My four-year-old son asked one of the most profound and yet absurd questions the other day. He said, "Why is everything real?"
Try answering that one! This wasn't your average, run-of-the-mill, why is the sky blue? questions. This one had meat to it.
So what do you say to that question, without confusing either yourself or the child?
It's a great question because it challenges us to inquire what exactly is this...this thing I call reality? Although I cannot place my finger on a conceptual response as to what makes an orange "real," I still have an intuitive understanding that an orange is real in a way that a unicorn isn't. Still, that doesn't quite hit the mark or help answer the question.
That's where Zen comes in handy. Directly pointing to the heart of the matter, Zen teaches us to eat the orange. No philosophical speculation about what constitutes reality, just a good hearty bite into the soft fruit.
Of course I couldn't just ring a bell, honk the car horn, or bite into an apple, for that wouldn't help my son at all.
I call this an absurd question because if we assume that the orange in front of us is not real, then that means something else is real. This naturally invites metaphysical speculation, heavenly realms, spiritual planes, souls, which to be perfectly honest, require a hell of a lot more faith to believe in than the orange in front of me. Direct experience doesn't require that we believe anything.
And yet that's what most people are in search of--something to believe in, an escape from this world and an entrance into a blissful oasis with angels and gods. But in Zen there is no Nirvana outside of this present moment, beyond the here-and-now.
This is it.
Just this: the click of the keyboard, the hum of my air conditioner, the hunger in my stomach. These may not be the answers we are looking for, for they are so ordinary that they are hidden in plain sight. I like to say that every sutra is pointing to our lives right here, right now.
As one great Zen Master once said, what did you think it was going to be like?