Why It Never Rains on the Enlightened

"Learning to Breathe Underwater" by Shachi Kale /

Roshi Steve Hagen, a Zen priest and author of The Grand Delusion, sat down with Rabbi Rami Shapiro to wrestle with some big stuff—including the ghost of “It!”

What should be the purpose of any religious tradition?

RABBI RAMI: Ideally, to free people from their sense of separateness and superiority; to provide them with the tools for awakening to the nondual reality of which all life is a part; and, as it says in Genesis 12:3, the skill for living as a blessing to all the families of the earth, human, and otherwise.

STEVE HAGEN: Religion is uniquely situated to help us wake up, to see reality directly, to realize it. And nothing more than that. And this is why belief is so injurious to religion. It keeps religion from fulfilling its ability to help us realize Reality.

One of my favorite verses from the Bible, Psalm 46:10, says, “Be still and know.” This is when we can truly know—when we’re still. Still within our minds, within our hearts, and open to what is taking place, no matter what it might be.

Religion can teach us to just sit down and shut up and pay attention. Then we can discover that we already know; we’re already enlightened; we already realize Truth.

RR: I agree, and to do this, religions need to listen more to their mystics than their clerics. Mystics teach us to use tradition to move beyond tradition, whereas clerics make a fetish of tradition and teach us to die for tradition—and, worse, to kill for it. Mystics know that beyond tradition there is what Rumi calls the field…

SH: Beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field; I will meet you there. We have that poem over our front door at Dharma Field, the Zen center where I teach and practice.

We can wake up; we can realize what’s going on, what’s taking place. We directly experience Truth, Reality, all the time. How could we not? But we keep making things of it, and that’s where we get sidetracked.

At some point we can start to realize what we’re doing, that we’re making something up, we’re constructing something. And at that point, we can really settle down, be still. And then there can be actual knowing. Short of that, you’re still caught in belief, ideas, and conjecture.

RR: This sounds like enlightenment. Is this how you understand enlightenment?

SH: I don’t know that I do understand enlightenment. I don’t have any ideas about it. What we most deeply need and want is to know. We want to understand, to realize what’s going on, what this existence is all about.

With this practice and teaching I have followed now for well over 50 years, if it’s laid out correctly and approached correctly, there’s never anything set out for us to grasp or believe. We don’t find any substantiality—not in the various things and forms and ideas and beliefs and opinions. With a full realization of this, we gradually learn to not grasp anything.

But this certainly doesn’t mean to ignore everything; we can’t do that. We do have this relative world, the world of this and that, coming and going, and the appearances of things coming and going, and enduring for a time before they go. We can’t deny the appearances, but are the appearances of something substantial and Real and enduring? No. What we do have is Totality, all of this taking place at once. We just can’t get ahold of it—though Totality is not an it. At some point, we can just become at ease with that.

RR: In English, the word it is a grammatical ghost that causes lots of problems by implying a dimension of reality that doesn’t exist. For example, we say, “It is raining,” yet just what is this “It” that is raining? There is no “It”; there is just the phenomenon of raining. In Hebrew, we have no equivalent for the English “It.” We say yesh geshem: “Rain happening.”

SH: I used your example of the rain in one of my books to illustrate this very point. Unfortunately, I’m limited to speaking—though not thinking—in English. But I suspect we’re pointing at the same Reality.

We’ve been talking about language. One way to point to that which can be experienced but cannot be named or spoken of or grasped is Mind. Mind not as an object; Mind with a capital M, which isn’t like your mind or my mind.

I think this is a very effective term, because you can’t easily form an idea or an image of it. Of course, once again it’s not an “It.”

In our experience, there’s seeing, there’s hearing, there’s touching, feeling, thinking. This is all Mind. Actual, direct experience is always Mind.

You can’t get hold of Mind. Where is it located? But it’s always immediate, direct. So it’s a way to speak of something that really we can’t put into language.

RR: Jewishly, we speak of two qualities of mind: mochin d’katnut, narrow mind, which sees itself apart from the whole, and mochin d’gadlut, spacious mind, which sees itself as a part of the whole. Both are natural expressions of the whole. What happens in contemplative practice, metaphorically speaking, is that narrow mind melts into spacious mind.

Steve, you’ve said that you’re not a Buddhist; you’re Buddhish. And Rami, you say you’re not Jewish; you’re a Jew. Would each of you say more about those designations?

SH: I’ve never actually said that I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve only denied the claim that I am. I just don’t understand what appears to be a typical religion with its robes, rituals, bells, whistles, that sort of thing. Such things make no sense to me. My sole interest, practice, and understanding is Buddhadharma—what the Awakened teach.

At the very close of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, its author, the great second- and third-century teacher Nagarjuna, writes that the Buddha teaches us how to relinquish all views, including Buddhist views.

If you’re “Buddhist” in the sense that you’re following the teaching of the Awakened, you can’t be a Buddhist as such. You can’t be anything at all. You relinquish all views and live with that freedom. So, whatever is coming up in the moment, you face it. You don’t have to face it with identity or hostility or anything else. You just see it for what it is. And then you do what is wholesome—in other words, act out of the Whole, not out of your own self-centered understanding.

Nevertheless, there’s a flavor of Buddhism about me, because I’ve steeped myself in these teachings and practices for decades now. But I don’t cling to any particular belief. The way I see the teaching of the Awakened is not to hold any viewpoint at all.

RR: I don’t disagree with any of that. The interesting thing about not holding views is that one of the views you have to discard is the view of not holding views. So even that can become something you hang onto.

SH: Indeed. It’s a matter of pure Awareness alone and not of grasping either self or other.

RR: For me, Jewish doesn’t sound as serious as being a Jew. I’m a Jew. I belong to a tribe of which I am often very proud and often very humbled and often very aggravated. So on the level of mochin d’katnut, narrow mind, relative consciousness, I claim the label. On the level of mochin d’gadlut, spacious mind, the absolute, I’m nothing at all.

There’s an ancient story about Rabbi Hillel, who lived about a century before Jesus. A Roman soldier approached Hillel and said, “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Rami, what’s your one-foot version of Judaism? And Steve, what’s your one-foot version of Buddhism?

RR: Hillel’s response to the soldier was, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to somebody else. That’s the entire Torah; everything else is commentary. Now go study it.” This is a revolutionary reframing of Judaism! Hillel is equating Torah with the Golden Rule—and equating Judaism, or what he calls “everything else,” as commentary on the Golden Rule. He’s reenvisioning Judaism as a vehicle for deepening our understanding of and engagement with the Golden Rule. I teach Hillel’s Judaism at my own One-Foot Judaism Academy.

SH: About Buddhism, I can’t answer. But Buddhadharma, which is the teaching of the Awakened, can be summed up very simply. The Buddha provided just such a summary, at least according to what we have written down. It’s the 183rd verse of the Dhammapada, where his instructions are to “do what is wholesome; avoid what is unwholesome; purify your own mind. This is the teaching of the Awakened.” That’s it right there; this is what the Awakened teach.

There’s quite a bit that could be said about what is wholesome, but I wouldn’t be able to stay on one foot. The same is true for what is unwholesome. But I’ve come to the point where I understand that what is unwholesome can be as basic as holding to ideas and beliefs and concepts. Of course, these things are useful and functional in many ways, but holding onto them leads us into a fractured world, which is not of the Whole. And then there’s fighting and squabbling, and all the things that will disturb our mind in ways that make it very difficult for us to wake up.

RR: Brilliant, Steve. I suspect Hillel would say, “Yeah, that’s Judaism, too.”

Roshi Steve Hagen is a Zen priest and Dharma teacher, and the author of many books, including Buddhism Plain and Simple, Meditation Now or Never, Buddhism Is Not What You Think, and The Grand Delusion: What We Know But Don’t Believe.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is Contributing Editor at Spirituality+Health and author of over 35 books, including Holy Rascals, Open Secrets, and, most recently, Judaism Without Tribalism.

Scott Edelstein of the Scott Edelstein Literary Agency posed the questions.

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Learning to Breathe Underwater credit Shachi Kale

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