Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Taste of Awakening


Imagine you are standing in the ocean. Your feet and legs are immersed in the water, which is moving to its natural rhythm. You stand there feeling the wetness against your skin and the motion. You are searching for something. Surely there must be something more to this experience, you think. You yearn to understand, to see more than you can see at that moment.

Then you notice someone who is also standing in the ocean, and you approach them. They look no different from you but, for some reason, you suspect they may know more about this. So you stand closer to them, and you try to ask a question, but you’re not sure what it is you want to know about. The person looks at you and tells you that the ocean tastes salty, that it is entirely made of salt water. You hear this and you think you understand it. Eventually you realize that you are also made of salt water. This must be the thing for which you were searching.

But the fact is that you don’t know anything about salt water really, because you have never tasted it. So you begin to ask questions about what salt water tastes like, and you begin to daydream about what it must taste like. The person standing next to you tells you about the taste of salt water, making up all kinds of poetic ways of describing the taste so that you might understand. However, until you actually drink from the ocean, until you actually swallow a mouthful of salt water, you will never really know the taste of the ocean. There is nothing stopping you from tasting the ocean, not the person, or the ocean itself or your own body or mind.

One day you are able to scoop up a bit of salt water in your hand and take a taste. It is completely new to you and yet nothing special. Now you know your own taste in a new way and you know the taste of everything around you. Now you know what the other person knows. You know that the taste has been there all along, within you and without. You know that the person described it accurately, but you simply couldn’t imagine it. Knowing in this way, everything has changed and yet you are still simply standing in the ocean.

Awakening is also like this.


The Virtue of the Flower

In everyday life it’s fairly common go around judging the objects with which we come in contact. It’s a habit that is an extension of  the vedana, or the charge, that each thing has for us. So, before even naming it, you have an experience of positive, negative or neutral when you see a flower. Then you might go on to develop an idea about it and, sometimes, to verbalize that thought. For example, you walk by a flower and you say, “That flower is beautiful.” In this case, “beautiful” is a judgment about the flower, although it is a positive one.

dahlias IMG_0895 IMG_0902Perhaps that’s why Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught that when you say, “The flower is beautiful,” you separate yourself from it. That is, you reinforce your sense of separation of subject and object by making a judgment. I would add that even if you only say, “The flower is,” then you have separated yourself from it. And even if you only say “flower” you have separated yourself from it. In fact, the Diamond Sutra can be seen as a teaching about the way in which people develop an idea of something, rather than have a direct experience, and then come up with a linguistic label for the idea that reinforces that perception. This stands in contrast to the direct experience of things as lacking solidity and existing only in the sense of a temporary flux.

Successful Flowers

virtuous flowers

However, you have to use language in everyday life. So how is it possible to practice with the flower, and with your judgment of it, without separating from it?

To respond to this question I suggest you turn to one of the key teachings of the Zen school, the understanding of the physical world in the context of the Dharma. In Zen all objects that we encounter are understood to be equally teaching the Dharma. That is to say, the various and sundry things that we encounter in the physical world we live in are all expressing some form of wisdom. Thus, in Zen, we can practice with things as much as we can practice with people.

One form of practice that you might consider is the practice of observing the virtue of the flower. Virtue is a word that, according to Merriam-Webster, means “the beneficial quality or power of a thing.” Or it can mean “a commendable quality or trait,” presumably of a person, place or thing. Thus, you might say that the flower has the virtue of enabling the pollenization, and therefore the continued life of the plant. You might also say that the flower adds color to the landscape. These are some of its virtues.

However, at a more fundamental level, Zen teaches that the flower has the virtue of speaking the Dharma. It has the virtue of being completely, fully what it is and thereby speaking the Dharma of pollen and transformation, of color and attraction, and of growing and withering. It has those virtues simply by arising as flower, and not due to any comparison, or any words we might associate with it. Also, by manifesting those virtues, the flower is espousing the seals of the Dharma: impermanence, lack of inherent self or core, unsatisfactoriness, and the liberation that is peace amidst these facts of life.

By really settling with this teaching it is possible to experience the virtue of the flower, and by finding the virtue of flower we may very well find our own virtue and the virtue of everyone around us.