The fundamental is the great matter of birth and death.
There is a lot that everyone values: air, water, food, shelter, protection, health, relationships, productive work, political freedom, economic freedom, and so on. However much valued, everything else is of secondary importance.
Muso Soseki (1275-1351) was one of the great Japanese Zen masters. He’s usually referred to by the honorific title ‘Kokushi,’ which means “National Teacher.”
Awakening (enlightenment) “is the inner meaning of Zen, which is the fundamental that is inherent in everyone” [All direct quotations in this post are from the book mentioned below in Recommended Resources.] This is sometimes known as ‘Buddha Nature’ or ‘True Self.’
How should we live? What should we do?
Muso Kokushi’s advice is that we “should dwell on correct mindfulness of the fundamental so as to get rid of the views of personal and religious ego, getting beyond ordinary feelings and religious experiences, thus thoroughly embracing the fundamental transcending them all.”
Sadly, what most of us do instead is to focus on what is of secondary importance.
For example, you have probably watched tens of thousands of hours of television in your life. Have you even once heard a serious discussion of the fundamental? Although it is very infrequently mentioned in passing, I haven’t.
Muso Kokushi invites us to think of a fruit tree that has been planted. What do we do when it doesn’t flower and fruit in a reasonable time? We fuss trying trying to make its branches grow and flowers bloom.
What we should do is to realize that the problem is in its roots. Unless we prevent its roots from withering, all the fuss we are devoting to the outgrowths won’t have any positive results.
Most of us (including, of course, me!) fuss too much over what is of secondary importance.
This is even true of Zen students (and other seekers) intent upon living well. When we fail to realize that “Intellectual understanding gained by students of the doctrines of Zen by reading scriptures or attending the lectures of teachers is all in the realm of acquired knowledge,” we are focusing only on what is of secondary importance.
“Fundamental knowledge is the inner realization of the enlightened.” It alone is of primary importance. The first task is to experience directly “the inner realization of the enlightened,” and then use expedient means such as teaching doctrines to help others transform themselves.
He leaves no doubt about this: “Those who have not yet realized the fundamental knowledge of the enlightened should first aim to reach the realm of this basic inner realization.”
In a different context, haven’t you often observed mothers making a similar mistake? Some women are so focused on caring for others, often their own children, that they neglect themselves. Even when their efforts appear to pay off, such do-gooding is always contaminated.
Trying to gain what you want and to avoid what you don’t want is a common mistake. Such mothers, for example, have an egocentric orientation: “I want good children and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to get them.” That’s not noble. All it is is trying to use others to obtain egocentric goals, which is why the effort is contaminated by selfishness.
Another way to put it is this: it’s not desiring good children that is the problem, it’s attaching to that desire. It’s actually an example of life being poisoned by one of the three poisons, in this case, “attraction.” (The other two poisons are “aversion” and “indifference.”)
Another way to put it is this: even with respect to good deeds, motive matters. Doing a good deed with a selfish motive is nothing but an instance of “contaminated virtue.”
(Motivation is of critical importance: “Those who seek liberation for themselves alone cannot become fully enlightened.” In fact, “forgetting oneself to help others is itself liberating.”)
Ordinary people go through life trying to get what they want and to avoid what they don’t want. Since they are happy when they get something they want and unhappy when they get something they don’t want, they alternate between happiness and unhappiness.
This has nothing to do with the fundamental!
You probably figured out when you were about four that the purpose of the world isn’t to give you all and everything you want and to enable you to avoid all and everything you don’t want.
It’s astounding how many adults ignore this lesson. The problem is ignorance.
“Attraction and aversion are two feelings that keep people within the bondage of ignorant repetitive behavior. Those who seek only what pleases them and try to avoid what displeases them are acting in this way because they do not realize the nature of the world.”
What’s the alternative? How can we break out of the bondage of ignorant repetitive behavior? By focusing on the fundamental, by realizing the nature of the world.
Muso Kokushi: “The central benefit of Zen, in the context of the ordinary ups and downs of life, is not in preventing the minus and promoting the plus but in directing people to the fundamental reality that is not under the sway of ups and downs.”
(In the terminology that I use, the central benefit of Zen is to direct people to bring Being to Becoming.)
Focusing on the fundamental does not mean believing certain propositions or practicing in set ways. “Zen teaching has no set track or fixed pattern.”
Zen teaching is all about dissolving our sticking points to liberate us. “Therefore there is no dogma or doctrinal orthodoxy; the only issue is what will effectively liberate and enlighten people.” (Please note that nothing could be further from the attitude of a fanatic!)
It makes no sense to make the acquisition of goods your central project in life. Here’s why:
“There is ultimately no means of safeguarding anything in this world; anything you gain can be lost, destroyed, or taken away. For this reason, if you make the acquisition and retention of goods or status your aim in life, this is a way to anxiety and sorrow.”
The way to wisdom is to focus on the “congealed wonder” of the fundamental.
This does not mean giving up daily tasks: “People meditating on the fundamental carry out their ordinary tasks and activities in the midst of meditation and carry out meditation in the midst of ordinary tasks and activities.”
He’s talking about a way of life, a way of being. It’s a way of not separating from “the one great matter [of birth and death], the original face [you had before you were born], and the master within [the True Self].” (My expansions.)
That’s the way practice wisdom.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended resources: Muso Kokushi’s Dream Conversations on Buddhism and Zen (Thomas Cleary, tr.) and various teisho talks at different sesshins over the years by the Ven. Bodhin Kjolhede, Roshi. (At least some of these are available as podcasts from the website of the Rochester Zen Center.)