Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Taste of Freedom

If Fate is stingy with me and thus affects my fortune,
I make my virtue ample, and greet my fortune in this way.
If Fate sends toil and thus affects my body,
I put my mind at peace and assist myself in this way.
If Fate brings obstructions and this affects my circumstances,
I make my Way and pass along with ease.
More than this, what can Fate do to me?

--- Hung Ying-ming, The Unencumbered Spirit trans. By William Scott Williams

Hung Ying-ming was a follower of the three great traditions of China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. It strikes me when I read certain ancient Chinese sages at how easily their minds allow many worlds to exist at the same time.

Now, when I look around, I see Tao vs. Zen, Mahayana vs. Theravada, formal practice v. informal practice, me vs. you, True Zen vs. Your Zen. It is no surprise; this existed in ancient China as well. There is something very human about making these distinctions, and then looking down at all other angles.

I remember talking to a Christian once about judgment. He was going on about how all other Christians were wrong about this, wrong about that. I pointed out that Jesus said: Judge not, lest you be judged. His response: my judgment is right. I’m judging by the rule of God.

So it goes with all things. Zen teachings tell us not to cling and crave, and off we go, clinging and craving in the name of Zen. Buddha told us not to crave, but what I do is not clinging and craving. What you do is craving. Of course, this is simply spiritual inversion.

I see the true taste of Tao and Zen as the taste of freedom. This is summarized nicely in the above quote. No matter what comes, there is a proper response. When one meets the world with the proper response, then there is always freedom. If one practices in the way suggested by Hung Ying-ming, then what can ever stop you?

Discrimination, clinging, craving--- these are fetters that bind us all. They create a prison of thoughts and feeling, a prison that can only exist within us. Is the bark of a dog a Zen bark, a Tao bark, or a Christian bark? If the tree in the courtyard my tree or your tree? It seems ridiculous when put in this way. These things only exist in human minds. In fact, this is the very thing the sages warn us about.

The question for me is not whether a teaching or a practice is true, correct, or right--- these are illusion of the mind. The question is more properly: do these lead to freedom?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Spiritual Use of Internet Forums

I have come up with a simple exercise that can be used when posting on on-line discussion forums. On-line discussion forums can be a great resource full of different people from different places and cultures sharing insights with everyone else. On the other hand, they often fall into a bickering/fighting/arguing (or so-called “flame threads”) in which nothing is accomplished. This becomes the literary equivalent of two people with their fingers in their ears yelling at each other.

Discussion forums give us the opportunity to practice our spirituality in delayed time with real people. In my mind, it ranks somewhere between real time, real life interactions and just sitting there thinking about it on your own. You are allowed time to think before you reply, you can wait for angry moods to pass, and essentially put your best face forward to the world.

I have found the following exercise very rewarding in expanding my spiritual practice. When I read a post, especially one I disagree with, I ask myself:

Considering this from the other person’s point of view, how can I see that this post is right?
Spiritual teachings of totality tell us that things may exist at the same time without agreement, and neither one is really right or wrong. For one person on the earth, the moon may appear to be the size of the ball. To another standing on the moon, the moon may appear to be a large planet. If the two of them argue, we see this is quite useless. Each of them has a valid view from their perspective, even though they differ. The problem is when each states that their view is the complete or true view.

I find that when I disagree with someone, I have run into a limit in my own mind: my mind is too narrow to see another person’s point of view. By running through this simple exercise, I find that most of the time, I can see a valid point from the other person’s point of view. I find I have much less to disagree with. As a bonus, I find that I have expanded my own consciousness.

Try it and see. Once you practice this on-line, you can also take it into real-life.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Teachings of Totality

Both Taoism and Zen tend to value an open, flexible mind. There are many reasons for this, but today I want to explore totality.

There is an old Zen poem that goes something like this:

A beautiful woman
Is a delight to her lover
A temptation to the monk
And to the tiger, a good meal

When I first heard this poem, I thought it was pointing to the empty, relative nature of “beautiful”. The woman herself is really none of these. In a sense, this is true, as I will explain later. But this is only one side of the story. If we consider the teachings of totality, she is ALL of these things.

A more classic, philosophical example is a cup of coffee (Philosophical people and coffee are often found together, so it should come as no surprise when we see it used as an example). A cup of coffee may be a refreshing drink early in the morning. It may look white, with a handle, and filled with dark brown, aromatic coffee. Yet now if we look at it with an electron microscope, this cup of coffee is transformed into an ocean of electrons, spinning and shimmering like tiny suns in space. A cup of coffee is a universe in itself. Who is to say that around these little suns aren’t tiny planets, with cities and countries? Now let us look at the cup of coffee from a great distance. It is mere speck, a piece of dust.

So we know our experience of coffee depends on many things: having a human body and mind, having the coffee at the right time of day (morning for some, afternoon for others), looking at it with our naked eye instead of a microscope, and so on.

The problem comes in when we break off one view and forward it as THE view. If one person were to say, “Ah! A nice, warm cup of coffee!”, a physicist might come along and say, “Well, that’s not a cup of coffee at all. Actually, it is a pattern of vibrating molecules that exist near one another.” The first person may retort, “I don’t see any molecules, you must be wrong.” The physicist may say, “No, it is you who is wrong, you don’t have the right materials to see the truth!”

This sounds absurd with the coffee, but when we consider the beautiful woman example, we can see the revelation of a chilling truth. The temptation aspect of a beautiful woman may be seen as the only aspect, and I would wager that this viewpoint has been used to justify the suppression of women throughout the centuries. In fact, we may react to this view by believing that there is no tempting aspect of a beautiful woman at all. Many women (and some men) may see other women as beautiful, but not necessarily as tempting. But this, too, would only be a partial truth. A beautiful woman is both tempting and non-tempting.

To add another level of sophistication, we may then say, “Well, the temptation or non-temptation is not in the beautiful woman, but in the body-mind of the person who sees her.” This is true also. So now we can make absurd statements such as, “The beautiful woman is tempting, non-tempting, and neither tempting nor non-tempting.”

Nor can we necessarily say this is true, that she is both tempting and non-tempting. She is tempting to one person depending on their age, sexual maturity, culture, time, mood, clarity of eyesight, disposition, of mind, and a whole host of other factors. Also depending on these factors, she may be non-tempting. We see here the presence of dependent origination. The body-mind event of temptation, or non-temptation depends on everything else.

Perhaps we get a closer insight when the Buddha says things like, “There is neither one, nor not one, nor neither one nor not one, and not both one and not one.” He says things like this all the time in the Pali Canon.

An open, flexible mind should be open to seeing this from all angles. In Hua Yen Buddhism, it is said that the ultimate Buddhamind is omniscient. From a Buddhamind angle, all of these aspects would be realized at the same time. It is only in our smaller, limited minds that we see only one angle at a time. In Western terms, this a glimpse into the mind of God.

Ignorance prevents us from seeing all of these angles at once. It is simply a lack of knowledge, or to be more precise, a lack of knowing. In the West, we often think of ignorant as uneducated. We often assume that formal schooling leads to amassing knowledge. This is not the case at all. Ignorance, in my view, is better defined as narrow-mindedness, or seeing only part. The more parts you see, the less ignorant you are. In fact, a wise judge would be some one who could fairly hear both sides before making a decision. We tend to think of wisdom coming from experience, and experience is nothing more than knowing. A variety of knowing leads to wisdom.

Narrow minded people may be conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, Christian or Buddhist. On the other hand, all of these types of people may have open and flexible minds. The outer appearance, character, or trait of a person is only part of their identity and really tells us very little about a person. To hone in on this trait to the exclusion of all others doesn't make any sense.

This is why one good practice for expanding the mind is to consider the other side. If some one disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. It means there are two sides of the story, and in a sense, they may both be right (in a conventional sense). When we are able to truly see the other side, our mind opens, it expands. Having seen this, it is less likely to cling to the part it was clinging to before. Seeing the other side is not helpful for others, but it helps us in our spiritual progress.

Further reading:

The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism