When we look at our life from the inside it is certainly transitory and more tragic if not painful in the long run. And in our journey of life, we find nothing called a soul or self or the atman. What we once thought was our self always turned out to be not our self.
But from this life did we learn the right lessons? I think it is safe to say that we did not. Neither did we find God or some kind of absolute. And why? Because we looked in all the wrong places. As the Buddha pointed out long ago we looked into the conditioned to find the unconditioned. We also looked into what is not the atman to find the atman.
Are we really that dumb, I mean, did we look in the wrong places? Again, I will have to say yes. The problem that Zen has always had to face is how does it correct people so they look in the right places for their atman or true self? This atman is not to be found in material shape, feeling, perception, volitional formations or within consciousness. And certainly not within the senses either which includes mentation (manas).
Yet, when the Zen student is presented with the idea of nirvana, that is, the unconditioned and no-thought (the unthinkable) the first thing they do is try to think about it, or construe it in a certain way that they can grasp it with the imagination. But this is only a copy, not the real McCoy. Zen, I am forced to say, does not often point to the right place. And when it does, few directly apprehend what is being pointed to.
A lot of what Zen teaches us is how to overcome our self-inflicted errors. But this is only hinted at — in fact, it is given in such a way that it requires intuition to solve the problem. Interestingly, it is only intuition that has access to Zen’s path.