Buddhism whatever else it is, is a path of awareness, awakening. You sometimes hear widely accepted teachings in Buddhism being argued about and all but dismissed, but Buddhism is for testing. Isn’t that the whole point? But you do hear these tussles going on. There is one aspect I feel would be hard to reject by anyone and that is the emphasis on awareness—simply becoming clear about what is happening as it happens. We might be in the habit of getting caught up in day-to-day circumstances. Buddhism, however, tells us not to do that but instead to be aware of circumstances, be mindful without reacting, or if we do react then to try and be aware of those reactions. In other words, to trust in our innate wisdom to know what we know at any given moment and not to cling to anything. If we cling to the flow of life, we can’t go with the flow; we can’t be aware. Then our awareness will disappear and we will get swallowed up once more in wishing and wanting, going and getting, joy and sorrow. Buddhism, then, is about knowing what we know now for ourselves. It isn’t that difficult to become aware of what’s happening in our experience in the moment. We don’t have to be clever. But perhaps we feel it can’t be simple either because only great people can do that, not us, and we look for something more complicated to tackle. Knowing about Buddhism—its history, diversity and texts—can be interesting, but unless its teachings are acted upon it is mere book-learning, it isn’t itself the path which leads to liberation. That is like reading the menu but not tasting the food. Knowing what is happening right now is a path, a spontaneous path. We don’t think it through; it happens on its own, like breathing. The only effort we have to make is not to slip into streams of thoughts and emotions again. To remain alert can take quite a bit of effort to begin with at least because we’re not used to it, but it isn’t a mental or physical effort, it is more of a deep resolve. Buddhism whatever else it is, is a path of awareness, awakening from the dream, treading the path of ‘what is’ rather than ‘what we think or believe’. Concepts of self disappear in this awareness because all concepts disappear in awareness, and the moment becomes vast and timeless—a living, indescribable experience. Can we be the individuals that everyone takes us for and we generally take ourselves for in the relative world as well as the indescribable, mysterious absolute at one and the same time? Shohaku Okumura in his article Zazenshin refers to a painting entitled ‘My Wife and my Mother-in-Law’. It’s well worth studying this picture. First you may see the face of a young woman, but if you keep looking the young woman transforms into an old lady. As Shohaku Okumura says, we can see our lives in this way: ‘Our lives can be the expression of Buddha’s enlightenment and the manifestation of samsara.’ They can be the ups and downs of everyday life, and liberation at the same time. Only we can realise these things. No one else can do it on our behalf—no kind of teacher, no kind of text, no kind of friend. It isn’t a question of shunning others and the texts, but we have to have the courage to accept what we see and know without getting confused and blinded by our own ideas and opinions, and the ideas and opinions of others. That is the essence of awareness and, I feel, the essence of Buddhism. If we didn’t have to do it for ourselves, Shakyamuni Buddha or some other wise and compassionate being would surely have done it for us long ago.
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First published in Buddhism Now November 2005