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Lions Roar : May 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2012 54 you can actually, viscerally, feel it. Nothing appears unless it appears in time. And whatever appears in time appears and vanishes at once, just as the Bud- dha said on his deathbed. Time is existence, imper- manence, change, loss, growth, development—the best and the worst news at once. Dogen calls this strange immense process Buddha Nature. “Buddha Nature is no other than all are, because all are is Bud- dha Nature,” he writes. The phrase all are is telling. Are: existence, being, time, impermanence, change. All are: existence, being, time, impermanence, change is never lonely; it is always all-inclusive. We’re all always in this together. The other day I was talking to an old friend, an experienced Zen practitioner, about her practice. She told me she was beginning to notice that the persistent feel- ing of dissatisfaction she always felt in rela- tion to others, to the world, and to the cir- cumstances of her inner and outer life, was probably not about others, the world, or inner and outer circumstances, but instead was about her deepest inmost self itself. Dissatisfaction, she said, seems in some way to be herself, to be fundamentally engrained in her. Before realizing this, she went on, she’d assumed her dissatisfaction was due in some way to a personal failing on her part—a failing that she had hoped to correct with her Zen practice. But now she could see that it was far worse than that! The dissatisfaction was not about her, and therefore correctable; it was built into her, it was essential to her self! This seems to be exactly what the Buddha meant when he spoke of the basic shakiness of our sense of subjectivity in the famous doc- trine of anatta, or nonself. Though we all need healthy egos to oper- ate normally in the world, the essential grounding of ego is the false notion of permanence, a notion that we unthinkingly subscribe to, even though, deep in our hearts, we know it’s untrue. I am me, I have been me, I will be me. I can change, and I want to change, but I am always here, always me, and have never known any other experi- ence. But this ignores the reality that “all conditioned things have the nature of vanishing,” and are vanishing constantly, as a condition of their existing in time, whose nature is vanishing. No wonder we feel, as my friend felt, a constant nagging sense of dissatisfaction and disjunction that we might well interpret as coming from a chronic personal failing (that is, once we’d gotten over the even more faulty belief that others were responsible for it). On the other hand, “all are is Buddha Nature.” This means that the self is not, as we imagine, an improvable permanent isolated entity we and we alone are responsible for; instead it is impermanence itself, which is never alone, never isolated, con- stantly flowing, and immense: Buddha Nature itself. Dogen writes “Impermanence itself is Buddha Nature.” And adds, “Permanence is the mind that discriminates the whole- someness and unwholesomeness of all things.” Permanence!? Impermanence seems to be (as Dogen himself writes elsewhere) an “unshakable teaching” in buddhadharma. How does “perma- nence” manage to worm its way into Dogen’s discourse? I come back to my dream of being stuck in the doorway between life and death with my mother-in-law: which side is which, and who is going where? Impermanence and perma- nence may simply be balancing concepts—words, feelings, and thoughts that support one another in helping us grope toward an understanding (and a misunderstanding) of our lives. For Dogen, “permanence” is practice: having the wisdom and the commitment to see the difference between what we commit our- selves to pursuing in this human lifetime, and what we commit ourselves to letting go of. The good news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that we can finally let ourselves off the hook: we can let go of the great and endless chore of improving our- selves, of being stellar accomplished people, inwardly or in our external lives. This is no small thing, because we are all subject to this kind of brutal inner pressure to be and do more today than we have been and done yesterday—and more than someone else has been and done today and tomorrow. On the other hand, the bad news in “impermanence is Buddha Nature” is that it’s so big there isn’t much we can do with it. It can’t be enough simply to repeat the phrase to ourselves. And if we are not striving to accomplish the Great Awakening, the Ultimate Improvement, what would we do, and why would we do it? Dogen asserts a way and a motivation. If impermanence is the worm at the heart of the apple of self, making suffering a built-in factor EMBRACE Change