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Unless you see the human from a nonhuman point of view…

October 21, 2012

by Stephen Damon

The other day, I took a dog-eared copy of The Zen teaching of Homeless Kodo off my shelf and flipped through its pages and came across something that Sawaki Roshi said to his student, Uchiyama Roshi: Unless you see the human from a nonhuman point of view, you will never understand the truth.  After I read that sentence I couldn’t read any further—I couldn’t think of anything else.  I have been studying Zen for a long time and I can’t recall ever reading something as strange and yet obviously true.  He seemed to be saying that human nature includes nonhuman elements. This is the second rank of Zen, the real within the phenomenal, in which we see particulars against the backdrop of the Ultimate or as Zen Master Caoshan (Sozan) said, The moon reflected in the water, or an image reflected in a mirror, basically has no origin or extinction; how could there be any traces?  In a strange way, I felt both unsettled and unsettled, simultaneously.  How interesting! 

That was a few days ago, but the phrase, from a non-human point of view has remained very fresh in my mind.  I have started every one of my morning sittings by silently repeating the phrase a few times, as I have done when I’ve worked with koans and sutras.  And I have tried to come back to it as often as I can during the day. It has become my question—the cutting edge of my practice.  As has been said about koans, it has become a hot coal that I can’t swallow or spit out. And this seems to have activated the “nonhuman” part of myself—the part that existed before I was born and will continue after I die.  

To put it as simply as I can, Sawaki’s comments have brought me to the question of what it means to be human.  Were there “nonhuman” elements in human nature?  I was in front of the question of not “who” I am so much as “what” I am. I related not as much to the name given me to me by parents, as I did to my Dharma name, which connects me to an ancient lineage, an invisible line of connection that has existed since beginningless time.  In other words, I saw “Stephen” from a non-Stephen point of view!

It’s the question I have whenever I find myself in special conditions such as an all-day sitting or when I go outside on a clear night beneath the vast expanse of stars.  These conditions help me to see myself in a much more comprehensive context than I usually have. I feel that the universe is asking me to take account of myself. It is asking me where I am in much the same way as God asked Adam, “Where art thou?” But I don’t need to go out on a starry night and I don’t need to read the bible to be in front of the question of what I am. Each morning as I do prostrations in front of my altar I sense that all the ancestors, past and future, are there invisibly beside me, paying attention to my every gesture, waiting to see what I will do next.  It is during these moments that I see myself as they see me, and I feel fully alive and human.



From → Zen Buddhism

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