A couple of weeks ago, Akiba Roshi, teacher at Kojin-an temple in Oakland, asked after zazen: “What’s the purpose of our lives?” The person standing next to me said that all of life is an ecological system, like a forest. When a tree dies, a space is created, and something grows to fill that space. Each of us is filling a particular space until we die, when another form will take shape in the emptiness.
I thought this an elegant explanation and have been turning it over in my mind since — that for example, I’m filling a Molly-shaped hole in the universe simply by being, and perhaps mere being is enough…I might not have to worry so much about doing. This is a very relaxing thought, and I believe it’s consistent with zen’s widest view of life.
A few days ago, I thanked this same person for washing dishes, and he answered that he was glad to be of at least some use. I was struck by the contrast with his earlier remarks, especially because I myself am always thinking about how to be most useful; I’m obsessed by the question. I always equate being useful with doing something — mere being never feels enough. Zen certainly encourages the intention to be helpful to all beings. But how does this fit with the larger idea that we are enough when we are simply ourselves?
I believe we express ourselves most eloquently through our actions. And also that our motives matter greatly. For instance, my yearning to be useful is more than a desire; it’s a need. It’s fueled partly by genuinely wanting to help people and things, and partly by a need to justify my existence on this planet, which is a selfish and unhealthy motivation — unhealthy because it implies that I feel my existence isn’t worthy in itself, that my worth as a human being is contingent on what I accomplish. This is in fact exactly how I feel, although I wish I didn’t.
I hope this is making some sense despite being written on the sixth day of Rohatsu sesshin. I’ve never written from the midst of a sesshin before, and it might be ill-advised, but this sesshin has been full of things I’ve never done during sesshin before, so why stop now? Although I am going to stop now, and let one of my favorite poets have the (almost) last word.
Of Mere BeingThe palm at the end of the mind,Beyond the last thought, risesIn the bronze decor,A gold-feathered birdSings in the palm, without human meaning,Without human feeling, a foreign song.You know then that it is not the reasonThat makes us happy or unhappy.The bird sings. Its feathers shine.The palm stands on the edge of space.The wind moves slowly in the branches.The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.— Wallace Stevens
The bird sings. Its feathers shine. These things are more than enough in the place “at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought.” In this place, “mere being” doesn’t merely suffice — it’s the source of our joy: our own mere being and that of the palm, the flame-feathered bird, the slow wind in the branches, the song and the shine.
It’s rare for us to feel that mere being is enough because to feel it, we have to get to the “end of the mind, beyond the last thought”. Anyone who has sought this place knows how elusive it is. The harder we seek, the less we find. And our lives are full of things that feel more real than that place: getting and spending, struggling and achieving, and always, always thinking.
Is there a happiness beyond what happens, a worth beyond what we do? A peace that neither rejects nor depends on our experiences, but runs imperturbably beneath them like a current underground?