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Lions Roar : July 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2007 48 stories because they are unlikely things that the mind needs to imagine—like escaping from pirates or having a prince offer you a glass slipper—or are they possibilities that wait inside every life? Generally, we doubt that people change very much or quickly. It’s a mark of sophistication not to expect New Year’s resolutions to stick. Religion and psychotherapy are interested in changing people, but whether they succeed depends on what you mean by change. An Olympic swimmer, unusually strong-willed and with a number of gold medals to his name, once told me that even he needed six months of training to achieve the very smallest change in perfor- mance. Nobody actually thinks that they will get the key to happi- ness from “thinking positively,” any more than they believe that they will get “thin thighs in thirty days.” People read the fantasy the way they read romance novels—because they like to dream, not because they think the reality it presents is within their reach. On the other hand, altering consciousness has proven an abid- ing human passion, whether through martinis, peyote, rituals, music, or meditation. So whether consciousness can be trans- formed in a fairly permanent and benign way seems an impor- tant thing to investigate. And what has Zen got to do with this? Zen takes the story of the Buddha seriously. It offers a kind of journey that we might follow if we wish and dare, a journey that is a natural path for a human being to take. Zen offers some tips, in case they might be useful on the journey, an account of a few things noticed about the mind. These observations are simple but have profound consequences for what it means to be human. Here are some of them. 1. Buddha’s Story Is What’s Happening To You Now. The jour- ney of the Buddha isn’t a literal journey that happened long ago. And it’s not what your life will become. It’s here now, and paying attention helps you to notice that. If you look into the life you have, your looking will lead you into a new life. What you meet on the way is part of the way. 2. Longing To Be Somewhere Else Is A Virtue. The longing for a fresh start is an ancient and basic feature of consciousness. All art and work of the imagination is touched by it and depends on it. Taking it seri- ously is a step to finding a new way of being. 3. Mind Is Your Friend. Skepticism is real too, and you might as well embrace it. Doubt seems to have an element of long- ing mixed with disillusionment. However, if you look into doubt closely, it might be your friend. It might lead you to disbe- lieve the thoughts that keep your reality in place, which might be a good thing. 4. Go Ahead, Get Enlightened. It really is possible for people to make fresh starts, complete turnovers in their way of being. This is not a delusional event and has nothing to do with believing in something. It is a natural human capacity for transforming consciousness. 5. More Uncertainty Is Usually Better. Awakening depends on the richness of uncertainty and not knowing. It depends on not being certain that you are confused, suffering, or the wrong per- son in the wrong place. 6. You Can Learn It. This reorganization of consciousness can happen spontaneously, but it can also be learned or acquired. 7. Try This Method Today. You can achieve awakening through immersion in the koan—a story or dialogue that you keep com- pany with day and night. It can’t be addressed rationally, and yet it might transform your consciousness. Zen can be a lot of other things as well, but transformation is at the core. 8. Love Is Real. When the beliefs have fallen away, love and delight show up as basic features of consciousness. When you set out on the Buddha’s journey, you have no real assurance that any awakening is possible. People might urge you on, but they could be deluded, or they could be right about themselves but not about you. “Maybe I’m just not good at this,” you might think. You could watch Buddhist teachers closely to see if they seem to be enlightened, but the more closely you look at anyone the more mysterious they become. Close observation doesn’t necessarily prove much. The Zen solution is to expose you to endless koans. It’s a try it and see approach. Koans are little stories from the point of view of awakening—a life in which you are unfaithful to your sorrows. There are also lon- ger, novelistic stories too, which act as doorways to the koans. The classic Zen accounts from East Asia all have the same plot: The stu- dent doubts the value and purpose of life, connects with a master, though this might be for a very short time—even as little as a night, or in a dream, or just through reading a koan— and usually works hard at meditation. Then she achieves, often in unlikely circumstances or through some ridiculous error in practice, a breakthrough followed by a lasting joy and compassion for others. Here’s a classic account of awakening from Hakuin Ekaku, a Japanese teacher who lived at a station village on the Tokaido Road under Mt. Fuji about three hundred years ago. He used koans as a method to encourage enlightenment experiences, and all the koan lines of Japanese Zen today descend from