Man is distinguished from the beast primarly by his capacity for self-knowledge. Both people and animals eat, sleep and reproduce. Both experience sensations, emotions and perceptions; and both are capable of gathering information about the external world. But only man is truly capable of knowing himself. This fact was clearly recognized by the great Western philosopher Socrates, who took as the cornerstone of his philosophy the maxim: "Know thyself." Zen Buddhism concurs in this recognition of self-knowledge as the distinguishing mark of authentic human existance. Unlike the western theistic religions, Zen is not concerned with knowledge of a God. And unlike modern science, Zen is not concerned with factual knowledge about the external world. What occupies the primary place in the search for knowledge in Zen Buddhism is we ourselves; ever present and yet so far away; so close at hand and yet so elusive; so familiar and yet so poorly understood.
To know ourselves is first of all to know that our own true nature is the Buddha nature. Just as the sun and moon are always shining, but may not be visible because they are obscured by clouds and mist, so the Buddha nature is ever present within us, though it may not be apparent because it is covered over by the clouds of lust, hatred and delusion. To practice meditation is to remove the layers of clouds that conceal our true being so that our Buddha nature may appear again, wonderful and radiant in its intrinsic purity. When the Buddha attained Supreme Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he laughed. Why? Because before he was enlightened he thought the truth he was seeking was something distant from himself. But when he achieved Enlightenment, he realized that the truth he sought was nothing other than his true nature, which was ever with him before the beginning of time. The whole process of Samsara, of wandering through the painful round of birth and death, had begun merely because he had lost sight of his original nature. But his true nature had never departed from him, and when he became enlightened, he discovered that is was ever present, only needing his recognition to become apparent.
To illustrate this truth, the Buddha related the following story in the Lotus Sutra: Once in India there lived a family which consisted of a man, his wife and their son. The parents were very rich; they owned many acres of land and had a large sum of money in the bank and great quantities of gold and jewels. However, their son was not very intelligent. The parents often worried about what would happen to him after they died, for he was so simple-minded that they did not think him capable of managing his own affairs.
Then one day the father had an idea. He gave his son a precious jewel of inestimable value and told him to keep the jewel tied up in his clothes. He was never to take it out until they died. Only then could he remove it, sell it in the marketplace and use the money he received to support himself. The son bore his father's words in mind and kept the promise. Then one day, as the years passed by, his father died; several years later his mother died, and the son came by his full inheritance. In his ignorance, however, the young man foolishly squandered his wealth on fruitless pursuits. He sold the furniture, the houses, the rice fields, the granaries and all else, but while he spent, he did not earn. Thus, before he knew it, he found himself a poor man, without a penny to his name, without even a roof over his head. He was reduced to the state of a beggar, wandering from house to house and from town to town begging for his meals. Some days he got enough to eat, but on other days he got no food at all.
One day, overcome by hunger and exhaustion, he lay down in the middle of the street, too weak and tired to move. Just then a Buddhist monk walked down the street and saw the young man lying on the ground. The monk began to help the man to his feet when suddenly a wonderful precious jewel fell out of the shredded clothing. "Why are you begging for food," the monk asked, "when all the time you have had this precious jewel? Go sell it, and use the money to support yourself." The young man was struck with wonder and amazement at seeing this jewel he had forgotten about for so long. He sold it in the market, and with the money he got for it he was able to buy back all his former possessions. Never again did he have to suffer from poverty.
The young man in the story always carried the jewel with him. It was only because he had forgotten about it that he had to suffer from poverty, hunger and disease. When he discovered that the jewel was always with him, he was able to wipe out all his troubles. In the same way, we always carry about within ourselves the precious jewel of the Buddha nature, but because of our ignorance we do not perceive it and so undergo the sufferings of birth and death. But when suddenly we become enlightened, we realize the Buddha nature was with us from the very beginning, and thereby we wipe out all the afflictions that have troubled us since we began the round of birth and death. The Buddha nature is not something distant: it is the bright and precious substance of our original mind.
But though the Buddha nature is present within us, we are not yet Buddhas. The reason we are not yet Buddhas is because we are still victims of the ego-delusion. Our minds are continually dominated by a seemingly endless train of egocentric thoughts - thoughts of greed, attachment, anger, pride, envy and passion. Self-reflection not only awakens us to the immacu ate Essence of Mind, abiding silently in the mind's depths, but also brings to our attention the hordes of deluded thoughts that clutter its surface. It is only by becoming cognizant of our Weaknesses through self reflection that we can work to remove the roots from which they spring. It is only by careful analysis of the functionings of our minds that we can discover in ourselves the negative factors which hinder enlightenment and the positive factors which are conducive to enlightenment. Through this self-knowledge, we are prepared to undertake the work of self-cultivation, which involves removing the negative forces and cultivating the positive forces. Self-reflection opens to our eyes the secret contents of our inner life and is thus an indispensable tool in the process of self-transformation which constitutes the heart of Buddhism.
A simple story shows the importance of self-reflection in daily life. In ancient China there were many pious Buddhist families in which the religious life of Buddhism was shared by all the members of the family. But in more recent times a generation gap set in between the parents and their children. The parents might be very devout Buddhists while their children regarded them as old-fashioned and superstitious. In one such family the parents chanted sutras, practiced meditation, recited the name of the Buddha and often went to the temple to hear Dharma-masters speak the Dharma and explain the sutras. The son, however, would have none of these activities. He regarded Buddhism as a mass of superstition, ritual and fantasy, and was himself interested only in science, technology and the materialistic lures of modern life. The son continually pleaded with his parents to give up their Buddhist ideas. He criticized the concepts of Buddhist philosophy and mocked the practices in which his pious parents participated. One day, after his parents returned from temple, his father called his son to his room and spoke to him thus: "Son, it seems you are not happy to see your mother and me go to the Buddhist temple so often. You always criticize our religion. Would you like us to stop going to the temple?" The son nodded his assent. "Well, I'll tell you something," the father continued, "We will never go to the temple again." The son became excited. "Providing that you could do for me one small favor. Are you willing to do it?"
"Oh yes, Father, I would do anything to get you to throw off that religious nonsense."
"Go to the store now, and buy yourself a pencil and a small notebook. Then from today on, for the next week, I would like you to sit down for one hour a day, let your mind flow and write down in the notebook every idea that comes into your mind-every plan, every desire, every memory. The only thing I ask is that you do this honestly, with complete candor. Then come to me at the end of the week, and show me the note-book. Do you promise to do this?"
The son, thinking this was an easy task, readily agreed. "You also keep your promise," he added. The father nodded.
That night the son sat down at his desk and began to write. He wrote with complete honesty, not holding anything back. One moment this thought came into his mind-he wrote it down; the next moment that thought came into his mind-he wrote it down. He wrote down all his hopes and dreams and fantasies, all his desires and regrets and fears and memories. Thus he continued one hour each night for three nights. Then, on the third night, as he lay on his bed, curiosity began to grow in him. He started to wonder what he had written in the past few days. His curiosity grew stronger and stronger until he could not sleep, but jumped up and began to read. As he read through his notebook, a burning sense of shame over-whelmed him. He felt a pain gnaw at the heart as he poured through the pages he had written. He thought of his mother and his father and of their love for him,and all this provoked in him a disgust for his inward state of being, the state which he had candidly revealed in the pages of his notebook. Too ashamed to show the book to anyone, he threw it into the fire and watched over it until it was all consumed. Then he went to see his father.
He found his father sitting in meditation before the Buddha altar in the shrine room. He entered and sat quietly behind him. After the father completed his meditation, he turned around and saw his son. Sensing that something was wrong, he asked: "What is the matter with you, my son?"
"You've won the game, Father."
"Well," the son explained, "you asked me to write down all my thoughts and feelings one hour a day in a notebook. I kept my promise and did so honestly. Tonight I looked over my notebook and realized that I cannot show it to you. There are some thoughts and feelings I have that are just too private and of which I am too ashamed. Now I am aware that there is a great deal of imperfection in myself. I see that it is necessary to practice Buddhism to purify myself. Next time you go to the temple, please let me go with you."
This story clearly shows us the necessity for practicing meditation and cultivating the Way. Within the privacy of our minds pass many thoughts we would not reveal even to our closest friends and dearest loved ones: our minds are filled with dark tracks and shadows. It is no solution to conceal these thoughts from others and from ourselves, for the impulses they spring from still remain and haunt us in the depths of our inner being. The only solution is to pursue the evil thoughts to their roots in the mind and extricate the roots themselves; then our minds will become pure and clear. The first step in this process is to become aware of our faults. So long as we are blind to our faults, no self-cultivation can take place at all, for our passions, hatreds and delusions are the material upon which self cultivation works. The father skillfully led his son into taking this step of recognition by asking him ro record with complete candor all his thoughts and feelings.
Once the awareness of our flaws impresses itself upon our mind with enough force, there will arise in us the desire to be free from them. This is where the real work of meditation begins, with the purification and perfection of the mind. Our mind is just like a room. If we burn incense in the room, it will become fragrant, but if we allow garbage to fester in it, it will become putrid. In the same way, our mind has two sides to it, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the pure and the impure, and we are free to develop it in either of these two directions. To practice Buddhism is to work at eliminating the bad and increasing the good. When we accomplish this, when we become thoroughly pure and good, then we will be Buddhas, Enlightened Ones endowed with wisdom and compassion.
The most difficult part of self-reflection is learning to be critical towards oneself. It is easy to be swept away by pious emotions and enthusiasm for the religion of one's conviction. It is much more diffficult to keep an eye on our faults and hindrances and to keep them in check. But this work is absolutely essential, for without exertion there can be no progress on the path-no samadhi, no wisdom, no enlightenment, no Nirvana. When we are asked to keep an eye on our own faults, we usually find our eyes focused upon the faults of others. We are more tolerant of ourselves than we are of other people. We are like the woman who continually pointed to the dust on other people's windows while she did not notice that her own window was covered with dust. We should follow Shen-Hsiu's advice and keep the dust from settling on the clear rnirror of the self nature.
Buddhism teaches that before we criticize other people for keeping dirty apartments we should learn to tidy up our own first. Before we pass judgment on the other person, we should examine ourselves and ask whether we are perfect. As the Buddha says: "Let not one seek others' faults, things left done and undone by others, but one's own deeds done and undone. If we are not yet perfect, why should we expect others to be more perfect than we are. The other man is human also, and so, being human, he is liable to commit mistakes. If we reflect along these lines, it is easy to be tolerant towards other people when we are confronted by their errors, weaknesses and shortcomings. But while we should be tolerant towards other, we should not be too tolerant towards ourselves. When we become too tolerant towards ourselves, we tend to overlook our faults, and when we overlook our faults, we cannot purify ourselves or make any progress on the path. Self-reflection will enable us to discover both our positive and negative qualities so that we can cultivate the former and eliminate the latter. In this way, little by little, we advance along the path of moral and spiritual perfection. Each period we sit in meditation we create good thought, a pure and quiet mind; from that our actions, habits and character will be pure, and from that we will enjoy a happier and more meaningful life.