When we turn the light around, take the backward step, and look deep within ourselves, then we are finally free of the confining notion of needing to be saved. This is the place of true intimacy. When we turn within, what do we find?


Photo by Claudio Lopes


Don’t look with your ordinary eyes because they are conditioned to see things in terms of what is you and not you, what is your fault and what is not your fault, where you begin and where you end. So, you have to see with unconditioned eyes, with the eyes that you had before you were born.

How do we do that? Stop grasping and forget the self. Let go of all attachments, which are based in non-acceptance. This is why attachments are so burdensome and exhausting, because when we attach to things, we’re immediately in conflict with ourselves and the world. Conflict is based in wanting something that we don’t have. We want a life that we don’t have. We want to be someone we’re not. We want people to be kinder and more aware, for the environment to be clean, for governments to take care of all the people. The desire may be good, yet the moment we become attached we are in conflict and there’s suffering.

When we really begin to see our attachments, we realize how much of our lives are spent in conflict, even on the brightest, clearest of days. Little wonder there’s so much conflict in the world. So to see with the eyes that are not conditioned is to recognize when we are seeing with cloudy eyes. Practice occurs at the moment when there’s conflict.

Yet all along, as Keizan said, The water is clear to the very depths; It shines without needing polishing. The water is always clear. That’s the nature of water. You can stir up the sediment on the bottom, and it appears murky. You can’t see through it, but the nature of water is pure—it can hold that cloudiness. It doesn’t argue. It doesn’t fight. Just like the sky: clouds, birds and planes all pass through. The sky doesn’t protest or complain. It doesn’t wish for a different day, to be something other than what it is.

We practice so that we can cease polishing. We have to apply ourselves with great effort and work diligently during zazen, when our mind is running wild and our leg is hurting and we just want it to stop. Why not make it stop? Because in that moment, in a situation that’s simple and safe, we have a chance to really practice. There’s nothing simpler than zazen. Discipline is needed, not because it should be difficult but because we’re so conditioned to avoid difficulty and in so doing create unnecessary difficulty. We have to break the cycle of avoidance. If we just acknowledge that our leg hurts and accept it, then things become clear and simple. Can we do that—just that one simple thing—for the next five minutes? If we can enter there and stop polishing—stop trying to be somewhere else—then when it is not so simple and not so safe, we begin to understand how to be present in a way that is alive and free.

When we turn toward what’s in front of us and don’t fight, the mind becomes spacious, the body relaxes, and we merge rather than separate. A kind of revolution is set in motion. We begin to realize something about the nature of suffering and conflict and avoidance and ourselves. We can simply arrive at the place we’ve always been. Keizan said, “What is the purpose of asking people to sit and let go of their worldly attachments? It’s just to allow them to arrive at the knowledge and insight of buddhahood. The reason for taking the trouble to establish Zen communities and assemble ordained and lay people is to reveal this matter. That’s why the meditation hall is called a place for selecting buddhas.” It’s not an arbitrary matter. It is just for the purpose of helping people understand themselves. That’s it.

At the end of Ryonen’s life she said:

I’m sixty-six years old.
It is autumn.
I have lived a long life.
Moonlight shines strongly on my face.
We don’t need to discuss the koans.
Just listen to the wind in the cedars outside.

The moonlight on her scarred face was radiant. Nothing could hide her true beauty. We don’t need to discuss koans. We don’t need to talk. Just listen, listen! This is the point of entry. That’s what our practice is bringing us to every single moment. Just this. Tongan said, “It’s within.” How did Liangshan awaken? He experienced the truth of “within.”

We practice for the single purpose of understanding ourselves. When we understand ourselves, we understand each other. When we understand each other, we understand the suffering on the streets. We understand how it is that we are still at war. And from that understanding, we’re able to accept and work for change from a very different place. Not from a place of conflict—there’s no real power in conflict—but from a place of acceptance

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.