Mind Beyond Boundaries

Zen Master Dogen was the founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan in the thirteenth century. His writings are familiar to all serious Zen students. The first fascicle in his most famous work, the Shobogenzo, concludes with a Chinese Zen teacher instructing his student with insight & skill:

One day when Zen Master Hotetsu was fanning himself, a monk approached and asked,
“The nature of the wind never changes and blows everywhere so why are you using a fan?”
The master replied, “Although you know that the nature of the wind never changes, you do not know the meaning of blowing everywhere.”
The monk then said, “Well, what does it mean?”
Hotetsu did not speak but only continued to fan himself.
Finally the monk understood and bowed deeply.

This past Saturday, we held a one-day meditation retreat under ideal conditions. The warm, bright weather could not have been more accommodating. We could hear the leaves in the courtyard gently moving; we kept the doors open. One could feel the breeze of zazen dispersing all distractions and boundaries. The mind needs to invent boundaries, creating them out of impulse. They are boundaries of things, of activities, and of our self. We hold them as pictures of our lives, mental images that provide a sense of certainty as well as a sense of importance.

Mental boundaries act as comfort zones in the ambiguous daily life of constant change and impermanence. But the comforts are artificial; they cannot provide lasting freedom or happiness. They become mental images that we feel compelled to maintain, leading to anxieties and doubts. Zazen practice enables us to dissolve boundaries and to find freedom in the world of no boundaries, like the monk in the Dogen story.

We are all spiritual beings. We have a sense of spirituality permeating everywhere, just as an aroma awakens recognition of what is present but out of sight. Spirituality cannot be measured, or photographed, or recorded. And it is not exciting, as are things found in our everyday world. Our spiritual dimension is neither objective, rational, nor material; beyond form, thought, ambitions, concerns, discriminations, success, or failure. As it has no boundaries, it cannot be grasped – and that reality can create discomfort. So we prefer to stick with what is comfortable, what is exciting, and what we can grasp with our mind. But when the subtle scent pervades, when the continuous spiritual breezes can enter through open doors, it guides life and understanding.

Frequently we ask ourselves and one another:

“How can I express my spiritual self in everyday life?”

So we share our stories of how we have behaved – at work or at home or on the line at the supermarket. – in ways that we feel expressed our spiritual practice. Our stories are important. They help to remind us how to keep good relationships, how to relieve our own anxieties, and how to avoid creating anxieties for others. But beyond the stories, a problem remains, of a perceived separation between “spiritual” and “ordinary.” When we keep them separate, we lose the wisdom of our spiritual self. Actually there is no separation, only an artificial line that does not really exist.

We want to see our world as organized and rational, to make it easier to manage and control, and to relieve the anxiety of transiency. It is like asking “why” in an ambiguous and fluid situation. A specific answer will satisfy our rational mind with a boundary of  “useful” information received from outside our self. It can provide  a feeling of certainty, but not of freedom. However, when we do not ask “why,” there is no boundary, just the creative space to allow silent unfolding of wisdom, and how things work.

Our mind craves boundaries when it is unsettled, a sense of standing on the firm shore of certainty, rather than floating in the ocean of uncertainty. It is the fear of floating that keeps us in the box of delusions.  It causes us to miss what is vital in our existence.

Why did Hotetsu just fan himself in the story? Because the answer to the monk’s question cannot be found in words. After all, how can words express the nature of the wind? Or the nature of our essential self? Hotestsu’s silent gesture tells us we should be like the flowing breeze, unimpeded by mind activities.