This basic delusion of dualism is at the root of our pain and suffering. It is the direct cause of war and of our mistreatment of the environment and the destructive consequences that come out of our actions. It is the direct cause of conflict at every level—from the schoolyard to the battlefield, between lovers, spouses, and families—because we believe that who we are is separate and distinct from everyone else. Yet it is not so. But this truth is not apparent to us because we live in a society that creates the illusion of separation. Rarely do we see examples of resolving conflict in any way other than violence. And so that’s what we learn as individuals. We start learning this as children, and we carry it on into our adult lives, into our politics, into all the ways we understand the nature of the self and the nature of the universe.
The commentary, on the other hand, is pointing to the mind of unity. It says that we must understand “the mind after mind that is beyond dichotomies and the buddha after buddha that leads the oxen and manifests in moment-to-moment non-stop flow.” This is the same ox that’s depicted in the Ten Oxherding pictures that illustrate the development of a spiritual practitioner. The poem which accompanies the fifth oxherding picture reads:
The whip and tether cannot be put aside
or the ox may wander into mud-filled swamps.
When patiently trained to trust, it becomes gentle
and can be unfettered.
Then, freely, it follows your way.
It takes an incredible amount of diligence, of perseverance, for the ox to freely follow your way. After practicing for a while you finally see the nature of the self and the universe, but it’s very common to keep on acting out of your old habit patterns. You know there is a different way of being, but it still feels out of your reach. And this in-between state can be very frustrating. We need to be patient with ourselves and keep returning to our center. It takes a lot of work to break up those habit patterns. That’s why practice is a gentle and gradual process of transformation. It doesn’t happen overnight.
With practice and growing trust, working samadhi begins to develop in our lives. This means that samadhi is no longer just the concentration that’s taking place when we sit in zazen. Now it also begins to manifest in activity. We’re able to stay with what we are doing and not disconnect from the moment by chasing thoughts. It’s our aliveness and presence, moment to moment to moment. Each instant is lucid and complete.
Then out of that working samadhi, karuna—compassion—appears. Compassion is wisdom in action. It is not merely doing good. At the beginning of practice, many of us experience an overwhelming impetus to save the world, mixed with an equally overwhelming despair that there are just too many problems and too few resources. As practice matures, our awkward attempts are replaced by genuine compassion arising from practice and realization. We see what we can do and we do it. We do it without even reflecting or knowing that we’re doing it. Compassion happens. It happens the way we grow our hair. Here we are able to relax a little bit in our practice. But the main peril is that if we let go of our diligence too much, we can fall back into the old ruts of conditioning. That can happen very easily, especially if our practice is not consistent. That’s why it is critical to maintain our daily zazen. Grounding ourselves, we repeatedly reestablish the still point, the clean slate from which we can encounter ourselves and the world afresh. If we stop sitting, it’s easy to backslide and get right back into our habit patterns. And not only that—now we have at our disposal a wealth of spiritual jargon to explain our actions. We now attach to holiness, to form, to the Zen way. But this is just as deadly as any other kind of attachment. If we don’t move beyond this point, we can end up stuck in an endless cycle of justifications that sound very convincing and never get out of our cages. The challenge confronting us here is the fine-tuning of our effort. We need to keep our practice alive and vital.