggle in a seemingly tight situation. It is within this watching that the ground presents a kind of medicine for us to swallow and uncover an inherent sense of depth within. But if there is no meditative watcher, the ground becomes something to strengthen the smallness of the ego-based mind.
When facing an impasse, instead of moving with it, we can become negatively charged, we can become destructive, we can become isolated, we can hurt and hinder, we can create fantasy worlds that reflect our own internal weaknesses, we can remain in cycles of suffering, and ultimately, we can dwell in unconsciousness, morphing our being into an obstacle within the flowing river, fighting a futile fight against life. Pushing beyond impulsive reactions and going straight into what makes us uncomfortable, brings the background—what we are always blind to—into plain view. The great interconnected web of life is always here, and whether we are aware of it or not, the universe holds us no matter the circumstances. It’s a funny idea to think about, but you can’t fall out of the universe. The question is, can we know this? Can we go beyond our smallness and step into the vastness of the moment?
Zen Master Dogen’s words have deep significance: get up off the same ground you find yourself on. The ground is simply life in the here and now, the experiences that push and pull us. For it is within these very moments, the ones that test us and shake us to our core, the ones we fail to understand, that present us with the opportunities for the most profound type of growth.
When we become intimate with the ground we have fallen upon, even if it is a bog-like mud, we are able to go beyond who we thought we were. It is not about finding a crutch through escaping to some activity or reaction—no—equanimity and openness come when we are able to put our own two hands in the mud and push ourselves up from the very thing that is driving us into delusion, driving us into smallness. Nagging parents, scorned lovers, low bank account figures; these are the moments where we grow the most if we are able to accept the ground. It is difficult, but it is also very possible for all of us.
In addition to his remarks on the ground, Dogen mentions the use of “emptiness” as a means to stand up. Emptiness is a fundamental tenet of Zen Buddhism. It is the great spaciousness behind all things—what allows things to come forth and fade back into oneness—within the direct experience of this mind. Whether one says this mind is Buddha or this mind is not Buddha, makes no difference. What matters is the cultivation of emptiness to allow these two statements to pass through as free as a Pacific-born breeze.
Why get hung up on “yes” or “no” when there is a Now to inhabit?
It isn’t all so esoteric though. In Zen, emptiness brings a kind of all-encompassing flush to the poker game of life. This is a wonderful thing because when we are as low as we can possibly be, emptiness means that freedom is there too, and when we can free ourselves from the constraints of smallness in our darkest moments, then we are on the path. No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how entrenched our ego is, no matter what we have done in life, emptiness means emptiness, and so it blows down all illusory notions, boundaries or thoughts created within the small mind.
Standing up using emptiness means standing without the use of created ideas or shallow ways to make us feel better. We stand up using the infinite depth of emptiness—what is naturally within the now and thus the open mind. Accepting what is here on the ground and blowing down our little selves, is standing up.
And there are other masters who point to a direct kind of standing up, through the use of a single evocative phrase or question. Rather than a lesson, they struck hard when the time was right for a profound transformation:
The great Zen Master Mat-su cried aloud, “Venerable! What is it?!”
Mat-su’s words echo out over time and space, across the Pacific Ocean, right onto the shores of North America. They are Zen words, words that are vibrant and alive. “You! What is it?!” The master’s kind and wild nature opened people up to the ultimate form of freedom. He was revered as a man who was exceptional at flaying people out and blowing up their delusions right in front of them. And so he is remembered as the Great Ancestor. There was a sense of fear around him, not that he would hurt anyone, but because of his ability to slice through a small mind at a moments notice, and at least for me, I often struggle with an ego that doesn’t want to be supplanted by vastness. And so, I can understand his followers’ seething uneasiness!
When I hear Mat-su’s words I see the fierceness and wildness of the Ancestor, leaping out of emptiness in the shape of a roaring tiger—“Don!! What is it?!!” Yet, within his sudden thrust, lies the kindness of deep compassion, the kindness of a master who dedicates his life to patiently teaching his followers the Zen Way. Behind each one of Mat-su’s syllables lie an intimate gesture, a hammer-stroke that reaches with full-force toward the Buddha-nature within each human being. “You! What is it?!” rings out boundlessly through the night, on top of the ground on which we fall, and right into the heart of the present moment. Whether it is a whisper or a bellow, a master gives the Zen practitioner the means to tear down his or her inner walls and step into freedom. Into the vastness of the now:
“In spring, hundreds of flowers; in autumn,
a harvest moon;
In summer, a refreshing breeze; in winter,
Snow will accompany you.
If useless things do not hang in your mind,
Any season is a good season for you.”
The seasons and the regenerative cycles—the rain, the heat and the necessary interplay between the two—can teach us a great deal about the nature of our journeys through this life. It could be a wonderful thing to watch the days change, and also, to watch the shifting nature of the mind. Freedom could be wrapped within this simple, mindful activity too.
Mat-su and Dogen were different types of Zen masters. Both were exceptionally good at being still and walking through the now, and at the same time, opening those who haphazardly bumped into the two of them. Mat-su brought his own unique fire while Dogen brought the coolness of patience and deep meditation. Both their teaching styles are good for study today, but it is not the real matter. The real question is, what kind of master are you? How can you embody the inherent freedom of emptiness, of the now?
With practice, getting up off the ground—the same ground we walk upon, and fall upon—leads to openness, wisdom, the hundred-tipped grasses and the expansive wilderness in which the great Zen masters dwelled. I often smile at the two masters’ styles, and then, the two of them are gone.
 “If you turn things around, you are like the Buddha.” Down and out can really mean a wonderful opportunity for inner growth and deep understanding.
Editor: Brianna Bemel