Immersed in a world of accelerating social, moral, economic, and political change, with a feeling that something is out of balance, a growing number of people are turning to contemplative spiritual practice to find stability and direction in life. After a time spent gaining experience with the practice, they develop a renewed sense of themselves, a quiet confidence that whispers, “Now I am on track” and they discover the vital role of meditation in creating and maintaining a life that is upright, stable, and sane. Meditation practice, when accompanied by determination and consistency, enables us to feel deeply the inherent beauty of life and its creations. Many things touch us personally – dawn, the vastness of mountains, the sounds of the ocean, myriad birds, rain, the changing color of leaves, sunset, the moon and stars. At the same time, our growing sensitivity to the world we live in alerts us to a kind of poison pervading our world, an illness afflicting people everywhere.
Today, we have concerns about AIDS, cancer, and the potential of biological epidemics. Yet there exists another type of epidemic, creating another kind of illness. It is the plague of ego, of personal self-glorification. It is a universal disease, not confined to a single culture, place, or time. It is a virus that affects our vision of life and its the purpose, limiting it to our own pleasure, our own satisfaction. Its symptom is forgetfulness of who we are, where we are, and why we are.
If we believe that the primary purpose of life is to pursue power, wealth, and the attention of others, then we expose our self to the virus, so that when these imaginary things elude us, we become “sick.” It is a sickness worse than physical illness – its symptoms make us feel incomplete, as if we have lost both our self and the meaning of life. We can adjust our life to a physical illness, we can compensate for a disability, but we cannot compensate for loss of self. We try to get by but the illness remains. The only cure is to return to our true self.
If we are to enjoy life in its true sense, we need to stop directing our energies and capabilities to satisfying our own personal desires. We need to give up making the ideas of enjoyment, excitement, and entertainment the purposes of life and not allow them to constantly occupy our mind, leaving room for nothing else. Otherwise, we expose our self to the illness of forgetting who we are. The antidote to this ailment is a mind of spiritual practice, enabling us to understand the true purpose of what we are doing on this earth. Then we will enjoy life in the larger sense. Then even if we have a physical disorder, we will not feel karmic illness.
The basis of Buddhism is the letting go of the destructive, habitual characteristics of a distracted, self-absorbed ego. Without clinging to our own personal concerns, we have a chance to live freely, in concert with the limitlessness of life. The thirteenth century Zen master Dogen expressed the insight of inherent freedom with this vision:
Fish swim the water, and how ever much they swim, there is no end to the water; Birds fly the skies, and however much they fly, there is no end to the skies.
Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation practice in order that our view of life not become limited or distorted by ego activity. Its point is to enter into each task and relationship of life with a meditative quality of mind so that we do not create karmic illness.
When life is based on spiritual practice, we know what we are doing. We are sensitive to the feel of what we do, to the result that our actions will have in the world. And we are able to recognize what is beautiful and natural. But when life is based on concern for our self, we become blind to the beauty of life. We become spiritually “sick”, and lead what Buddhists call a karmic life.
Discovering a running stream while hiking in the mountains, we would like to believe that the water is pure. However, if we know that something or someone is creating pollution upstream, and that we may become sick drinking the water, we go further upstream where it is free of pollution. But how do we avoid becoming ill from karmic pollution? The only way is to look to our own mind for the source. We have to take our own mind upstream, to the place before pollution is created, back to the limitless mind that starts fresh each moment.
To have a mind free of pollution, it is necessary for us to bring spiritual practice to life, into a world that is feeling “sick.” It is the secret of well-being and balance.