What did the Buddhist monk say to the hotdog vendor? “Make me one with everything.”
This joke has a few distinctions. It was probably the first Buddhist joke I ever heard. It was also one of the last—even now, thirty years later, Buddhist jokes are in short supply. And, of course, it’s objectively terrible, the kind of joke that gets an eye-roll instead of a laugh.
But it’s also relevant. In a tradition that rests to firmly on teachings about nondualism, it’s hard to escape the idea of becoming “one” with something, or talk of “oneness.” How do we achieve oneness? What does that look like? And is it even the point?
My teachers in Japan had various approaches to this. Some liked to talk about oneness, specifically in terms of meditation—they’d say there should be a singularity, for example, of “me” and “my breathing.” Even if we don’t know what that feels like, we can try to imagine it; just the idea of it might make our breathing a little more intense, our concentration a bit more focused.
Other teachers rejected the whole idea. Some pointed out that the very idea of “one” simply isn’t the opposite of dualism, and fair enough—for there to be such a thing as “one,” there must be a “more than one,” so saying “Everything is one,” for example, just falls apart. There’s still something else.
We can also take up this same point from a slightly different angle. Imagine that you are washing the dishes, and because you see everything as practice (which is great, by the way), you want to make this a practice as well, so you try to throw yourself into it, to become one with it, with the suds and the scrubbing and everything. It’s an interesting exercise. But it also doesn’t work. The whole enterprise rests on the idea there is this “me” and this activity called “washing dishes,” and “me” through sheer force of will or spiritual energy is going to absorb “washing dishes,” like the Borg in Star Trek assimilating beings. It’s really about me. And whatever connection “me” manages to make, it’s a oneness that depends on shutting everything else out. It’s just a bubble, one that includes you and something else. It isn’t harmful—it’s just a feeling.
As I understand it, the trick to achieving this thing we think we’re looking for—oneness, if we want to call it that—is to forget about it. Completely let it go.
As human beings, we have two basic settings: push and pull. We can slow down and really notice this in meditation. Sometimes we sit on the cushion and resist it: we wonder when the bell will come, or we nudge it to the side to look at a memory or a fantasy or a to-do list. That’s a kind of pushing—a pushing away. But sometimes we decide we’re going to make meditation into something. Maybe we try to spiritualize it by holding to some idea about saving all beings, or we convince ourselves that it feels like we always hoped it would—spacious and calm and unperturbed. This is pulling. It’s a way of taking something that’s complete and drawing it close to us, making it smaller than it really is. We hold it just like this, so it can’t breathe.
That second one, the pulling—that’s what we do when we try to be “one” with something else, whether it’s an activity or a person. That bubble we place around ourselves and it is an act of containment. We might feel a deeper sense of connection with that thing, but it’s because now we’re both locked in the same cell.
When you meditate, just meditate—sit upright and breathe. Be still. That’s what it is, so you can let it be that, nothing more. When you walk, just walk. When you laugh, just laugh. I know how ridiculous it is to say all this. We’re self-conscious creatures by nature, so even if all this sounds great, the next step is to try to fabricate it, to force it, to observe it. That’s always the trap. But sometimes we forget. We don’t forget what we’re doing, or who we are; we forget to push them away, forget to keep them under control. They are what they are, and in those moments, even if just for a second, we reveal who we are, too.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practioner’s Guide.