As I heard the story, a biology doctoral student was meeting with his dissertation committee when one of his professors asked him this question: “How can you tell if something is alive?” The doctoral student, as is the practice when going through that tortuous process, gave a long and technical answer. The professor said, “Well, yeah, but that’s not what I’m looking for.” Undaunted, the student gave an even longer and more technical answer, to which the professor replied, “You’re not wrong, but you’re not right either.” The student paused for a bit before giving the most dazzling technical answer that he could, and the professor just frowned and shook her head. “I’m sorry,” said the exasperated student, “just what answer are you looking for?” She smiled at her overly hard working student and said, “You can tell something is alive because it grows.” The student proceeded to smack himself in the forehead, “D’oh!”
Let’s extrapolate that story a bit.
Q: How can you tell you are on the Buddhist Path?
A: Because you grow on it. Just as it is the essential nature of a living being to grow, so to is it our essential nature to move toward our inherent Buddha nature by following the Path marked by our vows and precepts. Essentially, then, the Path is a one-way street moving only in the direction of a non-destination. Thus at any point on the Path you should be able to look back and see from where you have come. The distance between (non)there and (non)here is how much you have grown.
Let’s extrapolate a little further.
Q: Is Treeleaf alive?
A: Yes, because it is growing. Growth in this case can be the number of people joining the sangha and/or increasing complexity within the sangha. I don’t know what the membership numbers are, or even how we might want to measure them (those admitted or those that post or whatever), but certainly more and more people find out about it, and the forum has become much more complex in all its sub-forums over the years. Having been here for a few years now, it is easy to see where we were and compare it to where we are now, to see how we’ve grown.
Now let’s take one more extrapolation and jump to the idea that, since Treeleaf is a sort of living being that is on the Path, then we might also be able to consider it as a collective mind. Taking this view of Treeleaf-mind, us individuals could be seen as separate brain cells or areas of this mind, each with our own function, each cooperating (sometimes messily) with the others in order to function as a unit. Evidence supporting this analogy can be seen all through the forum. This place works! But just as our brain (or life) works, it can be chaotic and even dysfunctional at times. Change happens, growth is inevitable, and sometimes that makes us feel awkward and gets us off balance, but equilibrium always returns.
Let me see how far I can push this. Just as it is the nature of an individual’s brain to generate a thought that inevitably leads to more thoughts and then thoughts on top of those thoughts, so to does Treeleaf-mind generate threads consisting of posts upon posts upon forum posts. As individuals, we learn to watch that process and let it go during zazen, so can we learn to do the same as a collective mind? When a thread ends, does that mean Treeleaf-mind goes back to collective zazen? Can we as Treeleaf-mind develop a collective “self” awareness that exists from moment to moment? Is Treeleaf-mind moving toward some sort of collective realization of our perfect Buddha nature? Is Treeleaf even conscious of its own existence as “mind”? And so on to other questions that might arise and pile up from the one thought that I started with.
I get exasperated with this place from time to time and need to get away from it. I get critical and think that we are too attached to our Treeleaf-mind “thoughts” to let them go so that we can move on to see the bigger picture that Zen teaches us about. Again, just read through the forum for evidence of this. But I’ve just realized that when I criticize Treeleaf I am also criticizing myself, because I am part of this living/growing organism. Maybe my aggravations with Treeleaf are really just displaced aggravations with my “self.” I could leave, I suppose, but what would that mean? Since I am part of Treeleaf-mind (btw, Treeleafer, so are you), where could I go? How can I escape my own mind, Treeleaf or otherwise? Why would I? At best, I can just step back and let go for a time. What about you? Can you let go of Treeleaf, of Treeleaf-mind? The true sangha is immeasurably bigger than Treeleaf, you know.
I’d like to say DON’T think about any of this, that nothing good can come from any more thinking about this convolution I have presented here, but it is the nature of this collective mind we call Treeleaf to think and post those thoughts. So, instead, let me just ask you to let go of your posts, here or anywhere, now and always, as you/me/us/we move forward on this living/growing Path. I am going to do my part in this by smacking myself in the forehead and saying “D’oh!” as soon as I submit this my 1000th post.