“Flowers, though adored, wither and die.
Weeds, though hated, thrive”
It would be easy to take the above phrase, like so much of Zen Buddhism, as cynicism or nihilism. But Dogen wasn’t saying the 13th century equivalent of “life’s a bitch”, he was pointing out something much simpler, much less colored by either cynicism or optimism. I believe he was simply pointing out that the world happens, it does what it does right this moment regardless of what we want (or dont want) to happen. You want flowers to live forever, “sorry” says the world “they only live a little while.”
Life, as a matter of fact, is not a bitch. Neither is it easy. It just is until we come along and mess it up with our perceptions and preferences. I’ve noticed that many, perhaps most books and articles on Buddhism try to put a happy face on it, they expressly say things like “how Buddhism leads to happiness” or “the zen of joy” or similar stuff. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but it seems to me that this is just wrong headed. the goal isnt joy or happiness, its reality. its truth, and the truth isn’t happy , neither is it sad, or angry, or bored or unconcerned. The truth, as far as I can tell simply is and when you see it, really see it (again, not that I claim to) it would seem to be free of all this personal decoration we try to paint it with. Dogen certainly didnt say you would be happy all the time, nor did any of the guys who seem grounded in real reality, the folks who weren’t selling anything and didn’t care whether you believed them or not, from what I can tell their message wasnt one of joy and jolly smiles, it was simply being fully awake to the world in all its wonderful ordinariness.
Does this sound like a bummer? If so then I think you dont really understand the true amazingness of the world fully awake. All emotions, even the pleasurable ones come and go, they bring suffering as they do so. When we are sad we want to be happy, when we are happy we don’t want to ever stop being happy, when we stop being happy all we can think of is how to get back to that other emotional state we enjoyed more than this one. . .and endless wheel of suffering. Of course, emotions are natural wonderful things and no one, not the Buddha, not dogen and not me are saying you shouldn’t feel them, rather that we shouldn’t be attached to them. We can feel our feelings without riding the wheel of suffering if we can feel them as they naturally arise and pass without feeling the need to chase this particular feeling or avoid that one.
Pessimism, optimism, nihilism, they are all tinted glasses we use to look at the world. The problem is that we already have perfect vision, so all the glasses do is distort what we can see clearly if we can only bear to let go of the lens we try to look at the world through. Think for a minute, why do we need a ‘point of view’ to look at the world? Why do we need a filter of positive or negative bias to interpret what is all around us and evident? We don’t! But we have gotten so used to it that we cant imagine how we could comprehend what we see around us without that bias. The truth, of course, is that we manage to live in and understand the world just fine without our filters, actually we manage to do it much better!
Why is that so scary to so many folks. Why was it so scary to me? I suppose we don’t fundamentally trust the world ( or ourselves). Are we afraid that we will turn into emotionless robots? Well, i don’t know much, but I have been doing this long enough to know that rather than become devoid of emotion, instead my emotions are much stronger! The difference is that when I’m really sad, I cry, I feel that emotion deeply and clearly, and then it eventually and naturally goes away and I’m finished feeling it. When I’m happy i feel that fully and with a light heart, but when it gone then its also really gone. instead of trying to push things I don’t want to feel away or clinging to ones I do im getting much better at really feeling them in each moment as long as they are naturally there and not stretching it artificially or trying to cram it away from me. It feels much more pure and honest than I did before.
I remember reading about a zen abbot whose wife dies, and at her funeral he is weeping. One of his monks is amazed by this and asks why the abbot is crying. “Because I miss my wife” the abbot replies. Just because he practices zen does not mean that he has ‘transcended’ emotion, he simply felt it appropriately where a less awake person might feel the need to hold his emotion in to preserve a ‘wise-monk’ like image. It take a lot of practice and time (and i certainly cant do it yet), but if we can truly revere the flowers and the weeds equally then where is the place for sadness or frustration?