“Words like ‘Enlightenment’ (called turiyatita in Hindu and dhyana in Zen) are notoriously difficult to nail down. Like the words ‘love’ and ‘god,’ they are loaded with our own ideas, and are mere approximations. Using language, then, can be tricky.” – Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi & Keith Martin-Smith1
“Let it be.” – Paul McCartney
Authors note: This post is a risk for me. It’s also about something that, no matter how much I study or learn or sit with, I always arrive at a point at which I simply cannot explain, understand, or describe. I hope that you enjoy it, but either way I’d love to hear your opinions, whether good or bad, either via email or in the comments below. Thanks!
One of my good friends and his wife recently had their first kid (Woohoo! Congrats!). Before the baby was born, we were chatting about how everything was going. My buddy mentioned that it was surprisingly difficult to decide what to name him. Naming someone certainly feels like a lot of responsibility – that’s what they are going to be known as for the rest of their life.
Although names can sometimes seem like a big deal, the bigger deal is existing. Even without a name, the child was alive. He was there, growing a physical body and a developing a personality even before he was born.
It’s Not The Naming That Matters. It’s the Being
Throughout history, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that we’re here, alive, existing, being. As Descartes deduced, “I think, therefore I am.” But being is a tricky thing. Look up “to be” in a dictionary, and you’ll find that it is defined as, “to exist.” Look up “to exist” and you’ll find it is defined as “to be.” Not a lot of help. Then again, words can be clumsy, and some things just can’t be explained using language.
How do you describe something that exists without bringing along the cultural stereotypes, meanings, and histories that go along with the language being used to describe that thing? How do you talk about something without giving it a name? Because, at the end of the day, it’s not the name that matters – it’s the being.
One strategy is to avoid using names at all. Or, at least, to use names that acknowledge the importance of the being-ness rather than the name itself. Consider the following examples from the Taoist, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Islam, and Zen traditions:
- Taoist: Itself so. The opening line of the Tao Te Ching is, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” As Allan Watts describes in the Way of Tao, “The Tao works by itself. It’s nature is to be, as is said in Chinese, tzu-jan, that which is ‘of itself,’ ‘by itself,’ or ‘itself so.’ Tao is meant to be a sort of nonsense syllable, indicating the mystery that we can never understand — the unity that underlies the opposites. Tao is thus a reality that we apprehend deeply without being able to define it.”
- Jewish and Christian: I am that I am. In Exodus 3:14, when Moses asks God what He should be called, he receives a response that is commonly translated into English as “I am that I am.” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, ehyeh ašer ehyeh)2
- Hindu: That you are, and Being. The Sanskrit phrase “Tat Tvam Asi”, which originally occurs in the Chandogya Upanishad, is translated variously as “That art thou,” “That thou art,” “Thou art that,” “You are that,” or “That you are.”3 Another Sanskrit phrase, “Sat-Chit-Ananda,” which represents the unity of soul (Atman) and reality (Brahman), is commonly translated as “Being-Consciousness-Bliss.”
- Islam: He is. In the Quran (or Koran), Muhammad describes God as “‘He is, God the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was He begotten. No one is comparable to Him.’” [112:1-4]
- Zen: Suchness. “Zen is simply the sensation and the clear understanding that, to put it in Zen terms, there are ‘ten thousand formations; one suchness,’” describes Allan Watts in What is Zen. “There is, behind the multiplicity of events and creatures in this universe, simply one energy — and it appears as you, and everything is it. Zen has nothing to say about what that energy is […] they use the word ‘suchness’ to leave the whole question open, and absolutely free from definition. It is ‘such.’ It is what it is. At the basis of everything, there is something that never could be made an object, and discerned, figured out, or explained. You might never become aware of the structure and the nature of the basic energy of the world because you are it, and in fact, everything is it.”
Many Names, One Being
As human beings, we tend to get uncomfortable when something doesn’t have a name or description, even when that something cannot be named or described. In itself that’s not a problem. However, it becomes one when we defend our particular choice of name as being the best, or try to use it for power or profit. We fail to realize that these are all just different names for the same thing, and that thing was there long before we named it.
Which of these names do you recognize?
- Author of Nature
- Clear Deep Heart
- Clear Deep Mind
- Soul of the world
- YHWY or Yahweh
Having a diverse group of names for this being and the religions that accompany them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The challenge arises when there is a failure to recognize the underlying unity, or to appreciate that there are more commonalities than differences. “People need and appreciate diversity in their food because there are so many different tastes,” suggests the Dalai Lama. “In the same way, religions are meant to nourish the human spirit. We must respect and appreciate the value of all the different major world religious traditions.”
A Spiritual Being In A Human Incarnation
You too, are. That thing, that force, that divine, spiritual energy that existed before it had a name – that thing is in you, too.
We may not always feel comfortable calling it (or ourselves) divine, but it’s there, and we are. Only, when we refer to it inside of ourselves, we give it different names like intellect, awareness, mind, and conscious.
Here’s how two of my favorite Romans and one of my favorite Russians put it:
- Lucius Anneals Seneca, Stoic philosopher: “Life’s essence lies, not in your body, but in your conscience. The divine spark lives in all of us, and perpetually strives toward its origin.”
- Marcus Aurelius, philosopher-emperor: “I call spirit that part of man which has independent existence and gives us the understanding of life.”
- Leo Tolstoy, author: “The voice of your conscience is the voice of God.”
One of the most beautiful parts about living on this planet is that everyone shares that same divine energy. It’s something we intuitively understand – we feel good when smiling at someone, or laughing together, or when we serve others. The idea also underlies the great Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” which is translated as, “I bow to the divine in you,” or, “the divine in me bows to the divine in you,” or, “the teacher in me bows to the teacher in you.”
As the brilliant Michael Bernard Beckwith describes, “This is the crux of what it means to be a spiritual being having a human incarnation: to discover, accept, and express our inheritance of oneness with Source and channel its essence of excellence as we deliver our gifts, talents, and skills in the world.”
Honor Your Being
Take a moment today to honor your awareness and the energy that brought you here. Practice being. Don’t do anything with it, just be in it. Acknowledge it. Make it a direct experience. Maybe go for a walk in nature, or sit and meditate.
You are a unique expression of that BEING that has been, is, and will be forever. Fully appreciate how awesome that is.
Then, brainstorm on how you are going to honor your unique expression of that being. What can you create? How are you going to impact others?
Even one single moment of true awareness is worth a lifetime of work.
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- The Heart of Zen [↩]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_that_I_Am [↩]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tat_Tvam_Asi [↩]