First There Is a Santa, Then There Is No Santa, Then There Is

Laurie Senauke (download the pdf)

First there Is a Santa, Then There is No Santa, Then There Is

Laurie Schley Senauke

My favorite parts of Buddhist literature are the metaphors, similes and parables. Some are long and involved, like the Prodigal Son in the Lotus Sutra, and some are just one phrase— “form is like a glob of foam.” These fingers pointing at the moon connect us to teachings that may be hard to understand, conceptually. Thus the literature has many metaphors for the self—how the self exists, or rather how it does NOT exist – ditto for “all conditioned things.” In early Buddhism the focus was on unpacking the belief in an inherent self, and in the Mahayana the study expanded to include the emptiness of all conditioned things. As it says in the Diamond Sutra:

As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space,

a magical illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble,

a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning –

so we should view all conditioned things.”

These metaphors, especially those that refer to processes in nature, are still alive for us 2000 years later. We can try them on, one by one.

I’ve become a collector of old and inventor of new and updated Buddhist metaphors. It’s timely to point out how race and white supremacy are examples of things empty of inherent existence –there’s no better metaphor for our times. Check out this amazing Buddhist sentence by the scholar and historian Ibram X. Kendi. In Stamped FromThe Beginning he wrote, Race is a mirage, but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. We could say the same about the self – self is a mirage, but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real and consequential ways. In fact, karma is a word for what we do and what happens when we organize ourselves around the mirage of self. We can use the way we think and feel about the race construct as a metaphor for how we think and feel about the self and all conditioned things, and vice versa.

My husband Hozan and I, during the first Covid year, read aloud the Lankavatara Sutra; it took that whole year to read it through from beginning to end. That sutra uses various metaphors for emptiness, including, “a Gandharvan City.” The self, or any conditioned thing, is like a Gandharvan City. That meant nothing to me, but apparently it is a mythical location that everyone at the time knew about, and knew was imaginary. I pondered what is comparable in this day and age, and what popped into my mind was Santa Claus. 

Having one of those light-bulb-going-on moments, I said to Hozan, “Oh, yeah, it’s like, you can’t kill Santa Claus.” The sutra was not suggesting that we’re trying to get rid of the self—there’s nothing to get rid of—but rather that we can see through to its non-solidity. Santa Claus is a wonderful example of how the self does and does not exist. Santa – the one at the North Pole – does not appear or disappear, is not tainted or pure, does not increase or decrease. Because there’s no one there! As long as we fixate, as long as we strongly adhere, as long as we try to find or depend on a fixed inherent self—OR, until we study and see deeply into the emptiness of our self-construct—we’re like children who believe in Santa Claus.

One of the classic confounding statements repeated in the Lankavatara Sutra goes like this: It doesn’t exist, and yet it doesn’t NOT exist. And that’s like Santa Claus, right? There’s no little old man at the North Pole making toys with a team of elves, who travels around the world on Christmas Eve on a flying sleigh pulled by magic reindeer.

On the other hand, around Christmas time, Santa is everywhere – you can’t say he does not exist. He’s on street corners and in department stores and at Christmas parties, with all different skin colors. But no matter how many Santas are embodied or depicted every year, for however many centuries, we’re never getting any closer to establishing that little old man at the North Pole.

These department store Santas – these selves of ours – are real … ish. They are impermanent and subject to conditions. We each have many selves; we could call them different perspectives. Our roles within our families, work places, play places. Our creative selves. Also our inner children and the other parts inside of us that hold various feelings, memories, and beliefs. All are impermanent and subject to conditions.

These selves, these parts, can be more or less grounded, or they can be bewildered–susceptible to bright, shiny objects and paper tigers, easily confused about what brings real nourishment and what are real threats.

These selves, these parts, are all benefited by kindness and respect, friendship and secure attachment. Also by trial and error, maturity, therapy, anti-racist consciousness-raising, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, communication skills training, and so on.

Just like Santa Claus, our “self” does not exist inherently.  More importantly, it does not exist in the way it feels to us that it does, or the way it seems to. I’ve come to feel that our insights into emptiness – emptiness of self, emptiness of all conditioned things – are not the culmination of our practice, but rather a beginning – the beginning of our exploration and understanding of how our self DOES exist.  Even if we do have some insight into how our self is a thing like Santa Claus – and that may give us some relief, a sense of lightness – we still have to figure out how to be with each other. We still have to get into the details of how to bring forth an enlightened way of dealing with mysteries of self and other.

So far so good.  If I had just stopped there, Santa Claus would have been a pretty good metaphor for something that does not exist, and yet does not NOT exist.

As I reflected on this metaphor, my mind and heart took a strange turn. I began to think about how, unlike race constructs, Santa Claus can be viewed in a positive light. Of course, Santa is problematic as a symbol of commercialism and consumerism, even patriarchy. However, he is also an archetype of giving. I believe the “self” can also be seen as having a problematic side and a beneficial side.

Thus, I took a dive into the origins of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was an early Christian mystic who lived around 300 CE in Asia Minor – what is now Turkey. He was renowned for his generosity, in particular his “secret giving” – giving where the recipient didn’t know who the gift was from.

St. Nicholas secretly gave a local farmer a big bag of gold coins, which enabled his daughters to have dowries and avoid becoming prostitutes.  Born to a wealthy family and orphaned at a young age, St. Nicholas gave away all his family wealth and took up spiritual life, like the desert fathers. He is considered the patron saint of sailors, merchants, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students. 

As the story of St. Nicholas moved north and west it mixed with European fables and folktales. In popular Italian folklore, a female figure called the Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good. People say that, being a good housekeeper, she sweeps the floor before she leaves. To some this means sweeping away the year’s problems. 

The St. Nick legend also mixed with the story of Frau Holde found in northern Europe. She is a kind of mother goddess sometimes called Mother Winter. The custom was for children to ask Frau Holde for what they really wanted—their heart’s desire—alive in our tradition of writing letters to Santa at the North Pole, or sitting on his lap and telling him what you want.

There’s a wonderful Jataka tale about getting our heart’s desire. The story centers on a royal being who asks for the Buddha’s heart on a platter, so to speak. They want to eat the Buddha’s heart. And so their lover – who was committed to fulfilling their heart’s desire – travels around the world, eventually meeting up with the Buddha. The lover says, I’m really sorry but I need to kill you so I can bring your heart to my beloved to eat. When the Buddha hears the full story, he says, bring me to them, and I’ll let you take my heart. So they fly back to the royal being, whereupon the Buddha starts to preach the Dharma, and the royal being “wakes up,” realizing that the heart they really longed for was the heart of the Dharma, the heart of Truth.

Santa’s story continued to travel north and reached what used to be called Lapland, the home of the Sami group of indigenous people, herders of reindeer. The Sami had some mythology too, tied to their use of psychedelic mushrooms in rituals and spiritual practices. These particular mushrooms make you feel like you are flying; the reindeer also ate the mushrooms, hence the flying reindeer. Furthermore, the Sami shamans were known to travel around in the winter months, visiting community members. Since snow often covered the doors of their homes, the shaman would come down the chimneys for these visits. All these compelling images and stories can be alive for us in our present-day Santa Claus. 

In contemporary Buddhism, we don’t have a Bodhisattva of Giving, do we? We don’t seem to have a Bodhisattva of Generosity, even though it’s a very important practice for us. Giving is love in action. Maybe there’s room in our pantheon for a Bodhisattva of Giving, who would convey the power of secret giving, and also the idea of asking for and receiving our heart’s desire, which Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called our “inmost request.” Your heart’s desire might not be what you think it is.

Even though there’s no Santa Claus at the North Pole, children around the world get presents on Christmas morning, and part of their excitement and joy is related to the story of Santa Claus. It’s not your cranky, overworked, underpaid parents who stood in line or drove all over town to buy these gifts. They appeared magically, secretly!

Enlightened moments are those when we realize or remember or accept that there’s no old man living at the North Pole making toys. And we don’t NEED there to be, even if we want to include Santa in our winter season celebrations. There’s no inherently existing self as such, and we don’t NEED there to be. We still have everything we need to live meaningful, wholehearted lives.

That’s good, because this story of our “self” is written in our cells, our neurons. That’s where it is. The belief that the world we perceive is “out there” is written on our neurons. For many years of practice I thought that Buddha was implying that the self is an overlay, a mistake, an added mix-up, which we could have somehow avoided, perhaps with better parenting. Yes, it’s a mistake, a mistake that starts with that one-celled amoeba who could only move towards nourishment and away from threat. The “self” is a metaphor written on the neurons of living beings. That’s why some Buddhist texts refer to awakening as “a revolution at the base.”

Fundamentally, we’re wired to “believe in Santa Claus,” until we investigate very carefully, very sincerely, very open-heartedly, what is actually going on. This investigation is an important part of our practice, and the more we see through the mirage, the magical illusion, the dewdrop, the greater our opportunity to live fully and interconnectedly in the present moment. This includes continually grappling with the mystery of how the self does not exist, and yet does not NOT exist.

The Hidden Lamp collection of stories about women teachers offers a koan about a student of Hakuin’s, an enlightened laywoman named Asan. (Here I always think, you had me at “enlightened laywoman.”) There are three stories about Asan in the Hidden Lamp. As you may know, Hakuin is the one who brought up the sound of one hand. In this story, when Asan approaches him, he immediately raises up one hand.  She says, “Even better than the sound of one hand, let’s clap both hands and do some real business.” And he says, “If you can do business by clapping both hands, then there’s no need to hear the sound of one hand.” 

It’s only as separate beings that we can meet each other. It’s not as one but rather as two that we connect. It’s in our meeting that our differences – our selves – can make sense, can dance, can harmonize with or complement each other. Only between separate beings does the mystery of giving and receiving come alive. (Of course it’s also as separate beings that we are driven to harm each other.) This more mysterious “self” is related to creativity and to love. Love connects us across our separateness, but it doesn’t permanently obliterate our separateness. Rather there’s a rhythm, a pulse – self, no self, self, no self – that we discover together and keep finding, through our practice, new ways to express.

Give Big Mind a Chance

 “When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship. When everything exists within your Big Mind, all dualistic relationships drop away.” 

Rev. Shunryu Suzuki

Our recent ancestor, Shunryu Suzuki, talked all the time about Big Mind.  He used other phrases – Buddha Nature, True Self, etc – but he most often referred to Big Mind. Here’s another quote:  

“We cannot see the Big Mind, because it is always with us, right here. If you reflect on yourself, that self is not your true self anymore. You are projecting “you” as some objective thing. Do you understand? And your true mind is watching the mind outside of itself. This mind, which is always on your side, is not just your mind. Its universal mind, which is not different from other’s mind. It is big, big mind.”

In my early days, I tried to connect with a Big Mind that was silent and still as the night sky.  Vast emptiness, no holiness.  That was my idea about it, and I tried to connect with something like that.   

As time goes by, I feel much more connected to a Big Mind, or a Big Heart-Mind, that’s turned towards what’s happening, with a friendly respect and appreciation. And deep, deep listening.  This is what I come back to nowadays to when I am able to remember Big Mind.

In a special Zen ceremony, I had a chance to ask a close friend, “Does Big Mind care?  She answered, “Well, it holds everything.”  That’s what I’m talking about.  Big Mind holds everything.  It holds EVERYTHING. 

Big Mind Holds Everything

This highlights one potential drawback with Big Mind – it’s impartial. Our usual way, our human way, is to feel like someone cares about us when they care more about us, right?  You hold me especially, you’re turned towards me especially.  It may be hard to feel the love of Big Mind if it cares about every being equally. 

Another Zen friend shared an experience her family had on vacation. She described how each day they would walk down to the lake. The first day there were a couple of geese swimming serenely on the lake with seventeen goslings.  And the next day there were twelve goslings.  And the next day there were two.  So let’s just say they were scooped up by an eagle to feed its babies.  Does Big Mind care more about the eaglets than the goslings?  And if not, does it seem like it cares about either, or any of them?  Or does it sort of seem like it doesn’t care at all?

It’s nature’s plan for the geese to care more about the goslings and the eagles to care more about the eaglets, right? 

We humans have babies, too, and we are partial to our own babies, our own pets, our own pet projects. It’s nature’s plan, and it’s the human realm.  But actually, you may start with a natural partiality for your own whatever-it-is, but the problem is, even this tends to evolve and devolve and quickly get pretty dicey. 

The Shin Shin Ming, an ancient Zen text, says, “Picking and choosing never stays within bounds.”  That’s the problem with human preferences, human likes and dislikes.  They tend to quickly go out of bounds and cause harm, for self and others.  We see this tendency everywhere, unfortunately. Even though it’s completely natural and human to have preferences.

For example, what if you have two kids? What if you liked one more than the other? Even if you don’t like one of them better than the other, they feel like you do; they are always watching you.

And then what if your kids have friends? Even if you don’t have kids, you might have dogs or cats or sisters or brothers or nieces and nephews or several grandchildren.  What if you have neighbors and your neighbors have kids or pets?  It just gets dicey pretty quickly if you’re partial to one being over another.  You might start in a wholesome human realm, but before you know it, you’re bribing someone to get your kid into college by being on a sports team for a sport that they don’t even play, or something like that. 

Where Are the Beings?

Where are the beings that I most need to turn towards with Big Mind? Is it the many beings, plants and animals including humans all over the world in difficult circumstances? No, though they are important. Is the people in our home towns, our own neighborhoods?  Is it our friends and family, who are so good at getting on our nerves? 

These are all important beings, but there are some sentient beings that we need to turn towards first – the sentient beings of our own minds. As our 6th Zen ancestor Huineng said, “Sentient beings of my mind are numberless, I vow to save them all.” Save the sentient beings of our bodies, hearts, and minds.  Without picking and choosing, holding all of them equally. 

I am writing this in the midst of the corona virus, and as my own community (along with everyone else) began to cancel our public events, I slumped for a little while into a sad lost feeling.  Then another part of me – one who is afraid of feelings – criticized that, saying that it was unenlightened to feel bad, and I slumped a bit further, feeling like a failure as spiritual person.  The critical voice pointed out – Where’s your Big Mind now? (Because that part will use anything!) All this took place over a few hours.

Finally I remembered, the point is not to try to switch the current train of thought/feeling to the “Big Mind” train.  No.  Just take that very feeling/thinking, whenever and whatever I am noticing, however lost or low-brow, and turn towards it with friendly respect and appreciation. And deep listening. And when I do that, I often think, yeah, it makes sense that I’m feeling this very feeling, thinking these very thoughts, under these circumstances.

Suzuki Roshi also said,

“Big Mind is the mind which is always working on small mind. If there is no small mind, there is no Big Mind.”

Big mind belongs to the sentient beings of our mind, the sentient beings of our mind belong to Big Mind.  They belong together.

How Does Big Mind Manifest?

The other thing that’s sort of hard to accept about Big Mind: it can’t DO anything.  WE are the arms and legs, we are the hands and eyes, we are the voices of Big Mind.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” It’s up to us to connect with Big Mind and bring it into manifestation in our daily lives, as best we can, with our current understanding.

Part of what it means that Big Mind can’t do anything is that Big Mind can’t keep bad things from happening.  It couldn’t keep bad things from happening to us when we were children, and it can’t keep bad things from happening now.  This is really hard to take. It seems foolhardy to even give it a chance; what would be the point?  We can’t depend on it to keep bad things from happening.  However, it will always be there for us, no matter what. It’s always holding us. We can let ourselves be held, and whatever we’re thinking or feeling can be held too.

We somehow have a choice, we humans, to express or block this Big Mind.  It seems like plants and animals are just always purely being held by and expressing Big Mind, and I guess in an ultimate sense everything we humans do is also an expression of Big Mind.  But it really seems like we humans can choose to block Big Mind OR express it.  And blocking means picking and choosing, which just never stays within bounds. And expressing it means, first, turning towards what’s happening, with a friendly appreciation and respect.  Towards exactly whatever is happening. This is a response that’s always available to us, whenever we remember. And then, as best we can, bring something forth, give Big Mind a way to become visible, audible, tangible, in our world.

Turning things around

“When any of the three poisons [greed, aggression, delusion] happen in your life, don’t see them as a problem or as a promise. Instead, say, “May this aggression [greed, delusion] be a working base for me. May I hold it to myself and may all beings thereby attain freedom from aggression.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I recently worked for someone who, to my eyes, had very poor boundaries. He seemed to be constantly questioning me and suspiciously commenting on my behavior in a completely unreasonable way. Our styles and cultural backgrounds are very different, contributing to the confusion. I’ve always been very lucky with bosses and co-workers, so this took me aback. Internally I reacted defensively, while outwardly trying to be reasonable and understand what he really needed from me. At a deeper, more unconscious level, I was weighing my own safety in the situation, urgently debating fight, flee or freeze, while trying to figure out how to get things to go differently.

Suddenly I remembered Trungpa Rinpoche’ s teaching, and I just stopped and thought, “May this dilemma provide a working basis for me and all beings to wake up.” Immediately I relaxed inside. It no longer seemed dangerous. I didn’t have to solve it or resolve it, get out of it, stay in it, or make it change; I just had to remember my basic intention – my “prime directive” – to wake up. When I vow or pray that this situation provide a basis for waking up, I open to a wider world that goes beyond success, failure, blame and praise, and encompasses both inside and outside, the possibilities and the mysteries of change.

Neuroscientists have coined a term: neuroplasticity. The brain is incredibly malleable and is always changing. Everything that we do and everything that happens changes our minds, moment by moment. This can mean digging even deeper the ruts of unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, or it can mean changing and growing towards healthier ways through insight and training.

We tend to do the same things over and over, feel the same feelings, think the same thoughts, not because we are weak or bad or shameful, but just because that’s how the brain works. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Neuron firing sets up chain reactions in the brain, and neurotransmitters (like dopamine and seratonin) add emotional rewards for repeat performances.

How can we use our neuroplasticity instead of being used by it, to paraphrase a Zen slogan? How can we learn to work with the flux that the mind and brain actually are?

One of the key ways we can influence our brain is by learning to set intentions effectively. There are things that we want to change. But we may be trying to change ourselves or the situation before we’ve taken the time to understand and appreciate, and this gives rise to an internal (or external) power struggle. We need to find words, phrases, intentions and vows that we connect to, that don’t lead to beating ourselves up when we can’t make it happen.

To set an effective intention is to introduce a new train of thought that is reality-based and more in accord with our deepest values, and then to keep bringing it up as often as possible, memorizing phrases and slogans, talking about them, firing new neuron chains, and creating associations to happiness and to other positive feelings. Not in an attempt to gain any control over our brains or over the situation, but rather to create a parallel track and encourage the conditions that would allow our brains to “jump the track” to a new way of thinking.

Actually, this happens to us all the time, as individuals and as groups. Frances Moore Lappe (World Hunger: Twelve Myths) points out how people used to believe in the divine right of kings. Then we stopped, and it’s doubtful we would ever go back. There were things we believed in our teens (invincibility?) our twenties, our thirties (depending on how old we are!). Our attitudes and beliefs change quite naturally as new information enters our brain. That is, unless we get stuck in an old pattern that causes us to ignore new information.

For the new understanding to take hold it has to be more true than our former view, like seeing through the divine right of kings or the emperor’s new clothes. “I’m a failure” can give way to “I’ve learned how to do a number of things and there are other things I would like to learn.” “I can’t” can give way to, “I’m scared but with enough help and support I would give it a try.” “This situation is hopeless” can give way to, “May this very situation be a working base for me, and may this effort bring benefit.”

Trungpa’s slogan is an effective intention par excellence. It gets completely away from trying to change something in ourselves or in the outside world that may or may not be ready to change. Just, “May this difficulty provide some basis for benefit, I don’t know how, but may I find a way.”

Simple guided meditation

A friend asked me to create a simple guided meditation audio, and I thought I may as well post it here as well.  The whole thing lasts 25 minutes and it includes several minutes of postural guidance at the beginning, then some silence, and a short metta (lovingkindness) meditation in the middle followed by more silence.  It opens and closes with surf sounds.  If you like to meditate on your own at home, but wish for just a little external support, you might enjoy this recording.

Listen here:

Or download to your player: Basic Zazen Instruction