shedding our props

Listen to this spiritual talk. You may download, but please do not repost.


We come here with nothing. That is, when we’re born, we have only our bodies, our brains and other organs, and possibly some propensities and talents. Whether we really have propensities and talents at birth depends upon where you come down on the nature vs. nurture debate that is, I think, still going on. But whatever else we come here with, we have a lot of potential. What we develop over time, and what we end up with after it’s all said and done, is largely a matter of accumulated props. Stuff that we need to have to function as parts of the “consensual reality” within which we exist and must get along.

Imagine a stage – a big empty floor with some walls and maybe windows. What that stage represents is unknown and unlimited until someone starts dressing the set, as I think they say in show business. For instance, in one play, we might add some little tables and chairs, a bar, a bandstand, some dim lights – aha! it’s a nightclub! In a different play, we might bring in some pews, a pulpit, a choir loft, an organ – now it’s a church sanctuary. Same space, different props. But whatever we put in, before this space was anything we can label or anything that looks familiar, it’s just a big empty floor with some walls and maybe windows. Nothing else in particular.

Now, apply this same process to your own being, your self, your life as a person. There’s a koan that kind of goes to this point. It’s Case 8 from the Mumonkan, titled “Keichu Makes Carts.” The text goes like this:

Master Gettan asked a monk, “Keichu made a hundred carts. If he took off both wheels and removed the axle, what would he make clear about the cart?”

Now, I don’t want to explore this koan further here because some of you may encounter it along the way of your Zen journey, and you’ll want to resolve it yourselves. Let’s just identify the objects in this koan: the carts, the wheels, and the axle. Are there some props in this scenario? If so, what are they?

At various points in our lives, the person we present to the world is a being that is largely made up of props that we’ve brought in to define to the world, and possibly to ourselves, exactly who we are and what we are. Or who / what we think we are. We have kids, and so we’re known as parents. We have artistic or intellectual talents, and so we’re known as artists or thinkers. We have life partners, and so we’re married people – officially or otherwise. We have careers, and so we’re professionals. We have more money than we need to live day to day, and so we’re rich. And on and on.

And what’s more critical is that we’re not only known and seen by the world – by the “consensual reality” – as the roles that are defined by the props; those roles are how we know and see ourselves!

So, what happens when those props break down or otherwise disappear? The kids grow up and leave home, so we become empty-nesters. Our house burns down, so we’re fire victims. We separate from our partners, and so we’re newly single people. We lose our professions or our money, and so we’re screwed! We could say that our roles simply change, and we move into new roles. But is that so, really?

How do we see ourselves, experience ourselves, without our props to define us?

Even with all this shedding of props that may happen during a lifetime, something is left. Something was there before we accumulated those props, and even without the props, that something is still there. The experience of being with which – we might even say as which – we came into this world remains. The empty stage remains. Our fundamental being remains.

If we project this notion onto our spiritual journey, our Zen journey, we might say that Essential Nature – our True Nature – remains. This isn’t exactly right because Essential Nature is both transcendent and immanent; it’s way beyond any little being and its props. It’s changeless, and it’s timeless. Out of form, out of space, out of time.

We can reasonably say that as our Zen practice brings us to realization of Essential Nature, of our True Nature, we have the foundation which allows us to transcend the loss of our props and remain standing. As we practice, we can even enter a program of deliberate letting go – of shedding our props – in order to realize ourselves more fully, more completely, as what we fundamentally are: compassionate and loving beings that function within our consensual reality.

So, I invite you to visit your inner stage and discover the props with which you’ve dressed that stage. And once you’ve discovered them and their nature as props, then embrace what’s left as your bridge to Essential Nature, to your present and timeless True Nature. That’s where your heaven is, that’s where your Nirvana is. That’s where your true self is, and lives.

Thank you.