Keizan said, “Think about it. Since you are someone, you speak of before birth and after death; but what further past, present, or future could you think of?” In other words, what is outside of this? “Always, without a moment’s error, from birth to death it is just thus—but unless you encounter it once, you will vainly be confused by material senses, you will not know your own self. This is estrangement from what is right before your eyes.”

I think that’s the anguish that brings us to spiritual practice, that sense of estrangement. That’s what leads us to go searching for some sort of magical mystery ride, to have extreme experiences or to doing something to feel alive and thereby evade the experience of estrangement. It’s the burden of human existence and it’s our gift, because it’s that sense of estrangement that compels us to practice.

Estrangement leads to fear and insecurity, which leads us to be suspicious of others—because we perceive the world as not safe—and that leads to conflict. It’s that fear that makes us sick. Everybody does something with it, because we don’t like to be afraid. Socially there’s little tolerance for being afraid, so it’s very difficult to acknowledge it as individuals or as a nation. So what we do, which seems very skillful (more sorcery), is we turn that fear into something else, like greed or anger or hatred. And there’s never been a shortage of reasons for such feelings. Yet the practitioner who wants to find true peace must ask, “What am I doing?” That’s where practice enters. When our actions are based in greed, anger and ignorance, then our lives are going to move in that particular direction. That’s the natural law of causation. When they’re based in compassion and wisdom, then we are on the Path of liberation.

Keizan says of being estranged, “Because of this you do not know where body and mind come from, you do not understand where myriad things come from. For no reason you want to eliminate something and seek something else. Thus you cause the Buddhas to bother with appearing in the world, you cause Zen masters to bother with giving instructions. But even though they lend a hand in giving out instructions in this way, you are still deluded by your own knowledge and views, you say you don’t know or don’t understand. You are not really ignorant; you are not actually boxed in—you are vainly discriminating views of right and wrong within your thoughts and judgments.”

Of course, from within those false views, all suffering arises. But all along we’re not ignorant. Delusion is not an inherently existing state, it’s a created state. It’s something we do moment after moment. Yet all along we are not boxed in. That’s why in the “Awakening of Faith” the Buddha said, “If you want to get out of the box, just throw the box away.” That is, realize there is no box. But we can’t just tell ourselves that or will it to be so. That doesn’t work, because that’s the box itself speaking. Something else has to occur: practice and realization.

Keizan continues, “Do you not realize that you respond when called and you get where you are going by following directions. This does not come from deliberate thought or conscious knowledge—it is the host within you… It is just like a jewel having luster, like a sound bringing along an echo.” In other words, all along that person who is not ignorant, who has the enlightened nature and is not in a box, is calling you and answering. With each breath, air comes in and is exhaled. When the phone rings, you walk over and pick it up. When you’re hungry, you go and make something to eat. All along there is someone who knows, who understands and is not hindered.


Photo by Dustoli


Keizan’s poem: Though there be the purity of the autumn waters extending in the horizon, how does that compare with the haziness of a spring night’s moon? Most people want clear purity. Though you sweep and sweep, the mind is not yet emptied. No matter how tranquil the mind becomes in zazen, eventually a thought or self-awareness arises. The mind can’t be emptied, because fundamentally it’s not a thing. In comparison, in the haziness of the spring night, everything is present. The moon is full, it’s complete and it’s radiating in all directions. What makes it so marvelous is the mystery of what isn’t revealed. Because you can’t see it in it’s full brightness, it’s even more compelling.

“The great master Mazu said, ‘Everyone has always been absorbed in the nature of reality, forever in absorption in the nature of reality, wearing clothes, eating food, speaking and conversing. All the senses and capacities in action are none other than the nature of reality.’” The nature that he is talking about is our nature. All along it’s there. All along it’s functioning, not in supernatural acts, but rather in our everyday activities. But what is that experience?

Mazu, Dhrtaka and Keizan and all the teachers have pointed to what the Buddha realized. What is that experience? We all wear clothes and eat food and talk and listen, but don’t experience it as returning to the great ocean. So, what’s in the way? There’s no flaw in the ocean. There’s no lack of capacity in speaking and listening. There’s nothing wrong with our nature. Everything is working perfectly. So what creates that sense of estrangement that prevents us from experiencing that with our own body and mind?

This is buddhadharma—not creating wisdom and compassion, but discovering the wisdom and compassion that is always present. That’s why it’s important to practice—because it’s always there and, just like the ocean, it only is a matter of our jumping in. It’s never too late. We don’t have to ask permission. There’s no gate, no entrance fee, nobody can keep us out. Then the question is, what are we waiting for? How long will we wait? What set of conditions do we think need to be present in order to leap and return to the vast, limitless ocean?

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei is vice-abbot and resident teacher of Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple and head of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 1997.