The Nature of Humans

Human is a human is a human is a human.

Clearly, I’m riffing on Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”…, not to mention my previous post! My question, however, is a serious one. Whereas I previously pondered the nature of things – their roseness, suchness, emptiness, the two levels of truth regarding their independent existence, and so forth – here I will ponder humanness. Now, the astute reader might already be questioning why this post is even necessary given the fact that we and the rose are of the same “stuff” of ultimate reality, given the fact that humanness and roseness alike are but worldly manifestations of the suchness spoken of in The Nature of Things. Well, since I’ve already got your attention, how about staying with me for just a little bit longer, anyway?

In The Nature of Things I stated that “what I am calling roseness… is something that the rose can’t help but actualize, but which we, with our incessantly conceptualizing minds, so easily miss.” Indeed, is it also true that humanness is something that we can’t help but actualize, but which we, with our incessantly conceptualizing minds, so easily miss? What does it mean, anyway, to actualize humanness? Have we already descended into the realm of incessant conceptualization just by asking the question – there to miss out entirely on the experience of actualizing humanness – or are we failing to actualize that very humanness if we do not? Well, for what it’s worth, Socrates declared the unexamined life to be unworthy of living; Dogen likened the study of the Awakened Way to the study of the self. I’ll presume, then, that we’re in good company as we continue exploring the question.

Perhaps we can further this exploration of humanness by taking a step back and examining more closely the nature of what I am calling roseness. Yes, it is true that the plant that we call the rose can’t help but actualize roseness. With soil of appropriate quality, and warmth, water, and sunlight of appropriate quantity, the plant that we call the rose will flourish and ultimately blossom into the glorious reality of roseness. But even if the soil is poor, or the temperature, water, and light are less than adequate; even if the plant that we call the rose barely ekes out an existence, offering up the most stunted of blossoms, or none at all; even if it withers and dies without ever having revealed the redness, or scentedness, or anything else that we humans conceptualize as comprising the beauty of roseness; still, it has actualized the glorious reality of roseness. I say this because the plant that we call the rose carries within it the DNA of billions of years of evolution which defines what it needs, and determines the parameters of what it can become given the conditions that arise along with it. This karmic heritage dictates unequivocally that it manifest roseness in whatever dry and scraggly or moist and fleshy gloriousness that conditions allow. It has no choice in the matter. And that is why I say that the rose can’t help but actualize roseness. Likewise, we humans can’t help but actualize “our” humanness, and yet we can miss it all the same. How is that?

Call it free will or simply the capacity for metacognition, but we humans have something that the rose does not – the potential to transcend the dictates of our karma. It’s rather ironic, isn’t it, that our karmic heritage has brought us to a place where we might attain freedom from its dictates? Does that mean that it’s our karma to transcend our karma?! Indeed, it would seem so sometimes; for whereas the rose has neither the ability to work harder (or smarter) in order to manifest roseness in a way that might better please us humans, nor the option of putting forth less effort in order to enjoy whatever rose-like leisure it might be capable of enjoying, we humans seem to have unlimited choice as to when and how to expend our energy. Whereas the rose has neither the freedom to pick up and move to a more hospitable place, nor the ability to make its place of residence any more conducive to its growth, we humans are eminently capable of accomplishing both. Yes, it would seem that the nature of humans is our seemingly unlimited capacity to transcend our karma and actualize humanness as we see fit. Or is it?

Engraved Plaque on Pioneer 10 Revealing Its Creators and Its Origin

There might still be a few determinists in our midst who will deny the very existence of this thing we call free will, and while I generally don’t agree with their position, I am inclined to think that we are far more beholden to our karma than we would like to admit. We often choose our work based upon the work that our family has done or the values that have been instilled in us: to make the most money that we can make, to be respected or powerful within the community, to make our families as secure as we can make them, etc. Certainly basing our choice of work on such factors is about as tangled up in karma as we can be. But even when we pursue that which is our supreme love, our unique talent, that which we seem to have been put on this earth to do, is that not also the manifestation of our karmic propensities? When are we really free from karma? When we choose a spouse? When we decide what to do for recreation? When we choose a book to read or certain music to listen to? Isn’t this all simply a matter of acting in accord with our attraction to this and our aversion to that – our karma? Where does our supposed free will come into play? As we go about building our lives can we really be so certain that we are exhibiting any more free will than the bower bird constructing its nest in the hopes of attracting a suitable mate so as to push its genetic material, its karmic heritage, into the future? Of course, we are so much more complicated behaviorally than the bower bird, but are we really any less entangled within our karmic web?

Bower Bird Nest Decorated With Found Items Deemed to be Attractive to a Mate

Yes, we cannot help but actualize our humanness, and yet not every human blossoms as a rose will sometimes blossom. The Japanese Zen monk, Dogen, addressed this reality in the following poem translated by Steven Heine (1997, p. 101):

Becoming Enlightened Upon Seeing the Peach Blossoms

Petals of the peach blossom
Unfolding in the spring breeze,
Sweeping aside all doubts
Amid the distractions of
Leaves and branches.

Most of our lives take place within the thicket of leaves and branches – the tangle of our karmic heritage. This tangle, too, is humanness. This cannot be denied. Just as the plant that we call the rose can’t help but actualize roseness in whatever dry and scraggly, or moist and fleshy form that that might take, so each of us will actualize our humanness as best “we” can. Ah, but the one who can lift up his or her consciousness to unfold with perfect awareness – like the petals of the peach blossom unfolding in the spring breeze – now that is a rare human, indeed!

Let me close by quoting Dogen Zenji once again, this time from his most well known of passages in the Shobogenzo’s Genjokoan (as translated in Okumura, 2010):

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.


Heine, S. (1997). The Zen poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.
Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)

Image Credits

Image of young Muslim woman in the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer, India by Paulrudd via:

Small Red Rose via:

Pioneer 10 plaque designed by Carl Sagan & Frank Drake, artistically executed by Linda Salzman Sagan, and photographed by NASA via:

Bower Bird’s bower, Brown Mountain, Australia by Pengo via:

Peach Blossom Close-up by Nkp911m500 via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


Popular posts from this blog

Six Types of Happiness in Hesse's 'Journey to the East'

The Heart Sutra and the Five Aggregates (Part 2 of 5)

Beginning Anew