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Seagulls, fries, and our true nature Barry Magid June 3rd 2023

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Traditionally, during sesshin, I give a talk on a koan, but after twenty-five years of doing that, I thought I’d try something different today, and instead I’ll talk about a cartoon. I’ll post it later so you can see it, but right now I’ll just have to describe it to you. It starts with a picture of two seagulls sitting on a cliff by the ocean. One seagull says to the other, “Where do you think we’re headed?” The other seagull says, “I was going to get some fries down on the pier.” The first seagull says, “No, I mean the big picture. What is the culminating result of consciousness? Where does this path end?” The other seagull says, “I still feel like it has something to do with those fries on the pier.”

If I were to give the cartoon a name, I would call it, “Keep Your Eyes on the Fries.” Now the cartoon presents the seagull as a Dasein, to take a word from Heidegger, a being whose being is an issue for it. Seagull is asking about the big picture: What is it to be a seagull? And if you believe in a natural or given seagull nature, you could question it, like seagulls do. They go down to the pier and they steal some fries off your plate.

It is a kind of perennial question in philosophy and religious practice: To what extent is there anything like human nature? What is natural for us? Or is that something that we have to create or co-create? Sartre, who was preoccupied with the idea of freedom, said existence precedes essence, essence being the equivalent of something like human nature. But existence is primary, that we are defined by our freedom, not by any kind of given nature. And he had a strange formula to express that, which was: We are what we’re not, and not what we are.

To say we are what we’re not is to say we’re defined by possibility, not by givenness. We’re not what we are, we’re not simply a thing that is given. He called that the distinction between the foreign self and the in-itself, and the idea being that we as rational creatures have choices and decisions and possibilities that are more fundamental than any kind of given nature.

But in terms of practice, certainly in Zen practice, we’re confronted with the question of the relationship between human nature, whatever that means, and Buddha nature, whatever that means. Is human nature where we start off and Buddha nature what we’re aiming at? Or in some ways are these things identical from the very beginning? What would that mean? Certainly if we take Buddha nature to represent some kind of realized ideal, we don’t feel like we’re starting from that place. And I think it’s a simple fact that most people who take up a religious practice do so in the pursuit of some kind of ideal, something that they hold in contrast to the place they’re starting out from, or they wouldn’t start out at all.

And that sets in motion a very complicated journey. Sometimes we call it aspiration. Sometimes I call it a curative fantasy. These things are inevitably entangled. For our seagulls, if they were to begin to ask questions like that, they would ask, What is the highest fulfillment of our seagull nature? And if they were simply utilitarian seagulls, they might say whatever life results in the greatest number of fries is the best life. And then they might have the question: Is it more efficacious to look for fries that appear or for fries that don’t? It would just be a very straightforward practical matter. Where would you get the most stuff, right?

But if our first seagull is a philosopher, he might pose the question differently, and say something like this: For tens of thousands or even millions of years, seagulls have lived in the wild, hunting, fishing, scavenging, but it’s only very recently that we become completely dependent on the stuff that human beings throw out. Sure, it’s easy to go pick up fries at the pier or eat garbage at the dump, but is that what seagulls really should be doing? Maybe that’s why seagulls are dying young, from high blood pressure or cholesterol. Maybe to be a real seagull we should go back to the wild, discover what it was like to be a seagull before humans were on the sea, and sort of create a whole other ideal of the seagull in nature.

This would be a seagull trying to exercise its freedom. What kind of life is the good life, right? How do you decide what your criteria are going to be? Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher some of you may know from his book, “After Virtue,” has another book called, “Dependent Rational Animals.” With those three words he wants to sum up our human condition. And we could say that for most of us, when we set out on a practice of one kind or another, it’s because we can't really come to terms with all three terms in that description. We like the rational part, but dependent and animal? Not so much.

And practice, including Zen practice, is often an attempt to rephrase who we are as something like transcendent, independent animals, or perhaps spirits. Maybe that’s more what we aim for: Transcendent, independent spirits, freed from animal mortality, freed from emotional, physical dependency on others, or our environment. And we create this picture of something higher that we think we’re going to aspire to or attain.

Now the bad news that we eventually come to face, is that Buddha nature is simply another description for impermanence and interdependence: Dependent animal. And the thing that we have set up as an ideal, that we think we’re aspiring to, is something that actually describes the very thing we think we’re trying to escape from. As Joko used to say, it takes people a few years to discover what this practice is really about, and when they finally get a glimpse of it, most of them quit.

Dogen, I think, has this marvelous mystical intuition of the identity of human nature and Buddha nature. It’s one way of speaking of the identity of practice and realization. Our very practice of zazen or our very life as a monastic, isn’t a means to an end of realization. It is itself the enactment of that realization, the enactment of the identity of human nature and Buddha nature. Ordinary mind is the way, is another way of phrasing that. Although I think that for Dogen, there very much is this kind of sense that it is this particular form of life that is the real deal. Ordinary mind is the way, in a sense, could apply to everybody down on the pier having their fries for lunch, not just the monks sitting in zazen. How do we try to bring this out into our lives now as lay people? I think it is an ongoing question, and I think the way we frame that for ourselves and answer that, can change a lot over the course of decades of practice.

We’re not monks and we’re not watered down monks. We’re not practicing with the sense that they’re doing the real thing and we can’t get ourselves to do that for one reason or another, but we’re going to try to do the next best thing, and maybe someday when we have the time and the means, we’ll leave this life and go do the real thing in a monastery. The foundation of LZTA is the idea that the dharma can be fully realized, expressed and transmitted in lay life, where ordinary life fits the absolute like a box and its lid. The absolute is found right here and right now, in what we’re doing here and everywhere, but if it’s everywhere doing everything, why do we practice?

To what extent do we need this kind of reminder of that identity? See, I think the reality is that as we practice a while, we understand that no matter how much we pay lip service to the identity of human nature and Buddha nature, practice and enlightenment, we most of the time don’t live our life as if that was true. We go about our lives as if there was something basically missing. We’re not okay. There’s something we need to attain. And when we’ve practiced a while, we may come to realize that’s not true. Everything is okay just as it is, strange as that is to say.

If I was going to bring this back to a koan, I would say, every day is a good day. Who believes that? Right? How is it that we build a reminder or an expression of that into our ordinary lives? Well, doing this sort of thing is one way to do that. But everybody has to decide the way for themselves, has to figure out what that’s going to look like. We offer a kind of template, we offer a model of practice, but it’s not one size fits all. It’s not clear what the best schedule or rhythm or discipline is for any given person in this room or in this sangha.

That’s the curse of freedom, where we have to sort that out for ourselves, make a commitment for ourselves to define why we’re doing this rather than that, what it means to keep showing up like this. Sometimes we just want to go down to the pier and get some fries. Sometimes we want to ask ourselves, What’s the big picture? What is it that is our true nature? How do we express that?

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