liberating joy

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


“Teach your experience.” That’s what my teacher, Fr. Greg Mayers Roshi, has always told us. So that’s the genesis of this offering. Right now, my experience has me at the point of “just the fact, just this.” I was struck recently by a paragraph in Albert Low’s book, What More Do You Want? He’s writing about Zen Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen and our interminable quest to find meaning in life. Hakuin’s Chant (also known as the Song of Zazen) begins:

All beings by nature are Buddha,
As ice is by nature water. …
How sad that people ignore the near
And search for truth afar:
Like someone in the midst of water
Crying out in thirst; …

Let me read Low’s paragraph to you:

“The video [one of the Planet Earth series] shows a species of insects that incubate in the earth for seven years and then on a given day they all burst out simultaneously. They fly around, mate and die, and the eggs then go back into the earth for another seven years. One might ask, ‘What is the point?’ There is no point. There is no need for a point. When you ask, ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ you have already stepped outside your life trying to look at it as something apart from yourself. You are [italics mine] life.”

I don’t know which specific insect Albert Low is talking about. For cicadas, it’s seventeen years, I believe, not seven. Wow!

You are life, as ice is by nature water. Albert Low’s contention is that life is a natural thing which, at bottom, has no point – no meaning beyond itself. Life is life. Period. Now, many of us would at first glance take this to be a statement of blank nihilism. “Of course, life has a point,” we insist. “It must! Otherwise, why are we here? What’s it all about?” And isn’t that the question most of us come to spiritual practice, to zazen in our case, hoping to answer?

Years of practice have begun to make clear to me that life doesn’t have to have a point. Life is life, and that’s it. But we humans, as sentient beings, create meaning by how we conduct the lives we are. The lives we have. The lives we are given. The lives we find ourselves living. This is harder for us as humans than it is for other beings because we are able to project our minds beyond the present moment, into the past and the future, real or imagined.

And this is both our blessing and our curse. It’s a blessing because we are able to live as something – as artists, thinkers, caregivers, healers, teachers, lovers, whatever. And it’s a curse because it puts us in a position to doubt our own truth, the truth of our being. Life is life, and we can make of it what we will.

So no, this is not nihilism, but it does bring everything down to that single truth: just the fact, just this. And paradoxically, what that does is to liberate everything else to be fully what it is. We can freely look forward to taking that walk in nature, to giving that recital, to attending that concert, to completing that painting, to consummating that love. And we can freely recall those precious moments of joy that we had with our parents, our children, our teachers, our lovers and best friends.

Of course, it can also lead us into error, into thought and behavior that harms ourselves or others. But I firmly believe that such harmful outcomes are aberrations rather than the norm. Maybe that’s naïve; I don’t know. But looking at nature, at life as it is, I have to believe that harmony, not discord, is what life wants to be.

Actually, when we look deeply into it, we can’t have one without the other, can we? The sides balance into equilibrium, equanimity, oneness. And as we look at history, the whole thing cycles, doesn’t it?

So, whatever we make of the lives we are is icing on the cake – or, as the case may be, rust on the grill. As we realize that life is just life, we can still see the beauty and the fullness that we bring to our living. That’s creativity, not nihilism. We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater; we just need to see the baby that’s naturally resting within it. Just as ice is by nature water, all beings by nature are Buddha. You are life.

Thank you.