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In My World – Woo-Young Tetsugen Yang

Here we have another contribution on the newsletter theme, this time from Woo.
‘When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.’ – David Loy

In my world, there are many people, many sentient beings. The ones who come to my mind most often and most easily are the ones who I either love or hate. Often the ones who I hate grab my attention more forcibly, and I spend much time hating them. The ones who wronged me. The ones who hurt me. The ones who shirked their duties and dumped them on me. The ones who ignored me. The ones who looked down on me. Of course, I also spend time with the ones who I love. The ones who love me. The ones who were kind to me. The ones who supported me. The ones who picked me up again when I was down.

The interesting thing is that there are equally as many “me’s” as there are these people. The indignant me. The hurt me. The irritated me. The embarrassed me. The angry me. Again, there are not only the horrible “e’s” in my world: there are also the joyful me, the grateful me, the me who wants to pay back/pay forward the kindness, the inspired me, and the humble me. Of course, these “me’s” are as much sentient beings as the people in my world.

An even more fascinating thing is that, in my world, I cannot really separate these people from these “me’s”, and vice versa. The indignant me is superimposed on the ones who wronged me. The ones who hurt me superimposed on the me who is hurt. The grateful me on all the ones who I love. They are like a needle and its thread – and I cannot even say which one is the needle and which one the thread. At any rate, if you pull one, the other comes along too.

Sometimes these people in my world go through metamorphosis – the ones who were kind to me may ignore me some other time, or the ones who hurt me show incredible kindness. With them, the “me’s” also change, still superimposed.

While it is always so easy to see ‘the other people’, it is not always so easy for me to see the “me’s”. It is the strangest thing, that I often cannot see the ones who are the closest to me – the “me’s”. It is even more strange when I think about how they are actually superimposed on ‘the other people’, yet I only see ‘the others’ and not the “me’s”! Bizarre.

What I learnt recently is that in fact I so often look away from certain “me’s”. If I get up close and personal with them, some of them are actually really quite ugly, other ones filled with shame, and yet others downright painful. In fact, even the ‘joyful me’ sometimes hides something sinister underneath. When it really hit home beyond the usual intellectualisation during the last retreat that I was inevitably going to part with my loved ones at some point in the future, the pain was so unbearable that I ended up wailing rather than just simply crying. When I connect with these “me’s”, there is no other choice but to suffer. The longer I have neglected them, the bigger the suffering. Unfortunately, I also found that pushing them away is not really as productive as I once thought it was, as it simply creates more “me’s”, like the cynical and jaded me, the indifferent me, the pretentious me… So, in the true sense of the word, I am skewered in the middle of it.

In the process of learning about how often I look away, however, I have also discovered how to listen to them more closely – with kindness, openness and courage, without abandoning their stories half-way but making sure that I listen right till the end, until ‘even the film credits finish rolling up.’ Surprisingly, as long as I patiently and quietly listen, the “me’s” shift slowly, much like how the northern lights move. Then they reveal what was really underneath all this time – the sadness, the fear, the longing, the love…

Just like how the “me’s” change when the ‘other people’ change, when the “me’s” change, the people change. I guess they have to, really, as they are still stuck together. The ones who wronged me are not so horrible. The ones who hurt me are not so despicable. The ones who shirked their duties are…… well, maybe they are still really quite lazy. And the ones who I love get to have some more breathing space, freed from my clinging. (Not all the way! Just a little bit.) Sometimes they even get to show me their hidden warts.

Two interesting questions are: “who changed my mind?” and “who responded differently to the world?” My experience is that when I tried my damned hardest to change my mind or respond differently to the world, it never really worked. I would just get more and more exhausted, and in the end just give up, saying, “It is too hard, I can’t do it.” I still do that sometimes. When my mind does change these days, however, often what I do is just have a break from things, take a seat, stay quiet, and do nothing. If anything, the effort is focused on staying still. In that sense, I guess I can still say that I try hard – at not trying too hard. Then the “Me/the Others confluence” start telling me things, and I listen.

Sometimes staying still really sucks as I mentioned above, and sometimes it literally feels like being sucked into a hurricane. Nevertheless, usually there is sunlight on the other side, and I tend to think it was worth it. As this experience repeats itself, I gain more faith in the sunlight that will be on the other side. It gives me the courage to face the hurricane without running away when it comes, and to stay still in its midst. (Sometimes I expect the sunshine – with the famous words, “are we there yet?” – and all is lost as the sunshine never comes when you expect it. I guess it is human nature to slip up like this from time to time.) As I don’t really do anything, they come when they are ready, which is almost the same thing as saying when I am ready. (Sometimes they come anyway when it is not convenient for me, but of course one cannot have everything.) So, is it more correct to phrase the David Loy quote as “when my world responds differently to my world, my world responds differently to my world”, without the ‘you/we’ in the middle? Another interesting question would be, ‘Is that world the same one as the world in the David Loy quote? Are these people you talk about all just in your head or the real people?’ I don’t know, and frankly for me that’s not the point.

The Mahayana doctrine sometimes says that a Bodhisattva is a person who postpones the attainment of his own Buddhahood until all sentient beings achieve Buddhahood first. This interpretation in fact turns out to be a contentious point even within the Mahayana philosophy, and our own Keizan Sensei thinks it is rubbish! However, if I am allowed to comment purely on the doctrine’s sentiment alone and ignore the mechanism within such ‘spiritual progression’ or conversely the standard Zen spirit of “all sentient beings are already enlightened”, I feel that ‘I’ truly cannot be enlightened until all the sentient beings in my world are given their due care and attention, and finally ‘enlightened’ – “me’s” or otherwise. Thinking in this way, as well as ‘to shed light on’ which is the original meaning the English word enlightenment, somehow it feels like enlightenment should also mean ‘to lighten the load’ – for all sentient beings. It is not the matter of “I won’t get enlightened” – it is just that I can’t, because it is impossible. We all get there together, or we don’t get there at all. After all, we are stuck together.