Wonderland is a highly original riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, using the classic story as a jumping-off point for conveying the Zen concept of “one mind.” Daniel Silberberg’s first book is a unique contribution to contemporary American Zen, honoring its historic roots as it strikes out into fresh areas.
With stories from his own life as well as from the larger cultural swirl around him, Silberberg reflects on the differences between how we perceive the world around us and the way it actually is. He offers important ideas on how to live fully and happily and how to discover Wonderland in your own life.
Silberberg explores what a true, contemporary Zen can be while remaining true to the fundamentals and essence of the teaching. Highly recommended.—Dennis Genpo Merzel, Roshi, Big Mind—Big Heart: Finding Your Way
One thing that happen to me early in my Zen practice still makes me laugh. This is around 1980 and I am a student at Zen Mountain Monastery in Upstate New York. It had opened recently. The Abbot was Taizan Maesumi Roshi and the resident teacher John Daido Loori—now Roshi. The monastery was relatively new and I was the head of administration as well as senior student. So it was my job to keep everything in line and at that time, very important, to make sure the monastery survived. I felt like I was doing something noble and perhaps it was, giving my time and efforts to ensure the creation a survival of a Zen Monastery that would continue for a very long time. What I hadn’t noticed was that in doing that I was becoming completely irritated with everything, in fact angry and dug myself into an unshakable position of righteousness. This was beginning to create allot of problems; so one day Daido was walking though the monastery office where I was working. He sat down and I told him all my troubles—this one was doing this and that one wasn’t doing that—I unloaded my blame and complaints about the staff.
At that point he asked me if I remembered the first line of the chant we did each evening—the “Four Vows.”
I said yes, “Sentient being are numberless I vow to save them”
He said “Yes that’s right. Now which sentient being did you have in mind?” Then as I remember he chuckled.
But, imagine what would happen if we gave up ideas about how everything should work? Imagine what would happen if we could give up all the ideas and all the things we thought we were right about? What if we could peel off reality until we just came to a place where there’s this thing outside called a tree? Because we know even “tree” is just a name. So we think, okay, then “We’re walking in a field.” We know those are just words, “walking in a field.” But “walking in a field” has a lot of connotations to it too—maybe it means I won’t be able to walk someday. You know, life and death. Why don’t we peel that one off while we are at it? Because they are not the things themselves, only our ideas about them and often these ideas are full of fear.
All the characters that Alice bumps into are saints and sages. They’re pointing the way back to Wonderland. She’s trying to get out of the hole and back to her life but perhaps it was a life she didn’t like that much anyway. But it was safer. How safe do we want to be? I think we use our fears to keep us seemingly safe. That kind of safety closes down our life. An exercise I have done and ask you to do is to notice how often we are afraid, or its close sibling anxiety. Just to watch, just to notice. It’s kind of amazing. And fear is a very rigid form of knowing. It takes courage to open your eyes once again and say, “You know, I really don’t know what’s going on. Bring on the awe. Bring on the eternal. Bring on that which I don’t know.” And when we are open to the confusion and craziness, we get little slivers of recognition.
From Chapter 1: Down In A Hole
What is Wonderland? Another word for Wonderland is “one mind.” The one mind is what is seen when we remove everything we know. The last thing to fall away is the idea of separation. Once this goes there is only one thing. It’s called mind, it’s called emptiness; sometimes its called Buddha. It’s called your true self. All these things are words to describe something that we can for ourselves when our thoughts become quiet and our minds concentrated for long enough. There is no right word. The “One Mind” is fundamental to Buddhism, yet can be seen by anyone right here, right now.
The One Mind is always Wonderland because it cannot be grasped. If you try to grasp the One Mind, the realized mind, the Buddha mind, you lose it. The One Mind is what’s in front of us in all directions, at all times, through time. It’s this very mind. If we try to get it, we lose it. Alice has a million ideas that will stop her from coming to the One Mind.
“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same as ‘I eat what I see’!”
You might as well say,” added the March Hare, “that `I like what I get’ is the same thing as `I get what I like’!”
Zen practice is the practice of liking what you get. Usually, we are on a very thin band of acceptance—we like very little of what we get. We want something else. Maybe we want what we think we “deserve” or what we think everyone else has. And we’re convinced, along with Alice, that if everybody would just change their behavior, everything would be great. We also think that if only I lived somewhere else, if only I were younger or older, smarter, dumber, rounder, thinner, sexier—if only all of that were true, life would be good.
That attitude completely negates the idea of wonder. We can’t wonder at something that we, ourselves, have pushed into a form that we think (or that we have been told) is exactly right for us. We have our ideas of everything. But we’re wrong. These ideas aren’t even good in the sphere of “wrongness” because we could have better “wrong” ideas. For example, if we believe that we’re right and everybody else is wrong, that’s a very bad idea. If we believe that we’re wrong and everybody else is right, that’s a better wrong idea. It’s still wrong, but it’s better because then we’ve got a lot more right people in the universe. Still we prefer to be the only right person even if it does absolutely nothing for us.
We’re told we’re supposed to go to this school and work at this kind of job and marry that person. This is the yellow brick road that leads to happiness. Only the problem is: no one seems very happy. We follow that advice and then start complaining about how crappy “Wonderland” is. So why is nobody happy? Somehow the original plan, which was to understand exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, is not working. We’re all stuck complaining that Wonderland isn’t what we think it ought to be. It’s not “enlightened” enough for us.