My master Taisen Deshimaru Roshi was always asking,” What is most important? Right now, it may be this pain in your knee, this quarrel you are having, this touching of some person you love.” “What is most important” changes all the time. But what is really important? Even the person you love, the person who loves you, cannot die in your place, cannot sneeze in your place.
One day, when there were two hundred or more of us sitting in the big meditation hall in France, he said, “Everybody is always talking about being happy. Everybody wants to be happy, but it is always some time in the future. If you are not happy now, you never will be.”
Then he was silent. There is a great deal of silence in Zen meditation. A few birds chirped outside, there was an almost imperceptible hum of bees and wasps and crickets, a slight, slight breeze moved through the hall from window to window. I realized that I was not happy and that I was not unhappy; there were no emotions, there was just sitting and the air moving through the room, the faraway sigh of an airplane trying to go somewhere miles overhead. Just here and now. If you are not happy now, you never will be.
Two famous Zen anecdotes may help. In one of them, a student was watching a very old monk spreading mushrooms to dry in the fierce summer sun, and he asked, “Why don’t you get someone else to do that for you?” The old monk answered, “This is my work. Someone else is not me. I am not an other.” In the second anecdote, a student came up to the master and said, “Please, tell me what is the essence of Zen.” The master said, “Tell you? Why, you are absolute nothing.”
The other great question Deshimaru Roshi was always asking is,” How do we live our life? How do we live our life here and now, exactly where we are with the exact people around us and the exact circumstances we are in? How do we live our life?”
Many people will object, saying, ”This is all fairy tales, escapism, you go away to a temple and sit, you don’t have to worry about food or rent it’s all done for you, you have no decisions to make. What happens when you are in the real world, when somebody pushes ahead of you in the queue; when you come home and your house has been burgled; when somebody steals your parking place; when you lose your job; when the bank manager insults you; when your child dies?”
You do just the same. Here and now, you do what is to be done and not what is not to be done. You live your own life here and now.
All these things go together: what is most important, when all is said and done? Nobody can sneeze in your place, or die in your place. I am not an other. You are absolute nothing. If you are not happy now, you never will be. How do we live our life?
If you understand these questions and statements only as words, with your reasoning mind, with the words we have been taught and the ideas we have absorbed from all of the outside influences that act upon us from before our birth until the day we die, then you will not be able to use them to answer the question of your own life.
But if you understand them with your body too, with your whole self, then they can become the foundation of a life that is free, that respects every other life naturally and unconsciously and automatically, that can be truly useful and helpful in this world that seems to be made up largely of frustration and suffering and disappointment and terribly fleeting joy.
How is this understanding possible? By means of a practice called zazen.