The Zen teacher says, “The secret is in you. You are the secret.” 1
What does it mean?
The truth offered in these two short sentences is cryptic, and almost tautological. The meaning of my search for truth is in me. If I have found myself, the secret is gone, because I have realized that it was in me all along. In order to find it, however, I need someone to help me, and in this case it is the Zen teacher. Furthermore: The truth is not conceptual. the secret is not a thing, and it is never something that can be found. It is right here, in the moment in which I exist. It is myself, and how could I have missed it?
We can capture the basic ideas of many spiritual texts with a few propositions:
- The truth is existential, not conceptual.
- I am not you, but at the same time, you and I are also not different.
- Therefore, truth also has to be relational.
- Mostly, people are looking in the wrong direction. They are caught up in delusion.
- This is the reason why they live with a secret.
- My life consists of missed encounters, even with myself.
- A shift in perspective that separates me from the existential truth of myself helps you to learn about yourself.
- Forms are obstacles for the inner truth, because in the end, differences collapse into identities.
- I change through experience and self-transformation, but the core of my consciousness remains identical to itself.
- We give meaning to things, but things keep their secrets.
A spiritual journey to find one’s own truth can be done in at least two ways. The first goes inward: contemplation that leads to the realization of the emptiness of the inner self. The recognition of identity always requires another medium that functions like a mirror. The self is empty, because it only consists of relationships. It thinks that it needs the Other to find itself, but when it finds an other, it can only understand itself in terms of this encounter. God may not exist, but the idea reflects the need for an absolute mirror in order to realize our own existence. It may sound strange, but having this virtual mirror of itself makes the subject real. If I subtract the element of otherness from myself, I am nothing.
The second approach goes outward, starting with a recognition of the dialectic between self and other. How do I address you, if the difference between us cannot be measured from either side? Philosophy tries to formulate this problem, but is at risk of describing a topology of self-identity in relation to others that is unappealing and too abstract for most people’s taste. See Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Sprit as an example. Literature and poetry have easier ways to approach it – they can articulate complex philosophical problems through the use of metaphors. A sentence like “I speak to you from the grave…,” for instance, evokes the dilemma with a few words, and makes us curious without becoming too self-reflective: what is the message? and: how did you get there? To speak to you from the grave means that I have taken the perspective of eternity – I am wholly other now, but I am still a voice in your head. The metaphor allows the subject to speak to itself from a point of radical otherness. We need imagination to figure out who we really are.
To express the spiritual search for meaning is not easy, but thankfully there are traditions. All of the propositions above are nicely integrated in a famous Rumi poem, No Room for Form:
On the night when you cross the street
from your shop and your house
to the cemetery,
you’ll hear me hailing you from inside
the open grave, and you’ll realize
how we’ve always been together.
I am the clear consciousness-core
of your being, the same in
ecstasy as in self-hating fatigue.
That night, when you escape the fear of snakebite
and all irritation with the ants, you’ll hear
my familiar voice, see the candle being lit,
smell the incense, the surprise meal fixed
by the lover inside all your other lovers.
This heart-tumult is my signal
to you igniting in the tomb.
So don’t fuss with the shroud
and the graveyard road dust.
Those get ripped open and washed away
in the music of our finally meeting.
And don’t look for me in a human shape.
I am inside your looking. No room
for form with love this strong.
Beat the drum and let the poets speak.
This is a day of purification for those who
are already mature and initiated into what love is.
No need to wait until we die!
There’s more to want here than money
and being famous and bites of roasted meat.
Now, what shall we call this new sort of gazing-house
that has opened in our town where people sit
quietly and pour out their glancing
like light, like answering?
The poem suggests a philosophy of self and other with interchangeable positions, packed into a poetic and emotional language that uses metaphors from the whole range of human life: cemetery, night, ecstasy and the lover, the tumult of society and the striving for fame. It evokes the image of a walk through town and culminates in the picture of a gazing-house, a metaphor for the core of consciousness that is calm and does not change, neither in ecstasy nor self-hating fatigue.
How does Rumi get from the subject to the other? If I and you were the same and we both knew it, there would be no desire. The desire for you arises because I look for you outside, and I don’t realize that you already exist in my looking. The I and the you are two sides of the same coin, and therefore, you have no form. Metaphors are templates or shapes, they always bring in their own reality and create distractions. This is another problem: we take metaphors as realities, and objectify and externalize too much, and then we get lost in our busy lives searching for ourselves.
The freedom to reach myself comes with the silence that occurs between events, statements, or even thoughts. The realization that we are together is like a gift. As all true gifts, it comes from beyond. They are not ours to give, but we pass them on because they were given to us, just as I pass on the poem from Rumi. Just like a mother does not give birth to a child, rather, she is the place where the child is born, so does the gift not come from me, I pass it on. Gifts come from this beyond, they are an expression of our spirit. In Rumi’s words, there is no room for form because my love for you is too strong. The inner life of humans is abundant; it keeps giving and it transcends space and time; it takes on many forms and more often than not, it remains unrecognized.
- Suzuki Roshi, Lecture. ↩