Do you belong? Do you ever question if you belong where you are? Do you question if you belong with certain groups – family, community, friends, work – of people that you are with? Do you question if you belong in certain physical locations? Do you question if you belong in certain asanas or meditation poses?
Recently I have been asking myself where I belong. I live in Ames, am a Zen priest, and teach the Dharma. Ames is not a place I am familiar with. I’ve only lived here about one year. I continue to reach out to meet people, but I know relatively few compared to those who have lived here their whole lives and are well connected. I love Ames, it’s where my home is, it’s where I am, but it feels awkward when I say, “I’m from Ames, Iowa.”
There are not a lot of Buddhist priests in Ames. There are many lay Buddhists some of whom are self proclaimed, and some who have a formal relationship with a teacher. I feel a connection to these folks when I meet them, sometimes a profound connection. If someone were to ask me where my sangha is, however, I don’t feel comfortable pointing in a particular direction or to a specific place.
I teach in many places. There is not one place that I teach that I can call with all honesty “my” sangha. I teach at the Des Moines Zen Center, at the Cedar Rapids Zen Center, at Dizang-Qi, at the Ames UU Church, at various YMCA’s, and at other meditation groups in the area. I have not created a nest in any one of these places, yet I feel a part of them all in some way.
So I have been asking myself lately where I belong. Where is my true home? Where is my sangha?
Belonging is an interesting word if we break it down. The first part is be. Be refers to presence in the here and now. It’s opposite is do. To be requires nothing of us, no change of mental state. To be is simply acceptance of who we are in this moment without judgment.
The second part of the word is also interesting: longing. Longing for something means to wish or to desire, or to want. It can have a positive connotation to it. It is healthy, for example, to long for love, health, or happiness. In a Zen sense, it is equivalent to “Hotsubodaishin,” the mind that yearns for Enlightenment. Longing is a mental activity that moves us to do or to act in some way. It precedes doing, but is an essential component of doing.
To “belong,” then is to yearn to be. It’s not quite being, and it’s not quite doing. It is somewhere between the two. The word “belong” has come to mean to feel at home where you are, and with whom you are with. Home is the place where we can express our longing to simply be. We belong to a group of friends. We can say the same thing about belonging with regards to doing something, or with our work. If we are happy with our work, we may have a feeling of belonging to it when we are working together with others in a shared project.
To belong in the sense of yearning to be is probably more reflective of what we cultivate in Zen practice while in meditation. We are not quite here, but make the intention to be here. Another way to say it is that when we practice zazen we are fully present in the moment, yet partially blind to the fullness of this moment. Either way, it’s difficult to be 100 percent. Yet this is our aim.
Buddha spoke of the Middle Way as not attaching to the extremes of asceticism and indulgence, but he also taught it as the path between being and non-being. Belonging, in the sense of longing to be, is similar to the Middle Way teaching; not quite being, not quite non-being. It expresses the paradox of our lives, a paradox we rarely reflect on unless we are practicing Zen, or unless we are at a loved one’s funeral.
Genjo Koan, Zen Master Dogen’s 1st fascicle in the Shobogenzo (True Dharma Eye Storehouse), is about discovering where we belong and who we are in the present moment. The question we often ask ourselves, consciously or unconsciously is whether or not we belong where we are. But Zen Master Dogen’s question of belonging is different. He’s not asking us to think about if we belong, but how we belong in the present moment. What is our function right now. How shall we belong right here and now? What shall we do? This is a question that plunges us more fully into the present moment, has us take full possession of our being – body, mind, feelings, environment – and has us acting in a way that is in alignment with the totality of our environment. We do not run away from the present in search of a better place, but ask ourselves, “how do I belong in this moment?”
What if, however, our present moment is horrible? What do we do then? Do we try to get out of it? Do we try to make it more livable? This is a question only the person or group in that moment can really answer. But that person or group can be aided by their spiritual practice. First, ask the question, “how do I belong in this moment?” Then, listen to the signals and guidance of your body – feelings, sensations, intuition. Try not listening too much to thought, unless those thoughts resonate deeply with your gut feelings. Let your body be your guide here. Perhaps a simple movement or postural adjustment can make a world of difference. A smile can change your world. Perhaps taking care of yourself in some way helps you to feel a sense of how to be. Perhaps getting up and going for a long stroll through the park is the perfect response to a situation. Or perhaps strategizing, using all your resources – people, finances, work – to find a way out of your circumstances is what needs to be done.
Be-longing is exactly where we are. Not quite here, but on the way. Today, Syrian refugees have much to teach us about belonging. We can look at their plight as our own, just on a much larger scale. The lack of belonging we may feel in our own small lives is a reflection of where we are as a globe. Who are we and where do we belong not just individually, but as a society and as global peoples? We can have compassion for the Syrians who must be suffering greatly as they are hostilely removed from their homes, going to foreign lands, being separated from loved ones, not knowing the culture nor the language. Not having jobs but having a family to support. I can not even imagine the anguish they are in. Let’s pray for them. Let’s help them in what ever way we can. They are not alone in their plight.
It is this yearning to be that is the spark that initiates the quest for Enlightenment. It’s not whether we have the spark or not, but in what way we recognize it, and how we use it toward the betterment of our personal and collective lives. May all beings awaken to their myriad connections to each other.