The Fundamental Point

‘Zen master Baoche of Mount Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, “Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then do you fan yourself?” “Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent;” Baoche replied, “you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.” “What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?” asked the monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply. The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the vital path of its correct transmission, is like this.’ (Genjo Koan)

The search for meaning is the itch under the skin of human life, one that we are all drawn to resolve for ourselves. One thing that attracted me to this practice was that it makes no extravagant claims about the meaning of life, but instead turns our attention to paying attention to each activity as fully as we can.

This above story, as with Dogen’s other skilful analogies, featured in my teaching in England. Right at the end of the Genjo Koan, he re-iterates that the essential thing is to actualise our awakened nature through the practice of meeting the need of this moment, whatever it looks like. This is what he calls practice-realisation and by affirming this, he answers the question that dogged him as a young monk: that if we are born with Buddha Nature, why do we need to practice? Baoche demonstrates how, without our own practice, we do not manifest this awakening, and at the same time lets us know that awakening is not some esoteric truth that we have to search for elsewhere, but always available right in front of us.

When I read contemporary articles pointing to the way we can find meaning in our lives (or even this slightly more downbeat one about how we might struggle to do so if most of our work is automated), I note the prescribed ingredients (belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling in the former case, all of which are good sense, and all of which, as it happens, are things you receive in abundance in spiritual community) and see the same fundamental point: nothing esoteric, just paying fresh attention to what or who is in front of us.

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