Chapter 5: Are You Awake?
What is “taking responsibility for our lives”? We usually think of taking responsibility in the sense of meeting our commitments and obligations, keeping our word, paying our bills, taking care of things—our business, family, home, health. But there is another way of looking at responsibility. “Taking responsibility for my life” literally means that I am responsible for my life, for who and what I am, for what happens to me. I am responsible for what my experience is and how I experience it.
But how can we be responsible for all of this when we are constantly tossed to and fro by circumstances? This happens not only to us, but to everybody around us. We have a disappointment, a setback, an accident, an argument, a loss, we do not get what we want or we do get what we want. Or the cause is more mysterious—it is something to do with the stars, or our biorhythms, or the vibes in this place, or that we didn’t eat right or get enough sleep. However you cut it, you find yourself one day wishing you were dead, and two days later happy to be alive, ten feet off the ground—and maybe the circumstances are the same. Sooner or later you are tossed back in the other direction. How can we be responsible when we are not free, when we are bound and restricted in this way, living at the mercy of circumstances?
In a famous koan from Mumon’s Gateless Gate, Master Zuigan talks about being master of one’s life:
Every day Master Zuigan used to call out to himself, “Oh, Master!”
And he would answer himself, “Yes?”
“Are you awake?” he would ask.
And he would answer, “Yes, I am,”
“Never be deceived by others—any day, any time.”
“No, I will not.”
That question, “Are you awake?,” is the same as “Are you enlightened? Are you aware of your life?” The word others refers to circumstances. If you are not “deceived by others,” you are not tossed back and forth by conditions. You are in charge of your life. Of course, it is not really the conditions that toss us back and forth; it is our conditioning, which is based on our particular circumstances—where and how we grew up, what school we went to, who our parents were, what we learned from friends, books, TV. We find ourselves living out that conditioning, that programming, for the rest of our lives. Most of us are conditioned in very much the same way, which makes it easier to live together in society, to get things done, to understand the rules. Our conditioning is what makes advertising so successful, making it possible for people in the advertising industry to get us to respond to their products the way they want us to. The whole point of advertising is to create a need where none exists; that is, to stimulate desire. Desire is fundamental—a basic underlying force in our life. Once we desire something, we can be led around by the nose.
Desire arises from the belief that something is lacking, that somehow we need something we do not have, that we are incomplete. The origin of desire is in the discriminating consciousness that makes us distinguish “this” from “that,” “self’ from “other.” That separation of self from other is based on ignorance, on not knowing what is real, and it creates all our suffering. When there is self, there is other, there is gain and loss, something we want to get, something or someone we can not bear to lose. That is how we create greed, anger, confusion, despair. When we believe that our “self’ is whatever is inside this bag of skin, we feel incomplete, cut off from everything else in the universe, and our desire is really the desire to make whatever we feel we lack a part of ourself. Underneath our particular desire is the desire to heal the split what we think is “out there.” When you realize that there is nothing outside of you, then there is no way of being incomplete, nothing to desire, nothing that is not you. Without the illusion of a separate self, there is no gain and no loss.
I can tell you that the self is an idea, that it does not exist. You can even believe it, but that isn’t going to change anything. You will still respond to circumstances according to your programming. Even if it makes sense to you and you can justify it logically, you will still respond for the basis of a separate self because of conditioning. When you realize firsthand, by going very deep into yourself, that the self is empty, only then does the beginning of emancipation occur. Even then, the programming continues like a reflex action. But once you’ve realized that the self is empty, the reflex loses all its power. You don’t have to do anything about it; all you need to do is to be aware, to continue the same practice you’ve been doing from the beginning. When angry, you acknowledge that you are angry and let it go. Each time, your anger will get a little weaker. The same thing is true if you haven’t yet realized yourself. With great faith you acknowledge each time it comes up, and let it go.
Being awake is taking responsibility for your life, knowing that circumstances are just yourself—that what you do and what happens to you are the same thing. The consequences and the experience of your life result from the activities of your life. These activities are what you do, what you say, and what you think. We create karma with our thoughts just as much as with our actions. When you take responsibility, you are not tossed around by circumstances; there is no one to blame and no one to be a victim. You can’t blame it on the President, because the President is nothing but yourself. You can’t blame it on the Russians; they are nothing but yourself. You begin to see the world and what is happening around you in a very different way.
When you realize that the self is complete, that it contains everything and isn’t separate from “the ten thousand things,” emancipation begins. Gradually, instead of greed, anger, and ignorance, there is compassion, wisdom, and enlightenment. The greed, instead of serving a separate self, begins to serve all beings. When you know that the guy lying in the street bleeding is you, you greedily take care of yourself. You pick him up and comfort him, with no sense of separation and no sense of doing “good.” And when you realize that this earth, this environment, is your very life, there is no way to foul it. Compassion, wisdom, and enlightenment are the activity of no-self.
Zuigan tells us that it is time to take responsibility and be the masters of our lives, to get to the ground of being and realize who we are, to penetrate the nature of reality and learn to live our lives out of what we realize. This unnamable reality that Zuigan calls “Master” is the same as Master Eno’s “original face,” and Master Rinzai’s “true person of no rank.” Zen masters are compelled to speak, to find a way to point to this one reality. The aim of Zen practice is the direct experience of each of us in opening our spiritual eye to the absolute subjectivity of coming to be ourselves. One has to give one’s body and mind to it. Mumon emphasized this when he set up the first koan in The Gateless Gate. He said that “one must pass the barriers set by the ancient Zen masters. For the attainment of incomparable satori, one has to cast away the discriminating mind.”
We seem to know a great deal about the rest of the universe and very little about ourselves. That is what the study of Buddhism is—a way to find out about ourselves. Buckminster Fuller once tried to make an “Operating Manual for the Spaceship Earth.” Well, the operating manual for human existence cannot be written—it is transmitted from mind to mind. Nobody can do it for you, and nobody can tell you about it. You have to find out for yourself—you have to realize it directly. When we free ourselves from the delusion that we are only what is inside this bag of skin, we realize that we are as vast and complete as the universe itself. Just like the water bird—the great blue heron—that comes here to Basho Pond:
It comes and it goes
Leaving no traces at all
Yet knows how to go its Own way.
It is completely the master. Shouldn’t our lives be as clear as the life of that great blue heron? As the life of the fly that is buzzing here now? As the sun that rises in the east and sets in the west? Somehow we lose our way; everything gets in a muddle. It doesn’t need to be that way. The Third Noble Truth of the Buddha is that it is possible to put an end to pain, to free ourselves from the karma of birth and death, to be master of our own life. Who is this “Master”? Each one of us must find out for ourselves. We should go deeply into ourselves and experience the ground of our being and learn to live our lives out of this realization. This life is too precious to waste.