Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Spirituality of Clinging and Craving

The key insights of Buddhist practice are expressed in the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, suffering is rooted in clinging and craving, ceasing clinging and craving ceases suffering, and the Eightfold Path.

The Pali word here is "tanha", meaning desire, wanting, or thirst. I prefer thirst, because we've all been thirsty. It is a base, animal urge for something. Thirst captures it because it is an urge we feel very physically, in our bodies.

The problem is that what we crave doesn't last. It doesn't last because everything is impermanent. Because it doesn't last, is cannot satisfy. In fact, craving is at its most intense when the thing we want isn't there. Once we have something, after a short period of relief, we usually take it for granted and move on to craving the next thing.

Non-clinging, or non-attachment, is the golden thread that links classic, Pali Buddhism with Zen. No one does non-attachment like Zen. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

In the classic Heart Sutra, it says:

Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness; no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind; no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or dharmas; no field of the eyes, up to and including no field of mind-consciousness; and no ignorance or ending of ignorance, up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death. There is no suffering, no accumulation, no cessation, no Way. And no understanding and no attaining. Because nothing is attained, the Bodhisattva, through reliance on prajna paramita, is unimpeded in his mind. Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid, and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind. Ultimately Nirvana!

The Heart Sutra negates every classic distinction of Pali Buddhism. It negates the Five Skandhas, the Four Noble Truths, the 12 Links of Dependent Origination. When everything is negated, where is there left to stand?

Hui Neng was enlightened hearing the words of the Diamond Sutra, "You should activate the mind without dwelling on anything."

Zen Master Powha Sunim used to quote the Bible here: Foxes have holes, birds have thier nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head on it."

Uchiyama Roshi used to say, "Open the hand of thought."

One difficult thing about spiritual practice is this deep tendency to cling and crave to things. In fact, we often trade one clinging for another. Becoming interested in Buddhism, we may cling to Buddhism. Learning about mindfulness and attention, we may cling to mindfulness and attention. Learning concentration, we may cling to concentrate. One after another, the clinging remains, only the object changes. Many people believe this to be spiritual progress, but in fact they are only reinforcing this tendency to cling and crave.

Perhaps the worst clinging and craving has to do with the "Big Spiritual Experience." The "Big Spiritual Experience", or the "Cosmic Orgasm", is often see as the goal of spiritual practice and the sign of enlightenment. This would include "Becoming One with the Universe," "Everything Making Sense," or other such terms.

These experiences don't last. But the clinging and craving does. I think it is important to keep this in mind, even as we discover the wonders of Buddhism, Taoism, mindfulness, or concentration that, while useful, none of these things are the end all be all of spiritual practice.

The key motto of Zen is: Walk On.

Heart Sutra translated by Ron Epstein

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ethics of Emptiness: Part Three

Emptiness and Ethics

In the prior posts, I have discussed emptiness from an ultimate level, and ethics from a conventional level. Even in a universe where there is no ultimate right or wrong, the flow of the Tao favors the ethical person for spiritual advancement.

It was asked earlier: if there is no ultimate relation between cause and effect, what drives karma? Behind this, I detected the question, if the universe is empty, why be good?

The answer is that the Tao favors the virtuous. In fact, the word Te, 德, means on one level virtue. Other Taoists have interpreted Te to also mean the Tao of the microcosm. It is sometimes said that everything has its own te. It makes sense to take virtue as the fruit of one's inner te. Just as all phenomenon are rooted in the Tao, so all our actions are rooted in our te.

The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38 talks about Te:

Therefore, the Tao is lost, and then virtue
Virtue is lost, and then benevolence
Benevolence is lost, and then righteousness
Righteousness is lost, and then etiquette

This is a map of the loss of true Te. The chain goes Tao --> Te --> Benevolence (Kindness) --> Righteousness (Justice) --> Etiquette (Ritual). (The words in parenthesis are Red Pine's translations.)

If we were to reverse the process, we might start with empty formality, then go to fairness, then kindness, then finally return to true Te. In a sense, one can see precepts or ethics as a sort of training. Having lost the natural accord with the Tao, and the wisdom to act, we have to follow these rules. This is like attaching training wheels to the bike. After a while, following moral rules should give rise in us a sense of fairness. This is more of a "feel" for how things should be.

Righteousness or Justice still has a gap between ourselves and others. It is a sense of objectivity, treating people impartially, like objects. This is something our courts often aim to do. But the next step is where it becomes more organic: Benevolence or Kindness. In my experience, true compassion comes from seeing others as ourselves--- it is a result of empathy. Once we know what it is like to be hurt, to suffer, to lose, to be stupid and wrong, we know exactly what others are going through when we them suffer, or lose.

Beyond this, one returns to true Te, then to the Tao.

One who has regained the true Te no longer needs rules. In fact, if we look at Zen classics, we often see Masters acting in strange ways. They may break the precepts, beat their students, or do things that seem odd to us. This include Gutei cutting off a boy's finger or Nansen killing a car in the Mumonkan.

In my mind, they are acting according to Te--- the right response in the right situation. This goes beyond simple moral codes or rules. What is right in one place may be wrong in another. In order to know the difference, we must develop wisdom.

When we hear of Taoists say that morality is unnatural, they are right. Moral codes are rigid rules imposed on us. They are not naturally arising morality. But we need to follow them until we recover our natural sense of morality. In our current state, we are lost, deluded, and confused. What we might think it natural is acting on impulse. As the saying goes, we must first learn to walk, often using external props and supports, before we can run. But once we learn to run, it would be ridiculous to use the props and supports we used before. Training wheels help us to learn to ride a bike, but once we have it, they just slow us down.

This is dangerous because it makes it impossible to judge the actions of enlightened beings. This reasoning has been used to cover up many horrible things in spiritual circles: gurus and masters sexually abusing their students, stealing money, or covering up drug and alcohol addictions. One should always keep one's common sense and knowledge of the ways of the world, especially with a teacher.

Lao Tzu's map shows us the way from rigid moral codes to a free, natural virtue. This can be seen not only in individual cases, but in societies and cultures. A society may start with a rigid and inflexible moral code, proceed to one motivated by justice and fairness, then one of love and compassion. Finally, we would have a society of enlightened beings, acting according to their natures.

This verse is the bridge between ethics and emptiness.

Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ethics of Emptiness: Part Two

What are ethics?

Ethics are rules. They tell us what we should or should not do. Ethics are not about some abstract, ultimate notion of right or wrong (these concepts are empty, that is to say, fluid and dynamic). Ethics are based on practical observation. If you put your fingers in the fire, it will hurt. One ethical rule might be: don’t put your fingers in the fire.

Alistair Crowley dubbed himself the “Wickedest Man on Earth”. But even he saw the inner meaning of ethics in spiritual life. In his Liber Aba, Book Four, he writes about yama and niyama in Yoga:

They are the "moral qualities" and "good works" which are supposed to predispose to mental calm... Some of these are only the "virtues" of a slave, invented by his master to keep him in order. The real point of the Hindu "Yama" is that breaking any of these would tend to excite the mind...Subsequent theologians have tried to improve upon the teachings of the Masters, have given a sort of mystical importance to these virtues; they have insisted upon them for their own sake, and turned them into puritanism and formalism. Thus "non-killing," which originally meant "do not excite yourself by stalking tigers," has been interpreted to mean that it is a crime to drink water that has not been strained, lest you should kill the animalcula.
Of course, being Alistair Crowley, he takes it a step further:

But this constant worry, this fear of killing anything by mischance is, on the whole, worse than a hand-to-hand conflict with a grisly bear. If the barking of a dog disturbs your meditation, it is simplest to shoot the dog, and think no more about it.
But Crowley’s point is well taken. Anyone who has spent five minutes learning meditation knows that the mind is hard to control. It wanders, it talks, it dreams, it drifts. Swami Vivekandanda wrote, in his Raja Yoga:

How hard it is to control the mind! Well has it been compared to the maddened monkey. There was a monkey, restless by his own nature, as all monkeys are. As if that were not enough some one made him drink freely of wine, so that he became still more restless. Then a scorpion stung him. When a man is stung by a scorpion, he jumps about for a whole day; so the poor monkey found his condition worse than ever. To complete his misery a demon entered into him. What language can describe the uncontrollable restlessness of that monkey? The human mind is like that monkey, incessantly active by its own nature; then it becomes drunk with the wine of desire, thus increasing its turbulence. After desire takes possession comes the sting of the scorpion of jealousy at the success of others, and last of all the demon of pride enters the mind, making it think itself of all importance. How hard to control such a mind!

The wise sages of old knew this “monkey mind” well. With such a mind, how is it possible to investigate reality? The mind must be calmed, settled and soothed before it can be a proper instrument of spiritual investigation.

Another popular metaphor for the mind is water. Zen masters like to talk about our minds like a cup of water with dirt in it. When it is stirred, the mind is unclear. But if you let it settle, the dirt dribbles to the bottom and the water is clear.

The sages, both Buddhist and Taoist, discovered that the first step on the spiritual path is the practice of ethics.

The simple rule behind ethical conduct is this: immorality is agitating to the mind. A mind that is hooked on sense pleasures never rests. It is looking, looking, looking; waiting and hoping for the next pleasure to come along. A mind that is full of hate is no longer an open, sensitive mind: it hardens, shrinks, tightens. Everything that is considered morally “bad” is rooted in this.

In Buddhism, the three root poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. In Buddhist psychology, once the mind comes in contact with forms (rocks, trees, flowers, faces) one of three instant feeling reactions arise: a pull toward (craving the pleasant), a pull away (aversion from the unpleasant), or nothing at all (neutral).

This movement of the mind are the roots of the three poisons. The three poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. These three movements become the axle of the Wheel of Life, powering the entire engine of life, death, and rebirth. A craving mind, a resisting mind, or a numb mind are incapable of seeing clearly. Seeing clearly is the foundation of realization.

Through thoughts, words, and actions, the mind develops habits of acting in a certain way. Over time, these actions wear a groove into the mind, just as a stream wears a groove into rock. Eventually, the path becomes so well worn and smooth it might hardly be noticed.

Ethical conduct seeks not only to calm the mind, but to ensure it is a healthy mind. Lao Tzu pointed out that the soft tongue survives longer than hard teeth. The nature of the mind is to be soft, flexible, flowing. Habits harden, deaden, and slow the mind.

So it could be said that when some one commits a sin (the word for sin in ancient Greece meaning "to miss the mark"), they are the first victim of the act. A murderer in the act of killing kills a part of himself: the mind becomes less sensitive, harder, less resilient. A thief will find that she gets no rest. The reward of the morally upright is a calm, clear mind and a good night’s sleep.

This is where Crowley was wrong. Killing the dog that disturbs your meditation will harden the mind, making true meditation even more difficult.

So why is ethical conduct given first? When the mind is agitated, restless, and unclear, nothing will be seen. In order to collect and cool the mind to the point where it is able to see even basic spiritual truths, it is given a moral code to follow. This code itself will help the mind calm down. Then one can begin meditation properly. However, meditation, investigation, or contemplation without a solid moral foundation will be useless because the mind will be upset and whirling.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Ethics of Emptiness: Part One

What is Emptiness?

Emptiness can be used to mean different things. In the West, when we talk about emptiness, we tend to mean “nothing”. For instance, if a cup is empty, there is nothing in there: no water, no coffee, no tea, no anything.

This can be confusing when we hear Buddhists say everything is empty. A hammer is empty—then why does it hurt when we smack our fingers? Rain is empty--- then why do we get wet?

Some Buddhist schools take this to mean that nothing exists at all. In my experience, this tends to be the minority view. Rather, emptiness in Mahayana Buddhist thought tends to be a very special kind of emptiness. It is emptiness of a self.

Ok, so what is a self?

When we talk about a self, we mean something that endures, doesn’t change, and is independent of everything else. Like an impossibly hard diamond. It is the idea of an immortal soul of some sort, some underlying real, actual substance that exists separate and apart. In the West, the philosopher Plato popularized the idea of an idea: that everything has its perfect self essence that exists apart from its material manifestations. Every circle is a reflection of a divine perfect circle. This sort of thinking became very well entrenched in the West.

Buddhist and Taoist thought goes against this. In both Buddhism and Taoism, the universe is a fluid, dynamic, changing place. There are no objects, there are movements. There are no things, there are open, changing, flowing containers. A good way to test this is to try to find the self. A classical example is a chariot. A more modern example might be a car. Where is the car in the car? Well, a car has doors, four wheels, an engine. But then you think, what if I remove the engine, do I no longer have a car? Or if it has three tires instead of four?

You can take a car apart and sort it into neat, interesting piles, but you will find no “car” there. You will have an assembly of parts. And if you look at each part, you will find parts of parts, and so on.

On the other hand, there certainly seems to be “something” there. You can get into your car and drive it to the beach or the grocery store. If you tell me I have no hand, I will slap you.

You can do this with all things, including yourself. Try it and see what happens. Most people, except children, shy away from this sort of analysis. We don’t push ourselves this far. Yet this is what Buddhism is all about: pursuing an investigation to the end.

In Buddhist philosophy, there is the concept of two truths. There are ultimate truths (there is no car) and conventional truths (I can get in and drive my car). Even though there is nothing like a “car”, we can still get to work every day. It is important when thinking about things to make this distinction. If you confuse one level with the other, than you may step in front of an empty car to find it smashing into you.

A second point is the inter-relation between all things. A car doesn’t jump from the Tao fully formed. A car is assembled, but some one has to mine and refine the metal. Some one has to put together the pieces. Some one has to transport the car from the factory to the dealer. Some one has to grow food to feed all these people. The sun and earth must exist and be ripe for the food to grow. Behind each car is a factory, a team of workers, farmers to grow food to feed the workers, real estate agents, homemakers, garbage men, lawyers, doctors, societies, civilizations, planets, sunshine, gravity, stars--- the whole universe goes into making that car. One might say, in fact, that a car manifests the whole universe.

If, in fact, there were permanent, enduring selves, then nothing would be possible. If there was an essential metal that existed apart and unchanging, you could never mold the metal into a car. It would always be metal. Likewise, sunshine and expelled air would never become a tree.

As Lao Tzu said:

Thirty spokes join in one hub
In its emptiness, there is the function of a vehicle
Mix clay to create a container
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container
Cut open doors and windows to create a room
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room
Therefore, that which exists is used to create benefit
That which is empty is used to create functionality

One thing that should be clear, but may not be, is that the form and emptiness are both required to have anything at all. Emptiness gives the cosmos its flexibility. Form gives the cosmos its existence. If everything were completely empty empty, all the way through, we wouldn’t have anything at all. If everything were enduring selves, we would have a static universe. Again, it is the middle way that is the way to go here. The Heart Sutra says: Form is emptiness. But it also says, emptiness is form. These are not two.

Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More on Non-Causation

Ida Heckler wrote, in response to The Dreaming Question:

I think I can follow you to an extent; however, even if X does not cause Y, isn't Y's existence dependent on the arrival of X? Isn't this a correlation between the rising and passing of X and Y?
One interpretation, I had written, of the Buddha's formula on dependent origination is that there is no cause. This is very tricky territory, and requires a little more explanation.

Imagine walking through the forest on a pleasant, summer day. Here and there is the twitter of a robin, or the song of a blue jay. You can smell the fresh spring, and feel the sun quietly warming your face. You might come to a clear path and see on this path what appears to be a rope. This rope might shimmering, as if flowing from one side of the path to the other. Curious, you look closely. Ah! What appeared to be a flowing rope is in fact a line of ants marching one after the other. If you look very closely, you will see a tiny space, or a gap between the ants. What appears to be one seamless thing from afar is actually, at a closer look, a series of ant - no ant - ant - no ant.

Likewise, in our experience, there seems to be a flow of one thing into another. With practice and meditation, it is possible to take a closer look at things and see how they arise in this manner.

Our experience is a series of events that we may string together in the form of a story. We may see a red face, hear a loud voice, and see a hand move rapidly. Or we may see some one yelling at us in anger. If you look closely, you cannot find where exactly this anger abides. Just like the rope, it doesn't exist--- it's really a bunch of ants.

A Taoist might say that what appears to be cause and effect is simply a play of the Tao. Things arise and pass into the Tao, just like sparks rise and pass from a fire. But from a human angle, we may string these things together into a story called "causation", "self", or a many other things. We may see the sparks are interacting with one another, causing one another. But in the end, it is just the lila, or play of the cosmos.

For the more logical among us, there is an excellent story on just this written by Louis Carroll. You can find it here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Yin and Yang


The characters for yin and yang show us the sunny and dark side of the hill. This is important because there is only one hill.

Yin and yang is very important in Taoist thought. Yin and yang is the original expression of creation. Many polar terms can be seen as yin and yang: male and female, heaven and earth, king and servant, the universe and humanity. In the West, we tend to think of these as opposites, and try to increase one at the expense of the other. We value good over evil, wealth over poverty, winning over losing. In ancient Chinese thought, things were more fluid. Yin and yang were open categories. Accordingly, a tree might wither in autumn, become bare in winter (yin), blossom in spring, and flourish in the summer (yang).

I think this idea is closely related to another: the macrocosm and the microcosm. In English, these words mean the large and small cosmos. The great Tao, 道, is expressed in the te, 德, of the individual.

Taoist alchemy often speaks of reversion, of turning things backward. The explosion of creation gives rise to the 10,000 things, but it also casts them apart. Reversing this process returns us to the original Tao.

One of the main ideas of alchemy is to bring fire below water. Now what does this mean? Fire rises, water descends. If fire is over water, then fire disperses and water is lost. If water is over fire, then the fire heats the water. This is the idea of alchemy.

Where this gets confusing is when one fails to distinguish the level one is speaking.

In one system, yin might refer to the body, and yang to the mind. Often, mind flies out into the world, and the body is forgotten. However, by bringing the mind back into the body, mind and body come together. This is a standard first step in martial arts.

In another system, yin may stand for yuan shen, and yang for shi shen. Shi shen flies out into the world and is lost, where yuan shen is forgotten. By calming shi shen and expanding yuan shen, true attention is stabilized.

A third practicioner may come along and point out that heaven and earth do not refer to these things at all. Rather, heaven refers to the dan tien between the eyes, and earth to the dan tien below the navel. The upper energy flies up and is lost, the lower energy descends and is lost. The idea is to bring the upper energy to the lower, and the lower to the upper. This way, balance and harmony is restored.

Who is right?

The laws of Tao should apply equally to all situations. Accordingly, all of these may be correct in their particular context.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Yuan Shen and Shi Shen


Yuan shen and shi shen.

The character yuan, 元, stands for head. It stands for the source, the root, the original, the raw. Shi, 識, is a complicated character. You can see the character, 言, speech in the root, along with the character 織, weaving. It is a weaving of speech, a network of words. There is nothing less natural and more man-made than language. In my mind, speech not only refers to external speech, but internal dialogue as well.

Shen is a large word in Taoism. It can mean gods, spirit, ghost, and consciousness. Yuan is the original shen, and shi is the conditioned shen. Original shen is what we are born with and have all our lives. Shi shen is acquired. The shi shen develops as we interact with the world. It is the sum of our learning, experiences, and language.

There is a yin-yang duality between them. I say a yin yang duality, because in Taoist thought, duality is actually a unity. In this case, I was taught that as shi shen develops, yuan shen decreases. As a child, one starts out at 90% yuan shen, 10% shi shen. As one develops into an adult, forms habits, beliefs, and opinions, and learns language, we become 10% yuan shen, and 90% shi shen.
Thomas Cleary has indicated that when the Zen masters talk of mistaking a thief for one’s own son, they are speaking about the shi shen.

Another way to look at it is that yuan shen is the raw material, and shi shen is the finished product. Yuan shen is like the trees in the grove, and shi shen is like the table, chairs and furniture.

In the West, when we hear that the thinking/speaking mind is an obstacle, we tend to jump to the conclusion that it needs to be destroyed, killed, or gotten rid of. We Westerners tend to take a similar approach to medicine: hack, slash, and radiate. The Chinese way is more holistic. Shi shen is useful. After all, one cannot very well sit on a tree or store dishes in the branches. On the other hand, the limited, formed nature of shi shen means it is limited. A chair cannot give birth to another chair.

The problem as I see it is when this shi shen comes to dominate. In the words of the golden flower, the general replaces the true master. Yuan shen is pushed to the back and forgotten.

As Hui Neng said:
Freedom from form means nonattachment to form in the midst of forms. Freedom from thought means having no thought in the midst of thought.

Both Zen and Taoist masters have dedicated time to those who simply seek to extinguish the thinking mind. After all, these are not two entirely different things, but the ends of the same pole.

Seen in this light, Taoist literature makes more sense. The emphasis on letting go, stopping, calming, and collecting would all work to redevelop the yuan shen. This is also the first step in traditional Buddhist practice.

Hui Neng quote adapted from Thomas Cleary, The Sutra Hui-Neng, Grand Master of Zen

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Light Appears

The Xin Xin Ming continues:

但莫憎愛 洞然明白

Only do not hate or love

Correct realization appears

The next two lines of the Xin Xin are interesting. Through the Chinese characters, we see the journey of the sun. The sun rises with the character 但, but becomes covered in 莫. But then, in the next line, it breaks through, clear and unobstructed.

I translate these to mean, only do not love or hate and correct enlightenment comes through. The character for love here is the xin dancing. The character for hate is the heart piled on, i.e. covered over.

This leads to a key ancient Chinese concept: that our essence is good. The goal of spiritual practice is not to become something, but to uncover something. As the Tao
Te Ching says:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss

Ignorance covers our true nature like the clouds blot out the sun. Behind the clouds, the sun is shining, and pure and bright as ever. The job of a spiritual cultivator is to remove the layers of ignorance that have accumulated over our own original sun. Cultivation is not about adding on. It’s about taking away.

This ignorance leads to both loving and hating, picking and choosing. When this stops, then enlightenment suddenly appears. In the Chinese characters, the 洞 is water pooling in a cave. The cave doesn’t pull the water in, the water just settles there, naturally. So, too, is it with wisdom knowledge.

As the Tao Te Ching continues:

Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying non-interference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world

Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Dreaming Question

Gurdjieff used to say that it was important for a person to have an aim. One person might want to become a general. Another, to acquire the ability to read minds. The best and highest, he said, was to become master of oneself.

I have been thinking recently about my question. I'm sure everyone has a question, at least for a while in their life. When I was younger, the question usually was, how can I get bliss? But now, older and wiser, I am coming to see that these the things of the world don't last, so they will not provide lasting happiness.

I believe my question is as follows: does the mind create matter, or does matter create mind (or some other combination)? I believe that solving this riddle will, in effect, solve many other questions: what is the meaning of life, who am I, what happens when we die. If the mind, or a mind, creates the universe, then this would suggest there is life after death, I am a spiritual being, and when we die, we probably do something else. If matter creates the mind, then we are nothing more but advanced robots. When our power goes out, so do we.

I am struck that how I formulate this question that it tends toward the two extremes the Buddha preached against: eternalism and nihilism. The Middle Way falls between these two, neither one nor the other.

The Buddha also taught a doctrine called "dependent orignation". Under this teaching:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

Imasmiṃ sati, idaṃ hoti.
Imass’ uppādā, idaṃ uppajjati.
Imasmiṃ asati, idaṃ na hoti.
Imassa nirodhā, idhaṃ nirujjhati.

This is a very interesting formulation. The Buddha did not say X causes Y. He said, X arises, and Y arises. When there is no X, there is no Y. I compare this to sitting at a computer. A green light comes on, then a red light. Other lights appear. Then a green light, and a red light. After a while, we may be tempted to think that the green light causes, or gives birth to the red light. This is clearly not true. If so, why is this not the case with all things? Why do we think that a seed causes a flower? At what point, exactly, does the seed pass away, and the flower arise?

If you were to follow this track to its root (which is a very Buddhist thing to do), you might get to a point where the universe is simply arising and passing from the Void. The Advaitins say this is just the case, except that instead of Void, they say Consciousness.

Other Buddhist schools deny that there is any universe outside the mind. The mind creates the universe. One of the best explanations of this theory comes from Berkeley, in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Berkeley carefully shows that we can never know anything beyond subjective, mental impressions. It is an intriguing concept, found especially in Chinese Buddhist schools. A Taoist may say of course, the Buddhists are replacing the Tao with Mind!

The other night, I had a dream about these two thoughts. In my dream, it was pointed out that the spontaneous arising theory was a school of Ancient Buddhism, based on the Pali Canon. The mind-only school represented a refinement of this idea (although not necessarily a final refinement). In the first case, the cause was unknown, in the second the cause is revealed.

And why not? Buddhist teaching itself is subject to the laws of change. I suppose in the end, the resolution of this question will depend on my experiences.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On Discrimination

In the Xin Xin Ming, it is written:


I translate this as: Arriving at the Way is not difficult, only hate picking and choosing.

The Ancient Zen masters of China were always warning about the discriminating mind. In English, the word discrimination comes from the Latin, discriminare, which means “to divide.” If you look closely at the characters in the Xing Xing Ming, you will see that picking and choosing consists of two characters: 揀擇.

揀 is an image of a hand splitting apart a bundle, and taking one thing from the bundle. 擇 is an image of a hand, and an image of an eye spying on a criminal. My research tells me it means to “pick over”, which makes sense. If I were an ancient Chinese watching a criminal, I would be watching to make sure he didn’t do something to me.

The third link in the chain of dependent origination, the Great Chain that binds sentient being to the Wheel of Life, is vijnana. Vijnana is usually translated as consciousness, but this is a loose translation. Vi- means to divide, as in vipassana, dividing awareness. Jnana means knowing. I prefer to translate this as “discriminating knowing”, or “discriminating mind”.

What all these have in common is dividing. Splitting. Breaking. Smashing. Picking and choosing is tearing out the chunks of life we like, and rejecting the parts we don’t. This division is known as “duality”.

The mystic sages and philosophers of old were always talking about unity. All is one. Become one with God. This is especially evident in Taoist thought, where all things are linked by the Tao, which is their source and root. It is not something to accept intellectually, but to be explored in meditation and contemplation. If we investigate this thoroughly, we find this to be true, and the more we investigate, the deeper the truth becomes. We live in a universe, after all, not a poly-verse.

So when there is picking and choosing, we are carving up this essential unity into pieces (the Buddha cleverly uses this ability in service of the truth, but this is a topic for another time). The problem is, experience doesn’t come in chunks. It comes as a whole. The rose doesn’t come as simply a pretty color and a nice scent, it comes with stem, thorns, and sometimes, bees. A sunny day can provide gentle warmth, but it can also make us hot and thirsty. When we cut reality up, we are not seeing things as they are (which is one way to translate the Buddhist word “dharma”). Buddhism teaches that we crave the pleasant, reject the pleasant, and become numb to the neutral. This is a problem because what is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is all mixed up. And as Lao Zi would be quick to point out, pleasant and unpleasant define each other. You can’t have the good without the bad. Yin and yang always appear together.

The discriminating mind divides the undividable. And it divides according to the whims of the ego: that ragtag jumble of likes and dislikes we’ve acquired during our life. We try to create, on earth, our own vision of heaven. Some one who likes punk will blast punk out of their stereos. Some one who likes classical music will find punk offensive, and complain when the neighbors play it too loud. We try to surround ourselves with our likes, keep away our dislikes, and avoid the neutrals when possible. As the world is in a state of constant change, so must we constantly recreate this personal heaven. Our ego jerks us around our whole lives trying to finding lasting happiness. Jesus warned his disciples not to build their houses on the sand. The entire shifting, changing, phenomenal world is nothing but one big sandbox.

So what’s the solution?

John Blofeld wrote that the Taoist accepts things as they are, one at a time. I like this summary--- it is very elegant and piercing. The Buddha said that we must realize the true nature of our desires, the source of our suffering. A Christian may be told to put all things down and follow God. God’s will, not my will, be done.

There is a Zen koan about a monk who spent years searching for enlightenment. He traveled high and low, through the great plains and cold mountains of China. The monk studied with many teachers, read many sutras, and experienced many states of meditation. One day, he found himself in a marketplace, listening in on a conversation between a butcher and a customer. The customer was asking the butcher for the best cuts of meat.

The butcher replied, “All of my cuts are the best.” Hearing this, the monk achieved enlightenment. As the Third Patriarch tells us the way is easy--- if we can only get rid of picking and choosing.