The prominent philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator from the 20th century, Martin Buber, was writing about the 18th century Hasidic rabbi, Zusya. Just before dying, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
This is a theme repeated often in wisdom literature. It was prominent advice offered by the famous American mythologist, Joseph Campbell. When asked about mythology’s principal message to individual people, Campbell advised that a fulfilling life comes from “following your bliss.” By this he meant that mythological stories are guides to our inner integrity, to our sense of identity, to our own authentic character.
The 19th century American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had similar advice, warning us that “society is everywhere in conspiracy against the [individuality] of every one of its members.” To lead a life that is genuine and satisfying, we must each resist the conforming forces that want to shape us into something other than ourselves. Our task in life, he advised, is to find and to live our “sacred integrity”.
Susan Murphy explores this further in Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis. “A truly lucky life,” she writes, “is not the cushioned one of undisturbed consumer dreaming; it’s the one that has no reason whatsoever to shrink from the crowning question of a lifetime: ‘Why were you not (insert your own name here)?’”
“Our culture,” Murphy adds, “seems haunted by the fugitive awareness of how far it falls short of daring any of us to inhabit who we really are and to live the life that follows from that. Yet this is all that has ever actually been asked of us, and the only thing that ever really satisfies a human heart.”
In the often bewildering conundrums of Zen teaching, Murphy writes that its only simple objective is to allow “a kind of healing crisis of mind and heart that will yield a genuinely liberating glimpse of who you are and what reality is, minus all opinions about it.”
So, what is this “reality” and what is it like to have no “opinions about it”? When the famous Zen poet Basho was asked for his advice to poets, he said, “Cultivate a mind to follow nature and return to nature.” In other words, the process of awareness that identifies who we are to ourselves is the same process that reveals reality, and is the same process that operates throughout nature. Just as we can have no opinion about our truly authentic selves — because we wholly accept who we are — we cannot have any justifiable opinion about anything. Things just are. Nature just is. Such an understanding is akin to the unconditional love of a parent that accepts a child for what it is and what it is becoming. All the elements in the universe have come together to make this single being, to create this unique moment, to culminate in only these circumstances.
This is the way Nature works. And it explains why we are so enchanted by wilderness that we attempt to protect it in parks and reserves. When nature is allowed to be itself, it feels pure, complete and exactly right, the way things are supposed to be when they are not being spoiled by our meddling — just as we are supposed to be when we are allowed to be ourselves.
The inside and the outside are intimately connected. It’s Murphy’s “truly lucky life” and Emerson’s “sacred integrity”. It’s Campbell’s “bliss” and Zusya being Zusya.