By Brad Warner
In Zen we often say there is no meaning of life. When people first hear that, they think it sounds depressing. It sounds as if we’re saying that life is meaningless. But we’re not. We’re saying that any meaning you assign to life is, by necessity, incomplete. It cannot be otherwise. Trying to assign a meaning to life is like trying to stuff the whole ocean into a bucket.
But you can also say there is a meaning of life. It’s another one of those contradictions.
There isn’t a meaning of life in terms you could express as “Life means X, Y, and Z.” Yet meaning and life are intimately intertwined. Nishijima Roshi often said that there are two aspects of life, matter and meaning. These two aspects, he said, are manifestations of the same thing. It’s a different way of saying, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”
Matter is matter. It’s books and tables and birds and 1962 Fender Jazz Bass guitars and so on. Meaning is that other, more nebulous side of life that can’t really be quantified. We experience meaning, so we know it’s real, even if we can’t weigh or measure it.
But what about when bad things happen to good people? If there really were a meaning of life and if there really was a God, surely my mother would have been spared the suffering she endured. If there really were a God there would be no war, disease, poverty, lousy boy bands, or crappy movies with all-star casts. How can there be any meaning to life if shit like that exists?
I get that. But the God I believe in doesn’t perform miracles. (More on that in a later chapter.) And the God I believe in isn’t just good, if good is just that which stands in contrast to evil. Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the Japanese Rinzai Zen teacher whom I quoted in the title of this book, said, “You are educated all your life to venerate God and reject evil. Zen education is totally different: it teaches you how to swallow God and the devil at once.”
When we talk about bad things happening to good people, using the word God can be problematic, as it can be in general. We tend to think of God as an independent agent who can work magic and fix bad situations. We have a long history of thanking God for things we like and cursing the devil for things we hate.
Many modern, rational people generally don’t believe in that kind of God. I certainly don’t. But we don’t need to leap to the conclusion that just because there isn’t a giant Santa Claus figure sitting on a throne up in heaven, therefore there is no meaning to life and there is no God.
The life we are leading right now is a manifestation of God. That we are alive is all the evidence we need to prove that God exists. I don’t mean that we need to postulate the existence of God to explain the fact that we’re here. I’m not talking about God as the first cause of everything. I’m saying that our direct experience of life is God. Life is God experiencing God, just as Dogen said when he said we are the eyes and ears “it” uses to experience itself.
As for annihilation, it is one of the crucial aspects of life that makes it what it is. It’s a cliché to say that we love our lives more because we know we’re going to lose them. But it’s not just that we will lose our lives at some undefined time in the future. We lose our lives every second of every day. The nature of the present moment is change, is annihilation.
It’s trendy these days to talk about “the now” and to celebrate the present moment. And that’s fine. It’s a good trend. But people often forget that the nature of the present moment is the total annihilation of what has gone before. The present moment is highly destructive as well as creative. This is why many of us fear it so much. The present moment is killing us!
But even this is a beautiful thing. The destructive power of the now, of God, is its way of creating us anew at every moment so that we can be here to enjoy its amazingness.
About Brad Warner:
Brad Warner is a Zen priest, filmmaker, blogger, and Japanese monster-movie marketer. He’s the author of Hardcore Zen; Sit Down & Shut Up; Sex, Sin & Zen; and most recently, There Is No God and He Is Always with You. Visit him online at http://hardcorezen.info/.
Excerpted from the new book There is No God and He is Always with You ©2013 by Brad Warner. Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com