In this life, things tend to come and go.
Money is won and lost to the tune of the frenetic marketplace. Fame and laud turn into villainization for nothing more than speaking an unfortunate phrase or making an inopportune decision. We live life on the edge, every day inches or seconds from death, loss, and poverty.
You’d do well to consider this precarious perspective every now and again.
Harrowing as it may be, it reminds us that fear is a part of our existence here.
This is a good thing to know.
Fact is, fear is probably our most useful tool. Most of the time it’s not love or hope or kindness that keeps the world going ‘round -- these are just things that help us get through the day a little more comfortably. But if you want to understand a truly compelling force, one which has driven us and every one of our ancestors going back past the monkeys and the dinosaurs, all the way back to the beginning of life to survive, to create, to destroy, and to live…
...have a look at this gift of fear.
It is a shame we hide under more appealing states of mind as warmth and benevolency, because we miss the man behind the curtain, and we do not understand the reality that has been given to us.
For worry not of misfortune, but understand its reality and you will gain control over it. Remember always that all the excitement of life comes right along with death’s knock at the door -- for life and death are merely two sides of the coin -- which is to say two perspectives -- of change (a perspective, of course, having its essence in the way something is merely viewed, but not in its objective reality).
Who benefits from the change is but a matter of perspective.
Just as I tell you to be aware of fear, so should you be aware that fear only comes from losing something you love. Therefore place your awareness on the whole coin, the whole change, and do not lose your mind to the bad nor the good.
Let meditation upon fragility give you the strength to accept its reality; let your lost sense of security and comfort bring you a fervor to go for life’s marrow, to “live deliberately” as Henry David Thoreau once wrote with such clarity and purpose.
In this meditation, I think you will begin a very important change, which begins as a discovery -- that your experience has a true center, something permanent and life-giving, and that center is you. Things -- objects -- come and go. Let things be things, and let them go along their way, and you will be one step closer to understanding the true nature of what you have left when all things are taken from you.
This is the key.
What is left (for what is left, is what is right).
When all the chips are down, when all the good times gone, the flowing wells dried up, the memory fading and success abating -- who is still there? Make peace with that man, and you will never want; shun him and you prepare yourself for terror.
You have objects of your attention, objects of your affection, objects of your interest… how much of your life have you wasted upon objects, chasing the rabbit’s tail? These are mere games you play, for anything you acquire which can be gained or lost at the drop of a hat surely is hardly even worth pursuing. Let those things come and go as they will, but find that when they all drop away, what is left is you.
You is where you must focus.
You is what you must study.
You is where you must place your love.
You is the most precious and eternal gift you have.
So then: who are you?
Let all these words I’ve said, like breadcrumbs, lead you to the treasure that lies at the end of this journey. There, all good things will come.
One who knows zen knows there is no zen — and yet we write it, read it, think at it.
A paradox, yet one who knows zen knows there is no paradox.
I want you to picture a mirror. See if you can grasp its essence. Does it have a color? A texture? A material?
The idea of a mirror's true visible nature slips through our mind as water through grasping fingers.
Yet here, in this confusion, we can begin to understand zen; it presents a mirror which we can use to look inside ourselves.
Zen is that which reflects the object. The mirror is not the reflection, and yet there is no mirror without the reflection. Paradoxical.
To study the nature of reflection is to understand zen.
Let me guide you to a start.
Form in your mind an example: an apple, and its reflection.
The reflection is not real, is not substantial — and by this I mean to say it is dependent — for it is indeed real in that it can be sensed, but the sensations of the reflection are dependent on a more substantial form of the actual apple. If the apple moves so moves the reflection. If the apple rots so the reflection. If the apple is eaten, so goes the reflection.
The object and reflection: always the same, and yet unequal.
Those things that bring change are done to the apple and never the reflection; the reflection merely mimics accordingly.
This is the nature of zen, which is the mirror.
Ponder the nature of a reflection and see that it is duplication — no new information is given — existing realities are simply doubled. There is no life there, there is no novelty, and no inspiration, no creativity and nothing new added. Mere mimicry.
This is how zen works.
It gives you nothing new. You have never learned a lick from practicing zen, you have only seen what was already there. You have gained nothing new; only discovered that nothing new ever existed for you.
Return to the mirror: yet that mirror is not the object it reflects, but presents an alternate perspective of it. A mirror may copy and repeat, and yet a reflection is not a thing. It is a thing seen differently, seen backwards, seen from the other side, seen in a different location.
If there was not something new about a reflection, it would not exist. If a reflection was equivalent to the object it reflected in every way, it would be that very object. But a reflection is different in its perspective.
Here, there is something new and something real, and in this newness is where zen, analogously, is something and not nothing -- where it does exist. For we cannot truly say “there is no zen,” because we forget that there is yet something we call “zen” that does exist.
This existence, this something, is the reflection, which is the change in perspective.
Now to finish here, let me just hint at the significance of this reflective essence.
Imagine the quandary of a “sensor” trying to sense itself. If one senses, by definition it senses things that are not the sensor. And yet that tool exists, the mirror, which objectifies the sensor, which creates new perspective so as to transform the sensor into a copy outside of itself that it may be inspected indirectly as it were any other object.
Zen presents no paradox.
There is you and your reflection.
Zen both does and does not exist, depending on what you’re meaning to look for.
Understand first that you look into a mirror and your reflection will become clear to you.
A pure mind is empty.
A pure mind is ignorant.
A pure mind absorbs.
A pure mind sees but does not react.
A pure mind knows nothing.
A pure mind remembers nothing.
A pure mind is wide open.
A pure mind is intelligence itself.
A pure mind is controlled.
A pure mind understands.
A pure mind is perfect logic.
A pure mind has no assumptions.
A pure mind has no illusions.
A pure mind believes in nothing.
A pure mind has no problems,
A pure mind is clear.
A pure mind is unconfused.
A pure mind is always calm.
A pure mind never fears nor worries.
A pure mind is yours, if you can keep it.
From 1508-1512, the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo worked painstakingly on his most famous work of art.
Applied directly to the wet plaster in the ceiling, The Creation of Adam forms just one small, though prominent, rectangular portion of the kaleidoscopic series of paintings and figures with which Michelangelo covered the entire hundred-foot ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Working on top of scaffolding three stories above the floor, his head painfully craned upwards for hours at a time and with wet paint dripping down on him constantly, the work of art Michelangelo produced represented nothing less than a metaphor for the tough and exhausting process of creation itself.
Man creates God creating Man.
And perhaps, to go back a layer further -- God created a man, who now creates God creating Man. The line between creator and created begins to break down, and in this morass lies Michelangelo’s great genius of insight -- to provoke that ancient question of whether man, by our more nobler nature, can attain the essence of the divine, or whether our mortal coils do restrict us from doing so.
A third question lurks in the particular way he portrayed God -- Michelangelo surrounds Him with a flowing drapery that curiously resembles the brain. A student of human anatomy, Michelangelo, historians of art tell us, almost certainly had performed the dissections necessary to understand the physical shape and form of the brain. The superficial similarities are almost positively an effort on the artist’s part to evoke that most intellectual organ.
Here then is the question it raises, and it is profound: by this imagery, did Michelangelo mean to suggest God himself to be but a figment of human imagination?
My, what an incisive and penetrating intellect to hint at such profound questions in an age steeped in religiosity, no matter how tempered by growing celebration of rationality and humanity...
But alas, the intrigue here likely falls flat.
Michelangelo, we know, remained a devout Catholic all his life. More probably he tried to invoke that notion that the divine is in us, and if that divine nature is to be found anywhere, it is in the mind. Possible atheistic interpretations amount to anachronistic constructs made only recently in our own time of growing secularism.
But regardless of intent, there is something fascinating about the impulse to encase god in a brain-like shape. There exists something deeply hubristic and heretical about a literal surrounding and encapsulating of God within the brain. It implies the more abstract idea that we in some way control Him, capture Him, or even supercede Him.
God creates man creates god.
Or maybe man created the story that God created man.
Or maybe God created man, but with the ability to achieve the divine.
Perhaps this whole paradoxical tangle implies the two are somehow inseparable, arising as two sides of the same coin, or two threads intertwined. The whole pursuit to discover where one ends and the other begins a misperceiving that they cannot be separated at all.
To push you, however vaguely, in the direction of resolution, let me take you back two centuries before the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was so elegantly covered, to the greatest Christian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. As he understood it, there are two forms of knowledge. Laws and principles of normal human thought can be built up through reason. We can learn about the world, study science, and create logical proofs. All this he deemed ‘philosophy.’ But he claimed there to be a second form of knowledge, which was truth, ascertained not through philosophy but ‘theology.’ These truths were not products of reason, but of divine revelation alone.
What exactly constitutes revelation, is less clear.
But think, nevertheless, of this: If we return to our present hour, to our own era of growing agnosticism and secular spirituality, unobscured by the mythic and looming figure of “God,” and if we look clearly at ourselves and our beliefs, I wonder if at a certain point we can no longer separate “reason” and “revelation,” or “God” and “man” and find that the whole idea that they are even divided requires as much faith in the spite of facts than any separate god figure ever did.
Perhaps this separation of reality into part man and part god is the origin of religion itself. And given that humans tend to have faith in those things that quell their fear, one can only wonder what great leviathan lurks in the abyss of the human psyche to create the faith necessary for such a momentous division.
Perhaps the inevitable unification of God and man is what Michelangelo painstakingly invested four years of his hard work to portend to us through the almost-but-not-quite touching fingers of God and Adam.
Or perhaps, rather, I’ve gotten myself lost in Biblical fairy tales again.
How easily, as if by the devil's magic, our delusions can possess us.
Perhaps these delusions make us sinful human and separate us from the divine; perhaps they are divinity itself.
It’s worth pondering, either way.
Never forget that you’re the one who needs to sort it all out.
Let’s consider some situations.
You want to succeed in business.
You want to do well in your studies.
You want to become a more loving person.
How should you go about these things?
If you are like most people, you will study business, you will do your math homework, you will do charity. And like most, you will fail.
Look again at those three goals -- they seem diverse, no? It seems that to take the time to improve in one would be to stunt your development in the others.
They all have one huge thing in common, that you are trained not even to notice: you.
It absolutely does not matter what you wish to accomplish or achieve, you must do it. Do not confuse the object and the subject -- do not think success is a matter of external features. The subject and object are one. You are your success and your success is you, and if you attempt to gain one while lacking clear focus on the other you are moving backwards from your goals.
Without you, everything is impossible and there is no life. A computer can gain knowledge. A computer can do charity. A computer can practice a skill. These are the easiest steps to achieve; they can be done at any time, and with total ease and comfort. They have nothing to do with success, if practiced by themselves, and everything to do with stunting your development and destroying yourself.
You forget yourself, you fail. This is the law. You’ve done 50% of the job. All the knowledge in the world, all the skills in the world, all the actions in the world -- these are 50% of success. The other half is you.
Who are you? What are your values? What do you want? What is right? What do you know for sure? Why do you think the way you do? Why do you desire? Why do you fear?
Answer these questions and you will start down the path of self-knowledge.
No matter what you accomplish in your life, you will be accomplishing it. You are your most important asset. Therefore know yourself thoroughly, strengthen yourself resolutely, teach yourself honestly, and love yourself unconditionally.
Without these practices failure is inevitable, and success impossible.
Remember that success is found, not stumbled upon.
You are the one who will find it.