In a busy and complex world, what does it mean to live simply?
If we hope to simplify our lives, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is paring away non-essential activities. Often this will significantly free up more space in our lives. If we explore more drastic options, which remove us from the mainstream of society, we can eventually arrive at a set of minimum activities. This may still leave us feeling busy.
If we look within ourselves, we can examine our desires and attachments. This area is extensively covered in Buddhist teaching. Curbing our desires and dissolving our attachments can significantly simplify our lives. This is an essential step, and it will also be our life-long work.
Even if we work to simplify our external world and our internal world, genuine simplicity can seem elusive. What is the appeal of simplicity? What are we truly seeking and how can we realize it?
We most desire simplicity when we feel our lives are too busy. In response to our perceived busyness, we naturally make adjustments in our inner world and outer world. But the critical quality we need is peace of mind. We need to recognize that a peaceful mind is not a busy mind; a busy mind is not peaceful. When our minds are at peace, complexity is not a problem. When we are not at peace, even the simplest situations can seem difficult. While we can simplify our lives through modifying our inner and outer worlds, we need to discover a way to peace in the midst of our situation.
To find peace of mind, we must clearly understand the nature and activity of our lives. Unless we are clear about our nature, our ideas about realizing peace will not have a genuine foundation. All of Buddhism teaches that our self-nature is emptiness. Zero. To understand the implications of this teaching we must have some appreciation for how self relates to the world around us. Tathagata Zen is one of the Buddhist traditions that provide a thorough framework to investigate self, world, and dharma. Let's focus on a simplified presentation of part of this teaching that may help us understand simplicity.
Anyone who has heard Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi give teisho can appreciate his consistent emphasis in Tathagata Zen, presenting Buddhism in terms of dharma activity. Everything arises from dharma activity: self, world, space, and time. Dharma activity, in Tathagata Zen, consists of two complementary-contradictory activities. These two primal activities are variously labeled as Tathagata-Tathaagata, expansion-contraction, living-dying, positive-negative, or other similar polarities.
As human beings, we are concerned with the arising and development of consciousness. In the teaching of Tathagata Zen, the embryo of self arises when the Dharmakaya, the dharma body that is emptiness, divides itself. This division within the Dharmakaya brings about a new situation with three distinct aspects: incomplete expanding activity, incomplete contracting activity, and the union of equal minuscule amounts of both expansion and contraction that is incomplete emptiness. In Tathagata Zen teaching incomplete expanding activity is subject or past, incomplete contracting activity is object or future, and the union of expanding and contracting is space or present. This space is the embryo from which consciousness develops.
A very common view of human experience divides our lives into two broad areas: self and world. In this view, self is associated with the subjective experience and world is objective experience. In Tathagata Zen, the self as space is differentiated from both subjective and objective experience. In Tathagata Zen, self and the world of subjective and objective experience arise simultaneously when Dharmakaya divides itself.
The arising of self and world is fleeting. The expanding and contracting activities reunite, and self and world dissolve back into the emptiness of the Dharmakaya. There is no enduring self; there is no enduring world. This cycle of Dharmakaya uniting and dividing repeats continually with incredible speed, transcending our notions of space and time. The dividing and reuniting of Dharmakaya is will-less and self-less. It is the natural activity of dharma.
Through the repeating pulsing of dharma activity, Dharmakaya dividing and uniting, the space of consciousness develops and matures. Through will-less dharma activity, this space develops and all the characteristics of human consciousness arise.
We need to appreciate that all Buddhist teaching is a guide to practice. The focus of the teaching is pragmatic, not theoretical. As a Buddhist practitioner, not a Buddhist scholar, to study Buddhism we must apply the teachings in our lives. As practitioners, we must see our situation in the terms outlined by the teaching and then apply its tenets to our situation.
We have a tendency to think we can "objectify" our situation and ourselves. This just isn't possible. Every moment our self is the center of our experience. We cannot objectify ourselves, and we are always in relationship with our subjective and objective experience. To think we can somehow stand outside our self or our situation and objectively analyze them is an illusion.
Every moment we arise at the center of our experience. Because of our propensity to attach to ourselves, it is common for us to consider our situation in terms of our self-interest and self-concern. Buddhist teaching is a guide to finding peace in our lives; not a method of obtaining personal satisfaction. All Buddhism teaches that our underlying nature is empty; that our true self is selfless. We must be willing to move beyond our self-interest if we hope to realize the peace Buddhism claims is our birthright.
We rarely act completely. We tend to hold part of ourselves back in relationships and daily activity. We may want to observe or evaluate what is happening; we may have doubts or uncertainty. To study Buddhism we must dissolve our personal self. Hesitancy or holding back preserves the illusion of a separate self and short-circuits our understanding. We cannot dissolve ourselves if we doubt or observe. Zen strongly emphasizes the need for total exertion, complete manifestation, as the path of selflessness. We need faith in complete manifestation to completely manifest. It is similar to surfing or downhill skiing; we cannot succeed unless we trust the process. Our true skill, our true self, is revealed in the instant our personal self disappears.
With these considerations, Tathagata Zen asks us to examine our experience. We are all familiar with our sense of being surrounded by the world. As a provisional teaching device, consider that, in every moment, our experience comes to us. We only hear the sound of the car if it comes to us; we only smell what's cooking if the aroma comes to us; we only see the tree if the light reflected from it comes to us. Our entire experience of the world arises from stimuli from the world coming together, contracting, at the place where we are. Obviously, the circumstances and appearance of our world is continually changing. Despite the changing appearances, our self always arises embraced on the outside by contracting activity, our future.
Consider our subjective world. As a provisional teaching, see all thoughts, memories and emotions - our past - expanding through the space of self. When we manifest our subjectivity, it expands out into the objective world through our actions. When we are blind to our subjectivity, we blindly manifest our subjectivity. When we attach to our subjectivity, our actions reveal our attachments. We are free in our subjectivity only when we are clear in our subjectivity. We are free when we are empty. In every case, our self arises embraced from within by our past, expanding subjective activity.
Tathagata Zen teaches that self is space, incomplete emptiness. Emptiness is inherently clear, unattached, and selfless. This space is incomplete because it is embraced within and without by past and future. This space of self is utterly fluid. We turn our head to the right and we see flowers, we turn our head to the left and we see garbage. We have beautiful thoughts; we have terrible thoughts. Our subjectivity may react favorably to one, adversely to the other; but space freely reveals whatever arises. When we manifest our self as emptiness, subjectivity and objectivity manifest without the distortion of self-generated activity. Every moment Dharmakaya divides. The present arises embraced by past and future. This embrace is the momentary experience of our objective and subjective worlds. Every moment Dharmakaya reunites. Past, present, and future dissolve into the embrace of complete emptiness.
Our self arises selflessly; our self dissolves selflessly. This is the nature of all dharma activity. Zen practice is to manifest our true nature. We manifest our selfless nature through dissolving our personal self. In Zen practice, we study Buddhism through willfully dissolving our self to realize our selfless nature.
There are several subtle concerns to be careful about. If we cling to a lingering idea of self, then we will choose, select, doubt, interpret, or judge our experience. This is self-generated activity - busyness; this is not simple dharma activity. The anxiety to act arises easily when we do not trust the teaching. When our self is clear this is not a problem. When we are clear, we are naturally aware of our inner needs and responsibilities: we know our duties and obligations to family, work, and relationships; we clearly see the situation in the world around us. When we bind ourselves with desire and attachment, we do not allow ourselves to flow with the interactive nature of experience. We want our desire or our attachment to dominate and we plant the seeds of discord and suffering.
Whenever our self chooses between subjective and objective experience we take up one side at the expense of disregarding the other. But every moment our self is in relationship with both inside and outside. Our effort to choose gets in the way of the natural interplay between past and future, subject and object. It's like trying to control our breathing. We may have some success for a limited time, but what happens when we let go and relax completely? It is better just to get out of the way, dissolve our self, and let our natural clarity spontaneously merge past responsibilities with future requirements.
No matter how cultivated or perceptive our self seems to be, our true foundation is always no self. When we affirm ourselves, when we interpret, judge, or assert, the spontaneous, selfless interplay between past and future, subject and object, is missed. Functioning in the complexity of everyday life requires balancing the content of our subjective world with the content of the objective world. This happens naturally when we manifest our essential nature, no self, and merge with our content. Then the natural dynamic interaction of inner needs and external conditions is realized selflessly. When we assert, judge, or interpret, when we are "busy," our very busyness obscures our realizing our true situation, no self. When we believe in personal self, we feel we have to act, have to decide, and have to assert ourselves. In this way, we make ourselves busy and simplicity is lost. When we manifest no self, we melt into our experience: nothing is ignored, nothing is denied, nothing is asserted, and nothing is interpreted. The will-less, selfless reuniting of self and world is clear. There is no busyness. This is simplicity.