Freedom and True Nature
Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse

A few days ago I turned 67. My body continues to change. Sometimes it gains weight, and sometimes it loses weight. My right foot hurts, so I went to a podiatrist, only to learn that my foot is afflicted with arthritis.

This morning I'm preparing to teach a four part series of classes on the history and philosophy of Zen. It's a class I teach once a year. There was a time, when I got tired of reading about the Dharma. I thought it was old hat. But now, I'm not so sure. I no longer know what I don't know. And my curiosity and imperfections have broken down the walls of my own complacency. I enjoy being a Zen teacher. I'm grateful to my teachers who patiently guided me along this Zen path. And I continue to wonder and marvel at the mystery of my living, breathing body that changes daily. 

What is your living? Perhaps the question is best left unanswered. And I think Zen can help you keep asking the question. That might inspire you. It might quicken your desire to wake up from your own complacency. 

Zen was born in a time and culture very different from our own. Their world was shaped by Taoist and Confucian assumptions very different from our secular and scientific world views. And yet, Zen remains an enduring spiritual tradition that is alive and well among many varied peoples in the West today. 

The world today is as unfathomable as is your living. Is it falling apart? Has it become so politically dysfunctional that nothing can get done? One thing is for sure. The world keeps changing just like your body. While there is great chaos in the world, at the same time, there are many innovations taking place in the field of medicine, technology and economics. The field of genomics promises to revolutionize the way we treat and cure cancer in the future. These changes will improve our lives in many ways and they will bring new problems and challenges. 

Three principles from the Zen tradition might be helpful in navigating your way through these troubled waters. All things are interdependent; all things are constantly and forever changing; and morality is not so much individual as it is relational. 

Freedom is a strong value in the West. Such freedom is usually framed in terms of individual autonomy. But this kind of freedom is one person's good fortune and another's bondage. In an increasing diverse world, there seems no way to bridge this divide. Freedom based on your individual wants and desires entraps you in a pattern of karmic bondage that leads to further suffering. The more you want, the better you get at wanting, only to be disappointed to discover you don't get what you want. 

Zen offers another way forward. It encourages you to slow down and to strengthen your awareness. It offers a concrete practice of mindfulness meditation to help you do this. It encourages you to open and to unmask. You learn to be kind to yourself, and to appreciate the world around you with more grace, skill and compassion. Difference become a source of wealth and enrichment. Communities thrive, not by excluding others but by honoring and including them. This is another kind of freedom. It's not everyone for themselves, but everyone for each other. By acknowledging differences with respect, you can actually make a real difference in the world around you. 

At a time when moderation is viewed with suspicion and the middle in politics has all but disappeared, Buddhism still teaches the middle way. This is a path that steers clear of the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. It is a path that charts a course of freedom between the many dualities of left and right, right and wrong, secular and scientific profane and spiritual. 

Must you be a Zen Buddhist to enjoy this freedom? A great teacher from the Zen tradition, Master Rinzai answered this question by saying that "Buddha" and "Dharma" were just "two hitching posts for donkeys". Ultimately, there is no Zen or Buddhism. But also, there is no Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Hinduism. All are empty and without substance. Our attachment to such concepts is the source of much of our turmoil and trouble. If there are no clear boundaries separating us, then we are free to interpenetrate and relate more skillfully with each other.

What Zen calls your "true nature" comes before these categories. You can realize your true nature right here, right now. It's your readiness to awaken. This is a freedom that doesn't divide but one that enhances our mutual wellness, happiness and flourishing. 

As I prepare for my class on this April morning, it has begun to snow outside my window. I suppose it's Chicago's version of April fools. I forgot to listen to the news or the weather reports this morning. My usual preoccupations have dropped away in this moment of stillness and silence and I marvel at the mystery of it all. 

© 2016 Robert Joshin Althouse