I had intended to get this post up sooner, but after we finally got back to campus, I was so exhausted that I ended up sleeping basically all of yesterday. (Then I spent all day today in lab because it didn’t really feel like we were back until I’d run some cold shock assays!)
Anyway, I’m still a bit exhausted and really feeling the jet lag, but I felt like I should try to get this all down on paper. I have learned so much since we first left Williamstown not even a month ago. I remember leaving not really knowing what to expect. I knew that I was undoubtedly going to learn a lot and that I would be able to see a lot of amazing things, but I guess that I didn’t realize how much this trip would change me.
The portion of the trip devoted to studying Zen Buddhism was definitely my favorite part. I had said in my previous post about our final day at Tofuku-ji that I was planning to discuss that day in more detail in this reflection. I did learn an incredible amount about Noh theatre and craftsmanship and the tea ceremony, but what I will carry with me the longest was what Kei-san taught us in a small room of a temple.
I told you all before what the koan that Kei-san gave us was: how he wanted us to tell him how we saw our true selves. The answer I gave him was: “I can’t give you my true self because it’s already here.”
I think that I had been stewing over this question for some time before we had even arrived in Japan even if the question didn’t really have form until we arrived. Most of you back home know this, but when I was in my sophomore year of high school I had surgery to correct a severe chest wall deformity. I spent a week in the hospital and the next several months at home unable to complete most basic daily functions on my own. I couldn’t shower, use the restroom, stand up, or even sleep in a bed. During that time, I had to, as Kei-san says we all have to, face all of the ugly parts of myself. Pulling myself out of the hole that that surgery dug for me took about a year, and afterwards I believed that I was stronger than I had ever been before. But I didn’t really see the full picture of myself yet. My experience had strengthened my conception of identity as an individual — I defined myself based on my thoughts and feelings, core personality traits that I thought made me me. The ego that Adyashanti and Kei-san discussed had surfaced. I couldn’t see how transient thoughts and feelings truly were because I saw that they had a tangible impact on the world around me through my actions. I mistook this impact for the sort of immutable something needed to define a person.
I think that I first began to question this view several years later when I read Annie Dillard and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have included below an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s treatise on the “Oversoul” which is one of my favorite parts of one of his essays:
“The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
To someone who has read both this essay and many texts on the Buddha nature at the core of Zen, the two ideas appear almost unbearably similar. Keep in mind that I had not yet been exposed to Zen at the time that I read this essay.
This brings me to the point in my life when I entered Tofuku-ji temple on the first day of this Winter Study course. It seemed to me that my thoughts had been filled with this question even before it was asked, so it was no surprise when I could hardly think about anything else for the rest of the week no matter where we were or what we were doing. I came up with and discarded many wrong answers. My first strategy was to use as a definition for my kokoro, or true self, the definition that I thought was so solid in the past. I tried to think of what I could bring Kei-san to represent the individual person I conceived of myself as and the ideal person that I was working towards being. I spent several days considering it, but ultimately realized that I was barking up the wrong tree.
I conceived the true self, as Kei-san articulated to us on the first day, as an immutable entity. It was something that existed even before one was born and would continue to exist after one had died. The aspects of my character that I had always defined myself by had changed and evolved over my lifetime. It’s a good thing to always grow and evolve as a person, but I didn’t think that something that was so changeable could qualify as a “true self.” So I was back to square one.
This was a kind of disorienting place to be. I had reached a place where I was beginning to realize that the way I had always defined myself was wrong. I’m not sure if wrong is the right word, maybe just empty. Anyway, I didn’t really know where to go from there, so I did what I’d always done — I went back to Emerson. Looking back over that Oversoul essay with the new perspective Kei-san had provided me with, I took the first few floundering steps to looking at the world in a different way.
It was at this point that I started to think that the koan could make sense. Now, I’m not sure that this is a valid thought process at all, but Kei-san told us that each person has a different answer to the koan and that each thought process is valid. Ergo, I’m going to continue down this strange path of thinking. Feel free to come along. I just wanted to put some sort of disclaimer on this.
Anyway, the next day as we were going about our daily routine, we happened to be at a temple that had a pond. The path in the garden wound around half of the pond, and I was able to walk it at a leisurely pace. It was sunny. As I proceeded around the pond, I saw that the glare of the light off the surface of the water was a bit different from every vantage point I could reach. As the sun reflected off the water into my eyes, half shut against the glare, I found my answer to the koan.
The pond, I thought, must be like the true self. It was something relatively immutable as far as the course of an hour in the sunlight is concerned. It had existed before the light reflected off of it in one particular way and would exist long after. Maybe this is sickenly poetic, but I think that we are like the reflections of the light on that pond. No matter where you’re looking at that pond from, you’ll never see the same reflection twice. The flashes of light that come off the pond are ephemeral and incandescent — beautiful, but heartbreakingly transient. They’re also insubstantial — just like the thoughts and feelings that we like to think make us us. But they’re no less beautiful or unique for being insubstantial or short lived. It took me that long to connect that being part of a larger whole does not make the individual somehow less, but rather, it makes one greater.
When we met with Kei-san a second time, I told him that I could not bring him my true self because it was already there in the room with us. I wasn’t talking about my physical body. My true self was the room itself, every mote of dust in the air, the sunlight that came through the paper-covered walls, and each person sitting on a cushion on either side of me. The way I see it, there is only one true self and we all share it. Everything in the universe is a different expression of that one self. I think I understand what Adyashanti meant when he said, “We see the chair, and at the same time we do not see ourselves as separate from the chair.” I’m going to be candid with you. I only marked that quote the first time that I read The End of Your World because I thought it was completely insane. Seeing oneself reflected in a chair? Um….
Now I think I get it. A tree, a river, a person, heck, even a chair, everything is just another unique expression of that one overarching force that makes up our true self. I might follow Emerson and name it the Oversoul, but I’m sure that it has many other names. God, Buddha, take your pick.
I see it everywhere now. It’s brought me a lot of peace, and I know in my bones that I’ll carry it with me forever. If other places that I’ve visited have captivated my senses, Japan has ensnared my spirit. I am incredibly grateful to have been able to experience this trip. Well, I think that’s it for me. Thank you for staying with me through this crazy ride. I hope that you’ve enjoyed my ramblings.
See you later!