When he attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree, the first thing the Buddha said was this: “Wonder of wonders! All beings just as they are whole and complete! All beings are endowed with Buddha-nature! But because of their deluded thinking, they fail to realize it.”
This statement was really the first koan. The Buddha went on to teach meditation, ethics, and philosophy for forty-five years. He taught to monks and nuns, kings and criminals. And if all beings are already whole and complete, why did the Buddha go to all that trouble?
Zen practitioners delve into this paradox and conclude that the only difference between a Buddha and an ordinary person is a shift in perspective, a shift from the myopic to the vast, a shift that many masters have explained through oceanic metaphors. Hakuun Yasutani said our buddha-nature “is like the sea, and each individual is like a wave on the surface of the ocean.” To elaborate, spiraling waves (our egos) are caught their own churn of self-centeredness. We view our borders as firm and absolute, our thoughts and feelings as ours alone, happening only inside the walls of our skin. But that’s not even close to true. Our bodies and thoughts are not only inter-dependent on the world around us, they are just like waves – fluid energy moving through the fluid fabric of reality. This may sound abstract but it’s not. All objects exist in relation to other objects. A rubber tire exists because of the rubber tree. A rubber tree exists because of earth, sun, and rain. Earth, sun, and rain exist because of chemical elements. Chemical elements exist because of atoms and subatomic particles. We are all constructed of those tiny particles and if we could see life at this level, we would see how particles “outside” us constantly move through us, become us, and we move through them, become them too. It’s just like watching waves refract and mix at the shoreline. But in meditation, this can be experienced. In looking inward, when the mind truly quiets and can dwell in its primal state, we see and feel that our perception of separation has always been a fractured view. In reality, our individual wave has also always been the same nature as the entire sea. All water.
This shift is visceral but can also be subtle. The wave is still a wave and has to pay taxes. The sea is still the sea. Our inter-dependence doesn’t negate individual responsibility. But when the oceanic perspective – the view of an enlightened being – is lived from, the wave is more compassionate to all beings because all beings are part of her body. Though she may still have daily anxieties of workaday life, she has no more deep existential fear or worry for her own future. What is death when water simply turns to water?
This view is often called oneness or nonduality, but Buddhists more often say nonduality because oneness can conjure a flat ocean where every drop is alike. That misses the point. Every being and thing is unique in infinite ways. No snowflake or ocean bubble is identical and that must be celebrated while acknowledging that every bubble is the sea and every flake is snow. This is “nondual philosophy” and nonduality itself is simply what we are – what all things are – at our very essence: our collective soul of souls.
Nonduality is part of Buddhism, yoga and other mystical and philosophical paths too in which it’s often called a name you may recognize: God.
To experience this state of fluid nonduality, you have to work hard with your meditation practice, be extremely diligent. But you also have to relax and quit trying so hard – a paradox that makes a kind of sense. The experience of the non-dual is an actual experience, a destination that infuses one’s life with wisdom. But in each step toward that experience, the non-dual is always there inside the very effort being used to experience it. The journey is always the destination. All waves are water, even before those waves break.
This is radical when you think about it. It challenges us not to see liberation or enlightenment as somewhere out there on the horizon, something we might attain someday somehow if we’re lucky and pious. It challenges to see the muck we’re in right now – the stack of dishes, the political fires, the stress, the insecurity – as containing everything we need.
Excerpted from All Our Waves Are Water by Jaimal Yogis.
Copyright 2017. Reprinted by permission of Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Jaimal Yogis has been a Zen and yoga practitioner for two decades. A graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, he is the author of the best-sellers, Saltwater Buddha, a coming-of-age memoir about how surfing and the sea helped him transition back to the world after a year in a Zen monastery; and The Fear Project, which looks at the neuroscience of fear and courage, using science, mindfulness and sports to reveal ways in which humans can live more fully. His forthcoming book, All Our Waves Are Water, uses the sea as a metaphor to explore the true self.