The Essence of Things

You may call it mind, or Buddha or sentient being, yet you should neither become attached to the names nor make any distinctions or understanding. The essence of things is just like this: if even one thought appears, that is already a mistake.

This is a quote from the text “Mirror of Zen” by Master So Sahn. I find a lot of meaning in this so I want to share it with you.  

“The essence of things is just like this.” What does this mean?  

We’re talking about labels.  We put labels on things all the time and then we pretend that those labels are important. We act like the labels we put on things have some kind of ultimate reality and we forget that we made them up in the first place.  

So we think that this is good or that is bad or this is sacred and part of my spiritual life, and that over there is not sacred and it’s a part of my ordinary life. We impose our categories unto the world. 

This is a problem for Buddhists, secular or otherwise, but it’s also a problem that impacts all of us in some way or another.

This is the problem that Master So Sahn is addressing.  

The “one thought is a mistake” refers to our prejudgments and our preconceptions. We already have ideas and thoughts about things before we start examining them. I like to say that we see the world through filters like we’re wearing those old time 3D glasses with the red eye and the blue eye — we see the world through filters like those instead of what its really like.  

I think about my kids in this regard. I put food in front of them and if the food looks weird, sometimes they decide they don’t like it. They haven’t even tried it. Sometimes they haven’t even smelled it and they’ve just decided they don’t like it. That’s a preconceived idea. And because it looks weird, they already don’t like it. I understand that because that was my tendency as a kid too. I didn’t really want to eat anything that looked weird and honestly sometimes that’s my tendency now.  

But that’s a preconception. We can say to ourselves, “That looks weird and I’m not going to like it.” But who knows? If we really think about it a lot of food looks weird.  

That’s a simple example. The larger point is that we are doing this all the time and it prevents us from seeing the world as it really is.  

We don’t see the world as it really is, we see it as we are. That’s a big problem for us sometimes and it manifests as thinking things like “I’m not like those people.  Those people are different from me.” Seeing people through the filter of a category, rather than trying to see without bias, is the source of the various “isms” so prevalent in our social thinking.

We put people in boxes, which is to say we stereotype. That’s how we create the “other.” We see others as really different from us, even though we’re all in this together. We all have a lot of the same struggles. It’s like we’re all in a burning house together and we’re still fighting each other instead of cooperating.  

When we see things through the filter of our perceptions, we bring our mental baggage into the situation and it shades how we see things. This corresponds to what Buddhists call the poison of delusion.  

There’s a story about a man who’s out partying on Saturday night. He’s cheating on his wife, maybe committing some crimes, getting into all sorts of trouble, then Sunday morning he goes to church with his family and he’s judging the other people he sees at church.  That’s an old cliché. But we can be like the person in that story when we get judgmental and get caught up in labeling the people around us.

The teachings of the Buddha tell us that our true nature is to be enlightened. If we can get through our delusions, we will see with greater clarity. Seeing clearly, we may see all the way to our true nature.

Much in Buddhist method and teaching is about freeing the mind from its illusions and seeing more clearly. You don’t have to be a Buddhist, however, to gain from these methods and teachings. They are relevant to everyone.


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2 thoughts on “The Essence of Things”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful posting. I’m very inclined to use its essence (especially the part about labeling and getting attached to the labels…and going beyond or deeper) in a sermon on prayer I’m doing this coming Sunday. I trust that will be okay, and I’ll give you credit if I do so. “Gate, gate, parasamgate….”


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