Anxiety: Startling Suchness
by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei
We intrinsically have the countenance of the person of suchness and so need not be anxious about the essence of suchness. Because anxiety is itself the essence of suchness, it is not anxiety. Moreover, we need not be startled by the essence of suchness being this way. Even if suchness appears startling and suspicious, it is suchness all the same. —from “Suchness,” by Master Dogen
I was sitting in the religious section of the Brooklyn Public Library the other day, writing this passage out in my talk notes, not expecting it to get to me, when suddenly I was all choked up, moved to embarrassing tears by this wide embrace in the teaching. My table-mates just smiled shyly; who knows what they thought. To reclaim a little dignity, I prefer to think this kind of thing happens all the time in this room where the shelves are stacked full of all the great teachings of the world’s spiritual traditions….
Dogen’s inclusion of even negative states such as anxiety within suchness seems designed to shake us from our notions of having to improve ourselves in order to be whole. We are called to wake our hearts from the dark dreariness of never being good enough—a pretty startling call for anyone not suffering terminal arrogance. Since most of us suffer an oddly modern mix of anxiety and arrogance, there are few among us who make it through our lives without some hours (years, decades…) in that dark, self-doubting territory where anxiety defines the very air itself. That we are whole, and home, and needed by all of life is where Buddhism begins, in a sense. Most of us, though, have to take quite a journey to arrive where we’ve always been. Like the love that has no opposite or end, suchness is unconditional, in that it reaches absolutely every condition of experience. “We intrinsically have the countenance of the person of suchness”—nothing we can do or have ever done places us outside that embrace. Who could ever explain why sometimes that brings tears?
Whenever this inclusive, absolute aspect of reality is opened up in the teachings, a simultaneous imperative arises, an implicit requirement to clarify the relative, where morality and compassion are called into action. That we’re whole obviously doesn’t mean there’s not work we need to do. But it strikes me as important that we take a moment to just experience the warm blast of truth in Dogen’s “Suchness” essay, and not skip too fast to the work, which can in certain ways divert us from letting this deeply penetrate. Don’t move too fast from the simple impact and implication of that wide embrace. Let it startle, shake, upset the illusion. Let it in. That’s where all the strength is, all the luminous, fertile strength to combust our lives, to let compassion have its way with us. We have to let that vast—yet absolutely specific—embrace reach us completely in order to realize the ground of our being. Otherwise, it’s just another abstraction, something we know or believe, but that doesn’t really transform our journey. Thinking we understand, we may start doing what we think is needed, and without that warm strength in our belly, exhaust ourselves. This is why Dogen doesn’t want us to waste even anxiety: every single thing is strength when realized. Every single thing.
Suchness: we belong to life, and life belongs to us. Through suchness, the covers come off, the barriers are dropped. We come to that bare resting place within the heart of things: rain, apples, anxiety, ad infinitum. Available every moment, without adjustment. This is the power accessed by sitting still: trusting the posture we’re in, just as it is, trusting it by just letting it be. I often share with groups in Beginning Instruction how simply sitting still actually had a profound impact on my life: in that persistent urge to adjust my posture I recognized the urge to constantly adjust and correct my life. What would happen if I really just sat still? If things just as they were—and I just as I was—were essentially okay? In this position and at this moment? If instead of waiting for something a little better, a little more comfortable, “more perfect,” I practiced right now? It doesn’t mean not working for social justice; it does mean not waiting for social justice as a prerequisite for peace of mind. It doesn’t mean not doing what you can to be healthy; it does mean that feeling good is not required for peace of mind. I tell the group to give it a try—just sit still; just stop shopping. From the peace that is just this place and position, we can clarify what motion is needed, without being pushed around by dissatisfaction and anger. The practice of suchness, in this sense, is radically simple, but it also requires an intensely private kind of courage. Anyone who sits in a wholehearted way knows this, but we also forget it over and over again, and so the teachings of suchness are repeated to encourage each of us to realize directly, and practice intimately, in this moment.