My name is Soryu, and Buddhism can save life on Earth.
Since I was a little child, I have been worried about the destruction of life on this planet by human beings. My parents raised me with great skill, explaining to me the severe crises we face, from environmental destruction, to dangerous new technologies, to nuclear war. I was very worried. They also raised me with great love, and I offered that love to all living things. When I was four, I told my mother, “We have to stop people from killing the animals.”
I was clear that people destroying all life on Earth is the biggest problem in the world, and I was upset that other people didn’t see it. It was hard on my parents that I was so sensitive. Once, when I was riding my bike with my father, I saw a snake in the road, and as I pointed at it to show my dad the beautiful creature, a car suddenly killed it. I rode my bike senselessly into a ditch where for an hour I wailed, “No, no, no, no…”
I was lonely, sad and angry. I wanted a mentor, someone who could tell me how to solve this problem. I looked and looked, but didn’t find anyone. So, at ten, when I realized the adults weren’t going to do anything about this one greatest problem in the world, I decided that I needed to take charge. I worked on it day in and day out, and became even more lonely, sad and angry.
One afternoon after getting home from high school, I happened to find a TV magazine on the kitchen counter, and opened to an article about Buddhism. It contained a poorly-written explanation of the first two Noble Truths: “Life is suffering because we have desires.” It was like the whole world was suddenly clear, as if someone had cleaned the dirt off the window. It was literally like that. Finally, I had found someone who understood the problem of the human heart, how truly enormous it is, and what to do about it. I learned the person who said that, Gotama Buddha, had already died, but that there were still people alive who understood his teachings and were willing to teach. I wanted to find such a person.
My parents wanted me to go to college, though. None of the classes were useful, but there was a meditation club led by a sophomore named Sumi Loundon. I went to an evening class, confident that she could give me what I needed. I sat down with the group. She told me to follow my breath, and count it. These instructions made no sense to me. They sounded completely stupid. “That will never help,” I thought. “I have real problems. Can’t you see that?” But she told me to do it, and for some reason, I believed her and did it.
She rang a meditation bell, and things got very bad for me right away. The moment I followed my breath, my body tensed up. So I followed my breath. My skin started crawling. My whole body turned to pain. I wanted to run away. Still, I followed my breath. No matter what happened, my response was always the same. Follow my breath.
It was traumatic. Things were terrible after thirty seconds, and only got worse for each of the next 15 minutes. And no matter what, I followed my breath, with full confidence in the instructions. Because I was doing the technique fully, there was no running, no hiding, no expressing of my feelings. When she rang the bell again, I was filled with the most suffering I had ever known. I looked around in terror. Everyone else was smiling and calm. I realized that there was something wrong with me, and I did what I had wanted to do the whole time. I jumped up and ran out of the room into the darkness of the night.
I eventually slowed down and continued back to my room in a daze. I couldn’t understand what had happened. I was scared. I was broken. I was angry at the people in that class for being so happy and perfect. But none of this really mattered to me, somehow. It faded with each step and I was just confused. Then the confusion went away. There was only the scenery floating by.
And then, most of the way back to my room, I had an unusual experience. I noticed a tree. It was a strange tree. It glowed. It sparkled. It was covered with jewels, or maybe made of them. It shone in the darkness in a way that seemed impossible. More incredible, its branches spread through all of space, touching every world. Its roots spread through all of time, touching every life. It was the same size as the universe. But it was also the same size as a tree. But what was most incredible about it was that it was exactly the same as my own mind. That tree was my mind. My mind was that tree.
With no distinction between that which experiences and that which is experienced, there was no division. With no division, there was no conflict. With no conflict, there was no suffering.
It took me decades to understand what happened that day. (In fact, I’m still coming to understand it.) But now, looking back, I can say that at that moment, I knew directly, not in words or mental understanding, that to face suffering, without holding on to it or avoiding it, ends it. I had sat there and faced everything that arose, and then the suffering, and its source, were gone. Just gone. To realize suffering, without grasping or aversion, is the start of the path to the end of suffering.
At the time, none of these words would have been very important to me, even if someone had said them to my face. The most important realization was that by following my breath, I had purified my mind of some suffering. And because there was no division, since my mind was the same as the whole universe, I had purified the whole universe of some suffering. For the first time in my life, after years of yearning, I had done the most important thing for the world.
This was not enlightenment. Not even close. But it allowed me to believe that I could walk the path to enlightenment. The moment I believed that I could walk the path, I wanted that more than I had ever wanted anything.
By the time I got back to my room, I knew three things. First, somehow the practice that evening, which I had thought a few minutes ago was the worst thing I’d ever done, was actually the best thing I’d ever done. Second, this is exactly what the world needs. This is exactly how our problems are solved. Many other actions are needed, of course, but the mind runs all that, and if it isn’t purified, none of that will work.
And third, I knew I needed to continue on. That was just a brief non-dual experience. Obviously, this is very good. It changed my life. But I had to save the world. Therefore, I needed to train on the true path. I needed to begin as soon as possible. I told my parents that I was going to leave college and go train in a Buddhist monastery and nothing could stop me.
And yet in the meantime I was still so angry. I would have great experiences and then be right back in my fury at the selfishness and stupidity of human beings. I was led by this anger. I was its slave. It brought me from monastery to monastery, teacher to teacher, burning in my chest the whole time. It whipped me eventually to Japan, where soon after my nineteenth birthday, I met Shodo Harada Roshi. Nothing much happened in our first meeting. He just sat there and said nothing of any use. He seemed utterly worthless. He was just an ordinary old man.
When I got back on the street, however, the anger that had burned in my heart for 15 years was gone. Just gone. Completely gone!
The love that had motivated my choices when I was four had turned, bit by bit, into hate by the age of 18. The Roshi stole the hate from me, and it turned out I was never broken at all. The love was never broken, and it was never gone. The Roshi hadn’t given me anything. He had taken my life from me. And only after it was gone could I see that the false thing I had been living for so long, the thing he took from me, was never my life at all. Only then could I begin to live my life again.
After a while, I came to see two things. First, I saw that somehow, beyond words, that ordinary old man had given my life back. He had taken away an untrue life – untrue thoughts, delusional feelings, harmful habits – even though I deeply believed in that life and thought I couldn’t do without it. How kind of him to allow me to let go of what I most believed in and felt I needed! I saw that the spiritual path is skillfully letting go of what we believe in and feel we need. And I saw that there are people who can help us to do this hard work even though we tend to resist it. Could there be a greater gift? Therefore, I would train under him, so that I could understand what the Buddha meant when he said that suffering is caused by craving, so that I could save the world from human insanity. And second, I saw that this kind of loss is exactly what the world needs. Greed, hatred, and insanity are exactly what people need to lose. The ultimate question isn’t “What can we get?” It’s “What can we lose?”
I trained under him for several years, and trained with other teachers in other traditions for several more years. It became clear to me day after day that for us to realize our true mind, and live our true life, will lead to solving the great problems on this planet. The reverse also became clear: our efforts to solve the great problems on this planet is our expression of compassion in action, and expressions of compassion help us realize our true mind, and live our true life. Humanity can shift from being the most dangerous, destructive thing in the world, to being the most peaceful, loving thing in the world.
I was fortunate to lose my life. I was fortunate to see that it was never my life anyway. I was fortunate to lose the mind that created that false life. Having received such good fortune, I hope to offer it to you also. We all need to purify our minds. All life depends on it.