"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one."
Once upon a time a young turtle happened upon an old turtle it had never met before as it roamed across an endless field of grass. It had been roaming for days, looking for water, for it was very thirsty, and very hot. Although it knew it could go for many days without water, it knew the number of days left was diminishing quickly. Yet the field seemed to have no boundaries - it seemed to go on and on in every direction! "Wait until the sun passes overhead," the old turtle said, "and then travel in its direction. When the sun goes down, stop and rest. Sleep until the following day when the sun once again passes overhead. Then continue on as you had the day before - follow in the direction the sun moves and continue this for as many days as it takes until you come to the stream. You will be greatly rewarded." The young turtle had never encountered this stranger before and thought, "Why should I trust him, I know much more than he does about this field I am in. I have been in it for many weeks and I have never seen him before. How dare he consider himself more knowledgeable than me about this field and suppose that he knows how to escape from it! Follow the sun? Who's ever heard of such a thing?!" So the young turtle said to the old turtle, "Oh be quiet you crazy old turtle. You know nothing!" and continued on as it had been, moving through the tall grass, unable to see horizon or tree line, mountain or stream. Days passed, then weeks. Finally, the turtle had lost its ability to move. "Here I will die." He thought to himself. He lay unmoving for three days, but still alive. During those three days his thoughts reviewed his life, his early years as a young turtle sliding off logs into the river water with his friends then soaking up the summer sun on an outcropping log. He lamented that he would never again feel the cool water and gentle weightlessness of a swim. He remembered how he used to lie on the log and watch as the sun moved across the horizon. How it always moved from the direction of the big black rock on one side of the river toward the dip in the trees on the other side. Always the same. Every day. As if it was pointing him somewhere ... And that was his last thought, as he lay there, motionless, in the tall field grass, no longer able to breathe.
We humans have a very specific disability that we all share: we're human. We're born with an incredible intelligence, the ability to feel things intensely, and to create amazing works of art. Yet the very things that make us human, ironically, make us vulnerable to losing our connection with ourselves and with the universe in which we live. Our minds create a substitute universe within which we seem to exist, and we mistake this microcosm for Reality. Our microcosm is a universe of impressions about ourselves: what we like and dislike, what we feel, who we think is good or bad, what political party we connect with.... All these things give us a sense of personal identity, make us think that we are something unique, independent, and apart from all else around us. Our thoughts, ideas and opinions shape us into who we imagine ourselves to be as human beings. And from there, we live our lives in our bubble. Alone.
Isolated, we become commanders of ourselves without the vision to see beyond the confines of our personal-universe. We are like a fortress, cut off.
With such an attitude and limited awareness we are a universe unto ourselves, impenetrable by anybody. We denounce the wisdom of others when it doesn't fit into the emotional framework of our lives. We choose to agree only with opinions of others who share our personal values and feelings about things, rather than to investigate directly and objectively into the nature and basis of our views. We are victims to the popular status quo, taking solace in being a member of a group of like-minded people. Giving ourselves to the group, we become easily swayed by popular opinion within it. We fall victim to scams, give our money freely to support the group, and are easy prey for advertisers who take advantage of our strong feelings for the group. We are as marionettes, our strings pulled this way and that. But does this make us happy? No. What we fail to realize is that the cause of our suffering is our grasping at a personal identity - one that exists independently of all else, and is our De facto center of the universe. The lonliness of isolation this generates creates a strong desire to attach to a group, to the extent that our entier identity becomes merged with that of the group. Our Self becomes ever more lost the more we move in this direction, and the task of recovering it ever more distant and difficult.
Unfortunately, there's no way to see the reality of this until we're lucky enough to get a glimpse of it directly through a crack in the fortress. And even then, we have to take the glimpse we see seriously enough to make it matter to us if it's going to help us change our world view and escape our samsaric condition.
In the world of Buddhism, this self-centric nature plays out in many tragic ways, most notably, preventing us from making progress on Zen's Path--should we get so far as to find its trailhead in the first place.
A recent study, Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus, published in the Journal of Risk Research (vol. 14, pp. 147-74, 2011), sought to understand why so many people disagree, and disagree strongly, about scientific facts - facts about which scientists agree upon, nearly unilaterally, such as the nature and cause of global climate change, nuclear waste disposal, and the effects of allowing concealed possession of handguns. A result of their study: people "form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values." They name this tendency the "cultural cognition of risk". The consequences? People are more likely to agree with a scientific consensus on a topic if his or her own conclusions match those of the scientific consensus. Similarly, people are less likely to consider a scientist an expert on a subject if his or her views differ from that of the scientist, regardless of the credentials (or fame) of the scientist. Their collected data and analysis similarly showed that "Individuals reflexively reject information inconsistent with their predispositions when they perceive that it is being advocated by experts whose values they reject and opposed by ones whose values they share."
Our turtle discounted the life-saving advice from the old turtle because the advice did not fit into his view of the world or his view of public opinion on the matter. "Who's ever heard of such a thing!?" So strong and ingrained are our self-created belief structures that they blind us from seeing past them, they obfuscate the truth when it's presented to us, however clearly and directly.
When we are predisposed to thinking about things a certain way, and hold on to these ways of thinking about things, we become trapped and confined in such a way that we close ourselves off, no longer able to expand our awareness beyond our self-created, impenetrable, fortress. We see this play out in many different ways among Buddhists - some of us Buddhists insist that we can only become enlightened if under the tutelage of a "Great Master". We may lament that "there are no 'Great Masters' left," rationalizing why we have not yet become enlightened and excusing ourselves from putting effort into practice. We prefer to think that a "Great Master" can, effectively, push a button and awaken us, removing the necessity for effort on our part.
There are also those of us who believe we can only become enlightened if we study the famous sutras or chant the Buddha's name. And there are some of us who believe we can only become enlightened if we sit cross-legged for 5 hours a day and eat nothing but vegetable broth and rice. While any of these methods may bring profound spiritual growth: it is not the method, by iteself, that accomplishes this: it is our approach and attitude that does. As Empty Cloud wrote in his autobiography "All expedient methods taught by the Buddha are good for treating worldly illnesses and the recitation of the Buddha's name is an agada (medicine) that cures all diseases. However, each of these methods requires a firm faith, and inflexible resolution and considerable practice in order to give good results. If you are strong in faith, you will achieve the same perfection whether you concentrate on mantras, practicse Chan, or repeat the Buddha's name."
Then there are also those of us who believe that only by mimicking cultural expressions of Buddhism are we practicing the right way. Confusing outward methods with fundamental principles, these views, whatever they are, are only strengthened by the vast number of other people who believe the same things we do. Eventually, we consider anyone who does not share our beliefs to be "in error" and we are quick to point out to them that there are other people who share our views, therefore they must be the correct views, and any contrary views blatantly wrong. Hsu Yun continues, "If you are weak in faith and rely on your tiny good roots, little intelligence and shallow knowledge, or if you memorise a few Buddhist terms or a few gong-ans and then talk aimlessly, praising and censuring others, you will only increase your karma-producing habits... is it not a great pity?"
When we live inside a fixed and rigid world-view it creates great conflict for us. We constantly have to defend our points of view to others who don't share them. We are so convinced that ours are the "right" ones that we are willing to argue and even fight over them to defend our psychic territory. But most often it surfaces when we lecture other people on what they should do in order that they acquire the same world-view that we have. When other people agree with us, after all, then there is no conflict and we can rest at ease.
This is why Zen is such a prickly thing for many people to approach, and wrought with challenges for those trying to express it. A person of Zen is often up against a nearly impenetrable fortress when trying to help someone through its gates. All we can do is point the finger at the moon and hope that some tiny fragment of illumination breaks through the thick walls of self-protection and isolation we humans so naturally tend to erect around us. Zen's path begins with a first glimpse of what exists outside our ego-microcosm, and only once we've had that first glimpse can the walls begin to come down to reveal the full grandness of what's beyond. It all relies on us allowing a crack in the fortress.
1. Empty Cloud, The Autobiography of the Chinese Zen Master Xu Yun, translated by Charles Luk, Revised and Edited by Richard Hunn.Element Books, 1988. p. 152.