Buddhism brings many of us to understand that individualism does not exist and is a delusion: that there is no birth, no death, no self, no "I" that exists as an independent reality. We come to recognize that all things are connected through interdependent co-arising.
Why is it that we lose sight of this fundamental truth in the first place, and that in order to rediscover it we have to turn toward a spiritual discipline such as Zen?
At birth, awareness of this jewel of truth begins a slow but steady decline and is eventually lost to sight at the bottom of a muddy pool. The jewel -- our True Self -- becomes hidden by the muck of delusion. As we travel the path of Buddhism we unlearn what we had thought was unshakable fact, and thereby uncover, once again, our Original Nature. We make the water clear again. Once the mud has settled we discover that our True Face was never really lost in the first place, we had just lost sight of it.
The reason we need to take this journey is because we exist on two levels: one relative, one absolute: our lives are relative, but our Original Nature is absolute. In the Relative realm we are born, we develop memories, experiences, emotions, and culture, and we die. This is the realm of cause-and-effect, of karma, and is in place to preserve our life and help us navigate a dangerous and unforgiving world. Yet through life experiences we develop fear and insecurity. Life experience, while helping us navigate through this world, also muddies the proverbial pool: murky lenses develop through which we see the world. Eventually opinions form and we allow only what we think we know to be true, and discard the rest that does not fit our experiential world view. Division, fragmentation, isolation, fear, and judgment control our lives. Buddhism offers the opportunity to take the journey back inward and unravel all these issues on an absolute level. The absolute level deals with experience unbridled by our relative existence.
Many of us, as children, might have drawn a picture house on a hill, decorated it with a landscape of trees, flowers and grass, and put a shiny yellow sun shining in the corner. As children we are not drawing what these things really look like, we are drawing symbols of life around us -- we are just beginning to learn the language of the symbol. As we grow into adults, the repetitive conditioning of our use of symbolic language makes us forget that we are only working with symbols of what Is. We mistake the symbol for what it represents.
Also merely symbols, written and spoken languages create a sizeable barrier when they obscure true experience. The English language refuses to acknowledge the fact that the observer is the observed. For instance, we might say, "It is sunny outside today," but in doing so we have created several problems only because of the language. First we have an observer, observing something separate from them. The "it" refers to weather. The word "outside" further distinguishes the situation more. The word "today" breaks reality into a time sequence. In this one sentence there are several divisions created artificially by language itself. When we can see Reality clearly, we see that language is little more than a failed attempt to express what is Real; for what is real is without parts, without separations, distinctions, and divisions: those very things language is based on.
In Zen practice we sometimes use koans to help us back to that place before language, before symbols. Regardless of the form of our practice, perception without language must be reached to see Reality. Many people are interested in religion, but few are interested in the religious mind. Too often outward forms take precedence. They cling to language and symbols. They are confused about what is real. The finger points to the moon, but it is neither the finger nor the moon: they see only finger. Only moon.
Imagery, poetry, metaphors, and similes seem to describe the Absolute the best way language is capable of. Recently working on a koan myself, I relayed to my teacher that at one point in my life I dabbled with playing the guitar. The guitar quickly told me that I had no musical talent and my time might be better spent elsewhere. I did, however, learn something that I translated into my Buddhist practice. I learned to use a pitch pipe to tune the strings. When the string and pitch pipe came into tune with one another, there was no separation. There was neither string nor pitch pipe - only the one perfect note.
When embarking on a spiritual journey we often ask many questions. Symbols, forms, and language only hinder us as we try to find our way. Seek the mind capable of the answer that has always been before us. The eye of practice sees clearly all by itself.