The Importance Of Life

Because life is important, our own life is important. But at the same time, because life is important, our own life is not important.

If we see only one side of this paradox, that is, if we think only our own, personal life is important, we will feel as if we are the center of the universe, expecting the world to revolve around us. Then we will be as if we are standing alone on a mountain top, looking at things and people from a distance, separate from them. Our mind will be standing in a remote place, limited to a small space.

But when we understand that our personal life is not something special, we will know deeply the importance of life. As Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen school, said in the Genjokoan,

To advance oneself is delusion.
To let things advance themselves is enlightenment

With this understanding, we can let go of self centeredness and practice selflessness with our life so that we can be awake and help others.

So when we come down from the mountain of self-importance, down to reality of life’s true importance, we can go anywhere. Life will have no limitations and mind no limits. To know the real meaning of life’s importance is to know how to extend practice into daily life. In other words, we will know what to do and how to do it and will not wait for somebody else to do it for us. And we will not delude our self into believing that there is no need to do it. Knowing the importance of life in the universal sense, we will not waste time but instead find humility, patience, courtesy, energy, and clarity. When these attributes become indelible in our character, we appreciate our inherent enlightenment.

On the other hand, when our own personal life feels important, we will become careless, arrogant, foolish, and lazy, and act and speak without reflection. We risk becoming separate from people, and from life itself.

We are very old, older than can be imagined. If we cut down a tree and count its growth rings, we can determine the age of the tree. But that is its relative age; our true age cannot be fathomed in that way. True age is beyond time, beyond the limits of mind. At same time, we are very young, born fresh each moment. And our ageless world is also born in that same moment. What is ageless and timeless shows its other side in each moment: its active, creative, transient side, as “lightning flashes in the dark sky.”

We are ancient and immovable, as well as new and exciting. Usually, we love the exciting part, but forget about the immovable side of our nature. The poem Knife, by the contemporary American poet Mary Oliver, poignantly reminds us of our dual nature:

Something just now moved through my heart

like the thinnest of blades

as that red-tail pumped once with its great wings

and flew above the grey, cracked rock wall.

It wasn’t about the bird –

It was something about the way stone

stays mute and put, whatever goes flashing by.

Sometimes when I sit like this, quiet,

all the dreams of my blood and all

Outrageous divisions of time seem ready to leave

To slide out of me

Then, I imagine, I would never move.

By now the hawk has flown five miles

Dazzling whoever else has happened to look up

I was dazzled.

But that wasn’t the knife.

It was the sheer, dense wall of blind stone,

Without a pinch of hope,

Or a single unfulfilled desire

Sponging up and reflecting, so brilliantly,

As it has for centuries,

The sun’s fire.

We are dazzled and excited and carried away by the beauty of the world. But when we settle our mind on the stone wall – remaining still, quiet, reflective, ageless – then we know about agelessness and the importance of life. Then we are ready to know our life’s intent, which is not about achieving a particular goal in future. It is about how we show our other side, how we leap up and spread our own wings, and how we express our agelessness, our quiet, still, infinite wisdom. Without this intent we lose our life. But when the intention is known, we have true life with joy in whatever we do, wherever we are, no matter our circumstances, even when there is a burden to carry.

Practice brings together agelessness and continuous birth, like both sides of a sharp knife. A knife can be a knife only when it is sharp. When the flat sides of the blade come together, meet each other, and disappear in sharpness, then the knife can fulfill its function.

Imagine if the two sides of the knife were parallel; they could never meet and we could not say, “This is a knife.” Or if the sides approached each other but never met. Then there is a dull area separating them. To have both sides of the knife meet without dullness, we have to sharpen them to remove their separation. And when the sides come together and disappear, we cannot see the sharp line of their meeting. Yet, we can feel it.

Zazen practice is how we sharpen ourselves, bringing both sides together by sitting quietly and still like a rock wall, expressing agelessness – the taking off point for the coming into the life of everyday being. Sitting quietly, we ready our mind to take action, to fly away in all our beauty, to let our imagination go anywhere.