Keeping Our Place

Religion, for most people, offers the promise of being “lifted,” of feeling “raised up” to a higher place, by someone or something that has access to such a place. Religious followers carry the belief that a “higher place” truly does exist – a place they feel is more elevated than their present place. Religions emphasize  something  higher – not of this world – along with instructions on how to gain it. They specify objects and concepts of faith and belief, along with activities and practices, whose goal is to elevate the faithful to that other place.

People need to feel they are on a path to being “lifted up” only when they do not fully understand the truth of “where” – the “place” – they are now. Usually we feel our current place is ordinary, that is, merely “down here” and that there is a more desirable place “up there.” However, the truth of “where” we are is not about a “place;” it is about the view we have of life and how we express that reality.

In Zen practice, there is no such place as “up there” or “higher.” Geographical designations such as “here,” “there,” “over there, “up there” are only convenient meanings of “place.” The true meaning of “place” is other than logical; our “place” cannot be discovered or understood with analytical or emotional thinking.

The founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) presented his understanding in poetical and mystical language. Ignored for several centuries after his death, since the middle of the last century his vision and what he said has attracted the interest of both Japanese and western scholars. Possibly his most widely studied work, the Genjokoan, talks about the meaning of “place”:

Fish in the ocean find the water endless.
However, neither fish nor birds have been separated from their element.

In Dogen’s understanding of Reality, to the fish there is no “place” outside water. The fish has no idea of “higher up,” or of being “lifted up” to a better place. The same is true for the bird whose “place’, the sky, has no limit. For the bird, there is no such thing as another “place;” there is only flying. Further, “not separated” means that the water and the fish are not fundamentally different, nor are the sky and bird. Dogen is telling us to have a mind free of discrimination – like the bird and the fish – to live completely just where we are without contemplating a “higher” place. We are inherently no different than the bird or fish, not separated from our fundamental element. It is the meaning of “form is emptiness, emptiness form,” part of the Heart Sutra chanted in Zen monasteries and temples.

The inherent oneness of the ordinary and the absolute is expressed in a different way in the chapter titled “Repetition” in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind:

How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most
important thing. He made it over and over again until he became quite successful.

”How flour becomes bread” reflects the idea of being “lifted up”, transformed, or advanced to a “higher state.” That we must free our mind in order to attain a “higher state” is the usual understanding we have about our life, and initially it was Buddha’s understanding as well. However, through his continuous spiritual practice and determination, Buddha eventually recognized something profound. He realized that there is no other, better state, no place higher we can go, that dough already contains the quality of bread. In the fullness of its activity, dough expresses bread, in same way as the bird expresses the sky and the fish expresses the water. And in the fullness of our human activity, we express the universal True Nature of all things, even though in our everyday lives we experience difficulties and delusions.

Again in the Genjokoan Dogen tells us:

Birds and fish fully utilize every aspect to its utmost, freely, limitlessly.
If birds are separated from their own element, they will die.

It would be as if the bird stopped flying in mid-flight, and started asking: “Where am I?” “What is this place?” “Is there a better place?” Then the bird would become separated from the sky and separated from itself.

The same is true of everyone. When we forget where we are, and forget who we are, we forget our “true place” and we die to our true self. It happens when we give our attention only to our individual self rather than to our total being and, in confusion, seek for a “higher place.”

A few weeks ago, an anonymous email asked for advice regarding a personal problem at work. The writer had a confusing discussion with his department manager which escalated into a confrontation, including a shouting match. The employee does not now know where he stands: is he being forced to quit, or is he part of the plan for the future? He wanted to know what to do.

Workplace contention of this kind arises frequently, although very few are as extreme as this case. It is a fairly simple matter to provide suggestions about what to do in the short run. However, more important than immediate advice for the individual is to learn how to keep his “place” in the universal sense. For when we understand our “place” like the bird or the fish, we do not get carried away emotionally in confusing situations.

It is a fundamental problem for people: we lose our “place”, we don’t know where we are, or what we are doing. And so we lose our sky, we lose our water – we don’t know who we really are. The result is confusion, anger, and fear. Rather than being concerned about a “higher” place, we need to know how to return to our original “place” each moment, sometimes called “sky, ” sometimes “water,” sometimes “ordinary activities.”

Zazen enables us to see our “place” beyond the limitations of our discriminating, logical mind, while at a practical level, it trains us to see how to respond to life situations. In the awareness practice of zazen, we experience the busyness of our mind. At the same time, we have the opportunity to experience our inherent empty mind. We can experience busy mind as empty mind when we do not leave our element by speculating. Through zazen practice , we remain in our element and express our enlightenment in the midst of everyday affairs, including confusion and a busy mind.

As Dogen said:

…if there are birds or fish that try to enter the sky or water they cannot find either a way or place.

We “try to enter” our fundamental “place” when we do not understand that we are already in it. Striving to attain something we already have, something we already are, creates endless anxieties. There is no other or higher place for us to live, to practice, to exist. If we understand this point, there is actualization of enlightenment in our daily life. If we attain this way, all our actions are the actualization of enlightenment. This way, this place is not great or small, self or others, neither past nor present – it exists just as it is.