Turning Points in Living the Zen Life
Navigating the Waters
In Buddhism, this world is sometimes referred to as the “Ocean of Samsara.” Samsara is sometimes referred to as the “World of Patience” in that it tries our patience. Buddha likened the dharma to a raft that we ride—read cling to for dear life—to sail across the ocean, to the “other shore” of enlightenment.
There are various turning points in this process, some positive, some negative, as with everything else in life. Whether they are positive or negative is largely a matter of interpretation, of course. The famous Ox-Herding Pictures illustrate various turning points on the Path, generalized to fit most anyone’s journey into what I call “The Original Frontier™” of Zen. This is the title of a manuscript I am working (and reworking) in collaboration with a couple of professional publishing agents. By the title I mean to point to the frontier that Shakyamuni Buddha discovered, and entered, some 2500 years ago. It beckons to us still, today.
Perhaps the first turning-point precedes even the oxherd seeing the hoof-prints of the ox, the first of the illustrations. It is usually interpreted as indicating one’s first exposure to the existence of the teaching, buddha-dharma. The prints resemble brush strokes a bit, so the obvious analogy is to the written teachings, which is how most of us first contact the dharma.
However, something else, another turning-point, has to precede this event. In order to begin the quest for enlightenment, one has to feel that something—enlightenment—is missing from life. Otherwise, why would you even be looking? Master Dogen touches on this in his tract called “Genjokoan” (“actualizing the fundamental point”), which I featured in last month’s third Sunday dharma dialog on Soto Zen liturgy:
When you first seek dharma
you imagine that you are far away from its environs
But dharma is already correctly transmitted
you are immediately your original self
We are going along with our everyday life, fat and happy, when, one day, it occurs to us: Is that all there is? or, What’s it all about (Alfie)? However normal our circumstances seem, and however full and rich our life is, there seems to be something else that is not quite right, something missing. Matsuoka Roshi emphasized this “unsatisfactoriness,” and claimed that everyone feels it, and eventually comes to Zen to find what is missing. By eventually, he may have meant many lifetimes in the future.
Other turning points in life can precipitate a crisis of confidence, one which either drives us to Zen in the first place, or makes us question whether it is really right for us. Or whether it works at all, for anyone. Let’s take a brief look at a few of the more obvious turning-points that tend to come up with some frequency, in dokusan or practice discussion, from time to time. Perhaps you may find yourself in one of these pictures.
One of the most stressful turning-points that many people face today with increasing frequency, is the need to change jobs. This may come about through a personal decision, or one made by one’s employer. In either case, it can be very disruptive. Some folks have fretted that they could not afford to continue their practice during the transition, either from a financial position, or from an availability of time. Both of these judgments are ill-considered, but the pressure feels real at the time.