Already Dead?

A well-worn phrase that creates yet another apparent obstacle while trudging along the spiritual path. Probably most often found in the Zen tradition, for example:

Zen Master: ‘Do you have a question?’

Student: ‘Yes, what is death?’

Zen Master: ‘You are already dead.’

But let’s not point any fingers. It’s a lovely concept and very catchy in its own way. Besides, what more enticing subject is there than death? Our time as a ‘living’ being on this planet is limited. Look around at the billions of people. Look at their faces. Listen to their story. Watch as they succeed and fail, celebrate and mourn. What’s the one thing that we know for certain about every human being, every living thing on this planet? We are, it is, they are, all going to die.

Isn’t death the focal point of all of the world’s major religions, philosophies, and even political dogma? How about novels, screenplays, folk tales and songs, nursery rhymes and epic poems? Death. What is it like? What happens when we die? Is there an afterlife? Resurrection or reincarnation? Heaven and Hell? It can’t really be the end of me, can it? Etcetera.

There are two ways to interpret this term. The first would be to say that you are ‘already dead’ because you think yourself to be a separate entity made up of thoughts, memories, images, projections, sensations, feelings, and perceptions. All of these are fleeting qualities, coming and going like clouds in the sky, and cannot be considered real in the truest sense. Yet you identify with them, and, in so doing, miss what’s actually going on. You might say that you miss seeing, or, more accurately, being, that which always exists regardless of the cloud cover – the clear blue sky. So, in this case, because you relate to everyone and everything through this filter of illusionary aspects of an imagined self, you are already dead to what is happening right now.

The second would be that you are ‘Already Dead’ because your original nature, your essential nature, is that of formless emptiness. This is a more accurate description of who you, we, really are, although it is just a description, not the real thing. When you understand, recognize, experience, that all of the qualities you once attributed to your identity as a separate individual are false, all that’s left is emptiness without form – the clear blue sky. Clouds come and go, feelings arise and pass away, sensations become more and then less intense, yet you remain unchanged and all-knowing throughout.

Now ask yourself the question, am I already dead, or Already Dead? Actually, there is no correct answer – there is only This. And you, I, we, are that.

Mind Is Moving

A favorite koan from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps:

Two monks were arguing about a flag.

One said: ‘The flag is moving.’

The other said: ‘The wind is moving.’

The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: ‘Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.’

We can assume that the patriarch was making a concession to his dense pupils and using ‘mind’ in this context as limitless consciousness – that which is prior to or beyond all experience, beyond knowing, beyond understanding, beyond the beyond. Otherwise he too was talking through his hat.

Have you ever experienced your own appearance or disappearance? To say that you have appeared from somewhere, you would have to be present and aware prior to making this claim. To say that you have witnessed your own disappearance, you would have to claim the same.

If you look closely at the nature of consciousness, awareness, sense of being – that which knows the coming and going of all appearances, yet doesn’t come and go with them – no edge, boundary, beginning, or end can be found. It is not limited by time or space, and therefore is infinite and eternal. Actually, consciousness is the only thing that can be called infinite and eternal. What else never appears or disappears? If you can confirm this is as fact, which you can by simply looking openly, then you can also claim with authority that there cannot be room for two.

As I, you, we, are a part of this consciousness, born of this consciousness, made of this consciousness, where is the division between us? See it now – there are not two and there will never be two. It is just this, one without a second, and you, I, we, are that.

Flag moves, wind moves, mind moves, but our actual experience is that nothing moves independently of consciousness. Everything arises within consciousness, moves within consciousness, and dissolves within consciousness. In other words, everything is a manifestation of consciousness, is made out of consciousness.

The flag, wind, and mind appear to be different, yet they are also the same – all born of consciousness. And this different sameness appears and disappears just like everything else, including the idea of consciousness, and only this – THIS – remains.

For Beginners Only

Anyone who has embarked on a spiritual journey over the past fifty years has more than likely discovered Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki, first master of the San Francisco Zen Center and Tasajara Zen Mountain Center – the unassuming, unswerving man with a twinkle in his eyes.

His collection of talks in ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ point directly to the source of our being and is considered by many to be essential reading for serious seekers. Below are some favorite quotes from this book as well as from some of his other works – ripples on the vast ocean that is Shunryu Suzuki.

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‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’

‘There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity’.

‘What we call I is just a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.’

‘Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.’

‘Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one. Big mind and small mind are one. When you understand your mind in this way, you have some security in your feeling . . . Whatever you experience is an expression of big mind.’

‘When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.’

A student asked in dokusan (private interview), ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?’ Suzuki Roshi answered, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

A student who had just concluded a thirty-day zazen (seated meditation) retreat with two enthusiastic dharma pals asked Suzuki Roshi how to maintain the extraordinary state of mind he’d attained. ‘Concentrate on your breathing, and it will go away,’ Suzuki said.

‘Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars you see. You are one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true than you can hear.’

No Effort Required

“Since all is empty from the beginning, where can the dust alight?” – Hui Neng

All effort of the separate self to become liberated or enlightened is futile. Actually, all effort to become anything, ‘become’ being the key word, is futile. The act of becoming is a never-ending uphill battle that cannot be won. Yes, you might meditate, chant mantras, go on a spiritual retreat, take a self-help course, improve your self-image, your position in life, your relationships, even your mental outlook, but none of these have any lasting effect or enduring qualities. To paraphrase Wei Wu Wei, the ‘action which is not action’ man, we are unhappy because everything we do is for our self, and there isn’t one.

The separate self, or Little Me, or ego, can’t become something else because it’s nothing to begin with. It’s like a shadow trying to become the phantom that created it.

If you look closely, all qualities of the separate self are temporary. Any substances that they appear to be made out of are ultimately no more real than a shadow.

Your true self, essential being, needs no help. It already is and always will be. It is inherently liberated and enlightened, peaceful, happy, and loving. It is untouchable, unmoving, unchanging.

In the act of becoming, the separate self will endlessly create new obstacles to overcome, new goals to achieve, and will forever be chasing the carrot dangling just out of reach. That’s what the separate self, the ego, does. This is what gives it life. And this is what causes all of our psychological suffering – trying to cure our problems with that which caused them.

The phantom and the shadow, the seeker and the sought, all vanish in the brilliant light of awareness, of simply being, and all effort ceases. And in this effortlessness there is a resting, an abiding in that which is nameless, can never be found, and yet is everywhere. And you, I, we are that.

Why Does Happiness Come and Go?

Happiness doesn’t come and go. Our essential being, some call it our original nature, is what comes and goes, or at least that’s how it appears. In fact, our essential being never goes anywhere and happiness is a quality of essential being-ness, so happiness always is.

So why are we often unhappy? Again, happiness is not a state that comes and goes. It is merely veiled by our identification as a separate individual, which is subject to the whims of cause and effect, to different states of mind and feelings – the separate self that thinks it gets its happiness from objects, relationships, substances, and activities.

But this isn’t our true experience. Happiness reveals itself in that moment of stillness when all desire ceases. For example, you covet a jacket and order it online. It arrives in the mail, you put it on, and you are instantly happy. Not because you have the jacket, but because in that moment, you, the individual self, are not seeking or desiring anything and in this emptiness the true self is revealed. But desire quickly rises up again in the separate self, which once again sets out to seek happiness in objects, relationships, substances, and activities.

Why does this happen over and over again? Because we place our identity in an individual self, which upon examination only exists in the form of a thought, feeling, sensation, or perception, which are all temporary, and thus illusory objects.

Lasting happiness can never be found in any kind of object – states of mind come and go; feelings, sensations, and perceptions all come and go. All things come and go except for that which knows the coming and going – that which exists prior to any manifestation of phenomena, during its existence, and after it has gone. Just as the sky exists before, during, and after the cloud has appeared, lingered, and dissolved back into the sky.

It is a simple misidentification with a separate self – an illusory being made of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions – which causes all suffering and, at best, sometimes finds fleeting happiness.

To find lasting happiness, you must first investigate deeply the one who seeks happiness. Find this so-called individual self, this ‘I’ we call ourselves. Isn’t it just a thought? Set it aside for just a moment and, in the stillness, peace and happiness are revealed. As Buddha said, ‘There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.’