I sense there are many searching wanderers, spiritual seekers out there looking to find that place of rest that spirituality promises. I spent my youth wandering from philosophy to philosophy, from worldview to worldview. I experimented with many attitudes to life, from hedonistic to ascetic. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, condensed the philosophical questions in this way:
What can I know?
What ought I to do?
What can I hope?
Truly, isn’t the burden of uncertainty that made life so hard to bear for us in the past, centered around those three questions? I’d like to share a little autobiographical recollection with you all.
Heidegger once wrote that western metaphysics is riddled with a certain forgetfulness. I, too, was under the impression I’m delivered to a forgetfulness, an oblivious existence of my true nature, and ultimately, nihilism. I fell into a depressive state of complete meaninglessness. Needless to say, reading philosophy didn’t help. It occurred to me I need something other than thinking to save myself from the depressive, nihilistic state of existence I found myself in – from that existential crisis of meaninglessness.
Fast forward a few dozen books and months of research, I found what I thought was the Eastern practice of meditation. Intellectually, I was most attracted to shikantaza. Shikantaza or just-sitting appealed to me the most because it was the complete opposite of what I was doing for years: pondering, thinking, thinking about thoughts, reflecting upon reflections on questions of substance, quality, quantity, being, essence, reality, subject and object, and all those topics philosophy concerns herself with.
So this practice was completely non-intellectual, mere sitting. Verily this practice healed my depression and many other self-destructive patterns. In retrospective I must ask myself what this shikantaza practice really did. It is not that it did anything: the depressive state I was in was a self-created torture chamber made of thoughts. Sitting was merely a doing nothing, and undoing, that reverted me to a more natural state. But solving my little depression was not what I was after.
The question of life and death, the one great matter – remained unattended. I have found peace of mind through this sitting practice, I thought, but there is still dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), there is still samsara (birth-and-death). So it occurred to me that the problem must be in my laziness and unwillingness to sit enough, or to find a place of practice rigorous enough with long hours of ritualized and dictated sitting. After conquering my depression through my own effort, I was convinced that to attain the highest spiritual goal, I need to relocate to a physically existing Zen temple.
The misery was rising again, but this time it wasn’t about my former self-image, but my spiritual inadequacy. While searching online for a Zen temple in Asia that would accept Westerners, I was told by some interesting individual about the School of the Unborn and its teachings. I suddenly felt – a gut feeling or a Socratic daimonion type “call” – that this is genuine. And what was different about this school? – Unlike all other schools, this one showed me the Mirror right from the start. No wasting time. There was no talk about irrelevant matters, but the pointing to Mind began right from the get go. Engaged in spiritual discussion with one of the school’s former teachers, I had asked what lineage revolved around the school’s origins: was it Rinzai Zen, or perhaps connected with Bankei Zen, or was it something else? What authorizes it?”
The answer I received – was in the form of this koan:
Where can the lineage of the Unborn be found?
This didn’t feed my delusions, but instead it spoke to my still unawakened, dormant Buddha-Nature directly. The recollective resolve awakened within, through that question and its dark call. Here, I must stop. Words cannot delve deep into what is referred to as the “dark call”. – Yet, to you, dear reader, I pose the same question. Wandering from philosophy to philosophy, worldview to worldview, practice to practice – trying various meditations, and always positing “Truth” outside of yourself – to temples, to masters, to words … since all that you perceive externally is subject to impermanence, how can the Unborn be found by chasing appearances, by chasing externals? How can it have to do with sitting, temples, statues or chanting? What is the correct practice of the Unborn? – Just this. Whenever my mind drifts away into such question, I cut it right at its root with the “Unborn koan” and its “dark call”:
… meaning is not to be found in words. Our Ch’an predecessors always referred to this as “dark-call-secret-command.” But this “dark call” or code means something quite different from talking. To read the Chinese character for “sky” and to think only of the blue expanse above you would be a complete misunderstanding of the character. So you must think of all koans as “dark-call-secret-commands.