Sunday, January 31, 2010

Good and Evil

The other day, I was trying to make a point to our ten-year old daughter.

Min Zhen Shakya wrote an interesting book called the Seventh World of Chan Buddhism. In this book, she was talking about Jungian psychology and how children, when they do something bad, begin to split off a "shadow self" to take the blame for their bad action. Kids, after all, wish to be the "good kids", even though as children they are often prey to their "bad" impulses. Over time, there is a barrier (or as Gurdjieff might say, "buffer"). When people get older, they are unable to be objective about themselves as they have fallen into a habit of blaming their shadow for their shortcomings, and see themselves as saints. One point of analysis is to allow people to re-integrate with their shadow, a very Taoist sort of view. No wonder the Jungians were into Taoism.

I learned this the hard way, through intensive, Gurdjieff-style exercises. Needless to say, I want to minimize, if possible, this shadow in our children. So I was explaining that just because some one does something bad doesn't mean they are bad.

In fact, this cannot be the case. If people were inherently bad, no good would be possible. If inherently good, no bad would be possible. Yet good people are bad, bad are good, some criminals become saints, and saints become sinners.

The best explanation I came up with is that good and bad can only apply to actions. What we are, we simply are. Thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. all arise and pass. There is nothing good or bad about these things, just like there is nothing good or bad about the rain, trees, or beetles. In all reality, there is nothing really good or bad about actions as well, but I didn't want to burden her young mind with such a shock at this age.

There is a Zen saying that says when we act with compassion, it is said the Buddha comes into the world. When we act from hate or anger, it is said the Buddha leaves the world. Very succinct, very true.

Xin Xin Ming and Classical Chinese

The other day, I came along this great poem, the Xing Xing Ming, attributed to the Third Patriarch.

Reading the different versions of the poem, I notice that a lot is lost in translation. Let's just start with the title. It has been translated as: Trust Mind Inscription, Inscription on Trust in the Mind, Inscribed On the Believing Mind, On Believing in Mind, On Faith in Mind, Trust in the Heart.

This is already a bad sign. Lucky for me, I live in an age of the internet. I can therefore command more translating power than the Son of Heaven in old China, despite the fact I don't know a lick of Chinese.

Now the title is: 信心銘

The first character, 信, is xin. It is actually made of two characters: a man to the left, and on the right the character for speech. It generally means trust, as in you believe the person who is talking.

The second, 心, is xin, heart. Now xin is a tricky word in Chinese. It can mean the whole mental apparatus, including thoughts and feelings that evidently the ancient Chinese did not distinguish as much as we in the West. Another is consciousness, or citta in Sankrit. Another is heart, essence, or core. When some one says mind, it leaves out the heart and core. When one says heart, I think of emotions, or a sort of cliched sincerity. But this word is so much bigger. In ancient Chinese, the character for love is xin dancing. The character for hate is the xin covered. This is a very big concept.

The third is 銘, which is means an inscription. Again, looking at the characters, you have a character for engrave, and also the same character ming in the Tao Te Ching that stands for the name that cannot be named.

So I might translate this as: Believing in the Heart-Mind Inscription. But even this doesn't capture the dynamic nature of the Chinese characters.

Zen and Dao

If we trace Buddhism back to its historical, Theravadan roots, we find that it is a practice of investigation. Buddhism is a practice that teaches one to analyze the world. The mind is settled and honed to a sharp edge, and then it penetrates through our experiences of reality to find the truth hidden at the core.

When Buddhism left India to China, it found a different culture. In India, there was a tradition of begging holy men, who could live in the forest and meditate all day, and then beg for alms. In China, no such structure was in place. Monks, like everyone else, had to work.

China was also the ancestor of Taoism. Taoism is a tradition of unification. Its inner workings are an alchemy, a uniting of seemingly diverse elements into a whole. Taoist writings describe creation as a series of steps that involve splitting off into many parts. From the great Ancestor, the Tao itself, arose yin and yang, the five elements, and eventually, the 10,000 things of the world. To reach the Tao, then, one simply reverses this process.

When the analytical Buddhism met the harmonizing Taoism, there was a new practice called Chan or Zen. Zen has a different flavor from both Taoism and Buddhism, yet it is intimately related to both.