True Freedom And Independence
Question: What does Zen teach about freedom and independence?
Many of us are attached to the idea of freedom and independence. We believe there is an independent self, separate from everything else, that is “free” to do anything it wants. Once I saw a man right outside the entrance of a restaurant and he was smoking a cigarette. Right next to the door was a sign that said “No smoking”. Another man came walking up and said to the man smoking, “can't you see the sign? It says no smoking.” The man smoking replied, “I am free, I can do what I want.” Right then, the other man punched him right in the face! The man smoking said, “Why in the hell did you do that?” The other man replied, “I’m also free. Free to hit you!” This kind of idea about being independent and free causes many problems in the world.
In Zen, we teach about interdependence rather than independence. If we cling to the idea about “self” or ego, we look at everything as separate from us and can’t see the interdependence. If we look at a bicycle, we see it as one thing. If we take a closer look, we can see that there are many parts that are connected to each other. If we take one part away, it affects the functioning of the bicycle. What happens if we take the front wheel or the chain away? The bike cannot function correctly. This means that all the parts are depending on one other. It is the same way with the world. Everything is interdependent; a plant depends on the sun, water, and the soil. If any of these elements are missing, the plant will die. The food we eat to stay alive is also part of a system. The farmers grow the crops. Field workers harvest the food. Truck drivers who deliver the food to the store. The grocery clerks stock the food so we can go into the store and buy it.
If we think we are independent from the rest of the world, that the world revolves around our comfort and happiness, and we are free to do whatever we want, we end up creating more suffering for ourselves and this world. If we experience our enlightened nature, see our connection to everything else, and respond to the world with love and compassion, we end up benefiting the world. This is true interdependence and true freedom.
From my book, No-Nonsense Zen for Beginners
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