DNA Come, Ego Go

“The buddhas of all times right now share the same eyes and hands with you, and practice and affirm this for the whole three hundred sixty days.  The ancestors from all generations right now share one body and mind with you, and hold it carefully for twelve months.”[1]

Zen Master Dogen

Our society is one of intense individualism.  It’s hard to imagine for many of us that we are anything other than an individual.  We are groups of individuals, rather than individuals that belong to groups.  The group is secondary to the individual.  The individual is primary.  What happens to the group, then, is also secondary to what happens to the individual. 

The individual is one who has zero relationships with others that are more primary than the relationship that one has with one self, and even that relationship with one self is fractured because it does not acknowledge the relationships that are embedded within one’s DNA.  Our society is such that individual rights are held above the welfare of the community.  So, for example, when it comes to Covid 19, many of us are more concerned about our personal freedom (or our choice) to wear a mask or to get the vaccination, and we are not as concerned with how our personal choice impacts the whole of society.

The focus on individual freedoms and rights makes it very hard for us to imagine that what we are is a series of relationships, and that this individual self does not exist.  But if we look carefully enough at our self, as we are sitting quietly in meditation, we can see clearly that what we are is a network of relationships.  Our parents are in us, and their parents, and all the way on back.  But it’s not just the human world of relationships that are within us.  The animal and plant worlds, and even the microbiome is within us.  Had it not been for thousands of millions of years of evolution, I could not type these words that you are now reading.  My hands and eyes (and yours) are the results of generations of beings – countless births and deaths – that have moved and oriented us to what we are today, and to how we see the world, and these hands and eyes continue to change and evolve, perhaps not in my lifetime, but over the generations and in imperceptible ways.

In Chinese and Japanese civilization, when times are rough and chaotic, people’s go-to for security has been to consult with or contemplate the ancients of the past – the ancestors.  The ancestors are not just a romantic idea.  There is no need to hire a psychic and do a séance to bring them back to communicate with them in some highly emotional way.  In Asian thought, they are always right here with us, closer than our own breath, sharing our body and mind with us.  We only need to look into the cells and atoms of our own hand to find them.  Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh recommended this as a practice when we are feeling lonely.[2]  Pause for a moment to notice your hand.

The shape and color of the hand you just contemplated is a gift from your ancestors.

If we have a hard time imagining this, we can draw inspiration from Star Wars episode 9, The Rise of Skywalker.  Towards the end of the movie, when it seems that Ray, the hero, has been defeated by Emperor Palpatine, she begins to hear the voices of all the past Jedi masters, encouraging her to keep fighting, to not give up.  She rises to continue her fight.  The final blow and defeat of the emperor is preceded by her emphatic statement that, “all the Jedi of the past are in me!” (paraphrasing). 

In the case of Zen practice, when we see that all the buddhas and ancestors are present in us, are not defeating some external enemy, like the evil emperor, but our own ego that thinks that it is an isolated thing that tries at all costs to preserve itself.  Ego is what has to go.  We indeed share this body and mind with all our ancestors.  The buddhas of all times are in our eyes and hands.  We have everything we need within us to end our isolation and alienation.

[1] Leighton, Taigen Dan, and Okumura, Shohaku, translators.  Dogen’s Extensive Record:  A Translation of the Eihei Koroku.  Boston:  Wisdom Publications, 2010.  Page 167.

[2] I attended the three-week “Breath of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in the summer of 2006, and Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about not just seeing our ancestors in our self, but also culling the qualities of those ancestors that were strong and healthy during their lifetime as a means to healing what ails us.

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