Norman gives his second talk on Mindfulness to the Metta Institute on the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness to the Metta Institute April 2014.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
It is amazing that through this practice of mindfulness, just by being aware, we can fundamentally heal the wounds of a human lifetime. What an incredible idea!
The Buddha saw that any ordinary, human life is, of necessity, full of wounds and confusion that will lead to destructive actions that will cause suffering. There are extreme cases of this and less extreme cases of this, but it is universal. This is completely usual. For the Buddha, full awakening is simply being a normal human being. To disentangle the knot of suffering and to be able to live an ordinary human life with full enjoyment and appreciation, with a clear vision, is awakening.
The Buddha did not see any difference between psychology and religion. For him, the only possible way that we could be completely whole, in the body, in the mind, in the heart, is to confront the deepest truths and tragedies of our being human. There is no halfway measure. The more you are willing to do this, he taught, the more happiness you are going to have, and the more you can be a blessing to others in your life.
There are many repeated, formulaic phrases in the sutra about the practice of mindfulness. One of the phrases, which most commentators don’t spend much time talking about, is “The practitioner practices mindfulness inside and outside.” Interesting, isn’t it? Practices mindfulness “inside and outside.”
What could this mean? I think this is a really crucial point. Mindfulness might appear to be a very inward focused practice: Go inside and sit, and don’t talk to anybody. Meditate on your breath and go inside. If you go to a meditation retreat, where everybody is in silence, not looking at each other, sitting meditating, you sure get the idea that this mindfulness practice is about going inside.
A few decades ago, I was at a meeting with Christian and Buddhist monastics. We were talking about meditation, because a lot of Christian monastics do meditation. Everybody was talking about an encyclical that the Pope issued, in which he was complaining bitterly about meditation. Everybody was mad about this, especially the Christian meditators. The Pope was saying that the trouble with meditation is that you go inside, and when you go inside, you end up thinking too much about yourself, becoming obsessed with yourself, and forgetting about compassion and other people.
I didn’t disagree with the Pope. I thought he was right about that, because meditation can have that effect. But it is clear to me that the Mindfulness Sutra is not telling us to go inside and to be thinking all the time about our inner workings. Meditation practice is not ultimately about going inside, about figuring yourself out, and about being enormously interested in yourself. It isn’t about that. That’s why the Buddha says, “Practice mindfulness inside and outside.” Inside and outside.
The essence of mindfulness is that you stop taking your life so personally. That’s the essence of what we are discovering here. My life is not really my personal possession. That is exactly my problem, that I take my life so personally. That’s why I am getting into so much trouble. The more I get close to this breath, the more I realize that this is the same breath that the person next to me is breathing. The whole planet is breathing. When I really watch my breath, and merge with my breath, I realize that it is not so personal. It is the universal breath that we are all breathing.
I need to pay attention and realize that everything I am thinking and feeling is couched in the details of my personal history. But it’s not really personal. Everybody else is also feeling these things in just the way that I am feeling them. The details are slightly different, but when you get down to it – and mindfulness gets you down to it – it’s not personal. I have to let go of my being stuck on my own story. When I can do it, I am able to love myself and love my life. I have to let go of taking others in my life so personally, so that I can love them.
One of the biggest problems is that we think “self and others” makes sense as a concept. As soon as we have “me” and “them,” we have suffering. That is the cause of suffering, isn’t it? I am I, and you are you; therefore, I want you to give me what I need, and please stay out of my way. [Laughter] That is basically the whole idea of self and others. Notice that these two things, which are such imperatives, self and others, are themselves contradictory. Give me what I want. Stay out of my way. Those two things don’t go together. They are the opposite of each other! So already I am in a problem just with my fixation on me and you. Already, when I have the concept that I thoroughly believe in, of me and you, I am already in pain. Even though things can be fairly peaceful, and I’ve got things worked out in a certain way, at bottom, I am still in pain. So we fight with one another, even as we are clinging to one another. And we are fighting with ourselves, and we are clinging to ourselves.
So when we practice mindfulness inside and outside, it shows us that there is no way we could love ourselves unless we love others. There is no way that we could actually love somebody else, if we don’t love ourselves. If we sacrifice ourselves in order to love others, we are actually not loving others very successfully. Inevitably, the self-sacrifice is revealed to be what it actually is, a form of control and neediness. To take care of ourselves is to take care of others, and to take care of others, is to take care of ourselves.
Self and other is not an actual fact of life. It is a concept that is only apparent, but not basically real. It only appears that I am over here, and you are over there. The truth is, when you really get down to what you are, you see that the whole of the earth and the sky, and all the others, and you yourself are one body and one reality and one breath.
This is how you practice every single day, over time. You will see this, and you will know it. Not as a good idea that you heard in an inspiring speech, but as your everyday experience. As you know, in Buddhism, there is a formula in religious ceremonies of taking refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha, which we call The Triple Refuge. In Zen, when we say this formula, we understand that buddha means the awakened nature, that is inherent in every human heart – the awakened nature in you, that is the same in every human heart, in every human being, and in every consciousness. That’s what “buddha” means. When you say that you take refuge in buddha, it means that you never forget this awakened nature, in you and everybody else. That’s what you have confidence in. You are returning to your own best nature that you share with everyone.
When we take refuge in the dharma, we take refuge in the peaceful, kind way of life that we live, when we take refuge in buddha, when we take refuge in awakening.
In other words, when you really know who you are, the only way that makes any sense to live is with kindness and caring. Not that you don’t take care of yourself, because you are one of the others. But you don’t exclusively take care of yourself. You don’t favor yourself, as if you were the only one. Taking care of self and taking care of others is not a contradiction. It is not a problem.
Sangha, the third member of this trio, is community, the community of all of us together. In other words, it means the community of everything that exists. That means everybody that we know: all of our family, our friends, our associates. It also means, in a more narrow sense, the community of those we do this practice with, the people who share this commitment for this particular kind of deep self-exploration, the people who are devoted to that, as we are, who are actively cultivating that. We recognize the paramount importance of our association with those people. We realize that without that association, without that support, none of this work is possible.
Buddha, dharma, sangha are awakening, a way of life of kindness and compassion, and a community. These three things are understood in classical Buddhism to be one and the same, and each depends on the others. A community that doesn’t have a commitment to awakening will not give us what we need in the same way that a community that does depend on awakening. These three things are really one thing. To completely take refuge in the community is to return to our sense of belonging with and to others, to realize that we are not alone, that we cannot be alone. The whole world is right here in the body and the breath. It’s not my body. It’s not my breath. If you practice awareness of breathing with enough focus and enough heart over a long enough time, you actually feel this in every breath.
We cannot do this work without each other. We have a cultural bias which we never question, that since we are a culture, a nation, in which there is no state religion, spirituality is a private, personal matter. It is something that each of us has on our own and that we don’t share with each other. It might look like meditation is like that: a private, self-cultivation practice, that you do on your own at home and that has nothing to do with anybody else. But this is not at all the case. The truth of the matter is that there is no way that you can meditate alone. However much you think you are meditating alone, you’re not. You are always meditating with others.