Editor-in-Chief Melvin McLeod’s editorial introduction to the September 2013 issue of Lion’s Roar.
Here’ s a Mahayana Buddhist truism: we are a mixture of wisdom and neurosis. Everything we think, feel, perceive, say, and do has both an awakened and a confused aspect.
So, we are a mix of good and bad. This we all know. The important question is which we really are, which is the deeper reality of human nature. Which is more original, as it were, the sin or goodness?
How we answer that question will define our path to becoming better people—whether we are struggling against our basic nature or trying to realize it. “You Are the Sun Not the Clouds,” the title for our cover story in this issue, sums up the Mahayana Buddhist view.
The Buddhist path to becoming a better person is about being who we really are. That’s our buddhanature, our inherent wisdom and compassion that are always present, never fundamentally diminished or sullied.
That’s the perfect part Suzuki Roshi talks about. But let’s not be naive about it. That would be the least Buddhist thing we could possibly do. We have lots of problems—all we have to do is look at the world around us to know that. So, as Suzuki Roshi says, we need improvement. But because our stains, confusion, and neuroses are merely temporary, we can do it. There is no better news than that.
In Buddhism, this is called the view, the basic insight into the nature of reality that informs our practice. One place we can start our path, as Zen teacher John Tarrant says in our lead teaching on this subject, is with the wanting itself, with our fundamental longing to be a better person. This too is a mixture of wisdom and confusion.
It is our deepest, most heartfelt wish to be better people—wiser, kinder, more skillful, more virtuous, more awake, and full of life. In Buddhist terms, we could say this is the primordial pull of enlightenment. Or we could just say it’s our simple human desire to be who we really are—to be all we know we are capable of being.
There is deep wisdom and truth in this longing. But what happens when we lose the view and don’t know where that beautiful wish is trying to lead us? Then, we seek happiness and a sense of self in externals and dualities: success and failure, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and that great plague of our life, praise and blame. For all its occasional pleasures, this endless pursuit of external meaning only makes us suffer, and makes us cause others to suffer too. In fact, one could argue that our very wish to be better people, when misunderstood and misdirected, is the cause of samsara, of all our suffering. But when we direct it toward the realization of our true nature, then it is the path to the home we long for.
We don’t have to change who we are—is that even possible?—and there are many proven techniques to help us deal with those temporary things that need improvement. One place to start is meditation. Sitting there doing nothing, at least we’re not making anything worse. In fact, if it’s true that fundamentally things are perfect as they are, then maybe all we really need to do is stop all the ways we make things worse.
It’s a simple path, but not an easy one (or we would have done it long, long ago). It takes a lot of courage to just be who we are. Society has given us so many reasons to feel bad about ourselves, and so many ways to distract ourselves from experiencing the tenderness of our human heart and the spaciousness of our basic being. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said a true warrior is someone with the courage and confidence to really be themselves. You are already the better person you long to be. You are the sun, not the clouds.