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I recently took on the project of restoring an abandoned temple in Kyoto. As well, I am also building a small temple in the Mountains of North Carolina, near Asheville. These are both difficult projects, so I frequently ask myself why I’m doing them. They are not good financial investments. They are not scalable. They are not fit for tourists. In short, most of society’s reasons for doing things don’t support the projects. That’s because the reason I’m doing them is spiritual. And spiritual activity goes against so-called worldly wisdom . . .
What I’ve learned is that when you engage in spiritual activity—in whatever form that takes—you’re confronted by the need for courage. You are required to go against, and beyond, the self-interested, material-based motives that drive much human behavior.
To be sure, this is an endeavor that requires a certain amount of time and effort. But temples also require time for study. If one is only toiling to survive, one hasn’t time to study the meaning and purpose of one’s life. One is completely preoccupied with survival. And this is a terrible state.
But perhaps equally terrible—and from the Buddhist point of view, a frightening prospect—is to have time and squander it. But what does it mean to squander time? It means being bored, or dissatisfied with one’s company or circumstances.
Fortunately, most of you reading this are in the position of a favorable rebirth. And in this position, it’s likely that you have a number of personal concerns. Of course, we all do. But what if, in addition to our personal concerns, we also asked more universally: what does it mean to give back to the Life that gave us life? And to do that, we are forced to ask: what is the source of our life? Where did our life come from? Or as a Zen koan puts it: what was our face before we were born.
Rather than deciding beforehand what is good or bad, right or wrong, expensive or cheap, we could ask where these phenomena come from, and dwell on this question for some time with curiosity and awe. It won’t make us any money, but once we get into it, it’s fun.
Of course, it’s hard to do this swiping through Tinder (as of 2014 1.6 billion swipes per day), working ten-hour days, or driving the kids to Kung-Fu. Or, when all of that is done—to do something other than busy ourselves with exercise or Netflix or the latest New York Times Book Review recommendation (not that these things are bad, but they don’t point to anything fundamental or lasting—and certainly not the source of our life.)
Tied up by fleeting experiences, we lose sight of the opportunity to contemplate where our experiences and all that makes them possible come from.
And yet it’s the fields that ask these questions—fields such as religion, science, art, and philosophy—that have given us many of the human products we enjoy—products that make our life meaningful, rather than efficient and productive.
Indeed, to the extent that we concern ourselves solely with getting things done, we’re likely to lose sight of why we think it’s important to get things done in the first place.
Therefore, I encourage those of you reading this to take some time this year to join me in exploring something completely useless. Find something that you’re curious about. A hobby. Do it for a bit and watch what happens as you do. What do you learn about yourself, the world, and the people you encounter helping you with your hobby as you do it? How does it impact, augment, or impinge upon, your sense of identity?
Take a break sometimes. Forget your strenuous efforts at self-improvement-for-the -sake-of-self-improvement, and relax into a deepening humility, and the wonder of not knowing—or knowing that you don’t know—so as to enlighten your delight in the unknowability of the unknowable world around you.
As a kind of detached, well-wishing, alien observer, you can greet life without worrying about getting anything done. And through the madness you’re sure to see swirling about you in the world, come home at night, make your cup of tea, sit back in wonder and ask yourself: ‘all that office-drama, the fight I just had, that amazing ballet, the incredible exhibit, that intense meeting, the squash I just planted, the icy wind blowing north up the Hudson River, the stark maples—indeed, what’s it all for?’ Then make time to share your thoughts with friends.
Here’s the Buddhist poet Ryōkan (1758-1831):
The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away,
And the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure.
Abandon this fleeting world, abandon yourself,
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the Way.
Thus, perhaps, enlightenment.